Dungeons to five hours long and streamed live,

Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy
role-playing game (RPG) that combines elements of strategy games with improv
and storytelling. It was created in 1974, but it is more popular today than it
has ever been. A lot of that has to do with a weekly RPG web series called
Critical Role. This is more than just a live-streamed game, it is compelling
entertainment on par with mainstream television.

            Critical Role features voice actors
from popular video games and animations playing Dungeons and Dragons live. Matt
Mercer is the Dungeon Master, which means he creates and narrates the world and
story that the characters are exploring. The players, Travis Willingham (Grog),
Laura Bailey (Vex), Marisha Ray (Keyleth), Liam O’Brien (Vax), Taliesin Jaffe
(Percy), Ashley Johnson (Pike), and Sam Riegel (Scanlan), all play characters
set in Matt’s fantasy world. Each episode is three to five hours long and
streamed live, as well as available via video or podcast afterwards. The story
occurs in a series of story arcs, called chapters, that play out over several
episodes.

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                        The
first season of Critical Role tells the story of Vox Machina, an adventuring
party traveling through the world of Exandria. They spark rebellion, defeat
villains, and battle dragons as they realize the fate of the world rests on
their shoulders. Each character in the game has created their own backstory
that allows the audience to become invested in and gain an understanding of
that character. One such backstory would be that of Grog Strongjaw. Grog and
his family are goliath barbarians, known for brutality, not mercy. Upon
discovering a terrified old gnome in the forest, Grog cannot bring himself to
kill the man. His family doesn’t understand his pity and punishes him by
beating him and leaving him to die, banished from the only family he has ever
known. Grog is saved, however, by a relative of that same elderly gnome. Pike
heals Grog and they become unexpected friends as Pike helps Grog acclimate to
life without his herd. Grog’s childhood leads him to be extremely pleased when
receiving praise or affection, though he reacts awkwardly and tries to hide it,
as he is unaccustomed to it.  

            The in-depth character development
combined with the acting elevate Critical Role above other RPG web series
available online. Being voice actors, they have an uncanny ability to bring the
characters to life, without needing the added effects of physically acting
things out. Matt Mercer proves to be the most remarkable as he switches from
providing sound effects for different events and monsters, as well as voicing
each non-player character (NPC) in the story. Once you get a feel for the
characters, it is hard not to become emotionally invested in their story arcs,
especially as the characters begin to form bonds with each other. Vax and Vex
are utterly believable as twin brother and sister who have learned that the
only people they can count on are each other. This is particularly true when
the pair are faced with the uncertainty of being separated for any amount of time.
When Vax begins to develop feelings for fellow party member Keyleth, vex
struggles with insecurities about sharing her brother with anyone else.

            The characters aren’t superheroes,
they are flawed, make mistakes and can be selfish, even cowardly. They
experience hardships and they struggle with doing what is right versus doing
what is easy. The character, player, and audience reactions to events in the
campaign do not reflect seeing someone do poorly in a game but is more like
witnessing the downfall or victory of a favorite character in a novel or TV
show. It is perhaps the saddest moments that show that this series is more
television than game. In one such episode, Vex is instantly killed by a blast
of necrotic energy. Immediately, Laura Bailey is visibly shaken, holding back
tears, terrified that the character she has given life to is finished. It is
easy to see that the cast are all worried. Zahra and Kash (guest stars for this
chapter) begin working to find a way to save her, as Vex’s brother arrives on
the scene. Seeing his sister’s lifeless body laying cold on the stone, Vax begs
his deity to take him instead. Meanwhile, Kash realizes that reviving Vex could
mean unleashing his own deity, who could very well destroy everything. The
audience and cast were at the edge of their seats, waiting to see if Kash’s
spell would be successful or release great evil, or if Vex would come back,
only to realize her beloved brother was gone.

            The web series has reached such
critical acclaim that Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of Dungeons and
Dragons, have featured it on their official podcast. It has over 70 million
views on YouTube. It has taken a game that suffered from negative perception
since the 1980’s and brought it to the public, showcasing the positive aspects
and bringing many new players to the table that might not have ever tried it
otherwise. Critical Role helps people revive their childlike
interest in storytelling and imagination that seems to fade as we get older. Though
Critical Role wasn’t the first RPG web series of its kind, it has become the
most popular and has removed the stigma from role-playing games, making them
something it is okay to like, and paving the way for many more RPG series to
take to the internet.

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