How does a board game session with eight friends at a birthday party turn into a multimillion-dollar media empire? It sounds like the stuff of fantasy, but that’s exactly the story behind the new Amazon TV show The Legend of Vox Machina, an adult animated show that was born from the Twitch sensation Critical Role, in which voice actors engage in a role-playing board game watched by a large fan base. But just how did it get so big?

The Journey Begins

First, the rules of the game. For the uninitiated, role-playing games – or RPGs, as they are commonly known – are precisely what they sound like: games where each player assumes their own character, either created or assigned, and goes on adventures in a group led by a Gamemaster, a storyteller who crafts the world around them as well as all the friends (and enemies) they will meet. The most common such worlds are fantasy landscapes, and the most famous brand is Dungeons and Dragons, which has become a byword for the format. However, any RPG can be put together with just a few friends and some imagination!

Dungeons and Dragons, as well as other RPGs, have become immensely popular over the last few years, as people seek more authentic social experiences. Like poker nights or book clubs, game nights have become a big part of the social lives of millions, and you’d be surprised at the number of famous faces leading the charge. Vin Diesel has professed a love for the game, while Magic Mike star Joe Manganiello built his own dungeon and hosts game nights with celebrities like director James Gunn and star Vince Vaughn.

In the world of RPG enthusiasts, however, there is only one superstar: or, rather, eight of them. Critical Role started as a private game between eight voice actors, held for their friend Liam O’Brien. The story, called a ‘campaign’, was created by Matthew Mercer, an actor known for his vocal performances in anime and video games such as Fortnite and Fallout 4. The players included Ashley Johnson, the actress known for her starring role in The Last of Us video games and a small role in 2012’s The Avengers; and the experience was fun enough for the group to keep playing for two years.

After a while, actor Felicia Day encouraged the group to start streaming their games. The inclusion of voice actors gave the game extra appeal, as they were all experts in bringing imaginary situations to life through their vocals.

The first campaign, titled ‘Vox Machina’, featured the cast playing a group of adventurers fighting corruption, demons and occasionally each other in the mythical world of Exandria, on the continent of Tal’Dorei. There’s magic, mystery, dragons and comedy, with the RPG format meaning the quest is indeed epic: the campaign lasted two years, from 2015 to 2017, with 115 episodes lasting three to four hours each. A second campaign, titled ‘The Mighty Nein’, ran from 2017 to 2021, while a third, as-yet-untitled campaign started last October. All episodes are streamed via Twitch, and are available to replay on YouTube.

Critters Unite!

Six years on from those beginnings, Critical Role has become a global hit. Mercer and Co. formed their own studio, which produces many different quests and series related to role-playing games. There are comic books, novels, live shows and numerous lines of merchandise based on the series, all prompted by the massive fanbase, nicknamed ‘Critters’. Live viewers are estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, while replays of current campaign episodes top around two to three million combined views on YouTube and Twitch.

But how did this lead to a TV show? While the numbers are impressive, they are not unheard of in the streaming world. What makes Critical Role unique is the devotion of its fans, which is how we get to The Legend of Vox Machina.

The Critical Role team has packed out comic cons, the show includes long sections of art submitted by fans, and Matthew Mercer has worked with TV show host Stephen Colbert.

The nature of the campaigns means viewers invest a lot more time and effort into following the story than the average subscriber. Having fans who spend hours getting to know the characters, and the people who play them, has made the cast superstars and led to a record-breaking event in 2019.

In March of that year, the team decided to start a crowdfunding effort to finance a single, 22-minute animated adventure based on the first campaign, with a goal of $750,000. Within an hour of going live, they had reached $1 million. Within a day, they had raised $4.3 million. And by the time it closed in April, the initiative had raised $11.3 million, had expanded to 24 episodes across two seasons, and had secured a streaming deal with Amazon. The cast shared their surprise in an enthusiastic reaction video.

So now, everyone gets to enjoy The Legends of Vox Machina, a show willed into existence by its supporters. The vibrant, anime-inspired visuals are coupled with an adult-themed story that includes epic battles, ale-drinking goliaths and a particularly amorous bard. As with the Twitch inspiration, it also includes a diverse cast of characters of many gender identities, sexualities and backgrounds, allowing everyone to be seen and to find a hero. It’s a fun adventure that will thrill fans of the show, and also be of interest to those who like their animation edgy but still hilarious.

The Legacy of Adventure

From a small game at someone’s house, to a worldwide, multiplatform franchise, Critical Role is the perfect example of modern entertainment. It’s accessible, different and in constant dialogue with its audience. Each fan feels like they know the cast, and that comes with responsibilities that traditional media may not have to contend with. Mindful of this, The Critical Foundation was founded in 2020 to, in the words of its own mission statement, “leave the world better than we found it” by raising funds for various humanitarian causes.

Their fame has also undoubtedly impacted the historically niche community they belong to. Dungeons and Dragons reported its biggest year ever in 2020, as global events forced millions to stay at home and find new pastimes, and it’s arguable that a large portion of those new players may have been inspired by Critical Role.

And while Critical Role was far from the first RPG-related show, its success has inspired many similar streams, such as DC Comics’ DC All-Star Universe with actors Freddie Prinze Jr and Sam Witwer, as well as numerous other channels of varying notoriety.

Being at the forefront of a booming genre also comes with its setbacks. Critics of the show have talked about ‘The Mercer Effect’, where the enthusiastic and knowledgeable performance of Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer has led to expectations from new players that their Gamemasters will be just as skilled as the professional actor. There have also been sporadic controversies along the way, as the show navigated its viral growth and the expectations set by a fan base that now resembles more of a community.

However, for millions around the world, and more to come, the adventures of Vox Machina and Critical Role have been an exciting new form of escapism, which can be as interactive as your imagination allows. The show can simply be a comforting companion over an evening, or it can inspire you to join the growing numbers of new players entering the world of Dungeons and Dragons as well as other games.

If anything sums up the appeal at the heart of RPG gaming and the show itself, it’s the show’s two catchphrases at the end of each Twitch stream: “Don’t forget to love each other”, and “Is it Thursday yet?” (in reference to when each episode airs) – reminding us that we’re here to share fun with friends far and near, and to immerse ourselves in a whole other world.

The Legend of Vox Machina airs three episodes a week from 28 January to 18 February on Amazon Prime Video.

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