By Tom Mannering
On 4th March 2019 the popular Critical Role web series, where a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons and Dragons, launched their own Kickstarter with the intent to create an animated special which focused on Vox Machina, the heroes of the shows first campaign. The Kickstarter’s initial target was $750,000, with a top-end stretch goal of $3 million. The campaign cleared both in eight hours. After a couple of days of frantic scrambling, additional stretch goals were added and as of writing, the campaign is up over $7.5 million pledged from over 55,000 backers (including yours truly) with 29 days to go on the campaign. This places the campaign as the 9th most funded Kickstarter project to date, and the top funded film project on Kickstarter. But is it really that big a deal?
When I took my first steps into both table top roleplaying and D&D, sometime around the distant year of 1995, it was still a very niche hobby. I avoided the worst of the ‘Satanic Panic’ that afflicted the hobby in the ‘80s, but there was still a very evident and misplaced stigma. The only people I could partake in the hobby with at that time were people I was either lucky enough to meet that shared my interest (which was very few, despite working in a hobby and gaming store in my late teens), or people that I recruited into it. It wasn’t until I went to university and joined a gaming society that my network expanded, and I could select players to game with. Nowadays, things have changed. With the accessibility of the internet and programs like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, you don’t just need to game with whoever you can muster in your local community, you can game with people all over the world. Beyond that, thanks to the growing popularity of roleplaying with the inception of the likes of Critical Role, Acquisitions Incorporated and various other actual play series, there is an expanding audience. In much the same ways that the Marvel cinematic universe brought comic characters to an audience that had never engaged with them before, these web series have done the same with D&D and roleplaying.
But, Critical Role and its peers require an investment of time. Every weekly episode ranges from three to five hours of content to watch, and while it is often great viewing in my opinion, it is both a time sink and not to everyone’s taste (and that’s not even detailing how long it would take to watch all 115 episodes of the first campaign). This means that people who don’t have four hours a week to commit to a web series or who struggle to engage with watching other people play D&D are missing out a show with a lot of depth. Whenever I’ve attempted to introduce someone to Critical Role, I’ve had to do it via cautious exposure to various ‘Best Of’ reels, that while functional, lose a lot of context and tend to only focus on the many humorous moments, which is an injustice to the themes the show has dealt with.
The Legend of Vox Machina Kickstarter looks to solve a number of these issues. Firstly, it promises to open with a narrative which introduces the characters early in their careers, played out through an original plot set prior to the start of the web series. This means it will be unburdened by a lot of the narrative that will eventually enrich the characters but would be a lot to digest straight out the gate. At approximately 45 minutes, this should be a reasonable length of animated content for anyone to watch. Told through animation, an introduction to the characters of Vox Machina will be accessible to a much wider audience and that promises only good things for the future of D&D and the wider community. Because of the stretch goals, the animated special has been extended to a series which will move onto the ‘Briarwood Arc’, one of the most popular storyline of the Vox Machina campaign which focuses on darker themes of vengeance, tragedy and consequences. On stream, the arc covers 14 episodes, so it’s likely around forty hours of content, but animated it should be about an eighth of that. Easier to digest and as good, if not better, to watch.
Beyond allowing more people to enjoy the world of Exandria and the fantastic cast of characters, it’s also worth considering previous attempts to bring D&D to the big and small screen. While the 1985 Dungeons & Dragons animated TV show retains a nostalgic fondness for a lot of fans, it is very much a product of its time and aimed at a younger audience. The less said about the critically panned Dungeons and Dragons movies, the better (but I will concede that the first is a guilty pleasure of mine if only for Jeremy Irons chewing every bit of scenery he can get his hands on). Where these releases were targeted at younger audiences, ‘The Legend of Vox Machina’ is aimed at the same mature audiences that enjoyed the original series. This means that the content, narratives and animation can lean more into some of the darker elements (especially in the Briarwood Arc) and some of the more adult humour. While there are no guarantees at this stage, there every chance that the show could truly represent the stories that can be told around a table.
Finally, Critical Role has been lauded for its diversity and representation in the characters and storylines that it has included. While there is no denying that the immediate members of Vox Machina lack the immediate diversity of their successors, The Mighty Nein, many of their allies displayed a range of ethnic, gender and sexual diversity. There is no doubt that several of these characters will make an appearance at some point (if Shaun Gilmore doesn’t I’m certain the fans may riot). Such a range of representation is a leap from the days of sourcebooks that featured muscled, white men rescuing chainmail bikini clad white women, almost exclusively. It marks a positive step forward in the direction of the community and the hobby, and if that means more people feel welcome to the gaming table, that’s a good thing in my book.
So, is it a big deal? I’d certainly say so. Whatever your feelings about Critical Role, it’s hard to argue with the level of success its seen and the positive impact it’s had on the D&D and roleplaying community. The release of another form of media that the existing and a new audience can engage and identify with cannot be a bad thing. That said, we’ve a wait ahead of us before we see if the team can live up to the expectations, but I’m hopeful.