The happiest, nerdiest miracle
Marisha Ray is surrounded by some of her closest friends, but there are tears welling in her eyes. A recent revelation has filled her with doubt and guilt in equal measure, leading her to believe that her previous actions may have brought death to the doorsteps of a great many people. The tears begin their journey downward as she tries to gather her bearings, and a friend’s kind words help her to steel herself. As the cameras record this poignant moment, it’s hard to remember that you’re watching a group of voice actors play Dungeons & Dragons.
For the past month, I’ve been driving back and forth to Burbank, California to interview the cast of Critical Role, Geek & Sundry’s live-action Dungeons & Dragons Twitch show. One of those trips even led to a bolt dislodging from inside of my car and locking my rotor, stranding my car in East Los Angeles. I’ve pulled the cast away from their busy lives and attempted to extract whatever I can from their brain buckets. In a diner, outside a coffee shop with rain gently cascading on umbrellas overhead, and on the studio set, I’ve learned more about the culmination of effort that led to the creation of this rapidly-growing show.
Liam O’ Brien (Akihiko from Persona 3, Ilidan Stormrage from Warcraft, a billion characters in Anime) saw one of my D&D posts and cordially invited me to the set. I began silently screaming, as voice acting and role-playing are two of my favorite things. After doing my best to recompose any sense of professionalism, we scheduled a studio visit so I could see what happens behind-the-scenes. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s step back a few years.
Critical Role’s Rube Goldberg machine was tapped into action when Liam and his friend Sam Riegel (Teddie from Persona 4, Donnel, the best character in Fire Emblem: Awakening) challenged themselves to play D&D for their second episode of their podcast, allworknoplay. Liam had already dabbled in the dark arts of role-playing when he was younger: “In grade school I didn’t feel confident enough to play with anybody. It was only in high school that I was able to make the weird…work.” Sam, however, had never played before and had no idea what to expect.
At the time, Liam was voice directing Matthew Mercer (Chrom from Fire Emblem: Awakening, Levi from Attack on Titan) as Leon in Resident Evil 6. Over the next few months, Matt kept asking Liam if he wanted to join his home campaign, saying he knew he’d love it. Busy with his young children at the time, Liam kept refusing, but eventually said “Alright, we’ll play for my birthday, I’ll talk [the other voice actors] into it, it’ll be funny.” He expected to play once and move onto the next thing for allworknoplay, but it took “all of twenty seconds to know… I loved it.”
Liam went home, his heart beating with the energy associated with good role-playing, and immediately texted his friends to schedule an ongoing game. After a day of silence, he started to feel like “a jilted lover,” and was already looking for another way to feed his new addiction (“oh God…maybe Matt will let me join his home game?”). But a day later, responses began to flood in. They added Ashley Johnson (Ellie from The Last of Us, Gortys from Tales from the Borderlands), Taliesin Jaffe (Blanka in recent Street Fighter games), and Orion Acaba (who has since amicably separated from Critical Role) to the roster, and began their new campaign.
The camera hungrily lingers on each player, chronicling their fallen morale after a recent tragedy has sown chaos in a world they’ve struggled to defend. In this moment, bleary eyes and hung heads are shared between both player and character. After a prolonged silence, Matt looks directly at his adventurers, positively beaming: “D&D is fun, guys!” Everyone busts into belly-bursting at the unexpected gallows humor, for even a fictional world can crumble in the absence of levity.
Of course, this new band of adventurers didn’t begin as Vox Machina, the crew that we see cavorting around on Critical Role. They began as the S.H.I.T.’s, the Super High Intensity Team, and played in the home of Laura Bailey (Fetch from inFamous: Second Son, Nadine Ross in the upcoming Uncharted 4) and Travis Willingham (Knuckles the Echidna in the Sonic series, Thor in almost everything Marvel makes).
There were often brunches and mimosas involved as Matt took on the role of Dungeon Master and began acquainting his new players with the world of dice, damage, and drama. The S.H.I.T.’s were fresh-faced in this realm, but Sam others realized “that the game is essentially an improv show with dice,” and quickly acclimated. Those early days provided a freedom that’s slowly dwindled since the show has grown in popularity.
Sam remembers both the good and bad of playing at Laura and Travis’s house: “Playing live on Twitch keeps us moving. We could spend literally five hours shopping and haggling for potions [back then]. Now we have an audience wait for us to, you know, DO something…I mean, we can’t fart or burp as much anymore. People are watching.” Thanks to Ashley, there’s a supercut of those original games for your viewing pleasure:
Ashley’s friendship with one Felicia Day led to the current incarnation of the show. Ashley mentioned that she was playing a D&D game with a crew of voice actors, and Felicia listened to her instincts, which told her that watching these known voices role-play could make for a great show on Geek & Sundry, her multimedia production company.
When I spoke to Felicia on the phone (my life is becoming increasingly surreal) about the success of Critical Role, she told me that “It’s not about corralling a faceless crowd. It’s about changing someone’s life for the better, even if it’s for an hour and you make them laugh.”
She’s guest-starred as Lyra, an awkward human wizard in two episodes. I asked if she wanted to be a guest again, and she paused in thought before saying “I would love to shove my face in Critical Role always, but I don’t want to make it the Felicia show.” Though streaming as of yet is not hugely profitable, she has faith that the show will continue to grow, and is grateful to Legendary Pictures (Geek & Sundry’s parent channel) for keeping it alive.
So that’s how it was born! Let’s sprint on back to present day. When I first arrived at the Geek & Sundry Studio, I was anxious. Soon, I’d meet the actors that I had aspired to for the last ten years, and it would be in a professional capacity instead of as a doting fan at a convention (which I had done previously). With slightly trembling hands, I sent Liam an email to let him know that I was outside, and needed someone to open up the glass door. As I saw him walking towards me from inside the building, I accepted that it was all real and I had to do my best not to come off like a complete dork.
We shook hands, walked into the kitchen area, and I attempted to seem professionally non-chalant as Liam introduced me to people with voices I had heard thousands of times but never met. I am almost certain that I failed at this task. The crew was in a rush to get on set and start the show, so after Liam offered me a drink (which made things easier), we all walked into the next room, where cables, cameras, and microphones were always within arm’s reach.
I sat in a small corner hidden from the view of the cameras, and did my best not to disturb the many instruments recording Critical Role. It’s no simple task to remain silent when something you love is just a few feet away, and I confess that my almost-stifled laughter is probably audible in one episode. From my angle, I could see all members of Vox Machina, but Matt was hidden. Though this was disappointing at first, since I wanted some of his Dungeon Master Skills to transfer to me via osmosis, not being able to see him made it so that every time he used a different accent for an NPC, he effectively became an entire different person according to my brain.
Seeing the camaraderie between Taliesin, Marisha, Sam, Liam, Laura, Travis, and Ashley (Skyping on a laptop from New York) further cemented my feeling that these people love what they do, and love each other. In fact, Ashley tries to play as often as she can despite being a television star on NBC’s Blindspot, because seeing her friends even digitally helps her feel like she’s not on the other side of the country. Sometimes she can’t make it or there’s a problem with the connection, but her optimistic voice jumping in to break the silence is one of the best things on Critical Role.
Mid-way through the show, the crew usually takes a break. While this tends to look casual on camera, it’s more of a maelstrom when you’re looking behind-the-scenes. Everyone sprinted to the restroom in the back of the studio. I nervously sat in a corner, waiting to see if there was any time to ask questions. Eventually, they all came back and started to scarf down pizza in the remaining downtime. Laura looked up at me, probably sensing that I was uncomfortable, and asked, “Want pizza?” That small gesture was enough to integrate me into the group and we all started joking and laughing like I wasn’t an outsider. Thanks, Laura. Matt called out “Two minutes!” with all the authority of a drill sergeant, and then we all scuffled back in.
After the adventure had ended for the day, the show transitioned into Critmas, where the cast opens gifts from Critters (fans of the show) on-camera. This often comes in the form of impressive hand-made art of their favorite characters, generally alongside letters expressing their admiration and appreciation. Liam says that his “favorite messages are from those in the military…there’s some guy over in the desert watching our show who doesn’t feel the need to perpetuate a macho perception and can watch nerds in LA play D&D.” Taliesin finds Critmas “on the same emotional level as going to a con and meeting fans in person.” Watching them receive these gifts on-stage, all on the verge of tears at how heartfelt these messages can be was enough to turn my stone heart into something soft and stupid.
After accomplishing a difficult task, Vox Machina decides to blow off some steam. Matt doesn’t know what to expect, but plays along. Instead of rushing to the next battle, the players choose to go on a spontaneous pub crawl. They gallivant all night, and Marisha’s character is well-past drunk. Ashley, wanting the revelry to continue, casts Lesser Restoration so Marisha can maintain the buzz without those pesky side-effects like slurred speech and double vision. Who says heroes can’t have fun?
After the show wrapped up, I helped Matt and Marisha carry this new-found loot to their car. As we walked down the street, Matt and I traded campaign ideas like war stories, excitedly rambling about the harrowing scenarios we were excited to present to our players.
I asked Marisha if it was ever terrifying being so close to someone who was plotting scenarios that could lead to her character’s death. She laughed, and recalled numerous times where she would be “sitting on the couch watching a show with him when I realized that he was in his own little world. Any time I ask him what he’s thinking about, he just says ‘Oh, campaign stuff,’ but it’s always terrifying.” Since we didn’t have much time for interviews that day, we agreed to meet up the following day at a coffee shop.
I drove back out to Burbank that next day, and talked to Liam, Matt, and Marisha, which you can hear below. I highly recommend checking it out, as we had an enormously fun conversation (and let us know if you like that style of interview, I’d like to do more along those lines!). We spoke about everything from how the three of them first encountered D&D when they were younger to the eventual end of Critical Role’s story, and Matt shows off his exceptional ability to speak only when loud vehicles are passing by.
This all came at the perfect time for me. Like the Critters who so love this show, I too find comfort in Critical Role when life decides to stack the deck against me. Numerous financial hardships in the family, mental health issues (depression sucks, guys), and the car breakdown happening on the way back from meeting up with Taliesin threatened to unhinge me in the past two months. But seeing my honest-to-God heroes on stage unafraid to be silly and play D&D in front of a million people is a huge factor in helping me laugh my problems away. Because Felicia is right: Critical Role does change my life for the better, and I’m far from the only one.
You’ve stared at my open diary for long enough at this point. I’ll end it by saying this: when I (somewhat desperately) asked who I had to kill for a guest role, Matt said Travis, and Liam said Felicia. Travis and his beefy arms would probably kill me, so I asked Felicia when she wanted to schedule our battle, and what her terms were. “Wow, okay, um…” she began. “You’d win in a breakdance fight…I mean I could probably like hit you from afar. I’m pretty good at throwing things? I might put out your eye with a d20.”
So if you soon hear that I lost an eye, assume I won’t be on the show. But if you hear about Felicia losing a breakdancing fight, look forward to my cameo.