Dungeons and Dragons is a decades-old tabletop roleplaying game that in recent years has seen a boom in interest and featured in many films and tv shows – famously Stranger Things starts with the characters playing D&D. A tabletop roleplaying game is a collaborative game where players create a character and have adventures, say, rescue a beautiful dragon from a fire-breathing princess, and you use dice to determine or not your actions are successful – one person takes on the role of Dungeon Master who comes up with the story and guides the players through it. This is a very simplified version but this is the basic idea.
Just over seven years ago Geek and Sundry started streaming a group of people playing D&D, literally, people sat around a table playing the game for about four hours once a week. This show was called Critical Role and was notable for the fact that the cast were professional voice actors (Ashley Johnson played Ellie in The Last of Us for example). Critical Role was spectacularly successful, episodes routinely get over a million views on YouTube – the first episode of season 3 has 5.6 million views. Several years ago the Critical Role team took a gamble and decided to launch a Kickstarter to make an animated adaptation, a purely narrative story and not people playing a game. Their goal was to raise $750,000, they actually raised over $11,000,000. So skip forward several years and The Legend of Vox Machina arrives on Amazon Prime.
The show is twelve episodes detailing two stories from Critical Role with the original actors playing their characters, Dungeon Master Matt Mercer (in the game the Dungeon Master will play every NPC (non-playable character)) provided voices for many of the characters. The show does not presume knowledge of Critical Role or D&D but undoubtedly you’ll get more out of it if you are familiar with these things. As a standalone fantasy animation, it is amazing, a story of complex characters, thrilling adventures and great peril. It is funny and exciting and at times absolutely horrific. A fight scene in Episode 4 where the party fight ghosts features black blood oozing from eyes, Exorcist-like body contortions, and literal skull-crushing kicks. Like Critical Role the show combines action, silliness and a surprising amount of emotion, with Percy’s search for revenge and Keyleth coming into her own and gaining confidence striking very hard.
Whilst Critical Role started on Geek and Sundry being streamed on Twitch this was an existing game, these people had been playing as these characters for some time, indeed the show Critical Role starts midway in the story. This was a game played in a house for fun that became a streaming show and something that could relatively easily raise millions of dollars from fans.
Typically when creating a character in D&D players choose a race (e.g. dwarf, human, elf) and a class (a brief outline of their character’s abilities – e.g. wizard, barbarian), here is a rundown of the cast, their characters and the roles they take –
Matt Mercer – Various – main part is Sylas Briarwood.
Marisha Ray – Keyleth – a half-elf druid – nature-loving magic-user.
Laura Bailley – Vex’ahlia – half-elf ranger – outdoorsy fighter and has a bear.
Liam O’Brien – Vax’ildan – half-elf rogue – sneaky assassin-thief.
Travis Willingham – Grog – Goliath barbarian – big reckless fighter.
Ashley Johnson -Pike – gnome cleric – divinely powered magic-user/healer.
Sam Riegel – Scanlan – gnome bard – charismatic musician & magic-user.
Taliesin Jaffe – Percy de Rolo – human gunslinger – has a gun
Aside from these the cast also boasts David Tennant, Stephanie Beatriz, Rory McCann and more with great actors taking small parts.
Although I love animated shows there are not many where I find myself wowed by the art, this is more about my lack of appreciation than the lack of talent of the artists in other shows, but I was very impressed by The Legend of Vox Machina. It looks amazing and has a very distinct look. This is particularly evident in the looks of the monsters – dragons, zombies, ghosts and how these creatures appear in action sequences.
The actual plot of the show revolves around Vox Machina, a party of adventurers and mercenaries who are down on their luck, and as often as not mess things up. They are based in the grand city of Emon and when at their lowest ebb they see a request from the sovereign to fight the monster that has been plaguing the kingdom they take the opportunity – despite everyone being aware that this adventure is out of their league. Whilst this is a great introduction the show really gets going with the arrival of Silas and Deliah Briarwood, mysterious and sinister figures with a connection to Percy’s past. As a show in its own right, it’s a hit but for fans of Critical Role, it is an absolute triumph.
As well as TLOVM there is an official Dungeons and Dragons movie being made and it does feel the time is right to try this again – a Dungeons and Dragons movie was released in 2000 to almost universal hatred. Not only is the game seeing a surge in popularity but the geek culture that was once derided is now a central piece of popular culture. Not surprisingly there is a big overlap in fans of The Lord of the Rings and D&D and the massive change in how fantasy was perceived after the LotR films have benefitted D&D as well. Comic Relief regularly runs D&D games with comedians, celebrity D&D games abound, actor and impossibly handsome man Joe Manganiello has been running a game in LA that features Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello, professional wrestler Paul “Big Show” Wight and Game of Thrones co-creator D.B. Weiss, and again, this is not a show, they just play for fun.
With an abundance of streaming shows, a great animated series, a film in the works and more, this is the perfect time to find out how much fun Dungeons and Dragons can be.