Hand in hand with the meteoric resurgence of tabletop gaming in the past few years is the rise of the Actual Play show, as hundreds of thousands of fans watch or listen along to teams of hosts doing the actual gaming and storytelling for them. The biggest bang in all of that boom is perhaps Critical Role, and a new book is examining its rise.
io9 has a look inside The World of Critical Role, created by Liz Marsham and the team behind the wildly popular Dungeons & Dragons series. Tracking the earliest days of the show to its current status as a worldwide roleplaying phenomenon—worthy of sell-out shows, comic book retellings of its campaigns, merchandise out the wazoo, and even its very own D&D supplement—the book takes a deep dive into the eight-year history behind the games.
Including interviews with Dungeon Master Matt Mercer and the cast of the series, The World of Critical Role is packed with insight into what makes the series one of the most beloved RPG shows in the world. It tackles the highs and lows of bringing one adventure after another to life week-in, week-out, the characters they’ve created, and the struggles as the series has exploded in reach and popularity.
You can see a few pieces of art by Oliver Barrett from the book below, bringing the characters and world of Critical Role’s campaigns to life. But read on for an excerpt making its debut here on io9, where the Critical Role team talks about why, eight years on, rolling dice and telling stories still holds a powerful magic for them that has lasted well beyond the tabletop.
SO, AT THE END of the day, you’ve rolled your dice, you’ve played your part, you’ve told your part of the story. But if it’s all just words in the air, what are you really doing? What are you making that lasts beyond those few hours at the table?
Well, magic, for one thing.
“Collaborative storytelling is so amazing,” Laura says, “because you create this interactive memory between a group of people. When I think back about the memories of our game, I don’t think of it in terms of us sitting at a table and rolling dice. I remember it as our characters. I remember us going on these epic journeys together and fighting beholders and just doing epic things. I remember little tiny mannerisms that Percy had. I remember Keyleth leaning on her staff. And how does that happen as a group of people? We all remember those things. And in nowhere else in life do you get that kind of memory-dream.”
“I have a theory,” says Marisha, “that we’re seeing a resurgence in tabletop and the board game scene in general because, as much as technology and the way we use it will continue to advance, nothing will ever replace face-to-face human contact. And I think the more we do have technology invading all aspects of our lives, the more we will continue to go back to sitting around a campfire telling stories. And that’s what Dungeons & Dragons is. It is nothing more than a communal storytelling device. As people, I think that’s so ingrained in our DNA and so necessary to who we are. We will always need our stories.”
“We understand ourselves better through story,” Liam says, “stories told in myth, stories told in fiction and novels, stories told in film. And this as well, all of us sitting together and creating things, surprising ourselves bit by bit, and learning more about ourselves and the world by fleshing out ideas and conflict and friendship with people that we trust and care about. It really does feel sometimes like we’re changing one small corner of the world, inviting the world back to that notion of make-believe that we all have as children, and coming at it with the perspective of an adult, which is a fascinating nexus point. All those make-believe games we played when we were five or six, not touching the lava and fighting the dragon, and then taking all those years of experience and nuance, the successes and failures of life, and applying that to the make-believe: it’s fascinating.”
What are you making that lasts? Family.
“The connections you make with these people that you’re sharing the story with, that you’re building the story with,” says Matt, “the friendships that are forged, the experiences that you all will recount the tales of—it bonds like few things I’ve experienced in my life. Most of my closest friends throughout my entire life are people that I’ve gamed with.”
“Even though people are watching all over the world now,” says Liam, “it’s just us in the room, and it feels like just us. I trust the people around the table with me implicitly and know that I can make mistakes or be daring or be dumb or be vulnerable or wacky or whatever I want to do, because we’re there to do that together. We really have a trust that has just become stronger and stronger over the years.”
“Role-playing has created this second family for me,” Laura says, “and for all of us.”
When Ashley was in New York, she found that her new family and the game they shared got her through her homesickness. “I missed home with every fiber of my being,” she says. “I missed my family, my friends. Having that one night a week to escape to a fantasy world was paramount to my mental and emotional health.”
So what are you making that lasts? Yourself.
“Role-playing games have changed my life for the better in more ways than I can describe,” Matt says. “They brought me out of my shell when I was younger. They taught me how to be more social. They taught me how to speak publicly. They taught me the kind of person I wanted to be and how to make steps towards becoming that person. They inspired me to start pursuing performing arts. They taught me what actions feel good when playing a good character, what actions feel bad when playing a bad character, and, as such, helped to forge my own morality. It’s made me who I am, in a lot of ways.”
“It’s created this ability to open up my imagination again, in ways that I hadn’t gotten to experience since I was a little kid,” Laura says. “And it’s made me more free, less scared about what people are going to think of me, which is a really special thing.”
“I can say that I have never been a sharper improviser than I have been after a few years of playing Critical Role with this amazing group,” says Travis. “As an actor and a businessman and a father, that sort of reinforcement and arena to practice in has been pretty invaluable for me.”
“There’s a sense of wonder to learning something new,” Sam says, “even if it’s something mundane like taking a pottery class for the first time or learning how to knit. And in D&D that stuff happens all the time. You learn new things about the world, about yourself. It’s all taken to a fantastical degree, but it’s still just learning new skills and exploring new facets of human existence.”
“Role-playing games, you walk away changed,” Taliesin says. “Like a good dream, or a really good nightmare. You walk away with this secret knowledge that if you attempt to explain to anybody, it’s impossible to share.”
When you sit at the table you are, in the most real sense and in the best possible way, taking your fate in your hands. And you never have to do it alone.
The World of Critical Role, published by Ten Speed Press at Penguin Random House, goes on sale October 20.
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