There’s a new show on Amazon Prime, and boy, does it come with a lot of backstory.
No, it’s not the Lord of the Rings show, which Amazon has already thrown a ton of money at—that’s not out until later this year. This one is animated, and at first blush, it may just seem like any old cartoon about magic and action and dragons. But The Legend of Vox Machina, a fun, raunchy fantasy series with new episodes out every Friday, has already taken the internet by storm. That’s because it started out as a long-running Dungeons & Dragons game, called Critical Role—which just so happens to be one of the most successful web series in history.
While Vox Machina doesn’t make its roots too obvious to the uninitiated, the preexisting Critical Role fan base has cheered the show into the spotlight: It’s received rave reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and has become a trending topic on Tumblr. Even if you’ve missed the hype until now, there are thousands of others who have followed along with the show’s unlikely story, which helped propel it to immediate success. Not only is Critical Role big enough to spin off a high-quality cartoon on a major streaming service, but it also raised millions of dollars to make it happen.
OK, what is Critical Role? You said it’s a web series, but it’s also a … game? And now it’s a cartoon?
Beginning like most D&D games—with a group of friends, some creative ideas, and a whole lot of dice—Critical Role is a story set in the fantasy world of Exandria, created by game master and renowned voice actor Matthew Mercer. Mercer and his friends started livestreaming themselves playing the game for an audience in 2015, when the story was already underway.
The internet quickly fell in love with the story and its colorful characters via these streams, which aired weekly on Twitch and YouTube. The story of the Vox Machina campaign in particular—the first D&D game played together by the Critical Role cast—followed this ragtag team on their adventures, which involved them growing from self-interested mercenaries searching for a big payout to saving their realm from otherworldly dangers, with plenty of other high-stakes subplots along the way. The campaign streamed (almost) every Thursday night for over two years as our brave heroes fought dragons, demons, and would-be gods. With each episode usually running between three and four hours, the first campaign ended with more than 400 hours of wacky, intense, and above all impeccably narrated gameplay to watch.
The primary cast included Grog Strongjaw (played by Travis Willingham), Pike Trickfoot (Ashley Johnson), twins Vex’ahlia and Vax’ildan (Laura Bailey and Liam O’Brien), Keyleth (Marisha Ray), Scanlan Shorthalt (Sam Riegel), and Percival de Rolo (Taliesin Jaffe).
Even after the story of Vox Machina came to a close, Critical Role just kept on rolling. A second campaign ran for three additional years, clocking in at over 500 hours, and Campaign 3 kicked off in October 2021. Each campaign features a new story, new characters, and a different setting within the world of Exandria, and the cast continues to stream all of it for its ever-growing fan base. All told, that’s 1,000 hours of content—and counting.
Tell me more about this all-star cast!
If any of these actors’ names sound familiar, you’ll realize that it’s because many of them are well known for their other major projects, from beloved anime to big-budget video games. The crew’s name recognition and preexisting popularity online helped draw in an audience for their game quickly, but viewers have stuck around for their unique characters most of all.
While some critics have noted the cast’s lack of racial diversity, the Critical Role crew has brought on many guest stars over the years, some of whom are people of color. As of Campaign 3, a new cast member has been added as well—Robbie Daymond, known for voicing Peter Parker on the Spider-Man series on Disney XD.
In addition, while Critical Role can’t retroactively add cast members to its first campaign, they’ve brought in a diverse cast of talent to voice characters on The Legend of Vox Machina, including Stephanie Beatriz (Encanto), Khary Payton (The Walking Dead), and Indira Varma (Game of Thrones).
Wait, back up. Did you say there’s 1,000 hours of this already?
Yep. It’s a lot. Even in a fan culture obsessed with binge-watching, Critical Role has gained a reputation as incredibly long—and almost impossible to catch up on if you fall behind. But if you’re interested, and you have (a lot of) time to spare, every episode is available to view for free on YouTube, as well as in podcast form for those who prefer audio.
But if that seems like too much, live gaming isn’t all the crew of Critical Role has on offer. Over the past six years, Critical Role has grown from a single (albeit very involved) show to a sprawling media empire with a loyal fan base, which turns out—in the hundreds of thousands—to watch the show, read the books, and buy the merch. The group has released additional video content, official merchandise, podcasts, board games, graphic novels, and even companion books designed to help other D&D players bring the world of Exandria into their own games. The cast has also historically made live appearances at fan conventions, playing the game for an in-person audience.
So how did Critical Role go from … well, all of that … to a TV show on one of the biggest streaming platforms?
The cast of Critical Role, being talented voice actors, had pitched an animated adaptation of their game in the past. But there was lukewarm interest from production companies, according to them—so in 2019, they decided to take matters into their own hands by launching a Kickstarter campaign for a “professional-quality animated special.”
Originally, the team aimed to create just one 22-minute episode. But as with most things Critical Role–related, things snowballed. The Kickstarter reached its funding goal of $750,000 within just 45 minutes, and fans went on to raise more than $11 million over the 45 days that the fundraiser was active. It became the fifth-most-funded Kickstarter campaign ever at the time (by number of backers), and the project beat out a 2015 campaign to revive Mystery Science Theater 3000 as the highest-funded film or video project funded on Kickstarter.
Geez, that’s a lot! What did they do with all that money?
Well, they made the show! But because they far exceeded their campaign goal, the Critical Role crew went from planning just one episode to a full season of 10, plus bonus content to reward the Kickstarter backers for their support. The Legend of Vox Machina began production later that year, partnering with animation studio Titmouse (which has worked on shows like Big Mouth, The Venture Bros., and Loki).
A few months into production, in November 2019, Amazon acquired the rights to stream the show exclusively on Prime Video, and expanded it from one 10-episode season to two seasons of 12 episodes each. The first three episodes of Season 1 premiered on Jan. 28, 2022, with three additional episodes released each week until the season finale in mid-February. The second season, meanwhile, is already in the works.
That’s impressive. But do I need to go back and check out all that other content in order to watch The Legend of Vox Machina?
Absolutely not! While The Legend of Vox Machina covers a story and characters already familiar to some fans, it’s also entirely welcoming to people who have never even heard of Critical Role before. Sure, you might catch some Easter eggs or recognize some characters if you’re already a Critical Role fan, but the show doesn’t assume you can recite Percival’s five surnames in the proper order. It doesn’t even expect you to have ever played a D&D game in your life.
In fact, Vox Machina starts at a perfect point for people entirely new to the world of Exandria: when the heroes of the story are nothing more than broke nobodies, and they don’t have much more than a few drinking contests under their belts. It invites new fans to get to know the world alongside the main characters, with plenty of jokes, emotional moments, and a fair few songs along the way.
Pretty much the only people who might not be well suited to watching Vox Machina are children. While this is an animated show set in a fantastical realm, there’s no shortage of violence, gore, and sexual content to be seen.
But other than that, anyone can—and should—look forward to the release of more Vox Machina episodes soon. They’ll be releasing in groups of three every Friday until the season’s end on Feb. 18. Maybe it will even get you excited to check out more from Critical Role—you certainly have a lot of content waiting for you.