The morning this March they launched their Kickstarter campaign for a small animated project with some voice-acting friends, Travis Willingham and Laura Bailey thought there was a glitch on the crowdfunding site.
“It started out pretty slow and we were like ‘Oh, well,’” said Willingham, who, with his deep, booming voice, has been cast as Thor in numerous Marvel animated projects. “Then it started moving like a gas station pump.”
That campaign, for the adult-oriented “Legend of Vox Machina Animated Special,” is now Kickstarter’s highest earning entertainment project ever, with nearly 90,000 backers pledging upwards of $11 million — besting bigger-name properties like “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” revived by Netflix in 2017, and “Veronica Mars,” which became a feature film and, earlier this year, a Hulu original series.
Now, that group of friends — under the banner of the company they formed, Critical Role — joins those bigger-name properties in another milestone: a pickup by a major streaming service. Amazon Prime Video has ordered two 12-episode seasons of “The Legend of Vox Machina,” in addition to securing a first-look development deal with Critical Role. “Vox Machina” is the name of the first Dungeons & Dragons role-playing adventure that the group undertakes, and centers around a team of supernatural mercenaries — elves, dwarves and magic makers — forced to unite to protect their realm from any number of dark forces that assail it, including undead giants, a necromancer and powerful curses.
It’s another level-up for an outfit that began in 2012 as a group of Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts gathering in one another’s homes. Since then, Critical Role has evolved into a mini media empire, attracting more than half a million viewers every week to YouTube, Twitch and their own site, Critrole.com. The friends have transformed their homegrown characters into a top 10 comic book on Comixology; sell out their live shows; and draw lines around the block at comic book stores and convention signings. The Amazon deal follows a partnership with the animation studio Titmouse, the group behind “Big Mouth” and “The Venture Bros.”
But who are they? Led by veteran game master Matthew Mercer, the group consists of Willingham and Bailey, Sam Riegel, Ashley Johnson, Marisha Ray, Taliesin Jaffe and Liam O’Brien — all voice actors, with credits including “Star Wars Rebels,” “Dragonball Z,” “Marvel’s Avengers Assemble” and the “Last of Us” and “World of Warcraft” gaming franchises.
The role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, which enjoyed its heyday in the 1980s, has had a resurgence of mainstream interest the past decade or so, including its prominent role in Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” The sword-and-sorcery game, which see players create characters — rolling dice to gauge their physical and magical properties — and follow a story line set by a “dungeon master” has always been a low-tech form of fun. But add online streaming sites as storytelling vehicles and a home game can suddenly reach millions of viewers.
Felicia Day, actress and head of the Geek & Sundry media company, which produces shows on YouTube and beyond, saw the potential of putting Critical Role’s interaction online after being invited to the group for a game. Reached by email, Day recounted helping launch the group online while she was trying to establish her own company on Twitch. The tech-savvy Day “loves live-streaming and D&D” and “knew it would work in the format,” but the players themselves weren’t so sure.
“Why would anyone watch three to four hours of someone rolling dice and playing make-believe?”
“It was with some reticence that we agreed to it, thinking [of] the classic internet adage that everyone has a short attention span,” Mercer said. “If it isn’t three-to-five-minute videos, no one will care. Why would anyone watch three to four hours of someone rolling dice and playing make-believe? We were very wrong, and since then it’s been perpetual catch-up.”
“We didn’t know how to gauge what their reaction would be. It’s pretty evident that we underestimated the response. Sure enough, they defied all expectations, pretty much on the first day,” said Willingham.
The videos on YouTube and Twitch are nothing fancy — just friends who, following dungeon master Mercer’s narration and storytelling, merrily roll dice for hours of choose-your-own-adventure fun for themselves and their subscribers. But Mercer’s storytelling is immersive (he does voices and sound effects) and has been honed as the shows have attracted more and more attention.
Even after the “Vox Machina” D&D storyline concluded in November 2017 — with 115 episodes and 373 hours of game play — Mercer and company were flabbergasted by the fan response to the Kickstarter campaign they launched earlier this year. (That love can cut both ways, though: While Critical Role has made a deal for the first season to be free for Kickstarter supporters, the second is not included, and some backers are now perplexed that they may not be able to see the series in full without joining Amazon Prime.)
The responsibility to fans — and the story itself — has only grown with the group’s success, particularly for Mercer, who was invited to lead a Dungeons & Dragons quest with talk show host and onetime D&D player Stephen Colbert.
“It’s one thing when you’re running a game for five, six, seven friends at a table,” he said. “If there’s the occasional plot hole or some things that you didn’t think too thoroughly about, it’s not a big deal because they’re into it so much they’re not thinking about the macro. But when you have an audience of hundreds of thousands of people that are having forum boards and podcasts discussing and debating elements of the world that you just made up, it adds another level.”
For Marisha Ray, there was a noticeable tipping point in fan engagement: “Probably about six months into the show ... we decided we would try to market T-shirts. And at this point in time, we didn’t really understand the reach and the scope of the show in terms of public consumption. So we made 100 shirts that we printed ourselves that we were just going to have a packing party and send out. They ended up selling out in about three minutes.”
The “Vox Machina” Kickstarter campaign was conceived as a love letter to fans — “the Critters” as they’re called — for their initial support as the group built its brand, later joined by higher-profile figures like Colbert and Vin Diesel.
Now, Critical Role will begin the next phase of its evolution in a spare office in Burbank with framed comic book art stacked on the wall and the multisided die used in role-playing games collected in containers on a table. After everything, the process of creating a show is still relatively new to everyone: The members of the group sometimes remind each other of the minutiae, having to remember what character developments or plot twists happened, and when.
Animation directors and additional writers have yet to intrude on their laughing references to “Gremlins,” Eleven from “Stranger Things,” Silver Surfer, T-1000, “Star Wars: A New Hope” and “Harry Potter” — though director Sung Jin Ahn is already aboard — but they will come in due time. That’s what happens when you level up, even if you started out in your living room.