Note – Spoilers for Critical Role campaigns 1 & 2 in here!
On March 12th, 2015, voice actor Matthew Mercer greeted a digital audience on the Geek & Sundry Twitch stream. He announced that he would be the host of a new web-series titled “Critical Role”: a show centering around the continuing Dungeons & Dragons adventure that he had crafted for his friends and had been maintaining for a couple years before that point. Though it doesn’t seem so long ago, it hadn’t even been a full year since Twitch in its current form had come into being: it had only made the transition from justin.tv some 7 months earlier. The new platform provided a ripe atmosphere to experiment with new forms of entertainment, and watching a group of talented voice actors bring fantasy characters to life in real time seemed like just the right program to win over the ever-growing Twitch audience.
With Geek & Sundry’s backing, which had been gaining some steam since its founding in 2012 as part of Google’s $100 million original content initiative, it had some semblance of organization and, even though the cast would agree that those early episodes presented some serious technical challenges, the production value was there as well, which helped it to start off on the right foot. There was also the draw of the respective voice actors, each of whom had respective mini-fandoms that piqued interest in different circles.
And so, episode 1 kicked off with a motley crew of adventurers, making their way into the dwarven city of Kraghammer.
By episode 5, the show had 1,465 subscribers.
The following week, that number had grown to 2,130.
As anyone who runs a Twitch channel will tell you, a 45% jump in subscribers week over week is insane. The following week it grew another 10%. Then it did it again. And again.
By episode 29 they had broken the 10,000 sub mark.
Something was happening. The momentum with which this series, which was strictly voice actors playing Dungeons & Dragons, was gaining interest, stuck out as something of an anomaly when you consider the source material. After all, D&D has often been depicted as the pinnacle of geekdom, and typically not in a good way.
Yet, here we are. After a successful first “season” ended after 115 multi-hour episodes, the second campaign kicked off in January to a staggering 100,000+ viewers. Massive billboards went up in major cities advertising the return of the beloved webseries, which now had an equivalent runtime of a 30 minute episodic series airing every week for 14 years.
While the show continued to grow in popularity, there was something being created alongside Critical Role. With each passing episode, a devoted base of fan artists were creating stunning works to add to the lore and experience of the show. Fans, lovingly dubbed “Critters” by the cast, began showcasing cosplay, art, fanfiction…an outpouring of love in the form of creative expression that was recognized and appreciated by the cast on camera.
These worlds of content were added into the broader Critical Role universe, and provided opportunities for the show to branch out further – engaging with their fans in ways that few shows can. Critters, in turn, responded with more amazing and fantastical pieces of fan tributes – hell, some folks got together and re-imagined its central arc in a re-recording of the Hamilton soundtrack.
Fandoms take many forms, but the growth and momentum of Critical Role’s art community struck me as an “X-factor”, so I wanted to reach out to some of the community’s artists to learn what drew them (no pun intended) to the show.
How were you introduced to Critical Role?
I was first introduced to Critical Role through people I followed on my dash. They reblogged some fanart someone did of Percy and Whitestone (can’t remember exactly, it’s been a couple years) and I thought “Hey, that looks interesting!” and decided to check it out. If I recall, episode 57 had JUST aired when I started watching. I remember because people were losing their minds over the cliffhanger that I had zero context for and I was scrambling to catch up. A few sleepless weeks later and I’d caught up just in time for the live show… and the rest is history. :’)
@OrcBabies (WARNING – Features NSFW content)
I was introduced to Critical Role when back when I was watching Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop series on the Geek and Sundry channel, and caught Critical Role when it came out on youtube for the first time, completely by chance.
I found Critical Role after the end of the first arc of The Adventure Zone had left a d20 shaped hole in my heart. I had heard about CR before, had seen amazing art on social media but season 1 was on its last episodes and the backlog was too intimidating at the time. So only when season 2 started up in January, I decided to check it out. I was immediately obsessed – I remember instantly yelling at my best friend to watch it as well. By now I’ve also seen the entirety of season 1.
I was introduced to Critical Role by a friend in my uni cohort, and soon there was a small group of us who had all watched it!
First time I had “direct” contact with critical role it was watching Tabletop show on the GeekandSundry Youtube channel, I believe Matt and Marisha appeared in some episodes at that point and mentioned the show, at the time I didn’t know a lot about DnD and didn’t follow any campaign, up to that point I just thought Critical Role was a Youtube only, pre-recorded show.
Some time after I decided to give EP 1 a go just to get sucked into it, the following 3 weeks were nothing but Critical Role. As I’m the most avid binge watcher I know I quickly watched an ungodly amount of episodes and caught up with the live show, and from seeing all the amazing fanart reels I was super excited/nervous to do one myself, the rest is history.
What was the first piece of art that you did that really took off? When you realized “Oh, there’s something happening here.”
I’ve drawn a ton of CR art by now but I’d say this one was the first one that truly blew my mind when it comes to the response, critters and cast included:
Hmmm, I dont know what you mean by “took off”… I do have a few earlier ones that crested the 1,000 note mark but i think this post is what really got the fandom’s attention?
My first piece that took off is tied between my first fanart I did with was a single page of Tusk Love which I posted on the subreddit, which really managed to capture people’s attention, and the rave party in Hupperdook piece, which just took off like a rocket.
The first piece of art I did that I remember getting some traction was a portrait of Keyleth from Jan 2017 that Marisha commented on. It was the first time I really felt the presence of the wonderful art community. The piece of mine that has gotten the most attention was the Snowdrops piece from the end of campaign one. It was a really emotional moment and I’m honoured that so many people resonated with my artwork.
Luckily enough one of my first ever CR fanarts, a Keyleth portrait, got attention that was and still is completely astounding to me. It was my first try at getting into the community and so I spent as long as I could making it the best possible, I had barely used Twitter at the time and previously had failed to make a big impact in other social media so it took me completely by surprise, now I know that this community is straight up one of the best online and I’m proud to be a part of it.
What’s a piece of art from the community that you really like?
This is the hardest question, there are so many amazing artists in this community, and many of them have become dear friends. This piece by Sam Hogg though, has ingrained itself into my mind. The detail, the emotion in it, it speaks to my love for truly heart-breaking storytelling.
I love this because it perfectly represents both the fandom and the show itself: a bunch of silly people coming together to make goofs and have fun online and offline, and sharing that joy with others.
There’s basically so many artworks that I’m in love with, but I think the one that I can remember off the top of my head was the one comic of Vax coming down to take Mollymauk to the beyond, I don’t exactly remember who did it, but it was gorgeous and poignant. [Editor’s Note: The piece in question is below – by @sketchingsprw AKA “Casey”]
There are so many amazing artists that each bring their own unique flair to the characters, so I could never choose a favourite piece or artist. The one artist I’ll mention is Jessica Mahon (@my2k) because her character designs are always so original and full of life.
Oh god I am HORRIBLE at picking favourites, there’s just so much good art and I like them for so many different reasons it’s hard to choose, but somehow I always come back to Shalizeh7 for many reasons, specially the Caduceus piece, their technical grasp is something I strive for and I admit to a healthy dose of ‘jealous admiration’ if you can call it that,
What’s your favorite Critical Role episode so far?
Almost impossible to answer, but I think its Episode 109 from Season 1. It contains everything that makes Critical Role what it is: An insanely hilarious prank that makes me laugh to this day, a scene in which Matt speaks a ridiculous amount of NPCs at once with just absolute grace and at the end, an action scene with an enemy larger than life, breathtaking and overwhelming through and through. And all of that live! It’s also the only episode from season 1 I made a large scale painting for, while catching up.
Favorite Critical Role episode… I can’t pick just one though there are so many. 🙁 Let me think… for Season 1 I think my favorite one to go back and watch were the Trial of the Take episodes because they were just so ridiculous and fun. Also: GUESTS! For Season 2… maybe it’s because it’s so fresh in my mind but I think it’s episode 43. The entire episode was just one long series of lucky rolls and quick-thinking which I think is just the Biggest DND Mood™.
My favourite episode is kinda hard to pin down, but I think it might well be the hupperdook episode just because it was the one that gave me the best inspiration for the art I did, or the one where they introduced Tusk Love for the first time, because it was a clip from that episode that randomly showed up on my Youtube recommendations that brought me to Critical Role, since I’d stopped watching C1 after like 40 episodes
I can’t possibly choose! My favourite battle was the Vorugal battle because it was so fun and cinematic, and the recent pirate episodes have been a blast.
Without a doubt, the Cow episode. It’s pure D&D.
With the 2nd season well underway, and Critical Role now becoming its own creative enterprise (with the talented Marisha Ray at its helm), there’s no doubt that we have many more years of entertainment to look forward to. Its popularity has undoubtedly shifted the trajectory of D&D – so much so that in the recent Art & Arcana artbook that chronicles the history of the tabletop game, Critical Role is called out by name in the latter pages and spotlights its marketing campaign for season 2.
With home games sprouting up all over the world in response to this handful of voice actors playing D&D, the unassuming band of misfits known as Vox Machina (and now, The Mighty Nein) continue to share light, laughter, tears and triumph with their hundreds of thousands of fans across the globe. The creations that spill forth as a result are representative of the wealth of inspiration the world that Matthew Mercer and his friends have created.
We’d like to offer our sincere thanks to the artists who took time to answer our questions! Feel free to share your favorite Critical Role stories & art in the comments!