If you’re someone who plays Dungeons and Dragons, or any other TTRPG, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve heard about the DnD live stream series Critical Role, which began life in 2015 on the Geek and Sundry network. Whilst there are hundreds of RPG streams to choose from today, with it seeming like every other home game trying to make it big in an ever increasing market, what immediately set Critical Role apart from competitors was that the cast were made up from professional voice actors.
The game, which originally started two years before the stream as a private one-shot that grew out of hand, consisted of Matthew Mercer as the DM and Laura Bailey, Taliesin Jaffe, Ashley Johnson, Liam O’Brien, Marisha Ray, Sam Riegel, and Travis Willingham as players. Thanks to their background in voice acting the game had a rich focus on character led narratives, with the players enjoying the personal drama and role-playing as much as the combat. When the stream went live it quickly gained a following, incorporating guest actors, and growing in size to the point where it became the number one Dungeons and Dragons stream in the world.
Thanks to the popularity of the show, the team announced plans to adapt their first campaign into an animated series, and invited their fans to help finance this via Kickstarter. Thanks to fan donations the series was fully funded, and picked up by Amazon Prime, who also financed an additional 14 episodes for a second season. So, after years of watching, after a long Kickstarter campaign, and a big wait, fans finally have the chance to see their heroes take to the screen in The Legend of Vox Machina.
The series picks up in a place long before the stream, where the heroes of Vox Machina are still nobodies. They begin drinking, getting in bar fights, and worrying about where their next pay-cheque will be coming from. Luckily for them, King Uriel (Khary Payton) has called for help from any adventurers that are willing to step forward. With little else to do, and running low on funds, Vox Machina agree to investigate mysterious attacks that have been plaguing small settlements.
This plot takes up the first two episodes of the series, and helps to introduce new viewers to the world and the characters. Each member of Vox Machina gets the chance to do something here, to prove themselves useful both in and out of battle, and you get a good sense of the basic personalities in play. It also helps to set the group up as the heroes that they will become, getting them allies within the rulers of the kingdom, and giving them their own home base. Those who are familiar with the stream will find some stuff to enjoy here, seeing the team in a way we’ve not had them before. Due to knowing what comes next there aren’t many huge surprises in the narrative, but as I watched this with new viewers I can say that it’s a pretty good primer for setting the stage for the real story.
This story is the ‘Briarwood Arc’, the first big story arc from the stream that tied into a character’s backstory; and for a lot of fans the story that really cemented Critical Role as an amazing show. Whilst attending a function at the capital the team come face to face with Delilah (Grey Griffin) and Silas (Matthew Mercer) Briarwood, the people responsible for the murder of Percy’s (Taliesin Jaffe) family and the occupation of his old home. During a confrontation with the Briarwoods, Vox Machina discovers that they’ve not only put a spell on the king, but have connections to dark, necromantic forces. Together, the team sets out to return to Percy’s home of Whitestone, kill the Briarwoods, and save the kingdom.
The Briarwood Arc is the perfect choice for adaptation for the first season of the show. It has tons of drama, it gets incredibly dark, has some great action set-pieces, and starts to show that there’s some real depth to these characters. And most of this does translate pretty well. Percy is definitely the stand out character of the season thanks to this being his focus, but he doesn’t outshine any of the others, with everyone getting a big hero moment or two across the season.
This doesn’t mean that things are perfect, however. As a fan of the original stream I was surprised at some of the changes that have been made; some made absolute sense, but others I felt came across as weaker overall. The prime example of this being Scanlan (Sam Riegel). Scanlan is a little too ‘horny bard’ for my liking, and acts way more over-the-top than he did in the stream. He also has his big moment of bravery and combat genius changed slightly in the animated version, and it makes him look worse as a character because of it; turning the moment a lot of fans realised he was a lot cleverer than first appearing into a kind of silly thing.
Most of the changes the show has made do work for the better though, especially as it was adapting a story that originally took place over 58 hours into around six. Certain things had to be streamlined and trimmed, and some characters were altered to better suit a condensed story, and the majority of these choices worked well for me as an existing fan, and for the new fans I was watching with.
The Legend of Vox Machina is a show that was always going to be a hard thing to make, taking a completely different medium of storytelling and making something that still works, and appeals to all kinds of viewers. Considering these difficulties I think the team did a good job, and that the show was entertaining and well made. With a conclusion that hints at really big things to come, a second season already approved, and more than a thousand hours of stories to adapt, I think this could be the start of a pretty good thing.
The Legend of Vox Machina is streaming now on Prime Video.