The history of Critical Role, the popular role-playing group, is documented in a new book coming out this fall, and CR has exclusively shared an excerpt with Variety.
“The World of Critical Role: The History Behind the Epic Fantasy” delves into the formation the collective, which has been streaming Dungeons & Dragons-inspired episodes since 2015, and their journey since then. CR is producing fan-funded original animated series “The Legend of Vox Machina,” based on their first campaign; Amazon Prime Video ordered a total of 24 episodes across two seasons after the project broke Kickstarter records.
The book is written by Liz Marsham and the cast of Critical Role, with illustrations by Oliver Barrett and photography by Ray Kachatorian. It features over 100 new illustrations of the heroes, villains, and epic battles of Critical Role’s campaigns.
“The World of Critical Role: The History Behind the Epic Fantasy” is being published by Penguin Random House and scheduled to be released Oct. 20, 2020.
Read the book’s full introduction:
“Don’t Kill My Sister. What Is Going On?!?”
A group of friends is gathered around a table, littered with papers and minis and dice and beer bottles and the remains of a veggie tray. They talk wildly, voices overlapping and rising as they start to panic, because:
A group of adventurers is in a tower, and the tower is falling.
The friends and the adventurers are the same, and yet they are worlds apart. This is the wonder of the game.
Laura Bailey is a voice actor. She is also Vex, a half-elven archery expert with a pet bear named Trinket. She is at the table, clutching at her hair and staring at the papers in front of her for inspiration. She is also in the tower, riding a too-slow platform toward the ground as the stones around her begin to shake. Four of her party members have already escaped using magic. All the others, including her twin brother Vax, could possibly rappel out of a window. But Trinket can’t hold a rope, Vex will not leave her bear, and the others will not leave her.
At the far end of the table, Matthew Mercer begins to speak, cutting through the crosstalk. “Percy, Vex, Vax, Grog are all on the slow elevator. You still have probably another 300 feet to the ground, when the tower lurches—” He makes a convincing stony impact sound, “KRRRRSH,” and jerks his body to the side, somehow embodying both the tower and the shaken people inside it in one motion. Because this is also the wonder of the game: everyone at the table is a person in another world, except for Matt. Matt is the other world. He is everyone they meet and every place they go. Matt is the Dungeon Master, and right now, he is the tower, and the tower is falling.
The platform breaks and goes into free fall. Liam O’Brien has an idea, and so his character, Vax, also has an idea. Vax tied a rope above, as the tower began to fall. He is holding the free end in his hand, and some of them can try to grab it. “Hold this rope with me!” Liam shouts to the table, Vax shouts to his friends in the tower.
Matt claps his hands together: to business. “All of you make a dexterity check,” he commands. This is the way the world works. The people at the table declare what they want their other selves in the tower to do. But wanting doesn’t make it so, not in any world. So they roll dice. Depending on their rolls, Matt, the voice of the world, decides what happens.
Vax is already holding the rope, so Liam doesn’t have to roll. Travis Willingham, who is also Grog, rolls well. Taliesin Jaffe, who is also Percy, rolls badly. So does Laura. Laura also rolls poorly for Trinket, who, being a bear, has a slim chance of success regardless of the result. Grog grabs the rope. Vex and Percy and Trinket fall. They’re out of ideas, and Liam knows it.
“DON’T KILL MY SISTER, WHAT IS GOING ON?!?” Liam calls out to Matt, but he calls out with Vax’s voice. He knows the rules of the game he is playing, though, and neither Liam nor Vax expects an answer. He is holding a rope, clinging for his life as he watches Vex and Percy and Trinket drop below him. He is holding a phone, recording everything, because he already knows that what is happening here is special, is something he never wants to forget. Back and forth, from the table to the tower and back again, faster than the space between his words. His voice is full of terror. His voice is full of joy. This is the wonder of the game.
Matt speaks again, weaving the world, describing the fall. “You can see there’s broken portions of stone, the rug that was on the platform is spinning and plummeting on its own . . . What do you guys want to do?”
Taliesin begins to pitch Matt an idea, involving firing his gun. In the meantime, Laura turns to Sam Riegel, sitting next to her. Sam is Scanlan, a bard who has already escaped the tower. Vex can’t talk to Scanlan, but Laura can talk to Sam. “I want to grab the . . . the rug, or something?” she says, the question plain in her voice. Will that help? Why would that help? She and Sam begin to brainstorm, but they’re distracted as Taliesin enacts his plan . . . and rolls badly. Percy’s gun misfires.
“You are plummeting into probably another 120 feet of free fall,” Matt says. “It’s just you guys, the broken platform, and the rug.”
(Listen closely, and you’ll hear it: this time he leans on the word rug. Just a bit. He is very good at his job.)
Everyone freaks out, shouting over each other. “What do I do?” Laura wails amid the tumult. “Take the rug? How can I use the rug?”
“Turn it into a parachute or something!” Travis volleys back.
Laura throws her arms over her head, miming as she turns to Matt. “I grab the rug and I turn it into a parachute.”
(Watch closely, and you’ll see it: Matt’s body language changes in an instant. He stills, draws inward, gathering himself. He has been waiting for this.)
Matt tells Laura to make a check. An unexpected one: he wants her to roll to see if she can use a magical item.
Sam understands immediately. “It’s magic?” he asks, his eyebrows shooting up. “The rug is magic?” He begins to grin, the tension draining out of his face as Travis gets it, too, and they shout together: “IT’S A MAGIC CARPET!”
Laura makes the roll, Vex snatches the rug in midair, and Matt becomes the world again: “As you grab the rug and begin to pull on it, just willing yourself to slow,” he says, raising his arms above his head to match Laura, “the rug all of a sudden . . .” He pauses and makes a complicated tumbling movement with his arms, becoming both Vex and the rug. “. . . sweeps underneath you to catch you,” he finishes.
The room erupts in applause and cheers.
“Trinket and Percy go plummeting past you,” Matt says to Laura.
“Go get ’em! Go get ’em!” screams Travis, even as Laura yells “I fly down! I fly down!” Everyone is still freaking out and shouting over each other, but the feeling is different now: joyous, united, expectant.
Matt finishes the tale, bouncing on his toes and waving his arms: he is Vex, piloting the carpet to catch her friends. He is Trinket, falling onto the carpet with a heavy thud. He is both of them and Percy, and the carpet, too, tumbling to a halt at the bottom of the tower, bruised but alive, gasping in relief. He is very good at his job.
The friends at the table hoot and laugh and clap, celebrating their victory, the story, each other, Matt, the world.
This is the wonder of the game: the fun of building an adventure together, the challenge of role-playing, the tension of each dice roll, the satisfaction of discovery and puzzle-solving and beating the odds.
This is the wonder of this game: these friends, devoted to each other. These talented actors, embodying and embracing their characters so completely. This gifted storyteller, creating a world to play in that is strange and wide and deep, with the seeds already planted to make the people in the tower pivotal, able to damn the realm or save it, depending on what they choose and how the dice fall.
The game is great. This game is special.
And here is one final wonder: we get to watch.
Welcome to Critical Role.