Op-Ed: The Magic of Storytelling- How Tabletop RPGs and Critical Role Inspire a New Generation of Storytellers
*Please note: this article is spoiler-free with regards to campaigns 1 and 2 of Critical Role.
For those who don’t know, what are tabletop RPGs? It is a form of role-playing game (RPG) where folks sit around verbally describing their characters’ actions, and play out a story or adventure. Dungeons & Dragons is a particularly popular one of those. So, then what specifically is Dungeons & Dragons? Well, D&D (or Dungeons and Dragons) is basically a table-top RPG that usually involves a handful of people going off on adventures with characters that they’ve made. There are lots of versions of the game, and there is no set way of playing it out, so D&D easily lends itself to players to come up with anything their minds can think of.
Then another question becomes (for those who don’t know), what is Critical Role? Critical Role is an online live-stream show that airs on Thursdays, often streamed on Twitch and YouTube, that features a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors (and best friends) who sit around playing Dungeons & Dragons. The show is helmed by dungeon master Matt Mercer and players Laura Bailey, Travis Willingham, Liam O’Brien, Sam Riegel, Taliesin Jaffe, Marisha Ray, and Ashley Johnson. All of these folks are well-respected and well-loved voice actors in their own rights, and they are all wonderful storytellers in the capacity of their roles on Critical Role. Perhaps you have heard of Critical Role already. They are, arguably, one of the most popular D&D groups that has gained internet fame and traction over the past few years.
Clearly, there is no denying the impact Critical Role has had on its fanbase and audiences. In just a matter of hours after the show launched its Kickstarter, hoping to raise funds to create an animated special The Legend of Vox Machina based on their first campaign, the show had fully met its initial goal of $750,000 and then leaped bounds past it. According to Variety, the campaign has broken Kickstarter records as it raised $5.79 million within four days since its initial launch. The creative power behind this project is impressive, with Titmouse (Big Mouth, The Venture Bros., Metalocalypse, Niko and the Sword of Light, Star Wars: Galaxy of Adventures) set to animate the special, and Jennifer Muro (Star Wars: Forces of Destiny, Spider-Man, Justice League: Action) to helm the writing team. Of course, the cast of incredible voice actors will be reprising the roles of their characters, while also featuring some celebrity cameos. The Kickstarter has less than two weeks left to go, and it has since blown past the $750,000 goal. Now as of April 7, 2019, it’s sitting astonishingly at over $9 million (and steadily growing), with over 67,000 backers. It is impossible to deny the effect this show has had on its fanbase and community. You can find that Kickstarter right here.
D&D in general has found a new place with a new generation. While D&D has been around for years with a very solid fan base, I would argue that, thanks to exposure from pop culture and shows like Critical Role and Stranger Things, D&D has ignited new interest in today’s day and age. Not only that, but there are organizations out there specifically geared towards helping a new generation with creative writing and storytelling, like 826LA. As a person with a creative writing degree, I wish I knew about this sooner so I could have gotten involved earlier.
To offer a personal vignette, like many others, I was inspired to start playing my first D&D campaign after a few months of watching the first campaign of Critical Role. I was a little late to the Critical Role fandom, beginning campaign one just as it ended, but there is no denying the magic that this cast brought and continues to bring. However, I followed (and am still following) the story of Vox Machina as well as diving into the adventures of the Mighty Nein. From an objective point, the stories are engaging and the characters are enthralling. But personally, both Critical Role and D&D have helped me through some tough times by giving me just a small escape from reality. Not only that, but Critical Role doesn’t sugarcoat things. The show is honest in its storytelling and characters, and there are consequences to actions and decisions; and because we, as audience members, follow along, we are equally invested in seeing just what will happen. It’s not just the story that audiences are drawn to; it’s the charismatic group of individuals (who all genuinely seem like good people) sitting on the other side of our screens. The cast members of Critical Role are vivid storytellers, many of them utilizing their voice acting skills and giving their characters voices and accents that really set them apart and bring them to life. This is the beauty of the show: the engaging stories, the awesome AF people, but most importantly, the possibility that you, the audience member, can do this too.
From my own experience, Critical Role has inspired me to create my own story with my group, and it has inspired (and continues to do so) so many other fans and creators to tell their own stories, or even retell and expand their take on Critical Role through amazing fan art, animatics, and comic books. Each story and each iteration shared inspires someone else out there to create, and that chain continues on and on.
That’s really the magic of storytelling, creating the connection that audiences get to have with the characters and the adventure. We’re exposed to very common forms of storytelling: books, films, and television shows, all of which have touched many people. But there are so many other ways that people can create and share their own world, and their experiences. With tabletop RPGs, game masters get to weave together a story with their players, while players get to be the heroes (or villains) of their adventures. Critical Role and several other D&D shows allow the audiences to be a part of their harrowing adventures. Though we are not actively playing a part in slaying monsters and saving folks, we are still members of their party as we cheer them on through their successes and grieve with them through their losses. We, as audience members, become just as invested in the players and the characters because of the connection built over these stories. Then we, as our own players and dungeon masters, get to engage in our own fantasy escape where we get to take the stories to new heights. What mainstream culture sometimes lack, tabletop RPGs and shows like Critical Role give so much to the audience: we can be the heroes, and we can highlight the honesty of both the good and bad aspects of life that truly makes things interesting.
Not only that, most tabletop RPGs require little to get started: a group of friends, the game guidebook, maybe some dice, and unlimited imagination. The most important key is to put your own flair and personal touch on it while having a good time. It’s a generally accessible way to create your own adventures, to tell the stories that we want to see that might not exist yet, and to share those experiences with the people around us. You can play in-person or online with sites like Roll20. Sometimes these stories allow us to be the heroes, and sometimes these stories are our means of escape for just a brief moment. Whatever it is, the flexibility of D&D’s storytelling aspects give all storytellers a chance to dive right in. Both Critical Role and D&D allow people to be seen, to celebrate in our differences and uniqueness, and to put reflections of ourselves at the forefront.
Whether we choose to be a storyteller or an active audience member, that is the very magic of storytelling: human connection and unlimited imagination. As tabletop RPGs grow more popular, more people are finding their creative voice. People just want to be seen and to be heard, to partake in a creative way and forge their own fantastical path. It gives people the agency to create their stories like no one has seen before.