Critical Role is an online Dungeons & Dragons phenomenon. Season one, which finished late last year ran for 115 episodes, it spanned two-plus years and garnered an online following more dedicated, more ferocious, and more passionate than you could possibly imagine.
Now the second season is well and truly underway, and even more people have been tuning in than ever before.
At its heart lies the simple, familiar premise of a few good friends sitting around a table, playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Yet somehow this has morphed into something wholly new and unrecognizable. Critical Role is nothing short of a tabletop movement in and of itself; one of the first online games to spawn its own chat show (Talks Machina), and to have its world immortalized in a beautiful campaign guide.
With episode five of Critical Role’s second season fast approaching, GeekDad caught up with the campaign’s architect and Dungeon Master Supreme, Matthew Mercer, to ask some questions about his plans for this season, and how it feels to play live before over 100,000 people.
GeekDad: How does the fact that you’re playing for an audience affect the focus of your worldbuilding? Did you ever image that over 100,000 people would watch a live D&D game?
Matthew: It has certainly changed how detailed and interwoven I attempt to make it! It’s one thing to be developing a world and story for a handful of friends who aren’t sweating the details, and another to have thousands and thousands of people delving into your lore and world with a fine-toothed comb. I’m liable to miss things or mess up as often as anyone, but I’ve definitely put more effort into general cohesion.
On that note, I would NEVER in a MILLION YEARS have thought an audience anywhere near this size would be invested in our little game! I remember when we first began streaming and hit around 500 viewers. We were blown away THEN, completely unable to comprehend so many people would be interested in watching us play. That sensation has only grown exponentially.
GD: Knowing the size of the audience would you have done anything differently in the first campaign?
Matthew: I’m not sure… I’m still primarily making the world for the players, so as long as they’re happy, I’m happy. I don’t think I would if I could. I kind of appreciate the chaos and messiness of the whole experience, so even the missteps are part of the charm to me. All of the things I may not have been able to do in the first campaign, I can now explore those themes in the new one!
GD: How do you feel the recent board game and tabletop renaissance has affected Critical Role?
Mathew: It’s not only given us a wonderful community surrounding our game, but it’s given us a platform to help elevate and inspire others to create their own stories and adventures! Growing up with Table Top Roleplaying Games being a difficult thing to not just describe, but get others interested in, was a very difficult thing! Now there’s a rapidly growing appreciation and enthusiasm for TTRPGs that I only wish we had when I was a teenager. Its enabled us as players and performers to feel like we can do a little good in this world through storytelling. Help others through darker times, give them something to look forward to week-to-week. The tales of similar stories are more numerous than you would believe.
GD: How does the integration with technology, (dnd beyond, twitch etc) affect the way the game is played?
Matthew: Personally, I try to prevent too much “fiddling” with what makes D&D so special… just using dice and your noggin. Twitch was a platform that allowed us to continue playing our home game without having to alter the format we enjoyed at home. Just set up a few cameras and mics, and continue as we always have been. DnD Beyond has allowed a smoother means of keeping rules, details, and character abilities at your fingertips, so it’s really enhanced elements of the Pen & Paper experience. At the core, though, we’re still just a bunch of doofs playing makeup.
GD: How do you manage to keep your campaign coherent? When worldbuilding, how do you avoid spending hours preparing material that won’t ever get used, and still avoid railroading your players?
Matthew: That is the eternal challenge! One that even I muck up from time to time. For me, it’s a balance between very specific, detailed preparation for immediate narrative moments, and loosely beated-out preparation for looming threads/characters that could wander in based on the player actions. Things that end up being unused? Well, that just means I can hold on to them/alter them for later!
GD: Is the new campaign intricately mapped out to its final conclusion, or do you work on a week-by-week basis, knowing the setting and its inhabitants and just seeing where the players take the story?
Matthew: Both? I don’t have a concrete Big Bad or detailed finale in mind, but I have some loose ideas of where I’d like it to eventually go depending on their choices. Possible story arcs and threads down the road that I can tease in the current story as they progress. I tend to focus on detailing the elements that are closer on the horizon, doing the more immediate fleshing-out with a thought for where it could go. I feel there should be events that call to the adventuring party, but ultimately it is their choice on which call they choose to follow, and that will guide my story to its ends.
GD: What legendary D&D monsters did you not get to incorporate in the last campaign that you would like to see or include in campaign 2?
Matthew: Oh man… I don’t want to spoil anything! There are SO many creatures, and while I tried to incorporate some of the classics for our players for whom the last campaign was their first, there are many I’ve been holding on to for this next campaign. If I’m feeling twitchy, who knows… maybe the Tarrasque may make an appearance? Hehehehe.
A massive thank you to Matthew Mercer for taking the time to answer my questions, and to the whole cast and crew of Critical Role for working so tirelessly to bring us such a fun and exciting show.
Let’s just hope the DM holds off a while on that Tarrasque though, or season three might come a little sooner than we hope. GeekDad also caught up with fellow cast member Liam O’Brien earlier in the week, you can read that interview here. In the meantime, don’t forget you can catch Matthew, Liam and the rest of the Critical Role crew every Thursday night at 7:00 PM PT on the Geek & Sundry Twitch channel and on Alpha.