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Why Critical Role is the most popular actual play show

Critical Role is the most popular thing on Twitch. That's important because there's a huge chunk of the world's teenagers who would rather watch Twitch than broadcast or OTT television. Now, if you are no longer a teen, think about how important the stuff you loved in high school still is to you. That means that, in the long view, Critical Role is going to be a cultural staple for at least one generation.

That kind of status comes with a lot of baggage. For a significant number of people, it is the most meaningful body of media in their lives. When you are too young/immature to know any better, that can lead to some very toxic behavior. Toxic behavior breeds toxic reactions and in this cyberspace where age and gender and race are obscured by cute icons, everything-neutral usernames, and impossible to verify claims, we can never be certain if someone is just being a kid or being an asshole.

So, as toxicity around Critical Role swirls and spills onto people who have no skin in this particular game, let me lay out how CR got to be at the center of a bunch of silly storms and why it's going to continue mattering in the world at large.

In this, as in all things Critical Role, heed the ancient wisdom: "Just repeat to yourself: it's just a show. I should really just relax."

It defined a genre

CR is not the first big D&D actual play series. That honor goes to Acquisitions Incorporated, which started as a joint venture between Penny Arcade (creators of the PAX conferences) and Wizards of the Coast (owners of D&D). It can broadly be described as D&D + The Office, which is fun…if you know D&D. It is, on one level, a parody of a standard D&D game. That made it inaccessible to people who were not familiar with the game.

D&D actual plays that get any audience are almost always spin-offs or otherwise built on the back of an already successful media source. The Adventure Zone, Dimension 20, Oxventure, High Rollers, NADpod etc. all came from an existing, more mainstream thing. They are also all comedically-oriented and that's where Critical Role first breaks from the pack.

Debuting on Geek & Sundry, Critical Role is straight forward high fantasy. There's nothing parody or tongue-in-cheek about it. The players goof around, but it is not a comedy show. This lowered the bar for entry for people unfamiliar with D&D. If you don't know what D&D is, most of these other shows would make for a (much more) confusing introduction.

The players/producers are also very, very good at what they do. Critical Role regularly hits all three of D&D's "pillars" (social, combat, exploration), the PCs are played in-character by professional actors, and the production values have increased with the audience. Plus, it grew out of a home game, so the cast are all IRL friends with the chemistry that gets built by hundreds of hours at the table together (something WotC's official streams don't have).

It is a genre-defining show. It is the Star Trek of rpg actual plays.

There's a lot of it

Crucial to streaming success is a wealth of content. YouTube channel or podcast, the more episodes you have, the easier it is to attract new audience members. Second to that is regularity of release. CR built its fanbase at G&S, which was pulling in watchers via even more accessible shows, often featuring celebrities. (There was even a video where we watched in real time as Taliesin Jaffe gave Erika Ishii her first undercut.)

CR had over a hundred, 3-5 hour long videos when they struck out on their own. That's a fuck ton of content.

Beyond the streaming ecosystem, long campaigns are good D&D because they give the group time to bond and tell the story on the collective's terms. Shows like Dimension 20 have limited runs that funnel the PCs towards a pre-determined finale. (It must be pre-determined because they have to build those battle maps.) Early CR had pencil-and-paper maps so that Vox Machina could go where they liked and get into fights as best suited them. Now that they have a serious budget, Mercer can have some generic maps ready to go with a box full of monsters to facilitate the same thing with better miniatures.

Additionally, long campaigns let the fans interact with the characters better. The fan artists that have gone a long way in promoting CR can spend a week, a month on a single work and release it into the wild without worrying: "will this still be relevant?" It's harder to undertake a labor of love like that with a 10-episode season that will be replaced by something completely different two months after it concludes.

It is a best-case scenario

An expert DM who has spent years crafting his world is a unicorn in this hobby. A table of players who have complementary play styles is even rarer. That those players are all charismatic, talented, and dedicated enough to show up weak after week (even willing to leave an awards show before the category they were nominated in is announced) is damn near unimaginable.

Critical Role, beyond defining the rpg actual play, has all of the meta-components of the best game of D&D ever. It is an absolute perfect storm of elements. Elements no one knew were needed for the level of success it has achieved.

Afterword

Love it or hate it, Critical Role has been great for this hobby. It's brought in more people, which means more and cheaper resources for all. People are making income off of advice shows, supplements, and independent actual plays that have nothing to do with CR, but nonetheless owe a degree of their success to CR. It normalized the hobby far more than Stranger Things could have.

And it's only getting bigger.

It is just a show, but sometimes shows matter. Critical Role has the honor of mattering more than others in its genre (for now) and it is paving the way for other groups to make things that matter to large audiences. That may be hard to see, right now, but there was a time when Star Trek was the only sci-fi show that mattered.

If you're feeling constricted in some way by it, just press on. Do what you do. Warhammer didn't kill wargaming, Harry Potter didn't kill fantasy, Twilight didn't kill vampires, The Walking Dead didn't kill zombies, and Critical Role is not and will never be the be-all-end-all of rpg actual plays.

If Critical Role is or has been the best thing in your life, awesome. Don't beat people down with your joy. It's okay if people get something wrong about the show. They don't need to be corrected.

Have fun, y'all. Have your fun. Love each other and enjoy being there as something new enters the world. We are all here together and we always will have been.

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