The next decade of Critical Role is about paying it forward

Critical Role is one of the biggest names in tabletop role-playing games, with a dedicated community and many, many projects in the works. Between a seven-year-old actual play series, a record-breaking Kickstarter turned animated series, multiple novelizations, comics, games, a publishing wing, and a burgeoning nonprofit, the cast and crew of Critical Role have their hands in many pots.

“The notion that the original show itself was possible for more than a month or two, that was the extent of the conversations that we were having [in 2015],” cast member Liam O’Brien said in a recent interview with Polygon. We spoke to O’Brien and several other cast members about not only how far they’ve come in the last seven years, but how far they want to go in the next decade. Care seems to be the name of the game in how they continue to grow — care, and gratitude.

“Year to year, we continue to try to make assumptions of what the next year might hold for us, and it always ends up getting far wilder than we expect,” cast member and chief creative officer Matthew Mercer said. “One thing I can say for certain is that we’re still going to be playing D&D, we’ll still be doing our campaigns, still playing together. It’s all the things that come from that, how we expand carefully from where we are now.”

All the cast has a role in how Critical Role Productions develops, from Marisha Ray’s input as creative director to Travis Willingham’s leadership as CEO. Growth, thus far, has been limited only to resources. “I think as we continue to expand the production under the brilliant Marisha Ray, I don’t know why there wouldn’t be a continuous want to expand as opportunities arise, funding is present, and there are ideas that continue to haunt the outskirts of our imagination,” Mercer said.

“Any running gag that spills out of our mouth for seven seconds has the potential to be yanked up and turned into something,” O’Brien said. “Be it a T-shirt or an idea for a show. Nothing is really off-limits. It’s about picking the right projects at the right time.”

The Legend of Vox Machina, Critical Role’s animated series, is just one example of a “right project, right time” scenario. It began on Kickstarter in 2019 and soon swelled to a multi-season deal with Prime Video. Cast member Sam Riegel named the series’ creation as the achievement he’s proudest of. “We’ve made an animated series that friends and family can watch, and enjoy, without knowing anything about fantasy or role-playing,” Riegel said. “And we got to make it together, the eight of us collaborating on our own stories.”

Managing the stories at the heart of Critical Role falls primarily to Matthew Mercer and Dani Carr, lore keeper at Critical Role Productions. Together, Mercer and Carr keep tabs on the shifting landscape of Exandria, Mercer’s homebrewed world. From entire novelizations about non-player characters to spin-off card games set in the world like Uk’otoa, Exandria has grown over the years in depth and richness. According to Mercer, the only way to go is further up and further in.

“Exandria is kind of the heart of what we’ve built,” Mercer said. “There’s so many opportunities to fill in the holes that we don’t get to see in the main campaigns, to bridge campaigns. To jump ahead in the future, you know, and see how the world has advanced and developed.”

“Luckily, stories are something that are limitless, not just in the world of Exandria,” Ray said. To her, the road ahead is made exciting by the different avenues they have yet to explore. “I’ve always loved finding new and innovative ways to tell stories. Any type of content platform, digital service, software, or media outlet is just a tool to aid in whatever idea you would like to bring to fruition.”

The cast of Critical Role shows extreme reactions in the middle of a game Image: Critical Role

When asked about the mediums beyond those they’ve dabbled in, like film and video games (and even theme parks), the cast was optimistic. “If I’ve learned anything since we’ve begun this weird endeavor with Critical Role, it’s be careful what you say out loud,” Mercer said. “The power of manifestation, especially within our community, is a dangerous tool.”

Overall, the cast was fairly demure about the soon-to-be-revealed projects they have cooking (which are many, according to Willingham), but they were extremely open about the key ingredient to the success of those projects: collaboration. “We’ve been thrilled to meet and work with some extremely talented folks as the TTRPG space [has evolved],” Willingham said.

“One of the biggest pleasures of everything that’s happened around Critical Role is that we get to do so many cool things together, but we also get to do cool things with so many new people as well,” O’Brien said. “That’s a huge pleasure for all of us, especially coming at this as people who used to be like Willy Loman shuffling around, trying to get a voice-acting gig with huge stretches of unemployment, and being gig actors — to be able to work with so many kinds of artists in every medium, musicians and writers and artists and animators and anything you can think of.

“We’re really doing one thing all the time, and that’s building our universe,” he said. “And we’re just picking cool people to do cool shit with. At a certain point we need help. We’re up to our elbows creating things, and the universe has gotten so large that it’s a joy to bring in writers and artists to help.”

Forays into an expanded universe and expanded cast list have begun with the onset of Exandria Unlimited and Exandria Unlimited: Calamity. The spin-off actual play series both take place in Exandria, but are helmed by new game masters: Aabria Iyengar and Brennan Lee Mulligan.

ExU with Aabria and ExU: Calamity with Brennan are both wonderful examples of empowering somebody else to take the reins and run with it,” Mercer said. “In doing so they then make something truly special and unique to the world that I never could.”

Derek Jacobi, Jordan Peele, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Hideo Kojima, Mike Mignola, and Yoshitaka Amano are just a handful of the people Mercer and O’Brien named as dream collaborators. Over the next decade, they’ll have their eyes on the actual play space, and the indie developers and creators therein — though they acknowledged that they’re not entirely certain what shape the space will take, even a few years down the line.

“I think it’s still early days,” O’Brien said. “I know we’ve been going for a number of years here, but comparatively it’s really new. It’s obviously gotten a real toehold in the consciousness of the globe in a way that it didn’t a decade ago.”

“It still feels kind of Wild West-ish,” Mercer said. “We’ve been doing this long enough and we’ve been meticulous with our growth, to the point that we’re one of the spearheads of actual play development as mainstream media — as mainstream as you could consider it. And even we feel like we’re in that Wild West stage, so I can’t even fathom what we and other creators are going to do over the next 10 years.

“I think what’s interesting about actual play is you can only add so many bells and whistles, because the core of it is still just a very conversational, collaborative narrative. And so the challenge is how much can you advance that experience without detracting from the honesty and the very real connection that makes it unique against other forms of premade media.”

A posed photo of the cast of Critical Role Photo: Robyn Von Swank/Critical Role

In pushing toward the future of actual play, Critical Role’s creators are committed to lifting up other voices, and other systems beyond Dungeons & Dragons. “We just recently pushed into publishing with Darrington Press and that enables us to keep an eye out for great games, big and small, that are being developed by independent creators that otherwise wouldn’t have the funding to develop, or the platform to distribute — to show some of these really cool unique ideas to the world,” Mercer said. “We’re in the early stages of exploring that ourselves too. I think even just some of the stuff we have in the pipeline is exciting. And as we engage more with the indie game space, I’m continuously blown away by the quality and the uniqueness and variety of human experiences that can be represented by a stack of cards and a prompt.”

As the years progress, the cast members’ goals for the future are rooted not only in their own storytelling endeavors, but in paying forward the good will they’ve received.

“In establishing the Critical Role Foundation, we have a charitable nonprofit that continues to grow in the good it gets to do for the community that has been supporting it and helping it flourish,” Mercer said. “Ten years from now, I’m excited by the prospect of how much good we can do as the Critical Role Foundation and its partners continue to expand, and people put their energy toward trying to make this world a little better than they found it.”

“It started with us trying to role-play the world we wished we lived in. And now we get to do it a little bit in the real world, too,” O’Brien added.

“The important tenets for us are fostering a welcoming community, and fostering a mindset and philosophy of helping others,” Mercer said. “And continuing to foster the friendship that started this whole thing. Nothing’s scarier than going into business with your friends. And there’s nothing more exciting than going into a successful business with friends you can trust and care for. Ten more years of that, I think baseline, I’d be happy.”

The cast and creators’ process of thinking about the future has changed since 2015, but the core of Critical Role, the magical, beating heart of it, remains the same.

“The thing that I’m proudest of is that we somehow managed to create a story and characters with my best friends,” O’Brien said. “Stories that resonated with me and my friends, but also resonated with people around the world and look like they will for years to come.”

“It’s one thing to have a successful business media empire,” Mercer added. “It’s another to have created that and continued to expand it with people that you care about most. And you’re all just excited that you get to do this together, and that it continues to grow in a wonderful way. That sort of thing doesn’t happen, and we’re all very aware of it. So we protect it very carefully. We walk in lock-step, and never let ourselves forget to be grateful for the fact that we get to do this, and try to pay it forward at every opportunity.”

Wherever, and whenever, that takes them, be it to new lands or deep into hitherto unexplored futures.

“I look forward to our future cyberpunk setting where Keyleth is president,” O’Brien said at one point. “Still looks the same. In a sheltered garden, in a bubble.”

“In a big, shoulder-pad power suit?” Mercer asked.

“Definitely shoulder pads,” O’Brien agreed, grinning.