“Hello everyone, and welcome to tonight’s episode of Critical Role, where a bunch of us nerdy-a– voice actors sit around and play Dungeons & Dragons.”
So announces Dungeon Master and Critical Role host Matthew Mercer at the outset of every episode of a show that’s revolutionized and re-energized fantasy role-playing games.
Back in 2012, Mercer and a group of professional voice actor friends in Hollywood began a D&D campaign that they quite enjoyed. In 2015, they started streaming their weekly four-to-six hour gaming session, first on the website Geek & Sundry, and eventually Twitch and then YouTube.
They couldn’t have known it at the time, but their engaging, laughter-filled weekly adventures would reignite a hobby that had seen cultural ebbs and flows since its birth in the 1970s and its controversial moment in the sun in the 1980s. Critical Role’s popularity has since spawned a sprawling brand that includes comic books, an animated series, other YouTube shows, an official D&D guidebook, live appearances and more.
The group’s first fantasy campaign (an ongoing narrative adventure), “Vox Machina,” spanned 115 episodes. The second campaign, “The Mighty Nein,” commenced in 2018 and is currently at 135 episodes and counting.
If you’ve ever wondered exactly what a fantasy role-playing game actually looks like in action, Critical Role quickly answers that question. Mercer narrates an ongoing fantasy tale, guiding the plot and moving it forward while giving the seven participants a chance to dialogue, make decisions, engage in combat and proceed through the storyline he’s written, episode by episode.
It’s a creative, co-operative endeavor that—while loosely scripted—creates unscripted opportunities for laughter, teamwork, problem-solving and relationship building (both in the game and among the players in real life). It’s not hard to see the appeal of both the show and role-playing in general watching even a few minutes of an episode.
Much has been written about Dungeons & Dragons over the last four decades or so, with fans pushing its creative benefits and critics sharply cautioning against worldview content that includes magic and spell-casting, occult ideas and imagery, imagined violence and an overarching fantasy milieu that exists apart from a Judeo-Christian worldview. Many of those observations and concerns apply to the mythical, magical world of Exandria that serves as the second campaign’s imaginary context.
In addition to worldview questions related to the game itself, Critical Role includes some other problematic content. This is not a show intended for young children. Profanities occasionally fly, as do occasional naughty jokes or bits of sexual innuendo. Multiple characters in the current campaign identify as either gay, bisexual and/or gender fluid. Sexual subplots aren’t a primary focus, but verbal references to relationships and trysts occasionally turn up.
Finally, for anyone new to the show who’s determined to catch up, this is the mother of all bingers. The first campaign’s running time tops 500 hours; the second is longer. Anyone who gets hooked and wants to complete either season is looking at a massive time investment relative to virtually anything else you might binge in the entertainment world.
Dungeons & Dragons ignited a firestorm of controversy in the 1980s, especially among conservative Christians with concerns about its emphasis on spells, witchcraft and occult ideas. While we’re a long ways from that cultural moment in 2021, those concerns linger and deserve careful consideration.
Thanks to shows like Stranger Things (which featured D&D) and YouTube Channels like Critical Role, the grandfather of all fantasy role-playing games is enjoying a resurgence that may well attract younger players who have no memory of that cultural conflict. And virtually anyone who gets involved with D&D today is likely to encounter Critical Role at some point, as it has become an influential “brand ambassador” for the franchise on YouTube and elsewhere.
The upshot for concerned parents is that even a few minutes watching a single episode of Critical Role will give you a good sense of what playing Dungeons & Dragons in the 21st century is like, as well as the worldview issues would-be new players will likely encounter.
Note: Plugged In’s YouTube channel reviews are not exhaustive summaries of everything viewers will find, but a representative sample of recent videos to give you a sense of the kinds of things you might expect to see.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.