By Ryan Biesecker
Critical Role is a wildly popular actual-play Dungeons & Dragons show on Twitch and YouTube and has been pivotal in reintroducing table-top roleplaying games (TTRPGs) to the world. They’re creating, or at least significantly contributing to, what many are calling a “Roleplaying Game Renaissance”, spurring many viewers to try to replicate the experience at home, including myself.
If you’re a fan of the show like me, it’s not hard to see why. Matthew Mercer and his close friends of big-name voice actors weave a complex, engaging narrative with memorable characters and gripping conflicts. They’ve transformed an otherwise intimidating gameset and long-established community into an approachable entertainment experience, with nearly 1000 hours of content (easily more if you go for their spinoffs).
I tried to pick up D&D once in 2018 and was open to it after finding an inexpensive starter set. I woke up on a Saturday, crunching through the 45-page rulebook that I now realize is abbreviated and felt…I got it? Kind of. After trying and failing to explain the game to a few friends, and sharing some clunky “how to” videos, I couldn’t get enough of them to commit; it was a bit of a drag, so I shelved the box and told myself, “another time”.
Sometime late in 2019, early 2020, I had heard the name “Critical Role” thrown around casually on the gaming news websites and YouTube. I ran across “Critical Role Campaign 2, Episode 1,” read the description, and fired it up over coffee and breakfast. Right away, I took away a few things. One: they hadn’t even started the game and they were having a BLAST. Two: they were good enough at this game that I could watch it and learn better how to play myself. Three: There was a whole first campaign with over 100 episodes already available to watch, with warnings of spoilers. I personally hate having my media spoiled to a fault, so I closed the first episode of Campaign 2 before they even finished their introduction, searched for Campaign 1: Episode 1, and hit “play.”
Instantly, I was engrossed. They were excited to be there, casually drinking, and the entire cast was actors, writers, and/or directors; and hey, I already knew a few of them from one of my favorite games: The Last of Us. Comparing the Campaign 2 episode to what I had in front of me, the early growing pains were clear, but most importantly, they were humbling. The technology, the miniature setup, the confusion on rules all brought the whole thing down to earth. I thought “Holy crap, if it’s this chaotic for a hit show with big name talent, then my chaos doesn’t seem so bad!” I kept watching.
The voices were immersive, the characters distinct, and the artful descriptions painted a transportive picture. There was music and art, dice and statistics, and an actual open world. As a long-time devourer of any video game that had the words “open world” in its description, I’m regularly disappointed by their bounds; but not here. That guy just turned invisible and went somewhere he clearly wasn’t supposed to! That mysterious house of mages has magical traps their sorcerer must navigate to enlist arcane support! Oh, and the job they got hired to do, with all the hints of missing workers and strange creatures? It all accumulates in a spectacular battle, where the episode ends on a cliffhanger.
The episode was over before I knew it. Then so were the first ten of Vox Machina’s journey. Then the next forty. The campaign took a glorious path through love, horror, revenge, and divine politics. Before long, I welled up as the team at Critical Role sunset Vox Machina and their epic story. Surely, they couldn’t top that. Fans of Campaign 2 will know that the Mighty Nein do just that; cue additional wows, surprises, and tears of joy and pain. Not to mention the global pandemic and lockdown; I had so many hours of free time to kill at home, and this was the place to spend it. Many viewers have watched an episode, a campaign, or every minute those voice-acting goons are on the internet (this nerd is unabashedly in that third category) and been inspired to bring some semblance of it home.
If you and your friends are interested in playing a game yourselves, all you need are a few tools to transport yourselves into an entirely different world. There you can bring your own characters and tell your own tales, an experience I would argue is unmatched in many popular media, including video games, which have made a valiant attempt at adopting the genre as their own. Yeah, I went there; get ready to experience the original interactive media!
Before anyone tries to gatekeep you from the inside, or warn you about the “Matthew Mercer Effect,” let’s make one thing clear: tabletop roleplaying-games are for anyone and everyone. You don’t need experience. Everyone must start from somewhere, right? You don’t need a fancy setup. Pen and paper will do and many of the basics are available for free or cheap online. All you truly need is a group, open minds, a bit of time, and a shared enthusiasm for some form of media, be it high fantasy, science fiction, anime, what have you.
Let’s break that down in case you’re missing any of those. The first thing you need is a group who is interested in playing. You’ll probably want at least three for your first game; two player D&D will have a very different dynamic, but don’t let that stop you. If you’re having a hard time getting people together, you can always check out your nearest comic book store, local Adventurer’s League, or many Discord servers’ “classified” channels. Chances are there are other people nearby or online looking for a group or a wandering player to fill in their last available seat.
Once you have a group together, start with finding a time you can all meet regularly and agree on a schedule up-front; the biggest challenge any group faces, yes, even Critical Role, is scheduling. Next, you’ll need to decide how much of a commitment your group is up for. Sessions can run anywhere from two hours to all day, and they can be a single event or a years-long weekly occurrence. So be sure to set expectations and try what’s right for everyone. Notably, there are two main kinds of game formats: “Campaigns” and “One Shots.” The only difference is that a One Shot is planned for a single session, and campaigns string sessions together through connected characters and stories. Think “film” vs “tv series.”
Now you’ve arranged a session or cadence, you’ll need to decide roles. Whoever is the most experienced or most enthusiastic will be your best candidate for the role of Dungeon Master (DM). Note that this role will take more work, so be sure this person is up for it. My guess is that if you’re the person doing the research to read this article, that will be you! The DM will be preparing, running, and guiding the game. Everyone else will be Player Characters (PCs), the core “party” of adventures with a goal of saving villagers from kidnapping goblins, retrieving a mysterious item for a crime-lord, or saving the very world you live in.
Where does all this material come from you might ask? There are two main categories of D&D content: pre-written modules made by publishers, and “homebrew,” made by your DM. For your first game, I’d recommend a module. This takes care of the story, non-player characters (NPCs), and dungeons for your new DM so that they can learn the ropes with a lot less up-front work. Similarly, your new PCs can use pre-made characters, reducing their up-front work as they learn the mechanics of the core game, race, and class. Keep in mind that Dungeons & Dragons, while incredibly popular, is far from the only RPG out there. Do a bit of searching at your local comic shop or your favorite place to order nerdy products online, they’re bound to have more than one. You may find that a specific IP of another game fits your group more, especially if you’re not a huge fan of the fantasy genre. Though it should be noted that D&D can be adopted for many genres, that usually requires a bit of work or the right pre-written module, which I haven’t experimented with myself.
Last, but not least, you’ll need a few tools to satisfy the mechanics of the game. The core rules of Dungeons & Dragons are available for free online, as are pre-built character sheets, as mentioned above. If you purchase a module for another system, be sure to check that it comes with the core ruleset, or that the rules are available elsewhere. You’ll also need at least one 7-piece dice set to share among the group, though having a set per person is ideal. Those can run you anywhere from $0.16 per die if you buy in bulk, to $100+ for a fancy set; just shop around until you find what you need and are comfortable spending a few bucks on. Keep in mind you can also find free online dice rollers, but if you’re like me and my friends, you’ll develop an addiction to physical dice much sooner than you expect. Also, check out some of the free digital game management options out there as well, especially if you’re playing remotely.
Now arm every player with a way to take notes, a comfy seat, and your favorite snacks. You’re ready to dive into a game that centers on a core desire so many of us crave: creative storytelling. May the dice ever be in your favor and have a freakin’ blast.