In recent years, the world’s most famous tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons has seen an unprecedented surge in popularity, thanks in no small part to the success of live-play shows, like “Critical Role.” For those who are not immersed in the tabletop roleplaying subculture, a live-play series is simply a group participating in a roleplaying game such as Dungeons and Dragons for an audience. Liveplay series can be prerecorded or live and can be any format from a live-stream to a podcast.
“Critical Role” is by far the most popular Dungeons and Dragons liveplay series that started out as a group of veteran voice actors deciding to live stream their games. The show became more and more popular, eventually becoming the highest earning channel on Twitch. The show also has a devoted and passionate fan base who played a pivotal role in the development of an animated adaptation of the “Critical Role’s” first campaign which would become known as “The Legend of Vox Machina.”
On March 4 2019, “Critical Role” launched a Kickstarter for an animated version of their first campaign. It reached its target goal within 45 minutes and in total raised over 11 million dollars for the animated series. As is evident by the groundbreaking amount of money raised, fan support for this project was clearly fervent, and as such, fans reasonably had high expectations for the show that eventually released on Amazon Prime on Jan. 28. While the show is ultimately successful in adapting the game into an animated series, it loses a lot of what made the live-play series so special, primarily due to the limited run time and realistic limitations of animation.
At the time of writing, the first three episodes of “The Legend of Vox Machina” have been released. The show follows the events and characters from “Critical Role’s” first campaign. The show follows the escapades of the adventurer group known as Vox Machina. The main cast members of “Critical Role,” Laura Bailey, Talison Jaffe, Ashley Johnson, Liam O’Brien, Marisha Ray, Sam Riegal and Travis Willingham all voice the characters that they played in the liveplay series. The characters include the ranger Vex, the fighter Percy, the cleric Pike, the rogue Vax, the druid Keyleth, the bard Scanlan and the barbarian Grog. To the show’s credit, the voice actors all do an amazing job of making each character feel unique and interesting. A large ensemble can sometimes leave certain characters feeling underdeveloped or with overlapping personality traits. But everyone in the adventuring party is different and unique, each with their own personal problems and quirks.
The first two episodes revolve around the titular adventuring party going from down-on-their-luck mercenaries to champions of the kingdom of Tal’Dorei. These episodes feature well-animated fight scenes ranging from bar brawls to an absolutely epic showdown with a dragon. But although the voice cast and animation are really good, the show’s greatest flaw is trying to squeeze too much of everything into these first few episodes. Too many character arcs and dangling plot threads leave the main storyline feeling rushed. While the party’s exploits within the first two episodes are suitably heroic, their rapid ascension feels unearned.
The main reason for the show’s poor pacing lies in its origins as a live-play series. Episodes of “Critical Role” can run anywhere between three to five hours in length. The incredibly long runtimes allow the players to really interact and roleplay with each other, while also providing ample time for plot and character development. In contrast, “The Legend of Vox Machina” episodes are limited to a 30 minute runtime. This means that the showrunners have to streamline the original story in order to adapt it into an animated series that runs under 30 minutes. As a result, the first two episodes lose a lot of what made the live play shows great. The character seems less developed and the plot is rushed and unfocused.
The third episode, however, demonstrates the show still has a lot of potential. In the first two episodes, every main character gets a moment or a one liner, but no one really gets to stand out. The third episode is more plot focused, introducing the villainous Briarwood family, who are an integral part of Percy’s tragic past. The episode is noticeably darker than the first two, and Percy gets a lot of character development. His obsession with the Briarwoods drives a wedge between himself and his party. While the other Vox Machina members still have their moments, shifting to focus on one character does wonders for the overall storyline.
Despite the amazing voice cast and animation, “The Legend of Vox Machina” is ultimately weighed down by an unfocused plot and rushed storyline. The first two episodes are best viewed as pure fanservice and set-up for the rest of the series. But the third is proof that the show can be great with a more character-driven narrative. That being said, the series doesn’t have anything that really makes it stand out besides its unique origins. At the end of the day, the show was funded primarily by the fans of “Critical Role,” and therefore a lot of the show is meant to please fans. This also means that non-fans of the live-play series won’t find much in the show beyond a more or less generic animated fantasy series. However, even fans might feel a bit disappointed by the final product because it loses so much of the roleplaying and character interactions that made the original live-play show so endearing. While they managed to fit a lot into these first three episodes, “The Legend of Vox Machina” ironically lost a lot of what made “Critical Role” legendary.