When Critical Role began streaming on Geek & Sundry’s Twitch channel, few could have foreseen the phenomenon the tabletop game show would become. It was a simple premise: The show featured voice actors and friends continuing their home Pathfinder game as a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, streamed live every Thursday. But soon enough, the show earned dedicated fans who call themselves "Critters," and inspired people around the world to try the tabletop role-playing game.
Now, years later, the Critical Role group have expanded to their own studio, official YouTube and Twitch channels, online shop, and original shows, the first of which launches Wednesday. You can watch it first exclusively here on SYFY WIRE.
This new show from the Critical Role team is called Handbooker Helper. Each episode is a short — five-minute or less — explanation of a section of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook with helpful graphics created by Wendy Green. The first episode, which you can watch below, explains the different types of dice you use during the game and ability scores. According to Critical Role cast member and creative director Marisha Ray (Persona 4, Metal Gear: Survive), future topics will cover where to input information on a character sheet, when to roll with advantage, and how to quickly build a character.
New episodes of Handbooker Helper will be released every Wednesday, with each episode building on the last and featuring a member of the Critical Role crew and cast, including DM Matthew Mercer (Overwatch, Hearthstone) and players Laura Bailey (World of Warcraft, Full Metal Alchemist), Liam O’Brien (Shadow of Mordor, Star Wars Rebels), Taliesin Jaffe (Street Fighter, One Piece), Sam Riegel (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Amazing Spiderman), Ashley Johnson (The Last of Us, Teen Titans), Travis Willingham (Avengers Assemble, Batman: The Telltale Series), and Ray. In the future, it’s possible others from the tabletop RPG community may appear as well.
Ray told SYFY WIRE they wanted to start with a show like this so Critical Role and the game can become more accessible to everyone. She believes that not everyone learns through reading; some learn through listening and with visual aids, so this format can help those who might be overwhelmed when they see a Player’s Handbook.
When developing this instructional form, Ray actually used her mother as a litmus test, because she enjoys watching the show but asked her if there was something quick she could watch to understand the terms and follow along more. When Ray looked, she only found a 20-minute video breaking down everything, which was well-done but long.
“I wanted to start with videos where if you’re someone who doesn’t want to play and just wants to know what we’re talking about, like the difference between a natural one or a natural 20, you can watch this five-minute video and be like ‘Got it. Cool. Back into the show,’” she explains. “I’ve been really talking to the community and talking to friends of mine who haven’t played and asking what would help them and what would get them more excited to jump into the game. We kind of came to like this little classroom segment complete with cute picture doodles.”
There’s so much to cover that Ray sees the team rolling out episodes of the show for quite a while. As they do, they will cover more advanced areas and topics will progress in difficulty. Ultimately, as you watch weekly you’ll learn everything you need to play D&D.
“We have people who discovered Dungeons & Dragons through our shows or through other tabletop RPG streaming shows, and one of the things we get asked about a lot is ‘This looks amazing, and I love watching you guys, but I am so intimidated by the rules and the learning curve and the Player’s Handbook; it all looks like so much I’m afraid to do it,'" Ray says. "A rulebook or a little bit of a learning curve shouldn’t stop anybody from experiencing how incredible and enriching this game can be to your life."
The idea to start with such a show and try to lower the barrier of entry resulted from looking at Critical Role as a brand. Ray said it’s like a Venn diagram where Critical Role is a mix of D&D and other tabletop RPGs, all of which act as important media for delivering what the players want as a story.
“I think that is so important, to deliver that to people outside of just Critical Role. We really want to tell people, ‘Hey, you can do this too, and it’s not that hard to jump into the seat, and it’s not that scary, and you might be completely liberated with what you discover playing this game,’” she says. “The other side of the spectrum of Critical Role and the show is that storytelling aspect, and not just the stories we get to tell as characters within the world, but the stories that we are as people and the stories we hear from this community that are so incredible.”
Ray has found the tabletop RPG community to be one of the most welcoming and kindest fandoms she’s been a part of. She’s always hearing about members of the community supporting and helping each other.
“That kind of seems to be the crossover with what we are, and we really believe in this mission to spread storytelling and the ability to tell your own stories to the rest of the world and the rest of the community,” she says.
Critical Role will be able to carry out that mission even better now that it’s separated into its own space.
The most exciting part of developing both the game and the new show has been the freedom for Ray. The small team doesn’t have to wait for the approval of a parent company to do things anymore. Instead, they can act quickly on ideas. The idea to take this next step with Critical Role toward becoming more of its own brand was brought up in conversation about a year and a half ago as they considered whether this would be something they’d ever be interested in.
“Me working as the creative director for Geek & Sundry at that time, I was like, ‘Man, you guys starting your own stage and branching off, that’s a huge undertaking. Are we ready for this?’ We tossed it around, and I think just with time and the excitement and the ideas that we had, when it came time to renegotiate our contracts we were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this. Let’s take this jump, because why not?’ Which is my favorite reason for doing things,” Ray says.
Now on their own channels, there’s much more to come from the team. They are aiming to do a monthly hour-long State of the Role so they can talk to the community and keep fans updated in addition to paying attention to what people say in comment threads and on social media. New shows will include All Work No Play, the continuation of the fun and rare podcast by Riegel and O’Brien that Ray says is “kind of a little bit responsible for the start of Critical Role.”
“I really want to take that as an opportunity to tell some of these stories as people outside of the world of Exandria and to see how much we can connect with this great community,” she says.
Another series is Between the Sheets with Brian W. Foster, current host of Critical Role talk show Talks Machina.
“It’s more of a one-on-one in-depth interview show where we can kind of talk about some of these backstories of us as people and some of the amazing people working in this community to make it happen,” Ray says. “It’s a lot of community-centered stuff in the beginning, and I’m just hoping it all feeds back to this one message that everyone should play D&D.”
Wading through the uncharted waters of this new venture has been equally exciting and challenging. When the show started, the team was sure it was going to fail, given the fast pace of internet culture and the fact that their games took up to four hours each week. Instead, they gained thousands of viewers with every episode and now have grown to a place where they can expand. Each day they’re learning something new, learning from mistakes, and learning where they want to go. They know it’s risky, but that’s what’s exciting about it.
“[It] really gives us the opportunity to further our message that people can connect and play through storytelling and how powerful these stories can be,” Ray says. “We want to do that more and more with the stories each of us want to tell as individuals, as well as helping people with the ability to tell their own stories.”