The fantasy land of Exandria — a place that would eventually be the home of the adventurers of Vox Machina and The Mighty Nein — was created ages ago by the Prime Deities and the Betrayer Gods. Critical Role, the massively popular Dungeons & Dragons actual play streaming series, has a bit more mundane of an origin story, at first blush. It started when a group of friends decided to play a one-shot game of D&D to celebrate one of their birthdays. From there it evolved into a weekly show with hundreds of episodes, legions of fans, a record-setting Kickstarter campaign, upcoming animated series, and no end in sight. The World of Critical Role, a new hardcover book out today, tells the real-life story behind the series in a way that’s as impressive as anything that happened in Exandria’s fictional past.
“It very much feels like you’re looking at the map of the adventure that our adventuring party went on, our circle of friends,” Liam O’Brien, who plays the wizard Caleb Widowgast in the current campaign, tells SYFY WIRE ahead of the book’s release. “It’s really like seeing the group start in the Shire and eventually making our way to climb up Mount Doom.”
In many ways, The World of Critical Role shows how often the real story of the Critical Role cast and the story of the adventures they play in the weekly games overlapped. The book, which was written by Liz Marsham, features interviews with all seven players and Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer, giving longtime fans and newcomers alike a glimpse behind the scenes and exciting retellings of the events of the campaigns. Just as it’s a big deal for a sorcerer to go from slinging measly first-level spells to unleashing reality-changing, ninth-level arcane power, so too did the Critical Role crew level up as their game — and the company it spawned — evolved.
“The way in which we are an adventuring party with each of our own individual skills in the game ended up translating in real life, in the way that we work together as a company and we all have our individual strengths,” notes Marisha Ray, who currently plays the monk Beau and also serves as Critical Role’s creative director. “Hearing everybody’s perspectives of falling into that is very fun.”
One section of the book is full of pictures of that first game, meant to be a one-shot for O’Brien’s birthday, held in what was then Mercer and Ray’s small L.A. apartment. O’Brien took pictures of the game on a somewhat fancy camera as a joke, not knowing that years later they would serve as documentary evidence of Critical Role’s humble beginnings.
“That apartment ...” O’Brien muses. “I feel like we all remember the kill box fight with Kevdak, and we remember running after Raishan as she flew into a cave, we remember these iconic moments, but I remember that apartment very much the same way as part of the same story that evolved over the past five or six years. It’s all wrapped up together.”
“Back then too, there were no epic Dwarven Forge maps. Back then, Matt was drawing maps by hand on grid paper. We weren’t sitting at a fancy Wyrmwood table, we were sitting at a pop-up card table that we’d take camping with us,” Ray says, adding that when she looks back the way the book does, “you can see the kind of acorn, the seed of where it’s all going. Everything just grew up a little bit.”
In addition to recounting Critical Role’s early days (although not a full history — longtime Critters will probably be unsurprised to know that controversial moments like original castmember Orion Acaba’s exit are largely glossed over), The World of Critical Role offers insights into why the cast made their characters make certain decisions during iconic moments from the campaigns, and it explains how the real-life biographies of the cast influenced their character creation.
“If you’re interested in knowing why the cast members play the way they do, it’s worth looking at the things they value, and how they came to value them,” Masham, a longtime Critter who makes a tiny cameo on page 296, appearing in the back row of a picture of Critical Role’s first-ever live show, tells SYFY WIRE. “They trust each other, and us [viewers], enough to bring some deep vulnerabilities with them to the table, and that trust deserves serious consideration.”
“Our characters, especially in the first campaign, really reflect what each of us was going through while we were playing the game,” says Sam Riegel, who plays the rogue Veth (aka Nott the Brave) in the current campaign. “Becoming better friends, getting more comfortable in our own skin, becoming confident players, and relying on each other inside and outside the game. All that stuff comes through in the stories that we told together. That's why so much of what we do on the streaming show is so emotional for us. These characters are us. It's so personal.”
Riegel adds that his favorite part of the book is the section where his fellow castmembers talk about how they created their characters. “When you're playing the game you're mainly worrying about your own character. But to read about all the other details that I missed in the moment — all the energy, anxiety, and joy that my friends were going through — was an incredible glimpse into their heads,” he says. “I mean, how often do you get to read a book about your best friends?”
It’s worth noting that The World of Critical Role is, in Ray’s words, “not a complete history of Critical Role in one little book, because there’s a lot more history to be written.” The second campaign (which almost certainly won’t be the last) is still ongoing, and there’s that whole Amazon animated series on the horizon. For Masham, this was a little bit of a challenge while writing the book. During the writing process, she had to keep making last-minute edits as major plot developments like Fjord breaking his warlock pact or Nott’s transformation into Veth occurred on the stream. Then, after it went to print, she had to hope there wouldn’t be a Total Party Kill the Thursday before it came out.
“The point of this book isn’t to be an up-to-the-minute account of the show; it’s to celebrate it,” Masham says. “So even if Jester dies (oof I hope Jester doesn’t die), the book is still a celebration of how amazing she was. Is! Is.”
Despite being burdened by the linear constraints of time and a hard publishing date, The World of Critical Role is the book equivalent of rolling high on an insight check when it comes to the popular series.
And, if nothing else, as O’Brien jokes, “It is such a good primer for the uninitiated that I am looking forward to my father reading it so he can finally fully comprehend what it is we do.”
The World of Critical Role is out now.