Critical Role is about to dive into a dungeon to achieve one of the most sought-after treasures of any online show: the fabled Episode 100. The Twitched-based Dungeons & Dragons web series led by Matthew Mercer and his group of nerdy and talented voice acting friends has gained much acclaim in the two years they’ve been campaigning. Each week the group sit down for one of the most entertaining D&D sessions you’ll find on Twitch bringing you free episodes that can go from three to six hours long as they’ve battled their way through The Underdark, reunited after being divided by circumstance, saved Percy’s ancestral home and fought valiantly against dragons.
The series itself could easily be turned into novels at this point, as the adventures have taken many twists and turns, with guest appearances from Geek & Sundry mainstays and their own fair share of close calls that could have brought everything to an end. Luckily for us, we’ll be seeing the group secure the holiest of holy grails in online broadcasting circles before they move onto a new adventure this year. But before the group rolls their nat 100 on Thursday night (which you can watch on Twitch at 7pm PDT), we chat with Ashley Johnson and Liam O’Brien about their time on Critical Role and some retrospective thoughts on how far it’s come.
Liam O’Brien & Ashley Johnson
BC: Tell us a little bit about yourselves.
LIAM: Hi, my name is Liam O’Brien. I’m an actor and director knocking around primarily in the game and animation industry in Los Angeles. Geek by trade. Apparently.
ASHLEY: Hello! My name is Ashley Johnson. I’m an actor and geek by trade as well. I bounce around between Los Angeles and New York, but L.A. is my home base.
How did you end up meeting each other prior to the show?
LIAM: I knew most of the group for years before we started playing our home game together. But I didn’t know Ash ’til a handful of months before. I was brought in on the game, The Last of Us, as a voice director, and we became friends that way. Ashley actually came into the campaign in the second session. We were nerding out one day in the studio and I started to tell her about our group, the game, and how much we had all loved it. She was instantly curious, and I talked to Matt about pulling her in on the next round.
ASHLEY: That conversation changed my life. Yes, I realize how dramatic that sounds and I mean it. Prior to playing this game, I knew Travis and Laura very well. I had met everyone else but wasn’t as close as we all are now. I had always been curious about Dungeons & Dragons. Back in the day, my brother used to play it with his friends and I would try to listen under the door until they would find me and shoo me away. After that conversation with Liam, I was beyond excited. I knew the time had finally come to enter the world of D&D. Little did I know how obsessed I would become.
What was it like playing the first campaign for Liam’s birthday and having an adventure for the fun of it?
LIAM: Well, Matt and Taliesin were long time dice rollers, but the rest of us were coming in more or less blind. I had played the game a bit when I was a kid, but it had been decades. I mean, I just proposed the idea for shits and giggles. I figured it would be good for a laugh and some time with my friends. Which was true. But it wound up being a lot more than that. I’m not sure what I was expecting, because the last time I had played, I was just a goofball 14-year-old. But Matt narrated us into the beginning moments of that first game, and Laura Bailey dove right in and started speaking like a bad ass half-elf. And the rest of us just followed suit.
ASHLEY: I jumped in for the second session. I was INCREDIBLY nervous. I’m not a very social creature and honestly, I get anxiety hanging out with new groups of people. It takes me a while to open up. But I knew I needed to push myself to go. The first game I played was at Matt and Marisha’s place and I remember when we started the game, everyone was already talking in accents. I panicked. A) I can’t really do accents. B) I immediately thought I was in way over my head. As the night went on, I was hooked. I couldn’t believe I’d lived this long without playing this game. I think D & D is actually the perfect game for a shy, introvert. It forces you to open up and be silly. And that’s a powerful thing.
How did Felicia Day approach you guys about doing the show for Geek & Sundry? What were your initial thoughts before doing it?
LIAM: We all had some level of notoriety for our work, so when we played, we’d take occasional pictures or short videos and toss them on social media. Word started to get around about the “voice actor game of D&D.” Ash, you can better answer the rest here, I imagine…
ASHLEY: I had been working on a web series with Felicia and she started asking me questions about our campaign. I was just excited to talk to someone about it. I think she had had the idea to stream a D&D game for a while, but also knew it would be hard to try and keep an audience’s attention for a role-playing game that could possibly last for over four hours. I think she later contacted Matt and asked if it would be something we would be interested in.
What made you decide to switch to D&D‘s 5th Edition rather than sticking with Pathfinder?
LIAM: Matt made that call, but I think the decisions was born out of how fluid and easy to grasp 5E seemed. We’re a very large group to have in a campaign. The typical sweet spot is really three to five players. Since there were eight of us, we wanted to make things as smooth as possible for the show. And I personally love 5th Edition. I think Wizards of the Coast has been doing a phenomenal job with it.
ASHLEY: I concur! The transition was pretty smooth and was a good call on Matt’s part. Also, a little less math.
Prior to the series launching, there were already a few different podcasts and streams out doing this kind of format. (Nerd Poker, Acquisitions Incorporated) What did you do to make yours different and stand out from theirs?
LIAM: We didn’t consciously try to do anything. We pretty much just carried our story over to Geek & Sundry and turned the cameras on. Our game has definitely evolved over time, but we weren’t trying to be anything other than what we were—a group of nerdy actors playing pretend for the fun of it. It was a really special thing for us, and if we had to bend or shape it too much for the purposes of a show, we wouldn’t have been interested.
ASHLEY: When we started talking about the possibility of streaming the game, we were adamant about trying to keep it the same. For three years, we’d been having the best nights of our lives, playing the game in a living room, and we wanted to protect that. I think we’ve done a pretty good job keeping that “at home” feel. We didn’t want it to be flashy or suddenly change what we were doing so an audience would like us better. At the core of all of this is Matt’s incredible storytelling. Which is all a good D&D game needs.
What was the initial response like on Twitch? Were people super interested and fans of D&D, or was it more of a gaming audience checking it out for fun?
LIAM: Wow. That’s a tough one. I would guess the gaming audience, as Twitch wasn’t exactly the home of Dungeons & Dragons at that point. I could be mistaken, I suppose. Ultimately, word of mouth spread fairly quickly.
ASHLEY: Agreed. I think word of mouth was how the audience started to grow.
For each of you, what has been the best experience you’ve had on the show so far?
LIAM: I think my favorite part of all this is how strongly it’s bound us all together. We went from being a group of actor buddies to a full on family, all because we spun an illusion of taking down dragons and mind flayers.
ASHLEY: I would agree. The bond I have with these weirdos is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. We are family. I care so much about this game and the characters in it, because they are my friends. When they’re “dying” on the battlefield, the stress level is ridiculous for a “fantasy” game. We all care. A lot. Maybe the line is blurred a little and maybe we’re all a little crazy, but I am more than okay with that.
I speak from experience that having a campaign last this long is both challenging and nearly unheard of, simply because things usually break down at some point. How have you managed to keep it fun and entertaining for you as well as the audience, without getting sidetracked or exhausted with it yourselves?
LIAM: Oh man. It’s not hard at all. This is my favorite thing I do, creatively. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great hopping from booth to booth, pretending to be super villains and robots. But getting to spin a story of our own making every week, with the sharpest people I know… There’s nothing like it. Having no idea what comes next is the best.
ASHLEY: I think it also helps that we get to play every week. Consistency. Knowing that we have a weekly game to play opens up the possibilities of taking chances. You gain a little courage to try something strange because you get to play again next week and not have to wait a month or so in between. AND we all genuinely love each other and all that corny stuff.
What have you learned the most about your characters during this adventure?
LIAM: I feel like we learn something new every month. But for my half-elf, in particular, I think the biggest thing that’s happened for him over the course of the campaign was finding purpose. And I’ve definitely found out just how “chaotic good” he can be.
ASHLEY: If I may veer a bit, I’ve definitely learned more about myself playing this game than anything else. If something scares me, I like the challenge of “getting over myself,” if that makes sense. Also, I think it is hugely important to have a space where you can use your imagination. It adds to your life in so many positive ways.
You’re approaching Episode 100, which in some podcaster’s or broadcaster’s eyes is the holy grail of longevity. What are your thoughts making it this far with the show?
LIAM: It hardly even seems possible. Maybe because I tend to think of the in-story time that’s passed, rather than our 400 hours at the table. As far as the show’s success goes, it’s like winning some sort of interdimensional lottery. This game is a gift, and there’s not a Thursday goes by that I don’t wonder at it all.
ASHLEY: Same. We still are shocked by the response on a daily basis. We’ve fought so hard to keep it authentic and true and I believe that’s worked in our favor, in terms of longevity. We’ll probably keep going as long as the audience will have us.
What plans do you have moving forward with Critical Role as you work your way to year three?
LIAM: Oh man! I don’t like to think of the current story ending, but it’s really not that far off. I’m starting to get excited about the next campaign. The idea of rolling a new, inexperienced character, now that we know the possibilities of it all… Can’t wait.
ASHLEY: I’ll be sad to leave these characters, but to think of starting a new campaign is very exciting. I feel like I’ve learned so much and there are definitely some things I may change for the next go around.