These days, web series' can be just as big of hits as their broadcast predecessors, and they also offer a lot more creative freedom. For example, you'd be hard pressed to find a network show that spans upwards of four hours, featuring some of the most beloved voice actors playing an enthralling game of Dungeons & Dragons, but that's exactly what you'll find every Thursday night on Critical Role. This show is among the most popular and innovative shows you'll find on the web, that has drawn quite a growing fan base.
Critical Role has excited many new fans about the world of Dungeons & Dragons. Each week, the show attracts hundreds of thousands of viewers, who watch it both live and recorded. Overall, Critical Role has garnered over 50 million views since its launch in March 2015. The cast includes the show's creator, Matthew Mercer, along with Travis Willingham, Marisha Ray, Taliesin Jaffe, Ashley Johnson (Blindspot), Sam Riegel, Liam O'Brien and Laura Bailey.
Additionally, the show has attracted quite a few celebrities who have joined the cast as special guests including Vin Diesel, Chris Hardwick, Felicia Day, Wil Wheaton and Phil Lamarr, to name a few. Critical Role airs live on Thursday nights on Geek & Sundry's Twitch stream where it is regularly the most popular stream of the night, and is later posted to Geek & Sundry's website & YouTube channel. The show will expand even more with Matthew Mercer's upcoming RPG books that will allow fans around the world to play these exact same campaigns from the show.
I recently had the chance to speak with Matthew Mercer and Ashley Johnson about this hit show, and more. Matthew Mercer is a beloved voice actor who has voiced Leon Kennedy in several Resident Evil video games, and Iron Man on Marvel Disk Wars: The Avengers, just to name a few roles. Ashley Johnson, a new addition to this most recent campaign on the web series, will also return as the tech-savvy Johnson on NBC's hit series Blindspot next month. Take a look at our conversation below, which includes their thoughts on Stranger Things and some details on Season 2 of Blindspot.
I got a chance to watch a few of these episodes, and it's really unique. I don't think I've seen anything else like this out there. Was that part of the draw for this show, just the fact that it was so unique?
Matthew Mercer: Kind of. I mean, we were playing privately for two years before the show even started, and I've been playing for most of my life, really, at this point, but there was never a form of media out there that was a good solid example of what a game of Dungeons & Dragons could be. When it would pop up in conversations publicly, people would go, 'Oh yeah. How does that game even work?' It was just a hard thing to describe to people, when you had to answer that question. When we were asked to possibly do this in front of cameras, it was that topic of, 'Well, do we put something we love on the Internet?' The firing squad that is the comments section of the Internet? Inversely, what kind of positive aspects can come out of one putting a good example of the game online, and possibly bring more people into the community, to realize what they've been missing, because it really is a wonderful, fun activity, for friends and strangers alike to get into.
Ashley Johnson: For me, this is the first time I played, in this campaign. I jumped in on the second game, but we had been playing before being live on the interwebs, for two years, so we had all that time to create and evolve the characters over time. A lot of it was already set in place before the streaming.
When you say you've been playing for two years, how did that whole group come together? Did it start small and just keep growing over the last couple of years?
Matthew Mercer: It originally began because I was working on a Resident Evi game with Liam O'Brien, who was directing that project. He had mentioned that he had played D&D when he was a kid, and he always wanted to try it again, but he had two kids and didn't have a lot of free time. Me, who was still very active as a gamer, was like, 'Hey man, just let me know. I'd love to run a one-time game for you with some friends.' Eventually, as like a birthday gift, he agreed to do it. He grabbed a bunch of our mutual friends, Laura, Travis, Ashley, for the second game, but we basically put them all at the table, most of them with no previous experience, and just threw them in there, to see if people would pick it up and have a fun time. And they did, and we kept playing. We're still going.
Was that always part of the draw for this, to bring in people in who had never played?
Matthew Mercer: It wasn't so much of a draw, as it was a necessity. Free time is a commodity when you're an adult, especially. When you were in high school, it was easy to play just every weekend or after school, not everyone is available all the time, so finding new folks to get involved makes it easier to play more often, so that's definitely a bonus. It wasn't so much of dragging people into it, more than it was a circumstance where we had the opportunity to possibly find new people, and if they'd like it. We weren't intending to make it a running game. It was supposed to be just a one-time, one-shot experience, but everyone enjoyed it so much, and I had such a great time putting it together, that we went, 'Well, let's just keep doing this now and again.'
Can you talk a bit about how the filming works? You just meet once a week, and do you have a set time limit or anything?
Matthew Mercer: Part of the reason we agreed to do it is we had an excuse to play more often. But yeah we just show up at the studio every Thursday at 7 PM Pacific time, or around 6 or 6:30 to set up our little spaces. We have three cameras. One on me, and one on each side of the table for the players, and then 7 o'clock we begin the stream. We play for three hours, but I don't like the idea of a stringent time constraint, because who knows how long the story might go for that evening, if that 10 o'clock time is going to be a nice time to end the narrative for a week, so sometimes we'll go longer for an extra half an hour, an hour. Sometimes there are super long boss battles and intense roleplaying sessions, it will go as long as five hours for the evening. We don't have a whole lot of an idea of where it's going to go, but the rush of both playing in this game and people watching it, they're experiencing the narrative as we are, and there's no defined end, it's just figuring it out as it happens. It's something very different and new.
Are there any ideas of how to expand on this premise at all? It's so cool to see everything unfold in real time, but is there any way to make this world even bigger?
Matthew Mercer: We've been brainstorming, mainly because we've had some opportunities, but first things first, we don't want to dilute the impact of the show or try and take away from the honesty, because that's part of what the community rallies behind. We wanted to to stick to was to make sure it's just friends playing a game, and the minute it becomes too much of a business, it's no longer fun. What's the point, really, then? We're definitely working slow, but we just announced a campaign book that I'm writing, based on the world that we're playing in, which will allow other players around the world, basically, to set their own home games in the same universe, and possibly interact with characters from our show, intertwine story lines. That's coming up in the spring of next year. We're looking at other forms of media to expand upon the story, aside from just the once a week show. Nothing we can confirm yet, per se, but we're definitely in some talks. We're looking into other forms of media to expand the brand, but make sure we do so without overshadowing, or removing the heart of what makes the show so important to us.
Can you talk about at what age you were when you discovered the game?
Ashley Johnson: For me, this is the first campaign that I played in, but it wasn't the first time I was exposed to D&D, because my older brother played. I would always just listen in on him, wherever him and his friends were playing, and I was always just very curious at the time. I sort of just remained curious about D&D until they asked me to play in this game. There's no turning back for me. I mean, I will play D&D for the rest of my life now. It's so unbelievably rewarding and so fun, and to be able to use your imagination in that amount of time, it's just incredible.
Matthew Mercer: I've been playing personally since I was 15, so, 1996-ish, you know, off and on consistently since then. I think I had a two or three year gap in the early 2000s where I was caught with a real daytime job and way too much overtime, that I just didn't have the opportunity to do it, but every time an opportunity would arise in my adult life, I'd jump at it full force, because it's just such a great way of expressing ones self, keeping the creative juices going, and its a great time to spend with your friends. Yeah, it's been a very important part of my life for the past 20 years, and I'm excited now that, not only to we get to express it on a larger level, with a larger audience, but that it's seeing this new renaissance of appreciation in the mainstream media.
I have to imagine that Stranger Things might have helped a bit too.
Matthew Mercer: Oh, tremendously. It was already having this rise in the cultural zeitgeist, but now with that show bringing in more people who had no example of what the game looked like, or how it may actually play, got to see that weaved into this incredibly-written narrative. I've watched more people than I ever expected come out of the woodwork and say, 'Hey, Dungeons and Dragons actually looks kinda fun. Tell me about it.' It's like, what the hell? This is awesome.
Did that show just bring back a ton of memories, having played for so long, watching these kids play in the 80s?
Matthew Mercer: Oh, yeah. It captured all the elements of that era of filmmaking so well, and with so much love and heart to it, that it felt like a gift to my seven-year-old self, and then all the D&D references were very well thought-out. It obviously came from people who loved the game as much as I did, and I picked up on all the subtle little references. Even the reverse world (Upside Down), straight up Shadowfell reference, even from the visual standpoint of it. There were so many parts where it was just like, 'Yes.' And the Demogorgon, which is Demon Prince. I was like 'This is perfect!'
Ashley Johnson: So good, so good.
I know you've had a few special guest stars on the show like Vin Diesel and Wil Wheaton. Is there anyone that you have coming up that you can tell us about?
Matthew Mercer: Coming up? There's nothing I can tell you yet, partially because schedules are still up in the air, and those kinds of things get moved around quickly, but we do have some fun guests coming up in the near future, and just keep track of our Twitter and social media for announcements on that stuff.
Before I let you go, I'm a huge fan of Blindspot, so is there anything you can say about Season 2?
Ashley Johnson: Oh boy. Well, we definitely have a lot of new players in the mix, and they are fantastic. I actually prefer this season to last season. I think, story wise, where they end up taking it is very risky and super fun. I think it's going to be a great season.
One of the things I was really impressed with last season is how the stakes kept getting raised in a really organic and a really thrilling way, every week. It was really impressive that that pace could be kept up. Is it still like that in Season 2, or do they take it down a notch, as far as the intensity?
Ashley Johnson: They definitely don't take it down a notch. I feel like it gets even worse, in the tension and nerves department. The stakes are so much higher than they were last season, and I don't know how they did that, but they did.
Matthew, is there anything else you have coming up that you can talk about?
Matthew Mercer: Oh, let's see. That I can talk about... I have a handful of video game announcements that are happening in the next few weeks, so I've got to be careful. I will say that they just announced the new Injustice 2 video game, with Harley Quinn and Deadshot being in there, and I had the pleasure of voicing Deadshot. So, right off the cusp of the Suicide Squad film, getting to embody the same character that Will Smith has, is just something that I can now put on my resume.
Obviously you have a built-in audience of people who have played D&D their whole lives, but what would you like to say to people who might just be hearing about this through any other means, about why they should give it a shot?
Matthew Mercer: I would say it's not only a really wonderful group play experience of all ages, its just a different and refreshing way to interact with your friends, and create in a space by using your imagination, that you don't get the opportunity to in a later age. It's a wonderful way to pick up your mood. It helps with depression, it helps forge closer friendships. I can tell you that our group that we play with on Critical Role have become the very best of friends, through this game, moreso than we ever were when we first started playing. That form of inspiration from the game can only have positive impacts on the rest of the work you do, whether it be creative pursuits or any of your side productions, whether music is your interest, writing, or we even have a lot of science-based individuals who, from their own home games, inspires them in certain ways. It's just a really great way to pass the time with friends.
Great. That's my time. Thanks so much. It was a real pleasure.
Ashley Johnson: Yay. Thanks so much!
Matthew Mercer: Thanks!
You can check out Critical Role every Thursday night at 7 PM PT on Geek & Sundry's Twitch channel for the live stream, and later on the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel.