Critical Role: Vox Machina

Arguably the most popular Actual Play out there, the Matthew Mercer DM’ed phenomenon rightly deserves the attention and awards it has received. The key players, all exceptionally talented members of the voice acting community, created dynamic and evolving characters throughout the series run from low-levels all the way to the jaw-dropping conclusion of their run at the verge (or actually reaching) of level 20.

This series is commendable for several reasons. First, for its quality as entertainment within a developing media. This is no easy feat, lots of very good Actual Plays are entertaining despite notable shortcomings, however Vox Machina managed to create a show that someone who didn’t care at all about traditional Role Playing Games could still enjoy and watch for the entire run. Indeed, many viewers were such people. Vox Machina inspired viewers to create art, short stories, and find community—even if they weren’t interested in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition or ever playing an RPG. It was exceptional entertainment. Both Player Characters (regular and guest) and Non-Player Characters handled by Matthew Mercer captured the imaginations of viewers, the full scope of human emotion was at play on the table.

Second, the healthy table dynamics, players generally modeled self-control, kept good humor, and respected on another. The players each contributed more than simply their class abilities to the play, they each encouraged one another and developed stronger interpersonal bonds with each other because of the game. Yet the table was never an eddy, one didn’t get the idea that it was an insular group of gamers. Guests could come and go and contribute to the furtherance of the narrative. They modeled good table behavior, and it wasn’t uncommon to find reference on Reddit or in their Twitch chat to the demeanor of VM helping people scarred by past experiences return to role playing or improve the behavior at their current gaming table.

Thirdly, VM provided an excellent introduction to becoming a tabletop role player. New players could see that the basic component of an RPG is not the Core Rulebook(s), but the moment of play, the fellow players, and the shared unfolding story. Role playing isn’t about knowing lore, but about being a decent human being at the gaming table and pretending to be a character for fun. It isn’t about winning, it is about growing together within a story. As an example to many, Sam Riegel’s character Scanlan Shorthalt goes from being a one dimensional sheet of paper with some stats, a name, and a few ideas, to a hero with more depth than anyone could have imagined at the start of the series. All the characters developed in a similar way, showing a novice player just what can happen with fun, time, love, and narrative.

Fourthly, as an example of exceptional DM’ing. Even if one takes a low-prep, no-mini’s approach to GM’ing, Matt Mercer’s preparation and manner are inspiring. He read his table very well, and knew how to let the players unfold the story without overbearing DM involvement while also knowing when to step in with NPC’s or exposition. This fine balance comes with experience and awareness, and a mindful GM could walk away from many episodes with a masterclass in DM’ing. Matthew’s narrative arcs were centered around characters (PC or NPC), characters drove the story and the conflict—a good lesson for any GM.

Critical Role continues, but Vox Machina has completed their heroic journey. More can certainly be said about this expansive role playing actual play, but hopefully enough has been said to send you deeper into their story.

Weekly Schedule, Vox Machina now concluded, but Critical Role continues.

2½-5 hour recording length.

High-quality production values and sound recording. Occasional table noise, occasional technical difficulties (often due to Skype). Explicit tag in iTunes, but rarely does anything seem out of place or extremely vulgar.

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Active: (2012 home game) recordings 2015–2017

Photo from and all rights reside with the original creator.