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The 'Critical Role' Of Dungeons & Dragons During The Pandemic

The cast of "Critical Role." (Anna Azarov)
The cast of "Critical Role." (Anna Azarov)

In a land ravaged by political turmoil and plague, where people stay inside their homes for safety, a lot of fans are giving new life to an old game: Dungeons & Dragons. 

Whether you roll dice over Zoom, listen to tales of battle on your favorite podcasts, or delve into the literature and lore, D&D has held together friends and family during this pandemic. 

Critical Role” — which began with a group of friends on a one-off game and eventually evolved into a podcast — has now exploded into a digital media brand, with its cast of voice actors taking fans on wild adventures. “Critical Role” is now in its second season, and it has garnered more than 288 million viewson YouTube. 

But two members of the “Critical Role” team, Marisha Ray and Matthew Mercer — who also happen to be married — say they didn’t expect the show to become such a success.

D&D is a tabletop role-playing game, where anyone can become a goblin wizard or brave half-elf with some dice, imagination and a group of adventuring friends. And of course, the main storyteller of the game, who guides the heartbreak and bravery of the campaigns, is the dungeon master. Even though Ray and Mercer enjoyed playing the game, they weren’t sure people would be interested in watching people talk around a table as they played for four or five hours.

Now, in the pandemic, many have turned to the game to stave off loneliness and depression — and “Critical Role” skyrocketed in popularity as a result. 

Ray, who is creative director of the show and plays the human monk Beau, says D&D “has been everything” to her during the isolation brought on by the pandemic. 

“When we can get into a room together and take four to five hours to just escape, we get to be the heroes with full agency and control and action,” she says. “And that’s something that people don’t have right now in their real lives.”

Dungeons & Dragons is all in your head: It’s up to your imagination, basically. Mercer, who serves as their game’s fearless dungeon master, says that’s why trying to explain D&D to someone who has never played before can get tricky. 

“It was easier to just kind of show it and to put it online and have it be something that people could point to, and so many other wonderful people have done the same thing and have their shows,” he says. “There’s so many great examples out there to show somebody kind of how the game can work.”

Even some of the “Critical Role” players had never participated in D&D before, Mercer says. After that first game, they were hooked. 

“They just kind of dove in on a lark to see if it was going to be silly, expected it to be a one-off thing,” he says, “and then when we found that little glimmer of joy in their eyes when they had their first experience, it hasn’t stopped since.” 

The growing resurgence in tabletop games like D&D speaks to how “noisy and disconnected” our daily lives have become, Ray says.

“The irony of social media is that you’re often not getting that face-to-face interaction that we as human beings crave, and you really can’t top or beat everybody sitting around a table telling stories,” she says. “And for me, so much of that hearkens all the way back to when we were all cavemen or back in ancient Greece when these stories were all oratory.”

The special thing about D&D, she says, is you get to be the hero in your own made-up stories. 

“You’re telling them together with you as the hero, as the focal point,” she says. “Instead of hearing the story about Homer or Odysseus or Hercules, you are Odysseus in these stories.”

Mercer agrees that what sets D&D apart from other forms of media is that the game is what you make of it.

“What role-playing games really are is it’s a tool set and permission for anybody to create their own stories, and there aren’t a lot of forms of media out there that are that invitation,” he says. “You yourselves can create these sweeping stories, and they’re for you.”

Alexander Tuerk produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.