• Molly McElaney

How Amazon's 'The Legend of Vox Machina' Became a Surprise Hit with D&D Fans

Updated: May 30

Originally published on Thrillist in their Entertainment/TV section.

Leading up to the final batch of episodes, this Dungeons & Dragons adaptation has all of the essentials: violence, drinking, gripping backstories, and political intrigue.

Amazon Prime Video

How do you take 1,000 hours of playing through a talky dice-rolling game, in which it takes at least 20 minutes to get through every five seconds of battle, and make it into a worldwide phenomenon? The cast of the creator-owned streaming show Critical Role, which specializes in games of Dungeons & Dragons played by professional voice-over and improv actors, figured it out. Teaming up with Amazon Prime and Titmouse, the new animated TV show The Legend of Vox Machina is about a band of mercenaries trying to avenge personal losses and fight an evil lord and his gang of horrifying miscreants, adapted from the original Dungeons & Dragons table-top game played by the original Critical Role cast.

Critical Role, which has streamed since 2016, aired first on the YouTube channel Geek and Sundry, which launched as part of YouTube’s 2012 original channel initiative funded by Google. Now with its own YouTube channel, Critical Role has 1.58 million subscribers and is reportedly the highest-grossing Twitch channel, alongside xQc and NICKMERCS. Their original fundraiser for an animated special (what would be expanded into the series The Legend of Vox Machina) even broke a Kickstarter record for most-funded TV or Film Project with over $11 million raised by 88,000 fans. In 2019, Amazon Prime picked up the proposed animated series based on the buzz from the Kickstarter. The show follows suit of its successful predecessor, rated #2 in the US on Amazon with a 93% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Vox Machina, the self-named “greatest band of mercenaries in all the realm,” is composed of seven chaotic characters. There’s the twins, ranger Vex’ahlia “Vex” and rogue Vax’ildan “Vax” Vessar half-elf ranger (Laura Bailey and Liam O’Brien), whose mother was killed by a dragon; gunslinger Percival “Percy” Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III (Taliesin Jaffe), with a tragic backstory; cleric Pike Trickfoot (Ashely Johnson) grappling with a disconnect from her religion; druid Keyleth of the Air Ashari (Marisha Ray) who has a connection with plants and nature; bard Scanlan Shorthalt (Sam Riegel) who can charm the pants off of anyone in the kingdom; and barbarian Grog Strongjaw (Travis Willingham), the brawn behind the operation. Other notable voice actors include Stephanie Beatriz, Tracie Thoms, Logic, Gina Torres, Stephen Root, Tony Hale, and David Tennant.

Amazon Prime Video

The first two episodes are an original storyline based on the gang's first serious mission as a united group. While this prequel story has never been recorded or played out in Critical Role’s original run, it will be considered canon and is based on research and interviews with the cast. These episodes are written primarily by showrunner Brandon Auman (who was also the head writer for Nickelodeon’s 2012 TV show Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). The remaining 10 episodes of the first season follow the Briarwood arc, a Critical Role storyline that covers Vox Machina’s efforts to orchestrate revenge on the Briarwoods (voiced by Critical Role dungeon master and creator Matthew Mercer and voiceover legend Grey Griffin), a politically dangerous couple responsible for the death of Percy’s family long ago. Notable plot changes include incorporating Pike’s mostly off-screen storyline (as she was absent for a good portion of the Briarwood arc play-through due to Johnson’s NBC’s Blindspot production schedule), as well as editing out a former member of the campaign. But the spirit of the campaign is well-represented, and it’s a welcome change of pace to see what used to be four hours of narrated round-by-round combat transform into on-screen battles with flurries of spells and weapons.

While mainstream TV shows like Big Bang Theory, Stranger Things, and Community have the “nerdy” characters play the game purely to make fun of it, few have ventured into acting out a game of D&D in-universe. Aside from parody episodes like in Futurama’s “Bender’s Game” or web series like HarmonQuest, committing to the D&D stories outside of the physical mechanics of the game isn’t often portrayed seriously. So is this a good adaptation? Listen, trying to modify over 40 hours of content (and that’s just the specific storyline cited by the writers) into a six-hour season of television is a monumental undertaking. But The Legend of Vox Machina has the advantage of having an established storyline and an established fanbase and was smart enough to go the animated route instead of the fan-proposed live-action movie. Some Critters (the name die-hard fans of Critical Role have adopted) love the direction and pace of the show, while others not so much, with the chief complaint about the show being the graphic sexual themes and the numerous F-bombs. But the series manages a balancing act of introducing D&D novices to the story and characters without overloading OG fans with unnecessary exposition.

The story does slightly stumble in the first two episodes. While there are, of course, dragons in Dungeons & Dragons, the gang’s reasoning for fighting the one here (voiced by David Tennant) was all over the place emotionally. They embark on the quest hungover and desperate for money, but then a dead child is thrown in for emotional motivation at the end of the first episode—too rushed and unearned, especially wedged in between dick jokes and swearing. But wrapping up the dragon storyline quickly and waiting to introduce the main villains until episode three sold the series for me. The Briarwoods’ introduction is bone-chilling, with vampire Sylas casually slaying several bandits while traveling. In any other story, the Briarwoods would be a tragic tale of two lovers who sacrificed everything to save each other, but they lean into the evil teachings of the Whispered One and revel in the blood and destruction of their political machinations. While the main boss battle is almost certainly incoming, the three final episodes, premiering this Friday, have a lot of ground to cover. Ninety minutes isn’t a lot of time to cover plot lines like the fate of the newly introduced Dr. Ripley, Vax and Keyleth’s will-they, won’t-they relationship, and the final showdown between the Briarwoods and the rebellion.

The animation style, which can be make-or-break for an adult animated series, is alluring, leaning into both its fantastical features as well as its graphic sex and bloody fights. The best battle by far comes in Episode 4 when gruesome creatures of the undead glide around the keep in darkness, griping hearts and causing a creepy black liquid to drip from the eyes and mouths of every single character. But the most heart-wrenching (and perhaps the most breathtaking) moment to watch is the final scene of Episode 5. Vox Machina faces the dying Sun Tree with seven innocent civilians hanging and mutilated to look like them. This reveal is followed by a cut-to-black and a chilling line of dialogue: “Is that us?” This scene proves that this show and its creators have their fingers on the audience’s pulse barreling into the remaining episodes.

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