games / Columns

411 Interview: Matthew Mercer Talks Critical Role, the Rise of D&D and More at Wizard World

February 26, 2016 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Critical Role Image Credit: Critical Role

If you’ve played even a few major video games over the past few years, you have probably heard the cast of Geek & Sundry’s Critical Role. The live-streamed Dungeons and Dragons show includes a cast of some of the more prolific voice actors working today. They include Liam O’Brian (Illidan in World of Warcraft, Red Skull in Marvel’s Avengers Assemble), Laura Bailey (Black Widow in Avengers Assemble, Olympia Vale in Halo 5), Marisha Ray (Margaret in Persona 4, Diamond Dog Soldier in Metal Gear Solid V), Sam Riegel (Donatello in Fox’s animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Starscream in Transformers: War for Cybertron), Travis Willingham (Roy Mustang in Fullmetal Alchemist, Gazlowe in Heroes of the Storm), Taliesin Jaffe (Blanka in Ultra Street Fighter 4, Darion Mograine in World of Warcraft) and Ashley Johnson (Terra in Teen Titans Go, Ellie in The Last of Us and Patterson on NBC’s hit series Blindspot).

This group of voice actors also happen to be avid players of the geekiest of hobbies: tabletop role-playing games. The group plays a weekly Dungeons and Dragons game on Geek & Sundry’s Twitch channel called Critical Role, in which their characters adventure their way through the trials and tribulations of a world designed by Matthew Mercer. Mercer is also a voice actor, known to many as the voice of Tim Drake & Robin in Batman: Arkham Asylum, Leon Kennedy in the Resident Evil games, Levi in Attack on Titan and many other roles. Mercer is a long-time gamer who serves as Dungeon Master for this motley group and guides their way through the kingdom of Tal’Dorei and beyond, with a multitude of voices and a series of schemes and plots for the characters to fall prey to.

Since debuting on Geek & Sundry, Critical Role has captured the imagination of an untold number of gaming enthusiasts, putting it at the forefront of a new rise of interest in tabletop role-playing games. Slate recently referred to the series as “compelling television, even for those who wouldn’t know a vorpal sword from a Volkswagen,” a statement that rings true to all of its fans (including yours truly).

Though it is not the first live-streamed Dungeons & Dragons campaign series, it is arguably the most popular and the benefits have paid off nicely for those who have gamed for years under the cloud of the 1980s “moral panic” that plagued the game and its ilk from that era all the way to the current day. The Critical Role fan community — known affectionately as “Critters,” are incredibly passionate about the series and some have even launched their own live-streaming D&D games, while Mercer’s homebrewed D&D classes are currently the most popular products on the Wizards of the Coast-collaborative online store of user-generated content titled the DM’s Guild. There is even a new, big-budget attempt at a Dungeons & Dragons film in development that has been described by its producer as “a Guardians of the Galaxy-tone movie” set in WotC’s iconic Forgotten Realms setting. I had the opportunity to talk with Mercer at Wizard World Portland about Critical Role, the new interest in Dungeons & Dragons and the challenges of running a game when the cameras are on.

411: For those who people who may not be familiar with Critical Role, how did it come to pass that you guys began streaming on Geek & Sundry’s Twitch channel?

Matthew Mercer: We’re a group of voice actors that were playing D&D privately for a number of years, our own little private campaign. And one of our players Ashley Johnson was friends with Felicia Day through mutual projects. So at a party, I guess they were talking about it and Felicia was like “Oh hey, that sounds kind of interesting. Would you guys like to do that on our channel?” And so we had a couple of meetings about it. We weren’t fully sold on the idea at first because the idea of, number one it’s a very personal thing we enjoy as friends. We were afraid putting something that’s so personal on the internet to be possibly put down or burned is a very scary thought. We didn’t want to lose the fun we were having, nor did we want them to change the format because for us, you know, primarily this game is for us.

So after a number of meetings we finally came to an agreement that we wouldn’t change anything. Put cameras up, see if it finds an audience. And Twitch had just become the emerging format for live streaming. So we helped launch the Geek & Sundry Twitch channel, and saw if we found anybody to watch it. And we were very lucky to have an amazing community spring out of it.

411: I’ve recommended the show to several people. I started watching around mid-August or so and very quickly binge-watched and caught up. When I talk to people, the most common concern I’ve seen is they see the length of the episodes being intimidating. Do you run into that concern with people, and how do you alleviate it?

Matthew Mercer: Primarily, it didn’t concern me and it doesn’t concern me. Because once again, we’re playing this for ourselves and for me, we’re trying to get as much of our game time in as possible. And I feel like three, three and a half hours is a good, solid way to get enough story beats and one or two battles in to where it still feels like we’ve accomplished enough for a game.

But yeah, from an audience standpoint, it is definitely a high bar of entry when you see that number. And you know what, if some people are frightened off by it that’s their prerogative and I totally understand that. That’s totally fine. The good news is, it’ll always be there. You can watch it leisurely at your own pace. There’s no rush, because it’s all online afterward. It’s great to catch up and be watching it live but you don’t have to and you can be watching everything after the fact at your own leisure. So if it looks like four hours now for an episode, you can break it down into one-hour chunks and enjoy it over time. So I don’t worry so much about it.

411: As a DM, you’re the guy who sets the stage and sort of serves as co-writer and director of the whole production. There’s a very filmic nature, not only because you’re voice actors but in terms of the narrative structure and how you’ve seeded plot elements far in advance. Now that you’re a form of spectator entertainment, has that changed at all in terms of becoming even more cinematic, or has that even been present in your mind?

Matthew Mercer: It hasn’t really been present in my mind. I love storytelling. It’s my favorite thing to do and has been since I was a kid and while I don’t consider myself a particularly talented writer, I have a very wild imagination and I like to think I have a flair for the cinematic. So for me, it’s always been — the fun of it is setting such cinematic scenes. Because for me, part of my goal as a Dungeon Master is to engage the players. And I find the easiest way to engage them is to be as cinematic in your descriptions and your scene settings as possible. That really makes the players invested in the moment and it helps their imagination even go beyond what a simple description could do.

So for me, I never really consciously thought if there was a change. I don’t think there has been really, because my style hasn’t altered. And that’s kind of why it’s still fun as it was because we’re not letting it change our style of play. It may not work for everybody, but it works for us.

411: Anyone who’s ever played in a tabletop RPG knows how goofy and jokey the table atmosphere can get, and one of the things that I love about the show is how well you guys have kept that without it going too far. Was there a lot of concern on your part about how that might change?

Matthew Mercer: We were concerned that it might change, just because it was a whole new thing and having an audience, we were scared that it would make us put our game faces on, you know, or be presenting for the camera. And that’s always a worry as a performer. But once the game starts, once the music kicks in and once everyone’s sitting there with their character sheets in front, we were pleasantly surprised that after the first episode it felt like what we did at home with just a little more separation between the players and me. That’s one thing we do miss, is because of the layout for the cameras, the players can’t be so close to the battle map and it’s kind of more, I have to move everything for them. But I’m fine with that.

But yeah, I don’t think there’s been any transition, and what makes the game fun for all of us is the fooling around. We keep the side talk to a minimum, just because we have limited time to play, but the pop culture references sneak in there and it’s always fun. And yeah, like you said a lot of the life of the game is that there’s serious moments but there’s also a lot of levity and silliness, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

411: As voice actors, your talent at dropping into character adds a very enjoyable element to watching the show. I know everyone has their favorite NPC in Tal’Dorei, but which is your favorite for whatever reason?

Matthew Mercer: It’s a hard call for me, it’s like picking children. I have to say the one that to me, I feel the strongest connection with is probably Arcanist Allura Vysoren. And it’s hard to describe why. I think that in many ways, when I constructed her and played her story, and fleshed out her backstory where she came from — which no one really knows — to me, I see a lot of the character I probably would play in the game. And in a way it is a projection of aspects of who I would want to be in a fantasy realm, regardless of sex.

And so, I really identify with her as an NPC, what she’s trying to accomplish, where she came from, her ideals, her fears, her hopes…these are all things that I think probably the closest my NPC’s are a mirror to is Allura’s so she’s probably my favorite.

411: Tabletop RPG’s have tended to lag behind in the rise of geek culture. Comic books ae cool now, video gaming is cool, tabletop gaming is even cool. But it’s always seemed like tabletop role-playing games have always still lagged behind until recently.

Matthew Mercer: Until recently, yeah. It’s like there’s this new renaissance, it’s been crazy.

411: There has been, and for a lot of reasons whether D&D Fifth Edition or a little more respect in mainstream pop culture, and I think Critical Role is viewed as part of spearheading that. And now you’re doing a series of videos to help DMs on Geek and Sundry. Did you ever dream growing up that roleplaying games would start to reach this level of acceptability?

Matthew Mercer: [smiles] No. When the first Dungeons & Dragons movie came out in theaters there was a little hope and then it was immediately crushed.

411: Oh god, yeah.

Matthew Mercer: Me and my gaming group at the time went and saw it, and we started just Mystery Science Theater-ing it halfway through because it was all you could do because it was just atrocious. It was awful. I remember the beholder just kind of floated by and then turned around and I was just like “F**k this movie!” I was so, so angry.

But no, I had no idea and I could never imagine. You always hope. And the fact that it’s having this resurgence has been so incredible. Because number one, I can talk openly about my passion for this thing them and number two, it’s now easier to bring people into that world that normally would not have been interested or, you know, had any sort of spark to learn or try it out. And so now it’s finally becoming actually acceptable and it’s just finding a whole new audience of people that are like, ‘Oh my god, this is what it is? This is really fun!’ And you’re like ‘Yes, see? When I avoided sports and sunlight when I was a kid? This is why!’ And all of a sudden it becomes a positive topic of conversation, and I’m really happy to see that transition.

411: Speaking of the positivity, the “Critter” community that’s grown up around the show…in terms of the level of passion they have, in terms of the stories that I’ve heard you guys talk about — people telling you how the show has affected and inspired them, the donations to 826 LA and other charities, there has been a real positive impact that the show has brought out. What’s the one aspect of the community that’s been most inspiring to you personally?

Matthew Mercer: The generosity. The overwhelming generosity, and I don’t just mean that from a monetary standpoint; I mean, people willing to give to charity is incredible. The generosity in offering advice and support to other people in the community, to offer their time and energy and insight to people that are both coming into the hobby and need a helping hand to kind of figure it out, or conversely are just having a rough day in their life and they’re willing to just go and cheer them up and offer, you know, a path to a lighter outlook on it. It’s overwhelming and humbling in so many ways, and the fact that we’re even a part of that wonderful community is a huge honor. And it’s so much bigger than anything we’re doing.

411: Of course, that passion has the potential to be double-edged too at times. I’ve heard some interviews where you’ve talked about some of the usually well-meaning criticism that sometimes goes too far. I’ve heard mention of some potential guests who have seen how some of the community would react and sort of begged off.

Matthew Mercer: Yeah, it’s unfortunate.

411: How do you manage that? How do you balance between cultivating and encouraging the community and trying to trim the worst out without trying to be oppressive. Because you want to give people that chance to comment and criticize but not to the point it becomes personal.

Matthew Mercer: Yeah, it’s…that’s the million-dollar question. All I can do right now as far as I know is to support conversation and support debate. I think debate is wonderful and healthy, and people are more than welcome to criticize in all forms. That’s part of what it’s about. I don’t take any of it personally except for the few that do kind of get a little aggressive. But that’s the internet, like, it’s kind of expected in this atmosphere. But it’s also such a minority.

And you know, if you’re passionate about something that passion can also come across as frustration for an unexpected result. And that can come across more intense than you expect it to. Especially when it’s a show like ours where you sometimes get really invested in it. And I fully understand that. It may be off-putting at times but I know that most of it’s not intentionally harmful or aggressive. That’s kind of why I go to the community boards and like Reddit threads and try and clarify if there’s a divide or any confusion as best I can because really, I understand all sides.

411: That’s something I think that’s been really cool to see, is how engaged you are.

Matthew Mercer: I’m trying. I try.

Critical Role streams every Thursday on Geek & Sundry’s Twitch channel and are posted the Monday after on You can catch up on previous episodes here on YouTube.