games / Columns

Travis Willingham and Sam Riegel On the Success of Critical Role’s Animated Kickstarter, Future Plans & More

March 12, 2019 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Critical Role Kickstarter

It’s an exciting time to be a fan of Critical Role. The most popular D&D series on the internet has been making some big moves as of late, striking out on their own after a long and successful run on Geek & Sundry’s Twitch channel, as well as Legendary Digital Networks’ Alpha streaming service. The series that started out as a bunch of beloved voice actors playing their home game (originally Pathfinder, converted to D&D for the show) to a new audience is now a bonafide cultural phenomenon for gamers. The narratively-rich and emotionally-enrapturing adventures that Matthew Mercer guides Marisha Ray, Sam Riegel, Liam O’Brien, Laura Bailey, Travis Willingham, Taliesin Jaffe, and Ashley Johnson through are watched by tens of thousands of viewers a week. It is one of Twitch’s top 100 most watched channels, now hosting a variety of CR-produced shows including the Talks Machina after-show on Tuesday’s, Brian W. Foster’s interview series Between the Sheets and more.

But the cast has greater hopes still regarding where to take the brand. That became evident last week, when the show announced a Kickstarter to fund an animated special. As is typical, the series’ fans (known as Critters) outdid themselves. Within forty minutes, the campaign’s $750,000 goal was blown through. Within a day, all of the stretch goals were obliterated. As of now, the animated series has a stunning $7.086 million funded with thirty-seven days left to go.

It’s a testament not only to popularity of the show and the passion of its fanbase, but also to the sudden rise of D&D’s popularity over the past couple of years. What was originally planned for a twenty-two minute special has now become a six-episode series, with more episodes sure to be added as the remaining stretch goals are reached. I had the chance to speak with Travis Willingham and Sam Riegel, who are both cast members and executive producers for the animated series, about the Kickstarter, their hopes for the series and what may be next for the brand.

An animated Critical Role special is something that I think fans have been dreaming about for a long time, and I imagine all of you as well. How and when did it actually come about that you decided to launch a Kickstarter for it?

Honestly, we’ve been kicking around the idea since the early days of our home game, even before we starting streaming Critical Role on Twitch. When fan art started pouring in from our early episodes, the idea began to grow larger. Then last year, when we partnered with our sponsor D&D Beyond to make a short animated promotion, we saw how awesome a Critical Role animated series could be — and knew we HAD to do it. Travis and Sam developed a pitch based on the adventures of Vox Machina, and pitched it to several major studios and networks — but were met with more confusion than excitement. For folks who have never heard of Critical Role, or never played a tabletop roleplaying game, it came across as too “niche” for a mass audience. So we did what we’ve always done…handed the power back to our amazing fans, the Critters. If the show was something they wanted to see, we knew they would tell us. And tell us they did!! Now, thanks to their support, we get to do what we’ve always wanted to… turn these characters and stories into an animated series!

The news that Jennifer Muro is writing the special is particularly exciting for fans who are familiar with her work on shows like Star Wars: Forces of Destiny. How did she get involved in the special?

The cast of Critical Role has known Jennifer for years — she comes to the Renaissance Faire with us every year. So when it came time to start crafting an animated script, she was the only call we made. Jen is fantastic with story structure, character development, fantasy and world building… and she’s also a massive nerd, like us. It also helps that she already knows the world and the Vox Machina characters, so we had a shorthand going into the project. We couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator.

The response to the Kickstarter has been pretty phenomenal so far. I think it’s fair to say based on your reactions in the Q&A that this was unexpected; did you have any personal expectations of how quickly it might progress?

Every step of the way, the Critter community has shocked us with how engaged they are. When we launched the Kickstarter, we had our fingers crossed that we’d be able to finance one — MAYBE two episodes of animation after the 45-day campaign. But none of us could have expected this outpouring of support, or to break the Kickstarter record in just a few days. The first day of the campaign, many tears (of joy) were shed by the cast and our excellent support staff. It was a surreal experience, and I don’t think any of us slept that night.

As of Wednesday, you had expanded the stretch goals after the first five were blown right through, and they now include a potential animation of the beloved Briarwoods arc of the show. Do you guys have plans for more stretch goals when those goals are all reached or are you waiting to see how fast they go before planning more?

We had to play catch-up all last week, when the campaign launched, because every single one of our stretch goals was achieved so quickly. Right now, we’re trying to keep up with the goals we have on the Kickstarter page, and I can sincerely say we haven’t thought beyond those. If we can make it to an 8- or even 10-episode series, it will be our literal wildest dreams come true. I mean… come on… the Briarwood storyline? We’re beyond thrilled.

The stretch goals for the Kickstarter have some bonuses that the fanbase is particularly hyped for, such as the Vox Machina x Mighty Nein one-shot and the Search for Grog epilogue. Which of the stretch goal bonuses are you most looking forward to seeing happen?

The One-Shot games are always our most favorite. They take a lot of planning and coordination, and Matt Mercer has to work overtime to plan them out, but they’ve always been worth it. Vox Machina vs. Mighty Nein — I’m not even sure how that’s gonna work, but it’s gonna be unforgettable. The whole cast is also stoked about the possibility of our own Ashley Johnson running a One-Shot if we reach our final stretch goal. Her talent and imagination is incredible, and the world needs to see her GM a game.

On a similar note, the special is going to be able to do things by the nature of a narrative series that aren’t as easy or even possible to do during a tabletop session like NPC conversations or playing with timeframes. What are you most excited to see happen in the series that you didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to explore during the game?

The great thing about animation is it can focus in on incredibly small details — the smirk of a lip as Scanlan sings, the wink of an eye as Vex haggles for a discount — or expand outward to show the vastness of Matt Mercer’s world. Every horrifying monster, every god in the heavens, everything in Matt’s mind can now be visualized in vivid detail. We’re all especially excited to see what our animation studio, Titmouse, does with the combat sequences. The whole cast are big fans of anime, and so we’re pushing for super-visceral battles, blood splatter, arresting 360-degree camera moves — the kind of anime-styled action we grew up watching.

The Kickstarter teased some celebrity guests and voiceover legends for the special. Without necessarily revealing anything that may be in the works, who would be your dream cameo for the special?

Vox Machina encountered and befriended so many colorful characters along the way, and each one is an opportunity to bring in some really cool performers to flesh them out for the screen. If we get this far in the series, we’re particularly excited to find just the right actress to portray evil Dr. Anna Ripley. We don’t want to mention any names, in case they sign on to do the show, but we have quite a wish-list already assembled for that role. Also, Lin Manuel-Miranda, if you want to play literally anything… give us a call!

This crowdfunding campaign is coming at a big time for Critical Role. You’ve moved off of Alpha and Geek & Sundry to your own channel and the brand has been really expanding with your additional shows like Between the Sheets and Pub Draw, the second volume of the Vox Machina Origins on the way and such. I know a lot of us believe the sky is the limit here; where do you all see things potentially going from here?

Besides the animated series, which is going to take a lot of time to deliver, we have loads of plans for 2019 and 2020. As was just announced on Monday we’re partnering with Dark Horse Comics on three brand new projects: Critical Role: Vox Machina Origins series II… a new trade paperback of our first comic series… as well as a gorgeous art book due in the fall of this year. All that, plus brand new shows for our Twitch and Youtube channels, more live appearances, One-Shots, and more. But the main thing we all want to keep focusing on is the flagship show — Critical Role. For the entire cast, and our badass staff, rolling the dice every Thursday night remains our absolute favorite thing in the world. Hanging out with friends, goofing off, telling stories… that’s how this whole thing started, and it’s what we all look forward to every week.

Finally, and of course, most importantly — is it Thursday yet?

It’s ALWAYS Thursday… somewhere.

I’d like to thank Travis and Sam for taking the time to answer my questions. The Critical Role: The Legend of Vox Machina Animated Special Kickstarter is still ongoing and will run through April 18th. You can contribute here.