Critical Role is the most popular Actual Play series of D&D in the English language. It’s rise perfectly tracks the current resurgence and boom of D&D – the point where it’s hard to even separate the fates of the two. Did one spur the other? Is it the other way around? Does it even matter?
But Critical Role is successful not because of its format, but in spite of it. Ask the TTRPG community at large – how many of you habitually consume Actual Plays? How many of you listen to them outside of a commute? How many would you even consider top quality entertainment?
Critical Role is a success because of the stunning talent at their table – and the undeniable chemistry between them all. That alone might be enough, but they happen to be chaired by an absolutely compelling DM who – mirroring the rest of the talent at the table – can develop and play 1000 convincing characters. I wonder if the “improv” scene missed the boat in the 90’s – instead of pitching rarely-hilarious tv vehicles for comedy, had they developed their home D&D game for public consumption there might have been a huge Critical Role style hit long before – and it would probably have been funnier too.
Critical Role’s success is deserved, and the show is as entertaining as Actual Plays get. But every “episode” is 4 hours long. Every episode has dead time for rules consultations, back-and-forth explanations, dice rolling and the like. It’s an unedited look into a home game that is now played out in front of millions. But to really, really, REALLY break out into the TTRPG community (and beyond?) a true “can’t miss” show is going to have to take that level of talent, and also apply it to the show presentation itself. Better editing and flow could be a game changer – a highlight reel where nothing is lost. Addition by subtraction. A way for people who don’t have 4 hours a week to devote (or an additional 4 hours a week) to experience spectator D&D.
Critical Role, Acquisitions Incorporated, Dice Camera Action, The Adventure Zone and the rest are all stellar contributions and demonstrations of good ways to run and play D&D. But someday, someone will crack the code to put out a truly revolutionarily popular Actual Play. I’m betting it would include some behind-the-scenes “what I was thinking” interstitials (from GMs and players), or maybe some sort of pop-up video style explanations and information.
I look forward to that show. There will never be another Critical Role – but there might be something bigger and better.