When a group of close friends (who all happened to be professional voice actors) started playing Dungeons of Dragons together, they could not have predicted that their adventure would be turned into an Amazon Prime Video series. Yet, that’s exactly what transpired. This is The Legend of Vox Machina – a bold animated show that throws out the usual fantasy tropes to tell tales of an unlikely party as they go on epic escapades.
The Legend of Vox Machina had a long journey to the screen. Back in 2015, the aforementioned group of friends founded Critical Role, a live-streamed web series in which the cast embark on various Dungeons of Dragons campaigns – the first followed a group of explorers known as Vox Machina. After becoming hugely popular, the Critical Role team started crowdfunding to make a TV show version. That was then picked up by Amazon – and the results speak for themselves: the series sits on a perfect Rotten Tomatoes rating.
How did such a niche show become so popular? An animated, fantasy series based on a bunch of guys playing a popular tabletop roleplaying game on a live stream certainly seems esoteric. Thankfully, the show has been crafted in a way that makes it accessible to everyone – you don’t need an encyclopaedic knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons or Critical Role to enjoy. Perhaps more importantly, though, The Legend of Vox Machina goes against the usual expectations of the fantasy genre, setting itself apart from what came before.
The Fellowship would never…
Vox Machina are a rough group, motivated mainly by money – they’re hardly here to save the day. We first meet them at a tavern, blind drunk. They start a bloody brawl, only to be thrown out and left wondering whether they should do something morally better than going from job to job and leaving destruction in their wake. Even after they agree to slay a beast terrorizing the land, they insist they’re only there for the gold. In other words, they are far from your typical heroes – can you imagine the Fellowship of the Ring refusing to make the journey across Middle Earth unless they were promised a handsome reward?
Although the team does step up when it counts, the anti-heroics of Vox Machina mean failure is common – and that’s something the show’s writers embrace. Just like in real Dungeons and Dragons, as friends roleplay and mistakes happen through bad decisions or rotten dice rolls, the series reflects this with characters who frantically improvise, and see their simple actions backfire spectacularly. For instance, in the second episode, the team is unable to open a door. Scanlan Shorthalt – the group’s serial seducer and bard – tries to manipulate the door’s lock with a saucy song, while the nature-loving Keyleth tries to heat the metal with her elemental magic, scorching Scanlan in the process. Eventually, Vax’ildan, the cunning rogue, simply strolls in and finesses the lock using a sandwich toothpick.
These mishaps are funny moments of growth, and they are a breath of fresh air in a genre that’s typically very serious. Of course, they only land because of how well-realized the main characters are. The members of Vox Machina benefit from sprawling personal stories told in hours-long, unscripted Critical Role live-streams being condensed into 22-minute episodes. These well-crafted scripts let the characters’ personalities shine. The Vox Machina crew’s bonds are tested and strengthened through dangerous situations, and their personal flaws are often laid bare. They make tough decisions, leading to emotional high points that make the show gripping to watch.
Despite the shorter runtime, The Legend of Vox Machina preserves a lot of the creative thinking and flair from the Critical Role campaigns, keeping their brand of immature adult humor – those sincere laughs that only happen within a close group of friends – as well as the series’ cartoonishly funny or shocking violence.
Importantly, the eight Critical Role voice actors that reprise their Vox Machina roles deliver consistently strong performances that go beyond anything heard in the web series. Sam Riegel’s fondness for all things musical manifests as his character, Scanlan, blasts melodic rhymes, including a catchy tune to introduce the party for the first time. Meanwhile, Taliesin Jaffe’s perfect aloofness, stubborn rage, and cold malice makes Percy de Rolo one of the show’s most fascinating characters. Marisha Ray does an excellent job conveying Keyleth’s anxieties about her inability to control her immense magical power.
The massive online support for Critical Role, plus Amazon’s backing, has meant The Legend of Vox Machina’s cast has grown beyond the original web series. David Tennant, Dominic Monaghan, Indira Varma, Gina Torres, and Stephanie Beatriz voice key supporting characters, and their performances are enhanced by the animation work from studio Titmouse and character art by Phil Bourassa.
A gold standard
The combination of great voice acting, engaging characters, humour, and cartoonish violence seldom seen in fantasy media makes The Legend of Vox Machina a brilliant adaptation of the ethos of Dungeons and Dragons. The series succeeds by embracing the collaborative storytelling and strong roleplaying aspects that Critical Role champions. And you can see how this could have turned out: the original 1980s Dungeons and Dragons animated series, released during peak D&D fever, tried to adapt the game’s rules and mechanics but does not hold up well, failing to deliver on more modern, creative D&D sensibilities.
The Legend of Vox Machina sets a high standard for all the inevitable Dungeons and Dragons adaptations that will follow, including the upcoming movie starring Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, and Hugh Grant. While the film will have to find its own voice, it should borrow the strong character work of Critical Role’s animated series – otherwise it could end up being another generic and forgettable fantasy blockbuster. For now, The Legend of Vox Machina, which has a second season on the way, serves as a great entry point into Critical Role’s fantasy world and shows the storytelling possibilities that Dungeons and Dragons, and tabletop roleplaying games in general, present.
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