Epic fantasy series based on hugely popular and intricate books are on almost every network and streamer, from “House of the Dragon” and “The Rings of Power” to “The Witcher” and “The Wheel of Time.” Then there’s Amazon Prime Video’s “The Legend of Vox Machina,” an animated series as intricate and complex as any of its live-action counterparts, but with a key difference: Its source material is “Critical Role,” an improvised livestream on YouTube and Twitch in which professional actors portray characters playing Dungeons & Dragons.
“Having room to play and improv can fall by the wayside when writing for animation,” series writer Meredith Kecskemety told IndieWire. “You’re writing for the actor and you’re writing for the board artists all to determine a single performance, but having this tabletop, improvised foundation lends itself to being adapted to the screen. You already have a chemistry formed at the table and organic character moments we can pull from.”
One of the reasons for the popularity of “Critical Role” was the chance to watch the formation of a complex story in real-time. No one from the cast, including the game master and worldbuilder, knew what would happen, regardless of how much prep time went into it. But capturing that spontaneity and improvisation for an animated series is both a challenge and essential.
One way of capturing that sense of spontaneity was in the recording booth. According to executive producer, casting director and voice of Scanlan, Sam Riegel, the original cast of “Critical Role” — all of whom return to voice their characters — are given space to improv. “We always do a few takes and in the last one we would say, ‘Just have fun with it,'” Riegel told IndieWire. “And most of what ended up in the show is from that last take, where the actors just got to play around and try to crack each other up. That made for much more spontaneous storytelling.”
With over 400 hours to pull from, plotting a season of “Critical Role” takes serious coordination. As Kecskemety explained, the writers’ room pulls big moments from the “Critical Role” campaign being adapted and then works backward. “Hitting those major beats and knowing that those are the ones that old fans and new fans are definitely going to need in their story helped us work backward.”
Even if you’ve never watched “Critical Role,” it becomes rather clear watching “The Legend of Vox Machina” what moments are directly lifted from the livestream. It’s the type of moment you never see on a big, live-action fantasy show, one that showcases the humor and its improvisational roots, like Grog having a conversation with his sword on the privy while Scanlan sings a song to set the mood or an extended sequence in Season 1 where three of the characters struggled to open a simple door.
These are the fan-favorite moments that made the livestream special, so at the start of every season, the cast gets together to list moments, dialogue, or even action movies they want to include, and the writers try to work them in. “We also look at quotes that are so well-known people tattoo them on their bodies, we know we absolutely have to get those in the show somehow,” Riegel said, laughing. Of course, distilling over 400 hours into a dozen 25-minute episodes is a gargantuan task, so fitting in all the big moments is impossible. Instead, the writers get creative, often shortening them or moving them to different points in the story.
This is particularly true of Season 2 of “The Legend of Vox Machina,” which expands the scope of the story and introduces more threats, more locations, and more characters. Where the first season mostly focused on a single character, while keeping everyone else as a sort of B-story, the second season gives a lot more attention to the individual character arcs of each member of the titular Vox Machina. The show even includes scenes and perspectives absent from “Critical Role,” like what the villains are up to when not fighting the heroes. To ensure those moments felt coherent with the original story, the writing team worked closely with “Critical Role” dungeon master Matt Mercer.
Everyone who has ever played a tabletop role-playing game has experienced regret and inescapable thoughts about what they could have done differently after a session. While there is no rewind button in tabletop gaming, the cast of “The Legend of Vox Machina” gets a do-over.
“We get to go back and correct our mistakes, the things we wish we could have done better in the livestream,” Riegel explained. “Now we get a chance to sort of rewrite history a little bit and do it the exact way that we want.”
Part of that is fixing scheduling issues from the livestream. Ashley Johnson, who plays Pike, was away for a big part of “Critical Role” Season 1 due to TV commitments. In the show, however, Pike is always right there next to the other characters. “We worked together with Matt and Ashley to figure out how to make her integral to the plot and make the overall story more interesting,” showrunner Brandon Auman told us.
Sometimes, the changes are more about what works within the tropes of “Dungeons & Dragons” and what works within the format of TV. As Auman explained, this season saw a big departure from the source material when Travis Willingham’s character, the goliath barbarian Grog, had all his strength drained from him by his cursed sword (from the aforementioned privy scene). In the source material, he was outright killed. “I said, look, there have been too many deaths and resurrections,” Auman said. “We can’t have characters dying and returning two episodes later. That works in a fantasy RPG where the cleric can magically revive someone all the time, but here it would make death feel cheap.” Despite some initial reservations from members of the cast about changing the canon, Auman is glad they agreed to the change. “It made for a great twist that new audiences and fans of the campaign wouldn’t expect, and it serviced the story.”