How Critical Role helped spark a Dungeons & Dragons renaissance

Key Points
  • Critical Role launched in 2015, introducing a whole new audience to the world of Dungeons & Dragons.
  • When they first started rolling dice on camera, Critical Role's cast didn't set out to start a media company. But that's what happened.
  • In recent years, the strategy and fantasy tabletop role-playing segment, of which Dungeons & Dragons is part, "has been one of the strongest growing classifications within games," Stephanie Wissink, managing director at Jefferies, said.
The cast of "Critical Role."
Critical Role

Five years ago, a group of self-proclaimed nerdy voice actors known as Critical Role started recording themselves playing Dungeons & Dragons. Little did they know that their home-brewed game would gain hundreds of thousands of fans and help bolster the renaissance of the 46-year-old role-playing game

When they first started rolling dice on camera, Critical Role's cast didn't set out to start a media company. But that's what happened. Along the way, their popularity has turned their brand into a linchpin in the Dungeons & Dragons community and even brought thousands of new members into the fold.

As they mark half a decade, Critical Role continues to expand its programming and provide new ways for its fans to engage with its content. Its YouTube channel features shorter-form role-play games and a painting tutorial show and the company is working on an Amazon Prime Video TV series that was funded, in part, by its fans. It also is about to publish a licensed D&D adventure book.

For four decades, Dungeons & Dragons has been on hobby and specialty shop shelves and played in basements out of sight. However, a shift in the popularity of geek culture, an update of the game itself and the rise of video platforms like Twitch and YouTube has helped the tabletop game grow its revenue for the last six years.

"Last year was our 45th anniversary and our biggest year yet," Nathan Stewart, vice president of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise, said. "So, that's kind of crazy when you think about a brand of this size continuing to grow."

Wizards of the Coast, the company that operates both Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, represents about half a billion dollars worth, Stephanie Wissink, managing director at Jefferies, said.

While Magic is classified under Hasbro's "franchise brand" category, Dungeons & Dragons is part of its gaming category.

In 2019, Hasbro's gaming revenue fell 10% to $709.8 million. But if it hadn't been for the revenue gains from Dungeons & Dragons, and several classic games titles, it would have been worse.

Roll for initiative

Dungeons & Dragon's resurgence into the pop culture zeitgeist started in 2014, when Wizards of the Coast launched its newest edition of game, called the fifth edition, or 5e. The fifth edition centers more on storytelling than previous versions, allowing players to focus on narrative and not technical game mechanics.

This new rule book made learning how to play Dungeons & Dragons much easier and lowered the barrier of entry for new players. Around that same time, groups like Critical Role began to spring up on YouTube and Twitch.

In the last decade "Let's Plays," videos of people playing video games and providing commentary while they play, have gained popularity. People just like to watch other people play — whether it's sports, video games or board games.

Critical Role launched in 2015 on Geek & Sundry, a multimedia production company with shows on YouTube and Twitch. The web series features Matthew Mercer ("Overwatch") as the dungeon master, the organizer of the game who sets quests for players to complete and describes what the players hear and see on their journeys.

Mercer is joined by seven other voice actors: Ashley Johnson ("The Last of Us"), Laura Bailey ("Rick and Morty"), Liam O'Brien ("Carmen Sandiego"), Marisha Ray ("Lego DC Super-Villains"), Sam Riegel ("Ducktales"), Taliesin Jaffe ("Injustice 2″) and Travis Willingham ("Avengers Assemble").

Behind the scenes of "Critical Role."
Critical Role

Each actor created their own character for the show with a distinct personality and unique abilities. Together, the characters have been sent on a long quest and would need to work in tandem to vanquish enemies, solve puzzles and complete each task set by the dungeon master. Their weekly games, which are all part of the same long-form campaign, often take between three and five hours.

The first campaign lasted 115 episodes. The show was so popular with fans that a second campaign was started in January 2018 and has currently aired 98 episodes.

Since amicably parting ways with Geek & Sundry in 2018, Critical Role has become its own media company, with hundreds of thousands of subscribers across several social media platforms, and more than 120 million views on YouTube.

"People are into us being silly on the internet," Mercer, dungeon master and voice of McCree from "Overwatch," said. "I grew up loving D&D and RPGs and being quietly disappointed that it wasn't widely accepted. It's really fun to be part of that resurgence."

Critical Role has been able to capture the imaginations of viewers and, because so much of the game is based on chance and improvisation, offers a different kind of storytelling from a typical TV show or movie.

Dungeons & Dragons books, dice and mini-figurines.
Simon Hayter

Critical Role isn't just a source of entertainment, it's teaching people how to play Dungeons & Dragons in the same way someone might watch a baseball or football game to gain a basic understanding of the rules and then start playing.

"If you threw the NFL rule book at someone, they are going to look at the cool picture on the cover and you are probably not going to get a lot of attention," Willingham, CEO of Critical Role Productions and voice actor behind characters "Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order" and "Kingdom Hearts III," said. "You have to show the experience."

Wizards of the Coast's Stewart said that starter sets and the company's new Essentials Kit are the largest portion of the company's sales growth in the Dungeons & Dragons brand.

"For the first time in our research, it used to be that friends and family were the number reason someone joined D&D," Stewart said. "Now, the number one reason is 'I saw someone playing online and I joined.'"

And Critical Role has offered a diverse line-up of D&D games. There's the long-form fantasy campaign that the whole group participates in weekly and then there are shorter-form series like "Undeadwood," a western themed game, that may interest the same fan base, or entice new viewers who are more interested in that genre.

"Stay tuned for weird stuff," Ray, the creative director of Critical Role, said when asked if fans can expect to see more content like "Undeadwood."

Starting Monday, Mercer will act as the game master for a "Doom" themed one-shot in which Bailey, Riegel, Jaffe, Anjali Bhimani ("Fallout 4") and Jasmine Bhullar ("Relics & Rarities") will play a horde of demons on a mission to invade Earth.

Permission to play

While Dungeons & Dragons has long had stalwart fans, it wasn't always clear how popular or financially viable it was as a brand because the vast majority of its sales were happening in "discrete areas of retail" like hobby shops, Wissink said. 

Even the team behind Critical Role was surprised by how popular their web series has become.

Although it became pretty clear that Critical Role has struck gold when the team tried to sell T-shirts for the first time and sold out of the merchandise before they could even finish their livestream announcement that they were available.

However, for Ray the "Aha!" moment came when the team held a signing at Forbidden Planet, a comic book shop in New York City, during New York City Comic Con less than a year after launching their first campaign.

"We thought 20 to 30 people would show up," she said. "We had a line around the block."

With groups like Critical Role broadcasting game play and popular actors like Joe Manganiello, Felicia Day, Stephen Colbert, Deborah Ann Woll and Vin Diesel coming forward as fans of Dungeons & Dragons, people are being given permission to step into this previously taboo genre of gaming.

"I would say, humbly, we've really had a measurable impact on how the RPG community is viewed," Riegel, known for his voice acting on TV shows like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "DuckTales," said. "It's been a running joke for a couple of decades now that all D&D players are 'basement dwelling nerds.' But I think that shows like ours, and ours particularly, has changed that perception."

Looking at Google Trends, it's clear that Dungeons & Dragons is gaining public interest.

Since Google Trends first started tracking internet searches in 2004, the search popularity of the tabletop role-playing game on the website has more than doubled.

Reign of the geek

In recent years, the strategy and fantasy tabletop RPG segment, of which Dungeons & Dragons is part, "has been one of the strongest growing classifications within games," Wissink said. 

"What is fascinating about this is that in an age of digitization, there are millions of people who get together a couple of times a month, sit around a table, put their devices down and actually play a game," she said. 

It's unclear exactly how many people are playing Dungeons & Dragons, but Wissink suspects the game could achieve an even bigger active fan base than Magic: The Gathering, which has around 10 million active players.

Wizards of the Coast estimates there to be more than 40 million D&D fans since the game was first released in 1974. And those players are willing to spend their free time and their money on Dungeons & Dragons products.

Wizards of the Coast has found that the typical D&D player plays the game four times a month, with each session lasting between four and six hours. About half of the players who use the fifth edition will play at least once a week, their survey indicated. 

"We are seeing about 150 million hours of content viewed on Twitch and YouTube, which is up nearly 50% year-on-year," Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner said of the Dungeons & Dragons brand during the company's February earnings call.

Because of Wizards of the Coast's success with both Magic and Dungeons & Dragons, Hasbro has expectations that revenue for Wizards will double over the five years from 2018 to 2023. 

Robert Swift of Bedford, Mass. holds out a die while serving as a dungeon master in a game of Dungeons and Dragons at the Adventure Pub in Arlington, Mass. on Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019. In an increasingly high-tech world, board games are gaining a new audience: people yearning to unplug and connect with friends.
Boston Globe

Part of that growth will likely come from Hasbro bringing Dungeons & Dragons to the digital arena.

"D&D ... has a massive digital gaming potential," Chris Cocks, president of Wizards of the Coast, said during Hasbro's investor meeting during New York Toy Fair last month. "The global market for role-playing games on console and PC has reached $12 billion annually. Among the demographic who plays these games, 65% have a positive brand awareness for Dungeons & Dragons."

Already in the works is "Baldur's Gate 3," the long-awaited third installment in the Baldur's Gate video game franchise, and "Dark Alliance," a third-person action role-playing game based on characters from R.A. Salvatore's novels.

Not just dice

And fans aren't just interested in video games. 

Last year, the folks behind Critical Role set up a Kickstarter campaign to raise $750,000 to finance an animated Dungeons & Dragons digital special.

By the close of the campaign 45 days later, Critical Role fans had shelled out more than $11.3 million, making the fundraiser the most successful film or television project in Kickstarter history. More than 88,000 people contributed to the campaign.

While fans paid for a 10-episode season, when Amazon agreed to be the exclusive home for the animated series, it ordered an additional 14 episodes, for a total of 24 episodes spread across two seasons.

"That's the magic of the moment we are in," Wissink said. "Companies with great ideas have access to capital from their communities or from the capital markets or from companies who are willing to underwrite." 

The cast of "Critical Role" cosplay as their characters from Vox Machina.
Critical Role

Critical Role even worked with Wizards of the Coast to publish "Explorer's Guide to Wildemount," a D&D adventure book based on the world that Mercer built for the web series' campaign. It hits shelves March 17.

"There's millions of D&D players, fifth edition players, that want more and more content," Stewart said. "Maybe they haven't watched Critical Role, but those worlds and stories are really going to speak to them ... I really get the feeling that a lot of Critical Role fans are learning about D&D through Critical Role and haven't played before. Maybe 'Explorer's Guide to Wildemount' will be a fun way for them to get into it if they haven't played already."

The Critical Role team has "only scratched the surface" of what is possible for their media company going forward, Willingham said.

"We certainly have at least another campaign in us after this one," he said.