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Critical Role’s massive crowdfunding success is kickstarting some interesting conversations

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Shining a light on the overall health of the role-playing games industry

The team from Critical Role, a weekly “actual play” role-playing series, has achieved something remarkable. Their crowdfunding project to produce a series of 22-minute cartoons is now the highest-funded television or film project ever run on Kickstarter. The 45-day campaign began on March 4 with a massive $750,000 ask. As of this writing, it has already cleared more than $6.95 million, making it one of the top 10 most-funded Kickstarters of all time.

That’s an incredible achievement, and emblematic of the outsized influence that tabletop gaming has at the moment in the crowdfunding space. But, like most Kickstarter projects this size, the effort is not without its controversies — so let’s spend a little time unpacking things.

Welcome, Critters, new and old

Critical Role is an actual play livestream that began nearly five years ago. The program includes professional voice actors playing Dungeons & Dragons in a homebrew campaign setting. It stars Matthew Mercer as the Dungeon Master, and also includes the talents of Laura Bailey, Taliesin Jaffe, Ashley Johnson, Liam O’Brien, Marisha Ray, Sam Riegel, and Travis Willingham. You’ve likely heard their work in products such as Attack on Titan, Avengers Assemble, Ben 10, Dragon Ball Z, DuckTales, Sofia the First, Teen Titans Go!, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Transformers.

critical role mercer
Matthew Mercer, the Dungeon Master of the Critical Role team, circa 2015.
Pamela Joy Photos

Over the years, Critical Role has built up a tremendously devoted community, affectionately referred to as the Critters. On Twitch, the group has more than 200,000 followers. Their live performances, which take place at gaming conventions like Gen Con in Indianapolis, sell out well in advance. Lines to get in can stretch for blocks.

The secret to their success is the affable nature of the performers themselves and the incredible quality of their performances. Mercer is among the best Dungeon Masters that I’ve ever seen at the table. Combined with the voice and acting talent of the rest of the cast, the result is simply magic. They create a whole lot of content to boot. Their first epic season comprises 115 episodes and includes some 373 hours of gameplay.

A long time coming

Frankly, I’m amazed that it’s taken them this long to get a cartoon greenlit. And it’s not for lack of trying. According to the Kickstarter campaign itself, Critical Role entertained more than a dozen Hollywood pitch meetings before electing to go it alone.

The moment that the Kickstarter went live, Critters started pouring money into the campaign. The team at Kickstarter tells Polygon that the project, titled Critical Role: The Legend of Vox Machina Animated Special, has the third highest “velocity” of all time. That means it’s earning money faster than its peers.

How much faster? The campaign reached $1 million in just under an hour. That puts it in third place, behind Kingdom Death: Monster 1.5 (0.31 hours) and the Pebble Time smartwatch (0.82 hours).

Critical Role: The Legend of Vox Machina - cast of characters
The cast of characters as shown in the Critical Role cartoon special, now on Kickstarter.
deerlordhunter/Critical Role

Part of that incredible velocity comes from the fact that Critters were already on Kickstarter. According to Luke Crane, Kickstarter’s head of games, some 60 percent of Critical Role backers were previously active on the platform. It’s also illustrative of the success that tabletop games can find in the crowdfunding space.

Games are the single largest category in Kickstarter history, accounting for more than $896.75 million in earnings since the company was founded in 2009. The category is expected to clear $1 billion in 2019. Tabletop games — including board games, card games, and role-playing games — are the biggest part of the games category. According to data that I’ve collected from Kickstarter, tabletop games alone brought in more than $165 million in 2018. That’s up 20 percent over the year previous, which itself was up 29 percent from the year before that.

The tabletop category simply dwarfs video games and the film and television categories combined.

With great power

But the tabletop RPG (TTRPG) category is the much smaller portion of tabletop gaming on Kickstarter, which is dominated by board games. That’s indicative of the size of the TTRPG industry as a whole, which is the smallest major category within the hobby games space.

Numbers are estimates only.
ICV2

According to industry publication ICV2, retail sales of TTRPGs accounted for only $55 million of the $1.5 billion hobby games category in 2017. If those estimates are true, then Critical Role has already earned more than 12 percent of the revenue of the entire TTRPG retail sector in just a few days.

How much of that will Wizards of The Coast (WoTC), publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, receive? According to Critical Role’s Kickstarter page, nothing.

Now, don’t get bent out of shape on WoTC’s behalf. It’s sitting on the most iconic franchise in TTRPG history, one that’s incidentally enjoying the biggest growth period in its history. The reason for that success? D&D’s designers tell me that it’s streamers like Critical Role.

But when one group of streamers, all by themselves, start pulling down more than 12 percent of the revenue generated by the entire hobby, people start to get anxious. That’s why there’s been a lot of chatter on social media about this project.

It’s hard to make a living off a TTRPG. WoTC and Paizo, which publishes the Pathfinder and Starfinder systems, are the big players in the TTRPG space. WoTC earns the lion’s share of the revenue, and everyone else is fighting over the scraps. Beyond that, the sales volume simply isn’t there. A successful indie board game will sell copies in the thousands of units; a hit indie TTRPG will be lucky to sell hundreds.

With most TTRPG designers and publishers hanging by a thread, what’s to stop a great group of streamers from overshadowing the creator of a novel game system or a unique universe, and then riding it all the way to the top of Kickstarter? Right now, the answer is nothing. And no one has any good solutions to keep it from happening. Most aren’t even sure if they should.

That’s because actual play experiences like Critical Role are the biggest things happening in tabletop gaming. That’s why the concept — not an actual franchise, mind you, just the concept of actual play experiences — won the coveted Diana Jones Award at last year’s Gen Con.

“This list could go on for pages,” the Diana Jones Award Committee said of actual play experiences when it announced last year’s winner. “There are hundreds of these shows, each with a dedicated audience. Some are arguably more popular than the games their members play within them.”

Representation

So who are the most popular actual play performers out there? Comparative numbers are impossible to come by, but if we dig just a bit into the comments from the Diana Jones folks, we can begin to form a list. They mention Critical Role, of course, but also The Adventure Zone from the McElroy family. There’s also Maze Arcana, the Acquisitions, Inc. performances from Penny Arcade, and the One Shot and Campaigns podcasts on the One Shot Network.

Taken in the aggregate, all of these shows have something in common: They’re all pretty white. While women are well represented in the most popular actual play experiences, people of color are not. In fact, the team behind the Critical Role Kickstarter may be the least racially diverse group of the bunch.

Critical Role team photo
The Critical Role team.
Photo: Critical Role

This is a group of self-described best friends who built up an entertainment property from scratch. Yes, it is based on the most successful role-playing franchise of all time. Yes, they had help from Geek and Sundry, which carried their show for a time and helped them reach a broader audience.

And yet.

When you’re pulling down a significant chunk of the revenue generated by the entire hobby on which your creative property is built, when you’re operating at this kind of scale, it seems natural that you’d be held to the same sorts of standards as others in the entertainment industry.

The hobby games industry is coming into its own during a more socially conscious era. Recently, it came together to cast out an accused abuser from its biggest storefronts and public gatherings. WoTC has also been proactive, making space for diversity in its sourcebooks and even turning it into a feature of its reimagining of the city of Waterdeep. It’s also investing in actual play experiences that are welcoming to people of color.

Efforts like that make the Critical Role team stand out, for better or for worse.

“There is no excuse to not include POC in your [actual plays], especially in Los Angeles,” writes Kimi Hughes, owner of Golden Lasso Games, on Twitter. “My group had been doing [actual play] podcasts for years. We [started] streaming a few years ago. Looking at the screen during that first game we had a realization, we were WHITE. We were all friends but that wasn’t going to cut it. The point of streaming is to open the hobby to others.

“We started reaching out to POC that we knew, we started meeting new people and inviting them, we started learning and putting in the work to be better,” she continued. “You know what? We are still a group of friends. We are just a bigger, better group of friends. [Our] games are better too!”

Hughes is not alone in her criticism. Meanwhile, others are asking folks to slow down and lower their pitchforks. Some people seem to think that they can continue to praise the team at Critical Role for their success, while also calling for more representation within the space.

“Nobody is ‘turning’ on critical role,” writes a TTRPG podcaster. “If you think that pointing out that things could and should have diversity especially with the ability the cast has to promote it is ‘turning’ on them then i really don’t know what to tell you. ppl have been pointing it out for years.”

By and large, the tenor of the conversation is that the folks behind Critical Role are good people. They’ve done incredible work to carve out a niche for themselves, and in so doing they’ve helped legitimize the hobby of role-playing.

But they could, and should, also do better.

They could do better for small TTRPG creators, by bringing attention to the weird economics that keep them from succeeding financially. They could do better for people of color, by simply including them in their project. And they could do better by being open to a dialogue with their critics on social media.

The good news is, they opted for the 45-day Kickstarter campaign option over the 30-day option. That means they’ve got a lot of time to kill before the end of the campaign, and every reason to continue to keep eyeballs on their franchise.

But, in the short term, they had better get moving on more stretch goals. At this rate, they’ll have exhausted them in just a few short days.