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Vox Machina gives Critical Role’s Matt Mercer a second chance to run the perfect campaign

Plus details on the origin of the Amazon Prime Streaming series’ two-part premiere

Matt Mercer sits behind his Critical Role DM divider and sets up a miniature on the map Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Matthew Mercer is an extraordinary Dungeon Master, but even the best ones make mistakes. With The Legend of Vox Machina, he’s getting an opportunity that virtually no one ever does — well, aside from the “making an animated television series” bit, I guess. He’s getting the chance to play out his Dungeons & Dragons campaign for a second time, with the original players all sitting at the table. And this time, it’s going to be perfect.

“One of the cool things about it was going back and being able to find the moments where I’m like, how could I have done this a little better?” Mercer told Polygon recently in an interview. “How could I bring this NPC to be a little more important and impactful to this moment, give them a little more life?”

Dungeon Masters (DMs) will often spend as much or more time crafting NPCs (non-player characters) as players do crafting their characters. NPCs give the imaginary world narrative texture and emotion. They become the object of quests, and the villains propelling the action. For Mercer, a professional voice actor, they’re also an expression of his skill as an artist.

Of course, sometimes you just need a random bartender and have to pull a name and a personality out of a hat. It’s not uncommon for those ad hoc characters to suddenly attract a lot of attention. A weird die roll can make a nobody into an integral part of the plot, and that was certainly true for Critical Role’s Vox Machina campaign.

“Originally you’re telling the story to be the stage for your players,” Mercer said. “You’re creating improvised NPCs on the fly, and you kind of fumbled through it. It worked okay in the moment, but now when you come back to refine it you have the chance to really kind of flesh those out with the time and respect that you’d want to. Thankfully we didn’t have to change too much, because we’re still really proud of what we did when we played through this game, [but] it was really cool to have the opportunity to go in and kind of just kind of elevate and goose and adjust a few things here and there, [twist] a few knobs to kind of make it that much cooler a second time through.”

The Legend of Vox Machina could have been a very different show had another streaming network picked it up, but Amazon believed wholeheartedly in its mature themes. The first two-episode arc, however, is another story.

“We needed two episodes to really introduce the characters, to really get a sense of who they are, where they’re coming from,” said executive producer Brandon Auman (Star Wars Resistance, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). “We originally had a totally different two-part episode that we had come up with, and then we just sort of threw it out. It wasn’t working. It wasn’t really gelling. It didn’t really introduce the characters the way we wanted it to introduce the characters.”

Instead, the team went deep into their back catalog of adventures to dig up the details of their very first few at-home sessions together. These are storylines that fans have never seen or heard before. Turns out that’s because Critical Role didn’t record them.

“We didn’t have audio,” Mercer said, “but I definitely had all my DM notes. It was a lot of going through all my old prep, and then sitting in a room [together] and recalling the moments. It was like all of us going, ‘And then we went to this place! And then you guys were having to chase down this NPC, but then — oh, right, and there was the magical portal!’ So it was a bunch of us kind of recalling these experiences that we hadn’t thought about in five, six years, and then going through my notes and piecing it together, and then writing scripts and stories around that structure. So it was kind of a fun recollection of an era long past and bringing that to life, too.”

Through that process, the players all came to realize how important those early sessions truly were.

“The characters are very early in their path and their arcs” said Laura Bailey, who plays half-elf Vex’ahlia. “And so everybody is really figuring out who they are.”

“We didn’t know how important it would be until later in the story,” said Travis Willingham, who plays goliath warrior Grog Strongjaw. “And so that’s why we want those first two episodes to really land, because you may be seeing it early on in the story, but it’s going to matter.”

For the cast, it’s also a way for them to revisit and reflect on the journey they’ve been on this whole time.

“It’s also [through] our first characters that we all sort of fell in love with each other as friends,” said Ashley Johnson, who plays gnomish cleric Pike Trickfoot. “We’re so close with these characters, because we are all friends on top of this, but also the relationships that we have within our characters is a whole other level to it.”

The Legend of Vox Machina premieres Jan. 28 on Amazon’s Prime Streaming.