Dungeons and Dragons campaigns usually aren’t remembered for their stories. In a game so reliant on group charisma and improvisation, there’s usually little room for the intricate storytelling seen in more plot-driven mediums like film or television to shine. But in rare cases, like with the “nerdy-ass voice actors” behind the DnD web series “Critical Role,” there’s enough pure passion put into the characters and plot to make a campaign worth some kind of remembrance. “The Legend of Vox Machina” (2022–), the new Amazon Prime animated show based on Critical Role’s first campaign, has that passion, and though it overcomes most of the hurdles in turning a DnD plot into a competent story, some tone and plot issues remain.
This 12-episode first season covers “The Briarwood Arc” of the original show, with a two-part opening set to introduce unfamiliar viewers to the titular adventuring party of Vox Machina and the world of Exandria. The Briarwood Arc, while technically the second in the campaign’s full tale, is widely seen by “Critters” (the cute name for fans of the show) as the moment the series really took off beyond its simple DnD roots thanks to a detailed plot and look into some of the main characters’ psyches. For someone who has not seen a full episode of “Critical Role” but does have some familiarity with its story, world and characters, it makes sense why the show would start here, but it’s not without problems.
In order for the show to make up for essentially starting mid-campaign, the first two episodes act as a standard DnD adventure involving the lovable misfits saving a kingdom from a seemingly unstoppable threat. It’s a fine start, but it’s not exactly a great hook to convince someone who isn’t already invested in this world to stick with the show. However, in the place of an interesting story, this two-parter does introduce the best part of the show by far: the main characters.
Each individual member of “The Legend of Vox Machina” comes with an insane amount of backstory courtesy of their respective voice actors and creators. There are the half-elf twins, rogue Vax’ildan and ranger Vex’ahlia (Vax and Vex for short), the sex-driven gnome bard Scanlan Shorthalt, the pious-yet-fun-loving gnome cleric Pike Trickfoot, Trickfoot’s best friend and goliath barbarian Grog Strongjaw, the insecure elven druid Keyleth and the main focus of the Briarwood Arc, the human gunslinger and former noble Percival Fredrickstein von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III. And those are only their basic traits. Each one is given so much personality and presence through their voice actors, all seasoned professionals like Laura Bailey, Ashley Johnson and Travis Willingham. It’s so well done that it ends up balancing out the initial blandness of the first two episodes.
When the two-parter is done, the series both solves and ignores its central problem. With a firm plot established in freeing Percy’s former kingdom from the tyrannical Lord and Lady Briarwood, the story has a more central drive but no less generic offerings. The settings and individual character stories are good, particularly with Percy and Pike’s struggles with their inner darkness and Scanlan’s need to prove himself, but the plot itself is, at times, blandly told and simultaneously overdramatized. This, along with the relatively short episodes at around 20 minutes apiece, doesn’t allow for a truly compelling picture to form. It’s not bad by any means — it’s just a bit dry.
On top of all of this, the show goes back and forth on how serious it wants the viewer to take it. A serious and horrifying story beat will often be followed shortly by graphic sex and poop jokes. The balance between the silly and the horrifying is never really found in this season, and while it does eventually pick the more serious side leading into the final episodes, the humor sprinkled throughout still feels out of place (especially in regards to Grog and his “big dumb guy” style of jokes).
Though it sounds like there is much to complain about in this show, none of these flaws are deal breakers, and they come from a genuine desire on the part of the Critical Role team to make this story work. The show is still in its early stages, and a second season is already on the way. With some more time and passion, these issues can and will be ironed out. It’s a common dream among DnD players to turn your campaign into a real, epic story, and though this season didn’t quite reach that level, the roots are there in this tale for something truly special to come in the future — it just needs a little more time to shine.