Debuting on Prime Video today, new episodes of the hit adult animated fantasy-adventure series, based on stories and characters developed by Critical Role, promise viewers more wonderful ass-kickery, assuring they’ll be ‘lured in with slap-dickory and butt stuff, only to bring you in and break your hearts.’
When Critical Role fans hear the term, “Chroma Conclave,” a very specific moment in the “Vox Machina” D&D campaign comes to mind. Dragons, so many dragons, descending upon the kingdom of Emon, that Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer spent so many Thursdays bringing to life with tremendous care and precision. Not to mention the countless hours of ass-kickery from the rest of the crew to keep Emon’s citizens safe. Suddenly, ice, poison gas, and fire are leveling the homes and palaces of Emon citizens as Mercer narrates a chaotic, unprecedented genocide.
Half-elf ranger twins Vex and Vax, along with gunslinger Percy, barbarian Grog, gnomes Scanlan and Pike, as well as half-elf druid Keyleth are stunned. This normally unstoppable band of heroes was practically flicked off the board with no means to fight back.
And audiences are left with a similar semblance of complete and total helplessness as the first Season 2 episode of Amazon Studio’s The Legend of Vox Machina (the first three episodes debut today, January 20 on Prime Video) kicks off with these same dragons, named the Chroma Conclave, laying waste to Emon in all their CG-animated glory.
You can check out the 2016 livestream campaign video here. And check out the Season 2 trailer...
“When we recorded that episode at the table, our imagination was terrifying and epic of these massive beasts destroying things,” shares Liam O’Brian, who voices for Vax in the series and serves as an executive producer with the seven other Critical Role founders and voice actors: Sam Riegel (“Scanlan”), Travis Willingham (“Grog”), Taliesin Jaffe (“Percy”), Laura Bailey (“Vex”), Marisha Ray (“Keyleth”), Ashley Johnson (“Pike”), and Mercer.
O’Brian continues, “But that was just my imagination. I never thought it would be that huge and harrowing. And then I remember watching the finished episode for the first time and just going ‘Holy shit.’”
Riegel adds, “I was so impressed with what Titmouse did. It's a mix of 3D and 2D animation. Lots and lots of layers, lots and lots of complicated backgrounds and atmosphere effects. Those sequences were really hard to put together and the animators worked many, many late nights on it because it was so big and so epic.”
In the new season of the 2D animated series, the Vox Machina team has gone from drunk zeroes to slightly less drunk heroes. They’ve saved Percy’s home of Whitestone, put a rogue dragon in its place, and are now ready to become respected members of Emon society. But when four dragons crash the party and kill most of the citizens of Emon, including its leaders, Vox Machina set off to locate ancient weaponry that will equip them to face the dragons, whose reason for working together is still a mystery.
Along the way, the heroes will absorb unpredictable powers, face the worst versions of themselves, experience familial death, and revisit childhood trauma. Oh, and add in a sprinkle of romance and Fey Realm acid trips.
“I love the fact that we have lured the audience in with slap-dickory and butt stuff, only to bring you in and break your hearts,” says O’Brian.
“That’s very inspiring,” interjects Riegel. “We should put that on your tombstone.”
This season, even more than the first, is reflective of the emotions stirred up during certain points of the campaign, most notably the rise of the Chroma Conclave. As “epic” as the animated sequence was in the first episode, the group of actors, producers, and long-time RPG-playing friends use a very different word to describe that night of the live-streamed campaign: “tragic.”
“In game, it felt like Matt Mercer was the big bully kid coming to kick over your freshly built Lego house,” remembers Ray. “Especially in D&D, when you’re heroes, you don't want to run. You know that's an option. But you're like, ‘No, we're great. We're powerful. We’re basically gods.’ And then to have all of that dashed against the rocks. It's a smack in your face.”
Willingham adds, “It was one of the greatest rug pulls of all time. We had just come off the Whitestone Ark, everything was feeling hunky-dory and, all of a sudden, alarms are going off, towers are being smashed and we're like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to fight some dragons. No big deal,’ and Grog tries to hit with a [roll of] 19 and Matt, very blasé, looks at us and goes, “19 misses.” We all stared at him and were like, ‘We’ve got to get out of here.’
Mercer, on the other hand, had a very different perspective.
“It was tremendously fun,” says the Dungeon Master, who also does voices for the group of dragons. “It was delectable. I had been working towards that moment for two years. When it finally came around, I was just like, ‘Today's my day.’ I woke up whistling, got myself a good lunch, it was great. So yeah, I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
And seeing it come to life in the new season was an extra special treat for Mercer, who had become a master world-builder and had pages and pages of notes for not only how the fictional world of Exandria would run, but also how it would begin to fall for the sake of character development. Titmouse proved to be a perfect partner for the Critical Role crew in realizing this vision in animation.
“Sometimes you have to destroy what's familiar to make things new and dynamic,” explains Mercer. “There are a lot of reasons why I felt that this was an important moment to hit in the campaign. It gives the players and their characters a reason to realize that things beyond them are happening in the world. The stakes are at a point where they have to decide whether or not they're going to engage with this and how that will change them along the way. And getting to see that happen in the animated series is a crazy experience.”
Not many animators would be too thrilled with the idea of building out a beautiful, intricate city like Emon, only to have it completely wiped out in the following season. But, luckily, The Legend of Vox Machina art director, Titmouse’s Arthur Loftis, was a fan of Critical Role and knew exactly what he was getting into from the start of Season 1.
“He was familiar with the dragons and knew, as he was building out this city, even from a 3D model perspective, that he was going to have to destroy it at some point,” notes Willingham. “And so he took in the multiple levels of the city that, as [the dragons] are moving through, this section is going to be decimated by acid, this by ice…This is the tower that we can represent falling from the livestream. That part of it was helmed by Arthur brilliantly.”
He continues, “But it was really an interesting process, watching them design the dragons, making sure that their personalities were represented in their unique designs; the posture of Vorugal being more brutish and a hulking force than the weaselly Umbrasyl and the conniving Raishan. And then, of course, the devastating vestige of The Cinder King, Thordak. And of course, we're just like kids in a candy shop. It was probably one of the most fun parts of the early design stage of Season 2.”
Another exciting part of watching this section of their campaign come to life was the actual action involved with such large-scale devastation and attempted attacks on the side of the heroes and successful hits on the side of the dragons. Though the award-winning tabletop livestream was mostly roles and narrative, Season 2 of the show was a chance for the actors to see the characters of their imaginations carry out action after action without any stops.
“It still felt very beat for beat what the actual game was, but it also felt very tight,” says Jaffe. “In the live game, combat went so poorly so quickly, and it was a lot of very fast narrative and us just trying to get the fuck out. In the animation, the combat was more tightly coordinated.”
One of the show’s special features is that it can be viewed through two kinds of lenses: one of pure entertainment, the other of a D&D tabletop game player, knowing that every new ability and every failed attack was dictated by an effective or ineffective dice roll. This was something the team continued to keep in mind while producing the show, especially in the new season as the seven heroes experience the best power gains and worst combat losses thus far in the story.
“Anyone who's played a tabletop game knows some unexpected dice rolls lead to some of the most memorable, climactic moments,” says Mercer. “Also, sometimes a series of really bad dice rolls might lead to a very interesting story beat, but not the most thrilling battle. Now we get to go back and be like, ‘How can we take the things that made this special for us in the game and make it pop for our audience?’ For instance, in regards to the armor and haste ability for Vax, we talked with the storyboard artists and the design teams to figure out how we could make a cool battle into really interesting Percy and Vax character moments and a memorable bit of intense, sudden stakes that nobody was expecting.”
The high-stakes scenes – from losing loved ones to characters confronting their own toxic ideals of self-worth – also yielded large waves of emotion for both the characters and their voice actors, the feelings in the scenes heightened by the Critical Role group’s close friendships with one another and the fact that these eight individuals have been living and struggling together long before they let the world into their sacred RPG realm.
“There’s a moment where the group is talking with this Sphinx and she’s saying, ‘Here are all of your problems. Here's why you're not able to connect, and you guys have to overcome this to be able to fight this huge battle,’” explains Johnson. “It's this realization moment of, ‘Okay, even though we all have these flaws and these problems, we still are able to work together and, yeah, we're all a bit of a mess. But we can do this because we believe in ourselves and, if not ourselves, in each other. And I think there is an extra level of emotion with all of this because this did start as a home game.”
She continues, “We sat around at a table for two years with no plans of ever showing this to anybody. It was just for us. And I talk about this all the time, but some of those nights, connecting with this group of people, are some of the top five moments of my life.”
Some members of the group also relive some of their own personal growth moments played out in the series this second season, like in the case of Ray and her character Keyleth.
“We infuse these characters with pieces of us,” says Ray. “And I think that's why it's so easy to get emotional when anything bad happens. It's very hard, with any RPG, to not have it mirror or reflect a little bit of your life and whatever you're going through at the time. So revisiting a lot of Keyleth’s journey, and seeing her rise up in confidence and just get more faith in herself and become more secure as a leader in this second season, that was very personal to me as well at the time I was playing her at the table. Seeing that represented again, it evokes all the feels.”
The personal nature of Critical Role’s gameplay has been a big part of fans' attraction to the livestreams for years; it was proved the foundation for Vox Machina’s Kickstarter funding success and why Amazon ordered not one, but two seasons right up front. And the group plans to keep things personal and nostalgic for fans, knowing that while they are making a fun show for themselves, they also understand how much it means to fans that they’ve opened up the door to their own personal Narnia for the rest of the world.
“A lot of our audience has mentioned that they feel like the eighth person on that opposite side of the table with us and, honestly, I find that to be the highest level of compliment, that they feel a part of it and just as much a part of the inside jokes and the heartbreak and the dumb decisions as we do,” says Ray. “That's why I appreciate some of the little Easter eggs and tiny moments that allude to bigger ones from the campaign that we couldn’t always fit into the show. Sometimes it gets accomplished in one line or a side joke or with certain knickknacks and items in shops. So, pause your screen and look at all of it. I think that's where fans of the campaign will truly be rewarded.
Three new episodes of The Legend of Vox Machina will be made available each Friday, starting today, culminating in an epic season finale on February 10.