The Legend of Vox Machina Captures the Joys of Role Playing

More than fan service, Critical Role's The Legend of Vox Machina succeeds at storytelling.

The Legend of Vox Machina
Photo: Prime Video

This article contains spoilers for the first six episodes of The Legend of Vox Machina.

There’s an old adage in tabletop roleplaying circles: no one is as interested in your character and campaign as you are. But the popularity of podcasts like Adventure Zone and Critical Role have revealed that with the right storytellers and cast, there’s a large audience eager to follow characters on their wacky adventures. Following a wildly successful, record breaking Kickstarter to fund an animated special, the Critical Role team expanded their initial idea from a short animated project to a full season, picked up by Amazon Prime Video.

Clearly, the fans of the podcast would follow the cast to the animated adaptation. But what about viewers who’d never listened to the extensive campaign? They might find some value in the venture as well…after a few episodes.

As the animated series starts, the heroes are a down on their luck band of adventurers, known as Vox Machina, who have a poor reputation and are better known for their drinking than for their heroics. Viewers are introduced to dour Percy, a human gunslinger; Vax and Vex, half-elf twins who are a rogue and ranger respectively; Keyleth, a timid half-elf druid; Grog, a not-too-bright goliath barbarian; Pike, a troubled gnome cleric; and Scanlan, a sex-preoccupied gnome bard. (Matthew Mercer, the original campaign’s DM, serves as the narrator and performs several smaller roles within the story.) 

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When the group sees a posting about a huge reward for identifying a monster plaguing Tal’Dorei, they take on the quest for the promise of a cash reward. It turns out that the monster is a super-powerful dragon and Vox Machina is clearly out of their league—but despite their reward-centric attitude, they know they can’t just let the people of Tal’Dorei suffer and die if they can do something about it.

If you took the crass language and humor of Deadpool, mixed it with a cast of a-holes like the Guardians of the Galaxy, and set it in a Dungeons & Dragons style world, that’s roughly the tone of the first two episodes. The cussing, sex jokes, and over-the-top violence gives the show a campy feeling that may make viewers feel like it’s more fan-service for the podcast audience than a story that stands on its own. The chaotic humor is more reminiscent of the wacky narratives that emerge from collaborative storytelling—like in a D&D campaign—than scripted, intentional storytelling. But cameos from actors like David Tennant (Doctor Who) and Stephanie Beatriz (Encanto) might encourage viewers to give the show a little longer viewing.

And if they stick with it, they’ll be glad they did.

With episode three, The Legend of Vox Machina launches into the real meat of the story, in which the vampires who slaughtered Percy’s family begin a plot that puts Tal’Dorei in danger. But despite their newly won reputation, no one believes Vox Machina when the party tries to bring the plot to light—the vampires are too powerful and persuasive. Not only does the team have to figure out how to defeat these foes, they have to do so while the crown is actively working against them.

While we got hints of the depth of the characters in the first arc, it’s this storyline that really brings them to life. Percy, voiced by Taliesin Jaffe, is haunted by his past, and his barely contained rage and desire for revenge reveal that he’s hiding something dark from the rest of the team. Pike, voiced by Ashley Johnson, brings her own crisis of faith to a head when she’s hit by a vampiric spell—but there were hints in the first two episodes that she and her goddess weren’t seeing eye to eye, and that exploration of what’s broken about her faith, though it happens as a solo mission, have a beautiful and terrible depth that will certainly have consequences for the rest of Vox Machina. 

Grog (Travis Willingham), who clearly has a long history with Pike (in the original podcast, they were childhood friends, and a similar relationship is implied here), struggles without the moral compass Pike provides. Keyleth (Marisha Ray) reveals that she’s exiled from her own people until she can prove her worth, and while her backstory seems less tragic in comparison, the way she opens up to the others reveals a growing sense of kinship among the party. 

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Vax and Vex (Liam O’Brien and Laura Bailey), whose strong sibling relationship allowed them to survive a tragic past, question why they haven’t abandoned the party—but they don’t leave, and that commitment to the team reinforces the idea that they’re not just the bunch of jerks the first two episodes depicted. (Scanlan, voiced by Sam Rigel, has yet to reveal his hidden depths, but his antics continue to be valuable comedy relief as the story gets darker.) This strange group is a family, and while they’re once again out-classed by a more powerful foe, their failures make them more sympathetic, and more worth investing in.

The story itself also clearly delineates the cynical, treasure-hungry group (who early on reject Pike’s idea that they should do things for a higher good rather than cash) from the world’s true evils. The two vampires and their minions are brutally wicked, who view the mortal population of the lands they stole from Percy’s family as nothing more than chattel. The monsters they use to fight Vox Machina are legitimately scary, and the animation in episode four, largely depicted in the dark, heightens the tension beautifully.

With the 2D traditional animation and the dark, involved storytelling, the second arc of The Legend of Vox Machina brings to mind other adult animation, particularly anime like Attack on Titan or Trigun. This series is continuing to push the boundaries of Western animation for older, adult audiences in a way that works—not only because the show started out with an instant following, but also because they’re delivering a deeper story.

With half of season one still to come, and the news that Amazon ordered season two before the series released, it will be exciting to see where the story goes, and whether the characters are able to overcome their pasts to become the heroes Tal’Dorei needs. With, one can expect, plenty of humor along the way.

The Legend of Vox Machina premieres three new episodes on Friday, Feb. 11 on Prime Video.