Critical Role is a web-video series that airs on a weekly basis, and is based on the streaming of a game of Dungeons & Dragons played by a group of famous voice actors, most notably Matthew Mercer as the Dungeon Master. It has been held up as being a huge part of the reason why Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition was such a commercial success, as this publicity gave D&D a huge public image makeover, allowing it to be officially perceived as "cool", and not the province of emotionally stunted, socially inept, hideously deformed basement-dwelling nerds.
The players of Critical Role use Mercer's own homebrewed world, called Exandria; the first campaign (series) takes place on a continent called Tal'dorei, whilst the second takes place on another one called Wildemount. The second campaign is set 20 years after the events of the first.
"Right, listen up. If you have ale, then you have a friend in Grog Strongjaw. A goliath of towering height and size, this barbarian has an appetite for the two great loves in his life: combat, women, and ale. Wait... Easily the brains of the group, Grog is often consulted for his vast knowledge of shapes, colors, and shiny things. Also ale. In his early years, armed with his two-handed greataxe, Grog often enjoyed proving his might amongst the ranks of his family's wandering herd. But after coming upon an unsuspecting elderly gnome in the woods, he objected to the killing of such an innocent life. A creature of impulse, Grog felt only pity for this terrified little thing. His disobedience cost him dearly. Beaten bloody and banished by the herd leader, his uncle Kevdak, Grog was abandoned and left to die. Exiled from his herd, it was then that the relative of the very gnome he fought to save, saved him. It was the kindness of a gnome cleric named Pike that healed Grog, bringing him back from death's edge. And they have remained close friends ever since. Most nights, Grog can be found challenging entire taverns to wrestling matches! Or accompanying Scanlan to the nearest house where you pay for, er, lady favors. Also ale." -Grog's introduction
"I would like to Rage!" -Grog whenever he gets the chance
Goliath barbarian and resident meat shield Grog isn't exactly the sharpest half-giant in the crayon box but he makes up for his lacking mental capacity with his ungodly strength and winning personality. Grog is good at three things: Killing things very violently, drinking profusely and finding horrible evil swords by accident. Grog has earned many titles over his long years of adventuring most of them due to complete accident or where given as a joke this however makes them no less hilarious they include but are not limited to: The Grand Poobah de Doink of All This and That, First Tour Captain of Whitestone, King-Maker, Dragon-slayer, Professor Grog, Jumbo, Greg, Philip, Peanutbutter. This list of illustrious names only scratches the surface of the legend that Grog has accumulated over his time adventuring with Vox Mochina. He may be dumb as hell and will straight up murder some one if provoked but he does try to do what's right whenever the chance arises. Basically the most popular character in Vox Machina in part thanks to Travis Willingham and his insane commitment to roleplaying the character.
"A first impression of Keyleth would leave you with little information on the half-elven druid. You might even think that her social awkwardness due to her sheltered upbringing is kind of sweet. Of course, it would be unwise to underestimate her based on first impressions. Under that unintimidating petite frame is a vicious beast waiting to be unleashed, whose natural powers have made even the fiercest of champions pee their pants. Literally. Born to the air tribe of the Ashari people, Keyleth was raised with a deep love of nature and the elemental magics. It is her people's inherent duty to protect the delicate areas in Tal'Dorei, where the four elemental planes begin to bleed with this realm. Since she was a little girl, she had quite a knack for air manipulation and beast shaping abilities; well, if you consider kittens and flying squirrels to be little beasts, which I do. Anyways, it wasn't long before the headmaster of the tribe, her father, Korrin, realized her true prodigious abilities and she was inveterated to succeed him as the next headmaster. Just like that, her jovial childhood was stripped and replaced with endless spell memorization, teachings from ancient traditions, and exceedingly high expectations. Every druid leader-to-be must embark on a journey to seek out the sister tribes in order to introduce and establish respect amongst the fellow headmasters. They call this the Aramenté, or Noble Odyssey. When her father felt she was ready, he set her on the path to truly discovering herself. Not knowing when, or if, she will ever return. As she hikes down the mountain towards Stilben, she meditated on the task ahead. Part of the Aramenté is proving yourself a strong warrior, a valiant protector, and a wise and compassionate leader. With this knowledge, one thought plays in repeat in her mind: is she even worthy?" -Keyleth's Introduction
"Never entirely welcome in the company of elves or men, Vax'ildan learned at a young age to skip past formality, preferring instead to invite himself in your door. Along with twin sister Vex'ahlia, Vax was born by a chance encounter between elven royalty and human peasantry. Raised by their mother in their early years, the twins were eventually sent off to their father in the elven capital of Syngorn. But their cool reception among the elves there never warmed, and their time in the capital didn't last. The siblings stole away one autumn night and set out on the open road. After a few years of wandering, they eventually decided to return to their mother, and journeyed back to the lands of their youth. But instead of finding their childhood home, they returned to a pile of rubble. Their mother was gone, their home burned to ash. Pressing the townspeople for answers, they learned of the day the dragon came. With their ties all severed, Vax'ildan and his sister set out to find their fortune together in Tal'Dorei. An outsider since birth, Vax quickly learned to solve life's challenges in his own particular way, often by sidestepping them entirely. And when his knack for circumventing adversity isn't enough, the way of blades the elves schooled him in more than makes up the difference." -Vax's Introduction
"Like so many half-elves, Vex'ahlia has spent most of her life suffering the cool reception of a people who don't fully accept her. Born of a human mother and an elven father—who only later in life took an interest in their existence—, Vex'ahlia and her twin brother Vax'ildan quickly realized the only people they could truly rely on in this world were each other. It was at the age of ten when the two were taken from their mother, and brought to live in Syngorn, the isolated elven city for which their father was an ambassador. He quietly took them in, but always kept an icy distance, and after too many years of disdainful looks, the pair decided to leave his indifference behind, and set out on their own. Vax took to the cities, stealing small trinkets and learning the ways of the thief, while Vex kept to the woods. She preferred the isolation. Always the keen observer, she learned to hunt and to track, to spy and to shoot. And through a series of fateful events, earned herself a companion in the form of a bear—her own stolen Trinket—to fight alongside her and protect her fiercely. Also, he is adorable—and gives expert massages." -Vex's Introduction
Percival Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III
"Percy was the third child of seven children, born to a noble family who lived far to the north in the ancient castle of Whitestone. With so many siblings to share the burdens of lordship, Percy turned his attention to the sciences, engineering, and naturalism. One day, a mysterious couple, named Lord and Lady Briarwood, came to court. During a feast held in their honour, the Briarwoods violently took control of the castle, killing or imprisoning everyone who would stand in their way. Percy awoke chained in the dungeon, only to be freed by his younger sister. Together they fled, chased by the Briarwoods' men. As they ran, Percy's sister took several arrows to the chest and fell. Percy kept running, eventually jumping into a freezing river and floating unconscious to freedom. He did not remember waking up on a fishing boat. He barely remembered the next two years, as he slowly made his way as far south as possible. Then one night, Percy had a dream. A roaring cloud of smoke offered him vengeance against those who destroyed his family. When he awoke, Percy began to design his first gun." -Percival's Introduction
A human Gunslinger (a custom archetype made by Matt available on the DMs Guild), Percy quickly came into his own as a character and enraptured the community due to a haunting backstory and performance from Taliesin Jaffe. Percy unintentionally opens Pandora's Box through the creation of firearms, yet another bundle of trauma to add onto losing all of his family at a young age and being forced to flee as they were slaughtered before his eyes. Eventually finding a replacement family in Vox Machina, Percy set out to avenge his loved ones and provide his new family with a safe home in Whitestone after reclaiming it from a horde of vampires and undead.
"Oh, you haven't heard of Scanlan Shorthalt? Well, gird your loins, ladies, because he has his eye on you. A talented musician, master of disguise, and dashingly handsome in his own mind, Scanlan sings songs almost as much as he sings his own praises. Born a poor gnome, Scanlan used his endless charm and soaring tenor voice to croon for coin and support his single mother. One day he was discovered by a half-orc promoter, and joined Dr. Dranzel's Spectacular Traveling Troupe, where he learned the ways of the world, and honed his skills as a bard extraordinaire. A loner much of his life, Scanlan has never quite come to terms with the violent death of his mother at the hands of a goblin invasion. While his years on the road provided many, shall we say, educational experiences with the opposite sex, deep down Scanlan yearns for the one thing he's never known: the true love of a fellow gnome. Still, Scanlan considers himself a lover first, performer second, and fighter distant third. On the battlefield, he'll support his allies, but rarely draws blood unless it's to protect fellow gnome Pike. Count on Scanlan for a hearty laugh, a rollicking song, and a twinkle in his eye that melts hearts and makes the females swoon." -Scanlan's Intro
The classic bardic archetype, Scanlan started life as a question by his actor Sam Riegel to Liam O'Brien on their podcast All Work No Play asking what was the worst possible class/race hybrid he could play, to which O'Brien answered with "Gnome Bard." As fond of the ladies as he was fond of praising himself, Scanlan served mostly as a support caster, making the most of his Bardic abilities to flicker between DPS, healing and buffing as needed. Pretty much universally adored, especially once Sam began to make Scanlan the most unintended badass character in the team with feats such as burning a mansion down during a running battle that started with him bursting the doors down as a dinosaur. As he matured and learned to let go of the lecherous lifestyle, helped by a surprise appearance from his unknown daughter, Scanlan became an invaluable member of the team who provided a cruical part in many of the larger battles.
"Pike grew up in the outskirts of town, near the Bramblewood. Her ancestors were a family of deep gnomes with quite an unfavorable reputation. Thievery, destruction, and trickery left them with the curse of the last name of Trickfoot. Sarenrae, the goddess of healing and redemption, had other plans for Pike's great-great-grandfather Wilhand, who left his family at a young age after a dream—a dream that changed the course of the Trickfoot family. Wilhand devoted his life to Sarenrae, and pledged from then on that he and his family would live a life of service and devotion. As a child, Pike seemed to have an affinity to heal. Whether it was animals, people, or even flowers, she felt she had a purpose in making things whole that had once been broken. She studied and learned the ways to heal through divine magic. She lived a peaceful life, quiet and simple, until one day, Wilhand was captured and almost killed by a group of goliath barbarians. One of the goliaths took a stand against the murder of the innocent gnome, and he himself was beaten, bloodied, and left for dead, abandoned by his herd. Wilhand went to Pike for help. She prayed, and healed this barbarian as best she could, bringing him back to life. When he awoke, she discovered his name was Grog Strongjaw. After that, they were the best of friends—a rather unlikely pair. Little did she know that in a few years time, Grog would soon return the favor and bring her back from the clutches of death. After being killed in battle, Pike felt angry. She wanted to be stronger, so that it would never happen again. She spent four months at sea, training with the men and women aboard a ship called The Broken Howl. Gripping her holy symbol in one hand, and her morningstar in the other, this time, Pike is ready." -Pike's Introduction
A Gnome Cleric, Pike was the party's main healer and source of moral support. Due to her actor Ashley Johnson spending much of the campaign living in New York filming for NBC's Blindspot, Pike had very infrequent appearances relying on Ashley being able to Skype in if she got off work early enough or coming to LA for several weeks- various times her character sheet would be given to another cast member for more important battles. This had the unintended consequence of giving Pike little chance to grow as a character due to many of her arcs being cut off by Ashley having to leave or being heavily truncated. While mostly liked by the fandom, no one's exactly going to call Pike their favorite.
Ashley's boyfriend, later husband, Brian Wayne Foster, also hosts a spinoff show called Talks Machina where a rotating cast made of the players are asked followup questions about each session.
"Greetings and salutations. I am Tiberius Stormwind. I hail from a town called Tyriex, located in the heart of Draconia, born from a politically respected family. At the age of 15, I succeeded in passing the Sorcerer's Rite, showing prodigy-like control of my magic. The judges and the Draconian high council were amazed at how powerful my spells were for how long I had been training. At 20 years old, I was the youngest appointed member of the magic guild in Draconian history. For the next few years, I almost went mad from the malaise of being a guild member, as it's rather boring. However, one day I happened upon a chamber, unused for quite some time. In the room were stacks of books and maps of the surrounding cities and areas around the known world. For months I would frequent the chamber, and learned of artifacts from legend. After a long period of research, I made a list of artifacts that caught my eye. I brought these findings to the high council and was told that all of the information in the chamber I stumbled upon was either believed to be fiction or unsolvable mysteries, and hence were lost forever. I found those answers to be unacceptable. A year later I devised a ruse and managed to convince the city council to lend support in me leaving Draconia on a mission of peace and diplomacy for the surrounding kingdoms, going from town to town and making friends and allies, in and for the name of Draconia. Being a red dragonborn, I had quite the task on my hands in that respect, but it was exactly what I needed so I could explore the world and find these artifacts, as I felt the truth was out there. Some may describe me as buffoonish, but I say poppycock to all that. I am much sharper than most give me credit for. I just don't pay attention to things sometimes. I've also been known to be rather cunning, loyal, happy-go-lucky, and well, dangerous. I can't help but show my true scales every now and then. But overall, I think I'm quite friendly for a dragonborn." -Tiberius' Introduction
More known for the controversies his actor got into, Tiberius was a Dragonborn Sorcerer driven to uncover magical mysteries and recover lost artifacts. Proving popular in the early days of the show, Tiberius's popularity would wane after the first major arc due to accusations that his actor Orion Acaba was cheating at the table through fudging dice rolls and deliberately misreading his magic items to give him an advantage over the DM. Acaba's bad habit of getting into spats with the fandom such as telling a fan they were "no true fan" of Critical Role when they made a Tiberius shirt, soured a lot of people to the character as a consequence. When Orion abruptly left the show in 2015 the fanbase devolved into massive arguments about it and conspiracies began to emerge about the true reasoning for his firing. Orion himself has given differing accounts, citing a mixture of a HIV diagnosis alongside a bad breakup making him unpleasant at the table and souring his professional relationships. Various new debacles involving him pocketing charity money meant for one of his Twitch mods and various ex-girlfriends calling him abusive have made even the mere topic of Tiberius persona non grata for many fans. Ultimately, Matt (with Orion's permission) had Tiberius killed offscreen by member of the villainous Chroma Conclave when they attacked Draconia.
Taryon Darington “I am literally the least hard man to find: I tell everyone my name, I wear a gold helmet, and I walk around talking about myself.” -Taryon to his father
Sam Riegel's replacement character during a period where Scanlan left the show, Taryon was an Artificer described as a low level character wearing a high-level player's gear. Aided by his companion Doty, Taryon inserted himself into Vox Machina's story and became fast friends with the group after the token tragic backstory exchange. Left the party after Scanlan returned and took a more recurring role for the rest of the series.
Mercer may also be familiar with Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, as certain influences from the Nentir Vale can be seen on Tal'dorei - most notably, the Tal'dorei pantheon is literally the Dawn War pantheon, but given new names.
In 2017, Mercer officially released a Tal'dorei campaign setting splatbook for 5th edition. He has also brought up the idea of doing other splatbooks for different parts of Exandria.