Cover Image for The Legend of Vox Machina
I'm going to just say it up front: I've never seen or heard episodes of Critical Role before, but I bear it no ill will. Its success has been good for the hobby as a whole and I've seen just how much fans love it. The thing is, I'm not a podcast or live play person. I don't want to watch others play or run; I want to do that myself. I don't know the stories, and I don't have the time to spend catching up on all the old material. I don't know the characters, but I've seen a ton of great fan art created of them, and they look cool.
So hearing that they were making an animated show actually appealed to me. I didn't get in on the Kickstarter, but I do have an Amazon Prime account, and I was happy to hear I could gain access that way.
And let me be straight-up about this: I believe the greatest future of D&D on screen lies in shows, where characters and stories can be developed over time. We've been in a golden age of television-style shows for a good while now, following the wake of The Sopranos. Shows have become more cinematic, been granted larger budgets, and benefitted from better writing. We've also seen more mature shows released on streaming services, which is something I relish. Tabletop games easily translate to episodes and seasons and tend to have engaging settings and histories. Live action fantasy has only gotten better with modern effects, but animation seems like a natural medium for fantasy shows. And I love animation.
All that being said, I avoided the hype for Legend of Vox Machina. I didn't want to get my expectations ramped up too high; I wanted to give it a fair chance, as a fan of fantasy media.
I'm going to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, just in case you haven't seen it yet.
The show starts in what seems like a fairly generic D&D kingdom: medievalesque, with some fantasy races amongst many humans, and adventuring parties hanging out in taverns. The setting seems a little too generic at first, but I gave it a chance. It's familiar enough that viewers won't feel lost and the early episodes focus on the basics, instead of dealing with a lot of lore. Not all D&D settings are trying to be that different from the norm, and fun can still be had. I'm as interested in Tal'Dorei as I am in the setting of Arcane, but it has enough going on that I'll keep watching.
The animation style is consistent, professional, and geared toward what you expect from fantasy. It's good without being great, but I'm okay with that. I mean, they Kickstarted most of the first season, and not every series is going to be as beautiful as Castlevania. The creatures look good overall, and big, impressive critters actually look the part. There's real effort made to make different settlements look different from a distance and up close. The characters are all distinct and magic looks special. It works.
The main characters bicker and stumble through things, as I've seen plenty of player characters do in games. But I don't mind stories of people who fail forward or upward. One of the things we say at our table when the characters fail (or flail about during a scene, instead of handling things smoothly) is: "Fucking amateurs!" Even if they're higher level, there's always a chance they'll make the wrong call or things will go sideways. Others might feel let down by "heroes" that aren't heroic enough, but I prefer my protagonists to have shortcomings and struggles.
And make no mistake, Vox Machina fails forward often. They don't start out as the best crew with the best reputation, and their bickering gets in the way sometimes. There are times when they don't flat-out win the day, which I appreciated. But they end up with front-row seats for important problems and gain the notice of important people, for better and for worse. They aren't completely incompetent, but they aren't well-equipped to deal with everything they encounter, which adds a sort of realism. They find ways to move forward, even if they make a mess along the way, which reminds me of how things can work out at an actual table.
When we first see the main story arcs unfold, we're given the impression that there are major problems afoot that will be more than the group can tackle and resolve quickly. They seem like local matters that could spread and get bad, but they don't seem to threaten the world. This works for characters of the level they're supposed to be (7th). Once you discover the types of creatures and people involved, most D&D fans will know what to expect and by and large, that's what they'll get. I can't say that I didn't see the surprises coming or that the early stories awed me, but I don't think that was the point. Plenty of campaigns start with what's typical and early adventure hooks are often left behind. But there's a larger design at work and it goes beyond the first season.
Some of the Vox Machina characters know each other better than others at the start of the series, which makes it more interesting than if they'd been a band of strangers. The chemistry between these duos continues even as they get to know the others more, which is nice. Overall, the characters give the impression that they have histories, but most background information is spread out on an as-needed basis. One character's history becomes the focus of later episodes, and I'm hoping to see similar arcs for each of them. There's a lot of room for future revelations and focused storylines that can take them beyond stereotypes.
And that's good, because it's clear that they're based on stereotypes. It would have been nice to have something more than the usual dumb barbarian and lusty bard, but they're stock types that make for easy comic relief. Since I'm a bard fan while many aren't, I was just glad to see a bard in the party at all. I'm hoping that at least one of them has a living parent out there somewhere because several are dead, and these characters seem fairly young.
The twin brother and sister whose names sound a lot alike (Vex and Vax) manage not to be painful cliches because of how they act. They aren't eerily in tune with each other, nor are they polar opposites of each other, which saves them from the usual twin tropes. Vex often tries to take charge of a party that doesn't have a clear leader and which seems to resist organization, but she's open to sharing power instead of being domineering. Vax is observant and personable and isn't generally focused on what he can steal, which is a nice change of pace for a rogue. (Out of all of them, Vax is my favorite.)
I found myself growing impatient with Keyleth, the perpetually scared druid, and the cleric Pike, who never seemed sure of her ties to her deity or if her spells would work. They're supposed to be level 7 characters, but there are times when it really doesn't feel that way. Perhaps there's something about the setting that makes magic - or healing spells in particular - unreliable, but that isn't made clear. Perhaps Keyleth's player wanted to play out the trope of the seemingly fragile girl who turns into a protective bear when those she cares about are threatened. It definitely seems like Pike's issues are a way to develop a view of her goddess and faith. But none of the male characters are half as insecure (not even Scanlan, who has some magic as a bard). These issues get better as the season moves on, but seem like they'll continue to some degree. It's somewhat disappointing, but not a show-stopper for me.
Ultimately, the voice acting is solid, the characters take on some depth, and I'm interested to learn more about the party and see where they go. My husband has said more than once that he feels the same way.
One of the things I love about Vox Machina is something that a number of vocal viewers seem to hate: they cuss. The characters don't just save it up for when they're really mad or scared; they curse often, even in front of people they shouldn't. They're not using made-up curse words, either - they rely on the most forbidden one, fuck. I've waited a long time to hear that word in films and shows, and it doesn't bother me one bit. I've heard it plenty in real life and it doesn't make me uncomfortable. I don't have children to worry about, either. Vox Machina reminded me of my group and a good number of our characters, so I felt right at home.
For those who are concerned about the sheer amount of cussing early on: there isn't as much of it in the later half of the season and "fuck" seems to be phased out, but it doesn't go away completely.
And then there's the sex scene and sexual references. Hearing that there was sex - not romance, but sex - was one of the reasons I knew I had to check the show out. I'm aware that many people aren't comfortable with sex in their high fantasy media, including roleplaying games. Tolkien set a pretty non-sexual tone for modern fantasy at large: characters got married and had children in Lord of the Rings, but that happened out of sight. And given that the trilogy is essentially a war story focused on brotherhood, I can see why Tolkien chose to keep romance at a minimum. I also know a lot of folks play in public spaces and/or near kids, so they keep things PG-13 at most. I can respect that, too; it's what others prefer. But my gaming has always involved sexual references and storylines. Many people are sexual beings; it's part of adult life, and I don't see anything inherently shameful about it. It doesn't have to be graphic, as I've gone over extensively elsewhere on this site, but most fantasy pretends it doesn't exist.
The sex scene in the show isn't explicit, but it's clear enough what's happening. Would I have preferred to see some sexual references that weren't just for comedic value? Sure. But it was nice to see it in the mix. There were some raunchy sexual jokes, but they were delivered quickly and let go, and they could have been a lot more graphic.
I feel the same way about the violence that was shown. I grew up on the gore of the 1980s, so it wasn't a big deal to see a few extra seconds of crushing blows and blood. The animators didn't linger on the gore; it was usually there to show that a final blow was devastating, and it could have been a lot bloodier. (It reminded me of watching Heavy Metal, which is never a bad thing.) The show also illustrates the violence that's glossed over in many tabletop games. Sure, the dice tell you how much damage your character did, but unless you go out of your way to describe wounds, combat seems bloodless. And that may be what some fans want, but there's an audience for bloody fantasy, and I'm in it.
Is Legend of Vox Machina ground-breaking in terms of setting, character, or story yet? No. But it has broken some serious ground for adult-oriented fantasy in the era of streaming. Streaming services have generally allowed more leeway when it comes to language, violence, sex, and other taboo topics; it's part of why audiences turn to them instead of broadcast television. We've lived with sanitized shows all our lives. They're everywhere and there are plenty to choose from. But audiences for fantasy and D&D have gotten older and more varied. We should no longer think of the fantasy genre (or D&D) as being mainly for children, but as a mode that can cater to various ages and tastes. Parents can find out show ratings ahead of time and decide what they'll allow their kids to watch, and the rest of us can check out some episodes and decide for ourselves if we want to keep going.
I've seen plenty of reviewers insist that their real problem with the show is that the humor, sex, and gore are juvenile and unnecessary to the plot. But I contend that it is and it isn't. It was nice to see that fantasy doesn't have to be serious all the time. There can be real threats afoot while crude jokes are made; humor is part of how people cope, and during stressful situations, it isn't always going to be family-friendly. Adult characters shouldn't have to be serious at all times to be respected. If anything, breaks can show more depth of personality. On a similar note, people have and talk about sex because they want to, not always for weighty reasons. So why should it be hidden in an adult-oriented story unless it's "necessary to the plot"? It's a part of life and can be as sacred or profane as anything else. And showing a few extra seconds of blood or gore is perfectly in keeping with combat scenes. I mean, they're showing people using weapons on each other. It's arguably the most appropriate time, and the show doesn't linger on any of it for long. Perhaps the most juvenile thing is to insist on a narrowly defined vision of what fantasy should be for everyone.
If anything, this serves to remind us all that gaming groups are different from each other, with their own norms, boundaries, and desires. This might not be how you would play at your table, but others do and have fun. The same can be said for the reactions to the series. A number of people have made their discomfort and disappointment clear and decided to stop watching, and that's their right - but many enjoyed the sex, cussing, and blood as much as everything else and want more. A second season has been given the green light, likely because no matter how people felt, they tried it out (driving up ratings), and a significant portion of the audience vocally approves (giving positive buzz to offset the negative). And people like me, who didn't feel any interest in previous Critical Role products, are on board.
The series has a lot of room to grow and it's grown on me. I got sucked into the show and happily binged it in a few sittings. Then, I couldn't wait to find out when more would be released. I feel like I'm being seen as part of an audience worth catering to: an audience that embraces fantasy and Dungeons and Dragons without cleaning it up. An audience that can take a storyline seriously but still laugh at a raunchy joke. An audience of adults who want more options in their entertainment.
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