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Renton, Critical Role, and the Dungeons & Dragons revival

Actors Matthew Lillard, Dylan Sprouse, and Joe Manganiello help unveil the new Dungeons & Dragons storyline, 'Tomb of Annihilation' during a live streaming event with Critical Role at The House Studios on June 2, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for Dungeons & Dragons)

Thousands of people are flocking to downtown Seattle this weekend for Emerald City Comic Con. Each eagerly vying for a chance to see their favorite celebrity. Among these top-billed guests like Star Trek’s George Takei or Doctor Who’s Peter Capaldi is a cast of celebrities drawing thousands — Critical Role.

For the uninitiated, Critical Role is a collection of prominent voice actors famous for playing Dungeons & Dragons and streaming their tabletop adventures online. They’ll be taking a break from their fantastical story to appear at Emerald City Comic Con this weekend.

“When we go to these live events, it’s just a whole different energy,” said Critical Role cast member Travis Willingham. “That’s what it is, it’s a wave of energy …  taking a break from the normal grind and going out and putting a face with the internet comments we see is really nice … it’s always a really special thing when we are able to connect in person and we really enjoy it.”

That’s right — Dungeons & Dragons, aka D&D. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this role playing game is more popular today that it ever has been in its 45-year history. Popular enough to justify shows like Critical Role, and many others like it, attracting fans worldwide.

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“It’s unprecedented, honestly, there is this huge surge in popularity right now,” said Greg Tito with Wizards of the Coast, the company that produces Dungeons & Dragons out of its Renton headquarters.

“The (rule) books are flying off the shelves and we’ve seen double-digit growth for Dungeons & Dragons over the last five years,” he said. “… 2017 was, as far as we can tell, the most successful year in Dungeons & Dragons history. And then 2018 blew that out of the water.”

Dungeons & Dragons revival

D&D is a role-playing game. You have a dungeon master who is like a writer of a story (the game), and players who take on personas in that story. The game progresses at a roll of a dice, determining how successful, or not, the players are in any scenario the dungeon master throws at them. The game rose to prominence in the 1980s, and its core attraction has remained the same.

“Getting together on a weekly basis, hanging out with your friends, telling stories and laughing and doing heroic deeds has a benefit beyond what even the creators of Dungeons & Dragons thought it would be back in 1974,” Tito said.

A 20-sided die and character sheet used in Dungeons & Dragons. (janetgalore, Flickr)

A range of factors have created this modern D&D renaissance. There are box office hits like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. The popular Netflix series Stranger Things featured the game as a plot point. Perhaps modern technology creating a greater need for social interactions — and game nights are a great excuse for that. Add it up and what you get is a Dungeons & Dragons era like never before.

“The fifth edition of the game (released in 2014) brought in a lot of older fans that may have been lost players and it’s also been wonderfully adept at bringing in audiences that you might not have associated with Dungeons & Dragons back in the ’80s,” Tito said.

Wizards of the Coast estimates that the D&D audience is currently about 39 percent female — higher than in past years. Tito further notes that players have become more diverse, attracting more minorities.

“This has a lot to do with the rise of video streaming,” Tito said. “The popularity of watching people play video games on Twitch has been noticed by the mainstream, in addition to the nerd and geek community. And Dungeons & Dragons is really benefiting a lot from that right now.”

Critical Role

The modern era of media has created a whole new spectator pastime for the game — people tune in to watch online (or listen to podcasts) as people play a game, creating a story on the spot. At the forefront of this frontier is Critical Role, a weekly, online series composed of voice actors. They stream their campaign on Twitch every Thursday.

“We play every week for a few hours, now in our second campaign,” cast member Travis Willingham said. “We create characters and give them unique voices, all while improvising in the Dungeons & Dragons game universe.”

Critical Role began in 2015, just as a get-together among voice actor friends. Today, it is podcasted and streamed via Twitch. It’s so popular that when Critical Role recently ran a Kickstarter campaign it met its funding goal within a day, and has now received 957 percent of that goal — $7.1 million. That was just a couple weeks ago.

The funds are being used to produce an animated series based on the group’s D&D campaigns. Whereas Critical Role first wanted to develop an animated pilot, it now plans to make a whole season.

Marisha Ray and Matthew Mercer of Critical Role help unveil the new Dungeons & Dragons storyline, ‘Tomb of Annihilation’ during a live streaming event at The House Studios on June 2, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for Dungeons & Dragons)

“We were all floored by the response,” Willingham said. “…most of us got up in the morning, turned on our laptops while we started our morning routine and we didn’t even get out of the house. We were like, ‘this thing is going to be done in a day?….We certainly had underestimated the fervor and passion of our fans, which was a welcome surprise.”

The cast of Critical Role includes Willingham, Matthew Mercer, Marisha Ray, Laura Bailey, Liam O’Brien, Sam Riegel, Taliesin Jaffe, and Brian W. Foster. They will be featured at Emerald City Comic Con Saturday and Sunday. They have an exclusive panel at 10:45 a.m. Saturday on the main stage.

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