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Sam Riegel, Travis Willingham, And Brandon Auman On Adapting The Legend Of Vox Machina - Exclusive Interview

There's a lot of work involved in making a tabletop role playing game work. The game master has to be adaptive in their story, the players have to craft interesting characters based on the stats they've rolled up, and everyone has to know the rules — so they can bend and break them, of course!

It can be easy, once you've got a good game going, to think that the collective story being told is good enough to be told in another format. However, if we're being honest, most role players are chaotic by nature, constantly fixated on their own characters, and often try to mess with the GM out of spite. While that's fun in the moment, it's not really something people outside of the game will want to see.

That is why "Critical Role," a TTRPG campaign comprised of voice actors who stream their adventures online, are so exceptional — their adventures aren't just fun for them, they're fun for the many, many people who watch them, too. In fact, "Critical Role" is so popular that they've raised millions to adapt their adventures into an animated series. The result is "The Legend of Vox Machina," which is set to premiere through Prime Video on January 28.

Looper recently sat down with executive producers Sam Riegel, Travis Willingham, and Brandon Auman to find out how they managed to take "Critical Role's" tabletop adventures and convert them into an animated quest.

How Critical Role became Legend of Vox Machina

Adapting something like a DND campaign to a completely different format, like an animated series, and get a feel just for how you adapted the world in general. Then we'll talk about the characters. Sam, can I start with you?

Sam Riegel: Sure. We started with a RPG campaign that spent, I think, more than 400 hours of playtime content on our Twitch show that we do weekly. To adapt that to a half-hour animated series, we looked at it a lot like taking a series of novels and adapting them for TV, so the source material was super, super rich.

Matt Mercer (our GM), his world is super detailed and exquisite. We know the back stories of these characters so well after playing them for years and years and years. It was really a challenge of picking the best parts that would translate to television, and the best parts that would translate to animation, and also those moments that the tried and true hardcore fans of "Critical Role" would expect and riot if they weren't in the show.

It was a lot of re-watching and re-listening to the original campaign, talking to the cast, [and] finding out which moments really mattered to them. The cast is also the creators of the show, but also executive producers on the show, so they all weighed in on their favorite moments or moments that they just couldn't live without. We put a lot of stuff on a board and started erasing things until we were left with 22-minute episodes. I'm really pleased with what we kept and also really excited about some new stuff that we added to the show, which I think fans will really geek out about.

Travis Willingham: Yeah. Sam kind of nailed it.

On adapting the Briarwoods story

Travis, let me take that right to you. Give me an example of something that was really important that you had to keep and then something that was really important that you added that was new.

Willingham: Oh, boy. Well, without giving too much away, there are so many characters in these worlds. We focus on the Briarwood arc in this first season. As Sam mentioned, I think we tallied up about 36 hours of gameplay just for that first arc and we have to squish that into six hours of 12 episodes [at] around a half hour episode.

So you look at that and you go, "Okay. Well, some of these characters have to go. Maybe some of them change. Or maybe some of them start to fulfill a different role." Particularly in the Whitestone arc, there will be some additions and modifications made to certain characters, but we don't touch fan favorites. We know what you can and cannot do, not only just for our fans, but for what makes a really good episode.

Part of that process involved bringing in outside folks — people that knew the genre, loved it, but they were coming to it with a fresh set of eyes, fresh set of ears. That's where we paired up with Brandon Auman, who has a pedigree like no other, but also was able to come in and go, "This is great. I love it. I've got ideas." We were able to bounce things off of him and really come up with something that was new and fresh and would keep our fans happy but also bring in new folks to Exandria and get them hooked.

What Brandon Auman adds to the equation

So, Brandon, what was your role? Was there things where you said, "This is the stuff that we can keep," and was there something where they were like, "We got to keep this," and you're like, "this has got to go"?

Brandon Auman: Well, I don't really put my foot down. It's a true collaboration, but I wanted to include as much as we possibly could, all the fan-favorite moments, all the amazing encounters of the Briarwoods, all the fun creatures, monsters, humor. I wanted to keep as much of it as we could. Obviously, there's some extraneous stuff that we just couldn't include, but, yeah, it's been this great collaborative process with Sam and Travis and the rest of the cast. It's been a blast.

I'm not really an executive producer who puts his foot down and says, "This has got to go." I really let Sam and Travis take the lead when it comes to these things, because, these guys, they know "Critical Role" better than anyone, definitely better than I know it and I've watched the entire thing. These guys are so in the trenches that ... we collaborate but, like I said, I'm not one who's going to put his foot down and say, "No, this can't be in the animated series."

Riegel: The other thing that Brandon was really great at was, like he said, he's not saying "no" to a lot of stuff, but something that he did really bring to the proceedings was he asked the question "Why?" a lot. In the game that we would play, a lot of times things would just happen because we would roll the dice and it would land on a number where, "Okay, that's what happens." Brandon kept asking and pushing us to ... now that it's a narrative show with a story, things can't just happen for chance reasons or for dice reasons. It has to happen for character reasons.

He kept asking the questions about why were our characters doing what they were doing and also why the villains were doing what they were doing, which is something that we got a little taste of in Matt's original campaign, but we didn't get to really explore. Matt played all the villains, so he couldn't just do scenes where it was just him talking to him about his plans. That would get old real fast, but we can do that in the animated series and we do. It's really exciting to look at things from the villain's perspective, and I think Brandon really helped push us there.

Bringing in new talent for the supporting cast

Some things are just kind of core to D&D. Was there anything else that come out of the dice rolls that you could think of that you were like, "We have to keep it in?" Those kinds of things that keep this story fresh and make it different from other stories.

Willingham: There's some. There are automatic failures that happen in attempt, [and] some things that are massive successes instantly, but I think the doors not opening is a prime example of the game coming through in the show. Also, some of the characteristics of the character, certain charming, persuading conversations that happen with certain characters, we try and really hit some of that as well.

There's a lot of really great people that have lent their voices already just in the stuff that I've seen. David Tennant, Tony Hale, Stephanie Beatriz, Dominic Monaghan, Gina Torres. Are there any stories that have come out of that ... any of them that were so chomping at the bit, super excited that it was just a joy to get a chance to bring them in?

Riegel: Well, we've discovered that some folks that we didn't expect are nerdier than we expected. Dominic Monaghan, for instance, when he came to record with us ... we're huge fans of his work as an actor, and he's done some fantasy before, so he's got fantasy street cred. He also was talking about how he loves to play role playing games now and has played them in different groups and is really into it. I want to play with him sometimes. I'd love to.

Then, there's some folks in the guest cast who don't know anything about what we do. For instance, I don't think David Tennant has ever played one of these games before. However, when we told him the story of how the show came about and how we were just a group of friends who got together with a passion for doing this silly game together and it became a show, that's something that he really [understood]. He was so excited about the idea that you and your mates could just get together and love something so much that you will it into existence, which was really fun to see happen as well.

Dragon vs. dragon and comfort movies

Let's just hypothetically say David Tennant's character from "The Legend of Vox Machina" gets into a fight with, say, Benedict Cumberbatch's character from "The Hobbit." Who wins in that fight?

Riegel: Oh, boy.

Willingham: Brimscythe versus Smaug. That's tough.

Auman: Brimscythe, of course. It's got to be Brimscythe.

Willingham: Smaug's a big boy. It's definitely a voice-off. That's to be sure.

Riegel: Oh, that's tough.

Auman: Yeah.

Riegel: A tough one.

Willingham: Yeah. One has fire. The other one has lightning. It's a scrap.

Riegel: I've got to go with the home team, with Tennant, just because he could charm the pants off the other guy.

Auman: Exactly right.

We've been asking a lot of people this just because it's been two years of finding ways to comfort yourself. Is there a favorite movie that you have or even a TV series that you've gone back to over and over again that's your comfort food? Something you love that makes you feel good and safe in dark, dark times.

Willingham: Oh, I can kick it off. It used to be just a holiday watch, like just a ritual watch. "Lord of The Rings." "Harry Potter." I jump into those every time and just lose myself, along with "Star Wars." Now, that I have a three-year-old, we actually put "New Hope" and "The Empire Strikes Back" on during Christmas and he was just locked in. It may be a poor parenting choice, I'm not sure, but we did it anyway, so it's a new ritual now.

Riegel: With my kids, over pandemic, we watched the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from start to finish in whatever order the internet told me to do it in. It was really great because there's a lot of echoes with that way of storytelling and our show. It's accessible and there's humor involved, but amazing epic action, and all of these intricate storylines that they amazingly weaved together over a long period of storytelling, which is what we aim to do anyway in our Twitch series, but also in this series as we go. Yeah, I got a lot out of it.

"The Legend of Vox Machina" debuts on Prime Video January 28.