Queering D&D: How “Critical Role” Helped Me Find My Way

If you had told me two years ago that someday one of my top five favorite things to watch would be a bunch of (self-proclaimed) nerdy-ass voice actors playing Dungeons & Dragons live for 4-5 hours every week, I would have laughed in your face. I barely even knew what D&D was; the entirety of my knowledge came from Big Bang Theory (and media like it), so I assumed it was for very nerdy, women-fearing and/or women-hating straight men shouting rules about magic at each other. What place would a queer woman have in that?

But then, toward the end of 2017 my friend Taylor started sending me gifs of these very cute nerdy girls and telling me about this show she’s obsessed with called Critical Role. I was knee-deep in scripted series but she mounted a patient defense and a steady attack of gifs, stories, and clips. Her goal was to prime me and convince me to watch by the time the new campaign started in early 2018, but she severely underestimated the pull of the Keyleth vs the Cliff clip, so she sent me a one-shot that involved some of Critical Role’s main players so I could get a sense of what an episode would feel like.

And at first it felt a little like they were speaking a different language – I had never heard the term “D20” and what the hell is an “arcana check” anyway? – but before long two things stood out to me: D&D is about storytelling, and those stories can be as queer as you want them to be.

While not a regular part of the Critical Role cast, the one-shot in question guest starred Ashly Burch, who you might recognize as the voice of queer icon Chloe Price in Life is Strange. In this one-shot, her character was in love with regular-cast-member Laura Bailey’s character. We learn this almost as soon as the game begins, and as soon as I realized it, it felt a little like someone came and unlocked the door to a wing of my house I didn’t even know was there. I had so much to learn, and boi do I love learning.

Ashley Johnson, Marisha Ray, Laura Bailey, beautiful nerds

The ladies of Critical Role, my beautiful nerds.

So instead of waiting for the new campaign, I dove headfirst into the nearly 500 hours worth of gameplay from the first Critical Role campaign, Vox Machina. Now spanning more than one sitting or one mission, the storytelling was even more apparent. The livestreamed campaign had started as a home game beforehand, so the players were already comfortable with each other, the characters already established, and since the players were all voice actors, they’re really in it. So it’s not only storytelling and acting, but also during the moments they’re not in character, there are moments of true friendship. There were men and women, queer and straight, and throughout the game, whether it was the Dungeon Master Matt Mercer playing non-player side characters (NPCs) or guests (like Lumberjanes and She-Ra creator Noelle Stevenson who played the butch and badass Tova), there were characters of all races (in the way we understand race as being about where you’re from, and also in the way the fantasy realm classifies it as being about whether you’re an elf or a gnome), and sexualities. There was no gatekeeping or shaming and even though these adorable nerds had been playing the game for years, they still had to ask questions like “which dice do I roll for that?” and the DM is patient with all of them.

While I was home for Christmas that year, I was watching episodes of the Vox Machina campaign every time I found myself alone, and sometimes even when I wasn’t. My parents and brother all asked in turn what I was watching, and they all scoffed when I told them I was watching people I don’t know play D&D. And while the concept itself is a little out-there, I admit, it was the way they said, “As in Dungeons & Dragons?” that irked me. I couldn’t hold it against them, because I had been the same way mere months before. No, I held more issue with the toxic culture that has followed the game through time.

The cast of Critical Role certainly aren’t the first open-minded group of players ever. It wasn’t exclusively a boys’ game—in fact, Matt’s mom even played—but it was portrayed that way. I can’t say how toxic actually playing with men was, but I can say that what I heard, and what I saw on TV or in movies, didn’t make me feel like it was the kind of game I’d feel comfortable playing, or even talking about outside carefully curated groups.

Of course by the time I clocked 24 hours of Critical Role, I was ready to play D&D myself. My friend said maybe someday we could start a game, and listed some of our mutual friends who would be interested. And I realized it would be a game of all queer women. Taylor helped me build my first character, and she was queer as heck. In September, I played my first one-shot, DM’d by fellow Autostraddler Jenna, with her wife Steph and Dufrau as fellow adventurers. D&D is about storytelling, and queer people have plenty of amazing stories to tell.

When Critical Role’s second campaign started in January 2018, I had no idea what it would come to mean to me. It was just a new and fun thing to see these same actors playing brand new characters. But 2018 ended up being a really shitty year. For the world at large, and for me on a personal level. But as my year got worse, Critical Role got better. Marisha Ray’s character Beau was coded queer from the start but I wasn’t sure if it was me projecting…until it was made clear she very much is queer.

Marisha Ray's perch

Marisha is constantly perched on my heart.

Ashly Burch guested again, for a multi-episode arc, and played queer again. Ashley Johnson’s character is also queer. And on top of all that, there was still this underlying sense that these actors, every one of them, was having fun. They seemed to love each other and truly enjoy playing this silly, nerdy game together. They just happened to be livestreaming to hundreds of thousands of people.

Critical Role cast in costume

They dressed up as NPCs for Halloween because of course they did.

Critical Role became my happy place. The days where real life felt too hard, and writing felt too hard, and scripted TV felt too hard, Critical Role was a soft place to land. Or, if I’m being dramatic, it was the pressure on the wounds during a time I felt like I was getting a new wound weekly. But Critical Role was staunching the bleeding, keeping me going, giving me enough joy to fuel me for another day.

I was watching both campaigns concurrently, so I always had as many hours available as I needed. (In fact, I still haven’t finished the Vox Machina campaign…only half a dozen episodes left!) These actors weren’t my friends, but they were each other’s friends, and I took great comfort in that. And I had friends who had already seen these episodes, and me shouting my emotions in their general direction and then responding in kind brought us closer. At this past New York Comic Con, I met Marisha and Laura briefly to get their autographs, and I thanked Marisha for showing me that queer women had a place in D&D, and I thanked Laura for bringing me lightness in a dark year, and they both made eye contact with me and smiled at me and told me they understood that we need all the joy we can get, especially now, and I could tell in their eyes that they really did understand; I felt seen, and I finally, finally, felt like maybe the wounds were starting to heal.

I still can’t explain it, not really. Why I love Critical Role as much as I do. Except to say that D&D is about storytelling. And I love stories.

Critical Role stressed

They love it, too. Promise.

If you want to get into Critical Role, I highly recommend starting with the Mighty Nein campaign. While there is still quite a bit to catch up on, it’s less than 200 hours of gameplay instead of almost 500. And there are always one-shots you can check out to see if watching people play D&D is even your jam. The one I started with is called The Return of Liam (at least on YouTube). If you want to learn the basics of D&D from these very same nerdy-ass voice actors but NOT through the jump-in-the-deep-end method, they have an ongoing series called Handbooker Helper that starts from what the hell those multi-sided dice are about and slowly works up to building a character and beyond.

And if you already know you love D&D but have been waiting for a troll to open a gate for you…wait no more. There’s another way in, and it’s troll-free and proud. Create your own story, and make it as queer as your little heart desires.

Just a nerdy, TV-loving, Twitter-addicted Hufflepuff who loves reading, watching, and writing about stories. One part Kara Danvers, two parts Waverly Earp, a dash of Cosima and an extra helping of my own brand of weirdo.

Valerie has written 187 articles for us.

38 Comments

  1. Very cool article! I’ve become interested in D&D the last year or so but have no idea where to start. I recently heard of another group comprised of all POC, Critical Role seems really cool as well i’ll have to check them out. Have you been able to start your own group and do you have any tips?

    • One thing I’ve learned is that way more of my friends are into D&D than I ever knew until I started talking about it! Also I’ve learned that you don’t have to be around the same table to play. The second one-shot I ever played was all done online, with me and two of my friends skyping and using D&D Beyond and Roll20 for digital support and maps. So if you want to start a group, or join a group, just reach out! Ask your friends, tweet or post about it; whether it’s for a one-shot or a long campaign, your adventuring party is out there somewhere!

      If you want to start your own game, Matt Mercer has a series through Geek & Sundry (all on YouTube now!) called “GM Tips” to help get you started!

    • My recommendation is to first find a group of people that you want to play with. Just narrowing down to D&D there are several editions (AD&D, 3.5 edition, 4th edition, and now 5th edition), several settings (generic, Eberron, Dark Sun, etc…), and several game types (Standard, Pathfinder, etc…). All of them have a different assortment of books. I’m sure your group will let you borrow some, but some of the books you really need to buy for yourself. Finding your group will let you narrow down which books you will need so that you’re not buying books you don’t need (and those books can get very pricey).

  2. Thanks for writing about this! I’ve played D&D and Monster of the Week (Buffy/Supernatural-esque RPG, way less complicated than D&D) and the thing I wish more people knew is that RPGs (and their fandom) are hella gay. You have your found family, you get to decide what you look like, what your sexuality is, what characters you flirt with. My group was 5 queer people and 1 token straight person, and I’ve always played bisexual characters. With the right group and right DM, anything is possible.

    If anyone in the DC area wants to start a game, hit me up, I have a D20 collecting dust on my bookshelf!

    • In one of my character backstories I sent to my DM, I wrote this whole complicated, tortured backstory and then at the end it was like, “Also she’s queer. I don’t know if it’ll be relevant in this one-shot but I just wanted it to be known.” haha

  3. This is perfect timing, I watched a tiny part of Critical Role a while ago and was trying to remember what it was called so I could get back into it now I’ve started playing D&D myself.

    I play with a bunch of straight people but I’m a genderfluid dragonborn anyway.

  4. Never has an article been more relevant to my interests. I got interested 2.5 years ago after watching Laura in some other G&S stuff, and campaign one quickly became my favorite “show” of all the media I consumed. I’m catching up on campaign two now after falling quite behind during work insanity. I just got to the boat heist!

    Also I applaud your pic choices and captions. Marisha is constantly perched on my heart too.

  5. This made me so happy!!! I LOVE how much joy Critical Role brings us all and, as you know, the off the charts level of queer in this campaign is making me lose my dang mind. Also, I will DM for you anytime <3

  6. I am SO VERY HERE for this. Critical Role is wonderful and I’ve been loving the consistent and casual inclusion by Matt Mercer of nonbinary and queer NPCs, as well as the queer characters of various types played by the other members of the group.

  7. I have to thank Autostraddle (not sure if it was the writer of this article who first mentioned Critical Role in the TV round-up, but if so thank you!) and you for writing this article. I started watching after hearing about it here and I am also completely hooked. Marisha Ray is fantastic as Beau and the rest of the cast are awesome too. I binge-watched like crazy to catch up with the current campaign and I’m about to go back and watch the first one, not to mention all the one-shots. I’ve also gotten the D&D handbook and a bunch of dice and I’ll be looking to join a real-life game soon (hopefully with other queer players). It’s so much fun to watch and this group in particular have such great friendships that it adds a lot to the game. I feel like I’m sitting with a bunch of my own friends. The queer inclusivity is refreshing and done really well. Even when there’s an accidental slip-up, the cast are always quick to correct it and apologise. I’m heavily invested in Beau’s arc and I just want my lesbian disaster monk to finally find happiness. Yeah, she can be an asshole but she has a heart of gold and she’s had a hard life. I’d love for her and Yasha to slow-burn get together (Yasha has her own issues to work through). I ship it!

    Thanks again!

    • It was indeed me who started sneaking Critical Role updates into the Boob Tube articles even though I don’t know if CR counts as a TV show! haha Glad you’re loving it!! And I love that disaster lesbian so much!!! haha

  8. Now that I have taken the morning to finish last night’s episode, LKJADHFLKJSHDFL YES VALERIE ANNE THANK YOU. I started watching CR about a year ago, shortly before the current campaign started, but I’ve been playing D&D since college and I started right out of the gate with a group of mostly queer people, so D&D has always been incredibly gay to me. Finding Critical Role when I did was massively important to me; I’d just been diagnosed with a lifelong disability, and I hadn’t had much of a queer or D&D community for a long time because of my physical decline. The CR community on twitter (y’all should all follow me @ wagonageoregons for CR livetweets and gay flailing) and the Autostraddle community have really kept me going these last couple of years, and because of that and being able to get the resources I never knew I needed for my disability, I’m lightyears ahead of where I was a year ago. Matt’s introduction of nonbinary NPCs makes me so freaking happy, too <3

    Also, I have two notes on my phone from when the Mighty Nein campaign first started that say things to the effect of "I had a dream last night that Laura and Marisha made out on the stream and I lost my little gay mind" and "I just considered the possibility of shipping Beau and Yasha and I had to sit down"

  9. Oh and if anyone is interested in other types of RPGs other than traditional D&D, check out Vampire the Masquerade: LA by Night. It’s on Geek & Sundry or Project Alpha, and Erika Ishii (be still my heart) plays a queer poly vampire, and there are guest appearances by Bex Taylor-Klaus and Marisha Ray.

    • It totally is! I have several friends who play almost exclusively online.

      I’m still a noob at the whole DnD thing so I don’t know exactly where you find people, but maybe something like the DnD subreddit could help out? Or playing with friends of friends who want to start a new campaign…

    • I find Twitter a good place to find people. That’s how I pulled together my current group, and how I got recruited into another game.

      Current-edition D&D is easy enough to run just on a Discord server. You can add a die rolling bot to the server, or just trust players to roll dice separately and not cheat.

      Other people use Roll20, particularly if they like moving miniatures on a grid instead of “theatre of the mind” style play.

      Lots of good resources for learning rules, either for D&D or other RPGs.
      The Basic Rules are free and cover the rules of play, they don’t have all the classes and races though.
      http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/basicrules
      Let me know if you want additional links/resources 🙂

  10. The gaming group I am leaving because I am moving to the other side of the country has me (queer femme) playing asexual fae, transwoman lesbian playing polyamorous lesbians, transman playing NB Dragonborn, another queer femme, my cishet male BFF and assorted other friends whose sexualites I want to assume even though I dated one of them. The gaming group I plan on crashing even though I haven’t told them yet has at least two queer women in it. They are all big Critters, I’m sure I’ll succumb and become one of them. One day I’ll write my campaign, one day…

  11. Love this article! I got into CR the summer of 2017 and binged 50 episodes of the first campaign in a month. It inspired me to start my own campaign with friends.

    Campaign 2 is so good, chaotic and queer. I love it.

  12. I got started on D&D with the a friend at art school who indtroduced me, but got busy with her art (I probably should have been) Then came the McElroys, who have a similar coziness to their adventure zone podcast.

    Half a year later I bought all the books and have kept many queer friendships going whereas I have not seen anybody else from school since I graduated. 10/10 would fantasize again.

  13. The thing about D and D is that girls have always played, they just often didn’t play with men (because men are terrible) and men don’t believe in what they can’t see. Its like their persistent belief that no girl has ever played a video game. I’m so happy you’ve found D and D, I always knew I wanted it and other table top games and when I got to college, even though the rp club was mostly straight dudes, I found a pack of queer mostly girl people to play with and it was everything I’d wanted. (Also if your group is super rules and mechanics focused and get embarrassed playing out character interaction with any real depth they’re just boring cowards and you can go find people who will get as into your character drama as you wish).

  14. Oh man, such an example of visibility being so important. I started watching because there were (not 1, not 2) but 3 women playing.

    Also, CR helped me through the worst of a terrible depression last summer and it watered my crops and cleared my skin.

    Also, is it just me or are tieflings inherently Super Queer? (Greetings from my very queer lavender disaster, firmly suffering from puberty, my wild mage sorcerer.)

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