On Monday March 4, a Kickstarter went live.
That’s not at all unusual; Kickstarters go live every day. What was unusual about this campaign is that within an hour, the original goal of $750,000 had been blown away and pledges had surpassed a million U.S. dollars… within 24 hours, the total had passed the $4 million mark and was still rising. The most unusual thing, however, is that this Kickstarter was for a 30-minute animated show based on Dungeons and Dragons. You read that correctly, this was a fundraising campaign for a show based on good ol’ D&D, and they raised $4 million dollars in one day.
The fundraising campaign was launched by the people at Critical Role, an online live-streamed Dungeons and Dragons game played by a number of well-known, and well-loved, voice actors. The show airs every Thursday night on Twitch and has steadily gained a loyal following with each episode getting hundreds of thousands of views. After only four days, the Kickstarter has broken the record for most-funded TV or film campaign ever, and now, with 30 days to go, they are hovering at over $7.5 million dollars raised. The success of their Kickstarter is huge, huge news for the geek community but it is also huge news for everyone else, especially those of us in the church who are seeking to engage with the world, and the culture, around us.The soaring popularity of Critical Role among the geek world was, and is, rooted in both the beauty of their tale and who they are as people.
To understand how monumental this is, however, it’s probably necessary to take a step back for a moment and look at exactly what is going on. First, it’s important to understand that this is all about Dungeons and Dragons. Yep, the ultra-nerdy D&D that crept onto the scene in the 70s and then made media headlines in the 80s for promoting Satan worship and occult behavior (it didn’t do ether, by the way) is back. The same D&D that was largely shunned by the church and left to be played secretly in basements by only the nerdiest of nerds is making headlines again and skyrocketing in popularity. And some of us, myself included, could not be more excited about that.
Dungeons and Dragons is a game. It involves people sitting around a table to play, rolling dice, and you can, in theory, win. But to be entirely honest, D&D is so much more than that. At its core, D&D is storytelling. When people sit down to play, they are not sitting around a game board and spinning a spinner—in fact, boards and tokens aren’t necessary at all. Instead, players work together to create a story. If you were to buy D&D at the store, what you would be purchasing is a game manual; a book of rules that let you tell a story together with friends. One player is the game master (or GM) who controls the overall flow of the plot and who is responsible for describing each scene as it unfolds. Every other player is responsible for one character that they move throughout the story world. They can explore, fight, and interact with anything in the world, and dice are used to see how successful the character’s actions are. Anything is possible in the story, the only limit is the imagination of the players and the roll of the dice. At its heart, D&D is not about winning or conquering, it’s all about working together to craft a really fun story.
In March of 2015, Matthew Mercer and his group of friends, under the banner of the Geek and Sundry Production Company, began live-streaming the D&D game that they had started playing a few years prior. They called it Critical Role, and the plan was pretty simple, the friends would sit around a table and simply play, exactly like they would at home. It wasn’t animated. There were no costumes or even really a set. It truly was a group of people just sitting around talking, munching on snacks, and playing D&D. What made this show so special was that these people are amazing storytellers and the story they were telling hooked us. It helps, of course, that they are all incredibly talented voice actors who portrayed their characters to perfection. But it was more than that. The soaring popularity of Critical Role among the geek world was, and is, rooted in both the beauty of their tale and who they are as people.
As storytellers, the cast of Critical Role are masters, not because they studied the craft of storytelling or anything like that (though, as actors, they might have), but because they are committed to being honest. Each member of the cast controls one character; characters that have vivid backstories, dynamic personalities, individual goals, and differing abilities. As they play, they are careful to make decisions that are in line with their character and that match the character’s goals, longings, hurts, fears, and so on. In short, they act like real people. This requires a tremendous amount of empathy. In fact, studies have shown that D&D promotes empathy for this very reason, as players are urged to make decisions for their character based on what that character thinks, feels, fears, and more—not how they as a player want things to go. What this means is that things won’t always go well for the group as a whole and the story doesn’t often follow the traditional story arc that we’re used to in books and movies today… which means it is so much better.
The original season of Critical Role aired over 400 hours of content. In that time, the characters experienced triumph and loss, depresion, grief, joy, and love. It was gritty and not altogether PG. But it was honest, and it struck a chord with a part of the population that craves honesty. It took stories seriously, it saw people as they are, and in turn, it made the viewers feel seen as well. What’s more, the cast lived out this empathetic mindset as well. They are humble and gracious to their fans (who call themselves Critters). They reach out, care for, and support members of the community. They promote other geek organizations and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity. They work hard to make sure that everyone in their community feels seen and valued. In a very real way, the cast of Critical Role practices what they preach: kindness, honesty, inclusion, and love.
When they launched their Kickstarter on March 4, their plan was to raise money to finally be able to do what Critters have been asking for for years: produce an animated special that would tell a new story of the characters from their first campaign. A prequel, if you will. The response has been far greater than they imagined and they will now be making it an animated series instead.
To the geek community this is huge. It brings widespread positive media attention to a hobby that tons of people today love, a hobby that got many of its original players shunned and mocked. It’s spreading the word about a show they adore and are excited to see grow. It’s giving more people in the geek community a voice in the mainstream public and helping more and more people to feel seen and known. It’s promoting fantasy as good and fun. And it’s promoting storytelling as a real and powerful art form. This is all extremely exciting!
This is also huge news for the church. It may not seem important to the average churchgoer, but what is happening here has much to show us about the world we live in, the importance of stories, and the need for authentic community.
The success of this campaign is a dramatic example of the growing popularity of geek culture. The term geek used to refer to someone who was eccentric about non-mainstream hobbies or who was socially awkward, but that doesn’t apply anymore. Instead, the term geek today refers to anyone who loves a particular fandom. That includes anything sci-fi, fantasy, magical, or just plain fun. There are Harry Potter geeks, Dr. Who geeks, Disney geeks, board game geeks, just to name a few. What’s interesting to note, however, is that these fandoms, whatever they may be, are practically a part of a geeky person’s identity. Not their whole identity, of course, but a big part of who they are. That’s important to be aware of because when one of their interests is maligned, or made fun of from the pulpit, they feel shunned as well.
This is partly why, historically speaking, geeks have not felt particularly welcomed in the church. The massive outpouring of love for Critical Role and the growing number of people both watching and playing D&D says a lot about how widespread geek culture is. Chances are your neighbors are geeks, or your coworkers, or your delivery person, or even the person sitting next to you on the pew. We need to ask ourselves if we are welcoming to and inclusive of this segment of the population and if not why? This is, as they say, the age of the geek!
Our Need for Stories
This story is also important news for the church because it demonstrates the power of, and the longing for, a well-told story. This shouldn’t surprise us—after all, Jesus was a master storyteller who demonstrated over and over again the power of stories. But we sometimes forget that. We forget that stories don’t need to be formulaic or trite. That they don’t need to be preachy or moralistic to be good. In fact, in most cases, they are more powerful if they’re not. What stories need to be is honest. People around us are longing for stories that show real people, with real struggles, trying to survive real heartache or real love. They are looking for meaning and hope and life; stories show them the universality of the problems of man—and we need that. People are looking for stories that show them who they are and show them they are worthy of love and worth pursuing.
As Francis Schaeffer said, “A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself.” Storytelling is an art that is beautiful, which is why this game has so much goodness to offer. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your church should start a D&D ministry (although I think that would be awesome), but it does mean that we should encourage the creators in our midst to create and we should affirm that what they create doesn’t have to be just for ministry. And if you’re not creating art, be excited about those around you who are. Creating, after all, is a way in which we bear the image God to the world around us.
Our Desire for Community
Finally, the raging success of this Kickstarter is emphasizing the importance of community. When asked about what draws people to Critical Role, the cast found that people were almost as equally drawn to the friendships of the cast members as they were to the story. It is well known in the Critter community what good friends the cast really are. They hang out regularly, have known each other for years, and their families spend time together. They really are best friends, and that shows as they work together to play D&D. They care for each other, and every single week, they demonstrate what it looks like to live in community. It’s something not many of us have experienced and yet most of us long for. This type of community is something that we in the church, as the body of Christ, should be living out already, but often struggle with. Critical Role gives us an insider’s view to what that might look like.
It’s easy to get caught up in the belief that our churches need to be flashy and fun, that our services should be trendy and relevant. It’s easy to forget that friendship and honest care matters significantly more to most people. The truth is that most people simply want to be seen, to be known. They want honest to goodness community, to know that they matter, to know that someone cares if they even showed up… and misses them when they don’t. People want to know that there is someone else who genuinely wants to be with them. We crave this type of friendship and so does the world. Seeing the huge success of Critical Role reminds me that often times, the best outreach is simply loving well the people already in our midst.
Come 2020 the cast of Critical Role will release their now much-anticipated animated show. I’m ridiculously excited to see it—I loved those characters and loved their stories. But more than being excited about the show, seeing the massive success of their Kickstarter tells us much about how we, as the church, can and should interact with the geeks around us. Geek culture is growing and all evidence points to it only gaining steam. And that’s great; it’s a culture that emphasizes kindness, welcoming attitudes, and seeing people as they are, and we’re called to do all those things as well. We actually have quite a bit in common with the geek community already! We can learn a lot from them about the power of real stories and the importance of caring for the people around us—not as a tool to wield in filling our pews, but as a way of living out the gospel in the world around us.