How Legend of Vox Machina turned 170 hours of epic D&D into two seasons of unmissable TV
The animated Critical Role series tells a tighter, character-centric tale in a fraction of the time.
The average length of a Critical Role episode is four hours. The Chroma Conclave arc, an epic, continent-spanning struggle against four ancient dragons, lasted for 44 episodes. To scribble that down on a dry-erase board, that’s over one hundred and seventy hours of story and drama. Distilling that into two seasons of TV is a legendary task, but nine episodes into season two of The Legend of Vox Machina and I’m pleased to report they’ve passed that impossible skill check.
Spoiler warning: I’ll be talking about story elements from episodes one through nine of The Legend of Vox Machina, so make sure you’re all caught up!
A throwaway fight with a beholder becomes a meaningful character moment.
While it’s true that any livestreamed D&D campaign can be bogged down by hours of combat, rule-wrangling and table talk, The Legend of Vox Machina still has an incredible amount of ground to cover. Perhaps the biggest change to the story is its timescale. In Critical Role’s actual play series, Vox Machina came to Vasselheim before they’d even heard of the Briarwoods. During their visit, they embarked on two separate quests for the Slayer’s Take, and Keyleth finished her Aramente to Pyrah.
The TV show, however, doesn’t see them visit until after the dragon’s attack. This allows them to rewrite several key events and improve the original story. For starters, Kashaw and Zahra accompany the party to the Sunken Tomb not as proven friends, but mistrusting allies, introducing a new tension to an already dire situation. Zahra’s imprisoned beholder is also a clever narrative trick, allowing Vox Machina to fight the creature after Vax’ildan’s deal with the Raven Queen. This places Vax and his new relic at the centre of the ensuing set piece, turning a throwaway fight with a beholder into a meaningful character moment.
Keyleth receives a similar treatment. Originally, Keyleth completed her Aramente to Pyrah before the Chroma Conclave attacked, and returned to it to deal with an elemental incursion. In The Legend of Vox Machina, that incursion happens before she has mastered fire, not after. This merges two character-defining moments into a more focused scene. Keyleth must master the flame while Pyrah is under siege, walking through a literal trial by fire. This isn’t just a storytelling timesaver; it’s an active improvement over the original yarn.
The merging of Keyleth's character-defining moments isn't just a storytelling timesaver; it's an active improvement over the original yarn.
While the pacing isn’t always perfect, we see these same moments of finesse throughout the entire season. A special mention goes to the battle with Kamaljiori. Live, this was a somewhat clumsy mixture of brawl and riddle, where Vox Machina had to explore the environment to discover parts of his name. In the TV show, this game of fantasy Scrabble is replaced by a simple task: wound the sphinx. Vax and Keyleth both had their character-episodes, but now it’s Scanlan Shorthalt’s time to shine.
Livestream Scanlan struggled with his desire to find true love and authenticity, but much of that struggle happened below the surface. In the show, this turmoil is placed front-and-centre for us to enjoy. To wound the sphinx, Scanlan channels his hidden emotions into a powerful rock ballad. He tells the story of Kamaljiori and his mate Osysa, separated by their duty. Aside from being a gorgeous song that shows off Alanna Ubach and Sam Riegel’s pipes, this moment also makes Mythcarver - Scanlan’s vestige of divergence - feel earned. He obtains a legendary blade through a personal triumph, rather than simply being present while the gang smashed syllables together.
The final bowstring that ties the season together is a choice that would never work in a tabletop game, but is perfect for TV: splitting the party. When Umbrasyl attacks Kamaljiori and steals Mythcarver, Keyleth is forced to plane-shift Vox Machina to safety. The casting is imperfect, and she accidentally ejects Grog, Pike and Scanlan back into the Prime Material while herself, Vax, Vex and Percy land in the Feywild. A classic ‘A plot, B plot’ scenario that places each group into the stories that impacted them the most.
Splitting the party would never work in a tabletop game, but it's perfect for TV.
Vex and Vax brush shoulders with their miserable father, making them the stars of this journey through wonderland - but we also see a little development from Percy, too. He’s guilt-ridden after the events of the Sunken Tomb and desperately trying to be of use, trying to ‘fix’ his friendship with Vax like one of his machines. We’re treated to some comedy relief from Keyleth and, while it’s a touch tropey, I’m always a sucker for a good cactus juice scene. More serious seeds are sown, however, when Keyleth sees first-hand how Vax’s new duty is impacting him. The Feywild responds to his emotions, and our brooding rogue is not in a good place.
Meanwhile Grog, Pike and Scanlan deal with the aftermath of Grog’s corruption at the hands of Craven Edge. Pushed one step too far, Grog destroys the sword and his strength is drained as punishment, further justifying his fear of Kevdak and the Herd. In the original campaign Grog was scared, sure, but being stripped of his biggest strength makes his stand against his uncle all the more impressive.
The Legend of Vox Machina Season 2 still has its flaws. It keeps a breakneck pace that can leave viewers feeling lost at times, and it still has the same crude humour and redshirt-axing bloodbaths that made the first season a little hard to stomach. Yet while it tells a shorter story compared to the original actual play series, it isn’t telling a weaker one.
Story beats aren’t just removed; they’re rearranged, reinterpreted and elevated to tell a tighter, more character-focused tale, which is exactly what I want out of any adaptation. Rewriting is a tricky business, especially when your show has this much nostalgia and fandom behind it, but Critical Role and animation studio Titmouse are making something more than just a straight retelling. They have an ambitious story to tell, and I’m fully on board to see how one of my old favourites is transformed in the seasons to come.