Critical Role has a couple of projects coming up that are set to be released, one of them being The Chronicles Of Exandria – The Mighty Nein. This is the latest tome in a series of art books comprised of drawings, paintings, sketches, and more from artists around the globe who are passionate about the Dungeons & Dragons livestream. The previous two volumes focused on the first campaign featuring the characters of Vox Machina and the lands of Tal'Dorei. Now as the show approaches the 100th episode of the second campaign, they've turned their artistic attention to Wildemount and the adventures of The Mighty Nein. The book will be published by Dark Horse Comics and released on June 2nd, 2020. Before that happens, we had a chance to chat with the two primary minds behind the project, Liam O'Brien (left) and Taliesin Jaffe (right), about coming up with this series of book, how the fans have reacted to them, and their thoughts on putting together this latest chapter.
How are the two of you doing and what have you been working on lately?
TJ: Oh man, there's always so much to do. There were already a bunch of projects in the works before we were put on hiatus, so things got pushed further down the line. Honestly, I feel like it gives us more time to make sure everything is perfect. As to specific projects, I don't think we can talk about anything yet.
LOB: Boy, I wish I could give a more laid back answer but here we are, huh? We're both hunkered down in our respective homes with our respective loved ones and trying to weather this storm with the rest of the world. I hope you and yours are being as safe as you are able. That goes for everyone reading this as well. Be kind and hang in.
As we're doing this interview, the show is currently on hiatus due to COVID-19, and you're about to hit Episode 100 for Campaign 2. How has it been for both of you this time around compared to the first campaign?
LOB: We definitely had more of a sense of how deep our story would delve. We've never stopped being amazed and delighted that our game has spawned this world of wonders we get to play in, but at least at the start of campaign two, we had a better idea of the ride we were in for. A lot more thought went into dreaming up our characters this time around.
TJ: I'm digging playing more street-level characters. To give a comic book analogy, It's like going from the Avengers to the Defenders. As for the hiatus, I'm used to taking a break for one week. I don't know how I'm gonna feel in two or three.
You also recently celebrated the show hitting its five-year anniversary! How has it been for you both making this a success for this long?
TJ: Boy it doesn't feel like five years! I'm still so amazed that people have stuck with us this long!
LOB: Unbelievable. We truly get to do what we love just about every day. The eight of us are all workhorses and there is usually a ton on our plates, but we love every minute of it. I feel fortunate every day and try to make the most of it with everything we tackle. Half-elves, wizards… Come on, man.
Getting to the book, how did the original concept to do the Chronicles of Exandria series come about?
TJ: We have a saying around the office, "Be careful what kind of dumb jokes you make, because they'll inevitably become projects." I think Liam was just having idle thoughts about how cool it would be to collect all the art, and we started talking to knowledgeable people about the feasibility of this. Before you know it you're in full production, wondering how you got there.
LOB: We started to see fan art popping up right from the get-go when we started streaming, and by the end of the first year there was already a small mountain of it. We're all nerds who have been working in and around games and animation for years and we were used to seeing this kind of thing for the various other projects we work on. Seeing that same kind of passion for our D&D campaign? We couldn't believe it. I have been gathering that art up all along and spotlighting it back to the community by posting weekly galleries as well as including art in the episodes themselves. It just became part of the fabric of the show. Seeing this tapestry of art slowly coming to life around our story, we knew we wanted to celebrate it somehow. Creating a tome that brought a bunch of it together and visually retelling our story was something we all loved the idea of. It was something we wanted in our own homes!
What was the process like in making the first one? And did you know you'd end up making a second or did it feel like a one-off project at the start?
LOB: This entire five years has been one big experiment. We definitely hoped to make two books for the first campaign, but it was hard to know if that would happen or not. For that first book, Matt [Mercer], Taliesin, and I sat down together and charted out which chapters of our tale we wanted to explore. After that, our book designer and art curator, Lauryn Ipsum, and I went through the larger pool of options I had selected and we created a skeleton of pieces that told Vox Machina's story. Once that was done, Taliesin waded in and wrote almost every word in that first book.
TJ: It was an intense learning curve! About halfway through we started thinking about doing a second one, even though we were exhausted. I mean we had to have a second book to finish the campaign, right?
What did you think of the community response to the first two, as well as the art installation you did last year?
TJ: We always think we're prepared for people to be happy but the response is always so much bigger and more positive than we expected. You'd think we'd learn.
LOB: I love seeing the artists get love! The art installation was so joyful. It was so cool seeing so many people crowd in to appreciate their work, larger than life on the walls of Gallery Nucleus! Like I said, the art that people bless us with every week has become such a cherished part of the community experience. It's just the best, collaborating with so many awesome people like this.
What made you decide to do one for The Mighty Nein this soon compared to the others, which were done after the first campaign came to an end?
TJ: The first book was completed somewhere in the midsection of Vox Machina's adventures, so we're about on schedule. Plus the sheer volume of art! So many new artists have joined us since campaign two started.
LOB: Well, we probably started working on this a little earlier, but in the end, it will be dropping pretty close to the close of the current campaign. I think we kicked it off when we felt like we had a significant enough arc of the story to explore.
What was the process like in going through all of the artwork and choosing what would be added?
LOB: Ah, it's torture every time. For every one piece we end up selecting, there are at least ten more that we can't fit in. Ultimately, the story is our guide for choosing what to use.
Considering how much artwork there is, what was it like working with all those artists and getting permission to use their designs?
TJ: It was deeply complicated! Just a slew of paperwork and constant communication.
LOB: That's actually one of the greatest challenges of these books. The air traffic control. It's always a major task reaching out to every artist we'd like to collaborate with and getting all the ducks in a row. But well worth the time and care.
Is there a specific kind of look or feel you look for when choosing pieces to go into the book, or is it more of a "that looks cool" kind of vibe?
LOB: Just what feels right! There is a ton of range in the style of art we choose. Our designer, Lauryn, has a real eye for what will play well together on the pages.
TJ: Each book is very specifically designed to be an in-universe object with specific origins. The art is chosen from literally thousands of phenomenal pieces for variety and complimentary flow of story and style. With so much brilliant art to choose from it's the only way to get even a sliver of an idea of what's out there.
11. Are there any particular artists you were thrilled to work with or specific pieces you sought after that just had to be a part of this book?
TJ: There's no way to pick a favorite. Each artist being so much and each is so different—mostly I'm always a bit sad that we can't fit any more art inside.
How do you both feel going back over these works and seeing where the current campaign is and where it's gone since you started?
TJ: It's like having a family album for your imaginary friends. It reminds me of little moments, dumb jokes. It can be overwhelming.
LOB: Man, so much has happened over the years. Both in the game and out of it. Every piece of art in these books is like a crystalized memory for us. We've always said that what happens around the table feels as real to us as any other thing we've done. The pages of these books feel like snapshots from our minds.
What do you hope fans and fellow critters take away from this series of art and this book in general?
LOB: That they'll be transported back to those standout moments in the story as they flip through the pages. And get lost in the lore that was created for this new book in particular. The current art book builds on the lore of the campaign and fleshes a few things out even further. I think Critters will dig that aspect of it.
TJ: We hope it can make it easier to share this world with others. And that they slowly discover all the little hidden gems buried within, and maybe find some new favorite artists in the community.
What can we expect from both of you and the show over the rest of 2020?
LOB: That is a hard question to answer, in light of all that is going on in the world, but hopefully we can all gather at the table again when the time is right. The gang all talk regularly, but we're definitely missing the face time. There is still a lot percolating behind the scenes, though, and we look forward to the day when we can share it!
TJ: Nobody knows! That's the beauty of it!