Everyone has a different story about how they got into role playing games. For me, my interest in fantasy games started when I was young, maybe seven or eight. In the apartment I grew up in was a closet filled with the odds and ends of my separated parents. There was a clarinet, something that I thought was a mace and to this day have no sure idea of what it could have been, and some other random trinkets. The majority of the closet was made up of albums and books, and one book in particular stood out to me - a collection of art based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. These days I can’t remember if the book was the work of a single artist or a variety of them, but I know that it captured my imagination in a big way.
Not long after, I started to play Dungeons and Dragons. Again, it was the artwork that really connected with me. Images of knights standing firm against an unbeatable dragon, or of a mage battling a group of orcs. Whatever it was, these concepts spoke out and I listened.
Sadly, as I got older, I lost my urge to play D&D. I tried other RPGs over the years and while some were fun, they never connected with me in the same way. My imagination mostly left fantasy behind, focusing more on superheroes and modern day monsters.
When I cracked open The Chronicles of Exandria Volume I: The Tale of Vox Machina, my old adult form turned eight again. I flipped through the pages of this book, looking at the art created by fans of Geek & Sundry’s popular series Critical Role and remembered what it was about role playing games that I loved - the openness of it all. The ability to create and imagine anything you wanted, and to get so immersed in the world of the game that you forget goblins don’t actually exist.
I have to be honest, I'd never watched Critical Role before checking out this book. Seeing the beautiful work so many fans of the show have created as a celebration of the series, it has me wondering what I’ve been missing out on. While there are some pieces of art in the book that don’t call to my personal likings, there are more than enough great ones to ensure that this tome will have a place on my coffee table for visitors to check out.
The art styles included cover the gamut of art history, from pieces that could have been taken right out of the Renaissance, to portraits worthy of great world leaders, to a more current animated look. There are pieces so dark and creepy that they filled me with dread, pieces so carefully constructed that they held my eye as I took in every detail, and pieces so filled with energy that they made me want to know more about the various characters that make up the world of Critical Role (like Clarota, a psychic leech that looks like the love child of Gary Gygax and H.P. Lovecraft). There are artists in this book who I had never heard of before, but now I find myself checking out and marveling. Chances are, you’ll end up doing the same thing.
The book includes some bits of prose that help people like me better understand the universe of Exandria by giving background to some of the characters. There aren’t many of them - I wish there were more - but they are well written. Obviously, some of these bios give away spoilers for the ongoing story of Critical Role for losers like me who haven’t checked it out yet, so be warned.
The book itself, put together by the Critical Role and Geek & Sundry team and published by Hunters Books, is clearly a project that everyone involved cared about. As a guy who has way too many hardcover graphic novels, I know it can be a real bummer when a book like this is poorly produced, but that is far from the case here. The art is presented on high quality paper, letting the colors pop and the linework shine through. The binding appears to be top notch.
The Chronicles of Exandria Volume I: The Tale of Vox Machina features the work of 89 amazing artists across 250 pages, and even if you aren’t a fan of the show the art is based on, the book is worth checking out. Just try to flip through the pages and not want to start rolling a 20-sided die.
All art in this review is from the book. The artists used are - in order of use - Tomasz Christowski, Tom Boyle, and Selina Espiritu. The Chronicles of Exandria Volume I: The Tale of Vox Machina can be purchased here. There is also a deluxe edition you can purchase here.