The Mary Sue Interview: The Ladies of Geek & Sundry’s Critical Role Explain How D&D Changed Their Lives
Every Thursday at 7 pm PST, a group of, in their own words, “nerdy-ass” voice-actors get together to play their Dungeons & Dragons campaign live as part of Geek & Sundry’s hit series Critical Role. We talked to Critical Roles‘ Ashley Johnson (The Last of Us), Laura Bailey (Marvel’s Avengers Assemble), and Marisha Ray (Star Wars: Battlefront) over email about self-identifying as gamers, their suggestions for girls who want to get into tabletop gaming, and why Dungeons & Dragons is so awesome.
The Mary Sue: How did you get involved in Critical Role?
Ashley Johnson: I jumped into the second game they played, after some prompting from Liam. He wrote me and told me they had an empty seat at the table, and if I was interested, I should get my butt over there. It was February 3, 2013 and was one of the best last minute decisions I ever made.
Laura Bailey: Well that’s a multi level question. We started all playing this campaign about 3 years ago. As a goof for Liam Obrien’s birthday, he got a group of his friends together to play a one off session of Dungeon and Dragons, with Matt Mercer (DM extraordinaire) as host. Well we played and freakin loved it. So we kept getting together every couple months to play some more. After we’d been playing for a couple years, Matt was approached by Felicia Day (I think through her friendship with Ashley) to bring our game to the channel. All of us were a little unsure about saying yes, because we were afraid it might change our game. But if anything, it’s made the experience better. Now we have an excuse to play every week, haha.
Marisha Ray: The game you are watching is actually our long running campaign that we started about three years ago as friends. The legend of how that game began is out there in the world, and with a well balanced adventuring party, I’m sure you will have no problem finding it. At the end of the day, we are just a group of friends who really enjoy unabashedly playing make believe as a hobby (and a career, let’s be real). One fateful day, Geek Matron and our own personal Raven Queen, Felicia Day heard of our game, and called us into Geek & Sundry for a meeting. And,… well, you can see how it turned out.The Mary Sue: What is your personal relationship to gaming like? Would you classify yourself as a ‘gamer’?
Johnson: I’ve grown up playing games. I have an older brother and sister and we had any and every console our parents would let us have and could get our hands on. We were also very much a tabletop gaming family. I got more heavily into video games when I was in my early twenties. I was going through a rough patch and gaming sort of pulled me out of it. So yes, I think I would classify myself as a gamer. Playing video games is my glass of wine at the end of the night.
Bailey: Oh yeah, definitely. I grew up on video games. King’s Quest, Quest for Glory, Final Fantasy… Even when I wasn’t playing, I would sit behind my dad’s computer chair as a kid and watch him play stuff like Doom and Half Life I was mesmerized. Now, it’s a part of almost every aspect of my life. My husband and I each have our own gaming setups in our house. He’s usually playing first person shooters while I’m more into RPGs. But we still team up for Call of Duty sessions with our friends. :) Ashley’s usually involved in those games too.
Ray: Oh, Absolutely. Personally, gaming has always been a huge part of my life. I’ve always believed that gaming is an essential part of humanity. Recent trends have elevated the title of “gamer” that leads people to believe that you have to hit this non-existent set of standards in order to achieve the credit. In reality, everyone is a gamer in some way. Whether your jam is sports, video games, Candy Crush, or even Sudoku in the morning paper, everyone enjoys a little recreational gaming every once in awhile. And that’s a fantastic reality! We always want to welcome in more people to our awesome club. ONE OF US!
TMS: You’ve all done voiceover work on a ton of different games and geek media, a lot of which is still perceived as being ‘for the boys.’ Do you deal with any pushback as a woman working and playing in traditionally male arenas?
Johnson: As a woman, I think we all deal with pushback in one way or another on a daily basis. What I can say is, I’ve never felt any of that while playing D & D with this crew. The only time I really feel that pushback is mainly on social media platforms. If you’re a woman who enjoys video games and has opinions about them, you open yourself up to a lot of “unpleasantness”, to put it nicely. Which is frustrating, because I don’t see how your gender has anything to do with playing and enjoying games. But, alas, that’s the world we live in. In terms of working in this industry, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with gaming companies that see the importance of telling stories with regular or powerful or complicated or everyday women and I’m unbelievably grateful for that.
Bailey: Y’know I think that stigma is changing. I haven’t really experienced a lot of prejudices in the gaming arenas I’m involved in lately. I used to a lot more, when I would game online, but I don’t know – I feel like more male gamers are becoming aware that video games, and tabletop gaming as well, is open to everyone. Honestly, I think outlets like G&S and Critical Role are helping to move that progression along. I’ve certainly had a lot of women contact me since we’ve started airing the show to say how they hadn’t felt comfortable joining a D&D group until they saw how much fun Marisha and Ashley and I we’re having. They said they never realized Dungeons and Dragons could be so inclusive. But it’s so funny to me to think that a group wouldn’t want a girl or two involved in their sessions. Diversity of character really rounds out the group and makes the roleplay experience so much more involving!
Ray: There will always be a little bit of pushback from a small, albeit sad, minority in any traditional male arena. These past few years, a lot of social awareness has happened on the issue of how we treat women in media, and I think there have definitely been major strides in a positive direction as a result of those efforts. However, this isn’t to say that we don’t still have a long way to go, just as a society in general. In terms of video games and other geek media, I don’t think it’s any secret that there are far more male characters compared to female. Of course, this is going to affect how much I will work verses my male peers. Are you starting to see the trickle down effect that I’m talking about? Ultimately, I don’t feel like I have it any more difficult than any other woman in a male dominated field. These are all smaller repercussions of a bigger, more deep seeded societal issue that’s going to require effort from everyone if we expect to start seeing any change. The biggest mistake we can make is to label this a “women’s issue” when it’s a “people issue”.
TMS: What is the appeal of tabletop and role playing games for you?
Johnson: It’s a form of entertainment that you can’t find anywhere else. You get to bring to life a fantasy world with your friends and the relationships that come out of that are incredible. I’ve cried tears of sadness and tears of happiness and have had some of the best nights of my life with Vox Machina.
Bailey: I guess it’s the same as acting, really. It’s the escape. I’ve always loved books and games so much because, for a short amount of time, I can disappear into another world. Roleplaying games allow you to be somebody and act in ways you’d never be able to in your everyday life. It opens the door to your imagination. As kids, we’re experts at playing make believe and solving puzzles in weird ways and not worrying what we look like, but as we grow up, we forget. We forget those things are even an option anymore. These games help me remember.
Ray: Oh man, they’re the BEST! Tabletop RPG’s are our modern day Iliad. It’s communal storytelling at it’s finest; mixed in with the sweet, sweet element of chance. Except, in these worlds that we are painting with our imaginations, you can do and be anything or anyone. And, yes- I meant that on all the levels that it works. I love and cherish every character I have ever created for a campaign. After a while, especially if you have a group that is equally committed to role play, you begin to form a symbiotic relationship with the characters. Keyleth, the half-elven druid I play in Critical Role, has taught me so much through sheer empathy. There’s that age old adage that you don’t truly know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes…. I mean, shit, you can easily walk 100 miles in a single session of D&D alone! Beyond that, I could wax poetically for hours about the amazing experiences and memories that you weave as a group that, when you look back on, are just as tangible as the memories you have about real life events…. but, I think I’ve consumed enough of the word count limit. ;-)
TMS: What advice do you have for women looking to get into D&D or other tabletop games?
Johnson: I tell everyone to get into D & D. There have been so many positives that have come out of this game in all facets of my life. If women want to get into D & D, I would tell them to do whatever they can to find a game. It can be scary to play your first game, no matter what gender you are.
But if it’s mainly dudes, I understand how that can feel unwelcome and scary. BUT, women can bring a whole different aspect to D & D then just playing a game with only men. I think it’s always interesting to see what the women do in a game as opposed to the men. And the results would surprise you.
Bailey: DO IT! Don’t be afraid to get your feet wet! The only way to get more women playing is by being a woman and playing. Bring your friends along with you and find a game shop that has tabletop nights. Or start a group of your own. I don’t know how or why D&D was ever seen as something for only guys but there is absolutely no reason for it! Seriously, playing this campaign has been some of the best times in my life. I can’t even begin to think how sad it would be if I had robbed myself of this joy by thinking gaming wasn’t for girls.
Ray: With the resurgence of D&D in pop culture, now is the perfect time for any newbie to jump in and get their feet wet. Wizards of the Coast and the most recent 5th Edition of D&D has done an excellent job in making sure it’s got a little bit of somethin’ somethin’ for everyone. No one should look at D&D with the perspective that it was ‘designed for boys’ and that women are ‘breaking in’ because that’s simply not the case. That’d be like saying, “Hey, Grimms Fairytales are for boys only! Girls keep out!” You’re making up characters and playing pretend. That is nothing that a marketing firm can dictate on whether it goes in the “pink” or “blue” section of the toy aisle. With that being said, being a woman walking into a primarily dude dominated game shop for your first D&D session can be undeniably intimidating. But, don’t put it in the same category as blindly logging onto Call of Duty for the first time. You will not be met with angry thirteen year olds shouting unoriginal profanities into your eardrums, I promise. And, if you are, then please find another gaming store to go to, I implore you! Conversely, if the game store doesn’t suit your fancy or you don’t have access to one, there are several online communities and websites now dedicated to helping you find a group! Overall, I think you will find that the tabletop community is very warm and welcoming and, most importantly, supportive. Remember: Dungeons & Dragons is a cooperative game, and…. Hey, you never know, you might end up finding some of the best friends you’ll ever have- I know I did.
Critical Role airs ever Thursday 7 pm PST on Twitch.tv/geekandsundry.
—The Mary Sue has a strict comment policy that forbids, but is not limited to, personal insults toward anyone, hate speech, and trolling.—