For actress Ashley Johnson, being recognized in public is still a strange thing. “Most of the time, somebody will recognize me from when I was younger,” she told Bleeding Cool. Johnson has been working since she was six-years-old and appeared on shows like Growing Pains, Roseanne and currently appears on NBC‘s Blindspot. “And because of that, they’re confused where they know me from. ‘What high school did you go to? Did you know my cousin Ricky?’ They’re just trying to place me. And most of the time, I just go with it.”
But these days, Johnson is also recognized by the growing fans of Geek & Sundry’s Critical Role, the live Dungeon & Dragons game which streams on Twitch every Thursday night.
In the game, Johnson plays a Gnome Cleric named Pike Trickfoot. Joining the Critical Role group with their second campaign, it was her first real exposure to D&D. “My brother played when I was younger and I would listen from around the corner,” she said. When the group — comprised of Dungeon Master Matt Mercer and players Travis Willingham, Marisha Ray, Taliesin Jaffe, Sam Riegel, Liam O’Brien and Laura Bailey — first asked her to join, Johnson was initially nervous to commit and create a character. “The first time, I was just trying to figure it out,” she explained. “Everybody was just so committed to their characters and it gave me courage to be committed and try something crazy. Within the first twenty minutes, I was totally hooked. I’m going to play D&D for the rest of my life.”
One aspect of the game that she found compelling was the opportunity to define Pike. As opposed to traditional acting, where actors add what they can to a predefined script, the role playing characters come to life as the players are presented with choices. “With this, these character, we created them ourselves and pitched the class and the race; their personalities and where they’re from. There’s a lot invested in that,” she said. “This is something that’s true for all our characters.”
She also credited Mercer’s tireless work as the DM in creating a vivid world to work in. “It’s so weird, but its so real to us now,” she said. “It’s like I was put into this portal and into a world that Matt made up. But I know where everything is. It’s crazy, but Matt is such a great DM.” While he shapes the storyline to an extent, Johnson noted he also creates “multiple storylines in case we do something stupid; which happens all the time.”
With her commitments to Blindspot in New York, Johnson often uses Skype to be part of the game. “If I can Skype in, I will do everything I can to make it happen,” she said. “Even though I’m on the East Coast and that means I’ll be up till two or three in the morning.” And with early call times the next day, she joked that “Fridays can be pretty rough,” but completely worth it.
And with the two shows, she’s begun to notice a difference in the two fan groups. While Blindspot‘s fanbase is still emerging with only twenty-two hours of content so far, Critical Role benefits from its four-hour Twitch streams and other content on its YouTube channel. Both have allowed the fanbase to grow and get engaged at a quick rate. “They know so much about everybody’s character,” Johnson said. “And they’re so invested.”
Part of that investment has been an outpouring of creative energy and fanart. “They started sending artwork they made and weapons, necklaces and bracelets to us,” Johnson said. While the show used to devote weekly time to the fan gifts, it began to add an extra hour to the show. Eventually, they instituted an occasional “Critmass” segment to celebrate the fan creativity — even the term itself was fan-generated.
“Some of the stuff has been so amazing,” she added. “Someone made this artwork [of Pike] that I love so much. It was on wood and it looks like this old medieval painting of the character; some of it is in gold leaf. It’s bonkers some of the stuff they’re able to make and we’re so lucky that we get to keep these things that should be in a museum or gallery.”
Some Blindspot fan art has begun to emerge and find its way to Johnson, but it has not reached the pace of Critical Role fanworks yet. She theorized that part of the difference is the way Critical Role lives partly in the imaginations of the viewers. “In live action, the visuals are already there,” she said. “It’s just a little different. I love working on Blindpsot, but there’s something about the fans of Critical Role that sort of touches your heart; not to sound corny.”
When Bleeding Cool talked to Mercer last month at Comic-Con, he also noted the way fans have embraced the imaginative element of the show. “Outside of books and novels, there isn’t a lot media that feeds the imagination. It’s fed visuals, fed presentations,” he explained. “Role playing games, like reading a good book, it’s a space you create in your mind. And I think people are resonating with the capability of being able to create.”
In fact, the devotion is part of the reason Johnson regrets missing some of the game nights. But it is also the camaraderie she has found with the other players. “They’re my family and they’re my friends and I love playing D&D with them more than anything. A lot of time, it’s just this sort of sadness that I can’t be there to play with them,” she said.
O’Brien had a similar thought when we talked to him last month. “In a world where everyone is looking at a screen for so much of the day, it’s nice to have a sacred space where you’re just looking at your friends and talking with each other,” he said. “It’s the most real communal connection I feel I have.”
Back in New York, Johnson does her best to be available as often as possible because, as she put it, “A really good game with them can change my entire week.”