Note: For anyone unaware of any abbreviations used during this interview, DM means Dungeon Master, a person who organizes and oversees a game of Dungeons and Dragons. NPC means a Non-Player Character, side-characters that are controlled by the Dungeon Master, and PC means Player Character, a character that’s created and played by a D&D player – not the Dungeon Master.
Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy tabletop role-playing game (often abbreviated to D&D, or DnD) first published in 1974 that has been popular for years – but has had a resurgence in popularity over the last few years.
According to CNBC News, sales of the game increased by 33% in 2020, most likely due to the global pandemic and the connection and communication that the game offers, since it’s able to be played both in-person and online.
Also aiding this resurgence are actual play streams of the game – often where comedians, actors and performers band together to create a game that can then be viewed by an audience online.
Dimension 20 is one of these actual play shows. Created by Brennan Lee Mulligan and produced and distributed by CH Media, it currently boasts 9 series and counting. These include Fantasy High, which follows teenagers at a fantasy school for heroes, A Crown of Candy, a Game of Thrones-esque game, where the characters are made of candy – and most recently, Mice and Murder, where woodland animal characters try and solve a murder in a British village.
Brennan Lee Mulligan is also the Dungeon Master behind every Dimension 20 series – setting incredible scenes and playing amazing characters with ease. Recently (perhaps due to a few natural 20 rolls here and there) Kettle Magazine writer Chloe Smith was able to sit down with him to ask him all about Dimension 20, and D&D.
Chloe Smith: Would you be able to summarize what Dimension 20 is for our readers?
Brennan Lee Mulligan: Dimension 20 is CollegeHumor’s actual-play tabletop show, where we get a bunch of comedians, members of the CollegeHumor family and different awesome friends from the tabletop streaming spaces – we get them together to come and play a game.
And for readers who might not know what a tabletop is, basically there are all these awesome storytelling games that use dice and game mechanics to fundamentally help a group of friends tell an improvised, fantastical, heroic story together, and we choose to play those games with awesome comedians. So we have a lot of heart but they’re also very funny and Dimension 20 is an anthology show, so a lot of our seasons are set in different worlds and we’ve played in many different genres in many different adventures.
We’ve had a high school for heroes, and magical versions of New York City, tiny little Borrowers going on a heist, and a sort of funny parody from the perspective of the bad guys in Lord of the Rings, like as many different kind of stories as you would want to hear.
And it’s all improvised at the table with awesome improvisational storytellers and comedians – with a bunch of dice rolling and fun game mechanics to add a level of risk and challenge and uncertainty to everything!
Chloe Smith: How long have you been playing Dungeons and Dragons for outside of Dimension 20? Have you been playing for a while?
Brennan Lee Mulligan: I have been playing for 23 years.
Smith: Wow! That’s as long as I’ve been alive! I’m 23. That’s amazing!
Mulligan: (laughs) There you go! I’m now at an age where I routinely talk to people where I have been playing this game for – you know it’s a very funny thing ‘cause I am 33 years of age at this point which means I am routinely talking to people, who again I have playing longer than they have been on the Planet Earth.
And it’s such a huge part of my life. And even all these other skills that I’ve developed over a life of working in creative fields, of improv or sketch comedy or things like that, kind of rest on a bedrock of techniques and skills of running this game for friends. Like it’s sort of the first and earliest set of skills that I’ve learned. I started playing when I was 10 years old, and started running the game when I was 10 years old.
Smith: Wow – and since you’ve been playing for that long, and now you’re playing an actual play on a stream, has your process as a DM changed in any particular way, since you know people will be watching you play?
Mulligan: Yes, there’s certainly a degree of – I would say, for our viewers I would sort of put this little asterisk and say my DMing style in a home game is vastly more similar to my DMing on this show than it is different. Like, y’know, I kind of have that much energy and I’m doing that many character voices, and I’m kind of thinking about the pace as much in a home game as I do on camera.
I think the only difference is probably that there are things that are fun to do as players that are less fun for a viewer to watch, and I think it’s not just me who’s aware of that but it’s often the cast members who are aware of that. The things that come to mind are like, it’s very fun to have a fight where the players are just assured of victory at the beginning and you go like “wow, we’re a bunch of badasses!” – that’s less engaging for a viewer, viewers kinda like to see the characters in a little bit of danger, right?
And similarly there’s a lot of things that are very fun like during a home game or during an unfilmed game, y’know, I might let players – if players are really worried about a challenge and they want to take, y’know, 90 minutes to really formulate a plan, if I see that they’re having fun, y’know it’s kind of the thing like if you’re a parent and you have a little kid and you get them a gift and they end up just playing with the box that the gift came in, you’re like “well that works!” I’m much more likely to do that in a home game because it’s sort of – the only people I’m trying to facilitate the enjoyment of are the players. And then when it’s filmed you’re aware like, hey, even if the players are engaged, if this is not ultimately satisfying to an audience… the only thing that really changes in front of the camera is again, just like I would say, kind of moving things along, tending to keep the pacing up a little bit, and again being just aware of like those important things of like, there are people watching this.
Smith: So they’ll generally be rolls that we don’t see? Is there anything we don’t see as viewers, that is cut out?
Mulligan: I would say that most people would be shocked at how much we don’t cut out. I mean, we really – and for people who want to see what we cut out we do have one live season of the show, which was Fantasy High: Sophomore Year.
So like you can watch that show and you will get a really good idea of what gets edited out, which actually isn’t really rolls. Mostly it’s just pauses where someone’s doing math. That’s pretty much the only thing – like moments where someone’s like “okay… 15… 18… 23… 28,” like that sort of stuff gets edited, but really everything else kinda gets left in.
Smith: What’s your favourite NPC that you’ve created, and why?
Mulligan: I don’t want to hurt any of their feelings, even though they’re all fictional! Well, I would say that I have a lot of favourite NPCs, and I would say that – I don’t know if I would use the term “favourite” but there’s one that I just love a whole lot, and I always enjoy getting to be able to play. And I think one of the cast members asked me one time like which of the NPCs is the most aspirational – which is like the one that if you were in the setting you would want to play as your character, and I’ll go to Fantasy High ‘cause it’s our first season and I’d say Jawbone.
I think Jawbone is the – Jawbone the werewolf guidance counsellor – is at the very least tied for first with other NPCs. Jawbone’s way up there. He’s very funny, got a lot of heart, and there’s just something I really like about – there’s comedy to it, but I also really like the message behind someone who’s done a lot of hard living, and has retained a lot of optimism and wholesomeness, is something that I really, really like.
Smith: What, in your opinion, makes a good DM or Dungeons and Dragons player?
Mulligan: Y’know what, I can give you a straight answer here – the number one skill – and I’ll capital L, Listening. Just listening.
And listening sort of takes on another connotation, because it’s a core tenant of long-form improvisation, of like comedy improvisation. So anyone who’s not a trained improviser will hear the word listening and mostly know what we mean by that, but I think improvisers will have that one extra connotation.
What listening really comes down to is – or when we say listening, we mean – yes, like hearing the words that your players are saying, but also active listening is about routinely and reflexively ingesting not only the message someone is communicating to you, but kind of interpreting that message in the most good faith way possible. Really trying to understand. ‘Cause y’know we’ve all been with people that, yes, they’re hearing what you’re saying, but they’re not really giving any attention to what you mean.
So it’s sort of that letter of the law vs. spirit of the law thing, and ultimately, y’know, the best thing in the world, is – ‘cause PCs are very defined by their intentionality, when PCs are interacting with the world, good PCs get in the habit of just declaring intentions. Like “I’m going to try to attack this person” or “I’m going to try to do this” right? And that’s very respectful ‘cause obviously the dice have their say, you don’t – PCs can’t announce the result of their actions prior to the roll.
But a good DM understands what a player is attempting and why, and has to manage those things with like, what is your vision of your character? What are you asking for from this scene, right? Which is the same thing as in real life, of being a good communicator. Y’know if you’re having an argument with somebody and you’re truly being empathetic and truly listening to them, hopefully you will do the good job of, someone says something to you and they’re truly upset, and yes, you try to listen to exactly what they’re saying, but also maybe try to pay attention to what’s behind what they’re saying.
So you can be that person who says like “Hey, I understand that we’re arguing about this, it sounds like you’re also upset with me from some other stuff, from what you’re saying – can we talk about that as well?” and having those kinds of insights into people to understand subtext, to understand motivation, and not just, y’know, pure verbiage.
So that ability to really listen, y’know, because all the cleverness in the world, all the technique in the world, all the good plotting in the world – is going to turn to ash in your mouth, if the PCs feel like they’re just spectators. And ultimately, y’know, the experience there is in service of the PCs – they are the heroes of the story.
As a DM you are trying to uplift them, and nothing is going to feel better to a PC then to see that their character has an impact on the world, and to see that their contributions are being fully ingested and mirrored back to them. Like, the PC choosing to befriend a random NPC at the bar and then that NPC becomes important. The PC saying “I actually hate this henchman more than the main villain!” and then that henchman kind of rises to meet the occasion.
These moments where PCs really begin to feel like, oh, the story is reacting to me, vividly and really intensely in these moments, that’s the best gift you can give your players. And that doesn’t happen if you’re not paying attention to what they’re enjoying and what is satisfying to them.
Smith: Are there any particular themes that you think are best suited to be included or explored in a campaign or game of Dungeons and Dragons?
Mulligan: Well I think that by virtue of how these games work, what’s so interesting about these games, is that there is not a single protagonist. You’re going to have multiple protagonists in a party, and that really lends itself to ensemble storytelling, right?
And so, y’know, it’s sort of a trope but it’s a trope that’s really lovely and wonderful and one you hit over and over again, it’s the idea of the found family. It’s this idea that by going through these dangerous encounters together, these party members come to love and trust one another.
And also kind of within the mechanics of D&D there’s this idea that often the characters will have different skill sets from each other. And so, you end up time and time again, exploring these themes of wildly different people coming together to support one another. To lift each other up with these unique skills that maybe are not shared by other people, and giving what contributions they can. And creating this network of found family, and lifting each other up.
Obviously D&D is very oriented towards heroic fantasy, so there tends to be a lot of good vs. evil and saving the world and all that wonderful stuff. But I do think there’s something more foundational, just like loved ones coming together, creating a family together, and being there for each other, is something that I think these games really do explore quite well.
Smith: What would you like to include, or explore in a future Dimension 20 series?
Mulligan: I think there are big genres that I would like to tackle. There are things that would be really, really fun. It would be really fun to do something in the universe of sci-fi. It would be really funny to do something kind of horror related. These are like two big things that we haven’t really – we’ve touched on it in places, but never really devoted an entire season to – that I think would be really, really fun and gratifying.
And one of the great thing, y’know, we’re doing a murder mystery season right now, and it’s a great boot camp for me as a storyteller, because every new season I have to learn a new set of skills. Like, y’know, I know how to run a D&D game, but I’m not a murder mystery author, and suddenly I’m like – “mystery… so what the hell is a clue?!” And then you’re just there like “ahhh!” trying to scramble and put it all together. That’s really exciting.
So I think horror and sci-fi are two things that would be fun to throw myself into the deep end and kind of see, like, how do we make this kind of story work?
Smith: What’s your personal favourite moment that’s happened so far in a Dimension 20 series?
Mulligan: God, my favourite moment… there’s been… I mean there are so many funny moments to me, that have been really, really great.
There is a moment that didn’t happen on camera, but it was at the end of Fantasy High season 1, and after the final episode I just knew that we had made something. I knew that like, thanks to the dedication and skill of the cast, of those players, that we had made something that – I didn’t know if it was going to work, but I knew that we had made something. It was like okay, this was the best version of this I could do.
Like you look at it and you’re like, I didn’t, I don’t look at this and go “Oh, these are the obvious reasons this is going to fail.”
I was like “Okay! Maybe people won’t like it, but these guys all nailed it, and I at least got them to the end. Like we finished.”
And I have everybody on the cast a 20-sided die, a d20, from my own personal collection that I’d had since I was a kid. And it was great. I bought – everyone who worked that season got a d20, and I bought a bunch for everybody, for all the people.
But the cast I took to the side and was like “Hey, listen… I mean we had like 40 people work on that season, and I would be out of dice if I gave 40 people…” but I gave each of them a d20 that I’d had since I was a kid. And was basically like “Hey!” – and at this point I had no idea if this show would be anything – but I was just like “Hey! I’ve devoted my whole life to this game, and very few people get the opportunity to do creative work to make a living at all, and for me to not only be able to do that, but for me to be able to do that playing this game with the people I love, what an intense opportunity.”
I feel all of the moments at the table, there are too many competing for first place, but that was a moment, being in a little side room of the old IAC building and just telling them, like, “Yeah you guys made a dream come true for me.” So that was very special.
Smith: And – last question – why do you think Dungeons and Dragons has had such a large resurgence/increase in popularity in the last few years?
Mulligan: Hell yes! Great question. Um, I think that there are – I think that it’s a perfect storm. There are literally multiple independent factors. Any one of which could explain a possible resurgence, and that they all happened together, explains this explosive nature of this resurgence of popularity.
A redesign of the core rules, into 5th edition, that made the game a lot more approachable for many, many people. And also leaned into a lot of the strengths of the game, right? Made it more approachable for new people, slimmed down a lot of the rules, bounded accuracy – a lot of these sort of game mechanics that made it sort of presentable and enjoyable. So there’s that.
A huge technological advantage in streaming and actual play. I think shows like Critical Role, and podcasts like The Adventure Zone have a huge role in lifting up 5th edition. They make people go “Man, this is really fun!”
Prior to that, D&D was completely cellular and compartmentalized. Like, the way you play your game might be the way other people play their game, but unless you were going to convention spaces, you didn’t really know what the culture of D&D was, right? Because again, it was totally compartmentalized and sealed off from everywhere else, it’s just you and your friends playing.
And when these big games came along – and all of these creators are very careful to say, quite loudly, “you do not have to play like us,” and they’re right. However, I think that anyone who has ever learned a new skill knows that at a certain point, you can read all the books in the world about the new skill – you’re gonna have to watch someone do it at some point. Like, “What are you asking me to do? Oh, okay, now I get it – I’ve seen someone else do it.” That is a huge element.
The lower barrier to entry of, like, podcasting technology and streaming on Twitch and things like that, [also] opens up a lot of accessibility. And I would say, in terms of its resurgence as well, you can get into the kind of cultural stuff going on – I mean it’s even more explosive during quarantine as a way to like play remotely with people. and that’s been another huge thing. I think even further gassing it.
But I do think too, that there’s something about D&D, and tabletop games more broadly, of people being able to story tell and play a game, and create unique, genuine, experiences with the people they love and care about. Y’know, I think that you could probably look at a lot of culture, and see it as – y’know culture is always reacting to itself – so we live in an age of where things like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and there are just these huge cultural touchstones that are mass produced. Like literally the largest media companies go like “This is culture. These are the stories that matter to us.”
And I think that – I’m not even saying that those stories are bad, necessarily – I’m just saying that we see a hunger for authenticity and uniqueness, and homemade-ness, and DIY-ness, across all kinds of spectrums of culture and economy and personal lives, and I think it is a reaction to the mass made, plastic nature of a lot of stuff.
And I think people go like “Oh man, I could just be with my friends and we are gonna make a unique story that is only for us.” And I think that there is a hunger for that, that is partially responsible for this resurgence of D&D, in addition to those much more concrete, y’know, material, technological reasons.
A few series of Dimension 20, including series one of Fantasy High can be streamed for free on the Dimension 20 YouTube channel. This and all other Dimension 20 series, including A Crown of Candy are also available to watch on CollegeHumor’s subscription service, Dropout. Mice and Murder is currently airing on Dropout every Wednesday,