The people involved:
- Brennan Lee Mulligan is DM
- Emily Axford plays Figueroth “Fig” Faeth
- Zac Oyama plays Gorgug Thistlespring
- Siobhan Thompson plays Adaine Abernant
- Lou Wilson plays Fabian Aramaris Seacaster
- Ally Beardsley plays Kristen Applebees
- Brian Murphy plays Riz “The Ball” Gukgak
What I learned about DM’ing from listening to it:
DnD can be anything
The idea for this season is “What if John Hughes wrote a DnD campaign?”, and the show is set in a very modern-feeling high school with cell phones (called crystals) and motorcycles. It’s sort of like the movie “Onward”, with all the realities of modern life with a fantasy overlay on them. Brennan is just having fun throwing in any story element he wants. In Brennan’s “Adventuring Academy” podcast,, he says:
- It’s funny to hold Tolkien, for example, as the gold standard for fantasy, because specifically what Tolkien set out to do was create a new mythos…He was like, there should be a mythology for England, and mythologized Hobbits as these little country squire English people that are pretty identical to how he lived his life, like, a bunch of snacks during the day, smoking pipe weed, sounds like what that dude was about in his personal life. So if you’re an American DM living in 2020, why not mythologize the subject of your own real life and create the fantasy version of that?
Brennan makes a daring decision: He starts with all six characters at home with their respective parents, and the other players just have to listen to each scene. One risk is that the other players could get annoyed at having so much time not focus on them. He gets away with this, first and foremost, by having all six scenes be very entertaining. The other risk is that it could take forever for the adventure to get going after six scenes. But this brings us to Brennan’s greatest skill, one which all of the other DMs I listened to weren’t as good at: He’s really brutal about cutting off scenes. He cuts away to other characters mid-scene to keep things snappy. This is a such a nice change from DMs who let scenes drag on forever.
The three levels of DM’ing.
In the “Adventuring Academy” podcast, he frequently tells the story of the one time he tried to DM a pre-made module, back in high school. He carefully prepared all the maps for the big dungeon crawl beforehand. To start the adventure, he just wanted to do a little scene-setting, so he told his players that they were at an arranged dwarf wedding, and he mentioned a few details such as the fact that the bride wasn’t super into it. His players unexpectedly said, “If’s she’s not super into it, we’re going to rescue her from this.” And so they did, and the wedding party came charging after, and that became the adventure, and they never got to Brennan’s wonderful maps. He returns to this story in several episodes to make it clear that you have to let the players take the story in any direction you want and so there’s not much point in pre-planning.
Realizing this, I decided there’s really three levels of DM’ing.
- The first level is: “Stick to the story, stay on rails, don’t improvise, do what I tell you to do, just let me finish this pre-made module.”
- The second level is: “Anything can happen, let the players lead and the DM scrambles to keep up with their imagination.”
- But the third level is, “The players feel like they’re in complete control, but actually the DM is invisibly channeling the story in the direction he or she wants it to go.”
There are just a few places where Brennan’s efforts show. Near the end of the season, all six get calls from their parents begging them to rush home because the parents are under attack. But two of the characters, who don’t really like their parents, refuse, and say they’re going to stay at school investigating the mystery. So Brennan lets them do that for a while, but then he has their parents call them back and really beg them to come home. It just briefly becomes clear to us that Brennan has decided they all have to go save their parents in order for him to get the story he wants and he’s not going to take no for an answer. It’s one of the few times you can spot him putting his thumb on the scale.