Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Secrets of Dungeon-Mastering: Dimension 20, Fantasy High

What is this? Brennan Lee Mulligan is a veteran UCB improv teacher who got hired by College Humor’s spinoff Dropout TV, where he started a DnD channel called Dimension 20 to “vodcast” a series of actual-plays, starting with this one. The show exists as a YouTube channel and podcast. The odd numbered episodes are entirely theater of the mind role-playing and the even numbered episodes are entirely combat with custom made models and miniatures, so I ended up listening (sped up) to the odd episodes and watched the even episodes on YouTube.

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
I should say at the beginning that this is the very best of the actual plays I consumed. If you only do one, do this one, even though it’s long (This season takes about 30 hours). It’s the best because the DM and all the players are professional improvisers and really know how to create a compelling and funny story on the fly. This one will make you laugh and cry.

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?
You can take time for character if you keep things snappy.

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. 

 But here’s the thing: In every other episode of Fantasy High, they play an action scene with elaborate figurines and models that had been made weeks before by his model maker. In the fourth episode, there’s an elaborate car chase with Tieflings, and the way they had wound up in that car chase felt totally organic. It had felt like they had wound up there because of some surprising, unpredictable decisions the characters made. But clearly Brennan wasn’t surprised, because he’d told his model maker what to make weeks in advance.

Realizing this, I decided there’s really three levels of DM’ing.
  1. 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.”
  2. The second level is: “Anything can happen, let the players lead and the DM scrambles to keep up with their imagination.”
  3. 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.”
It’s like the gambling scene in “War and Peace”, where Dolokhov has total control of the card game against Nikolai, deciding in advance just how much he’s going to win, and Nikolai has no idea, and just thinks he’s having bad luck.

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.


McL said...

When Lee is doing these mini-series, the cast knows there is a goal they're trying to reach within 8-12 episodes, and it's a very different than a long form Critical Role/High Rollers campaign where it's going to be years and go all over the place.

But if that's the 3 levels, then the 4th is: The DM has a bunch of cool set pieces planned, and machinations of an active villain. They're in a life situation where they can afford to plan whole scenes that don't come to pass because they have lots of time/resources, and will be okay if they never get used, or must be repurposed/reskinned for another game/time. They can add them to their wellspring of experience that allows them to seem to improv (rather than remember) situations. They're okay with a clever party circumventing everything from one combat encounter to a whole section of plot. As a DM they take more pride in their group having an awesome moment of self-created heroics, than forcing them to go through the cool hoops they prepared.

But also, the players are levelling up to. A lot of players come in wanting to play a lone wolf hero. Western literature littered with Chosen Ones, make a powerful archetype. But this is a collaborative game with an ensemble cast. While there are several possible player attitudes, one is:
Level 1: I can do whatever I want, so I'm going to do all sorts of wild things. I either expect the DM to know how to handle ANY situation, or I know they can't, and I enjoy pushing them off script to see them scramble. I go where I want, even if that means the rest of the group has to listen to me do my own thing for a while.
Level 2: I realize the DM can't handle inventing everything on the fly, and I should be creative within the sandboxes they make. I stick with the group so we can all get things done and participate in a scenario.
Level 3: I get to help make the sandboxes and can suggest things, and world build with the DM, even if they get final say. ("There's probably someone at the inn who's card sharking people, I want to try to pick them out and slide them some coin to start a conversation.") I'm okay with another player taking the spotlight to do something solo with their character for a little while, because my turn will come, and the story benefits from highlighting each of our different journeys. I keep notes and know my spells/abilities fairly well, not making the DM remember everything themselves.

McL said...

But I'm enjoying these TTRPG/DnD posts you're making! I think I learned a lot more about making stories from D&D than a lot of other places.

Matt Bird said...

Good way of describing Level 4!

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