Storytelling Lessons From Dimension 20’s Game Master

I had a wonderful, insightful chat with Brennan Lee Mulligan — Dimension 20’s Game Master — about creating stories that touch people.

A few weeks ago, I posted a story about Dimension 20’s new season, The Unsleeping City. When it got to Medium’s homepage it taught me that writing about the things you love with passion makes dreams come true.

That story opened the door to an interview with one of my favorite creators on the planet — Brennan Lee Mulligan. The Creator and Dungeon Master of Dimension 20 — A show on CollegeHumor’s Dropout where some talented comedians sit down to play D&D.

Dimension 20 has three seasons so far: Fantasy High, Escape From The Blood Keep, and The Unsleeping City, which airs every Tuesday on Dropout. That’s a lot of stories!

I asked Brennan some questions about Storytelling, World-Building, Writing, Character Design, and — of course — Dungeons and Dragons. It was a wonderful interview, very insightful and I learned some incredible things!

Hope you enjoy it!


Brennan, thank you so much for doing this interview! How are you?

Life is very very good.

Cool! You shared on your Adventuring Academy podcast that you’ve been creating stories in D&D since age 10. That’s more than 20 years! I’ve always wondered if you ever adapted one or more into a written version?

I’ve written fiction, a web-comic, and screenplays. But I’ve never adapted a D&D campaign into a different format.

Something to think about. I’ll be your first reader! Let’s talk a bit about worldbuilding which is an essential part of every D&D campaign.

Awesome.

A lot of writers have a hard time creating that twist that makes a fantasy world interesting and unique. How did you find that twist for the different worlds in Dimension 20?

“I think that the coming up with twists for the campaign world has been aided a lot by the fact that we’re making an inherently comedic show, in which the twist is actually the central comedic premise.”

I think that’s a really fascinating question, and one thing that makes this a little bit easier is the fact that Dimension 20 is a naturally comedic show. When you’re creating comedy in your worldbuilding, often you know, working on the premise that for a game to be reliably funny the world needs to have some kind of what — in UCB terminology and Improv terminology — you’d call a game. It’s a combination of baseline reality and then some kind of unusual twist put on that.

So, if you look at the seasons of the show that have come out: Fantasy High was a John Hughes game of D&D. It would have taken classic American high school teen comedy and then layering that on top of the classic sort of fantasy tropes we know and love.

With Escape From The Blood Keep, It’s another similar thing that rather than a mashup it’s a parody of this moment from Lord of The Rings — which is the kind of foundational text for Fantasy — and saying here’s this moment from the bad guy’s perspective where all of this becomes a lot more comedic.

With The Unsleeping City, it’s taking a setting where, people’s emotional association with New York is loud, modern, fast-paced and then adding the fantastical to it. I think the game of Unsleeping City has to do with the fact that if you look at people and you’re like, ‘behind London, England there’s a secret magical world.’

A lot of people kind of think of England as having a lot of fairies and mysticism in it and magic behind it. It’s the birthplace of Merlin, the original kind of wizard in Western Canon. So, people think, ‘England being magical kind of makes sense’. Then, you’re like, ‘what if New York was magical?’ people would be like, ‘what, the place of a lot of rats and pigeons and the subway?’

I think that the coming up with twists for the campaign world has been aided a lot by the fact that we’re making an inherently comedic show, in which the twist is actually the central comedic premise. That was something early on in the creative design for what Dimension 20 was going to be was basically the thought of there’re two ways to tackle comedic D&D. One of them is like playing D&D and make fun of it as you go which nobody was excited about doing. The other is to set your D&D campaign in a fundamentally comedic world and then take it very seriously.

Taking silly things very seriously and committing deeply to them and honoring them even though they’re very silly is kind of the MO for a lot of the cast that works on the show and is a more gripping, rewarding way to world-build and to create comedy.

What level of detail do you aim for before you feel comfortable introducing the world to your PCs?

“What I recommend is doing a lot of your worldbuilding based on the choices of your PCs. Because you should keep your world a little bit volcanic when you bring it to your PCs. Not that there’s nothing there but the thing you want to break to your PCs is a world that has a lot of the tone established.”

I feel like that is always a very nerve-wracking thing for a DM, right? When is your world ready enough for the PCs to jump in. My advice is actually similar to the piece of tech advice which is sort of get your product to beta as soon as possible. Don’t wait too long to get your product to beta. Which is true to DMs as well.

What I recommend is doing a lot of your worldbuilding based on the choices of your PCs. Because you should keep your world a little bit volcanic when you bring it to your PCs. Not that there’s nothing there but the thing you want to break to your PCs is a world that has a lot of the tone established. The world I bring to my PCs is basically like all the stuff that feels fun like a big box of toys.

Here are different lands you can be from, here’s loosely what’s going on. Here’s some fun different classes or mechanics that you should consider. Here’s the tone or feeling, here’s the sort of aesthetic or genre of the campaign world. But I think that for the most part, you can introduce a campaign well when it exists in broad strokes and the reason for that is twofold:

  1. introducing your world in broad strokes so it’s not every single last detail is built down to the ground floor allows your PCs to make creative choices themselves. Someone can say: “Hey, this order of knights you mentioned. Could I be a member of that order that had betrayed them and gone off and learned this wizard stuff?” You don’t want to have designed your world so richly that you’re like: “Well, that wouldn’t really be possible because according to treaty 1174…”. Instead, you wanna go like: “Uh…Yeah, that’s possible. Let’s talk about how that would work and what that would look like.”
  2. It’s important to remember when talking about world design, is most DMs except for a very lucky few are running their games for their friends in their free time. It’s a matter of bandwidth for those DMs. So I think that like holding DMs to a standard of like: “Hey, design this setting as rich and textured as middle-earth — which you know, Tolkien spent decades on — that’s not realistic.

What you can do as a favor to yourself as a DM is allow your players to pick their PCs, and tell you what they’re interested in so that rather than having to develop every last square inch of your campaign setting to the highest resolution possible, you can save yourself time and stress by developing the areas your PCs told you they’re interested in.

If you have wizards, develop the magical aspect of your world. If nobody picked Paladin or Cleric, you can let your God and Church side of things be a little looser because you know your characters are not interested in exploring that side of your world. I think that saves DMs time and energy in a big way which is a good thing.

Creating a world is an enormous amount of work. When creating a world for a home game, How do you keep yourself motivated and productive to complete everything you need to do?

“There’s very little as rewarding as seeing a look of joy on your friends’ faces after you run a good session.”

It’s just something that I think most DMs are compelled to do. Making stories and worlds for your friends is something I’ve always done. I can’t even imagine my life without having done it. The only thing that I’ve ever gotten in my way in terms of designing a campaign was getting busier. Now that I do Dimension 20 I have less time for home games but I’m still running a 10 year-long home game in a campaign world that I’ve put thousands and thousands of hours into designing.

It’s a funny thing because everyone’s got to pay rent and feed themselves. But I think for most creative people it is a compulsion. Why do you write a song? Why do you choreograph a dance? Why do you do these art forms? It is the joy of expression. With D&D it’s fun to sit down and draw a map of a continent or a dungeon. It’s fun to sit down and plot an adventure. You’re riding the subway daydreaming about what NPCs might do when your PCs pull off their next plan. What might a thrilling scene look like? Not only is that rewarding in and of itself, but there’s also something deeply gratifying — and I would say, primal — about being a storyteller for a small group of your friends.

You gather around a little table and it becomes a kind of primeval campfire and you’re this storyteller, your friends are adventuring as these heroes. There’s very little as rewarding as seeing a look of joy on your friends’ faces after you run a good session.

I love how your motivation is born of the social interaction involved in DMing. I’ve been worldbuilding for a fantasy book I’m working on and sometimes I’m blocked and finding excuses. I’m passionate about it but not as passionate as you described your worldbuilding for a campaign.

“I feel like a lot of times I see interviews with writers or creators where they’re like, ‘just get out there and dream your art out. If you dream hard enough you’ll create everything.’ The reality is that it’s very hard to create a Magnum Opus.”

Look, you know, passion does come and go. I’ve definitely had days when I was like, “ugh, I’m not working on anything.” The factors that go into how productive someone is has a lot to do with their material comfort how supported they are, how much they’re not distracted.

I did a lot of my world design when I was a kid and a student. And then when I was an adult I did a lot of the world design definitely when I was bartending and I had more days off in a week. I wasn’t working a 40-hour week, I was bartending and making my money on the weekends.

I never want to over-romanticize creative feel because I feel like a lot of times I see interviews with writers or creators where they’re like, ‘just get out there and dream your art out. If you dream hard enough you’ll create everything.’ The reality is that it’s very hard to create a Magnum Opus. If you’re bone-tired at the end of every day from working a 9 to 5 job that’s really challenging. Something I definitely empathize with about how difficult it is to stay creative when life is putting other pressures on you.

One of the things D&D did in terms of overcoming like inertia or overcoming how do you get that get up and go spirit, is that there is something very vital about knowing that, ‘ I’m creating this world for a game this Friday and I’m gonna see the happy faces of my friends.’ Sometimes it can be stymieing the creative process when you’re writing a screenplay or a novel and you’re like, ‘OK, the reward for this is so far in the future.’

One of the nice things about being creative when it comes to D&D is the reward is going to be more immediate which can also be tempting and be the thing to overindulge in sometimes but it’s also great in overcoming a creative slump, I think.

The world we build to play with our friends next Friday is one our players need to immerse themselves in. Do you have any tips for writers — whether DMs or novelists — about how to make our worlds more immersive?

“Your first priority at all times is not just to narrate what’s happening. Your job is to narrate what’s happening and what that feels like.”

Absolutely! I think it’s important to stay keyed-in to the internal logic of your world. It’s hard for players to be immersed in your world if they don’t feel like the world is operating on the same rules that they are.

You want to make sure that there is a sense of fairness in the world, and there’s also a sense of abiding by the same rules from something as basic as the rules of physics to things that are more potent that have to do with the tone and genre and meaning of your world.

Also, Immersiveness has a lot to do with how you perform at the table, you know? DMs should use every tool in their tool-belt to create tone, feeling, and mood. If you’re running a horror game, use the rhythm of your natural voice. Use the tone you’re speaking in. Use kind of everything you have available to almost like creating a musical score for your world. Also, I think one of DM’s biggest friends is time. Like, the time you spend describing different things, what you choose to highlight in a scene or not.

And I think remembering too that you’re not there to report the facts, you’re there to communicate how things feel. Your PCs are playing this game because they want to get lost in a fantasy world. So, your first priority at all times is not just to narrate what’s happening. Your job is to narrate what’s happening and what that feels like with more emphasis on the latter.

Would you say worldbuilding for either a novel or a D&D campaign should be done to serve only the story of one specific campaign or you’re building the world for future campaigns as well? (for example The Sword Coast — which is just one piece of a vast world — is detailed enough to have been used in Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate and perhaps many other video games as well)

“Every campaign should feel to its players like they are truly the main characters of a fantasy novel.”

I have definitely used homebrew campaign settings for multiple campaigns with different players before and I think that’s really fun and rewarding. I mean, it’s a lot of work that goes into a campaign. Well, then you should use it as much as feels fun and it feels like the right choice for that campaign.

I think an ideal campaign world is one that is so rich and dynamic and that its call to adventure feels so clear that multiple people would want to jump into it. I think that’s really gratifying.

The only trick with campaign settings and modules is remembering the world should be big enough to support many many stories but that you should always make the story you’re running feel like the most important story.

In other words, I think it can be hard in a very big massive campaign world for the PCs of a given game to feel like, “well, does our story matter in this larger world?” The answer to that should be Yes. As the DM you should make sure. Even if the PCs know it’s a big scary world out there, every campaign should feel to its players like they are truly the main characters of a fantasy novel.

In D&D the story is mostly moving forward by the players themselves and the choices they make. Based on your experience with this method of storytelling, what advice can you give writers about character development and advancing the plot through character decisions?

“The name of the game here is about empathy which is, your PCs are telling you through their actions what type of story they want to tell and your job is to try to empower them as best you can.”

It is such a joy. The division of labor between the Dungeon Master and a PC is really fascinating because obviously, they’re doing completely different things in a lot of ways. The job of a Player Character is to totally embody that hero. For them, within Dungeons and Dragons, that means a lot of creative decisions. When I’m playing a PC I’m not playing a game of imagination, I’m playing a game of emotion. I want to get lost in the character and feel as much as I can that the world is real.

When you’re a dungeon master it is totally opposite where it’s totally a game of imagination. You’re never attached to any of the characters you’re playing. They are puppets. They’re running around doing stuff and accomplishing tasks within the story. You might love a given NPC but you’re not attached to them in the way a player is attached to their player character.

I think that the way storytelling moves forward is, there is a lot of the game which is, you’re responsible for a story but the story does have to be told by the PCs.

My favorite people to play with are always going to be players that take big swings and huge risks and allow their characters to change and grow. For stories to develop that’s part of the fun of it. The name of the game here is about empathy which is, your PCs are telling you through their actions what type of story they want to tell and your job is to try to empower them as best you can.

Playing with a bunch of veteran players or players that have a lot of creative writing experience so, you’re playing with players that are going to drive the story forward and are going to make big decisions and it’s going to make your job easy. That’s great.

You might be playing with players that for whatever reason are very new or they’re very shy. They’re not going to drive the story forward. They want to have an adventure presented to them and it’s going to be really on you as a DM to make the plot and adventure hooks very clear and give really clear motivation to them. Maybe even have an NPCs that are kind of with them and helping them make decisions if they’re having a hard time making decisions.

Also, one type of players can become another. I’ve introduced a lot of people to this game and you kind of see that when new players start they don’t want to take the reins of the story but then, around level five or six or whatever, they go like, ‘Wait a minute, we’re familiar with this world now and we do have thoughts and opinions about it and we want to do an adventure about this.’

All of a sudden, you have that great moment as a DM where you no longer have to come up with adventure hooks because your PCs are deep enough in the world that they’re telling you what their goals are. like, ‘we want to go back to this castle and fight this guy. We want to change how this land is run. We want to open these magical portals rather than close them.’ That’s a really beautiful moment.

So, I think there’s a spectrum that PCs exist on in terms of driving the story forward and a good DM will fill in that space as much or as little as those PCs need.

Sometimes the characters steer your story towards a different path. Having experienced that in campaigns like Escape From The Blood Keep where the end was supposed to be PVP, what advice could you give writers who plotted one story and then through writing discover a different, not less good, plot?

“All the writing skills in the world will not make you a good Dungeon Master if you can’t roll with the punches and reward the ideas of your PCs.”

You have to go with what feels right. At the end of the day, I changed the end of Blood Keep on the fly because the other options the PCs were going for was a better story.

I think that every writer should have the wisdom and humility to be in the midst of their story whether D&D or not and go, ‘ah, I’ve discovered something that’s far more genuine. I’ve discovered a storyline that is purer and resonates more.’

I think that’s a beautiful thing when that happens and embracing that is the pillar stone of good writing, of surprising yourself with discovery. I mean that’s the fun of writing. So, I think definitely you have to create space for yourself and definitely if you’re a Dungeon Master.

Look, the better part of the Dungeon Master’s skillset is not writing it is improvisation. if you’re a brilliant storyteller and you have amazing stories to tell but incorporating the actions of PCs stresses you out and you don’t know how to do it, that’s a big problem for being a dungeon master. All the writing skills in the world will not make you a good Dungeon Master if you can’t roll with the punches and reward the ideas of your PCs.

When I’m DMing I identify more as an improviser than I do as a writer. I’m more there to facilitate the storytelling of the PCs than I am to tell my own story.

Some writers find it hard to fully realize a character they wrote as believable and convincing. What advice can you give a writer to create more believable characters?

“A writer should feel comfortable not just thinking about what a character needs to do for the story, but also who that character is and how they feel.”

I think that the main thing you want to do to have characters that are more believable is to recognize that especially in speculative fiction, no matter how much fantastical stuff is happening characters still boil down to their feelings, their motivations, what they want, and it’s about plugging into something familiar.

To me, the most fun characters to play are wildly outlandish and stretch from the absurd back to the recognizable and familiar especially based on what their emotional truth is. So, I think the main thing is, a writer should feel comfortable not just thinking about what a character needs to do for the story, but also who that character is and how they feel. The ideal place to be is that every NPC you play in your story is someone you deeply understand and can relate to even as a villain.

Even when I think about writing Calvaxis in Season one of Fantasy high. That’s a bad guy, a villain. But, playing that character you still have to find the ways where you’re like ‘okay, what motivates this person.’ Even if I don’t agree with them I can still understand what’s motivating them and connect it to the times where I have felt those feelings. I think believability has a lot to do with empathy and connecting to the emotional truth of your character.

Brennan, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview, it was a pleasure! One last question I wanted to ask — and I believe it is on the minds of many international Dimension 20 fans — will there be Dimension 20 live shows outside of the United States?

Oh, we’d love that! We’re hard at work building how to make that happen.


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