The opportunity to speak with someone whose work has genuinely made a meaningful impact on your life is an amazing privilege, yet it can also be nerve–wracking to an unimaginable degree. I’m sure those emotions were evident when I was interviewing CollegeHumor cast member and Dungeon Master Brennan Lee Mulligan.
The admiration flowed both ways. For Mulligan, talking to fans like myself is looking through a one-way mirror at everything your creative universe touches. "I have nerves talking to you, because the fans of this show are overwhelmingly so cool, and it’s staggering. I’m just constantly grateful," he says. Suddenly, the nerves disappeared—at least on my end— and for the rest of the interview I was able to enjoy how effusive and passionate Mulligan is.
Mulligan is the creator and Dungeon Master for the Dungeons and Dragons actual play show, Dimension 20, which is hosted on CollegeHumor’s streaming service, Dropout. One of the most beloved in a genre that has exploded in recent years, Dimension 20 bolstered by the immense success of other "let’s play" series and podcasts like Critical Role, The Adventure Zone, and NADDPOD.
Dimension 20 is one of the many long–form series hosted on Dropout. It’s an anthology actual play series, where the same cast plays Dungeons and Dragons in a different story arc and setting every season. Though each season’s story is vastly different and creative, all of Dimension 20’s work celebrates the universality of hope and friendship, as well as the versatility of the game itself.
The second season of Dimension 20, The Unsleeping City, takes place in an urban fantasy version of New York. So many of the characters and events are clearly inspired by real facets of New York—think Santacon, the Bethesda Fountain, and The New York Public Library. The sequel season to The Unsleeping City, filmed virtually, will be coming out on Nov. 11.
Dimension 20 exemplifies multi–faceted storytelling. As Mulligan said, "What makes actual play so enticing is that you’re watching two shows at the same time … I think people really dig that because we want both. I want the premium fantasy storytelling, and I want the fun hanging out with my friends reality vibe."
There is genuine love between fans and creators in small, audience–driven productions. When asked about the niche level of fame he has achieved, one where he is most often recognized as “the Tide Pod guy,” Mulligan said, “I’ll be honest, I’m intimidated by our fans. They’re so much cooler than me, and I’m astounded and amazed that they’re here."
The Dimension 20 cast and crew answer questions about the show and celebrate fan art regularly; fans have even made an entire original album for the show. “If people wonder what my mental state is like walking around from day to day, it’s just a constant wide–eyed daze that I am a dungeon master for a job," Mulligan said when asked about his passionate fan base. "If you had told that to a 10–year–old me, I would be like, 'That’s not a thing, you don’t get paid to do that.' It’s just a massive honor and a privilege,”
“And also our fans are super smart and really funny, like really funny, like—oh no—they’re going to start their own shows and put me out of my work funny. They’re charming and so talented," he then elaborates, ruminating on the temporality of living out his childhood fantasy.
Like other independent media podcasts and web series, Dimension 20 also includes deeply anti–capitalist and anti–corporate themes. The antagonists of previous seasons have literally been big banks in the form of a dragon's horde, insurance companies, and the capitalist perversion of the American dream. Mulligan attributes these themes to the self–owned, indie spirit of the series, as well as the direct financial support from and, therefore, responsibility toward the audience. Even CollegeHumor, despite its historical popularity on YouTube, is now staffed by just a few full–time employees.
"Anytime you let more people have access to the means of production and the means of creating art, you get an explosion of amazing creativity," Mulligan said. “There’s, I think, a lot of fight and spirit—indie spirit—within actual plays due to barrier of entry … And again, I would say [to] everyone that’s reading this article support artists directly where you can,” Mulligan said.
The strong anti–capitalist and anti–corporate themes are also influenced by Mulligan's own socialist views. He spoke passionately, addressing me as a fellow socialist. “Unchecked capitalism is killing the planet … so, you know, people are fed up, and that extends to artists as well. So I think, you know, our show being anti–capitalist is kind of like, yeah, join the club. A lot of people are moving in that direction. Rightfully so,” he said.
One of the best parts of Dimension 20 is its diversity. The foundational world–building of the show incorporates characters of color, queer characters, and neurodivergent characters. As Mulligan said, “I want to make sure that this show is the most joyful and welcoming and inclusive it can be. I’m one dude, and I don’t have the perspective or the background myself to be able to do that.”
Mulligan attributes the inclusivity of the show to the cast and crew behind the camera. Dimension 20 even hires sensitivity consultants behind the scenes to ensure their representation is accurate and respectful, something that mainstream media should take note of."The consultants that we brought into the show have hopefully been able to help us make something that anyone watching at home can go, ‘I know that I am being welcomed into this show, and I feel comfortable and happy to be here,'" Mulligan said.
When asked about his advice for students seeking to enter creative fields, Mulligan was realistic about his own experiences. He moved to Los Angeles and was hired by CollegeHumor when he was 29 years old. Before then, he worked as a bartender and nanny. He attributes much of his success to luck. “I think a lot of people, especially young people, put pressure on themselves to be overnight successes … I think people need to be kind to themselves, especially if you’re going into creative work about... how long it takes," he adds. "You may have a long time of having to support yourself with things that are not your passion, and that’s okay.”
He encouraged anyone to follow their dreams with brutally realistic logic about the current state of the world. "There’s no job that’s going to pay you a steady wage and put your kids through college and you’ll have a pension waiting for you at retirement," Mulligan said. "Believe in yourself. Hustle. There is a career path out there doing what you love to do.”
What makes Dimension 20 special is that it always prioritizes happiness and optimism, even when they are difficult and hard–won. During the most difficult parts of college, when I often felt lonely and directionless, and in the most isolating parts of quarantine, I would find comfort in these worlds of fantasy and magic. I fell in love with Dimension 20’s heroes, who chose to save the world, to make their own families, to help others, to do the incredibly difficult work of carving out happy endings. They’re stories I want to escape to, a fantasy we could all use right now, even if we know nothing about Dungeons and Dragons.
It’s amazing that a series can make its characters seem so real to my experiences when they work in a world of fantasy and magic. But they are real, made to represent real people, and extensions of the real people who play them. “There is no way to mass produce authenticity. And I think that’s why you’re seeing actual plays really triumph, because it’s hard to fake genuine love between friends, vibing on a story they’re all telling," said Mulligan on the appeal of let's play shows. "I would rather hear something completely heartfelt, even if it’s two–and–a–half hours long, than go through something that’s been polished and had every single interesting bit of texture scrubbed off of it."
The second season of The Unsleeping City comes out on Dropout on Nov. 11; for those new to the show or the genre, many of the previous seasons are available for free on the Dimension 20 YouTube channel.