Second Star to the Right (SSTTR) is a Dungeons and Dragons actual-play show developed by Second Star Productions and led by professional Dungeon Master and WizKids RPG Producer Joe Nuzzo. Airing bi-weekly on Fridays at 7pm CDT, SSTTR boasts a glorious line-up of seasoned TTRPG players: Faeforge Academy actor and Into the Motherlands star Michael Sinclair II, psychology expert Desirée Strother, who explores relationship dynamics through D&D, creative producer for The Initiative Order and ambassador for Jasper’s Game Day Breanna Flaim, host of Roll for Persuasion and Head of Marketing at Dwarven Forge Andrew Strother, and TV producer, voice actor, and 20 Sided Stories cast member Emily Ervolina.
The Neverland Setting
SSTTR follows Andrew Kolb‘s Neverland setting, a feature-length hex crawl campaign intended for sandbox exploration published by Andrews McMeel. Kolb takes inspiration from the classic world of Peter Pan’s adventures, adding a unique twist that makes for a more appropriate, and perhaps more interesting, environment to wade through for mature TTRPG players. To this, Second Star Productions affix Nuzzo’s many years of pro DMing experience and distinct hands-on narrative style. As the players are guided through an at times comical, at times emotional journey to retrieving a fallen star, each hex of the map reveals new aspects and components of Neverland’s island, championing its characteristically spontaneous setting.
Before exploring Neverland however, SSTTR does a great job in its first episode at making its community feel immersed in the setting of Fantasy London. Dipping its toes into WWII England, the show makes a point to mention the “cool crisp air”, the “loud bells”, Big Ben, and Whitehall Street. Imbuing the city with magic, the players are introduced to a mystical version of the British Museum, as the DM paints an upgraded picture of what the world might look like right around the corner of the Darling’s household, had they been NPCs in a D&D campaign.
Complementary, self-reflective acting
SSTTR’s acting is both genuine and funny, not to mention consistent. As a native South West Londoner, I’m a harsh critic, but the English colloquialisms are there when they need to be. The cast have no qualms when it comes to making fun of themselves, highlighting their lack of a repertoire of UK accents: “I’m gonna put on my worst British accent because I don’t know how to do that.” (Michael Sinclair II, playing Dante).
Each party member adds an invaluable layer to SSTTR’s story, with well-balanced pairings. Genevieve is a careful, intelligent, and poised Wizard. Sharing some of those characteristics, Dante embodies the more serious and forthcoming persona any adventuring team needs to accomplish their goals. Despite this, he often finds himself in the most unlikely of comedic situations, sometimes spearheaded by nonchalant, mysterious, happy-go-lucky Talith. Finally, leaving a memorable impression are investigative Síofra and strongwoman Helen, two opposites of a sorely-needed spectrum; small ball of energy meets fount of knowledge, and buff Hollywood one-punch wonder.
Dedicated to an upward path
The campaign moves at a slower pace than some TTRPG productions, but the storytelling and person-to-person synergy are especially captivating. This is no easy feat for the podcast format, as seen in SSTTR’s first episode, but the cast and crew managed anyway, eventually switching to incorporate video as well. From there on out, the sessions begin to benefit from both the added imagery, as well as intro music by Travis Reaves and recently acquired gameplay music by Alexander Nakarada.
A stand-out quality of SSTTR’s production is the considerable progress it has been dedicated to since first airing, fixing any sound issues, upgrading camera quality, working with sponsors, and at times weaving audience suggestions into their canon.
Sharp comedic quality
SSTTR is all laughter from the get-go. The big bad behind the missing pixie dust is the British Museum, and brief introductory filler baddies include a guy with “Tattoos all over his face, not that there’s anything wrong with that!”, described in the wokest of ways.
The comedy has a skilfully improvised feel, and the humour of the least carefree characters finding themselves in the unlikeliest of situations is not lost on the audience. None should be so bold as to discount the fun in Dante being assailed by both husk dolls and water in equal measure. An opinion piece would also be remiss if it didn’t mention the meta-level anachronisms and self-referential material that has the show’s Twitch viewers in stitches. We love a Walt Disney name drop and a fantasy OSHA violation warning.
Maps and minis
True to his style, Nuzzo did not disappoint when he showed up with a mini terrain. Customising these builds and making minis for D&D gameplay is time-consuming and sometimes difficult to arrange (camera placement, lighting, perspective), and even more so when the game is remote. Although the players can’t directly interact with the field, it gives them an idea of their exact surroundings, as well as offering viewers some nice visuals to look at.
Teamwork makes the dream work
What I love most about SSTTR is that every player cares about the next. There’s nothing worse than a tabletop game where everybody cuts each other off, no one pays mind to anyone else’s backstory, and characters don’t pick up on subtle cues to play off of. The total lack of disrespectful roleplaying edgelordery is a breath of fresh air. Without a shadow of a doubt, it seems that the cast are both professionally and emotionally in tune with what it means to be a good and considerate TTRPG player.
Second Star Show is, in essence, an incredibly well-produced experience tailored to Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts on the hunt for a light-hearted setting with a beautifully narrated and acted story, full of intriguing turns, and the occasional plunge into the darker, more obscure moments.
Second Star to the Right airs every second Friday at 7pm CDT on Twitch.
Michael Habiger, who lives in Vienna, is a part-time web developer and university project assistant – but his spare time is spent on enriching the world of Dungeons and Dragons by creating the tiniest, fluffiest oddball creatures. His instagram, @the_fluffy_folio, began on July 31st of this year, with digital art focused mostly on creating races and classes for D&D. On September 7th however, interest shifted primarily from people to curious critters, with the publication of his first ever creature; the Twiddletoad.
Basic Snitch and The Fluffy Folio sat down for a remote chat about all things D&D art!
How did you first get into illustrating?
There was always some kind of affinity to drawing and painting in my life. When my family got its first computer – 8 MB RAM and it was a powerhouse, so you can imagine how long ago that was – I immediately declared the drawing program to be my absolute favourite. Graphic tablets weren’t available back then, and I had just learned how to use a mouse. I don’t remember when I got my first tablet, maybe 10 years ago? I remember that I loved it! At that point, I was also starting to get more serious about painting and reading corresponding literature. I watched tutorials, or studied other paintings in much more detail than I had ever before. I didn’t go to art school, so painting still remained more of a much-loved hobby. Of course, I also took breaks, sometimes very long ones, but I never completely dropped the pen.
What pushes you to never drop the pen?
I’ve experienced three considerable motivational pushes to keep painting these last few years. I began illustrating a card game, which I’ve been working on for three years. I also started playing Dungeons & Dragons, and would draw my party’s characters. Around this time, I received my first commissions after posting my work on social media. This exposure, sharing and discussing art as well as engaging with the community, is a great joy for me and it really keeps me going. Although painting isn’t my full-time job, I hope it someday will be. It would be the dream!
How has your style as an artist developed over the years, and what’s something you’ve learned by sticking with it?
That’s a tough one. I think it’s hard to notice how your own style develops in the making. It’s mostly an unconscious process. What happens, though, is that I notice bad habits from time to time – or notice that I’m losing track [of what I want to be creating]. That’s when I engage in research, and study other art to tweak my skills actively. What I really want to maintain is working with different levels of detail within one painting. It’s a process in which the painting is able to suggest several points of focus to the observer. [On the topic of] sticking with it – if something doesn’t work, don’t give up, try again.
What sort of programs or tools do you rely on, and what could you recommend to other (D&D) artists?
I use the classic Photoshop and a graphic tablet combo – it’s what I’m used to. But I can advise that you don’t always need the fanciest tablet out there. I have two; a sophisticated one full of buttons and features, and one very basic, small tablet. And well, I haven’t touched the sophisticated tablet in months. The portability of the smaller one is very useful, and I don’t usually take up that much space on the drawing area. But, it all comes down to personal preference.
I love taking a closer look at tiny details, like moss, bark, or roots. I try to think of them as tiny worlds and imagine what creatures might live in there.
What or who do you draw the most inspiration from? Pun intended!
My wife! She patiently listens to all my ideas, and I tend to have a lot of them. She helps me reflect on them, and I can’t thank her enough. Another inspiration is nature – I love taking a closer look at tiny details, like moss, bark, or roots. I try to think of them as tiny worlds and imagine what creatures might live in there. Mostly, though, I’m inspired by my 6-month-old son. Never in my life have I painted more productively, both in regards to time management and content. I started with smaller works – naturally time is a bit scarce now! I tried to paint as much as I could during his naps. Funnily, lack of time somehow did the trick for me.
When did you get into Dungeons and Dragons? Do you have a favourite D&D show?
Sometime in 2017, though I already owned the books in my youth. These were mainly books concerning creatures; I really loved the illustrations and backstories, and I remember spending hours reading through them over and over again! The stats didn’t interest me that much yet. Now that I play, I have a preference for the roleplaying aspects of D&D and I like the simplicity of 5e. Of course, I also love all the awesome homebrew stuff available to players. It makes it vivid and diverse – I like that. And my favourite show would be Acquisitions Incorporated – love everything about it, from the cheesy website to their PAX shows – always good for a laugh 🙂
Is there a class or type of folk that you tend towards playing?
Hmm, not really. I like playing a cleric, but all classes and folks have their own charm. For me, it’s more about the character and how they interact with the world. And well – I have a whole cohort of characters lined up, each one waiting for their turn. Once I start playing one, I tend to make a plan about how to get the next one into the game, [be it their departure, or death, for example]. Poor characters, now I feel bad! Fortunately for them, I’m more of a Dungeon Master anyway.
What is your favourite thing about D&D?
It has no boundaries, it’s social, and it’s fun! As a DM, I love listening to all my players coming up with plans. I like how they role-play their characters and shape the world they are in through them. For me, it’s a great pleasure be immersed in another universe, and not have to think about the real world for a few hours. Combine that with meeting friends, and it’s the perfect evening 🙂
Where did the idea of drawing fuzzy, strange creatures for D&D come from? Do you feel that this is something that’s missing in D&D?
The Twiddletoad was the first of my critters, and the idea was relatively spontaneous. Late one night, I felt the urge to finish this digital painting. The idea to actually make stats for the Twiddletoad then came about a few days later, when I thought about implementing this fella as a fun little encounter for my adventurers. Since then, I’ve really enjoyed both aspects; the painting process and the stat creation. Somehow, I felt a push to populate the world of D&D with a mass of tiny creatures 😀 I always had the idea of a scholar in my mind, on a search for unique and rare critters, documenting and describing them. I liked the concept, so decided to stick with it!
Do you play any other RPG games, or are you looking to get in to any?
Not at the moment, but I’m a big fan of RPGs, and have played them my whole life, mainly digitally. From Nintendo to PC, this genre has definitely remained my favourite. I’ve always wanted to try Call of Cthulhu, pen and paper – I love the lore!
If you had to explain D&D to a newcomer, how would you go about it?
D&D is a game about great, [collaborative storytelling]. Nobody wins and nobody loses. Even if you fail on a roll, consider it an opportunity to create an epic scene. If The Lord of The Rings were a D&D session, even the Fellowship came out [on top] with bad rolls!
Do you have any favourite artists you’d like to shout out? Who should we be keeping up with?
There are so, so many talented artists out there, that it is really hard to pin down. Overall, I enjoy the many shared influences, the exchanging, and the mutual support! Lately, I learned the word Amigurumi, thanks to @konsumlumpen on Instagram, and I really love the tiny creatures he’s creating! So, [style-wise], I always keep an open mind.
Who or what has supported and helped you most along the way?
Everyone and everything. I take each experience, and use it to drive me to keep working on my paintings – be it positive or negative experiences. It’s all valuable and helpful somehow. Concretely, I want to thank my family and friends for their support, and of course my supporters on social media for their awesome feedback!
What’s hardest about being part of the art or D&D community, and where do you think we can do better?
At the minute, it’s difficult for me to advise on where to improve. Luckily, I haven’t had any truly negative experiences in either community.
What’s your final message to all the D&D nerds out there?
Keep on homebrewing, and keep playing D&D!
You can find Michi @the_fluffy_folio on Instagram, and u/michifromkmk on Reddit. If you like his work and would like to support him, give him a like, comment, or follow on either account! Though he doesn’t currently run a Ko-fi or Patreon, plans are being made for the future. In the meantime, he’s keeping busy taking care of his 6-month old son, hanging out with his ever-supportive and awesome wife, and populating the world of Dungeons and Dragons with the most unforgettable, tiny, fluffy critters!
If you’ve been looking to add another tabletop series to your list of weekly binges, Twitch-funded Into the Mother Lands premiered Sunday October 4, and it’s all a sci-fi nerd could wish for.
Our adventure begins on Musalia in the far future, where our heroes must quickly learn how to put aside their differences in order to accomplish a vital, life-saving mission.
Created by Non-Profit I Need Diverse Games founder and activist Tanya DePass, this actual play stars DePass herself as Invicta (Hyaenole Blade Keeper), professional role-player and singer Krystina Arielle as Cyla-9-1-9 (Mansegene Bio Priest), Space and Sci-fi wiz DeejayKnight as Ikemba (Musalian Bio Priest), full-time professional role-player and Magic: The Gathering streamer Michael Sinclair II as Ilay (Misajai Light Bringer), and long-time actor, music director, and narrative designer Eugenio Vargas as the party’s Game Master/Storyteller.
1. Into the Mother Lands is a crucial all-BIPOC addition to our core list of RPG shows
Into the Mother Lands is a sci-fi odyssey spearheaded and developed by a remarkable team of veteran POC designers and professional role-players, with a cast and crew line up that is hard to top. Made up of activists who are all equal parts vocal educators and TTRPG enthusiasts, every cast and crew member stands out as deeply passionate about inclusive RPG and extremely experienced in the field.
RPG shows with an all-POC production and cast are absolutely necessary to highlight and support in TTRPG, with the majority of existing positive media focus tending towards predominantly white, male-dominated gameplay, despite the long list of fantastic non-white professional role-players that have made a name for themselves in the games community.
The sheer fact that BIPOC are lumped together under one acronym, and that the choice of an all-POC cast and crew at times generates confusion or animosity amongst fans of other RPG shows, only further strengthens the profound need to normalise and uplift such a production.
2. A crew that rivals the ages
The list of hard-working, creative, and dedicated professionals involved in this actual play speaks for itself. Lead developer B. Dave Walters is a critically acclaimed role-player and writer, and creator of WotC streaming show Darkened Wish. To many, he is also Baron Victor Temple on Vampire the Masquerade: LA by Night, and more recently, Marcid the Typhoon on Dimension 20’s Pirates of Leviathan.
Walters’ team consists of award-winning developer, game designer, artist, and university professor Sharang Biswas, independent digital and tabletop game designer, voice actor, cosplayer, streamer, and writer Gabe Hicks, actress, livestreamer, content creator, and experienced Game Master Jasmine “ThatBronzeGirl” Bhullar, and Rivals of Waterdeep cast member, artist, and D&D 5e content writer and community manager LaTia Jacquise.
Into the Mother Lands’ lead artist Vanessa “PleasantlyTwstd” B is a Charity Success Manager at Tiltify, part-time charity streamer on Twitch, freelancer, and Black and LGBTQIAP2+ activist with a passion for character creation. The show’s cover artist Will “Black Oni” Wiggins III is a Twitch partner, content creator, and artist focused on action RPG who has had his designs presented to US Congress. Stream producer Leoni, whose own TTRPG is one of Twitch’s fastest-growing streaming channels, has over a decade’s worth of experience in marketing, both in- and outside the gaming industry.
With such a long list of accomplishments, it’s hard to imagine a crew that would be better suited to the project of creating a top tier sci-fi RPG show.
3. Female leads and intersectionality are essential to women in RPG
Not only is the cast and crew talented and experienced in equal measure, but the story set up in this actual play allows viewers to experience what it’s like to have two non-white powerful female leads absolutely ace the Bechdel test; an occurrence that is sadly still too rare in TTRPG, let alone in web series and film in general.
To name only a few examples, the show features DePass’ Invicta setting the boundaries for in how far a stranger is allowed to set foot in her quarters on day one, and has Arielle’s Cyla 9-1-9 weaponise her braids, a testament to the power of hair and what it can mean to and for women. Let’s not forget “It’s captain, Cyla 9-1-9″, an affirmation too many women are familiar with.
4. A new role-playing system coupled with a community-conscious Game Master
After years of my being primarily focused on Dungeons and Dragons, the show’s choice to build their game off the Cortex role-playing system’s framework came as a nice surprise, as the option for the show to be yet “Another D&D Show” was very much there.
Though the system will surely take some time to get used to for those who aren’t already nose deep in research, the rules seem relatively simple, and far less complex than those followed in Dungeons and Dragons.
The cast and crew have made a point to be helpful when it comes to Cortex, putting themselves in educator positions; GM Vargas takes his time as he shows the viewers on-screen how the system works, with lead developer Walters by his side to raid the Twitch chat with some much-needed insight on game mechanics – especially useful to community members who rely on imperfect auto-captions.
5. Rich world-building and lore
One of the most exciting aspects of Into the Mother Lands is the prospect of a whole new level of sci-fi world-building, set to rival any RPG show that relies on Lord of the Rings level lore.
Players can choose from a range of cultures that occupy Musalia; from direct descendants of Emperor Musa himself, to descendants of one of Musalia’s original alien cultures. They can also choose to be a mix, and play as a blend of human and alien technologies.
Our sci-fi odyssey comes complete with a pronunciation manual and world guide, published by Hicks, further intensifying the hype around Mother Lands lore. Language-lovers can only hope that a fully fledged dictionary will one day be on the cards.
6. A slower pace with higher antagonism
Those used to the fast pace of pre-recorded and edited D&D shows such as Dimension 20 might be surprised to experience an RPG with an environment that seems to rely on a slower pace, and greater levels of adversary. Although high in fantasy, role-play in Mother Lands is in many ways closer to real-life interaction and behaviour than many RPG shows. For who in their right mind would ever hop on board an aircraft with an overly excited elephant man and a bunch of antagonistic strangers without a shadow of a doubt?
With multiple pauses generated by characters who might seem lower in positive energy than your typical RPG party, the noticeable change in pace and mood can feel eerie or awkward at first; but, if you take a second to think about it, this feel perfectly befits the setting and situation the Player Characters find themselves in. Needless to say, the mood and pace of a newly launched show with only a few episodes released are also subject to change.
7. More interactivity in a tight-knit Discord & Twitch RPG community
Hopes are high when it comes to Mother Lands making an even bigger name for itself in the RPG world, and it’s clear that the community wishes for the success of this venture. In the meantime, the 900 or so regular viewers are having a hell of a time interacting with each other, and the cast and crew, on both Discord and Twitch – an experience not usually possible to this degree once a show reaches unfathomable numbers.
If you’re keen to shout out your favourite role-player in a livestream, or post some silly gifs in the Discord for fellow Motherfans (we’re still working on a name) to enjoy, I can guarantee laughter and appreciation coming for you in all directions.
8. As privy to comedy and community jokes as any other RPG
Yes there is antagonism, yes we probably have to save the entire galaxy, but we are having fun, we are enjoying positive reinforcement. The stream is already riddled with inside jokes, ranging from discussions on how precious NPC Bertrand is, to vocalising our approval of Cyla’s #BBE Big Braid Energy. Luckily, we’re early into the series and there’s time to catch up to be in-the-know. Soon, you too will be asking yourself: Is It Sunday Yet?
The next episode of Into the Mother Lands drops this Sunday on twitch.tv/cypheroftyr at 4pm PT/6pm CT/7pm ET/12am BT/1am CET.
Update 21/10/2020: An unverifiable paragraph was removed from this article in consultation with the crew.
Critical Role has just launched its new non-profit organisation, Critical Role Foundation, calling on all gamers to take action and donate to various causes at criticalrolefoundation.org.
On Thursday, Critical Role released a short animated video on their YouTube channel detailing the launch of Critical Role Foundation (CRF). This launch comes after Critical Role’s many successful years as a Dungeons and Dragons-focused company, show, and much-loved ttrpg community. What was once a small D&D game run and played by a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors is now an independent media company housing arguably the most popular weekly D&D show, with an average of 15K viewers and 600K subscribers. Their increasing popularity within the ttrpg world, and their loyal and diverse fanbase, makes the decision to launch a non-profit all the more important.
CRF partners with other non-profit organisations to organise fundraising campaigns in support of various charitable causes. Their current fundraiser asks for donations to revive the Native Youth & Culture Fund for two nonprofits located at Zuni Pueblo and Cochiti Pueblo.
With several long-running shows on YouTube and Twitch, live shows (pre-pandemic), a merch store in the US, UK, and Australia, as well as a soon-to-be released Animated Series, it made sense for Critical Role to continue on its upward path and add a non-profit foundation to its list of accomplished goals.
Critical Role also announced in the caption of their launch video that “10% of every donation, across every campaign, goes toward an emergency relief fund giving CRF the ability to provide donations in the event of a natural disaster or other instance that requires immediate humanitarian aid“. With 2020 having been an inexplicably tragic year; the company’s choice to set aside a portion of donations for an emergency relief fund is crucial. It comes in the wake of the 2020 California Wildfires, an hour or so away from Los Angeles where the cast and crew of Critical Role are based, and the worldwide devastation of the coronavirus pandemic. This year also saw earthquakes in Turkey and the Caribbean, the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, the mass deadly explosion in Beirut, the Australian bushfires, floods in Jakarta, bloody riots in Delhi, and the ongoing perpetuation of injustices across the board.
Of course; it’s not the first time the cast and crew of Critical Role have used their platform and growth to encourage their overwhelmingly supportive community to donate to good causes. The company has raised money for Red Nose Day, OutRight International, OSD, and Pablove. Critical Role is also an ongoing supporter of 82LA; “a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.”
Head on over to Critical Role Foundation to donate. Keen on supporting but unable to donate? Please help the ttrpg community spread the word, at no cost.
Quarrels, combat, battles, and even wars, are often a necessary part of tabletop roleplaying games, and most players wouldn’t have it any other way! But there might be times when there is too much at stake to risk a fight, or you realise mid-combat that your opponents are completely out of your league. If you’re up two against one level 300 aboleth, you should probably bounce. But, if you find yourself in a more manageable situation, then here are some tips and tricks on what to do before engaging.
1. If possible, talk it out reasonably
It might seem obvious, but players tend to forget all about the option to persuade or dissuade when they feel threatened. Ignore the heat and panic, and take a moment to reflect on whether the opponent might be someone an adventurer could bargain with. If the enemy understands you and has yet to attack, some DMs often leave room for a skill check to even out the odds. Particularly designed for Charisma-based classes, such as the Bard, Sorcerer, and Warlock, this alternative befits the Cleric and Paladin too. At level 5, a Bard with 20 Charisma, and expertise in Persuasion, has +11 to their roll; a high chance of weaselling themselves out of a situation. Add in some extra convincing role-play, and you might be rolling with advantage! Here is a list of persuasive phrases for a few verge-of-combat scenarios:
Win them over by appealing to nationalism
– I can’t help but notice the embroidery on your cape, a fellow Athkatlan. What do you say we put our differences aside for the night? Too much blood has been shed on our soil already.
By invoking race
– From one tiefling to another, I feel how irrevocably misunderstood we have come to be. But we can change this misconception, we can show them we are different, that we can be reasoned with.
By relying on gender
– Long has it been since I have crossed paths with a woman fending for herself in the wild. It is admirable indeed, and no easy walk of life, I should know. Perhaps you would make an exception for a travelling sister in need.
By drawing on shared experiences
– My good man, if you are indeed also a soldier as your comrade claims, then you know well that too many battles have been fought in vain. Many of our men met their end too soon, and we need not fall with them.
By calling on religion
– Let us honour our faith in the Moonmaiden, be it Selûne, or Sehanine as you know her by. She who opposes Darkness and champions Good beseeches us to spread her wisdom, not to fight amongst ourselves.
By bringing up values and family
– I cannot help but notice the great resemblance between you and young Merrowynn here. I, too, am a father, and I should wish to one day see my family again, just as you should wish to keep fighting alongside yours.
Invoking pity, for example by relying heavily on emotions
– Prithee sire, I am but a lowly wanderer, an adventurer with no great ambitions and no money to her name. I have nothing of worth to offer you, and I implore you to spare me. Life is the only boon that was given to me.
Invoking knowledge, and mentioning undeniable facts
– A fight in broad daylight is a suicide mission. Needless to say, you will alert the Dynasty’s national guard, and in times of war, marauding and assassinating without good cause is punishable by death. Your loot will do you no good dead. We can waste away our coin, or we can settle this peacefully.
Calling on logic, and suggesting a mutually beneficial option
– Our party is home to an incredible guide who knows the elemental plane like the back of their hand, and an extremely adept healer. We could be of aid; our Genasi Ranger tells me you are not native to these regions.
The doomsday argument
– Listen, we all know that beyond the Great Forest lies the Empire, an Empire favoured by none. Fight as we may, if we do not join forces to take down the entity that oppresses us, there shall be no tomorrow for us to see. There shall be no freedom to relish. I beseech you all to consider a truce.
2. Flattery will get you far
Your first thought might be that flattery is limited to flirting and seduction, and typically restricted to Bards. Throw that out of the window! If you think outside of the box, then this combat-stopper is a well-rounded option, regardless of class, gender, and sex. Try these before resorting to a fist fight:
Proficient in History? Bring attention to fame or noteworthiness
– Lady Darkblade, First of Her Name, Mistress of the Forgotten Forest, Empress of the Highlands; your name carries across continents. Even my lowborn ears have heard of your unmatched accomplishments.
The classic and timeless “rumour has it”
– Rumour has it that this one over here knocked out two Giants in one punch. I doubt he wants to see time wasted on a group of wandering Snow Elves and Firbolgs. There are greater foes beyond these lands.
Flattery of the mind, especially good for wizards
– Such a powerful, and all-knowing Master of the Arts such as yourself would probably see it ill-fit to engage in combat with a party devoid of any academic and experiential training. Though, perhaps we will be in luck if the lack of challenge bores you to death.
Alright sure, seduction works too
– Sir Quixington, may I have a word, perhaps in private? May I call you Maxwell? How kind of you, Max. To be perfectly frank, duelling with such a handsome and strong man such as yourself would be wasting the more sensorial experience I had imagined upon first seeing you. I have been travelling these lands and never have I seen such an attractive… priest.
Well, trying it with an evil priest is a bit far-fetched, but it sure is a roll with disadvantage that I’d like to see! At least you can say you tried.
3. Call on your background or rank
The least appreciated and called upon advantage is probably the one given to players by their background. This alternative is so personal to PC backstories that examples of dialogue might not be fit to illustrate the point. Have a look at your background Feature; if you’re a traveller, your party may be able to pass through favoured terrain undetected by natural means, or if you’re a Navy SEAL (it’s a thing), maybe you can invoke your rank as Commander Lieutenant of the FrostGuard Garrison. Those with military ranks can usually command the respect of their subordinates, and this might extend itself to avoiding a kerfuffle.
4. Trade, or lend your services
This method of doing your opponent a favour as a means of escape is the one least used by my own party. Approaching level 8, we have sadly only just come to the realisation that perhaps we should be doing odd jobs for gold. Travelling rivals might give you a break upon offering to take care of something that has been a huge pain in their side for a while. For example:
– Instead of killing us all for the platinum shield, rather time-consuming and messy if you ask me, and not a guaranteed win to be honest, we’ll trade it to you for your emerald dagger.
There is strength in numbers
– Well if you’re planning on storming the Castle of Silverymoon, you’ll need more than just four men. How about this, we’ll help you retrieve your stolen artefact, and you’ll let us go our merry way. What say you?
A fresh pair of eyes and ears on unfamiliar territory
– Our party is new to the city, and our business is our own, but we have time to spare at nightfall. Give us no trouble and we’ll see to being your eyes and ears for the fortnight.
Call on your particular skillset
– There need be no haste in this matter; we may be able to strike a deal. I have a highly trained Dwarf Artificer who makes bombs the size of a horse, and a Gnome Wizard-Assassin that can kill your greatest enemy whilst disguised as a Walrus. Solid plan? All in favour, say aye.
5. Offer up a zone of truth
A quick reminder that all your Persuasion checks might be to no avail at all if your opponents disbelieve your party and your worth alive. When in doubt, or when certain of failure, a party Bard, Cleric, or Paladin could offer up a zone of truth as proof of sincerity – immediately, or in a mere matter of hours.
6. Homebrew your bargaining chip: aka lies, lies, lies.
A funner alternative to persuasion when faced with adversity is of course going full chaotic liar. If you’re a Lawful Good Paladin playing on the safe and honest side, then this one might not be for you, but it can undoubtably lead to some hilarious acting. Do be wary, however, of how off the cuff deception checks might lead to absurdity, in which case your DM could have you roll with disadvantage, or severely (and justifiably) increase the DC. Nevertheless, here are some fun ways in which a D&D party can lie :
– I’m awfully sorry I can’t be of help, my liege, I haven’t seen any Dark Elves around here. As you can see, I am a proud Wood Elf myself and great worshipper of the city’s main patron, our Lord and Saviour, Holy Father, Totally My God Lathander.
Feign ignoranceand redirect
– Hmmm, a treasure chest, a treasure chest. I think I saw a couple of feral Dwarven swordsmen with eyepatches and pink beards dragging a big old chest in this opposite direction here. In fact, now that I think, I do remember, there was the Emperor’s seal on it, and I did find it rather odd. But my wife Biglie always tells me to mind my own business, and so I do.
– Oh my good friend, my dearest ally, my sweet long lost companion! I have not seen you in decades gone by. Oh how you have changed, and I too it seems, so much so that you have mistaken me for an intruder! Oh, how I long to embrace you once again, lay down your weapons, and let us share a drink in honour of finding each other once more!
– I am, in fact, the sovereign ruler of the Mountain of High Tides, and it is actually you who is tress-passing. Another step, and my hoard of angry but very fair Goliaths will seize you and take you to my Torture Chambers of Treason. The choice is yours.
– Ah, I believe we are caught up in a great misunderstanding. We are not here to abduct the Pope, we are actually conducting an inspection of the grounds of this monastery by order of the King. Official business, all monasteries must be inspected and be up to code.
7. Cause a distraction
Within the subcategory of deception you’ll find distractions, ranging anywhere from a “Look, over there!”, to a carefully laid out plan comprised of illusions and trickery. Much like player backgrounds, distractions are often specific to context. Look around and assess your environment; is there anything that can be knocked over so as to create a sound? Are there any animals that could cause a raucous? Are the fabrics available to you flammable? Would it be safe for you to make a drunken scene? With so many options, PCs are truly spoiled for choice, and any good-spirited DM will entertain a fun diversion or two per session!
8. Consider situationally nifty spells
So often do players rely on spells in-combat that we tend to forget situationally useful cantrips or ritual spells that could end up saving the day. There are some very powerful high level spells that have great out-of-combat uses as well. Here is a Situationally Useful Spell List (not all inclusive) that might get you out of having to lose hit points:
Paralyse your enemy: Hold Person, Stunning Strike.
Escape: Arcane Gate, Astral Projection, Demiplane, Dimension Door, Expeditious Retreat, Far Step, Gate, Knock, Misty Step, Plane Shift, Teleportation Circle, Thunder Step, Transport via Plants, Tree Stride, Word of Recall.
Escape through or over difficult terrain: Control Water, Enlarge/Reduce, Feather Fall, Fly, Freedom of Movement, Gaseous Form, Mold Earth, Move Earth, Polymorph, Shape Water, Spider Climb, Stone Shape, Water Walk, Wind Walk.
Incapacitate or inconvenience your enemy: Antimagic Field, Counterspell, Entangle, Magic Circle, Silence, Sleep.
Dissuade from combat: Animal Friendship, Calm Emotions, Cause Fear, Charm Monster, Charm Person, Command, Compulsion, Dominate Monster, Dominate Person, Fast Friends, Fear, Mass Suggestion, Modify Memory, Suggestion.
Hide and protect: Blink, Etherealness, Greater Invisibility, Invisibility, Leomund’s Tiny Hut, Magic Circle, Meld Into Stone, Mislead, Nondetection, Pass Without Trace, Rope Trick, Seeming.
Remove the enemy: Banishment, Banishing Smite, Polymorph.
Avoid or intercept the enemy: Aid, Alarm, Commune, Detect Evil and Good, Detect Thoughts, Divination, Find The Path, Find Traps, Scrying, See Invisibility, True Seeing.
9. Drop reason, rely on intimidation
So you’ve tried playing nice, and it looks like your opponent doesn’t have an announce of sympathy in their body. Persuasion checks can be tough if you’re up against the big bad, or anyone who lies somewhere on the truly evil alignment spectrum. Puff up your chest, it’s time to intimidate:
Out of your league
– Listen up you puny little knave, we are a party of five ferocious fighters who have seen war and death beyond what you could ever conceive of. I can assure you that if you pick a fight with us, you won’t live to regret it.
A friend of mine
– I can see how you would think that we don’t pose a threat to you, that we are easily provoked. It’s funny, really, how appearances can deceive. Curious, really. I wouldn’t like for you to meet the tip of the poisoned blades that my invisible allies, scattered around this city in the shadows and always watching, have pointed on you as we speak. Think twice next time.
Get out the gore
– Out of my way, I said, or I will rip your entire existence to shred, starting with your heart, which I will gladly and without hesitation force feed to the last man standing on your team.
Display of brute force
– As you can see, Morlasch, standing behind me here, is rending asunder an entire wall made of pure lava. He is immune to fire, and mercy. Imagine what he could do to a tiny face. Fascinating.
10. Run… Hide… Or just fight!
When push comes to shove, you might’n’t have a choice. When desired, engaging in combat is one of the best and most satisfying bits of partaking in any tabletop roleplaying game. After all, you spent good time preparing your moves and/or spells, and your diligent Dungeon Master has no doubt spent even more time preparing a world with intense encounters and riveting combat. So good luck adventurers! May you always face Vampires with a silver tongue, and if they refuse to concede, well, switch to the silver arrow instead.
Dropout TV’s tabletop comedy show Dimension 20 just dropped the trailer for their sixth Side Quest, which finished filming last month. Taking place after the events of Fantasy High: Sophomore Year, this adventure is set in the pirate city of Leviathan, aka the Jewel of the Celestine Sea. This Side Quest stars Carlos Luna as Cheese, Krystina Arielle as Barbarella “Bob” Sasparilla Gainglynn, Aabria Iyengar as Myrtle the Bitch, B. Dave Walters as Marcid the Typhoon, Marisha Ray as Sunny Biscotto, Matthew Mercer as Jack Brakkow, and Brennan Lee Mulligan as the returning Dungeon Master.
What do we know about Leviathan?
Leviathan is a pirate city in the Celestine Sea made of shipwrecks that have been strung together to form an island that inhabits roughly 1.5 million people (yikes, that’s a lot of NPCs, good luck Brennan Lee Mulligan). This location has already featured in Dimension 20 LIVE; if you have yet to watch this D&D live show, skip to the next sub-chapter to avoid spoilers.
Well-known locations in the Leviathan include Maelstrom’s Maw, a supply shop of sorts where ships are dismantled and looted for their materials. It is run by warforged bosun Jamina Joy, who has the delicate job of keeping the city afloat. Jamina has already made appearances in Episode 5 through 8 of Dimension 20 LIVE.
Leviathan is also house to the Four Castles, a violent part of town where citizens will gladly take each other out for half a shilling, or control of the street’s block. Close to the Four Castles lies the cursed Sternwood forest, plagued by beasts, monsters, distorted trees, and human remains.
Further South, Cannon Court has used shipwrecks and hulls to form a large dwarven-style subterranean neighbourhood full of dwarves and gnomes. In contrast, Galleyard is a lovely area that includes TheGold Gardens (notable NPC Garthy O’Brien‘s house of debauchery), and forms the nexus of the city. With a reportedly New Orleans type architecture, the city centre is bustling with diverse peoples.
Connected to the city’s mosque by way of dagger, Gibbety Square is adorned with the head of a former pirate king, put on display by Fabian Seacaster‘s father Bill Seacaster. It includes a sign that reads “No kings for a captain.” Near Gibbety Square lies Aftward, home to a tower of prison blocks neatly named the Row and the Ruction. Atop Aftward stands Crow’s Keep, housing the Compass Points Library and the Ramble (a place for elder pirates to engage in decision-making).
Lastly, Poop City is, you guessed it, the name deemed worthy of the wealthiest and most luxurious neighbourhood in Leviathan. Why not!
Pirates of Leviathan’s Intrigue: An entire city at stake
The trailer is peppered with clues that offer some insight in terms of location, plot, and player characters. Those unfamiliar with the island of Leviathan know it now as a “behemoth of shipwrecks”, and the “Jewel of the Sea”, perhaps foreshadowing the location’s innate dichotomy: a monstrous creature, and yet a precious treasure.
At the start of the clip, an NPC ominously utters the words “Take her body to the Sternwood with the others”, possibly implying that a female NPC has either died, or that her body is somehow affected or cursed. “The others” suggests that there are several, if not many, people in Leviathan who have lost their lives or have been met with some terrible fate; rough enough to have them be dragged to Sternwood, a place apparently adequate for storing bodies. Eerie.
Our Intrepid Heroes, here Buccaneer Buddies, have been informed that “all of Leviathan is in a heaping helping of trouble.” Such a sinister statement surely supposes that the torments bedevilling the city are greater than a squabble limited to a singular NPC or set of NPCs. The combination of bodies being taken to a cursed forest and the omen that all of Leviathan is somehow affected might indicate that something larger is at stake. This begs the question – who, or what, is determined to take down an entire city? And why? If the name is any hint, perhaps a sea serpent, but knowing the DM’s background in philosophy, it’s likely a nod to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan in which the author proposes absolute sovereignty as a necessary evil. That’s not to say the two Leviathans are mutually exclusive. Absolute sea serpent sovereign end boss? Yes please!
Player Characters in Pirates of Leviathan
The trailer also sheds light on the kind of PCs and party mix viewers can expect, and how they might complement each other, or clash. Heads up – some class, race, and level spoilers ahead in this subchapter! According to Fandom, all PCs are level 5 residents of Leviathan. No one is a newcomer!
• Barbarella “Bob” Sasparilla Gainglynn, played by Denver by Night’s Krystina Arielle is an Aasimar multi-classing as a Level 3 College of Lore Bard, and Level 2 City Domain Cleric (Unearthed Arcana). Bob’s chirpy voice and good-natured spirit come through in the trailer: “Sometimes you just need a little diplomacy”. A nice, and perhaps unassuming, Bard-Cleric, Bob seems to be the antithesis of typical pirate life.
• Cheese, played by Roll 20’s Carlos Luna, is a Forest Gnome School of Necromancy Wizard. Though he might have a fighter side viewers have yet to witness, the trailer has him pinned down as the party’s nervous adventurer in touch with his emotions. “Oh god,” and “I cry all the time” set the tone for this PC. Then again, being a life-reaping necromancer does warrant constant crying.
• Jack Brakkow, played by Critical Role’s Matthew Mercer, is a Ratfolk Path of Ancestral Guardian Barbarian. The trailer portrays Jack as a bit rough around the edges, and maybe a bit of a loner: “Sorry child, I don’t have friends.” He is also heard shouting quite aggressively “You bastard – I can’t afford a new wall!”, suggesting that damage was done to his property, and that he isn’t financially in a position to repair it. Yar – this PC could be in it for the coin!
• Marcid the Typhoon, played by Dungeons & Dragons’ B. Dave Walters, is a Bugbear Gloomstalker. Perhaps diplomatic in nature like Bob, Marcid seems partial to some negotiation: “We can talk it out, mate.” As a Gloomstalker, it might be safe to assume that he is a careful character, in the know when it comes to the darkest of places in Leviathan. His warning “Loose lips sink ships” might be a reference to his experience overhearing conversations. Beware!
• Myrtle the Bitch, played by Saving Throw’s Aabria Iyengar, is a Merfolk Tempest Domain Cleric. Myrtle’s profile is a whirlwind of mystery that is to die for. Her Fandom description reveals that she “sinks ships to appease her god”, and that her favourite colour is “Blood”. In Dimension 20’s trailer, an NPC (perhaps her god) addresses her with “You’ve sent many souls down to my hungry mouth”. This same person or creature, one could suppose, also responds to her with “Quite worth the spells…”. Is there an actual Leviathan in Leviathan? Is Myrtle a warlock? Only time will tell.
• Sunny Biscotto, played by Critical Role’s Marisha Ray, is an Aarakocra Oath of Devotion Paladin. Although Sunny didn’t say too much in the trailer, her “Whoah wait!” could be a quick nod at a Paladin’s usual pre-conflict behaviour: use your words, not your fists! Or wings. As an Oath of Devotion Paladin, Sunny would typically be bound to the highest of ideals, virtue, and order, and it’ll be interesting to see how she gets along with PCs such as Myrtle, Marcid, and Jack.
Of course, it would be a sin not to mention that the experienced (guest) cast and crew of Dimension 20 always manage to circumvent the usual stereotypes, tropes, shallow motivations, and black-and-white character choices. If Pirates of Leviathan is anything like the rest of D20’s Quests, then its PCs are sure to be multilayered, emotionally complex, and lots of fun.
Dimension 20’s Pirates of Leviathan premieres September 16 on Dropout TV.
Created in the mid 70s and currently resurfacing as a popular fantasy tabletop role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons is an open world pencil-paper-and-dice game that lets your imagination run wild. But how limitless should the world be, and where do Dungeon Masters draw the line?
I recently stumbled across an archived thread in the r/DnD subreddit on the topic of railroading versus illusion of choice. Both forms of deception offer TTRPG players two or more options, with all or several of them resulting in the same outcome. The crossroads example is classically drawn on to illustrate this strategy; the party has the option to go left or right, but both paths lead back to the dungeon. If they decide on neither, the dungeon inevitably comes to them.
Is there a difference between illusion of choice and railroading?
Illusion of choice and railroading seem to be distinct in that they connote different intentions. The former is likely to occur when Dungeon Masters are ill-prepared for a twist in narrative or action, and are obliged to quickly improvise. Sometimes the only option is to put the party back on track, whatever the costs. The opposite hypothetical also warrants some attention; being overly prepared can come at a price. As a DM, I have hundreds of options laid out for my players with each choice and outcome promising to be unique and significant. Regardless of gameplay style, I know beforehand that it’s downright impossible to prepare for every scenario. When taken by surprise, I eventually come up with an improvised solution, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t relied on illusionism once or twice.
Similarly, railroading is a deliberate manoeuvre used to force player characters back into whatever situation the DM had intended them to be in. It leaves little room for any meaningful choices at all, and is largely more transparent than illusionism. Constant and reoccurring railroading might well be a sign of an inexperienced DM, or in the worst of cases, an uncooperative DM.
So aren’t illusion of choice and railroading, in essence, cut from the same cloth? Dungeon Solvers are of the opinion that illusionism is indeed “a form of railroading where the players can make a decision, but their choice has no effect on the game’s direction.” Illusionism is then an umbrella term that encompasses railroading. In either case, using deception too often risks affecting the level of trust between DM and PCS, and impinging on player morale.
A careful balance between deception and trust
Of course, every player’s ideal DMing style is entirely subjective, and might even depend on the edition of DnD the participants are acquainted with. Many 3e enthusiasts enjoy the idea of being pitted against their DM in a Battle Royale style massacre where no one can be trusted, and in this sense, maybe illusionism matters less, as they are essentially fighting against the DM as well.
This dynamic has evolved in 5e, and many feel that trust between the DM and the Player Character is absolutely essential for a good campaign. This relationship makes it harder to know when and if you should deceive your PCs. Are you confident that your PCs rely on you, and trust you to be helpful and honest? Avoiding illusionism as much as possible might be the best solution.
Illusionism is the easy way out
From the DM’s perspective, illusionism might just be a blessing in disguise. Presenting irrelevant choices to your party can sometimes be exactly the breather you need.
Some of the benefits of illusionism
There is no longer a need to prepare as many outcomes as possible if you are not well-versed in improvisation.
It can take pressure off of DMing and allow for narrative or descriptive development. Release those quirky NPC one-liners.
Worldbuilding immediately becomes a lot easier; there are a limited amount of places you can and will end up.
Generally speaking, it saves hours of preparation time.
It’s a wonderful tactic for lighthearted, action-packed, non-RPG-heavy one shots.
At the end of the day, one could argue that what matters most is the DM’s ability to cover up these illusions and make them seem like meaningful choices. That said, the sheer thought of denying agency to the players is enough to cause distrust. Personally, I need to be able to trust my DM not to deceive me more than what is strictly necessary. In turn, players are honest about their rolls, their stats, the amount of spell slots they have left, whether they have already burned their reaction.
Video games are restrictive; TTRPG should be limitless
It’s worth emphasising that Dungeons and Dragons is unique exactly because it operates on an open world model in which literally anything can happen. These realms thrive on a plethora of meaningful choices, and if DMs choose to railroad their characters to the point of enforcing a singular set of paths, then PCs might as well play a video game.
Unlike DnD, video games are exclusive, and, prohibitively expensive (not only due to the price of the game, but also that of the console, monitor, controller, reliable internet connection…). They depend on restricted choices, be it by way of fixed quests, or the reductive binary male vs female avatar selection. Heck, Ubisoft didn’t even provide us with gender options.
DnD is about inclusivity, which should extend itself to meaningful decisions beyond choosing a class and race. Escapism seems less valuable if it’s only to perform in yet another closed off universe. Or what do I know, a one shot with an all-male human fighter cast collectively called Arno could admittedly be entertaining.
How to avoid railroading
A rough draft
In order to avoid being ill-prepared for a session, always plan out a rough draft of a few possible options. Instead of meticulously sketched out dialogue and encounter scenes, write up a page per NPC and opponents with their possible reactions, one-liners, loot, and the information they can supply the party with. If this suits your style, continue with a page per location complete with loot, traps, and monsters. Stick to bullet points!
Instead of defecting to your original plan, come up with a series of creative solutions that have been pre-planned before the session and that you can fall back on when you’re in a rut. Perhaps you operate in a world where there are evil creatures spawning from set of locations (forests, towns, cities, mountains). If a radically different outcome or path is pursued and they find themselves near a spawn location, roll a d6 and choose from a list of homebrew (or existing) monsters. The inclusion of a closing combat leaves room for the modifications next game’s prep will now undergo. This allows you to be the kind of DM that won’t render player choices meaningless, but delay them enough to give you time to adjust accordingly.
Redirect with clues
Your players might be derailing themselves from your main plot because there aren’t enough clues per session to peak their curiosity and redirect it back to the larger picture. Alternatively, you might have too many clues and pieces of information, giving them an overwhelmingly unapproachable air. Simplify your hints without taking away from their mystery, and allow for ways in which the dots can be connected.
Easier said than done, the key to smooth flowing narrative and storytelling is to match your players’ level of improvisation. Are they responding differently to a dilemma than you had expected? Perhaps you had assumed they would save a child from a burning building, but instead they ran. Huzza! A perfect backstory for your new villain; a vengeful, burn-ridden baby warlock of a fiend patron. Creepy.
Is illusionism ever acceptable?
All that said, sometimes the DM is, ironically, left without a choice. Fortunately, non-toxic ways of dabbling in illusionism do exist. For example, if your party is having fun advancing in a particular quest but are way off track, nudging them in the right direction shouldn’t be frowned upon. See it as a help action that is in their best interest rather than your own. By no means is this participating in toxic railroading where the outcome is always the same no matter what the players choose to do. If you put in the work, it’s likely that participants will instinctively feel the difference between a forced path, and an intelligent choice that aligns with their quest. Despite the modicum of extra DM prep it might imply, there really is nothing better than imbuing your players with genuine curiosity, and newfound purpose.
Dimension 20 is a tabletop RPG comedy show hosted by DM and actor-writer Brennan Lee Mulligan. Produced by CollegeHumor‘s subscription service Dropout, Fantasy High is set in a 1950s through 1980s American-style city Elmville, Solace. This campaign follows the exploits of six courageous High School students from the Aguefort Adventuring Academy. Here are ten reasons why this Dungeons meets Detentions campaign played by a group of talented comedians should be at the top of your binge list.
1. Complex character building in a digestible timeframe
With a group of comedians behind the wheel, the potential for a show lacking in depth and complete with farcical chaos was necessarily on the table from the very start. This comedy campaign, however, is refreshingly well-structured and thought-through, all whilst remaining lighthearted; no easy feat to accomplish when also doing justice to world building, character development, and narrative coherence.
All players, including DM Brennan Lee Mulligan, have built complex characters with unexpected depth, questionable flaws, and personable qualities. Fantasy High has few clear-cut bad guys vs good guys, and even NPCs who at first seemed almost devoid of emotion might unintentionally divulge their gut-wrenching ails to the party through a Detect Thoughts spell.
Yet what truly stands out about Fantasy High when compared to other campaigns is not its fully-fledged out characters with emotional background stories (the likes of which can be found in many DnD adventures), but its ability to include this level of profound character building in such a short amount of time. Rarely surpassing the 2-hour mark, Dimension 20’s sessions are half the length of a Critical Role episode, and therefore perhaps better suited and more digestible to excited DnD newcomers.
2. Incomparable and yet complementary to Critical Role
Though its generally ill-advised to compare any unique DnD campaign to the next, Critical Role has set the bar so high in all that it does that the juxtaposition has become inevitable. As an advocate of everything Critical Role with a profound admiration for Matt Mercer’s DMing skills, I was formerly convinced that no other set of players, and no other DM, would ever come close to inspiring the emotions and relatability that Vox Machina and the Mighty Nein do.
Dimension 20, by virtue of not being comparable to Critical Role but instead complementary to it, does not pressurise the viewer into favouritism, but lets their fans add another gem to their shelf of unparalleled campaign shows. Simply put, Dimension 20 is Critical Role’s silly sister; though they share many qualities, their DNA is different.
3. High quality improvisation, description, and narration
If you put aside the perfectly produced set, amazing camera quality, and professional lighting and sound, all of which can be prohibitively expensive to a lot of players, one key factor that makes Fantasy High thrilling to watch is the solid acting and storytelling. Never a dull moment, the players find a way to solve the main quest whilst still making time for inappropriate hospital ER romances, strange sex talks with their parents, and killing a villain with a spoon – no, a ladle.
Similar to other campaigns that are also made up of professional actors, the storytelling and improvisation (CollegeHumor’s forte), is so spot on that the show almost seems scripted. Mulligan whips up long monologues about arcane lore in response to a random dice roll, and player characters have comebacks spilling out of their mouths when confronted with High School bullies and vicious villains. Was the Episode 7 one-liner “keep cadaverously cool” conjured in the moment? I sure hope so.
4. Dramatic irony and opposing imagery
One of the comedic strategies used in Fantasy High is constant contrast; everything you thought was set in stone is now up for grabs, and an endless flux of hilarious dichotomies permeate the entire campaign.
Fantasy High uses external character-to-character contrast; for example between half-elf teenager Fabian Seacaster, a wealthy grade A snob played by comedian Lou Wilson, and his father Bill Seacaster aka Papa, a loud-mouthed, overly assertive, and imposingly proud pirate privateer. This same contrast is found between sturdy half-orc barbarian Gorgug Thistlespring, played by Zac Oyama, and his happy-go-lucky, always smiley gnome parents who live in a tree.
Dimension 20 also employs internal character contrast; Kristen Applebees (Ally Beardsley) is a Cleric who pretends to drink alcohol to fit in at parties. Though she repeatedly questions her faith, she does so whilst trying to convert all of her friends to her religion and add them to her Prayer Chain group chat. Figueroth ‘Fig’ Faeth (Emily Axford) is a badass, no BS, bass guitar wielding tiefling whose rebellious nature coats a nucleus of emotions and daddy issues; her elf stepfather Gilear Faeth is a yoghurt-eating, university-educated cuckold, and her biological father is a demon who is partial to a bit of ice cream.
Fantasy High’s mastery of the unexpected, much of which can be credited to Mulligan’s side-splitting NPCs, is without a doubt its biggest selling point.
5. From recurring themes to well-rounded storytelling
As much as this campaign thrives on the unforeseen, the DM and players take heed to one-liners and oddball situations that might make for a quirky comeback later. Riz Gukgak (Brian Murphy) is unanimously referred to as ‘The Ball’ throughout the campaign after having been dunked into a trash can a total of once in the first session, and rolling a NAT 1 Insight Check on an NPC for Gorgug is now synonymous with him believing them to be his dad. When Adaine Abernant (Siobhan Thompson) casts Identify, it is narrated by an immaterial arcane voice that reappears frequently to add some flavour to the spell.
6. Party respect, cohesiveness, and team player attitude
Perhaps most satisfying to watch for seasoned DnD players is the level of inter-party respect displayed by the cast. Both friends and colleagues, the high regard with which the players treat each other is evident in their team player attitudes, willingness to work together to develop each other’s character quirks and backstories, and the caution they proceed with when participating in dialogue.
The advantage of being professional actors and friends is that the cast have an eye for recognising the difference between added dialogue that can take a moment from funny to priceless, and added dialogue that is superfluous, and even bordering on disrespectful. Rarely interrupting each other, instead the seven participants lean back and watch when their pals are having a moment, without the need to insert themselves for the sake of it.
7. The pros of meta-commentary
Meta-gaming is often frowned upon in the DnD community by hardcore RPG lovers, yet Fantasy High makes good use of meta-commentary that has this aforementioned added value. As comedians, the Dropout TV crew play their comedic selves as well as their DnD characters, and are able to expand upon a joke so that it can be appreciated from a meta standpoint. This further encourages the DM to build on the moment, as it is clear that his players are having fun.
In terms of entertainment, this meta-commentary could be seen as part of the campaign’s bi-fold show format, as they are being watched both as CollegeHumor comedians and as DnD characters. The show format also presupposes performativity and impacts gameplay choices. As the party knows they are being watched for the purpose of entertainment, performing meta-commentary provides that extra layer of relatability, and lets us imagine ourselves with our own friends at the table. Because everyone meta-games sometimes. Not only is it funny, but the players are likeable because of it.
8. A twist on your typical Breakfast Club High School stereotypes
Some criticism that a setting such as the Aguefort Adventuring Academy is likely to receive is that it utilises and relies on overused and potentially discriminatory High School stereotypes and tropes, which are extended to gender and race as well. Of course, the same can be said about virtually any DnD campaign or setting, yet the High School scapes seem to lend themselves particularly well to these stereotypes; the half-orcs are the bullies, the jocks are bad boys, the coach can be bribed, and the pretty girls are airheads. The shy and nerdy kids get are tormented, whereas the rebellious party members befriend the seniors, and sneak into the teachers’ lounge to flirt with the Vice Principle. The goblin’s parent can’t afford cereal milk, the elves are rich, and the lead cigarette-smoking tiefling in a leather jacket is literally called Danny Johnny.
At first sight, Fantasy High is like any other loser High School: not very woke at all. But when you dig deeper, it becomes clear that Aguefort is more than what it seems, with a geeky AV club too cool even for Gorgug, a hot greaser who ‘doesn’t fuck’ and embodies cringe-worthiness, a formerly drug-selling bouncer who turns out to be a great guidance councillor, and an angry orc who is coming to terms with the fact that he might be gay.
9. A supportive DM you can trust
Most importantly, it is without a shadow of a doubt that Brennan Lee Mulligan, much like Matt Mercer, Deborah Ann Woll, or Mark Hulmes, is a DM you can trust. He is always supportive of his player’s decisions, frequently starting or ending his sentences with “Hell yeah” and “Rad” in response to their creativity, and rewarding them with advantage rolls or extended dialogue. He claps when a PC rolls a NAT 20, and ‘oofs’ when enemies roll high on their damage.
With several gameplay and DMing styles out there, there is truly nothing better than feeling completely free to make bold and creative choices under the wing of your DM, without unnecessary punishment for attempting a clever move. Not only does Mulligan excel at accents, improvisation, sound effects, character building, world building, and comedy, but he puts up a great DnD fight whilst still remaining fun and fair till the very end.
10. It’s just good fun
If you remain unconvinced, all I can say is that you will be laughing on your sofa, in your bed, and at your desk throughout the whirlwind of crazy that is Fantasy High, and Dimension 20 campaigns in general. You won’t know what you’re missing, until you give it a shot.