Dimension 20's The Unsleeping City Shows the Flexibility and Storytelling Power of Dungeons & Dragons

CollegeHumor's Dimension 20 has quickly turned into one of the most unique Dungeons & Dragons liveplay shows, thanks to its mix of comedy, innovative and non-traditional settings, and unorthodox but fundamentally relatable characters. Launched in 2018, Dimension 20 is the brainchild of Brennan Lee Mulligan, one of CollegeHumor's full time cast members and writers. While Dungeons & Dragons liveplay shows usually take place in a Tolkien-esque fantasy realm, Dimension 20 stands out with its emphasis on non-traditional stories and settings. Season 1, which aired in late 2018, took place in a high school setting, where players faced down both bugbears, monsters, and exams. The new season, which airs every Tuesday on CollegeHumor's Dropout streaming channel, is set in a hidden magic world folded in the shadows of New York City.

"We have a lot of great creative license because while our stories that we tell in Dimension 20 do have real characters with real stakes and real human emotions in them, we are telling a fundamentally comedic story," Mulligan explained to ComicBook.com via phone as we discussed why he chose to set the show in non-traditional settings. "One of things we really alighted upon was there's kind of two ways to mine comedy out of a long form narrative improvised D&D show. The first is to make fun of D&D, to kind of just go like, 'Oh, this is inherently silly, isn't it crazy that we're all pretending to be goblins? How bizarre.' Which we didn't find to be that interesting, because weirdly I feel like our pop culture is extremely saturated with fantasy and sci-fi storytelling."

"So, the only other way that we could see to get comedy in a D&D show is to take a really comedic bent or angle on these widespread beloved fantasy tropes, and making them bizarre and wacky, which allows you to deeply commit to the truth of them," Mulligan continued. "If you're putting a comedic twist on something, all of a sudden the jokes become natural, and you can find them through honest portrayal of the characters in their stakes."

Despite setting his game in a modern version of New York City (Mulligan cited Hellboy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Men in Black as inspirations for his "secret city within a city" motif for this season), Mulligan believes that the setting still fundamentally works with Dungeons & Dragons because of the type of story his table is telling. "I think that what the rules of D&D really undergird are characters becoming exponentially more powerful and having spectacular abilities," Mulligan said. "That's what the nuts and bolts of the game do as your characters level up. So as long as your setting reflects an epicness to characters, and an ability for them to sling magic and wild abilities around, the rest becomes set dressing."

"If you have a magical high stakes, epic New York, there's no real difference between a paladin being in full plate mail and wielding the light of Heironeous versus being a New York city firefighter who wields the light of civic responsibility and urban safety," Mulligan continued. "The rules will support both of those concepts because after a certain point they are fundamentally similar."

Another feather in Dimension 20's cap is its players' commitment to creating characters that fully within these unconventional fantasy worlds. This season's cast of characters includes the aforementioned firefighter paladin, a wild magic sorcerer that is both a fixture on the art scene and is a drug dealer, a Broadway diva/bard, and a druid who is also a rat. Mulligan explained that each player picked a kind of D&D character and a New York archetype and then built their characters as they tried to find a connection between the two.

Dimension 20 has turned into a hit for CollegeHumor, to the point that Mulligan is working on both Season 4 and Season 5 of the show. Season 4 will be a "mini-season" similar to Season 2's "Escape From the Bloodkeep" with a cast of special guests, while Season 5 will bring back the show's main cast. Dimension 20 has also had several live shows and has more planned for the future.

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In the end, Mulligan sees Dimension 20 as a way to show the flexibility and storytelling capability that Dungeons & Dragons has to offer. "There's something so profound about a game like D&D having this big renaissance and resurgence, and it's first commandment is essentially like, 'Take what we have made for you as a gift and as a set of toys and then run with them and make them your own," he explained. "Ultimately, if anything that we do on Dimension 20 can encourage people to take the game and make it their own and truly see that you can tell whatever kind of story you want to tell, then we've done what was so important for us to try to do."

New episodes of Dimension 20 airs every Tuesday on Dropout. You can also watch episodes on Dimension 20's YouTube page.