Brennan Lee Mulligan has a ton of irons in the fire over at DROPOUT. Despite his packed schedule, he talked to us for a frankly inadvisable amount of time about living the Geek Dream, Tiny Heist, and how D&D can make you a better person (if you let it).
The Geekiary: Most of our readers will know you from College Humor and DROPOUT, where you’re the Game Master for the Dimension 20 actual play show. That’s basically a nerd’s dream job. How did you make that happen?
Brennan Lee Mulligan: It is indeed a daydream. It’s a stroke of good fortune to be able to say, “I play D&D for a living.” I’m eternally grateful for it and understand my place in the cosmos as someone who stumbled upon this genie lamp, so to speak. I go to work and crack open the monster manual and DMG and that is my livelihood.
I didn’t “get the job” at Dimension 20 so much as I got the job as a cast member at College Humor at a time when they were creating DROPOUT. So, the stroke of good fortune here- the perfect storm of good luck that had to fall into place for all this to happen is not lost on me.
The way it came about was, I have been a huge fan of actual play. I was moving out to Los Angeles and I got cornered at Siobhan Thompson’s birthday party by Emily Axford and Brian Murphy (both from Dimension 20 and NADDPOD). They go, “We’ve never played D&D before. Can you teach us?” About a year before I started working for College Humor I was playing D&D with Zac Oyama, Emily Axford, that whole crew. So people were already thinking, “Oh, Brennan’s the DM. He does this.”
Right when I got there I started writing this [D&D actual play] pitch. Part of the way through, I got called into Adam Frucci’s office. He goes, “Hey, sorry to bug you while you’re writing, but how do you feel about doing an actual play show for us?”
I was like, “Oh my god, I would love to! I was just working on that!”
So it was a perfect storm of events: actual play shows were proven a viable medium, and they just hired a cast member who has this skill set at a time when they’re looking for replicable, easier to film, long-form content. Boy oh boy, did things start with a bang. We’ve made five seasons of this show in the last year and a half. Six if you include the live show!
The Geekiary: Much love to other actual play shows, but Dimension 20 has far and away the best production value in terms of supporting art, sets, and effects. As a game master I’m inspired and a little intimidated.
Brennan Lee Mulligan: I don’t want to make anyone feel bad about their game! Personally, my staff and I are having the time of our lives. I think what sets Dimension 20 apart is that there’s so many people involved that are just incredible artists. Rick Perry (the model maker) and his team — the work they do is really incredible, and it puts a degree of accessibility on what we do. It’s a dream.
The Geekiary: Have you ever built a set or a mini you didn’t get to use because of in-game events?
Brennan Lee Mulligan: For sure! Rick Perry had some extra stuff for Fantasy High. There were some ogre cheerleaders that never made it onto the field.
The main one was Bloodkeep. The final battle was supposed to be PVP and we had made all of these extra minis. One of the nice things about Bloodkeep was that because it was happening in a High Fantasy world we could buy a lot of minis that would cleave to that aesthetic. It was a little more classic. I did have a library of minis to use to create that final battle in a meaningful way. I thought I wasn’t going to get to use those minis, but I did use some.
The Geekiary: With Dimension 20, you’re doing double duty as a Game Master and a show host. How do you balance those needs?
Brennan Lee Mulligan: When you’re doing D&D tabletop games — even when there’s not cameras — you tend to serve two masters. There’s the story, which functions by the rule of narrative. That’s a difficult master to serve because it can feel abstract and ambiguous. We all know there are “good” and “bad” stories. There are engrossing stories, stories that make us feel things, and then there are stories that ramble and are not that captivating.
On the other side of this, D&D and other tabletop games center around a team. They have a very different set of rules you have to serve. I was a player again recently, and in a PC’s shoes I had this moment of, “Oh, I’m just trying to win. My character doesn’t want to have an arc, he wants to accomplish his goals.” So you get immersed in the character. Characters don’t want harsh lessons, players may want that but characters want to have it easy for the most part.
So there is a challenge there. One of the easy things to do to is to keep the mentality when you’re running game that you always have more than you use. No matter what happens you can always throw another challenge at them. There’s always the next “thing” that’s gonna happen.
I think the best virtue of a Game Master is not only creativity but patience, and also the ability to see where the game is going to go and if needed redirect it.
The Geekiary: Speaking of redirecting, it seems like your players really keep you on your toes there. For example, you were quoted once about Emily Axford that you love her and she was a demon sent from hell to torture you.
Brennan Lee Mulligan: [Laughing] I believe I never called Emily a demon, I said she was sent from hell. Just a person who happened to be living in hell at the time.
Honestly, the luckiest thing in the world for a Game Master is to have Emily Axford at his table. She is one of the most creative fun, heartfelt players. She’s also very good at Dungeons and Dragons. She has a deep understanding of the mechanics. Her character build for the upcoming season is — she just gets the game on a mechanical nerd level, and her note-taking is impeccable. Every DM wants a player like Emily. She is a stallion.
She is also a force for chaos who disguises herself as a woman Hilda Von Hilda who lives at 22 Hilda Street and 23 Hilda Blvd [Editor’s note: this happened in a live Twitch session while Fig was trying to casually drop off a note for a police captain and needed a fake name].
Emily is the best, and she’s a complete demon of utter chaos who is determined to use the Disguise Self spell to completely shatter my brain.
The Geekiary: Watching you lose control laughing is one thing fans love about the live show on Twitch, which follows Fantasy High’s Bad Kids through Sophomore year. What do you love or hate about the live show?
Brennan Lee Mulligan: I love the live show. What I miss is all the incredible artistry that can only go into the edited show — the work of our editors and the works of Rick Perry and his team doing the minis. Other stuff, I wouldn’t say that I miss it, but you can acknowledge that it is different.
One of the nice things about the filmed showed is that having a set number of episodes means that you have a fixed amount of time to tell the story. It benefits from the additional structure of a beginning, middle, and end. The live shows we’re doing have the Fantasy High characters. People love those characters, but I would say that the reason people love those characters is because of the story they were in and the choices those characters made during the first season, to include the ending. Saying goodbye is hard, but without an ending, we wouldn’t have had Fabian and his father, Adaine talking to Jawbone, or any of those incredible moments.
The thing you wind up getting in a live season is, the hobbles are off. I mean that as the Game Master. When I’m doing the filmed season, we have time limits, we have a certain number of episodes, we have the battles set, all of that. So I do a little more jiu-jitsu. I throw my weight around a little more as a storyteller because I have to.
In the live show, anything can happen. I am not beholden to anything. We don’t have a number of episodes, we don’t have to wrap up loose ends, battles happen when they come up and they don’t have to last a whole episode. I completely follow the action of the PCs, so the decisions they make have incredibly profound ramifications.
So the trade-off of the live show is that what you move in the amazing artistry and the finality of the wrap-up, you gain in shocking amounts unpredictability. It’s like, “I’m not prepared for this, but I understand the rules of the game. I have my character’s stat block… what happens now?”
The Geekiary: The live show feels more personal.
Brennan Lee Mulligan: Things happen and it changes characters forever. There’s no going back, which I think is intoxicating for people. That’s why you watch actual play. Not just to watch a bunch of storytellers you love but to watch them in context, where because of the dice things can happen that nobody can take back and nobody can prepare for. That is so gripping.
The Geekiary: DROPOUT has a huge amount of content, and the same College Humor cast members pop up across a lot of shows. I think I’ve seen most of the Dimension 20 gang on Um, Actually and Game Changer, for example. You have to have an insane shooting schedule to create this amount of content. Is ‘Brennan Lee Mulligan’ actually twins living as one person, and if not how are you managing this schedule?
Brennan Lee Mulligan: It’s a lot of work, and the shows are very demanding, but… forgive me if this is overly sentimental, but working hard when the people that you’re working with are universally wonderful and you have this degree of creative freedom over the projects you’re working on, is an opportunity that I would be foolish to not utilize to its fullest.
For the few people that are lucky to even have creative careers — and it’s important to be grateful that you even have them — opportunities where you can tell the stories that you want to tell, exactly how you want to tell them, and be supported by other brilliant people are rare. You will not find one person at CH who is not a completely delightful person, from the cast, to the producers, to the post team, to marketing — all the people we work with are just the most delightful human beings.
I don’t want to gainsay all the important health and wellness reasons for work-life balance. But if there’s a time in life to work hard it’s now, when I’m getting to do something this rare with people who are this special. It’s not a hardship for all of us to be working on all this at this time.
The Geekiary: DROPOUT (and College Humor in general) seem noticeably more socially forward — especially in terms of LGBTQ+ representation and other social issues — than their larger media competitors. Is that a function of it being younger platform, or has that been intentionally built in from the start?
Brennan Lee Mulligan: First of all, I agree with what you’re saying and I love it so, so, so much. It’s rare to be with a company whose values so openly align with those of the people working at it. When I tell people I work for College Humor, I get to say that really proudly. Whether it’s their extremely progressive social and political stuff or even a dumb get together party, I’m proud of all of it. The entire rainbow of material is reflective of the values of the people who work there.
I chalk it up to a lot of bravery on the part of the staff in front of and behind the camera. We have a workplace culture and people who share these values. The atmosphere at College Humor is one of inclusion, compassion, and having a sense of justice both socially and in terms of the world at large.
A lot of that goes down to our head writers, like Rekha Shankar and Mike Trapp, and all of the department heads getting on the same page. “We’re not going to produce bigoted work. We’re not going to produce work that reinforces harmful social points.” It’s a huge change in the company. College Humor has come a long way from when it did not have this same sort of mission.
When you look on the YouTube and crawl the comments, overwhelmingly we get positive comments but a few rare times you see someone saying, “Why you gotta be political?”
We say, “Well, we are a culture company. How can you make something topical and not comment on the society you’re in?”
The Geekiary: Switching gears a little, are you ever going to make a plushie Boggy the Froggy?
Brennan Lee Mulligan: We’re doing infrastructure right now to make plushies! My personal heart’s desire would be to do a J’er’em’ih.
The Geekiary: Has Stephen Sondheim seen Unsleeping City, and have you mailed him his double-sword mini?
Brennan Lee Mulligan: We should! I don’t believe he’s seen it, but actually we have an incredible degrees of separation at College Humor. Somebody at our company knows somebody who works for or with Stephen Sondheim. If I could get him his mini and tell him how much his work has meant to me, that would be incredible. I just want to tell him he helped avert the apocalypse in Times Square and he did so as a high-level College of Swords bard — that would my dream come true.
The Geekiary: Tiny Heist is coming up. What can we expect?
Brennan Lee Mulligan: I’m deciding how cryptic I can be right now. Tiny Heist is super exciting. It’s another 6 episode run with myself and the McElroys at the table. I’ve loved the McElroys forever. We’re so excited to have them on.
The world of Tiny Heist is so exciting. It’s basically going back to Fantasy High which is a mash-up of High Fantasy plus teen movies. This is another mashup setting. It’s an Ocean’s Eleven/Italian Job-style heist movie set in a dollhouse world. There’s basically every small thing you can think of played in this whimsical world that is being run with a crime drama heist theme. The characters these guys play are just so much fun, and the McElroys are a dream come true. That premieres January 9th.
[Editor’s Note: In a last-minute change, DROPOUT has moved the first episode of Tiny Heist back to January. Bummer. HOWEVER, they have given us a link to the first 4 minutes of Episode 1 to make up for it!]
The Geekiary: You run a lot of games. What kind of characters do you like to play?
Brennan Lee Mulligan: If I had to pick character classes that I enjoy, I keep getting drawn back to paladin and wizard. Those feel really fun to me. I don’t think I’ve played them more often than other classes, but there’s something about them that feels relevant to me.
The characters that have always been most meaningful to me — it’s always about ethics. It’s about the alignment spectrum from good to evil. It’s about, if this is a gay and heroic character, what does it mean? What are the logistics of that? What are the themes hidden within that character that make it painful or difficult to be good? What does it actually mean to try to be a hero? That’s such a hard thing to be and it’s so easy to fail. So, what do those failures look like and what happens then?
Also, I’ve played a lot of evil characters. Way more than average, but never in the kind of Joker-ish way of, “Wanna know how I got these scars?” These are characters that work with the party, they’re on the bus, it’s just an exploration of ethics and alignments. Why is this character evil and what does that mean? How did they get like this? What keeps them moving forward? Even with a person we understand as being villainous, they aren’t a random encounter monster constantly hacking at everybody.
[Brennan Lee Mulligan’s character] Deadeye on NADDPOD, who was an undead cowboy, is a variation on that theme. He had completely given up hope. He was behaving selfishly and amorally because he just didn’t believe in other people. To me that’s a form of evil. For me, it always comes back to ethics and the study of good and evil.
The Geekiary: Do you think playing evil characters helps you sort out things you’re dealing with in the real world and be a better real-world human?
Brennan Lee Mulligan: Yeah, if you want to get really into it I’ll share my real feelings about D&D. There’s a great article I read that talks about the idea of play. One scientific definition of play is, “The display and exploration of a creature’s mastery of its own abilities.” You see birds fly in incredible formations just to show off, and that’s a form of play. Lion cubs jump on each other and yeah, they’re practicing hunting, but they’re also reveling in their ability to jump.
So all those [D&D players] explore how to think, to predict, to explore, to narrate. There is a mindset that fantasy and genre fiction, and by extension tabletop games like D&D, are a form of escapism. You’re escaping your own life and engaging in a power fantasy. I so profoundly disagree with that, I do not think that’s accurate. Maybe in an individual game that’s what’s happening, but not D&D played to its highest quality.
What D&D allows people to do is practice making heroic decisions. There are so few opportunities in a person’s life where the chips are actually down and they have the opportunity to do something heroic. A lot of people’s lives are quite mundane. When you have to make a heroic decision, if you don’t have practice with that and what it feels like, you might not do the right thing.
Idealistic as this might sound, D&D provides a way for us to create rooms and pathways in our brain through these intense emotional experiences and train ourselves to choose the selfless thing. To choose the heroic thing. It’s not about escapism, “Let me do some stuff that I’ve never done in real life”, it’s about exploring.
In the same way, playing evil characters is not about apologism, “Let’s play the bad guys so we can see they’re really that bad after all!” That can be really dangerous. For me, playing evil characters is about attempting to understand why people become antisocial and do harmful actions. The only way to change the world is to understand it as it is. I think playing evil characters is more, “How did someone get here and how do we get them back?”
This is my secret soapbox I get on. If you play D&D you’re hopefully not just keeping it as the secret world where you’re a hero. In my ideal world, people use play to learn about heroism and the choices they make, then translate that to their daily lives.
What is the point of storytelling if not to learn about ourselves and use that in-game and out of game?
Thanks to Brennan Lee Mulligan for giving us so much time, and catch Tiny Heist on DROPOUT starting tonight!
Khai is a writer, anthropologist, and game enthusiast. She can talk fandom in five languages, and her proudest nerd moment so far was presenting original research titled “Gender, Sex, and Werewolves” at an international anthropological conference. Her first game, None For Me, is due out from Calico Games early next year.
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