The Unsleeping City Season 2 is almost here! Tomorrow we rejoin some of Dimension 20‘s all-time fan-favorite characters as they work to balance the dreaming and waking worlds in New York City. We talked with Dungeon Master Brennan Lee Mulligan about adjusting to the new format, handling stories about recovery with humor and sensitivity- plus that Reddit gossip from Pirates of Leviathan.
The Geekiary: You’ve done several socially distanced games now: FYSY, Pirates of Leviathan, the one-shots. Season 2 of The Unsleeping City is the first one where we’re seeing you guys incorporate Roll20. What was making that switch like, and do you see it as a long-term switch?
Brennan Lee Mulligan: Roll20 is an incredible tool and we’re so happy to be working with them. The Man, the Myth, the Legend Carlos Luna (who performed in Pirates of Leviathan) was our Roll20 Supervisor and Tech Wizard for The Unsleeping City. I knew Carlos Luna from Rivals of Waterdeep, (which is an amazing stream, check it out). He had moved out to LA with his wonderful wife Serena, who works for Critical Role. We knew we needed to move to a digital battlemat […] so the producers reached out to Carlos.
The maestro himself, Rick Perry, was our art director for our battlemats. So he is in this season, for the Perry Heads out there (of which I am Number One). Rick worked with our partners Eightfold Paper who did our maps, and Kendra Wells, our portrait artist from The Unsleeping City Season 1, to design not only the character illustrations but the token art.
The digital battle maps are so incredibly fun. As Dimension 20 has always done since the first season, every time that we have a limitation (in this case COVID) we go, “Cool, what’s a way that we can turn that limitation into something innovative and exciting that we wouldn’t be able to do in another iteration of the anthology?”
So all the things that we can do with Roll20 and only with Roll20, we did them.
On the flip side, our amazing team of painters and sculptures and set makers- Shane, Nate, Sabrina, Maxi- we love them, and we cannot wait to get back in the dome physically and create more physical sets when it is safe and conscientious to do so.
Will you be releasing any of the digital assets for people to play within the DROPOUT store?
Mulligan: I hadn’t even considered that was something we could do! I’m on such a DM hamster wheel doing as many games as I can, they don’t let me in the business meetings. Ask Sam Reich. [Editor’s note: we did ask, and Sam says, “Such has always been our plan.” YES!]
We did an interview a while back where you said there were three seasons in various stages of development. Keeping in mind that you tend to record these in bunches, do you have any more seasons in development now?
Mulligan: We don’t have more in production because we have a whole other side quest fully shot and recorded!
Is it the one that you replaced with Pirates of Leviathan?
Mulligan: No, it’s a fully other original one. Pirates is something we definitely wanted to do, it just ended up getting moved up in the schedule. That was gonna happen later. The new one that we just shot is a totally new thing- but I will say the concept was from the same pitch document as the original The Unsleeping City. So we’ve been kicking it around for two years.
Fandom rumor is that it’s space.
Mulligan: [Switches to Angwyn Abernant’s voice] The fandom is welcome to engage in whatever idle speculation they so desire.
Speaking of idle speculation… there’s been some gossip on Reddit about suspicious dice rolls during Pirates of Leviathan. It’s an awkward topic, since D&D is a collaborative game and not a competitive one, but the online format does leave some opportunities for problems. Do you think that’s a problem with this game?
Mulligan: 99.9% of our fans are the nicest, most wonderful people in the world. Anytime it becomes relevant to comment on some bad behavior, I’m careful to acknowledge how grateful I am for most of our fans. Not only because they support the show, but because I never want to be someone who overlooks those acting wonderfully to focus on the jerks. So I want to say thank you to all the non-jerks. I see you. I love you.
On to the jerks.
I’m going to be very blunt here. There are some people who watch our show who accused one of our players of cheating. The only thing I can attribute it to is people locked inside during the pandemic, bored and truly losing it. To think that someone would fudge dice rolls for this?
Randomness is something that people don’t really understand. You have to really study statistics and probability to understand dice rolls, right? Randomness doesn’t mean that every player has an even spread of rolls. What’s really going to work with randomness on a statistical level is that you’re going to get some Murphs and some Allys.
It was a matter of time before we had a player go on a hot streak. When a player goes on a low streak, no one thinks there’s anything funny going on. [Towards the end of Fantasy High] when Murph goes on that roll while rolling for the cops to show up, it’s a bafflingly unlikely thing. But because it’s on the low end of the spectrum no one thinks he was cheating even though it’s extremely unlikely.
Unlikely things happen all the time. When we say that something has a 1 in a million chance of happening- how many things in the universe happen every second? That thing with a 1 in a million chance of happening is happening all the time.
This really pissed me off, because the player in question- I don’t know why I’m being coy. It’s B. Dave Walters, who is a saint, a scholar, one of my best friends. I love B. Dave to pieces, and anyone who has a problem with B. Dave has a problem with me. [The gossip] made me very, very mad. It felt rude to a guest of ours, and I wish people would knock it off.
We don’t cheat on the show, because frankly, the story is going to be fun no matter which way the dice turn.
Plus, on a practical level B. Dave is just a really good, experienced role player. If he was going to cheat, he would have cheated better.
Mulligan: There’s this issue now if you read about polling- disreputable polls don’t publish their outliers. The good polls do. If they get some number that’s really different, they still publish them. The ones who are lying know that it looks bad to have an outlier poll. If they’re steadier they look better, whereas the high-quality polls release their [anomalous polls].
In the same vein, if you were going to cheat you’d have just 1-2 good rolls in there. The fact that this player was nailing Nat 20s on rolls that didn’t matter that much lets you know he was honestly reporting.
Getting back to The Unsleeping City… did you ever think you’d go back to this setting?
Mulligan: The amount of self-confidence I would need to presume future seasons, I certainly don’t have. Any time I’ve finished a season, the feeling is definitely not, “Well that’s done, let’s go for take 2!” It’s more like, “Oh thank God, I can’t believe they’re letting me run another one!”
When we finished The Unsleeping City 1, I didn’t think I ended it with a certainty that we were going to go back but we wanted to come back in a big way. [Then] because of COVID we knew all these other things were going to change. We thought, “Hey, we’re throwing Zoom calls and digital battle mats at our fans. They’re ingesting a lot of change. Let’s give them something familiar that they already know they like so it’s not ‘everything new all at once’.”
Fandom rumor is that Siobhan Thompson’s character Rowan might be a Big Bad this season, since she switched characters.
Mulligan: [Brennan waggles his eyebrows.] I will neither confirm nor deny the role that Rowan Berry takes in this season if indeed she shows up. What I can say is that both Kugrash [Editor’s note: Brian Murphy’s character who became one with the universe via magic bagel last season] and Rowan, their imprint on the Unsleeping City is extremely felt. The players reference them in Episode 1 and their impact on the city is felt.
There were two reasons [that Rowan isn’t in this season]. First, even though I am the Executive Producer on the show, I hold sacrosanct player autonomy with creative decisions over their own characters. I had been thinking we’d have Rowan back, but Siobhan said, “In all honesty, we ended her arc so perfectly last season, and she also has to establish a new Faerie court. I do not believe Rowan Berry would be involved in the day to day life of the Unsleeping City. I think she’d be involved in the comings and goings of Faerie, and I have a character concept I’m excited about.”
Plus, I think there was an element of Murph being forced to make a new character and Siobhan making a new character so he wouldn’t be alone. If she had played Rowan it would have been 5 people with an inside joke and one person left out. I think it’s rather selfless of Siobhan to be like, “I don’t want Murph to be the only newbie. Let’s have two introductory PCs coming in.”
The dynamic is really interesting and it let me do some fun plot stuff, so I really appreciated Siobhan doing that.
That’s something that’s always brought up about Dimension 20. You’re all very obviously friends. You care about each other’s comfort and having real-world concerns about mutual safety and enjoyment, both as players and characters. How much do you think that contributes to the success of the series?
Mulligan: We prioritize tenderness and a play philosophy.
The world is vast and full of a lot of different kinds of people. There might be a market for a mean-spirited D&D show out there. I will certainly never find out, because I will never make something mean-spirited. Hopefully! Or if I do it will be a mistake and something I’ll have to amend, because the goal is always to be as kind and inclusive and joyful as possible.
Our motivation in creating content that reflects our values isn’t financial. I’ve never thought about the ways our success interacts with our values… but there were many different successes out there for different D&D shows. I’m glad the audience we found is the one that cares about kindness and doing the right thing.
A couple of characters (Sophia and Pete) are recovering from substance abuse problems. College Humor is pretty famously a pro-recreational intoxicants community. Did you run into any problems trying to portray recovery without casting a stigma?
Mulligan: Last season Sophia and Pete were a mess, and that’s very much in the vein of College Humor. In this season they’re in recovery. Something immediately shifted in the tone as me and Ally and Emily were all talking about it. We thought, “Oh, this might not be [something that should be] played for laughs.”
Anytime you’re doing comedy, tone is really wild. Some things need to be handled sensitively, but others don’t. If you take Aguefort Adventuring Academy at face value, it’s a place that teaches children to murder, right? That’s not okay. But audiences are smart, and they know that is a comedic or fantastical conceit, and then this is something that deserves sensitivity and gravitas. That is something that has to be managed moment to moment by the performance of the players. It’s hard to articulate what makes a moment need that care or not.
[For The Unsleeping City Season 2] we worked with a couple of addiction sensitivity consultants, which was so illuminating and so awesome. What we asked was, “We want to tell a story of people in recovery. We have 2 addicts in recovery. How do we do that responsibly? Because this is improv, and we don’t know whether we’re telling a steady recovery story or a relapse story as we begin the story. What’s a responsible way to do that? Also, we’re playing a game. Is this something that should be fully narrative, or should this something we should build a mechanic around?”
One of our consultants is also a game designer. The response was, “You use mechanics to resolve interpersonal violence, right? So if you don’t have a mechanic around it, you’re implying that relapse is a choice and that the struggle at some point is poetic or narrative.”
How does that work at the table?
Mulligan: We talked about Adaine’s panic attack mechanic from Fantasy High Season 1, and we realized this is a similar thing. It’s actually more respectful to create a textured mechanic, because it reflects the degree to which people are trying their best, and sometimes coming up short.
What we ended up doing was creating an awesome mechanic (which I’ll publish at the premiere) that reflects a series of triggers written by the player ahead of time which are addiction stressors. They have a die they roll when they encounter a stressor. If they hit a one the die type goes down. So if they roll a 1 on a d20 it goes down to a d12. There’s another element to the system where you can improve your die during downtime. You can be going to meetings, taking care of yourself, working on your sobriety, and if you do that your die bumps back up. So maybe you encounter some stressors, your die goes down, then you do the work in downtime and it goes back up.
The only thing that constitutes a relapse scenario would be if you let your die go down to a d4. Basically, you haven’t been taking care of yourself over time, and you’re at a d4, and if you roll that and it comes up a 1 you narratively enter a relapse phase for the character.
It’s a system where it gives the situation gravitas while also depicting it as a struggle.
These characters are trying their best but sometimes failing, and that’s the tone we wanted to strike. It’s a big part of the season- I think a beautiful part of the season. Ally and Emily knock it out of the park.
Thanks to Brennan Lee Mulligan for giving us so much time (and laying those rumors to rest so we can all go back to loving Marcid the Typhoon)!
You can watch the season premiere of The Unsleeping City Season 2 at 7 pm EST tomorrow, Wednesday the 11th, over on College Humor’s YouTube channel.
As always the episode will be available right after on DROPOUT if you miss the live premiere- and don’t forget to check in with us Thursday for our review!
Khai is a writer, anthropologist, and games enthusiast. She is co-editor (alongside Alex DeCampi) of and contributor to “True War Stories”, a comic anthology being published by Z2 Comics. When she’s not writing or creating games, Khai likes to run more tabletop RPGs than one person should reasonably juggle.
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