How Dimension 20 Restored My Appetite For Television

Games Features dungeons and dragons
How Dimension 20 Restored My Appetite For Television

I’m not much of a TV guy anymore. 10 years ago, it felt like I was on the ball and watching all the prestige series everyone else was in on. In between classes or at parties, I was dialed into the conversations about Game of Thrones and extolling the values of my favorite sitcoms. But in the decade since, I’ve fallen out of favor with broad swaths of television, becoming endlessly bored by the bottom-of-the-barrel stuff that just kind of gets shoveled onto streaming services, all the while infuriated at the fact that most shows with promise bite the bullet too soon to ever grow into something bigger. Even when I think about the presently great shows airing, I am bored at the prospect of watching them. Even the very best ones are too formulaic for my taste at the moment. Save for the occasionally fun distraction or occasionally long show to marathon out of comfort, TV just hasn’t been doing it for me on both the dramatic and comedic front. I was just looking in the wrong place, because it turns out that the best show with the most compelling drama and heartiest of laughs isn’t on a cable network, HBO, or traditional streaming service. It’s instead this little show called Dimension 20 all about some improv comedians playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Dimension 20 has been around for a while now, but I only became aware of it within the last year. Headed up by comedian and renowned dungeon master Brennan Lee Mulligan since 2018, Dimension 20 launched as part of CollegeHumor’s streaming service Dropout, which has seemingly saved the company since a near ruinous layoff in 2020 that left Mulligan as the sole creative on payroll. Undeterred by the upheaval, Dimension 20 continued putting out seasons, which thanks to a loose anthology format, take place in several different worlds created by Mulligan, his cast and crew. Beginning with Fantasy High, a series frequently dubbed an amalgamation of high fantasy creatures and magic in a world akin to John Hughes depiction of America, the show has jumped to settings such as the depths of space (in a scenario Mulligan borrowed from the published works of his mother, Elaine Lee), a rendition of New York with a magical world sitting just underneath, and most recently, a multiverse of Brothers Grimm fairy tales. This aspect, of a new story every season with mostly new characters—some seasons have had sequels—was one of the biggest boons to begin with. Going into Dimension 20, I mostly wanted to avoid the situation of growing attached to characters I’d have to follow for years and seasons only to potentially be burned by the end because of poor writing. Little did I know I’d find characters I’d cherish even more. What a fool I was.

The thing that really sets Dimension 20 apart from the rest of TV is the rolls. There’s an obvious aspect of play deadcenter at the heart of this show, which, especially when carried by trained improv artists, makes for unbelievable twists and developments in the heat of the moment. For example, in D20‘s latest complete season Neverafter, Pinocchio (one of the player characters portrayed by Lou Wilson) despises a donkey named Alphonse who has, time and time again, screwed over him and his friends. When faced with the chance to kill this joke character, Pinocchio goes so far as to nearly use one of his own abilities to replace a high roll with a low one, all but ensuring that Alphonse would fail a check that could lead to his survival. When Puss in Boots, played by Zac Oyama, pleads that Pinocchio let Alphonse live—as he’s the only character from Puss in Boots’ story who remains alive—Pinocchio has a come-to-Jesus moment and does the right thing, replacing Alphonse paltry rolls (a 2 and a 6) with his own. Little does Wilson know that he’s about to roll a natural 20—the best possible result—which not only ensures that Alphonse will live through the firework that’s going to be launched right at him, but even pays off in dividends as he morphs into his regular self and provides the party with direction after their combat.

On the other end of that spectrum, a series of failed rolls in the earliest episodes of Neverafter causes the entirety of the crew to accidentally break stealth, exposing themselves to a powerful enemy and their mob of fucked up furniture people. This kicks off a fight that wipes the entirety of the party a mere three episodes into the season. Even this wipe, a circumstance of bad rolls throughout the fight, unfurls layers of one of the greatest mysteries of that world, as the next episode ushers the party—often referred to by Mulligan as “intrepid heroes” at the beginning of each episode—through the afterlife and back into their bodies, revealing the recursive and punitive nature of the Neverafter. Sometimes, the catastrophic rolls just give the cast ample reason to make an incredibly funny bit, like Brian Murphy, who infamously gets astonishingly poor rolls, throwing a rogue die impulsively and causing the party to fail a check leading into the final battle of the season, only to then be admonished by the rest of the party, including his own wife.

The dice, for better and for worse sometimes, keep me on my feet. I can’t predict a thing that’s going to happen thanks to the insanely successful marriage of this mechanic to the cast’s improvisational skills. There’s nary a moment, whether it be a rousing victory or an utter defeat, that doesn’t propel these characters forward in some way and carve out a unique, player-driven story. And because they are improvised rather than written, the characters feel like authentic people, even if they are fanciful in nature. This is almost exactly what has drawn me to games for so long in my life: no matter how narrow or expansive the game is, my experience with it is my own. Even if I play them in tried-and-true fashion, like a model gamer, no one can replicate the exact feeling I elicit poking at game worlds in the ways that thrill and intrigue me. The story I make is unique and singular and informed by how I play. I think that’s what Dimension 20‘s tapped into, and it’s why I can’t stop watching it.

Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.

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