Fantasy High Junior Year is here. For fans of the Intrepid Heroes, and the Bad Kids themselves, it’s a return to the roots of Dimension 20’s anthology actual play show - but with all of the experience the cast has picked up over the course of the last five years. After all, these aren’t the same players they were in that first season. “The Intrepid Heroes are stone-cold actual-play killers, who know the rules back-to-front,” says dungeon master Brennan Lee Mulligan.
With this being the third season of Fantasy High, Junior Year isn’t just another season of Dimension 20, nor simply another excuse to get a bunch of talented comedians into a room and let them all commit to as many bits as possible at high speed. “This is our first first threequel; it’s our first coming back for the third time,” Mulligan says. “That sounds sort of like a silly distinction, but there’s something about the idea of coming back again and trying to find new things to work with.”
The amount of artistry that goes into this show is off the charts.
That’s not all that’s a big deal for the show. Sophomore Year, the last full season of Fantasy High - ignoring the excellent spin-offs including The Seven - was not only streamed live on Twitch, something that’s not been repeated since, but saw its finale run over a video call as the pandemic lockdowns hit.
“It's the first time playing in this world, in the dome with minis and battle sets, since [first season] Freshman Year, and now our crew - the amount of artistry that goes into this show, from production to pre-production and post-production or editors - it's off the charts,” Mulligan enthuses. “It's a huge gift to be able to come back and see how the show's grown.”
(Minor spoilers for Fantasy High: Junior Year’s first episode, Summer Scaries, follow)
If you’ve watched the Adventuring Party episodes for Junior Year, you’ll have had a glimpse into the sheer volume of people working behind the scenes, as Mulligan now lists off the full crew during the talkback companion show. It’s easy to forget for those of us at home laughing along as the Bad Kids get angry at a sentient mirror for saying “Night Yorb”, but Dimension 20 is so much more than just the seven people you see on camera.
The sheer volume of creative talent behind the show helps raise the bar every season. It means that Junior Year feels more polished than the already highly-polished previous seasons. However, with Fantasy High being the longest-running setting for Dimension 20, it also comes with its own risks. With fans having such huge connections with the cast of characters and the cast themselves, messing around with them through high-stakes jeopardy or major character revelations becomes a little harder to do.
“You want to honour those, but you can't honour them so much that you're moving from a place of solemnity and caution, right?” Mulligan says. “You're like, ‘Oh, all of this matters to the people that love our show.’ So it's figuring out how to honour that stuff, but also figuring out: how do we throw elbows? How do we not be worried about breaking the fine china and allow ourselves to play with abandon?”
Mulligan describes getting that balance right as threading a needle. Yet the first two episodes of Junior Year have been a riot, and the cliffhanger at the end of episode two shows that this isn’t about the Bad Kids adventuring and saving the world - it’s about what comes after.
“We all know there's gonna be supernatural threats. That's normal. So you start saving the world and then it's the exhaustion of like, ‘Okay, we save the world again and school starts tomorrow.’ We wanted that to be the adventure.”
You want to honour the connections fans have with characters, but you can't honour them so much that you're moving from a place of solemnity and caution.
That’s why the season kicks off at the end of the Night Yorb hunt, with all of the Bad Kids having changed in some way and the additions of characters including Ecaf, a mirror who lets Fabian have a thing for himself, and Squeem, who turns the fantasy equivalent of a mobile phone into a blade of light. While these characters, and even the fight itself, was a surprise to all of us, it wasn’t for the cast.
“We even had beats for what happened off-camera during the Night Yorb adventure. So they know the story of how the solar lasso got built and how the other stuff happened,” Mulligan says. “They knew all of that it just wasn't relevant because they're wrapping up the adventure and now they go back to Elmville. So we had that we had all that stuff established.”
One big thing the start of this latest season has in common with the original Fantasy High is that the players can’t help themselves but mock Mulligan’s evil machinations for them. The first time around it was Corn Gremlins Corn Cuties; this time around it’s the Yathmags turning into the Yas Queens. “I really was grateful that at least Murph [Brian Murphy] broke rank to acknowledge that it's not that close,” Mulligan says. “I was just trying to give them that weird Frank Frazetta sword-and-sorcery.”
It’s the job of every good D&D player to test their dungeon master, and every good DM to test their players too. If you were wondering which of the Intrepid Heroes Mulligan feels is his biggest challenge: “We all have our boulder to roll up a hill - and mine is Ali Beardsley telling me that my monsters sound like different stuff.” He’s not letting them get away with too much now that they know what they’re doing, either. “I am not going to extend myself on your behalf; the monster has multi-attack.”
If you’re a Dropout subscriber, you’ll be very aware of the fact that Mulligan, and many of Dimension 20’s other talented writers, comedians and production staff, seemingly never stop working, with new shows coming out weekly across a huge range of seasons and comedic styles. So it’s not a huge surprise that Mulligan considers himself a bit of a workaholic, to the degree that he didn’t realise they’d recently sailed past the five-year anniversary of Dimension 20: “I'm constantly shocked. When we did the five-year anniversary video, I was, like, ‘We've been doing this show for five years.’ I just moved to LA, and you're like, ‘No, dude, you've been in LA for seven years.’”
Mulligan has no shortage of gratitude for everyone who has helped Dimension 20 hit that milestone. Aside from saying he’s constantly thankful for the fans of the show, he loves “singing the praises of all the amazing crew and artists and performers and amazing people that have come onto the show, to make it the best it’s ever been”.
Mulligan says it wasn’t a sudden explosion of realisation that Dimension 20 was going to be big. Even though many fans will happily rank it alongside fellow hit actual play shows like Critical Role, Mulligan says that those series were in his documents when he went to Dropout head Sam Reich to pitch the show. He didn’t want to compete with Critical Role or The Adventure Zone: “Here are the people that are already at the potluck, you know? Like, they already brought the casserole, they already brought the drinks. What can we bring that's a meaningfully different offering in this space to people?”
The thing that sets Dimension 20 apart, at least in Mulligan’s eyes, is that it’s an anthology, along with the sheer production value thanks to all the cast both in front of and behind the cameras. In the event that someone has only just discovered Dimension 20, they can usually hop in with a brand-new season in a couple of months, and not worry about catching up unless they really want to. That’s a big deal in an age where time feels so much more stretched, and is definitely an incentive for anyone not willing to watch the literal hundreds of hours of Critical Role required to be up on all of its lore.
It's really good to jump into the player's seat to give you perspective, as a DM, on what of your work is resonant to players.
In addition to being a producer, Mulligan is also no longer as much of a forever-DM as he once was. That’s largely thanks to Aabria Iyengar, who still loves pulling him into any game she DMs on Dimension 20, but also Mulligan’s appearances on Critical Role as a player. He says that the experience of playing is essential to being a better DM as well, because it helps you evaluate what players want. After all, it’s easy to get lost in your own sauce if you’re never rolling a death save or perception check yourself.
“It's really good to jump into the player's seat,” he says. “To give you perspective, as a DM, on what of your work is resonant to players, and what is something that may be less critical that you're doing behind the screen that’s not really contributing to player satisfaction and joy at the table.”
With Mulligan being one of the world’s foremost experts in running an actual play show, you’ll be glad to know that he was also happy to share some advice on what to do if you’re thinking of starting one yourself: “The number one thing is you have to act, you have to pursue joy for yourself.” He explains that everyone has their own playstyle, and you shouldn’t stray too far from that or it’ll feel forced. However, bending things a little bit can sometimes be a good idea. He recounts the story of a home game where his players spent six hours figuring out what to turn some magical steel into. “The thing to remember is there are some things that are fun for players to do, that, nevertheless, are maybe not as engrossing to an audience.”
It’s clear talking to Mulligan that what he does is a genuine blessing for him. His gratitude towards his fans, but also his players and crew, comes through in spades. After all, the players are a big part of things too. Dimension 20’s cast tend to not just be good at D&D, but also immensely fluent in the language of improv comedy. (Which we assume is a bit like Elven, but with a little more urgency.)
“Playing with these incredible people, who have the joy of committing deeply to characters and going on these insane riffs and tangents and finding these comedic moments, finding these heartfelt emotional beats, it is pure joy,” Mulligan says. “When the cameras start rolling, I get my reward for doing my job, which is producing Dimension 20. That doesn't feel like the job part. That's pure joy.”