(Warning, this post is parasocial as fuck. Get attached at your own risk.)
As a writer, watching DnD has a certain… taboo feeling to it.
When writing, every aspect of a story’s execution is up to you. Whether a character turns right or left, whether they say yes or no, whether their arc will be a tragedy or a triumph. Dnd takes that control and intent and lets both random chance (eck!) and the players (double eck!) make critical storytelling decisions.
I’d go insane if I tried the same with a book.
Despite that, I’ve had a blast watching DnD shows over the past few years. And this most recent experience is making me question everything I know about writing and its ideal form.
This is Brennan Lee Mulligan, DM extraordinaire of Dimension 20, a comedy DnD series on the streaming service Dropout. He plays alongside a talented cast of comedians and improv artists, but it’s clear that he’s the lynchpin to the whole production. DMing is hard enough of a job, but he’ll be juggling narration, live mixing, multiple side characters, worldbuilding, multiple storylines, scene direction, and even the cast members themselves, all at once. He’s got a brain that I’d envy even on my best days, and the show would be half as good without him.
But this picture is of him as a player. And between the live playtime and post-session discussions of the most recent series I’ve watched, he has probably spent at least an hour with this specific expression on his face. It’s the kind of state I hope to experience as a reader and aspire to evoke as a writer, and don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone experience it for such a prolonged time before. I wish someone had stuck a bunch of electrodes on his head just so I watch the wild party going on inside that brain of his.
Now this particular scene occurred in the newest season of D20, Crown of Candy, Ravening War. But before I start singing praises for it, I need to provide some context. A lot of context.
It all starts with the original A Crown of Candy series, the fifth season of D20. Though it was quite a late entry into their line of shows, it was quite notable for a couple of reasons. One, it was, by far, the most serious and dark story they’d produced so far. It was essentially Game of Thrones, a ruthless and violent low fantasy story. Of course, this was a comedy show, so the setting was Candyland, so there would be assassination attempts and political wranglings and the like, but the characters would have heads of cake and wield weapons made of various types of food. It was a comedy of juxtaposition. Ultra-serious storytelling played out in the least serious setting possible.
The second notable quality, at least in my opinion, is that this series really showcased
Brennan’s epic fantasy leanings. The worldbuilding, again while completely based on food, was completed to a level that most finished novels never achieved. I could tell as they played, Brennan had put quite a lot of love and care into the world. Certainly, way more than I had expected for a comedy series, and what they had done in the past.
But this post is about the Ravening War, which is a prequel series
to the original A Crown of Candy. So if Brennan had DM’d the original, who was DMing for him now?
For those who don’t know, this is Matt Mercer. Some call him the GOAT DM (although I think Brennan is seriously giving him a run for his money) and he has been doing DnD livestreams for as long as I can remember. He was doing it before there was any money in it, and from what little I’ve looked into him it’s his life & passion. He’s damned good, he’s damned experienced, and he takes the fostering of the DnD community damned seriously, and that can’t be denied.
Fun fact about Matt, he’s also the guy that Brennan looked up to as an upcoming DM.
It’s hard to say exactly when Brennan and Matt first got to know each other, but in terms of D20, the first time the two played together was in a season even before Crown of Candy, Escape from Blood Keep. As a parody of LoTR, it was kinda the perfect setting for two fantasy lovers and DM’s to get to know each other. Matt had the fun job of playing a hapless Nazgul, and Brennan had the honor of DMing someone he greatly respected in a setting that was familiar to both of them.
Clearly, something clicked between the two, because Brennan was next invited to DM in Matt’s own world. And what a stellar debut it was. Critical Role EXU: Calamity (yet another prequel series, btw) might be the single greatest piece of DnD I’ve seen so far. All the players brought their A-game, the DM too, and the dice rolled just right to tell a perfect story. Brennan’s had to walk a tightrope of placing himself in Matt’s seat, Matt’s world, but still DM with his own flare. And he knocked it out of the park. An honor amongst honors, and no doubt a highlight in Brennan’s near-photographic memory.
I mean, anyone who watched it knows that 4-episode series is just pure magic. A confluence of excellence and chance that is the height of what any DM hopes for. And Matt was watching. They literally call him out in the post-series discussion. He saw that magic with his own damned eyes, and what DM wouldn’t want to gift it back?
So finally we land back in Crown of Candy. Ravening War, where Matt pulls all the stops to send it right back in Brennan’s face. And he succeeds marvelously. As a standalone piece, I won’t say the Ravening War is better than Calamity, but in terms of a single DM affecting a single player, I don’t think there’s anything else in this world that can compete. From scene one, Matt melds perfectly with the comedic angle of D20 (which is quite different from his own series) all while pulling hyperspecific references to the lore of Candia and Brennan’s own DMing choices. He opens in the exact same way Brennan did for Calamity, he makes Brennan murder a character he wrote the murder of himself, he builds on the world and lore of the world in such a fitting and unexpected way, and the way Brennan accidentally sets himself up for the twist at the end is just awesome.
Dnd is an art form of collaboration and trust, where both the DM and players have to work to build a singular story without always knowing what the other is doing. It’s a deeply social form of storytelling that relies on strong relationships. I think that’s probably why I enjoy watching DnD so much. As a writer, I’m isolated. Perhaps more so than most. So it’s such a joy to watch people come together and enjoy what I enjoy- to play and tell stories. And the more effort they put into it, whether it’s serious or silly, the better.
I’m glad I got to see this little arc in Brennan’s life. I think, even in people who pursue arts their whole life, something like this is rare. Like lightning on a clear day. And I think Brennan knows it. I mean, just look at that face.
There’s no way he doesn’t.
Last thing I wanted to add before I started listing links. I couldn’t quite fit it into the essay, but I thought it was so precious that I had to include it.
There’s this 2-hour video called Game Masters of Exandria Roundtable, where Matt, Brennan, and Aabria (another DM Matt invited to his kitchen) sit around, chat, and answer questions about their experiences DMing. It actually occurs before the Ravening War, but even at this point, you can already see the connection the three have as fellow DMs. In particular, I just love watching Matt’s face during this whole interview because there’s a good chunk of it where he looks like a mix between a kid that’s suddenly found his best friends and a parent that’s proud of his children.
It’s really cute stuff. Anyway, check out d20, critical role, or whatever other dnd show you like. I think live roleplay stuff is only going to get better and better, and we’re already getting some amazing stories.
Here are some links to make things easy: