This year, Brennan Lee Mulligan has been involved in some of Dungeons & Dragons’ most vivid experimentation real game, to direct a historical tragedy for Critical Role’s Exandria Unlimited: Calamity making a Byronic Bugbear for Dimension 20’s romantic comedy Fey Regency A court of fairies and flowers. As the year draws to a close, Mulligan tries his hand at horror with ever aftera 20-episode main campaign starring “Intrepid Heroes” Emily Axford, Ally Beardsley, Brian Murphy, Zac Oyama, Siobhan Thompson, and Lou Wilson.
On Wednesday, during a pre-recorded two-hour broadcast of the campaign’s third episode, the game went where the Intrepid Heroes had never gone before.
[Ed. note: This story contains spoilers for episode 3 of Dimension 20’s Neverafter. The video on demand of that episode is now available at Dropout.tv.]
The last episode of ever after ended with a series first: a total party kill. Speaking to Polygon earlier this week, Mulligan said he prepared for the possibility of a TPK, but didn’t expect it in the first fight of the season.
From the start, Mulligan said, ever after was designed to not only scare, but challenge its players – no small feat, considering this tabletop is a row of assassins from some of the best tabletop roleplayers and tacticians around. As Mulligan noted in an early episode of Adventure AcademyEmily Axford alone (Ylfa in ever after)” is one of the best D&D players in the world – endlessly creative, so much fun to play. She was also sent from hell to kill me. So, kind of, ever after is its chance to add both hardship and consequences for failure.
Mulligan’s goal, he said, was to “get an encounter that successfully sells to audiences the idea that you can make the 5th scary” – especially since after four years of playing together, “the Intrepid Heroes have gotten really good at designing characters”.
The first two episodes introduced a world shattered by the so-called Times of Shadow, where Timothy “Mother” Goose (Ally Beardsley) seeks to save his son Jack – and possibly the entire kingdom of Neverafter – by means of a magic book that he does not quite understand. This journey connects Timothy with a variety of fairy tale characters whose stories have all been disrupted at different points in their narrative: a lycanthropic Little Red Riding Hood (Axford), for example, is accompanied by a frog prince (Murphy) who was created human but now reverts to his aquatic form; the crooks Pinocchio (Wilson) and Puss in Boots (Oyama) ply their trade; meanwhile, Rosamund, a gently optimistic Sleeping Beauty (Thompson), is presented with brambles growing on every part of her body. It’s Bloody Bloody Stephen Sondheim (a beloved Non-player character already seen in The city that does not sleep) with corresponding content warnings.
By the end of the second episode, the newly formed group has learned two things: first, that their success depends on all of them surviving, and second, that the first clue to their quest lies in the Elegy Realm. They head into the Dark Woods with relative ease, as it is Rosamund’s favorite terrain. They reach a strangely abandoned village, which they slowly realize is the former home of Pinocchio’s warlock patron, stepmother, who ate his daughters before fleeing.
Even more disturbing are the inhabitants of the town: mice once transformed into humans by the whim of a fairy godmother, and whose reversion is tragically incomplete. Each is still able to speak, allowing them to recount the horrors of what happens when animals and objects are turned into people on a whim. At the end of the episode, the group plans their attack on the Fairy Godmother, splitting into Team Distraction and Team Extraction – the latter named for its goal of removing the shard pierced through the Fairy’s chest. .
Unfortunately for the Fairy Tale Heroes, the episode ends with a series of disastrous stealth throws, triggering an all-out fight in the third episode.
Along with the usual hazards of first-tier combat in D&D, Mulligan introduced new mechanics to make combat “always a scary proposition”. If a character loses more than half of their remaining hit points in a single attack, they are likely to become exhausted – an ongoing effect in the 5th edition D&D ruleset that stacks additional debuffs on fighters. To add “terrifying lethality”, critical hits also trigger a save which, on a miss, results in instant death. These rules apply to both enemies and player characters, which directly led to the first-ever all-out massacre in the series’ history – Mulligan’s first in over two decades of gameplay.
Prominent DMs tell Polygon that TPKs are surprisingly rare in the real game. Aabria Iyengar, for example, said she only knew one. B. Dave Walters, a notoriously tough DM, noted that they were surprisingly hard to pull off considering the amount of resurrection magic in vanilla D&D. They also risk being “massively unsatisfying” for players, he said.
Matthew Mercer, who experienced a near-TPK in streaming, notes that he only experienced one “true” TPK, prompted in large part by a desire to surprise his friends with monsters he thought were ” cool”. Looking back, he would have liked to wait until his players had reached an “appropriate level”. Another quasi-TPK closely resembled the situation in the Dome this week. Mercer said that during a private game, the group “dropped the logic of focusing on opponents and instead split their focus.” But these deaths served to move the narrative forward in an interesting direction. Mercer said the resulting shift in the campaign was “emotionally compelling.” Time will tell if it’s the same for our Intrepid Heroes.
Mulligan conceded that “this fight wasn’t fair”, but the TPK was neither planned nor inevitable. Their main opponent was a badly injured and nearly undead Fairy Godmother with low health, accompanied by a group of strange human item abominations to adjust the action economy for players. There were paths to victory: Mulligan noted that Axford’s plan to go straight for the Godmother shard, perhaps with Timothy casting Sleep, could have succeeded if stealth control from Pinocchio and Gerard n hadn’t been disastrous. And bad rolls (almost all death saves rolled a 3 on a 20-sided die) meant the window for victory was rapidly shrinking.
A common criticism of gender switching in a D&D game is to ask, “Well, why don’t you just play a game or system that is not high fantasy? Why not explore the 1920s in Call of Cthulhuor psychological horror in ten candles, or perhaps a modern tale set in one of Paradox’s Dark World settings? But this encounter was terrifying precisely because of the chilling way it deviated from logic, from the known rules of 5th edition D&D.
Mulligan insisted he was playing within the expectations of horror as a genre: “If we were doing high fantasy, I wouldn’t have created such a difficult encounter. But we are in a world of horror. I look at the public, I look at my players, I look at the team and I go, This is how heavy my thumb is. Here it is to scale, and we do it before the meet starts, so everyone can see.”
Lethality is nothing new in Dimension 20. In the game of thrones-inspired A candy crown, each player prepared a backup character, although only two were used. Mulligan wouldn’t tell Polygon if players were tasked with bringing a save this season, though he did observe that the reaction to TPK was different from situations where individual characters died. “In game of thrones, a lot of people die, but not everyone dies. So when you die you are like, Shit. I did not succeedas opposed to this, where it felt more like a shared feeling of, like, Damn! I can’t believe this happened.
Mulligan was tight-lipped about what might happen next, though the episode’s ending suggests he has contingencies up his sleeve, including mysterious red gems he’s handed out to his players. It’s been an exceptionally rich season in secrets, some of which Mulligan is hiding from his players – and the public. Whatever happens, there’s a lot more to look forward to this season, both narratively and visually: Mulligan singled out editors Tyler Schuelke and Jared Nunn for their praise in the improved post-production editing, adding, “There are upcoming developments later in the season all of these things play out.
To anyone who notes that Dimension 20 is upping their game, he says, “You don’t even know half of it.”
The next episode of Dimension 20’s ever after airs Wednesday, December 21 on Dropout.tv.