It’s been a challenging month for Aabria Iyengar, possibly the most terminally online game master in the wild world of professional actual play. She’s appeared on just about every major show as either player or GM, but she’s returned most often to comedy platform Dropout’s anthology series Dimension 20, where she was the first-ever guest GM in 2021 and now leads the show’s landmark 20th season, Burrow’s End.
The trailer sparked both surprise and speculation among the show’s biggest fans. Familiar faces Brennan Lee Mulligan, Erika Ishii, Siobhan Thompson, and Isabella Roland welcome Rashawn Nadine Scott (also seen on Dropout’s Make Some Noise) and Jasper William Cartwright (Three Black Halflings) to the Dome. But the trailer contained not a single joke. Also, the cast is playing as an extended family of stoats, small mammals that most closely resemble weasels. And it’s all in the service of a game of… Dungeons & Dragons?
Polygon sat down with Iyengar for a conversation about the development of the season, when to lean into audience expectations versus thwarting them, why she chose D&D for this season in the first place, and how the first episode provided hints for only part of what comes next.
To start, one fan wish was granted: When Dimension 20 DM Brennan Lee Mulligan visited Critical Role to run Exandria Unlimited: Calamity, his opening word was the alarming “fire.” When Critical Role DM Matthew Mercer did a reciprocal guest turn for Dimension 20’s The Ravening War, his narration began with the word “water.” And now Iyengar, who played in both miniseries, takes her elemental turn to start with “earth.” But that, Iyengar says, was where fan service ended: “One audience expectation done, everything else: Just buckle the fuck up and you’re gonna have to trust us a little bit on this, because this one’s gonna feel different.”
And feeling “different” has absolutely been the goal since the beginning of development early this year. The show is most known for putting players with strong comedic and improv chops into games of D&D set in unexpected places, often with an underlying social commentary at its heart. Iyengar’s prior seasons didn’t focus on D&D, but instead used Kids on Brooms (Misfits and Magic) or foregrounded mechanics from Jane Austen-inspired Good Society (A Court of Fey and Flowers).
Some fans assumed that Burrow’s End would also use an indie system, given Iyengar as GM and the adorable furry characters. But while stoats are adorable, they’re also opportunistic predators that Iyengar notes “will pick a fight with something way bigger.” We find out very early in the episode that the titular burrow is a former rabbit warren — the prior generations of stoats didn’t create this space, they took it over. As Iyengar says to her players at one point late in the episode, “Rabbits burrow. You consume.”
And so while Iyengar draws inspiration from tales of vulnerable woodland creatures like the rabbits of Watership Down or the rats of The Secret of NIMH, systems like Wanderhome, Bunnies & Burrows, or The Warren did not fit with Iyengar’s goals for this season.
“Wanderhome is a beautiful story of animals in pants,” Iyengar says, noting, “Bunnies & Burrows wants you to try to skirt conflict.” Those systems assume you must avoid a fight, and that your characters aren’t interested in power.
Dungeons & Dragons was neither the default format nor a requirement. Instead, Iyengar says it was a strategic choice.
“I hope that my body of work is proof that I always want to pick the right story and the right mechanics for the story, and I mean that in every direction,” she says. “Yes, there are times where I have to run a certain game, because I’m doing a thing at a place where [my] job is to run this game, and then [to] form the story around it. When I have my druthers to pick exactly what I want, I will always pick the thing that serves the story best, and quite often that is not D&D. And very specifically in this game it was. And I hope people at the end of it understand and get why that choice was made.”
If folks have recommendations for better systems at the end of the season, Iyengar said she’s open to suggestions. But, for now at least, the die is cast. That’s because Iyengar’s work here is not designed to shape D&D to fit her story, but to highlight the violence inherent in that game — just as she and Mulligan currently do in the main campaign of their wildly popular actual play podcast Worlds Beyond Number.
“D&D tells a violent story because of its legacy of Western European wargaming,” Iyengar says. “That is the legacy of imperialism and extractivist exploration and violence. And that’s important and true.”
Iyengar hopes that, as the story unfolds, audiences will notice how mechanics become the vehicle for that violence — a place where players can decide to lean into it “or decide to be or do something different” in this story, which is a lot more political than it might seem at first glance.
While nominally a story about a singular family, it’s also about “in-groups and out-groups and how they change.” In the first scene, Iyengar tells Lila (Roland) and Jaysohn (Siobhan Thompson), “The most important thing you need to know is that Auntie Beatrix is not your aunt,” which Iyengar says was, as opening parts of seasons or episodes often are, very carefully phrased. From the start Iyengar thus sets us up to think about family beyond blood, the beauty — and burden — of motherhood, and, as Iyengar notes, the ways in which family units are historically defined and controlled by the state. And while Iyengar made it clear what she wanted to explore with this season, the players’ family unit came from their choices, not her demand.
“Without my direct expectation or prying,” Iyengar says, “they all got to a place where everyone was related, though not all by blood.”
The season also moves to find a middle ground between full “animals in pants” anthropomorphism (as seen in Dimension 20’s country house mystery Mice & Murder) and grappling with what it means to depict animals as animals, but with an element of human awareness. The stupendous stoats are somehow different from the other forest creatures fleeing on instinct. How different they are is yet to be seen.
But, as Iyengar notes with emphasis, there’s a lot that audiences don’t yet know about the twists and turns of this season, including her very first collaboration with the master of miniatures and battlemaps, Rick Perry, to secret influences that will emerge later in the season.
“It’s been so crazy to watch people try to figure out what’s going on and guess, and me just sitting there like, I know, you just gotta wait,” she says. “If you feel like you’re noticing something, it was probably on purpose. But if you think you can predict [what will come next], no.”
It’s a trust fall, but we’re in masterful hands.
Dimension 20’s Burrow’s End airs Wednesdays on Dropout.