Recovering legendary magic items, negotiating with world-shaking creatures that wield godlike powers, and facing the enormous apparatus of a wizarding empire. The team behind Worlds Beyond Number’s inaugural Dungeons & Dragons actual-play podcast, The Wizard, the Witch, and the Wild One, have seemingly done it all — and they’ve done it all while playing their characters at level 1. For producer and audio maestro Taylor Moore, it’s at times just a little bit more than he can believe. During the recording of an upcoming episode, Moore said, he literally ran from the sound booth to the door of the playspace during a break in the action.
“It was like in those disaster movies where a submarine is imploding,” Moore said. “They had been bottling up this energy watching those two goobers turn a conversation between a young woman and her mother figure — just a simple conversation about how they were feeling — into some of the most compelling audio that I’ve ever put through my earphones.”
Moore and the podcast’s stars (and co-owners) — Erika Ishii, Aabria Iyengar, Brennan Lee Mulligan, and Lou Wilson — are all veterans in the world of actual play. Moore first lent his talents to beloved podcasts Rude Tales of Magic, Fun City, and Oh These, Those Stars of Space. Mulligan has led Dimension 20 for five years with Wilson in the core cast, while Ishii and Iyengar have played everywhere from Critical Role to The Adventure Zone and beyond. But Worlds Beyond Number is the first project the team has owned outright. Combined with the indefinite length of the project, they’re freed from many of the limits of time and scope they often face — including how they play the game, and even where their characters begin the journey.
Because Worlds Beyond Number is played entirely in theater of the mind — as opposed to in a physical space, with miniatures on a map at the table — the cast can go anywhere and try anything. Rather than working from battle maps and graphics created by a production team ahead of time, Moore comes back around after the game has been played, adding lush, witty post-production sound, including composing original music that now in turn has inspired the players. “It’s like our recording is a bunch of words, and Taylor comes in with punctuation and frames it, and turns it into poetry,” said Iyengar.
They also have something that other actual-play troupes can only dream of — nearly unlimited time in-game. Their Patreon-exclusive Children’s Campaign took a unique path to character creation, playing eight episodes at what amounts to level 0 before reuniting as adults in the main campaign at first level — a level more than a few shows skip. For example, even Critical Role’s massive campaigns have never shown a character below level 2, and Dimension 20 started characters at level 1 in only 3 of its 20 seasons, leveling up within four episodes. In contrast, over the last seven months and 14 episodes, they’ve been playing at first level the whole time.
“It’s a testament to the group’s cohesion and Brennan’s world-building that it never felt bad or punitive to not have access to the wider range of skills and abilities that we know that we will inherit across the campaign,” Iyengar said. While leveling won’t go quite as slowly moving forward, the pace is deliberate.
“These characters are going to be 20th level within three to four years of playtime,” Mulligan said. “That’s so goofy. Imagine being an evil emperor, and it’s like, ‘Sire, a bunch of bumpkins are now the most powerful wizards on the planet.’ And you’re like, Where did they come from? ‘I don’t know. They killed a bunch of spiders in this neck of the woods, and three years later they can cast Wish.’”
Playing at extremely low level “really makes things feel high-stakes, and it also forces you to think on your feet as opposed to, you know, hitting something over and over,” Ishii said. “It’s the same feeling of, in the real world, having consequences for actions.” Indeed, consequences are built into their character’s custom Witch class, designed by Mazey Veselak, Brandes Stoddard, and Hannah Rose.
While describing their style as more “whimsical” than strictly naturalistic, it’s clear the team wants powers that feel plausible. For example, the characters discovered the magical sword Wavebreaker during the Children’s Campaign and recovered it as adults. It’s powerful, but Wilson emphasizes: “It’s not moving in tandem with our narrative. It is just an assist. A level 1 character with a +3 sword still can only take one hit. I can’t go running around imposing my will on our world yet. So I think it’s making for a really meaningful balance between narrative and mechanic play.”
Mulligan slyly added that readers might be familiar with “foundational texts within the fantasy genre where a low-level character receives an overpowered magic item” — which is to say The Lord of the Rings provides a bit of inspiration. But Tolkien is just a small note in their symphonic world-building that blends the folklore and mythos of two small islands — Ireland via Mulligan and Japan via Ishii and the team’s shared love of Miyazaki — and blends them into the small island of Akham. They may be “little guys,” as Ishii repeatedly dubbed them, but it’s going to be fun to watch them grow.
Worlds Beyond Number is available on podcast platforms everywhere. Season 2 began Oct. 24, with new episodes every other week.