Back when I was running the game for my local Dungeons & Dragons group, I would always pride myself on bringing something handmade each time we got together around the table. Maybe it was a leather-bound book filled with vintage David Sutherland illustrations of the Tomb of Horrors, or a 3D map of a few rooms from Castle Ravenloft with just the right assortment of miniatures from my collection. As a lifelong fan of D&D, Rick Perry knows that impulse well. But as production designer and creative producer on Dropout’s Dimension 20, he’s operating at a scale that’s on another level entirely.
Season 21 of Dimension 20, an actual play program on the streaming television service Dropout, will premiere on Jan. 10, 2024. It’s an incredible run that shows no sign of slowing down, and Perry’s work has been integral in its popularity. To celebrate his impact, Dropout has released a feature documentary titled The Legendary Rick Perry and the Art of Dimension 20. In advance of its release, Polygon sat down with the lifelong Texan, now a resident of Washington state, to discuss his work.
While world class Dungeon Masters like Brennan Lee Mulligan, Aabria Iyengar, Gabe Hicks, and Matthew Mercer lead each game at the start of each Dimension 20 season with a high-level creative direction, it’s up to Perry and his team of skilled artists to bring that vision to life in miniature on the table. That means creating hundreds of inch-tall figures from scratch using clay and sculpting tools; kitbashing dozens of scale models into fantastical landscapes to anchor the viewer in the world; and crafting dynamic, multi-tiered battle maps where skilled improv actors can chew up the set.
Just like the props you bring to your home games, it’s bait, really, that he willfully uses to draw players — and viewers — closer to the center of whatever complex story he’s trying to tell.
“Dimension 20 [requires] a massive amount of creative genesis to create a 20-episode series,” Perry said, “[one that] that takes place in a completely new world where we don’t know what color the sky is, or what food the people are eating. So there’s this massive amount of creative activity that has to start at the beginning of it, and that takes a big chunk of time.”
The documentary details how that creative work begins at his homestead on Lopez Island in San Juan County, Washington at an outdoor sink first cobbled together by his father-in-law in the 1970s. It then moves into a converted three-car garage that once held farming equipment, but is now filled with bins labeled for the miniatures they contain — a box of trolls here, bugbears in the corner. Only after weeks, sometimes months of effort on the farm with a whole team of designers do the larger pieces get crated up and shipped to Los Angeles. Often, Perry said, that’s where the real work begins.
The trick, he went on, is to stay nimble — even when you’re building maps for tabletop encounters that won’t happen for weeks.
“It’s part of the DNA of Dimension 20,” Perry said, “because at the very beginning when we decided we wanted these eight battle maps that are custom, that have this mix of say high school and fantasy, it’s not like something we can just crank out really fast. We need to know ahead of time in order to make skater dwarves, and all this sort of stuff.
“That means that we have to map all that out down to every detail — as much as we can,” Perry continued. That sort of on-rails gameplay is, unfortunately, anathema to modern role-play, which emphasizes creative freedom for the Dungeon Master as well as the players at the table. It’s always a challenge, Perry said, to keep things on track. But with a miniature set that, often times, costs just as much as a full-scale one, it’s up to everyone involved to keep the trains running on time.
“That tells the Dungeon Master that these are landmarks,” Perry said. “These [scenes that we are building] are places that you have to pilot the ship through these little hoops. We try to build in as much flexibility, as much opportunity for improvisation as possible, meaning that sometimes where a battle map falls, they could switch places or we could cut one. We try not to cut one because they cost money to make. And it’s a business venture, the show, and we want all that production value to appear on screen.”
The nearly 45-minute film goes even further in its exploration of Perry and his work, delving deep into his childhood and his time spent in college as a member of a troupe of performance artists. For fans of Dimension 20, it’s a rare behind-the-scenes look at how its particular brand of storytelling comes to life. But for artists, craftspeople, or even just casual hobbyists who paint miniatures on the weekend for fun, it’s the story of a kindred spirit who has found a vital, transformative role in the creative industry.
The Legendary Rick Perry and the Art of Dimension 20 is now streaming on Dropout.