When Dimension 20’s hit Dungeons & Dragons actual-play series, Fantasy High, first premiered in 2018, the medium itself was just starting to come into focus. A decade after Penny Arcade got things started with Acquisitions Incorporated, the format had three distinct expressions: livestreaming weekly content in the style of Critical Role, a regular drop of podcast episodes à la The Adventure Zone, or prerecorded, short-form, gimmick-forward productions like HarmonQuest. Others had tried to get traction with fickle audiences, but long-form, prerecorded tabletop role-play — akin to the more familiar mediums of TV and film — failed to make a lasting impact.
“It was all untested, right?” game master Brennan Lee Mulligan told Polygon in a recent interview. “Before, in freshman year [Fantasy High’s first season], you’re trying something new. Now we’re making a season of Internet Actual-Play Show Dimension 20. We walk into a dome that is bolted to the floor [rather than temporarily constructed] because Dimension 20 produces so many episodes a year that it has its own dedicated set at the Dropout studios.”
Fantasy High Junior Year is the third installment of the multifaceted coming-of-age story. It stars the Bad Kids — Emily Axford, Ally Beardsley, Brian Murphy, Zac Oyama, Siobhan Thompson, and Lou Wilson — chaotically discovering who they are and who they want to become. But it’s not just the characters that are coming of age. It’s also the medium of actual play itself. Junior Year celebrates what brought them all together, while understanding the future of this cast — and actual play more broadly — holds even more potential.
And for good reason. Each season of Fantasy High has marked a transition for the medium. That first season was, after all, Dimension 20’s debut. The second was their first, and so far only, attempt at a live season, which then had to go remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic — creating a template for the new generation of remotely recorded actual plays that began during the early months of COVID-19, many of which continue to this day. But this season seems to be pushing things even further. Series producer Carlos Luna boldly stated on social media that Junior Year “will go down as the best actual play season of all time.” While that claim has yet to be substantiated, following Burrow’s End, which pushed the medium forward through its use of puppetry, diegetic audio recordings, and complex set design, Junior Year seems to be a return to form — a form the team at Dropout has themselves created.
The first episode starts with a highly stylized riot grrl-esque intro sequence with new character art. The story proper begins in medias res, with a battle that continues an ongoing plotline from the previous season. In this way, Junior Year is an expression of gratitude to the fans for their support, as evidenced by the fact many new artists on the production team were previously fans of the show, including character artist Cait May and theme song writer and lead singer Sarah Barrios.
The cast returns to their familiar roles and dynamics, but with a clearer understanding of who they are (as characters and as actual-play performers). “The Intrepid Heroes, no one’s jumping on tables anymore, right?” said Mulligan about the core cast of Dimension 20. “We have stone-cold actual-play killers.”
While the performers on camera have a stronger grasp of what they can do within the medium, it’s the crew of Fantasy High Junior Year that’s showing off the lessons they’ve learned in the previous 20 seasons of the show — utilizing intricate projection art, Rick Perry and company’s elevated battle maps and minis, and a distinct, intentional post-production editing style. “The crew of technicians and producers and artists are the largest and most capable it has ever been,” said Mulligan of the 70-plus-person crew, among the largest in the medium.
When asked how his evolved understanding of actual play impacts how he creates a season of the show five years in, Mulligan said, “Weirdly a lot of my focus goes to protecting things from changing. [...] For me the challenge is about protecting a mission that has always stayed the same, which is to play without reservation with people you love and try to say something that’s true.”
This essential truth is not just Mulligan’s approach to Fantasy High as a series, but to actual play as a continuation of an ancient human tradition. “Actual play is almost a return to something very primal: shared community storytelling. I stay very grounded in the fact that the format and the medium level up and change. But also, I try to find the commonality in actual play to comic books, to movies, to TV, to being at a fire with your friend telling a story. I don’t know that I’m that different from some old Nordic scald going, Hark and listen! This is kind of beautiful to me, the passing of the torch through these storytelling traditions.”
Though Fantasy High Junior Year is the latest season of Dimension 20, it is by no means the ultimate destination for the medium of actual play. Just like when they started in 2018, there are many different ways to run a game with the intent to share it with an audience. Above all, Mulligan said it’s important to keep new artists with new experiences and backgrounds flowing in — whether they’re intent on making a podcast, streaming to Twitch, or something else.
“I want as many people as possible to find a home in this medium,” Mulligan said. “I want voices that have not been heard to be heard. I want stories that have not been told to be told. All I want is for as many people that can be here to be here, because it’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Dimension 20: Fantasy High Junior Year premiered on Dropout.tv on Jan. 10 at 7 p.m. EST. Episodes air every Wednesday.