This year, Brennan Lee Mulligan has been involved with some of the most vivid experimentation in Dungeons & Dragons actual play, from helming a landmark tragedy for Critical Role’s Exandria Unlimited: Calamity to crafting a Byronic Bugbear for Dimension 20’s own Fey Regency rom-com A Court of Fey & Flowers. As the year closes, Mulligan is trying his hand at horror with Neverafter, a 20-episode main campaign with “Intrepid Heroes” Emily Axford, Ally Beardsley, Brian Murphy, Zac Oyama, Siobhan Thompson, and Lou Wilson.
On Wednesday, during a two-hour prerecorded broadcast of the campaign’s third episode, the game went where the Intrepid Heroes have 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 latest episode of Neverafter ended with a series first: a total party kill. Speaking with Polygon earlier this week, Mulligan said he had been prepared for the possibility of a TPK, but that he did not expect it in the season’s first fight.
From the outset, Mulligan said, Neverafter has been designed not just to scare, but to challenge its players — no mean feat, considering this table is a murderers’ row of some of the best role-players and tabletop tacticians around. As Mulligan noted in an early episode of Adventuring Academy, Emily Axford alone (Ylfa in Neverafter) “is one of the best D&D players in the world — endlessly creative, so fun to play with. She was also sent from hell to kill me.” So, in a way, Neverafter is his chance to add both difficulty and consequences for failure.
Mulligan’s goal, he said, was to “make an encounter that successfully sells the audience on the idea that you can make 5e scary” — especially since, after four years playing together, “the Intrepid Heroes have got really good at designing characters.”
TONIGHT!— Dimension 20 (@dimension20show) December 14, 2022
#Neverafter Ep. 3: "No Place For a Prince or Princess"
Launches at 7pm ET / 4pm PT on https://t.co/CEHkphFQzO (@dropout)
Featuring @BrennanLM, @eaxford, @agbeardsley, @chmurph, @zacoyama, @vornietom, and Lou Wilson#dimension20 pic.twitter.com/8I3TwixP7I
The first two episodes introduced a world shattered by the so-called Times of Shadow, where Timothy “Mother” Goose (Ally Beardsley) seeks to rescue his son Jack — and possibly the entire realm of Neverafter — by means of a magical book he does not wholly understand. That journey connects Timothy to a variety of fairy-tale characters whose stories have all been disrupted at different points in their telling: A lycanthropic Little Red Riding Hood (Axford), for instance, is accompanied by a Frog Prince (Murphy) who was made human but is now reverting to his aquatic form; con men Pinocchio (Wilson) and Puss in Boots (Oyama) ply their trade; meanwhile, Rosamund, a sweetly optimistic Sleeping Beauty (Thompson), is introduced with briars growing out of every part of her body. It’s Bloody Bloody Stephen Sondheim (a beloved non-player character previously seen in The Unsleeping City) with content warnings to match.
By the end of the second episode, the newly formed party has learned two things: first, that their success depends on all of them surviving, and second, that the first clue for their quest lies in the Kingdom of Elegy. They head into the dark woods with comparative ease, as it’s Rosamund’s favored terrain. They reach an eerily abandoned village, which they slowly realize is the former home of Pinocchio’s warlock patron, Stepmother, who has eaten her daughters before fleeing.
Even more disturbing are the town’s inhabitants: mice who were once turned into humans by the whim of a Fairy Godmother, and whose reversion is tragically incomplete. Each one is still able to speak, enabling them to recount the horrors of what happens when animals and objects are made into people on a whim. At the end of the episode, the party plans their attack on the Fairy Godmother, dividing into Team Distraction and Team Extraction — the latter named for their goal of removing the shard speared through the fairy’s chest.
Unfortunately for the Fairy Tale Heroes, the episode ends with a series of disastrous stealth rolls, triggering all-out combat in the third episode.
On top of the usual risks of first-level combat in D&D, Mulligan introduced new mechanics to make combat “always a frightening proposition.” If a character loses over half their remaining hit points in a single attack, it risks the character taking a level of exhaustion — an ongoing effect in the 5th edition D&D ruleset that piles additional debuffs onto combatants. To add “terrifying deadliness,” critical hits also trigger a save that, if failed, leads to instant death. These rules apply to both enemies as well as the player characters, which directly led to the first-ever total party kill in the history of the show — Mulligan’s first in more than two decades of play.
Prominent DMs tell Polygon that TPKs are surprisingly rare in actual play. Aabria Iyengar, for instance, said she has only ever experienced one. B. Dave Walters, a notoriously tough DM, noted that they’re surprisingly hard to pull off given the amount of resurrection magic in vanilla D&D. They also risk being “massively unfulfilling” for players, he said.
Matthew Mercer, who has experienced one near-TPK on stream, notes that he’s only experienced one “true” TPK, brought on largely by wanting to surprise his friends with monsters that he thought were “cool.” Looking back, he wishes he had waited until his players were an “appropriate level.” Another near-TPK closely resembled the situation in the Dome this week. Mercer said that during a private game, the party “abandoned the logic of focusing down opponents and instead divided their focus.” But those deaths served to move the narrative in an interesting direction. Mercer said that the resulting shift in the campaign was “emotionally fascinating.” Time will tell is the same holds true for our Intrepid Heroes.
Mulligan conceded that “this fight was not fair,” but the TPK was neither planned nor inevitable. Their main adversary was a gravely injured, near-undead Fairy Godmother with few hit points, accompanied by a pack of uncanny human-object abominations to adjust the action economy for the players. There were paths to victory: Mulligan noted that Axford’s plan to go directly for the Godmother’s shard, possibly with Timothy casting Sleep, could have succeeded had a stealth check by Pinocchio and Gerard not gone disastrously. And bad rolls (nearly every death save rolled a 3 on a 20-sided die) meant the window to victory narrowed fast.
A common critique of shifting the genres in a D&D game is to ask, “Well, why don’t you just play a game or a system that isn’t high fantasy?” Why not explore the 1920s in Call of Cthulhu, or psychological horror in Ten Candles, or perhaps a modern-day tale that takes place within one of the settings in Paradox’s World of Darkness? But this encounter was terrifying precisely because of how frighteningly it deviated from the logic, the known rules of 5th edition D&D.
Mulligan was insistent that he’s playing within the expectations of horror as a genre: “If we were doing high fantasy, I would not have created an encounter this challenging. But we’re in a horror world. I’m looking at the audience, looking at my players, looking at the crew, and going, Here’s how heavy my thumb is. Here it is on the scale, and we’re doing it before the encounter starts, for all to see.”
Lethality isn’t new to Dimension 20. In the Game of Thrones-inspired A Crown of Candy, every player prepared a backup character, though only two were ever used. Mulligan wouldn’t tell Polygon if the players had been instructed to bring a backup this season, though he did observe that the reaction to the TPK was different to situations where individual characters have died. “In Game of Thrones, a bunch of people die, but not everybody dies. So when you die you’re like, Fuck. I didn’t make it, as opposed to this, where it was more like a shared feeling of, like, Damn! I can’t believe it happened.”
Mulligan was tight-lipped about what might happen next, though the episode’s ending suggests he’s got some contingencies up his sleeve, including some mysterious red gems he’s been handing out to his players. This is a season unusually rich with secrets, including some that Mulligan is hiding from his players — and from the audience. 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 praise in the enhanced postproduction editing, adding, “There are developments coming later in the season that all of those things play into.”
To everyone who is noting that Dimension 20 is upping their game, he says, “You don’t even know the half of it.”
The next episode of Dimension 20’s Neverafter airs Wednesday, Dec. 21, on Dropout.tv.