Many fans of Critical Role are likely familiar with Brennan Lee Mulligan’s work as game master for Dropout’s TTRPG actual play series size 20. For others, the brand-new Critical Role miniseries Exandria Unlimited: Calamity will be their first time seeing Mulligan in action behind the Dungeon Master’s screen. Polygon recently sat down with the writer, world-builder, and forever-GM. Thegoal? To learn more about what we can expect from the four-episode campaign premiering on Thursday, and to acquaint readers with the personality entrusted with one of Exandria’s most legendary events.
Mulligan is a Dungeons & Dragons lifer, crediting his early years as a GM as well as time at live-action role-play camp for developing his improvisation skills, which led him to Upright Citizens Brigade and later CollegeHumor. He it was there, writing for the game show um actually, where Mulligan first met Matthew Mercer. “I wrote a big question where [players had to] Notice all the rule breaks in a couple comic panels of a D&D game. Matt found some that I had not even accounted for. It was like watching a bald eagle take wing and go into the sky,” he beams.
In 2018, Mulligan debuted as GM for CollegeHumor and Dropout’s current play series, size 20, which he’s helmed ever since. The series features regulars Emily Axford, Ally Beardsley, Brian Murphy, Zac Oyama, Siobhan Thompson, and Lou Wilson, as well as side quests with rotating GMs and casts including Aabria Iyengar and Erika Ishii. As a serialized show, size 20 takes viewers through imaginative worlds dreamed up by Mulligan and his players — from the John Hughes-inspired coming-of-age of Fantasy High to a Candy Land that would make George RR Martin proud in A Crown of Candy. He’s an expert world-builder, creating deep and textured settings that feel lived-in and distinct.
On screen, Mulligan’s approach to GMing leans heavily into player and viewer transparency. One of the highlights of size 20 that sets it apart from other series is the “Box Of Doom,” a dice tray mounted with a camera, which is used for crucial die rolls by both players and the GM. He’s also not afraid to name a Difficulty Class — the target number players must meet or exceed with their roll — when a player character would know immediately in-game whether they’ve succeeded or failed. “I think it builds trust. It heightens drama in a lot of instances, and the dice can be your bad cop, delivering bad news for you,” he says. “It’s a shared moment at the table. As someone who’s been a GM a lot, I relish moments where I can be on the same side of a surprise as my players.”
size 20 just wrapped its 13th season, A Starstruck Odysseywhich, like Calamity, involves Mulligan stepping into an established setting: the Starstruck universe created by Mulligan’s mother, Elaine Lee, and artist Michael Kaluta. “The tone of these two things going back to back couldn’t be more different,” he says. “A Starstruck Odyssey is like bozos in space: hot suns, hot guns. Truly the most shenanigans-heavy season we’ve ever done. Coming into Calamity, this is a capital-T tragedy. However, the commonality there was wanting to honor something.”
Exandria’s expansiveness has been developing across seven years of campaigns, animated shows, comic books, and novels, a daunting task for anyone to step into. “If you stacked up all nine Star Wars movies, that’s about a month and a half of Critical Role. Exandria is so rich, engaging, beautiful and it’s had so much love poured into it,” he elaborates on the tall order ahead of him. “There’s this potluck mentality of, What is it I can bring that we haven’t gotten to do here yet?”
Mulligan credits the creative team at Critical Role, including creative director Marisha Ray, lore keeper Dani Carr, and producer Kyle Shire for supporting his vision. “I really could not have been set up for more success from the creative side of the team,” he says. “Matt [was] incredibly gracious in terms of helping define this time period.”
He says the challenge in setting the tone for the show was amplified by it taking place in an otherwise unexplored era, needing to feel like the ancient past while still modern for its player characters. “There’s that Arthur C. Clarke quote about magic and technology at a certain point being indistinguishable from each other,” he says. “Without giving spoilers, people will see some similarities that exist between our world and the Age of Arcanum in terms of an accessibility of magic that is so promulgated that it just sees into the workings of everyday life in a way that is not present in current day Exandria. That is something that was truly lost.”
Mulligan also credits the show’s cast — Luis Carazo, Aabria Iyengar, Marisha Ray, Sam Riegel, Travis Willingham, and Lou Wilson — with their deep commitment to the tragedy and finding moments of levity in that of loss. “It’s like that old Ginger Rogers quote. All of those six people are playing a D&D campaign backwards in high heels. They’re playing knowing that the calamity is coming, and the level of trust for me as a GM [and] for the other players at the table is just off the charts,” he grins. “I really can’t wait for people to see a master class in a type of D&D that nobody has practice playing. How many campaigns are you set to enact not only your own demise, but the demise of your civilization?”
Exandria Unlimited: Calamity airs Thursdays at 7 pm PDT on Twitch and YouTube starting May 26, with video-on-demand versions arriving Mondays on YouTube. Subscriptions are also available to receive that content faster. Critical Role’s Campaign 3 will resume on June 30. size 20 returns to Dropout with a new season on June 8, airing Wednesdays at 4 pm PDT on Dropout.tv.