Dimension 20: A Crown of Candy Introduction With Brennan Lee Mulligan

Dimension 20: A Crown of Candy Introduction With Brennan Lee Mulligan
Image: Dimension 20.

Author's note: This interview was conducted in April 2020. It's been edited and republished.

A little over a month ago, on Feb. 20th, 2020, The Trailer for A Crown of Candy premiered on YouTube. At the time, I was waiting for a response from my best friend Brennan Lee Mulligan about doing a piece about Tiny Heist, which had just aired the finale during the preceding weekend. The wording of the email I sent Brennan after that trailer was something along the lines of, “Scratch that, can we do a piece about A Crown of Candy?”

Brennan Agreed, and in the midst of a global pandemic, we succeeded in scheduling an almost hour-long interview that dives deep into the lore of Calorum, the world Brennan will introduce to us on April 8th.

I hope you enjoy the interview and are as excited about A Crown of Candy as I am!

Before we dive into A Crown of Candy, people will read this interview and ask themselves, what is Dimension 20? Care to give them a little overview?

Absolutely. Dimension 20 is a Dungeons and Dragons actual play show produced by CollegeHumor and its streaming platform Dropout that features a group of seven friends and comedians playing D&D together.

It is an anthology series where we go to different worlds and play different characters. Some of those worlds we continue in future seasons, some we just do One-offs, occasionally we’ll even have little side quests where we get guest players to come in.

We’ve had guest players like Matt MercerErika Ishii, The McElroys, Amy Vorpahl, and Ify Nwadiwe. Our core cast is Brian MurphyAlly Beardsley, Lou Wilson, Emily AxfordSiobhan Thompson, and Zac Oyama. We’ve also had other CollegeHumor alums like Mike TrappRekha Shankar, Jess Ross, and Lily du play.

So we’ve had an incredible cast of performers and we do an actual play series with a lot of heart and a lot of humor. That’s sort of the tone we try to hit. Our first season was Fantasy High, which was like, what if John Hughes ran a game of D&D? It’s a high school for heroes in kind of an all American suburb. But Orcs, Goblins, Trolls, Dragons, Wizards, you know, also exist in the suburbs.

Our second season with the full core cast was the Unsleeping City, which was like a hidden, magical world inside of real New York City. Our side quests have been kind of a parody of the bad guys from Lord of the Rings in Escape from the Blood Keep, and a mash-up of Ocean’s Eleven meets the borrowers in Tiny Heist.

A Crown of Candy — our season that’s premiering on April 8th — is kind of, I think, maybe the most ambitious season we’ve done to date. It is a game of high medieval political intrigue and sinister warfare and plotting. It is Game of Thrones meets Candyland. That is A Crown of Candy.

Okay, let’s start from the beginning. Fantasy High was a John Hughes game of D&D, and The Unsleeping City was a modern magical New York City. What is this season’s general idea? How did it come to be?

So, Dimension 20 is produced by CollegeHumor and Dropout, which is a comedy brand. But it is also an actual play storytelling show, so we definitely have a backbone of drama and we try to create a plot that is a dramatic, surging, interesting narrative because the storytelling is gonna be so long — it’s 30 hours of content — so, you know, any comedy is going to need a gripping story to be able to hold your interest that long.

In the beginnings of Dimension 20, we saw that there were two ways to tackle doing D&D comedically. One way is to kind of like do it tongue in cheek or glibly and kind of like make fun of D&D while you’re playing it, which I think ends up getting really stale really fast.

The other way to do it is to commit really hard and seriously play an idea that is inherently funny. So, our idea when you design the worlds for Dimension 20 is if you design a world that is comedic inherently, you can make it funny by just committing to it.

So, a high school for heroes with these teen adventurers who need to do quests to get a good grade on their finals is an inherently funny idea. Which means that you don’t have to work that hard to find jokes. You can just play the truth of the character, and it will be funny the more you commit to the character’s point of view. For a group of seven improvisers, that’s always going to be an easier way to find comedy than having to pop the balloon of your own sense of reality all the time.

So with A Crown of Candy, it was just about finding something we were excited to play that would once again create comedic juxtaposition.

I think at the time we were coming up with A Crown of Candy, the finale of Game of Thrones already happened. And there was this funny thing where a lot of us had problems with the final season, as I think a lot of people did.

Game of Thrones also was this incredible force of pop culture for ten years. You know, it dominated conversations, there were watch parties at bars. And, you know, I was looking at Candyland, the board game, and I was thinking about like, oh, look at this little candy king and candy queen.

But whenever you look at history, kings and queens are not cute little innocent things. If you are a monarch, there’s probably a history of bloodshed and warfare. Nobody gets to wear a crown without either them or their patrilineal ancestors, having done some messed up things to get to that point.

Definitely! A Wikipedia Rabbit hole took me on a journey of messed up things in the English monarchy, so I get your meaning.

It’s really messed up. As someone who loves history, there’s this really wild thing where you go and look at these European nations during that time that was like, Arthurian legend and these medieval paintings of lords and ladies.

But then you look at it and it’s like the Crusades and just barbarism. It’s this weird thing where, I will say this as a matter of opinion for me, a lot of these nations during this medieval period and honestly, even in other time periods, too, that have been like, ‘we are the highest of civilization’, are usually accompanied by the most insane, barbaric violence of all time.

So you look at kings and queens dressed in their fripperies and finery and you’re like, these are dangerous, scary people, don’t get it twisted. So the idea of cute little cupcake people and gumdrop people, you know, these kings of candy and like sugar princesses and stuff like that, and then doing a Game of Thrones-style thing where it’s like, no, no, no, these are dangerous, scary people was like, oh, my God, simultaneously that is like a comedic juxtaposition, but there’s also something true about it, which is like the best kind of joke to tell. That’s what the inspiration for A Crown of Candy was.

In every season of Dimension 20 so far, I was inspired by and loved the beautifully crafted characters the cast members had made. What can we see this time around? What can you tell us about them?

So, our PCs this season are the Royal House of Rocks, which are the royal family of Candia. This season is set on a continent called Calorum, which is a giant landmass composed of six different food nations that are all based on the American official food pyramid. This old nutritional public service tool that separated food into grains, meat, vegetables, fruit, dairy, and candy.

In our world, Candia is the smallest nation. It is one of six nations that are all in this treaty together called the Concorde. The loose History of Calorum is that about 20 years ago, this thing happened called the ravening war, which is this huge war between all the nations that were eventually settled into this thing called the Pax Calorum, which resulted in the Concorde, where now all six nations are in this treaty where they all agree to be ruled by a concordant emperor who even though they’re an emperor, they’re almost like appointed or elected as a representative of one of the six nations.

So there’s kind of this uneasy peace between the six nations. Candia is the smallest of those nations, but was incredibly powerful due to the brilliance of their military leaders, due to their connection with magic where Candians kind of have this innate magic to them. They very powerfully have a lot of arcane power. So even though they’re small, they are very tough and potent.

And we follow their royal family that we’ll meet in the first episode. Working with our intrepid heroes — our wonderful six cast members — it was really funny because, in season one, they play a bunch of kids that meet on their first day of school and become best friends. Season two, they’re kind of a bunch of adults that all have their own baggage and are keeping secrets from each other.

In this one, they are playing a family and their man at arms. Like there are parent-child relationships and sibling relationships, and even like extended family relationships between PCs in this game, which is so, so exciting and cool to see played out.

So many things make sense right now in the trailer!

Exactly. This whole idea of a crown of candy is this very fun thing where, you know, one of the early decisions of like, do we want it to be just candy people? And very quickly, I was like, no, I want a more politically complex world. So we added in all the other food nations to make the politics of the land really as complex as possible. But we’re following this one family from this one nation.

Brennan, I have to say that Calorum and the game boards we saw in the trailer are stunning! (Shout out to Rick Perry who made them!) What can you tell us about this new world that awaits us?

Oh, man. So, I’m going to talk about two things. Number one, Rick Perry is our production designer. He’s our head artist. He has an incredible team of artisans he’s working with for many seasons. Nate Villareal is our head Mini’s painter. Sabrina Wishner is our head Set designer. We have Shane Brockway, who’s been helping for such a long time. Maxy is also a huge help on set.

When we did Unsleeping City, Rick and his team did an amazing job bringing this New York set to life and doing something that felt so real. And then with this one, it was so fun to watch the chains get taken off and go, we are in a candy world made of food where the buildings are food and people are food. And it was like taking the chains off and letting them off the leash like it was an acid trip blowout.

Rick and his team were so creative. It was breathtaking to watch them go into such overdrive in this fantastical setting. The colors are so vibrant. The work Rick and his team did, the only thing I can compare it to is like when I was a kid watching The Wizard of Oz and she steps out of her house into Munchkin Land and how hyper surreal and fantastical that is, is what Rick and his team did.

The second thing I’ll say is we have an incredible official character portrait artist this time who also constructed our map who is Samir Barrett. Samir is one of the most talented artists I’ve ever worked with. Incredible to work with such a cool guy, a golden-hearted dude. In addition to being an incredible artist who we actually discovered through doing Fan Art of the show, I have a fan art poster of his up in my apartment. That’s how we found out about him.

And then we were able to reach out and hire him, thankfully, because he does a lot of storyboard work and animation work for big animation companies. So we were lucky to be able to grab him. If you’re someone that hires animators and illustrators, boy, should you reach out and hire Samir Barrett. He’s awesome. And he’s on our portraits for this and nailed the tone and look and emotionality of the characters this season.

Well, we talked about how Game of Thrones was a bit of inspiration in the world-building process of this world in general and Candia in particular. The trailer gives off a Game of Thrones vibe but in a good way, not like season 8 way (don’t @ me). What else inspired the world-building of Calorum? Can you tell us a bit about the structure and monarchy of other places in this world?

Yes. I had a ton of fun with the world-building for Calorum. A Crown of Candy has the deepest world lore of any of the worlds we’ve played in thus far. it’s certainly the one I spent the most time on, You know, I need to come up with a couple of hundred years of history, to come up with languages and religions and royal houses and family mottos and yadda, yadda, yadda. Like a lot of stuff.

So obviously, Game of Thrones was a huge inspiration. I think the things that I did that departed from a Game of Thrones had to do with Religion. I love Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin is a genius. I think in Martin’s Westeros religion is something that is definitely present. But a lot of his priests, like the septons in his world, are kind of like advisers and stuff like that.

You know he has The Lady in Red — Melisandre — who is the biggest religious character, the biggest like mover and shaker, who’s religious, which is, I think, a very strange reading of the High Medieval period to me where the Catholic Church was the political institution of medieval Europe.

So there are a number of different religions present in the world of Calorum. They have a significant effect on the politics of Calorum. So religion is a big deal. We have a PC who is a chaplain and Primogen of the Bulbien Church. So we have somebody who is like an authority and administrative figure within this large church institution within Calorum.

We all, myself and a lot of our PCs, Ally Beardsley Especially, love philosophy and mythology. We love theology and cosmology. So we love to talk about the big questions of the world and how we feel about the world, spirituality, how the world works. That is very present in this season as well. But there’s also the presence of religion as a political institution, which has not always been present in the other seasons.

Other world-building stuff, I would say, is there’s a very different political structure to Calorum in terms of Supreme authority. In Westeros it’s like King’s Landing, there is the Iron Throne and the king or queen sits upon it. In this one, it’s resting on this thing called the Concorde, which makes everything a lot shakier because there was a voluntary treaty to end this war that all these nations entered into voluntarily.

So the emperor of Calorum is attached politically to this treaty rather than someone who is a descendant of someone that conquered everybody. So there’s an element to all of this of uneasiness based on the fact that this is held together, not with like a conquering emperor, but with like, a treaty, laws, agreements that were entered into.

Some of the nations have different ruling systems. Candia is a monarchy, Ceresia is ruled by a Senate, so Ceresia is a republic rather than being a monarchy. But it’s also a part of this six-nation compact. The Meat Lands are ruled by the warlord of the beef clans. So there’s like different structures in the way that these nations self-organize, which I think is also a little bit different from the more formal houses of Westeros.

So far, Dimension 20 has been a very inclusive show giving representation to many people from all walks of life. I’m sure this season won’t be any different. However, I’m curious about the process. Medieval times weren’t as inclusive as the 21st century, and I’m wondering if the team has given some thought on how to tackle this issue.

So in every season of the past many of Dimension 20 that we’ve done, we always hire sensitivity consultants to consult in the show in matters of race and ethnicity, in matters of sexual orientation, in matters of disability, all the kind of things that we can do to make the show as inclusive as possible. And we always include consultation from the sensitivity consultants as early in the process as possible because the show is improvised at the table.

We can’t do what like a screenwriter or novelist would do, which would be to submit a manuscript to a sensitivity reader or sensitivity consultant and then get notes back. So we need to be as prepared as possible when we go in to improvise with what we’re planning on doing. So the trick with A Crown of Candy was we have nations, we’re going into this medieval period that was extremely barbaric. How do we make it inclusive? There are themes that we want to include that have to do with, you know, betrayal, politics, and war.

And in those situations, you know, people do use differences of nations and xenophobia to whip up public feeling and animosity between nations. So that’s a part of politics, right? What I will say is there were a lot of interesting conversations in making sure that this show cleaved to Dimension 20’s desire and love for representation and inclusivity while also depicting a season that’s going to have a lot of bad guys in it.

One of the things that we decided really quickly was, you know, we always want a show that is really inclusive of race. And this was a very interesting season because we’re in a world where everybody is like gumdrops and Broccoli, you know. So it’s this world where ideas of race are bizarre because there’s a character who is the king’s right-hand man who’s just a slice of cake. So what race is that?

This period of time is kind of based historically on the same thing that Game of Thrones is based on, which is the War of the Roses, these like high medieval conflicts between England and France and this kind of European nations. Do we want to be inclusive of non-European countries at the risk of engaging in a stereotype about other nations?

Like if you include an East Asian nation, you know, you get into issues of like, well, what food are those characters made out of? And that can be something that can be very triggering for people and make them feel less included in the show.

And then if you had these nations that kind of have like national character to them, what is the character you give if you’re trying to base a nation on a non-European nation? There were a lot of consultations about it. And basically, what a lot of our sensitivity consultant came to was because you’re basing this on a historical period and basing it on this like dark ages or high medieval Catholic Church dominated Europe. There were people of color in Europe at that time and that often gets fully erased.

There’s a lot of great resources if you go online to find like medievalpoc is an awesome Tumblr about the presence of nonwhite people in medieval Europe that had been totally erased from history. So the decision we ended up making and we went and talked with Samir Barrett was, it is going to be okay for us to keep the architecture, the clothing design, keep those things in this like high medieval kind of candylandesque, you know, High Medieval Bavarian Gothic European place, but we’re not going to default our character art to being Eurocentric.

So if our people are made of candy and meat and vegetables and fruit, we don’t need to default to white features for those characters. We don’t need to default that, you know, when the characters are humanoid enough looking and they’re not like just an apple with legs and arms or whatever. You know, let’s not default to your European features for anybody, even though our architecture and military stylings are going to be kind of Eurocentric. So that was like a thing that took a bunch of awesome conversations about how to make the show as inclusive as possible.

And then there are some decisions we made about inclusivity where we just looked at like LGBT representation and we just went like, you know what, we’re gonna make this world just more inclusive of that. So, you know, there are same-sex relationships in the world. You know, different nations have different levels of feeling about those issues. But for the most part, we just said, like, we want to represent people on the LGBT spectrum in a more inclusive way than maybe the Middle Ages were at the time.

It’s very interesting because there are a lot of villainous forces this season. So there is definitely some bad eggs out there. But I think the main thing is that our heroes are extremely inclusive. So our PCs and Candia, in general, are immune to a lot of like forces of bigotry. And so hopefully anyone watching the show will find themselves included, at least in the arms of the heroes of the show.

Incredible! I remember seeing in the trailer a character who was like a bag of chips and I was like, “wait a minute…” can you explain that?

Yeah, 100 percent. So, to answer your question, certain food people in Calorum are born with a part of their body also being a container for the foods that they offer. So the bag is also a part of that character’s body. There is another character who is a living bottle of milk and the glass bottle is a part of her body as well.

I’m curious about how different groups of people live their lives in this world. What is the life experience of someone living in The Meat Lands as opposed to a person living in Vegetania?

The nations are very different from each other. The meat lands are modeled on like ancient Celts a little bit. The big struggle in the meat lands is that they have been converted to the Bulbien church the least. Their primal ancestral faith in the great beasts, which is a polytheistic belief in the great animals that make up meat, because one of the things about these food people is they don’t eat each other, but they do have an understanding that they are all food, even though there are no human beings walking around eating them. So that belief that they are food ends being a religious conviction.

So in the meat lands, this manifests in this belief in like if you’re a prime rib steak or you’re a hot dog, you still know that as a religious conviction that you are descended from the great cow or the great pig, even though you maybe never seen a real cow or a pig before.

Those meatlanders live in this stark, beautiful land of like bones and red fields of meat. They are like, you know, a proud, noble people. They’re kinda like the classic Barbarian Nation. They have a giant metropolis city called Karn, where Basham Yasa — who is the warlord of the beef clans — lives. The sort of meat lander vibe is like they don’t organize their armies as efficiently, but they’re kinda like the ancient Celts. So there’s like the Romans came in and like divided and conquered. But there’s this attitude of like, ‘one meatlander can defeat a hundred Ceresian soldiers’.

Vegetania is a land that is dominated by the fact that the religious capital of the continent is there. So Greenhold is the capital of King Cabbage, who’s the monarch. But BrightGarden is also in Vegetania, which is sort of like the Vatican. BrightGarden is the religious center. And it’s where the hierophant ranks of the Bulbien church reigns and holds sway over the Bulbien church throughout all the nations of Calorum.

The average day for someone living in the meat lands varies tremendously based on what meat clan you belong to. You could be living in Karn and be a meatlander scholar, or be a meatlander diplomat, or you could be living out in the fields and living out in the wild and be a raider or a scavenger or be a farmer. You know, be one of any number of meat landers.

For someone living in Vegetania you are probably a serf who is, you know, tilling the fields unless you are one of the many clergy members that live there, in which case you could be in BrightGarden having an incredibly detailed political life or one of any number of monks and abbots cloistered scholars, nuns, etc.

Fructera is a sort of almost like Renaissance Italy or like Spain, France. Fructera is fertile, has a lot of wealth, a lot of trade. It’s also where Comida, the capital of Calorum is.

Ceresia is the most populous land. It’s a republic, they’re very like Roman-like imperial vibe, but no emperor anymore.

The Dairy Islands are Sailors, they’re a very navel focused place. They’re kind of a smaller nation, honestly.

And then, Candia is this extremely small but extremely powerful, kind of rooted in magic, scholarship, wonder, there’s a lot more natural fantasy to Candia than there is to a lot of the other kingdoms.

And that can be something of an issue like this because the meatlanders are kind of like out and out pagans in a lot of ways. And the leadership of the meat lands subscribes to the Bulbien church. But like maybe in name only. With Candia they are a lot more devout, they do belong to the Bulbien church in Candia, although there are people that still practice the old ways there.

But the issue with Candia is there’s a lot of practicing magic there. And the official church doctrine is that arcane magic is a no go. So there’s a very interesting thing there, of like what flies in Candia versus what flies in the rest of the Concorde.

Incredible! I can’t wait to see this world in action! Now, you did tease us about character deaths in the fireside chat and I gotta ask about that. How much were the stakes raised this season?

We were modeling this off of this stark, dangerous, high and evil storytelling. Every season has the possibility of a player’s death. In seasons like Fantasy High, I construct challenges to kind of fit this awesome heroic high fantasy narrative, which was, you know, every fight is designed to be really challenging, but also to make the PCs look like badasses because that’s the type of story fantasy high is.

A Crown of Candy is a lot darker. I basically told the PCs these fights are not designed — not all of them —with fairness in mind. They are designed to be realistic to the challenges you find yourself in based on the choices you make.

I walked into this season being aware that this is going to be a very dangerous season. That doesn’t mean that I was going to ever bend or break the rules. I wasn’t gonna punish PCs, but I basically told them these fights will be designed to really take your choices into account and they will be designed to reflect the reality of the world of Calorum. These fights are not designed to be like cool set pieces.

The enemies or allies you make, the choices you make will result in these fights being realistic to the world, and cleaving to the tone of a lot of the source material of this type of storytelling, where like the good guys don’t always win. So as a result of that, unlike other seasons, we had secondary characters ready to go because we knew how much more lethal this season had the potential to be.

Truly, April 8th can’t come soon enough, Brennan. Let me ask you a fun one, too. If candy and food are now replacing nature aspects like trees and mountains, what do people eat in this world?

This is a great question. I love this. People eat the same things we eat. I do get why this would weird people out. But as an example, you and I as human beings in this real world are currently and I know this is gauche to say we are made of meat. And so whenever you’ve eaten a steak or a hamburger or a piece of chicken in your life, that is eating something that is made of fundamentally the same material as you.

So for someone made of candy, all that really happens is when they grow a peppermint tree, little peppermint fruits grow on it and they pick these peppermint fruits. If they have like a little marshmallow meat, like marshmallow peeps out in a field, they’d take that to the butcher or slaughter it, cut it up. That becomes a little candy steak for them.

So the way to think about it is, in the different nations plant material and animal material is made of candy or dairy or meat or vegetable or whatever. But it’s still fundamentally, you know, they get their food from the same places.

So like, even though you live in a gingerbread house, it would be weird for you to break off a piece of your own house and eat it even though it’s made of gingerbread. You would probably just go to a gingerbread farm and get some prepared foodstuffs there.

In Candia, I think the thing they drink most often is cola. That’s like the beverage they have the most there. But when you go to Fructera, it’s juice. So, the vibe is there are still kind of like agreed upon foodstuffs that are just made out of the natural material of those food nations.

Okay. So basically, If I can give a comparison to our world, you essentially took out protein and replaced it with candy for Candia and vegetables for Vegetania, etc.

Absolutely. And these nations also can eat each other’s foodstuff. It’s just about what is available in your nation where you’re growing it. When you go to Comida, where there’s a lot of trade, every day the feasts are incredible because they have meat, they have dairy, they have all this stuff. So it’s all groovy. But yes, absolutely.

Brennan, thank you so much for this interview. I can’t wait for April 8th! In the words of Ayda Aguefort: I love you, and you’re my best friend.

I love you, too, man. These questions are awesome. I’m truly, truly so appreciative, homie. Thank you so much.