Actual play experiences — video or audio performances featuring people playing tabletop role-playing games — are extremely popular right now. Look no further than the gang at Critical Role, a group of talented actors who have parlayed their private weekly game of Dungeons & Dragons into a multi-million-dollar entertainment machine. Now a new wave of performers is stepping forward, and arguably one of the most exciting new troupes is called Worlds Beyond Number.
Worlds Beyond Number launched in January, and its first official campaign — titled The Wizard, The Witch, & The Wild One — kicks off March 1 on podcast platforms everywhere. But less than one month after it went live, its recurring subscription joined the ranks of the the 20 most popular Patreon accounts in the world. Today, on the eve of its premiere, the program boasts more than 22,000 paying subscribers.
Why have so many people showed up to support this actual play? Because of the tremendous talents involved in its inception. Polygon sat down with inaugural game master Brennan Lee Mulligan (CollegeHumor, Dropout TV, Dimension 20), as well as players Erika Ishii (Apex Legends, Destiny 2), Aabria Iyengar (Critical Role: Exandria Unlimited, The Adventure Zone, Dimension 20, Kollok), and Lou Wilson (Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The King of Staten Island, Dimension 20) to talk about their plans.
Our interview has been lightly edited for readability.
Polygon: Y’all come from very successful, very interesting actual play experiences before this — including Critical Role and Dimension 20. Why are you coming together for this particular project? What are your goals for this project?
Brennan Lee Mulligan: I’ll field that… Aabria?
Aabria Iyengar: [Laughs] Impressive. I think this is just a group of friends. We sort of realized pretty early on that in order for us to have a good home game, we would have to make it work so we could all get together consistently — because everyone’s incredibly busy.
We’ve all played together, and in different permutations of the four of us, for so long that finally we were like, what if we sit down and — using a format that most of us don’t work in very often, podcasting — what if we told as much and as many stories as we wanted to? And so that’s kind of where we started.
We’re kicking off with forcing Brennan to be our first GM, but the goal was always that we would share the narrative load. So Brennan’s going first, and we will all be taking turns telling different kinds of stories ranging from epic to very silly, slapstick stuff. But yeah, it’s just us hanging out, doing what we like to do with our favorite people in the world.
Brennan, this is an awful lot of responsibility, though, kicking things off and really kind of setting the tone for this thing. What are the things that you’re calling on from your past — from your own body of work — and when you sit down to set this experience, what are you drawing from and what will it be?
Mulligan: I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons since I was 10 years old. I ran a campaign from first to 20th level from the age of 11 to 17, and got to live out the bizarre experience of being a 17-year-old bound by the creative choices of an 11-year-old. City full of dragons? That doesn’t make sense!
Ishii: Who runs the banks?
Mulligan: Is there, like, a dragon barista? How does this city work? And I ran another campaign, one with over 40 player characters, for five years from the age of 17 to 22. That was run at a summer camp, so it was West Marches-style. I’m still running a campaign and started when I was 21. I’m now 35, so now 14-year home game that has now just gotten to 20th level in 3.5 D&D.
So there’s a certain degree of long-form epic fantasy tabletop storytelling that I have been fortunate enough to run. Given that I grew up in tabletop worlds, I know how rare it is to have any game go regular; to actually continue to happen and not fizzle is a blessing. So I’ve been very, very fortunate to have had many of those games. […]
We talked a lot about our various influences, and there were a lot of touchstones that I think all of us shared. A huge one for us was the work of Hayao Miyazaki. I think everyone in our generation grew up [with that stuff]. I watched Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro. I watched those films countless times. I remember my godfather, Michael Kaluta, who was the illustrator for my mom, Elaine Lee, on their comic book projects, had the undubbed, unsubbed Japanese VHS recordings. I couldn’t speak English either, so it was totally fine. I was just like a lump. Great! Just have the kid watch this!
I would just watch them over and over and over again as a 2-year-old, being like, This is everything the doctor ordered. This is what a growin’ boy needs! So there’s a lot of that love letter in it. My mom is like a Celtic pagan scholar, and there’s a lot that idea of a world just filled with spirits and fairies, and a world with magic around every corner. So those are my influences.
However, the name of the campaign is The Wizard, The Witch, & The Wild One, so I think there’s a lot joy for me because this is such long-form storytelling that was a lot about building the world around the characters that our players wanted to be. So the influences of who the [player characters] wanted to be did a lot of the lifting. They were created in tandem. It was not like I came up with a finished world. It was us talking about what’s the world we all want to be in together. So the wizard, the witch, and the wild one, their DNA is everywhere throughout this world.
Ishii: Yeah, there’s definitely something to be said about Miyazaki’s universal storytelling that you don’t even need English, or any language for it. That resonated with all of us. But additionally, we went on a cabin retreat almost two years ago now, and we just put on a whiteboard things in stories that we liked.
It could be anything from a genre or a world mythology to “I like trains.” We had playlists that we shared, and childhood books. A lot of this first campaign — even though this world sprung from Brennan Lee Mulligan’s ginger head, it’s kind of a love letter to all of the things that we all loved [growing up].
I want to kind of go around the horn. Because I’m running the interview I get to start with my favorite, and that’s Lou. I have loved all of your work — especially in The Unsleeping City. It is very close to my heart and one of my favorite actual play experiences, hands down. Where did you find your character for this project? Who is that person, and how do they fit into this world that you’re creating together?
Lou Wilson: My character was born out of a long silence. [everyone laughs]
Mulligan: It was mythological!
Wilson: The first silence of the world went to the wild one. The first cacophony went to — No […] I don’t want to jump ahead of my friends talking about their characters, but there was a confidence with which the two of them came to the table, being I’m some version of this, that I was kind of like, Oh — I’m not there. And I remember we had been talking, and I had been throwing out ideas. I knew that I wanted to be connected to the spirit world. That was the thing that was the core. I knew I wanted that in the character, and I remember I had been kind of spinning my wheels and people had been bouncing questions off of me, and it wasn’t getting me where I wanted it to go.
I remember just pausing for, like, a good minute. And everyone’s just being very kind in letting me do this incredibly awkward thing, where I just didn’t talk and sat in comfort with them. And I feel like the first words out of my mouth, or some version of the first words out of my mouth, out of that silence was, I want to play a spirit who dreamed of being a knight. And then it kind of spun that into a sort of reverse isekai of a spirit who finds their way into the material world, and the land of mortals, and is trapped there. And so that’s the beginning of Eursulon’s journey, this falling into the human world and then struggling to find his way home.
I turn to you, Erika, and I see that you laughed the loudest during that. Who is your character, and how does it interact with Eursulon?
Ishii: First of all, I laugh the loudest at everything. [more laughing]
Iyengar: That doesn’t erase Charlie’s original point.
Ishii: I play Ame the witch. The thing that I wanted most from this campaign was to touch on some of the things that I want to see in storytelling, but that Dungeons & Dragons isn’t necessarily built for. Without spoiling too much of the story, or too much about the character: I think that [my character is built around the] idea of community and creating and helping grow and nurture — which is very integral to a lot of global stories about witches, and [also] in our touchstone of Miyazaki. Witches build, they create, they give gifts. Non-player characters are witches. Witches provide something for heroes and for adventurers, and then they stay where they are and they help their community and the adventures go on to grand tales. But what happens if a witch is taken from their home and has to be the adventurer? […]
Brennan and M Veselak [co-creator of Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast] custom-built me a [5th edition D&D] class of the witch that fucking rules! It’s so good, and it’s been professionally balanced, and it’s definitely tailored towards being able to hold its own [in combat] amongst other traditional classes, but also really dovetailing beautifully with our campaign and the ethos of what I was hoping for in this campaign, and [that] relies a lot on trust between a GM and their PCs.
Aabria, tell me about your character.
Iyengar: I think you’ve done a really nice gradient here for the world and for our characters, and if Lou’s wild one is the sort of isekai into this world, someone in the group had to play a representative of the world.
Wait, you’re the grounded one? [more laughter]
Iyengar: In the same way that Erika has a custom-built witch that does something that Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t necessarily care about all the time, in community and [being] grounded, I’m the one that is an existing class in D&D. The wizard is a representative of the stakes and the setting and the world, so it felt really good to develop the character. I came in with some strong energy like, Hey, that sounds like a very cool world, Brennan. I want to be exactly from it.
So when our characters all come together, theirs is the perspective that the audience will be looking through — primarily through Eursulon’s eyes — to discover the world at the same time that he does.
My character, Suvi, is just deeply entrenched in all of the political and socioeconomic things that make this world run. Suvi will sort of exist there within the group as, I know the world and am of the world. My magic is immediately understood [by the audience] and sort of is part of the makeup of the society, and it’s very nice that way because again, wizard is an existing D&D class.
Everyone’s arcs burn at different rates, though, even this early in the campaign. […] If you’ve ever seen visualizations of different time signatures where they all start off on the same beat, and then all the beats sort of like break, and it still sounds musical but the cadence changes and occasionally they’ll line up and hit again? We all start at different cadences, and Suvi starts off strong, because you need to understand something and have that grounded moment. So that’s kind of who I am there. Suvi is a wizard. And grounded. And generous.
You mentioned a retreat earlier where you did your prep work. A lot of Polygon readers are not going to be familiar with the concept of a session zero, or they may be familiar as it applies to a consumer campaign. But what did your session zero look like for the kind of professional work that you are doing?
For readers of Polygon who play tabletop games, they’ll know session zero as a way to kind of set expectations. And session zero has kind of become a byword for a very important process, which is safety tools. Lines and veils. X Card. Because tabletop games are extemporaneous, and improvised, how do we create moderation tools? Boundaries and communication tools? How do you moderate improvised content? It’s a really challenging thing to do, and there’s a lot of great safety tools for them. […] For us, as professionals, it would maybe be not as much the focus. […]
About the retreat, I was looking down because I found the pictures, so I do have them. I found them. [everyone cheers]
I’m so excited that I get to demand these now.
Mulligan: Yeah, incredible.
So we have… there’s little nicknames — Bella, 100 Jellyfish. We have a little whiteboard with categories that says “diegetic.” Those are all just words that we thought were cool for stories.
We talked about external things, of themes and genres we want to explore. We talked about you know, diegetic stuff like cultural world mythology, things that were touchstones. […] There’s just a huge underline on the word “taxonomy.” […] There’s one that’s a lot more informal, which is names and different epic storytelling: the keywords that we sort of wanted to double down on. And then there’s one picture of all four of us. Oh, that’s so sweet!
And then then it’s just the word “heist,” which — we haven’t done a heist yet, but we just liked the word.
Wilson: I do remember those!
Ishii: That was me!
Wilson: Erika was like, I want to go to a ball. I want a heist. I like trains. A masquerade and hedge mazes!
Mulligan: We have elements: Heist. Fancy gala. Espionage and politics. Betrayal. Romance. Corruption-slash-temptation. A named weapon? […] Prophecy. Arcane foci, parentheses mass produced?
So a session zero is [always about safety tools], but it’s also, I think, a tuning fork. It’s all of us taking our conductors’ batons out, and hitting the stand. […] What’s the story we want to tell? Because once we’re doing it, we’re going to be immersed. When we dive into the water, it’s going to be swim time. So, where do you want to go? Now that we’re up on the diving board, before we go in, where are we trying to get to? What route are we trying to take?
One of the things that you’re known for is the emphasis that your actual play work places on the mechanics of the game that you’re playing. So why are you using D&D, and what are you adding to traditional D&D, à la some of the things brought in on Dimension 20: Neverafter?
Mulligan: For this first campaign, it felt like a type of classic fantasy adventure, I think. There were a lot of elements of this that we were like, Yeah, this first one is going to be a saga. It’s going to go for a long time. It’s going to have characters that become more powerful over time. We want the distinction of different classes.
There’s a lot of mechanical things that Dungeons & Dragons does that make sense for the creative vision of this first campaign. I think that a lot of the homebrew that people are going to see is going to come in a lot more over the course of the campaign. Already, even just with the characters at zero and first level, there’s homebrewed magic items. There’s an entire new base class! It’s hard to homebrew something more substantive than an entire first-to-20th-level class, right? That’s the most core component of the game.
Ishii: But the thing is that, for Worlds Beyond Number writ large, we have always intended for it to be a storytelling hub. It’s not based around just Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe, in some way, might not even be based on traditional tabletop games. All of us just really wanted to tell stories together, and I’ve played Dungeons & Dragons since I was 14. But I think I’m correct in saying that Aabria and I have actually probably played more non-D&D than we have D&D.
Iyengar: Oh, 100%.
Ishii: And so, when each of us takes our turn behind screen, it could be in something that doesn’t even use dice. Our primary focus is just getting to weave narratives with each other. Dungeons & Dragons was [something where] we all have that background together. We’ve all gotten to play Dungeons & Dragons together, and it’s a beautiful system for creating the physics of a world in which we have the freedom to tell stories together. But really, we’re just kind of excited about saying words at each other.
We just have a few minutes left together, but you know I can’t let you go without talking about the the incredible success that you’ve all had on Patreon.
So many actual play experiences have come from a place of the private being made public; of people’s individual experiences being shared out of a want to share them with someone outside the group. You guys are coming from a slightly different place. This is consciously, almost, more of a commercial endeavor.
You are all creators, and you’re bringing people together through this unique kind of creator economy that we find ourselves in right now. How does it feel to have more than 20,000 people supporting you? And what is your responsibility to them going forward?
Ishii: Personally, my whole goal for this was to make our storytelling, as friends, sustainable. And somewhere in the back of my head, I was like, Look, all of us have been doing this publicly for years and this could be very successful. Truly, [within] 24 hours of the Patreon being launched, I was like, Oh, good! We can keep doing this for years! We can have our long-term home game for years! The fact that it really moved so many other people is… it’s just kind of wild to me.
Wilson: I agree. I think the experience so far has been profound. It’s exciting, because it means that this, the small flame that we all shared, that we brought together to create this fire, that we are now asking people to sit beside it with us — that that is something that people want. That that is a community that they want to be a part of, and that they want to help us build.
And so the fact that we’ve already hit 20,000 so quickly, I think, just makes me more excited. We’re recording today, and I can’t wait to get on the mics with these people and continue to tell these stories for our audience to get their input, their feedback, what they’re excited about, what they love, to let that inform our process, and for us to continue to grow with this community that is already so supportive and behind us.
Iyengar: I want to jump in a little bit about what we owe our audience, and what our relationship with them is. I think the moment you move into a space, and a setting, and a distribution mechanism that is new territory for us — We’re all on Twitch, and YouTube, all over the place — the moment you move to podcasts, you have to talk about what can be different. Who new can be reached?
We’ve heard from Brennan and Erika about being connected to D&D in their youth. I came to Dungeons & Dragons at a big age that I don’t want to share because everyone will know how incredibly old I am. But for me, the most exciting thing is now, as we tell the story, I have something that’s a little easier to consume that I can send to my cousin’s young children; to all the people who, like me, were never connected to D&D, were never connected to this kind of storytelling. Now they can connect with it in a new way.
I think […] the thing that I’m the most proud of being able to accomplish is being able to have a vector through which I can tell stories that are important and very dear to me. And so it feels like such a beautiful gift that I get to sit with my favorite storytellers in the whole world and tell stories that are meaningful to me and important to me, and that have maybe been overlooked by the broader strokes of fiction in the world, and build stories that I can I can give to people who look like me and say, Hey, fantasy is for you. Here’s an example. Meet The Wizard, the Witch, & The Wild One. Meet the next stories that we tell. It’s so consumable in this way!
So when we talk about the audience we’re making it for: of course, we’re deeply grateful and so excited that we get to share this with the friends that we’ve made along the way, but the prospect of the new people we’ll get to be able to reach with this is the thing that keeps me up at night in the best possible way.
Brennan. You gotta close it out, bud.
Mulligan: I can’t follow that! Charlie. Look, I’ll talk, but you gotta switch the order. Help me out. Put Aabria last. That’s the note to go out on! [laughter]
I love that you used the word responsibility. It’s mind boggling. I have long since passed the moment where I can hold my life in my head, right? I get to play D&D for my job, and it’s something that I hope everyone that consumes this content, everyone who listens to this podcast, knows that that is possible because of their support. And it’s a life that I will never be able to say thank you enough for. And the responsibility is tremendous. I feel it every day. […]
The thing that’s so hard to hold in your mind is: This is independent. We’re a bunch of independent creators who came in to make this thing. It’s a home game. It’s this small thing. It’s the four of us. We’re all best pals. We’re playing a game together, and then 20,000 people roll up. The feeling of that is so enormous: our little campfire with our… 20,000 pals? And the mind can’t hold it.
Weirdly, I think that there’s a part of this, that the only way my mind can metabolize the kindness, generosity, meaningfulness, and support of everybody who joins our Patreon, of everybody who listens to the show, of everybody who makes fan art, who tweets about it, who shares it, just talks to a friend about it, is that I can just promise you — you reading this — that the weight of that kindness is felt by all of us, and it is my solemn vow to work as hard as I can and share as much joy as I can with these friends in this show to make that generosity of yours repaid, and to show you that we take it seriously. So I love the word responsibility. And I feel it very deeply.
I appreciate you all so much. I appreciate you taking the time today to get on the line to talk about this journey that you’re about to embark on, and I just more than anything wish you the best of luck. Go roll a bunch of 20s and break whatever Brennan is about to do. I can’t wait for it.
Mulligan: Charlie! Come on, man! Help me out!
It is what it is.
Wilson: It is what it is.