The Importance of Diversity and Inclusion in Media: Dimension 20

Justin joins us to discuss how seamlessly Brennan Lee Mulligan and the cast of Dimension 20 weave Diversity and Inclusion into their storytelling and welcome everyone to the world of tabletop RPGs.

The actual-play Dungeons & Dragons series from Dropout, Dimension 20 consists of several campaigns run by dungeon master Brennan Lee Mulligan. These different campaigns, while run just like any other tabletop RPG, are steeped in worlds that have been elaborately crafted by Mulligan and his cast of intrepid heroes. One of the greatest strengths of Dimension 20’s campaigns is its particular attention to diversity and inclusion in its characters, story, and action.

Dungeons & Dragons has always been a game where players had a chance to portray characters that reminded them of themselves. As this game has been a product of its time, there is material published in the past that was not always sensitive to diversity and inclusion issues as we expect from our media today. However, work is underway by Dungeons & Dragons developer Wizards of the Coast to address many of these concerns as they update their various pieces of worldbuilding and player material. Despite this problematic content from the game’s past, the leeway that Dungeons & Dragons gives its players, particularly with the openness to homebrewing in the 5th edition, has allowed players and dungeon masters to create widely diverse gameplay if they so choose.

The main cast of Dimension 20 / Dropout

Brennan Lee Mulligan and the players in his campaigns have taken this ability to craft diverse and inclusive stories and made it a cornerstone of Dimension 20. With Dropout’s content in general, there is a clear dedication to organic inclusivity in their content creation; whether it is the contestants on Um, Actually… and Game Changer or the characters in their various sketch videos, Dropout’s inclusive nature really shines through. But with the wide variety of characters that Mulligan creates for his campaigns, Dimension 20 has become the gold standard for the streaming service.

The players of the various campaigns are themselves rather diverse, coming from a variety of backgrounds, and include a number of people of color and those of a wide spectrum of gender and sexual orientation. Ally Beardsley, for example, came out as non-binary after this series began, and the cast seamlessly switched pronouns when referring to Beardsley in a way that is confirming and normalizes gender diversity.

The characters played by members of the cast across multiple campaigns provide even greater diversity, and this particular eye on inclusivity has created a wealth of wonderful characters. These diverse characters including Beardsley’s Kristen Applebees from “Fantasy High”, Pete Conlan from “The Unsleeping City”, and Liam Wilhelmina from “A Crown of Candy”, who are a queer woman, a trans man dealing with addiction, and an asexual man, respectively. Similarly, there are Emily Axford’s Fig Faeth from “Fantasy High”, a bisexual tiefling woman; Zac Oyama’s Ricky Matsui from “The Unsleeping City”, a Japanese-American man; Siobhan Thompson’s Iga Lisowski from “The Unsleeping City”, a Polish immigrant, and Adaine Abernant from “Fantasy High”, who struggles with anxiety and panic attacks; and Lou Wilson’s biracial (black human/white elf) Fabian Seacaster from “Fantasy High” and Kingston Brown, a black man, in “The Unsleeping City”.

Ally Beardsley’s characters (L to R): Kristen Applebees, Pete Conlan, and Liam Wilhelmina / Dimension 20 on Dropout

Beyond the player characters, Mulligan’s world-crafting continues to open up these campaigns in a way that allows many to see themselves in these worlds. These characters include “Fantasy High”’s Ragh Barkrock, a gay half-orc whose character arc includes coming to terms with his sexuality; “Fantasy High”/“Pirates of Leviathan”’s Ayda Aguefort, an autistic woman, and Garthy O’Brien, an enby half-orc aasimar; JJ from “The Unsleeping City”, a Native American wizard who discovers magic through mathematics; and Nod, the ruler of the dream realm in “The Unsleeping City”, that is portrayed as agender.

This inclusion is increasingly visible throughout the seasons, and while occasionally a plot point arises from the diversity of the characters, this diversity is never presented in a way that feels like checking a box. The effect of this diversity and inclusion naturally existing in Dimension 20’s worlds means that many viewers are able to see themselves in the story. While magic and fantasy do not exist in our real world, this wide range of who someone is or could be does exist. As such, the prominence of these differences in the characters of Dimension 20’s campaigns leads to an inviting show for all.

Studies have shown the importance of diverse characters in media. For many, seeing stories about people like themselves is a critical way that they are able to connect to the world and those around them. However, many shows, movies, and videos often present diverse content in a way that is either stereotypical, based in trauma, or the pain of these people. Even in today’s world, where the push for diverse media is at one of its strongest moments, a lot of content continues to portray these faulted or pained depictions of minorities. Mulligan’s worldbuilding and the decisions of the players in his campaigns are done in such a thoughtful way, that they are able to largely avoid these pitfalls. Certainly, no media is perfect, Dimension 20 included, but these campaigns provide a lot of great examples of what our media can be, all while being largely improvised by Mulligan and the cast.

Ayda Aguefort and Garthy O’Brien, from the pirate city of Leviathan / Dimension 20 on Dropout

Even beyond the most recognizable forms of inclusion, Dimension 20’s attention to detail has led to important and timely stories, even in these magic-filled worlds. “The Unsleeping City” has one particular feature that shows how much effort is put into accurate depictions of real people in Mulligan’s campaigns: a homebrewed game mechanic to address two characters’ struggles with addiction. Ally Beadsley’s Pete Conlan and Emily Axford’s Sofia Lee both struggle with addiction in the first season of “The Unsleeping City”. Pete is addicted to narcotics and deals drugs as his source of income, while Sofia is an alcoholic dealing with the divorce from her husband, Dale (and, in fact, Sofia, who is classed as a Monk, relies so heavily on alcohol that her subclass was Way of the Drunken Master).

Through the inspiration, friendship, and grace provided by their new friends Kugrash, Kingston, Misty, and Ricky, both Pete and Sofia choose to address their addiction by the end of the first season. However, addiction does not end with sobriety, and both players created a list of triggers for the second season that required a roll to see if they would relapse. Which die was used (a d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, or d20) was based on the actions they have taken during the adventuring portions of the campaign; activities like going to a Narcotics/Alcoholics Anonymous meeting benefitted the player, while actions like interacting with portions of the world that related to their addiction harmed the player. This mechanic, created by Mulligan and the players with the assistance of addiction specialists, becomes an important way to show the role that Pete and Sofia’s addiction continues to have on their lives, even after being sober for a few years.

Media like Dimension 20 is a lot of fun. Watching a cast of incredible roleplayers taking their characters through Dungeons & Dragons campaigns is a hugely enjoyable experience. But the depth of the story and the world, and the diversity of the cast of characters we meet allows for an experience that is so much more than just fun. The story of these campaigns is joyful, important, and even heart-wrenching. But our deep connection to these stories is not due only to the great storytelling from Mulligan and his cast, but because we can see ourselves in their characters. Dimension 20 shows us a world of what is possible; all of us have the potential for great work and powerful feats, no matter who we are.

Several seasons of Dimension 20 are available for free on YouTube, while all seasons are available on CollegeHumor’s Dropout streaming service. The current campaign, “A Starstruck Odyssey”, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Mulligan’s mother Elaine Lee, is currently releasing episodes weekly on Dropout.

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