The best D&D actual-play series goes back to school for Fantasy High: Junior Year

It’s tough enough recapping your last game of Dungeons & Dragons—reminding the players where they are and what they’re doing in this castle anyway—when it’s only been a week since your last game. Actual-play series Dimension 20 is returning to its Fantasy High campaign for the first time since 2020.

Fantasy High is set in a typical Tolkienesque high fantasy world with elven forests and pirate islands, except for one corner of the map that’s inexplicably more like 20th century America. People there drive cars (powered by elementals), carry mobile phones (technically crystals), and send their kids to high school (where there are classes for barbarians and bards). It’s the creation of Brennan Lee Mulligan, the Dungeon Master who began Dimension 20 for what was then CollegeHumor—though as with every roleplaying game it’s a work of collaboration. His collaborators on Fantasy High are a group of players whose characters all met at school detention just like in The Breakfast Club.

(Image credit: Dropout)

Siobhan Thompson plays Adaine Abernant, who is the smart, posh kid in the group—the one who inevitably turns out to have terrible parents, as she would in a John Hughes movie. She’s also an elven wizard who is destined to become a prophet for her people, guiding them into the future. Sort of like if Molly Ringwald was expected to grow up and be Galadriel.

“One of the reasons that I created Adaine was so that I could be a fish out of water in American high schools and not know anything about how they work,” Thompson says, the sole English player in an all-American group. I sympathize. As an Australian, the fact the third year of high school is the one called “junior” threw me for a loop. I feel like the Tumblr post about freshmen and sophomores shouting WHY ARE THE MEN FRESH? “It’s very strange, but it’s normal to them,” Thompson continues. “I don’t know, what’s homecoming? They come home? I think it’s a football thing. I think it’s something to do with football. Seems very important. Very high stakes.”

A lot of the humor in Fantasy High comes from a clash between the ordinariness of suburban America being transplanted into a D&D world. The football team’s mascot is an owlbear, and the barbarian teacher’s entire job is telling teenagers to channel their rage. But it works even if you’re more unfamiliar with picket-fence Americana than you are with fantasy. “I think that that’s how they felt about Harry Potter,” Thompson says. “It’s always shocking to them to learn the things about Harry Potter that are just the normal English school system things.”

So how did everyone get back into the zone for Fantasy High: Junior Year? The cast played an unfilmed “session zero” as a warm-up, with a battle map that was much more low-key than normal. “We always do a session zero,” Thompson says. “That ended up mostly being me scrabbling with my cards while everybody else did really stupid bits.” This was around Easter last year, which Thompson recalls because they were eating Cadbury mini eggs at the time. “I don’t remember who started doing it, but somebody just started putting the mini eggs onto the map. Just to annoy Brennan, being like, ‘I gotta save this egg!’ and Brennan’s like, ‘That’s not what we’re doing.'”

Projection retrospection 

(Image credit: Dropout)

Have you played Baldur’s Gate 3?

“I have not. It seems a little homework-y for me, but I have considered playing it honestly to learn how to play classes that I haven’t played yet. It would be nice to play a druid or a cleric or a paladin, but it feels very intimidating. It’s just very different from what I’ve played. I’ve been thinking about diving into it just for those reasons, ‘I’ve played it in Baldur’s Gate, I know how the spell system works.’ Mostly I just play Fortnite, I play so much with my friends. All of the big games, I end up getting intimidated and then get busy and then three months later I’m like, ‘What do these buttons do? Where do I go in this map? I’ve completely forgotten everything.’ I have gotten 80% of the way through like five games this year.”

Dimension 20 is an anthology show, with different campaigns in different settings, sometimes with different players and different rulesets. Recently they’ve had Mentopolis, a film noir set inside someone’s mind using the Kids on Bikes RPG, followed by Burrow’s End, with guest DM Aabria Iyengar using D&D to run a campaign inspired by Watership Down and The Secret of NIMH where everyone played stoats.

To state the obvious, those are fairly different settings. To reinforce that the dome where Dimension 20 is filmed took on an even more active role. It’s often been lit differently to suit the mood, but in Mentopolis it displayed artwork representing events outside the mind, and in Burrow’s End it featured shadow-puppet backdrops illustrating stoat folklore. It’s a level of presentation you don’t normally get in actual-play, and it’s getting even slicker in Fantasy High: Junior Year. “There’s animations and stuff, and sound effects,” says Thompson, who was lucky enough to be a player in both Mentopolis and Burrow’s End. “It’s very fancy-shmancy, which is really fun for us. I don’t know, it really adds something to it when you’re sitting there and all of a sudden Brennan pushes his little button—things are happening behind you!”

(Image credit: Dropout)

Something else that elevates Dimension 20’s presentation is how detailed the battle map sets are. More than once players have fixated on some tiny element that was supposed to be irrelevant. Everyone gets bespoke miniatures for their characters too, and for their various animal companions like Adaine’s charming familiar, Bogariel Frogariel. “We don’t get to see any of the minis before we start, which is so fun,” Thompson says. “And we never know what the battle maps are gonna look like. It’s one of my favorite things about the show, they’re very good at keeping that under wraps and keeping it secret. There’s a whole little area right off camera that’s all curtained off with caution tape around it, a sign saying, ‘Do not let the cast in here!’ where they have that sort of staging platform. There’s a whole art room that’s also completely boarded-off: ‘Do not let anybody into this area!’ 

“It’s so fun getting to see somebody’s art for the first time, it’s very exciting to see it right in front of us. And then, well, you have 30 seconds to figure out what it is you’re gonna do. And the cameras are rolling, and here we go. Let’s go! It’s great. I love my job.”

New episodes of Fantasy High: Junior Year air Wednesdays on subscription service Dropout. The first two seasons are available on the Dimension 20 YouTube channel.

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