The team at Critical Role has delivered countless hours of essentially free entertainment. Millions have enjoyed their flagship show (also called Critical Role) as it is now deep into season three and a new coterie of colorful characters created by voice actors Laura Bailey, Travis Willingham, Sam Riegel, and Liam O’Brien, Ashley Johnson, and Marisha Ray. As the last two seasons have spun out, Critical Role created its own type of a spin-off, a Dungeons and Dragons-based role-playing show set in Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer’s self-created world of Exandria, but taking place in different timelines and run by different DMs. The first of which, Exandria Unlimited, was DM’d ably Aabria Iyengar featuring a whole new spin on the franchise.
Now, Critical Role goes deeper into the lore of the world of Exandria, mining the time famously referred to as “the Calamity” when gods warred, millions died and the world burned. This new series, Exandria Unlimited: Calamity, has Dimension 20’s Brennan Lee Mulligan serving as DM leading a cast featuring Marisha Ray, Sam Riegel, Travis Willingham, Aabria Iyengar, Lou Wilson, and Luis Carazo. We spoke with Mulligan to get his insights into the challenges of crafting a world (and backstory) already in progress and thoroughly delved before a large audience, the challenges of breathing life into this prequel, and what it was like working with the brain trust of Critical Role at large.
mxdwn: Is it daunting to step in to tell, and depending on how you look at it, create on the fly, the finality of a huge part of another creator’s story that’s been mostly hinted at in multitudes of hours of storytelling? Matthew Mercer’s DM’ing always hints at great mysteries lost in ashes or forgotten through time, but he also gives a sense that it’s not so much that he doesn’t know what happened, more so that the story/characters/players/world may just not know, or that they have not yet had a chance where they could learn it.
Brennan: The sense you get from Matt is absolutely correct: One of the joys of the Aeor arc from C2 was seeing exactly as you describe here, that Matt has this ancient time period rendered in crystalline detail even though the world of modern Exandria sees it shrouded in mystery. Matt couldn’t have been a better shepherd along that path, as well as Lore Keeper Dani Carr, in being able to take a time period that has existed only in legend, and render it in the minute, familiar detail that it would have held in its own time. Taking something like the Age of Arcanum, and remembering that people don’t experience their native time as legend or myth but as crisp reality, was a really captivating challenge that the source material made effortless.
mxdwn: How much time did you spend syncing up with Matthew as to what was okay to do and not to do as far as continuity is concerned? Were there any events, without spoiling anything particular of course, he needed you to not mess with or alter, and were there any particular things he wanted you to make sure you include?
Brennan: I had a frankly *terrifying* amount of support and enthusiasm from Matt and the gang. Believe me, as a highly rules-based person with a deep appreciation for the canon, I was usually the person in the room going “Am I messing anything up?? Does this all work?? I can change any of this!!!” Only to be met by enthusiastic smiles and exhortations to keep going. The most syncing up happened around history and cosmology, the gods and the nature of the cosmos were the places where the guidelines were clearest: As far as the world of mortals was concerned, there was a big blank piece of canvas in the ancient past that I was glowingly advised to run wild with.
mxdwn: I almost imagine moments on set where something that organically happens in Exandria Unlimited: Calamity may contradict something the viewers/Critters/fans have seen explained already and everything needs to stop to adjust so it doesn’t introduce continuity errors. Given the Mighty Nein explored at least what remains of Aeor at the end of Critical Role season 2, did you spend significant time studying the minutiae of what happened in that future part of the timeline?
Brennan: A thousand percent: the end of C2, in addition to being one of my favorite parts of Exandrian canon, was also a huge insight into this time period. While Aeor and Avalir differ in many ways, trying to match the tone of a civilization that views magic as technology (useful, ubiquitous, essential yet taken-for-granted), sees its position at the apex of history and cosmology, and feels as though it is collapsing under the weight of its own expansion, all of that was as much tonal information as it was logistical. I tried to make Avalir a complement to Aeor: Culturally distinct, yet cut from the exact same cloth of the Age.
mxdwn: And speaking of Aeor, and this may not be revealed intentionally until broadcast, but given the Mighty Nein’s adventure into Aeor and their discovery of what wrath the gods of the universe at that time inflicted upon the floating city, is Aeor going to be the centerpiece of this story? If not, why choose a location other than Aeor that the fans already have some familiarity with?
Brennan: For a bunch of reasons. More opportunities to inadvertently contradict canon due to Aeor’s pre-existing lore, and also out of respect for the incredible story Matt had already weaved there.
mxdwn: This story reminds me of the film Memento, in that the ending is essentially known from the first moment, but the story of how that happened is the real story we’re being told. There’s no mystery that it all ends badly, but how and why it did is the really exciting piece of the puzzle. Why did you (or Critical Role at large) choose a story that has such a finite endpoint? Do you wish that your experience with this universe could have gone longer than what this limited series would allow for?
Brennan: Finite endpoints are my bread and butter! The work I do on Dimension 20 has always had definitive endpoints, both from a production and storytelling point of view: A season begins with us already knowing how many episodes we have to tell our tale. Every person brings their unique skillsets to the table for the story that unfolds, and as a screenwriting student, I’m reminded of Robert McKee’s adage that “Stories are about their conclusions.” In the mathematics of Critical Role, the short length of ExU seasons is the constant, not the variable. The stories we choose therefore must adapt to that parameter, in other words, we didn’t choose a story with a finite endpoint, but rather the finite endpoint chose our story.
mxdwn: How tonally does Exandria Unlimited: Calamity differ from the main Critical Role show? A lot of this probably comes down to the chemistry of the players in any given group (and D&D, in general, has always been an environment that can be chaotic trying to keep a group of people focused on the same thing) but where does this one land on the spectrum? Exandria Unlimited (headed by Aabria) was for all of its violence, a pretty fun/funny/silly affair, whereas the Mighty Nein though certainly funny at many points, plunged into many personal storylines of extreme darkness.
Brennan: I think this table does a pretty good job of honoring both the tone of Exandria as a world and specifically the tone of a story that does not end like many traditional D&D campaigns.
mxdwn: Even though it’s not technically a part of the Exandria continuity, have there been any discussions on your character Brigidda from the Elden Ring One-Shot back to any more Critical Role stories?
Brennan: Not at all. I like to think, wherever she is, that Brigidda is with her wonderful boar Tasha, following the Prophetess on more adventures, biting monsters, and stacking horses with her amazing friends.