While Critical Role is likely the first that many will think of when it comes to shows based on role-playing games, the world of Actual Play is practically an industry unto itself at this point. There isn’t a shortage of shows wherein players tell enthralling stories while rolling dice and having a good time, and the genre goes far beyond just Dungeons & Dragons. Using other TTRPG systems like Masks or Powered by the Apocalypse, there’s a show for just about anything, be it NeoScum’s cyberpunk world lifted from Shadowrun, or the Afro-futurism of Into the Motherlands.
Dropout’s Dimension 20 has become one of the bigger shows in the Actual Play space. Its debut season of “Fantasy High” starred a group of teenagers in a high school for adventurers, and following seasons have turned D20 into an anthology series featuring different settings, characters, and often different castmates. (Thus far, only “Fantasy High” and “The Unsleeping City,” about a group of heroes fighting supernatural forces in modern day New York, have gone longer than a single season.) The consistency with which Dimension 20 shakes things up has helped give it a different kind of longevity compared to some of its fellow Actual Play titans, and each season — including the current 12th season, A Starstruck Odyssey, set to wrap up next week — is able to feel like a natural part of the franchise while also its own distinct thing.
Starstruck brings back the Intrepid Heroes cast that first began the entire show with “Fantasy High”: players Lou Wilson, Zac Oyama, Siobahn Thompson, Ally Beardsley, Emily Axford, and Brian Murphy, led by original (and most frequent) game master, Brennan Lee Mulligan. Set in the same universe as the 1982 Starstruck comic book by Mulligan’s mother Elaine Lee and godfather Michael Kaluta, the season follows a team of would-be mercenaries trying to make a name for themselves in the galaxy. That ground floor pitch is admittedly nothing new; even if you take a certain group of a-holes out of the equation, the idea of a motley crew of misfits becoming heroes for hire is pretty old hat at this point. But it’s all about the execution and style, and as it approaches its endgame, Starstruck has made consistently clear that it’s got plenty of style to spare.
Several of the season’s best events are too good to spoil, but every episode has at least two moments of incredible, often hilarious roleplaying from the cast. Everyone is a delight, like Wilson’s Gunnie, a cyborg in a tragically hilarious amount of debt to the point that even breathing costs him money; ditto Thompson’s Riva, a psychic fish person caught in an MLM who tries selling sex jelly to anyone she meets. But it’s Oyama who ends up as the MVP of the season. His character Skip serves as the crew’s captain and has some truly bonkers moments that are all fantastic. Previous seasons saw Oyama play more relatively grounded characters, so it’s really something to watch him go all out and lose his mind in a way typically reserved for other actors like Axford or Beardsley.
Compared to earlier seasons, there’s a looser, more laid-back vibe to Starstruck as its heroes — they’re called “the Wurst,” because their spaceship is shaped like a hot dog — travel the galaxy and bumble from one misadventure to the next. The first episode opens with combat, and the cast rolls three Natural 1s (critical failures) in a row, which they react to with the same joyous glee they would when someone rolls a Natural 20 (critical success). By this point, half the fun comes from watching them bounce off each other and Mulligan, and the new setting encourages them to be a different brand of foolish and chaotic in a way that their previous seasons didn’t always allow. For fans who’ve been watching the Intrepid Heroes cast since “Fantasy,” it’s easy to see how far they’ve come in terms of playing their characters. Unlike previous Intrepid Heroes seasons, which all used D&D’s 5th edition, Starstruck instead uses Star Wars 5th Edition. That’s a bigger change than it sounds, and the expanded mechanics allow for a little more freedom in what the characters are capable of doing. There’s a fight a quarter into the season featuring Skip pulling off some wild feats of combat, and that kind of thinking and creativity makes up nearly all the encounters within Starstruck.
Not having read the source material, Mulligan’s done a good job of making the galaxy these characters live in feel big, but not overwhelming. His sense of humour and worldbuilding have always been two of D20’s key ingredients, and the same is true of Starstruck. The season-long plot eventually sees the Wurst crew stumble upon a centuries-old artefact they acquire during a job, and the reveal of the artefact’s true nature is an incredible troll move on Mulligan’s part. The gags and jokes won’t be for everyone, particularly in regards to Skip, but the chemistry of the cast is what keeps it from being too much. Similar to other ragtag groups, the Wurst crew have all been wronged or abandoned by the systems that keep their society running, such as the military or business corporations, and they’re all allowed to get some form of violent or hilarious payback. This season earns each of the character moments it shoots for, even if the path to getting there may sometimes feel a bit scattershot.
Starstruck’s blend of strange humour and character drama feels a little bit more reined in than some earlier seasons and not prone to bits that could admittedly go on a little longer than necessary. Some beats the season plays relatively straight, such as the arcs of Axford’s helper robot Sundry Sidney or, ironically, Beardsley’s gay girlboss Margaret Encino. But others, like everything tied up in Skip and Murphy’s super soldier clone Barry Syx, have stories that go in unexpected directions that don’t at all clash with the more straightforward stories of the other crew members. As is often the case with D20, the NPCs that Mulligan plays also help anchor the universe and help it feel more real, whether they’ve got actual plot relevance to the characters or are someone whose continued existence feels like he’s making up on the fly.
Similar to Star Trek, there’s a real sense that the Wurst crew and their actors are having the time of their lives. Whether they’re surviving a job by the skin of their teeth or hanging out with the inhabitants of whatever planet or space station they’re on, that joy is as infectious as a brain slug. Watching these people triumph, fail, and dick around has always made Dimension 20 so watchable, and Starstruck Odyssey takes all that fun to new, cosmic heights.
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