How Burrow’s End Fights Against The Constraints Of D&D’s Combat-Heavy System To Tell A Great Story Leave a comment

Burrow’s End is my favorite season of Dimension 20. Every season of Dropout’s tabletop role-playing show is consistently fantastic, dipping into multiple genres and TTRPG systems (though largely focusing on Dungeons & Dragons 5e) and featuring talented cast members and Game Masters from across the improv, acting, and tabletop industry. But Burrow’s End has been something special, delving into familiar mechanics and then sprinkling some inspiration from well-known books like Watership Down and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH to tell a gripping 10-episode story. The players (who are all role-playing as members of a family of stoats living in Eastern Europe during the ’80s) are regularly tempted with the power fantasy that’s central to D&D, knowing that succumbing to it could perpetuate the cyclical nature of the violence and fascism that pops up in our real world. Burrow’s End is horrifying at times, heartfelt at others, and it even makes room for humor, culminating in a story that will likely stick with you, as it has for me.

If you haven’t watched Burrow’s End, you absolutely should–especially if you also enjoyed GameSpot’s Game of the Year, Baldur’s Gate 3, which is an RPG built on the same Dungeons & Dragons 5e system. And once you do, come back here to read this interview with Burrow’s End game master Aabria Iyengar. We jump into so many spoilers, with the discussion delving into Burrow’s End’s narrative themes of exploitation and the constant escalation of its us-versus-them mentality, how undeath became a big part of the season’s story, what a Season 2 would look like, and everything to do with that absolutely bats**t final fight. So yeah, spoilers to follow. You’ve been warned.

GameSpot: I gotta know: Thematically and gameplay-wise, does Phoebe have lich energy?

Aabria Iyengar: Oh yeah. I don’t think there’s a direct one-to-one analog within D&D, but if we’re going to something close, it was definitely a very lich and shapeshiftery focus and not a thing that was easily explained. There’s a lot in the lore and magic of the world that is explainable by having human perspective on things, but then there’s also stuff that’s just magic. Some of that is just magic.

But yes, very lich-like, very parasitic. But distinct from the ways the chipmunks were taking over and puppeting the bear. The bear was always a bit of foreshadowing that idea of consuming and taking over and exploitation that got more and more personal as we went on. When we get to Phoebe, it’s just like, “Yeah, this is something that has fused, just in a way that we’ve never seen before.”

That bear battle map threw me for such a loop because I’m watching Burrow’s End Episode 2 and thinking, “This is really cool! This is awesome!” But I’ve watched you for a long time and you so rarely break out the battle maps. I know you like to do a lot of theater of the mind, and so I’m looking at this very intricate battle map just in Episode 2 that’s a hollowed-out bear piloted mech-style by infected chipmunks and I’m wondering, “Okay, but why? What’s the purpose of this? Aabria would not break out a map just for the hell of creeping me out.”

There was a part of it that was like, “Okay, I want you guys to spend time inside it because I need you to remember it in that visceral way.” If this was theater of the mind and I just described that you run inside this bear, then everyone imagines it the way they want to and it doesn’t feel as real as remembering moving across dots inside a bear and encountering a group of animals that were living in the liver.

The hope was that intimacy of the battle map would carry over. So once you start to learn about what Phoebe is and what she’s capable of, your brain immediately jumps to, “Oh, I’ve seen something like this already.” And that’s my favorite thing about the [post-show] Adventuring Party. Other than having a space for my weird desire to defend the First Stoats’ philosophy.

That was funny. That was funny to watch.

There’s always that moment where you’re like, “I don’t even really believe what I’m saying, but I’m too high up on the soapbox to get down.”

Hey, I’m a DM, too. I get it. Sometimes you have to double down, if for no other reason than to see if you can corrupt any players to your side.

When we were able to jump immediately [into Adventuring Party] and everyone’s like, “Oh, is that what Phoebe’s doing?” as a game master, you’re like, “Great, it landed.” [The battle map] teed up the thing we were going to do and also just got to be really gross and fun. For my first battle maps in the [Dimension 20] Dome, I was like, “Let’s really go as hard as I’ve always wanted to.” And yeah, if you watched my first Dirty Laundry episode then you have a little bit of a background in this. So it did feel like a really fun and cool way to say, “Let’s get gross. Let’s get messy in the space. Get [production designer and creative producer] Rick Perry to stop tormenting me about using him to buy flowers across Southern California.” So it felt like the culmination of a lot of things I wanted to do. It was so good.

Alongside Iyengar, the cast of Burrow’s End features Brennan Lee Mulligan, Erika Ishii, Siobhan Thompson, Isabella Roland, Rashawn Nadine Scott, and Jasper William Cartwright.

Building off that, why undeath? There are so many ways for bad people to control others in D&D. You got Charm Person. You got Fear. You have Command. And yet you chose chipmunks piloting bears and a nasty stoat human puppeting AK-47-wielding zombie guys.

I wanted to deal with several kinds of compulsion. So we have Phoebe, and Phoebe raises [the humans], makes them undead. There’s something to me that’s so terrifying about the idea of “What if death isn’t the end?” I know that in a lot of horror, death is the worst thing that can happen. But it’s very fun living in the cosmology of D&D where gods exist–the afterlife is a known quantity and people come back on a regular basis. So I think there’s something so terrifying [in D&D] about the idea that rest is not guaranteed once your heart stops.

And let’s talk about that in player terms–there’s two things that bring you back from the dead. It tends to be love or revenge. So let’s talk about love and let’s talk about Tula and her love and her beauty, her obligation. But let’s also talk about revenge. Let’s talk about unfinished business and, even when you were down, being used for someone else’s greater purpose. And to me, that’s one of those things that absolutely terrifies me. I don’t mind coming back as a zombie if I’m in control of my body. But being brought back and puppeted by some crazy necromancer? I hate that, and now we’re going to play with that feeling, immediately.

In the final episode, you touch on that aspect of undeath and how it can rob some characters of being able to rest–the ultimate final act of losing agency over the life you should own. And I need to know why you approached such a topic when the life of the goodest of boys, Lukas, hung in the balance. Why did you tempt Brennen with the option? That man might have done it!

A little moment where I was like, “Oh, you’re doing this,” because there is that sense of “We did it, the danger has passed. The DM is going to clean us all up and we can get to our epilogue.” And there was just that little bit of like, “No, I’m not quite done yet.” There’s something in the theme around Tula and Ava’s desire to come back, the need to finish business. And the bigger theme of the season, this idea of the ever-continuing circle of us-versus-them. “Us” for this family when they come out of the Red Warren is just this family unit. But before it was the Red Warren and the “them” was the Lakura.

And then their circle gets a little bigger as they find Last Bast. And then after the change in power, as the First Stoats are destroyed, everyone [in Last Bast] becomes “us,” and the humans become “them.” And then we get to all those good things with the epilogues where the concept of “us” constantly expands out.

[But before that,] I want to make you play one more time, twist the knife one more time about here’s an opportunity for you to look at this child who’s done nothing but love and trust and try to help. And of course, the initial instinct is like, “Great, get him back up. We have the tools.” I power leveled them from [level] 4 to 10. They are all powerful enough to handle this relatively simple task. But the thing that brought [Tula and Ava] back, the thing that keeps you going, is there some part of you that makes you hesitate in the moment? Even if we know you’ll do the right thing in the end, I want everyone to feel inside of Tula one more time, the conflict of rest versus duty. And can you offer something to someone else that no one can offer you when you had to make your choice? And that feels beautiful and powerful. And we had one more chance to land it. So I was very grateful that my best little boy [Lukas] went down away from everyone.

There was no Lukas initially but they asked, “Who is in this room in daycare?” And I was like, “Lukas.” The [Lukas] mini [in the final battle] is from my birthday cupcake that they gave me because we were filming a day after my birthday. And he was just sitting behind the screen and a really nice reminder after filming. I was like, “Let’s just use him.” So it was very cute. I’m like, “Save my cupcake.”

Yeah and then “I’m going to put him specifically on the opposite side of the map from all of you.”

Crazy how life comes at you.

Burrow's End is the first Dimension 20 season where every player character is a part of the same family.
Burrow’s End is the first Dimension 20 season where every player character is a part of the same family.

Any chance for a Season 2? Burrow’s End concludes on this fascinating note where humans now go to Oxford and compete in the Olympics alongside sentient stoats, some of which have the capacity to wield a form of undeath that extends someone’s life by a significant amount. There’s a lot still there.

I think there is something, but this is a very genre-bendy story. So when we ask, “Is there room in the world for Season 2?” Yeah. “Is it going to feel like Burrow’s End?” No, because everything keeps getting bigger and bigger. It would just feel so different. Not in a bad way. I still think there’s a lot left but the stakes being a little more global and humans coming to the realization that these stoats can do things that humans actively cannot. So what do you do as you start to figure that out and deal with the stoats? Magic now exists in the world, but only these long little squirrels in Eastern Europe can do it. How do you re-understand our world?

I want Season 2 to be Rise of the Planet of the Apes style.


There’s this undercurrent to a lot of TTRPGs–and D&D 5e especially–where the protagonists traditionally solve their issues by fighting and sometimes killing enemies. At its core, D&D is a very might-makes-right system. With that in mind, and looking at the season as a whole, how much did D&D 5e inform the themes of personal power, conflicting ideologies, and control?

It definitely began with the story and the theme first. It started off as a very silly joke about–gosh, I think it was a photo shoot where we started talking about cyberpunk Watership Down, which was a very, very nebulous idea–and then I went home with it and I was like, “Hold on. It was a fun joke and a fun bit that we brought up and played around in but I do think that there’s something there. I don’t think it’s cyberpunk anymore. I don’t think that that fear associated with that setting makes the same sense now.” [Cyberpunk] is now a very fun vibe–the things we were afraid of and speaking to in the ’80s when cyberpunk was first introduced aren’t similar fears anymore.

But I think we have been circling societally around the fear of authoritarianism and asking, “What is fascism? Will I know it when I see it?” The definition is really hard to find. Systems of power and systems of control and what the idea of trading away amounts of your freedom for security and at what threshold that’s good and acceptable and what threshold that becomes a regime and something that you need to interact with. So there’s a lot of nebulousness built into this season where [the stoats] are like, “I don’t really know what’s going on. I don’t have stoat words for what the human arc of what happened to the world 20 years ago was. Every time I have it described to me, it is this big weird eldritch thing that is beyond my understanding.” So the struggle for understanding and what to do when there is not a clear right or wrong is a way for me to talk about the difficulty in D&D.

D&D is great when you know exactly what the bad guy is. Here’s my beautiful toolkit: always destroy it, one spell or one weapon hit at a time. But when you don’t know what you need to fight or how to go about figuring it out, then you start to get into some of the parts of what a battle-focused system will struggle to deal with or give you tools to deal with. So part of the fun of that was, again, power leveling. Every time they leveled up–and we never really called it out but you could see it when the character cards were updated–they were jumping up by two levels.

I just kept giving them bigger weapons, more magic. Starting off, their only class options were half-casters. It wasn’t until they reached the corium core inside of Reactor Charlie that they were allowed full caster classes. So I was like, “Great, now you have full magic and I’m still going to throw these weird situations at you.” Of course, the Phoebe monster was a clear person to fight but the battle itself was a little stranger. These are enemies, but they’re also technically terrain. It’s a little unclear about what you need do. But if I keep giving you bigger and bigger hammers, will you treat all of your problems as a nail? That’s the thing I wanted to play with within D&D. And I think we said some fun and interesting things about it.

Picking [D&D 5e] was definitely intentional. It was a chance to talk about what this system does, frankly, too well. D&D handles power really well, but it also teaches you to treat problems as fight triggers. So knowing that this table was brilliant, filled with wonderful storytellers, I knew I could keep handing them problems and ask, “Will you keep throwing punches at it?” And that’s why there were always alternate solutions to problems–again, the bear, and Tula, healing the disease in the bear instead of killing it. There were always alternate goals and other ways to go about solving these problems. It just so happens that D&D [as a system] and I were constantly reminding them, “You are stoats, you are predators. You are exploiters as a part of your nature. Will you do that again here?” It became a fun arc across the season.

Karate kid Jaysohn (played by Siobhan Thompson) was a highlight of the season.
Karate kid Jaysohn (played by Siobhan Thompson) was a highlight of the season.

I did suspect this would be the “I’ve chosen violence” Dimension 20 season for you. You did utilize some of D&D 5e for A Court of Fey & Flowers but it leaned much harder on the rules of Good Society. And before that, you used the Kids on Brooms system for Misfits & Magic. Both systems lean much harder into roleplay, not combat.

Oh 1000%. For A Court Of Fey & Flowers, the [D&D] fifth edition stuff that was tacked on, was tacked on just as a grounding moment for the table. “Hey, just remember you guys are essentially the fey that are sometimes in normal D&D campaigns.” Which is why we had BINX as a warlock patron. They all exist in the D&D world, just in the Feywild side of it. So they have access to that kit and have that common understanding, but the most interesting things they do will not be fighting. They’re all powerful. They can kick the teeth out of each other. But the thing that they actually care about is their relative standing in regards to one another. So D&D was just there, but was not the priority.

[For Burrow’s End,] it was fun to come in and be like, “If I’m going to run D&D, I want to say something about the system.” So let’s tell a story where you are playing with the edges of D&D.

I know this is always a little tricky for Game Masters to answer–because as opposed to other storytellers, you have very little control over what your protagonists do–but do you see a relationship between your own feelings about work and the meaning and purpose of protagonists in your game?

I love the phrase “fantasy of purpose.” I think there is always a drive to find meaning in things. And I know I’m not immune to it as a storyteller where you’re like, “Oh, it’s got to mean something personal.” Yeah, I think there’s always the ability to run a game that feels dissonant from what you are thinking and feeling in the moment. But I think I haven’t experienced a game lately that didn’t bypass a lot of structures and hit.

So I think there is always something about the family and priority and what you do with the unknown and how do you react. Those reactions to the unknown: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn. So even though they’re little stoats that do magic in a forest, it always does feel super personal. And that’s why, I don’t know, it becomes so easy and joyful to reach and play alongside everyone who’s like, “Yeah, as a DM, I am the world that you’re encountering and all of your bad guys.” But I do think that good DMs are also riding along. They’re riding in that little seat next to the motorcycle and playing your character along with you, especially in moments of informality. So I think all of that becomes harder if you don’t feel that resonance with your players and with your table in that way. So yes, absolutely.

This interview was edited for both brevity and readability.

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