Dungeons & Dragons—you’ve probably heard the name before, something mentioned in a TV show like Stranger Things or Community. But though many know the name, fewer actually know what exactly the game entails.
“Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game in which a group of friends sits around a table and steps into the shoes of heroes and adventurers in a fantasy world,” explains James Haeck, lead writer at D&D Beyond. “They explore ancient ruins, and battle monsters, and engage in improvisational play acting with their friends and their Dungeon Master, who acts as the storyteller and referee of the game.”
Once a geek culture cornerstone of the 80s, Dungeons & Dragons has recently experienced a significant cultural resurgence, in part due to the rise of podcasts, streaming, and online video. In what is now known as the actual-play genre, gaming creators around the world have begun both live-broadcasting and recording their own D&D games for, as Haeck describes, “other people to enjoy passively like one might listen to a radio drama or TV show.”
Haeck himself works with fellow creator Hannah Rose to produce the actual-play show Worlds Apart. With new episodes on their YouTube channel every other Monday, Worlds Apart follows six heroes in their quest to defeat a great evil plaguing their homeland. But soon, the group finds themselves split in half.
“The party of six is suddenly divided into two groups of three heroes each when the defeat of the villain causes a vortex to swallow one half of the party and transport them to a strange alternate dimension,” says Haeck, “where everything is at once similar and—”
“—terribly, horribly different,” adds Rose.
Rose, while working as co-producer, also plays Mara, one of the show’s six heroes left behind after the vortex. Other cast members include Cedric Reeve (playing the elf paladin Zephyr), Gwyn King (playing the tiefling warlock Astrid), Kiku Hughes (playing the human rogue Tykko), Jenna McElroy (playing the half-orc cleric Aserannon Etainsdóttir), and Cat X. Lu (playing the tiefling bard Crown-Glory Fortune Hallelujah, or Crownah for short). Haeck serves as the Dungeon Master, guiding the two groups of heroes through both the “Light World” of Auredane and the “Dark World” of Tenebrae—both original settings designed for this show.
When developing Worlds Apart, the cast took great care to cultivate a diverse and inclusive fictional environment for their characters to interact with. “I think people appreciate content that’s not just nodding to diversity within the fiction, but is created by people who understand what it’s like to be seen as ‘diverse’ when you’re just being yourself,” says Hughes.
“Since Worlds Apart is a space for us to have fun and express ourselves,” continues Rose, “part of that expression involves drawing on our own varied backgrounds and experiences and making things that are important to us—like diversity in fantasy settings—a priority.” (You can read more about how Haeck and Rose approached these issues in our extended interview.)
“I think the setting and the premise [of the show] are both super unique,” says McElroy. “Any plotline that revolves around a reunion as its crux has always drawn me in as a consumer of media, so to be able to play in that kind of space is very exciting. We also spent a whole year refining not only the world, but our characters and their exact ties and stakes within the group.”
And that group interplay, both between characters and between players, often forms a large part of the reasons why these actual-play shows become so successful. “People stay because of how wildly charismatic and hilarious we all are, and how much we crack each other up over our relentless insanity,” jokes Lu.
“I like being able to have fun with my friends,” adds King, “and share some of that joy and laughter with lots of people!”
You can catch up with all the previous episodes of Worlds Apart on their YouTube channel. And, if you’re waiting for the newest episode to air, you can find them on Twitter at @WorldsApartShow and also check out their Patreon!