When not completing my directorial duties, I enjoy playing a bit of Dungeons & Dragons. The tabletop roleplaying game has become a large part of my life over the past year; I not only participate in games but also often watch others play via livestreams and recorded productions. I was lucky enough to chat with James Haeck and Hannah Rose, the producers of the D&D show Worlds Apart, for this special—extended—interview.
MAKENZIE DE ARMAS: You are both the producers of Worlds Apart, but you are also cast members as well, with James being the Dungeon Master and Hannah playing the character of Mara. What’s it like working in that dual role—does being a producer affect how you perform and play while you’re recording?
HANNAH ROSE: For me, the producer duties can definitely be all-consuming. They go together well in that I love working on this show, and a lot of the worldbuilding I’ve done for this show has specifically revolved around my character Mara—where she’s from and her history in this desert outside of the world’s main republic. But when I’m on camera, there are times where I have to make sure, once we sit down to film, that after I’ve made sure that the lights and the cameras and the microphones are all set up and everything, that I’m just there to play and separate that mindset.
JAMES HAECK: My role as a Dungeon Master and a producer actually in many ways combines two roles that I’m already familiar with. As a Dungeon Master, I’ve been doing this for many years now. I’ve been preparing stories and scenarios and characters for my players to experience in home unrecorded D&D games. The other aspect of producing that I engage in the most heavily is video editing. And while video editing is a completely new skill to me, my very first job in the Dungeons & Dragons arena was editing content—editing the written word—which has the same principles of taking a raw manuscript and turning it into something presentable.
Really, the thing that’s most new to me in making this show is all the stuff that Hannah was just talking about—the set-up, the teardown, the wrangling the people (though being a DM means a lot of wrangling of people). So I guess to sum it up, even though the specifics of them are all new to me, the broad strokes are things I’ve been practicing for a very long time.
MD: As you’ve been recording and interacting with this broadcast setup, have you noticed your mindset changing when you know that your performance will be shown to an audience rather than just your close-knit D&D group?
HR: I think we’re more conscious of the balance of goofing off and serious D&D. We’ve always talked about getting some combat and roleplay in every session, but that’s all just turned up a few notches when we know that we’re going to be putting it in front of other people.
JH: There are some pretty specific structural differences that alter player at home and playing at home for broader distribution. It really comes down to the size of the gaming table—how many people are playing at once. If we were playing at home with no cameras rolling, we would have me and our six players all at the same table together. But the entire conceit of Worlds Apart was splitting up to the group to make it easier to film and produce. When you only have three players and a DM, it really asks a lot more of the players to be “on” and to be engaged. In a six player group, you can be a bit of a wallflower and pick and choose your battles.
HR: We both have some theatre background, and one thing that comes up is that in theatre, listening and listening actively is so important. When you’re playing at home, you could be doodling or just looking at your character sheet or whatever, but when you’re being recorded, that kind of active listening to whoever’s talking is really important. Conversely, having only three players means that everyone gets a chance to be in the spotlight and to have great character moments in every episode. So we kind of wanted to get the best of both worlds with a large cast and a bunch of different characters but everyone having time.
MD: Bouncing off that idea of all that pre-production set-up, it was mentioned on Twitter that this was a year in the making. What was the pre-production for Worlds Apart like?
JH: It started out as me wanting to do a D&D show. I wanted to make something that other people could experience for themselves. I wanted to really show what my home game was like. And I broached the topic to my usual group of players, and they were all very excited. They started making characters, and I started making a setting for them. And that initial seed was the beginning of the year-long initial pre-production where people were working out what kind of stories they wanted to tell, what kind of character they wanted to tell it with, and so on.
It wasn’t until, I’d say about 8 months into it, when we really started ramping up our production to film. We started learning the skills we needed to learn to film and creating social media accounts, becoming active, getting cameras and microphones—
HR: Doing technical rehearsal set up.
JH: (laughs) I just thought of—the initial seed for this was not any of that. It was me down in the rec room of my dad’s house realizing, “Oh this would be such a great set up to record a D&D show in.” And I was really inspired by the location. And we’re not recording there at all, so that idea transcended the original seed! But now we’re recording out of our apartment’s living room, which somes with certain constraints and a little bit of stress of changing up the house every weekend to record. But it’s very nice to be able to have all of our equipment live with us.
HR: Is it though?
JH: Well…we will miss it when it’s gone, I suspect.
JH & HR: (laughs)
MD: Were there any unexpected challenges you faced falling into that producer role?
HR: The physical set up of filming is definitely a challenge—camera angles and all of that. There are just the logistical concerns.
JH: Our first episode was a big challenge to film because we had a full seven people at the table. It was like a thirteen-hour shoot that first day. And we got done with that and we were like, “Oh my God, is it gonna be like that the whole time?” And it wasn’t. Things definitely began to get easier as we split the cast in half and as we became more familiar with our set-up. Any other challenges of production sort of fall into the purview of marketing on social media, of me self-teaching myself how to video edit—
HR: —or buying James a new computer because we needed a more powerful computer to do the video editing.
JH: Yes, my computer struggled and complained underneath the weight of Adobe Premiere. But we’re really cooking along right now.
MD: Something that comes up a lot in the conversation about D&D’s importance is that idea of being able to find representation. I know the high fantasy genre has been plagued by a lot of prejudice and unsavory tropes. How do you as creators navigate those issues?
JH: The original setting for Worlds Apart has a very Mediterranean vibe. The idea of setting it as a republic was taken from the ideas of not only the Roman republic but also the Carthaginian republic. But there are kind of two fronts of the issue. There is the out-of-fiction front, in which having a cast that represents many different people and viewpoints is important. That’s why we have not just white dues, but women, people of color—
HR: LGBTQ, etcetera.
JH: We’ve got a lot of queer people in the cast, just because of who our friends are. So that’s one front, and we’re fortunate to just sort of have a diverse friend group on our own. The other front is in fiction.
HR: My character Mara is from a desert nomad tribe. So I have drawn a lot of real-world inspiration from various real-world nomadic tribes, especially from some North African ones—what do these tribes eat, what do they wear, what’s their daily lifestyle, how often do they move. And that’s been really fun for me to develop this fantasy mythology and culture, but I’ve also been very conscious of trying to have representation without appropriating a culture that is not mine or fetishizing it.
JH: And we can do our best by doing good research and being respectful in our portrayals. But a lot of it comes down to people telling us what they think. We listen to what people think and that’s the best way to handle this.
Another side of this is D&D’s bit of a problem with what I call “racial enclaves.” It dates back a little bit to Tolkien—all the elves live here, all the dwarves live here. And this comes from, I think, a mistaken medievalist belief that people just didn’t travel in the ancient world, that people just stuck to their homeland. But that’s simply not true! How would European royalty have the lion on their crest if no one traveled? There’s sort of a cultural amnesia here in the West about the diversity of the ancient world. And, especially in a setting inspired by the ancient republics of Rome and Carthage, not having a widely diverse landscape would simply be irresponsible. And so I wanted to take a bit of a sledgehammer to the idea of fantasy racial enclaves in this show.
In the main setting of the show, the republic of Auredane, there are six grand city-states that have sort of made a pact to work together. Because of that, there are a lot of roads, a lot of easy methods to travel, and so the main cities tend to be rather cosmopolitan. If you go to any one city, you’re just as likely to see humans of various skin tones, halflings, elves, dwarves, all of that sort of thing.
And there are some racial enclaves, to use that term. But I’ve taken great care to make sure that they’re motivated. For example, there is a city of tieflings (people with devilish heritage) who have very purposefully made this city for themselves to protect themselves from those who would wish to do them harm. And so you have that idea of, in big quote marks, “classic” fantasy still in the setting while also deconstructing and really analyzing the problems that that paradigm creates.
MD: What’s it’s like being able to take that personal creative passion for D&D and be able to transform it into professionally produced or published work?
JH: It’s great. Period.
JH & HR: (laughs)
JH: No, it’s really great, honestly. Being able to do what I love for work is fantastic. And being able to do it from home, do it with the degree of flexibility, is immensely freeing and creative and—
JH: Fun, yeah. It is not without its challenges. Learning how to set your own schedule, learning how to be your own hype person, learning how to set boundaries so that you don’t spend every waking hour working is immensely difficult. Dealing with frankly the low pay of the industry—it’s an entertainment industry, and most people don’t make a lot of money. I think I can say without exaggeration that most people in the industry are hobbyists, and only a fractional amount of people—and I include myself in that tiny fraction—are able to work full-time and make a living. And even fewer than that have health insurance. (laughs)
So I consider myself very fortunate. It’s a combination of hard work and dedication and a lot of luck that get people into a position like this. And really finding a work balance is difficult because if you burn yourself out on your work, when it’s also your forefront hobby, then you’re really in a tough spot.
HR: And if you burn yourself out on your forefront hobby, and then you can’t do work, that’s also really difficult.
JH: Yeah. It’s forced me, in recent months, when my work has been really strenuous, to find or resurrect other hobbies of mine and be able to take my mind off all things D&D. Because while I love it, I can’t dedicate my whole life to it. That’s not healthy.
HR: We’ve had to take time for ourselves for things that are just for fun—to spend time with our friends both in the cast and outside of the cast. Just hanging out and with each other and, yeah, trying to achieve balance.
If you haven’t yet, please check out our full article about Worlds Apart. A massive thank you to both James and Hannah for talking with me; you can find them both on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck and @wildrosemage respectively. Additionally, if you enjoy their work, you can support Worlds Apart via Patreon and catch new episodes every other Monday on YouTube.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.