Aabria Iyengar is a world-renowned dungeon master whose work includes Adventure Zone, Dimension 20, and Critical Role. Her most recent project is Dimension 20’s Burrow’s End, a D&D-inspired show that blends Watership Down with body horror. It’s currently streaming on Dropout.TV. We caught up with Aabria to find out more…
STARBURST: Where did the idea for Burrow’s End come from?
Aabria Iyengar: There was definitely a silly little joke that popped up when I was in a photo shoot about a cyberpunk Watership Down that I took home. It was like, hold on! I know we were doing a fun little bit, but I think there is actually something here.
Watership Down is that sort of fiction that we give to children to teach them about what it means to be human, and we can be sort of brutal and mystical in a way that we might find inappropriate for children. If you make it a cute little animal doing it, you can talk about deeper, sadder, scarier themes. And then, of course, cyberpunk is a genre that comes very much from the fears, economic and social, of Americans in the 1980s.
I’m a poli-sci [Political Sciences] major. So I was like, Oh, cool. I wanna talk about systems and societies. So Last Bast was always in the DNA very early on, and sort of the thing that was hidden from the audience, but also a little bit from the table, as we’re gonna talk about, the expanding world of us versus them. At the very heart of it, there’s a very silly joke.
There’s an old dystopian movie called Equilibrium, and they have Gun Kata, which is absolutely ridiculous. If you do this very precise mechanical spin around, no one can hit you with their bullets. I just couldn’t stop thinking about what if there was a rabbit kicking a full-size human gun, and then we called it Bun Kata. And truly, that’s the dumbest joke that was in my head the entire time as you were writing it, and nothing could have made me more delighted.
Like Bun-Fu from Frog God Game’s Bunnies and Burrows?
BunFu! Yes! When we first started planning this, I sat for a very long time with Bunnies and Burrows because it’s Watership Down inspired. The reason I moved away from it fairly quickly is that it has the right instinct. If you’re playing “we’re rabbits in a big scary world”, you mostly want to get away from danger, not encounter it. I want to play in a space where you do not fear danger. The power level in D&D will make you more and more equipped to take on bigger and bigger things.
Stoats are sort of famous for fighting animals and creatures that are bigger than them, they really do swing at big monsters. So Bunnies and Burrows is such a cool system, but it didn’t quite give me the juice “if you see a problem, fight it.”
What other works of fiction did you draw on for Burrow’s End?
Oh, yeah, the big ones. I think we mentioned Secret of NIMH up top. But as we get into it, it’s very Animal Farm and very 1984. And Attack on Titan was the secret at the end. That idea that humans are coming. And they’re this big, unknowable, unfightable monster that you’re just trying to survive incursions with. That gives way to spoilers for the first season of Attack on Titan.
Burrow’s End contains a surprising amount of body horror. As DM, what were your rules for body horror? Where did you set your limitations for your players?
We had safety tools in place just in case anyone started showing any visible signs of stress. But I think the biggest table moment was coming out of the gate in Episode Two with the bear map, the grossest thing I’ve ever envisioned and everything I’ve ever wanted. If you set the tone early, then yeah, your first fight is inside a living, dying creature.
I think this is something so fun about talking about what you fear, and I think there’s a fear of agency externally, which is how we got into some of the undead themes about being taken over and being piloted and puppeted, but also that agency, that even while you’re alive, there’s something gross happening to you that you can’t stop and you can’t control.
My limits were; I’m not gonna say I have a personal limit because I hope to come back and do even worse horror. So, I will always say that my limit stands with the comfort level of my table, and I will always go further if allowed because I’m nasty.
No plan a Dungeon Master makes survives contact with the players. What happened during character creation that changed the story you were telling?
The moment they all agreed to play in a family unit. I told them to try to come up with things that are very interconnected. You’re all from the same warren, but you don’t necessarily have to be family members, and everyone doubled down immediately.
And they’re, “We’re gonna have kids. We’re gonna have three strict, well-understood generations within this family.” And I went, oh, great! We have a lot of mothers going on, so in the sort of weaving of horror, there is a pretty fun, strong note of motherhood. The trauma that you can pass on. The good intentions of a mother trying to protect their children. There’s a lot you can see in the First Stoats of Last Bast that feel very parental but to the detriment of the agency of the other adult stoats.
What are the things you do if you say you’re doing it out of fear and love for safety? That became a really strong theme really quickly. The bear map becomes a really gross analogy for pregnancy. So, there’s a weird motherhood theme that trickled through a lot of the writing.
Is that something that organically happened during improv, or did you guide it between sessions?
It’s a little bit of both. It’s my job to now take it and turn up the heat on it, boil it down, be a little more specific and give it back to you. So it feels like everything meant something, Even a bit, of some light interaction. Some of the showmanship, the razzle-dazzle, is making people think that a theme was there the entire time, when sometimes it’s “oh, that was introduced in play, and you saw me be excited about it in the moment.” I love a new tool. I’m gonna take that and give it back to you.
There’s an interesting mix of cast. You’ve got some old hands (Such as Brennan and Siobhan) and some fresh faces, including Rashawn Nadine Scott and Jasper William Cartwright. What prompted you to invite them to the Dimension 20 Dome?
I always wanna see new people come in and shine. I love bringing in new players, players that are new to me, and people that I’ve played with before who haven’t been here. I’ve played with Jasper. He’s run for me.
I’ve run for him, and I was if I could just find the project that could tempt him to cross the pond, for this came up, and I was, Oh, give me, Jasper! I think there’s also a sense that it would be remiss, not to mention that my desire is to see more diversity at the table, both within the dome and wherever we go.
When we look at casting, my brain is always looking to bring in different kinds of people with different perspectives because I think that always makes everything so much stronger because then you get fun moments like Rashawn’s “Hey, girl, hey?”
And again, Rashawn, someone who I’ve watched all of her other content at Dropout. But I hadn’t met her at that point, and before doing more research on her and I realised she was in a Monster of the Week podcast. I didn’t actually know that she played D&D before we started talking. She’s funny, and she’s brilliant and so quick. And I can teach the mechanics of D&D to anyone, but that storyteller ability? If you have that, you’ve done 80% of the work. The rest is just understanding your rules from moment to moment. So it was a joy and an honour to bring in people that were new to the dome.
You always have your killers. I will play with Brennan and Erica. I drag them and say, “Just, please be in this. I just you have to tell me no, eight times to my face.” I love them. We have a whole podcast about how much we love telling stories together. Siobhan, who wanted to play with forever. So this just turned into one of the most unreal tables. And Izzy, who I first met on this set of the Seven, and then we became friends.
It was one of those things where I’m, oh, we met where we were both players and across the two years of friendship haven’t run for you yet, so why not here? Why not now? So having people that I was like very comfortable and good with all those different levels of how comfortable and how familiar people are with each other, builds for like a very fun table that will surprise you in a lot of different directions.
Will we see more of the Three Black Halfling crew at the Dimension Twenty Dome?
I mean, that’s the dream. God, they’re all so brilliant. It’s just a matter of they happen to be so far away. So yes, if things align and the timing is right, I would happily work with all of them forever because, gosh! Everything to do is so good, and it’s so nice to be able to play with people whose work you are fans of.
What systems beyond D&D that you’d love to play with?
I love Dune. I love it so much. I have all the stuff for it, and I just sort of sit around going, “How do I get to do this?” At a scale, I mean. I’ve been kicking around whether or not to spin up a home game about it.
But when you talk about what’s big on the horizon, I’m very much looking forward to a little rest and recharge. Just sort of resetting and finding new things to be inspired by and think about.
But yeah, if I had to call a really big, very specific shot. I think I would call that shot around the Dune RPG. Seems so cool and so fun, and I just think that world is so big, broad, and interesting that there are a lot of ways to swing around and go.
I love Forged in The Dark; I think there is something around the cycle of role adjudication and negotiation that probably could be streamlined a little bit for actual play or for narrative play, but, like several projects, I work on or places I work, have an edit that might make that a little cleaner, a little easier.
I’ve run Hack The Planet and ran it on a podcast, and I’m still obsessed with that game. But Blades in the Dark is an absolute killer. I think I would probably sit down and do things that we’re spinning up for the future. I definitely wanna play a little bit more of my mash-up pile. I really liked hacking a little bit of The Fifth Edition D&D into Good Society for Court of Fey and Flowers
I really enjoy cherry-picking little mechanics like we did in the flashback mechanics a couple of days in the dark for Exandria Unlimited: Kymal, so there’s something inside of that, and it has a lot of Forged in the Dark DNA going into it and seeing, like what we can push together, and what very interesting story comes from the intersection of seemingly disparate mechanics and like what thematically you’re starting to do.
Because, again, mechanics matter. The first thing almost every player does is look down at their sheet. Your mechanics give you the options to how you interact with the world. So having really fun and funky mechanics means that the kind of story you’re going to get out of your table will be really fun. So, probably something in and around that.
Almost at the end of the interview, so one sort of deep question, followed by some quick fire. If you could preserve one piece of art so it lasts until the sun dies out, what would it be?
Oh, my gosh! My husband made a little stick like a popsicle stick vase, and I’m obsessed with it, so I don’t care about the rest of the world, but a thing that has been that deeply loved. I would love to see it persist.
Simpsons or Futurama?
Oh, shoot, good question… Futurama.
Star Trek or Star Wars?
Dungeons or Dragons?
Doctor Who or Dr. No?
Doctor Who all day!
Truth or Beauty?
The complete BURROW’S END can be found on Dropout.TV