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“Fun City” podcast review: merging storytelling and gameplay

<h6>Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian

“Fun City” is, in as few words as possible, a co-GMed Shadowrun narrative-play improv comedy podcast. This set of terms is pretty much impenetrable on its own, and each term merits its own elaboration, given that each marks an innovation in the audio production world.

Actual-play podcasts are an emerging niche within the already-small medium of fiction podcasts. The general principle is that a show’s cast plays a table-top role-playing game (TTRPG), commonly Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), and edits recordings of each session into episodes.

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A Dungeon Master (or Game Master in non-D&D TTRPG systems) guides the story by establishing setting, creating circumstances to motivate the plot, voicing non-player characters, and determining — with the assistance of dice rolls — what actions players can and cannot take. The other players role-play as characters of their own design, who voyage through a typically fantasy or sci-fi universe as an adventuring party.

In short, it’s an exercise in collaborative storytelling.

Most TTRPG-based podcasts and shows, including “Fun City,” strike an interesting balance — they’re not completely scripted, nor are they solely improvised. They may be heavily structured, guided by the worldbuilding and character development work of the Game Master and the players. But plot often pivots at the whim of the dice and relies on the off-the-cuff decisions and statements of characters.

For the audience, there’s the satisfaction of knowing there’s a well-thought-out plot arc leading the way, but there’s also a mindblowing sense of serendipity. If that antagonist’s attack roll had been just slightly lower, or that party member hadn’t pulled off a brilliant maneuver the Game Master hadn’t even considered, the story would have been in a completely different place. And yet, where it ends up instead often feels so fitting that it’s hard to imagine any other possibility.

“Fun City,” a particularly strong example of this format, is set in a futuristic New York City that has been artificially reconstructed after a climate disaster and is controlled by a network of massive corporations in everything from housing to policing. In this new environment, as the intro to every episode says, “magic reawakened on Earth,” and as the influence of high-powered technology grew, “a new human race with orcs, elves, trolls, dwarves, and others” arose.

Four Shadowrunners — hired criminals who “do what others can’t or won’t” — and their associates navigate, and sometimes blunder through, this cyberpunk future. Luxe Scythe (Nick Guercio) is a well-dressed smooth-talker who formerly worked among the city’s elite. Lash Goodbog (Shannon Odell) is a raucous and spontaneous 19-year-old orcish athlete who can’t resist a good wager. T.K. (Bijan Stephen) is a reticent, quietly intense ex-boxer, now the team’s hacker. And Vivian Lakewood (Jenn de la Vega) is an elderly, somewhat spacey elf with a penchant for water magics and a dislike for shoes.

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The first mission we see these four cover is given to them by a mysterious and incredibly wealthy man named Yuri, who has asked them to steal his boat back from a junkyard. Simple enough, but things can go downhill quickly in “Fun City,” and we soon learn more about the insidious workings of the megacorporations.

The story involves many dark and often difficult topics, but the cast handles them with the grace and the seriousness they deserve while never falling too far towards grim darkness. The comedy background of several of the performers injects a delightful levity and absurdity to both the podcast and its setting.

When listening in public, I’ve often found myself thankful I’m wearing a mask so I don’t look ridiculous while cracking up at the show’s many bits — like one about an apartment with a truly extraneous number of bathtubs or the team’s habit of naming their aliases things like “Thom Yorke” and “Burt Bean Bean.”

“Fun City” innovates on the baseline structure of other podcasts in a number of unusual ways. For one, it’s run using the Shadowrun system, rather than Dungeons and Dragons, which lends it a different genre and aesthetic as well as a different set of mechanics and statistics. D&D seems to be the prevailing game of choice for TTRPG shows, although some podcasts will occasionally dip into other systems for one-offs or bonus games.

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But Shadowrun operates differently — high tech rather than high fantasy — and although the use of dice remains a key operator, the way combat, skill checks, and other actions work is not the same. Ultimately, though, this isn’t something that’s particularly noticeable in the show’s flow. By no means does one have to understand Shadowrun (or even TTRPGs in general) to follow the plot of “Fun City,” although if you do want to learn more, there is a bonus “Rules Explainer” episode.

The cast describes their show as a slightly different format of TTRPG media: what one of the two game masters, Taylor Moore, has dubbed “narrative play,” in contrast to the common term “actual play.” The distinction here is that narrative play is more focused on creating a coherent story, which necessitates deliberate editing and audio engineering and significant preparatory work. On the other hand, Moore proposes that “actual play” is more focused on recording or documenting a session of gameplay and releasing it near-fully intact.

As far as is clear to me, this isn’t meant to be a value judgment. Rather, it’s an explanation for the fact that the game system in “narrative play” serves as a device in aid of a story, rather than the main feature of the show. Sometimes certain debates over rules or results of dice rolls are not important enough to the story to leave in the final cut, while additional effects like sound design and voiceovers might be important to add.

When “Fun City” introduces some kernel of recognition for us as listeners, it’s often through the way it situates its characters within their society, highlighting the disconcerting parallels between New York City as the Shadowrunners live it and New York City as we might today. One of the most striking results of the prominent society-building within “Fun City” is a very explicit focus on sociopolitical issues which are frequently addressed head-on and are integral to the story that “Fun City” tells.

This is also somewhat unusual as narrative play goes — some shows will obliquely hint at political messages or incorporate “real world” topics once or twice into the story. But “Fun City” is a podcast that could not exist in its current form if it did not wrestle with the horrific implications of deeply entrenched capitalism and corporatism.

Both the characters and the players while out of character regularly discuss their relationships to and opinions about such ills as union-busting, wealth inequality, policing, big tech, and gentrification. Several plotlines are explicitly motivated by the analyses they settle on. It’s not too far off from reality, either — the “Fun City” Twitter account frequently shares breaking news stories that sound an awful lot like episodes they recorded months ago.

This fictional New York City in the year 2101 is also culturally, racially, and linguistically diverse and reckons with the material impacts of race and racism beyond the representational level.

The multiculturalism of the city is seen, for instance, in a mission the Shadowrunners take on that involves a contact who is a community organizer in a working-class neighborhood where Portuguese, Italian, and Mandarin are spoken in equal measure. The residents of this neighborhood are at odds with a group of Silicon Valley-types who are manipulating the housing market for profit.

Several other episodes probe policing and violence and examine how the power of capital protects an institution that targets vulnerable members of society.

As it’s a relatively new podcast — the first episode was released in September 2019 — it would be fairly easy for an interested listener to catch up quickly. In addition to 11 episodes of a separate miniseries, “Float City,” with the same cast but different characters, there are, so far, only 23 episodes of the main show.

With a tone that balances biting social satire with a certain kindness and wonder — blending fantasy, cyberpunk, science fiction, and comedy — “Fun City” frankly reckons with the difficulty of doing the right thing in a world structured to make that feel like a bad decision.

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