Responsible and Hopeful Dystopias: Fun City Empowers its Players with Two DMs

11 min read

Actual play podcasts have always sported a balance between games played in person at a real table and games played over the convenience of the internet. After quarantine and lockdown procedures were put into effect, the balance tipped over towards distanced, virtual games so that podcasters could continue their stories and keep their audiences.

Fun City is one such podcast, a cyberpunk role-playing game set in New York City in 2101. At least, that’s their main story arc. When they ran out of recorded material, they pivoted to a new bonus campaign called Float City, set in the far reaches of space 100 million years in the future using the Stillfleet system. According to their production update, “We've talked about Fun City being a way to create theater for six people, and trying to translate that energy to a broader audience, and ... we think we need to be in a room, together, to do that.”

They’re not wrong. Fun City is a riveting riot of adventure, where what’s happening at the table is clearly translated into audio, but has the feeling of physical improvisation where comedy is partly driven by wordplay and partly by the expression on someone else’s face. Float City’s vibe is just as entertaining, but is purpose-built for remote recording and invites no comparison between IRL and URL sessions.

Bad Guys, and Everything Else

What they didn’t change is Fun City’s novel approach to game design, where the duties of the Dungeon Master (DM), or person guiding the players through the world, are split between two people: Taylor Moore, and Mike Rugnetta. This setup was one of Rugnetta’s stipulations for running Fun City.

“I don’t think of myself as a very good Dungeon Master,” Rugnetta says in our interview, while Moore chuckles in the background. “We wanted [the podcast] to be a little bit different. We were trying to figure out, like, 'What are the three things that we'll do differently?' And that was one of the things that we arrived at. When Taylor said yes, I said 'Okay, that makes me a little less scared.'"

Usually, tabletop games have only one DM who knows the whole world, who has written out the plot hook and created non-player characters (NPCs) and villains for the players to interact with, and who then performs all those people. A few actual play podcasts, like Dark Dice, have hired actors to act out cameos as NPCs or give them a voice in post-production. Moore and Rugnetta attempted to both DM from their earliest practice sessions, which initially brought negative responses from those they let hear it.

“[They were saying], “I don’t know who’s in charge,” which I think is something you need, for whatever reason. Or even if you don’t actually need it, you think you need it in a role-playing game,” Rugnetta describes the beta listeners’ reactions more. That’s why, now, Moore plays all the villains, and Rugnett handles everything else about the universe. “It’s a little bit of a smoke and mirrors act in both Fun City and Float City. When there’s a Taylor character scene, I’m waiting for Taylor to make the decisions and I’m seeing what he’s gonna do. In those moments, Taylor is in charge.”

“It reminds me of something I think Jeff Tweedy said once when he was kicking someone else out of the band, ‘A wheel can only have one center,’” Moore describes. “There has to be that sort of authorial voice… for the players to feel relaxed. Maybe that's something about the semiotics of how the game works as art. Or maybe it's something about how human brains evolved to have certain roles for certain people–I don't know. But I'm also extremely glad for it. Because I don't have to know or say any of that stuff. I can just play my stupid, stupid characters.”

The balance Rugnetta and Moore strike in the podcast is pitch-perfect and grows to feel more and more seamless as the podcast goes on thanks to practice, testing, and communication.

Audiences can hear this in episode 7, “Critter Division”, when Rugnetta asks Moore, “do you wanna do that or do you wanna do it?” when player Shannon Odell enters the bedroom of a bad guy. Moore agrees, and then moves on into describing what Odell’s character, Lash, can see in the room. As they continue through this scene, Rugnetta and Moore begin and finish each other’s sentences:

Rugnetta: When you open the door, immediately–
Moore: Glue. Paint. Solvents, sawdust, plastic.
Rugnetta: And you switch on the light, and what you see–
Moore: There is a magnificent, extremely detailed, miniature Bavarian town.

Rugnetta, in post-production, reflects this balancing scale of authority through judicious choices of music and a thorough understanding of the importance of silence. In episode 8, “International Policing and Security Professionals Trade and Labor Consortium, Annual Exposition”, a riot erupts and Rugnetta introduces the party’s primary antagonist for this encounter first, with this description, backed by the distant sounds of screaming, shouting, and shattering glass:

Rugnetta: see, pretty much directly in front of you, as if he was waiting for you, Cairn, motionless, in a sea of battling protests and police officers, surrounded on both sides by two security cops holding automatic pistols. Could everyone please roll initiative? It’s about to get real.

As he reaches the end, the riot becomes subsumed by a bass whirring noise, like you’re standing right next to a giant industrial fan that resonates deep in your stomach. It’s terrifying. And that sound keeps going, varying just enough to make you double-take for what’s happening underneath, for a solid minute before a smash cut to heavy metal music and Moore’s control of the scene.

The balance of work preparation they do in order to achieve this kind of teamwork is a combination of Moore’s “surprisingly little” and Rugnetta who has to “prepare an extreme amount”. But since the pandemic, the way they build the stories necessarily had to change.

“For Fun City, we definitely had, like, a lot of story meetings, talked a lot about where we wanted things to go, talked a lot about characters' motivations, and talked a lot about like, different paths that we make might take and how characters might change in response to how the players behave towards them. And I think the hecticness of our professional situations has made doing that kind of preparation much more difficult. A lot of times now is us catching up for whatever time we can grab immediately before we're recording to just make sure that we're on the same page. And then really, you know, rock and roll our way through it.”

For Float City, Moore notes that “every couple of episodes, [we] will have a long conversation about the arc, all the character motivations of all the NPCs, the general thrust of everything, a real deep dive… But every episode, you don't have to go quite that hard.”

Granted, as Moore jokes in our interview shortly after, it means that Rugnetta also sometimes turns to him and says: "Here's, yeah, here's eight, eight far future sci-fi vat-grown Gnomes on a Lunar Base: Uh, figure it out. They're all named after different kinds of potato chips. And they all need distinct characteristics, point of view, and voices."

Empowering Players in a Dystopia

There are plenty of dystopia-based fictions out there, from gaming to podcasts to books and movies; the attraction of conceptualizing what a dystopia looks like is superseded only by the need to understand how we will act in a dystopia (and whether we understand that some people have already been living in a dystopia). The Fun City players Jenn de la Vega, Nick Guercio, Bijan Stephen, and Shannon Odell are clearly invested in this question, as it guides them through the creation of their character backstories—Guercio’s Luxe, for instance, dresses in expensive suits, recently lived in an upmarket condo now under eternal construction, and

What makes Fun City stand out amid the landscape of actual play podcasts, in particular Shadowrun games, is their approach to the cyberpunk dystopia genre and the manipulation of the setting. Rugnetta, who took charge of the majority of the world-building, added his own spin to the canon in order to tell the stories they were all interested in telling as well as making it a unique experience.

“My personal feeling is that, especially if you're telling a story about the future, any future that doesn't account for climate catastrophe is incomplete,” Rugnetta expands as we discuss social commentary and responsible storytelling. “It just feels... It felt like part of our responsibility, if we're talking about a New York in 2101, to show that. When the players eventually ask, "Hey, how is it that the entirety of the eastern seaboard is not underground?", we're gonna have to have some in-fiction explanation for how in the last hundred years, they've averted complete collapse.”

Crucially, one of the spins Rugnetta and Moore have given Fun City, is optimism and hope, something lacking in the majority of cyberpunk dystopias–particularly Shadowrun.

“If Shadowrun released a new setting book, [I would want to see] hope. Like, some idea that this doesn’t have to be our future. In the Shadowrun setting, it really is “everyone is a bug on the corporate windshield,” Moore describes. He’s referencing here a description of Fun City from  Truesilver in the Fun City Discord server: “It’s nice to listen to a Shadowrun game where the players aren't just bugs on the corporate windshield."

When told this description, it immediately resonated. The thrill of having power to make things happen, in a game and setting where having resonant choices is much more difficult to come by, can be heard throughout Fun City. It comes through in Stephen’s voice in episode 8 when he says his character T.K. “is trying to do a monotone, but he’s very excited about how this heist is going”. It echoes in the way that Stephen and Odell work together seamlessly during the riot to gain a foothold, and in the whole party’s vicious delight when Vivian Lakewood, Jenn de la Vega’s character, slams a cop for a lot of damage in one move.

The aspect of being smashed against the glass mid-flight, and then wiped away, is the kind of attitude we are all feeling in a pandemic-ridden capitalistic society. The fight for unionization, for instance, across careers like game development, media journalism and production, start-ups and fundraising, and yet more, has increased dramatically in both number and attention in the past five years.

Unions are punk, y’all.

Except perhaps when they’re the Policeman’s Union and you, a union organizer, have to play the head of that union.

“[Vern] is in charge of NYPD Incorporated, Policeman’s Union,” Moore tells this story to highlight how much Fun City has not only dealt with ethical issues, but opened up his own eyes. “I’m billed as 'I play all the bad boys,' right? But I’m trying to play this character as not like a cartoon villain; as an actual person who has reasons for the things they do and is capable of empathy and fear and love and hope.”

Well, so far so good. We love a complex villain.

“I’m in character, and I’m trying to convince the players to help me. And I gave this speech about how they should work for the Policeman’s Union, and I gave them a speech about solidarity, and standing together and the rights of working people to organize against exploitation and how many people my organization helped and represented every day.”

At this point, Moore throws in the kicker.

“Keep in mind, I had just been fired from organizing a union at my office, in my actual job.”

This really happened. Moore, the lead of comedy and podcasts and a union organizer at Kickstarter, was fired in 2019 during Kickstarter’s union-busting, which just so happened to be the same week Fun City launched.

“I saw [the characters] fall for it and agree to help NYPD Incorporated. And I thought to myself, oh my god, that’s how they do it. That’s how they act. I just did the thing that the cops actually do and it works. And it was… so easy.”

Moore, Rugnetta, and myself take a moment to laugh darkly and nervously, because he’s right. This is the kind of thin blue line propaganda the police use all the time in order to get people on their side, the side of “law and order”. And you know, that’s not very punk.

Punk is, at its core, a rejection of social norms and systems that have oppressed marginalized people for centuries and, in cyberpunk, to do that with access to and help from futuristic technological advancements. And those systems of oppression include cops dressed up in a union’s costume, complete with fake digital moustache.

“Yeah, we're trying really hard to lean on the 'punk' aspect of cyberpunk,” Rugnetta emphasizes. You know, instead of playing "Capitalism Made Me Do It: The Game”, where a Corporation hires you to do Corporate Espionage because the Corporation needs money, and you want money from the Corporation, so you go and do Capitalism With A Gun and Some Spells.”

Honestly, I’ve never heard a better description of a ton of cyberpunk games and stories, especially historically. This attitude is changing for the better in large swaths of the gaming and literary industries, but as always, publishing for marginalized authors who do this vulnerable work is still more difficult to achieve. For Fun City, Rugnetta and Moore want to deal with discomfort in order to make permanent change, the way that we should be doing in real life.

“We're trying really hard to lean into difficult situations, hard decisions, feeling like your hand is forced, feeling bad that your hand is forced, wanting to do the right thing but not knowing how,” Rugnetta describes. “Wanting to do the right thing, but knowing that the first step to doing the right thing is probably working for bad people, and being open about that.”

Remember the mention earlier of Vivian killing a cop? It’s a gruesome sight, and the next episode immediately begins with the effects of both watching someone murder another person in a way out of a slasher movie and being that someone. They do not skip, ignore, nor elide over the consequences, and neither the ethical conversations that spring up over and over, interrupted by action, but not forgotten.

“Hopefully,” Rugnetta ends on, “the thing we’re heading towards is that the players will actually be able to permanently change the canonical landscape and history of the game world that they exist in.”

This is impossible to feel when you first run, play, and read Shadowrun’s setting. Players take on enormous corporations, and the time it would take to become powerful enough to take one on is not easy to estimate.

“The fact that the entirety of the eastern seaboard isn't underwater signals in some way that, in the show, enough people were able to work together in order to make sure that that portion of the country wasn't completely submerged.” Rugnetta’s decision to keep some of New York, and the eastern seaboard, intact isn’t explained in Fun City as of yet; it’s a question mark, and one that when it comes up, they hope to be able to answer.

But it’s details like this–the optimism in life carved out in how people have survived and built lives for themselves, the hints of background and historical story that linger in wait, the clear-eyed futuristic approach to present-day issues–that give Fun City an ethical edge over similar stories. Sometimes, I feel grimy investing my emotions in much of cyberpunk because it doesn’t examine colonization, disability, nor capitalism in any particularly nuanced manner. The decisions and problems in Fun City are on purpose; they’re there to give players difficult choices and moral dilemmas, but not to crush their spirits, nor ours. And thanks to the skills and strengths they’ve empowered their players to embody in their characters, and the way that this empowerment transfers to their audience, defeating Capitalism: The Game feels just a little more within reach.

Elena Fernández Collins is a genderfluid podcast critic and reporter and a forensic sociolinguist living in Portland, OR. She curates a weekly newsletter about audio fiction, Audio Dramatic, where she reviews episodes and provides essays and news for the community. She also covers the audio fiction podcast beat for The Bello Collective and Discover Pods, indie online publications about podcasting, and is a contributor to The AV Club’s Podmass, among others. In the time that she’s not trying to promote audio fiction and indie creators in the podcasting sphere, she’s working on a linguistics thesis about non-native English speaker comprehension of the Miranda rights in the United States.