I recently took the plunge and finally purchased a DropoutTV subscription. This is not an advertisement for the service, at least not an official one since I am not being compensated for this in any way, but merely a discussion of one of its more popular properties in the context of the impending new year. As always, SPOILERS below.
Tabletop podcasts and series have enjoyed a growing bump in popularity in the past few years aided in part by the influx of talent and high profile players and productions and in part from the lockdowns and isolations of the ongoing global pandemic giving people time and desire for longform, collaborative storytelling. The frontrunner for this space is undoubtedly Critical Role having broken funding and subscription records, reaching mainstream attention, and diversifying into various other mediums. Behind them are many popular productions of various templates, genres, styles, etc. and among them is Dimension 20 who manages to work with diverse casts and players to create a, rather varied, smorgasbord of games and narratives across the spectrum of potential. A great entry point, and one that happens to be fully available on their YouTube channel, is the campaign discussed in this post: The Unsleeping City.
The Unsleeping City is a tabletop adventure campaign using the 5e Dungeons and Dragons system telling a story of magic, consequence, destiny, and choice set in a fantasy New York City during the weeks of Christmas and New Years Eve in 2019. The campaign follows the lives of six characters: Pete the Plug, Sofia Bicicleta, Ricky Matsui, Kingston Brown, Kugrash the rat formerly Bruce Kugrich, and Misty Moore aka Rowan Berry. While there are several NPCs that litter the world of Unsleeping City, these six player characters, under the narrative guidance of the Game Master, are the ones who have influence over the world and ultimately whose story is being unfolded before our eyes.
While a fantastical, magical narrative, the core themes of the campaign’s story are rather simple and universal focusing on redemption, choice, community, individuality, and the various connections and consequences of those aspects converging. Pete is a young transman who escaped to New York to be his truest self. In order to do so and survive, he has had to commit some illegal and unethical acts revolving around drug dealing. Sofia is a recent divorcee who is trying to navigate her new life outside her identity of housewife. Misty is a centuries old fairy on the run from the Seelie Fae court trying to gather enough energy for another magical ritual. Kugrash is a cursed rat man who tends to the homeless and needy of NYC to make amends for his terrible actions as a man. Kingston and Ricky are two protectors of New York City, but even they have their own issues and demons, they have to overcome. In short, it is a story of six flawed individuals who must make peace between the dichotomies of individual freedom and desire and the necessity of community and duty.
This is probably the major reason why this series resonated with me so strongly. No character is 100% pure or right. There were times when I fully agreed with Kingston or Sofia, but also with Pete or Misty even when their positions were diametrically opposed. For example, early on Pete is unknowingly given a tremendous amount of magical power and responsibility that he is very much not fit for. Accordingly, he accidentally causes major harm to the city and people of New York. Because of this, the other characters convene and discuss what the best course of action is concerning the slightly selfish, aloof, and disinterested young man. At one point, Kingston, as the chosen herald and protector of New York City, basically states that if necessary, he will kill Pete to save the city. Of course, this goes against the ethos we have come to expect from our heroes although it is the most logical and, to be honest, safest choice. I’ll admit, I fully agreed with Kingston’s sentiment all things considered.
However, both my and Kingston’s opinions altered later in the campaign when Pete risks his life and safety to save and protect Nod, the Gray Orphan and Monarch of the Dream Realm, the sixth borough of New York City. It was this act of selflessness that gave new insight and perspective concerning the chosen herald and protector of the Dream Realm, Pete. Similarly, we see growth and evolution of each character as the story progresses. However, what I loved about both their personal arcs and the overall encompassing narrative is that while the characters grew, they didn’t fundamentally alter who they are. Misty was the lone wolf finding identity and strength in doing her own thing away from the eyes and voices of the courts of Fae. But, by the end of the campaign, she also realized that she was utterly divorced from the circumstances and concerns of her people and wanted that connection reformed. Thus, her personal story involved reconstituting a new Fae court with her and many others direct influence and oversight. The lone wolf returned to the pack on her own terms for the betterment of the group.
Inversely, we see the stories of Kingston and Sofia unfold where their arcs involved them being a bit more self serving and concerned with their own well being over that of their communities and families. Kingston has ascended to his position and power because of his willingness to sacrifice his time, body, and potential for the good of the city and its inhabitants. (It is sad that a man willing to care for his fellow man even to his own detriment is the most unbelievable part of this fantasy story, but it is what it is). However, this life of service has not been without consequence or loss. With that, Kingston’s personal arc stems from his understanding and coming around concerning Pete as a person and the realization that Kingston is allowed a life outside of his duty. In fact, part of the healing of the city comes from the unification of these two diverse ideologies characterized by Pete and Kingston. As well, Sofia’s journey and arc is resolved when she fully leaves her family and past to forge her own path away from them and her identity as a daughter and wife.
The core conflict of the campaign, and the personal arcs of each major character, is only resolved by finding the balance and compromise between individual desires and communal duty and service. It was a poignant concept in 2019 made only more significant in the passing years. The last few years have sucked. There really isn’t a better or kinder way to say so. Much of that suckage was unavoidable; however, a lot of it very much was. And the best of humanity was seen when after tragedy or need or cause, people rallied together to help, to comfort, and to defend which aided and progressed us all.
Every single issue and harm that is occurring, and will occur, in the world from the pandemic to climate crises to ongoing political strife to next thing to other thing can only be resolved by the compromise of individual exceptionalism and strength and drive of community. A few brilliant individuals created the various vaccines we currently have available, but we need everyone who is physically able to take them to do so in order for this global pandemic to truly pass. There will undoubtedly be great minds that will come up with potential solutions and adaptations to the growing climate changes, but it will be up to the majority of the populace to actually do them to help even if it means sacrificing a bit of personal comfort and luxury. Compromise of the individual and community: it is the only way forward.
The campaign and story ends with sacrifices from friends that enable the party to overcome the encroaching evil. It is proof of the skill and talent of the GM and crew that the final battle’s resolution is tapered off with a rendition of Auld Lang Syne honoring the memory of Kugrash as he was one of the group that gave their lives in the final battle. It is the acknowledgment of a battle won but with costs and an understanding of what the party should do and aspire to with the time and lives they have been given. So, with that in mind, raise a toast, or however you prefer to celebrate, in memory of all that transpired this past year, good and bad, and plan, pray, and prepare for whatever may come.
Be safe, be well, and let’s see, and make, what the new year brings.