Mechanics, Metaphors, and Morality: On hacking games for storytelling
Welcome back to another behind the scenes/process post for Serendipity City! One of the things I've got a few questions about is the system(s) we're using for SC. The two main ones are the Sprawl and Urban Shadows, although I’m also planning on incorporating some Dungeon World over time (for reasons that I can't really talk about right now). 

In a future post, I’ll talk about the logistics side of things, complete with photos of my DM binder that looks something like this:

In the meantime, let's talk about the storytelling/philosophical reasons that I made the changes I did, especially since I already think a lot of Games Discourse™ is prone to talking about the “crunchy” side of things instead of the “feelings and stories” side of things. 

First off, nothing I say should be taken as criticism directly against the Urban Shadows system, or its creators. I don’t know the creators or anything about their backgrounds (or their intentions with the system mechanics). It’s also important to note that a lot of my concerns come from the big difference between this game and your average game. 

In a standard game, the audience is just the people playing it. It’s still the DM’s responsibility to consider the kind of narrative that’s being crafted and how said narrative (and game mechanics) affect the players, but there’s also a certain amount of opt-in that can happen. The players can say, “Yes, I understand I’m playing this game that’s inherently about corruption and the hard choices we have to make to get by in a world where people mostly just care about getting theirs.”

With this game (and all games that are turned into actual-play media), there’s another audience, who can’t directly interact but is still consuming the narrative. The listener/viewer does, of course, have agency, and can still opt-in despite things that would turn off other viewers — trigger/content warnings are one way this happens. 

But there’s also the larger media landscape to take into account, including the kinds of stories that get told over and over and over again and the impact those stories have on our collective psyches (especially the kinds of stories are told about marginalized people). That changes a lot of things and means that I, as the DM/creator of the podcast, have to think critically about what I’m putting out in the world. 

All of that said, the biggest thing that I changed was cutting out the Corruption mechanic from Urban Shadows. If you haven’t played the game, there’s a mechanic called “Corruption,” which you can use to get bonus moves that are otherwise unavailable, while becoming corrupted to do so — “Mark Corruption to do XYZ.” Once you’ve marked a certain amount of corruption, your character is retired, turned into an NPC, and becomes a Threat for the rest of the party. 

“You slipped over the edge, grew too close to the darkness, and your friends and allies will pay the price.” 

— Urban Shadows manual on retiring your character

In some ways, this is really interesting mechanic. However, it also comes with a lot of baggage that needs to be unpacked and considered, especially when making a product for public consumption. 

The first, and probably most obvious thing, is that fantasy has often been used as a way to look at the Other (in whatever capacity that specific Other might be). This can happen in really cringeworthy ways (see: numerous examples of “savage,” “evil” races coded as people/cultures of color, villains being queer-coded, etc.), but marginalized writers/creators have also used fantasy as a way to explore and comment on their marginalizations and how they affect their movement through the world. 

If the game exists in a world where there’s the “normal” world and the “magical” world (which is how the manual suggests playing Urban Shadows), the magical world is going to be read as the Other by default. If we’re setting up a dynamic where magical people have to make hard choice after hard choice and eventually become irredeemably corrupted by these choices, it’s kind of just mimicking the same shitty deal that a lot of people get already. 

A lot of people are already stuck in a shitty, unethical system that wants to keep us downtrodden and complacent, where getting ahead often means compromising some amount of your ethics, and where acceptance is almost always conditional. 

(I do explicitly want to note that, again, this isn’t a criticism of the system itself — a lot of these dynamics were clearly intentionally built in to the system, and the creators encourage you to work with and think about them. As I said above, the biggest complicating issue here is playing for a larger audience than that at the table.)

Another factor here is that, while the manual encourages you to place your game in an existing city, we created our own city, world, and rules. And, as per usual with anything I get my hands on, there’s a lot of metaphors around magic and queerness tied up in it. In the worldbuilding episode, we drew a direct comparison between living as a magic user in Serendipity City and living in the closet in the Bible Belt. 

I have that experience firsthand — it sucked, to say the least. I made a lot of really shitty choices as a result of having that experience, and those choices created ripple effects (and baggage, whew, the baggage) that I’m still feeling and working through 15 years later and almost two years after coming out. 

As far as where corruption meets this metaphor, LGBTQ+ people already run into a lot of cringey tropes around moral corruption. We’re often considered morally corrupt or deviant from the get-go, often called liars after coming out of the closet, and bi and trans people both have stereotypes around being untrustworthy (albeit ones that manifest in very different ways, which are beyond the scope of this post).  

If we rolled with those metaphors and the mechanics exactly as written, we’re creating a game (and more importantly, since it’s being published as a podcast, a story) in which characters are punished and become corrupted just for existing in this metaphorical closet. It would make the podcast into a story about marginalized people being punished for being marginalized, and mimic the kinds of punishments and hard choices that marginalized people already have to deal with every day in real life. 

While having this mechanic go hand in hand with these metaphors might make cis/het listeners give some thought to the the constant background anxiety, denial, shame, and fear that can go hand-in-hand with being in the closet, that’s not the story that I want to tell (and I would suggest that in a perfect world, people would gain that empathy through, you know...listening to us). 

There are a few layers here, too. In addition to not wanting to tell another grimdark story where the downtrodden all wind up being literally irredeemable monsters, and the metaphor being too close to home for me (and probably other LGBTQ+ listeners), I’ve tried really hard to make it clear through descriptions of the world and characters that Serendipity City isn’t just white people. When you’ve got a diverse population of magical people and you’re working with these metaphors, it can get really messy, really fast. 

In fact, part of the reason that I made the choice to lean into the metaphors around magic/the magical underworld and queerness/the closet is because if we didn’t lean into that metaphor, some other metaphor would sneak in due to the society/culture that we live in, and I really did not want to be another white creator who makes a thing about Fantasy Racism. There’s a big problem in fantasy/sci-fi where white creators will successfully write stories that are clear allegories for racism, and often do badly at it — which makes sense, since white people...have no firsthand experience with racism — but still get praised, while creators of color can’t write stories about their experiences because they aren’t “universal” enough. My goal was to stay the heck away from that dynamic if at all possible.

That’s not to say that there aren’t stakes in Serendipity City, or that characters (including player characters) might not die or face some really hard choices as a result of their actions. It’s just that those stakes and consequences don’t include making people literally irredeemable and turning them into evil NPCs because of dynamics that are entirely out of their control. There are other ways in gameplay to explore consequences (and corruption, and redemption) that don’t come down so hard on the wrong side of the metaphors around magic and queerness (and to some extent, marginalization in general). And the Corruption mechanic is easy enough to strip out that, given the world we’re working in and the kind of game we want of play, there wasn’t really a compelling enough reason to keep it in (especially since it’s easy to keep in the other really compelling components of the system, like factions and the focus on inter-group politics). 

We have enough stories about tragedy affecting the most vulnerable members of society. We have enough tropes about those tragedies, unhappy endings, and deaths. I don’t want to tell stories about that; I want to tell stories with underdogs, found family, and also extremely gratuitous anarchists, booze, and magic. And that’s why I decided to be a big ol’ doofus and hack two game systems together instead of just playing one for my first outing as a DM, like any reasonable person would. 


Michelle nickolaisen released this post 10 days early for patrons.   Become a patron