Dimension 20’s The Unsleeping City: Fantasy and Play as Means of Claiming Agency in Modern Dystopias

By Emma French

Although the degree to which a game of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is required to contain a meaningful narrative differs amongst player groups, D&D’s facilitation of storytelling is now widely acknowledged.[1] According to Jennifer Grouling, ‘something about the TTRPG [tabletop roleplaying game] invites a narrative response’.[2] This is especially true of livestreamed, podcasted, or edited ‘actual play’ D&D – games that often include actors, comedians or other creative professionals, and that are consciously performed, recorded, produced, and distributed as a serialised fictional narrative for their audiences.

If ‘play’ is often associated with make-believe and the unreal, could there be something oxymoronic about the term ‘actual play’? It implies some kind of authenticity, but the nature of this claim cannot be easily summarised. Evan Torner traces the term’s origin to indie game design discussions in the 2000s on the influential forum The Forge. During this time, ‘actual play’ referred to written reports, used for ‘seeing the system in action through the lens of a game facilitator or player […] public, critical probing of a game’s text and rules through play.’[3] More recently, the term has come to refer to TTRPG gameplay as a kind of performance: players still enjoy a game amongst friends, but the act of play is also ‘geared toward an outside audience who become invested in the characters, narrative, storyworld, and meta-play behaviours of the players.’[4] These actual play broadcasts tell two stories at once, the story set in an imaginary world, and the story of that story being created. The blurring of these two kinds of stories can open up new creative possibilities. While any D&D game can provide an avenue for storytelling, Matthew Mercer – whose own livestream Critical Role is perhaps the most famous game of its kind – argues that games are often broadcast when ‘people […] find something that’s lacking in the space of storytelling, that they want to convey’ (10:17-10:22).[5] The known presence of an audience and ‘reader’ means that some streams use D&D for the creation of narrative with deliberate authorial intent, for instance to address real world issues and political concerns.

This chapter examines how The Unsleeping City (2019-2020), an actual play series played by the cast of Dimension 20 and televised on dropout.tv, consciously tackles themes of dystopia and disenchantment within its two seasons, using D&D to stage a hopepunk narrative in response to problems of contemporary society. The Unsleeping City is an urban fantasy D&D campaign that follows a group of 21st Century heroes born and raised in New York City. They are explicitly ‘heroes’, not ‘adventurers’: the player characters (PCs) are not a questing party who stray far away from home, but instead choose to stay put and defend it. Dungeon Master (DM) Brennan Lee Mulligan establishes an imaginary version of NYC that shares many similarities with our primary world reality. However, this NYC also contains an innate magic, powered by the diversity of the city’s residents and, conversely, their lack of sleep, resulting in a surplus of powerful dream energy. Mulligan’s worldbuilding stresses the power of a diverse but overworked and atomised urban population, literalising contemporary American social issues through fantasy.

Paradoxically, magic is used in The Unsleeping City to represent the ‘disenchantment’ associated with modernity, in other words “the loss of the overarching meanings, animistic connections, magical orientations, and spiritual explanations that had characterised the traditional world, as a result of the ongoing ‘modern’ processes of rationalisation, secularisation, and bureaucratization.”[6] These pressures of urban life are a central thematic concern of this campaign, solidified through the party’s main adversaries: a figure called the American Dream, who personifies the privileges of the middle- or upper-class straight white man; and in the second season, a beast called ‘Null’ that seeks to destroy hope, history, and time, called forth by the all-pervasive Gladiator Corporation and its draconian work practices. Mulligan transforms the political and ideological reality of late-stage capitalism into monsters to be defeated, with each monster emphasising different aspects of that reality. By drawing on what Farah Mendlesohn terms ‘intrusion fantasy’, where ‘the world is ruptured by the intrusion, which disrupts normality and has to be negotiated with or defeated’, he tips a recognisable reality into fantastical dystopia.[7]

As we’ll shortly explore, Mulligan’s worldbuilding uses intrusion fantasy to challenge our assumptions regarding consensus reality. At the same time, D&D’s narrative form also allows the players to contribute to this interrogation – and to challenge, qualify, subvert, or inflect it.[8]Grouling has argued that ‘one of the primary reasons that players are drawn to TTRPGs’ is their ‘sense of narrative agency’.[9] In the case of The Unsleeping City, ‘narrative agency’ manifests in the players’ ability to change Mulligan’s story through their PC choice and actions, but also in how the game enables them to fight the monsters of capitalism that shadow their own lives. While Mulligan’s role as worldbuilder uses fantasy as a lens to critique urban life and modernity, his players’ use of D&D archetypes – such as paladin, cleric, and druid – proposes solutions to the dystopian aspects of the world they find themselves confronting.

Capitalism as Intrusion Fantasy

The Unsleeping City follows a group of New York City citizens, three newly inducted into the ‘Unsleeping City’ – NYC’s magical alter ego – and three who have long protected its secrets. The show follows Kingston Brown, the Vox Populi or ‘Voice of the People’ (a city domain cleric played by Lou Wilson); Pete Conlan, the recently appointed Vox Phantasma or ‘Voice of Dreaming’ (a wild magic sorcerer played by Ally Beardsley); Ricky Matsui (a paladin and firefighter played by Zac Oyama); Broadway star Misty Moore (a glamour bard played by Siobhan Thompson); Sofia Bicecletta, a Monk of the Order of the Concrete Fist (played by Emily Axford) and Kugrash, a Circle of Shepherds druid who protects the city’s vulnerable and neglected inhabitants, from its people to its pigeons  (played by Brian Murphy). Across two seasons, this group of ‘intrepid heroes’ fight many opponents in multiple New York landmarks. However, each season focuses on a primary antagonist: Robert Moses, an urban planner and lich (or undead wizard) who wishes to monopolise and remake the American Dream in his image as a rich white man, through a demonic ritual conducted at the Wall Street Stock Exchange; and the Gladiator Corporation, whose machinations bring a hungry, ageless void known as ‘Null’ closer to reality. Both Moses and Gladiator summon entities from the Unsleeping City of dream magic into the Waking World, conferring sentience and agency onto abstract concepts, and using these conjurations to rupture and reshape reality in line with their own selfish visions.

By creating magical threats that are pulled into the Waking World for his players to fight, Mulligan frames the structure of The Unsleeping City around ‘intrusion fantasy’. Intrusion fantasy is a genre of story that includes horror and the Gothic, in which the fantastic manifests as an external threat: ‘the world is ruptured by the intrusion, which disrupts normality and has to be negotiated with or defeated, sent back whence it came, or controlled’.[10] In intrusion fantasy, ‘the fantastic is the bringer of chaos’: it assumes that ‘normality is organised, and when the fantastic retreats the world, while not necessarily unchanged, returns to predictability’. According to Mendlesohn, the drive of intrusion fantasy is for the fantastic ‘to be investigated and made transparent’ – for the threat to be seen, understood, then tamed or neutralised.[11] This suits an episodic D&D campaign: combat is built around several interactions with the intrusion or those aiming to manifest it, roleplay sections enable investigation, and knowledge and items are then gained in order to successfully tame the once overwhelming, all-consuming nature of the supernatural threat. At points, The Unsleeping City follows this formula literally: Null first appears to the heroes as an invisible force of erasure, and only becomes legible – both in terms of its nature, and its game statistics and abilities – once it is given the name ‘Null’, or ‘Nothing’, becoming fully known to Pete in the episode ‘Nulla Dies Umquam Memori Vos Eximet Aevo’.[12]

However, the supernatural threats Mulligan invents also upset intrusion fantasy’s inherent paradigm, even as they utilise its structural techniques. At first, his NYC seems to operate along the stable divide between the fantastic and the mundane that Mendlesohn describes, segregated into the ‘normality’ of the Waking World and the more chaotic, half-hidden undercurrents of the Unsleeping City. But this distinction is quickly overturned, because the enemies the heroes face are always tied back to a particular kind of status quo: they embody established facts of 20th and 21st Century USA, not the destabilising energies of the world of dreams. In Season One, the heroes tackle Robert Moses – a villain based on the real-life urban planner of the same name, responsible for building the majority of NYC’s roads and highways, and dragging the city ‘into the modern age’, mostly at the expense of minorities.[13] Moses is reimagined through D&D’s tropesas a lich, a ‘great wizard’ who ‘embrace[s] undeath’ and ‘further[s] their own power at any cost, having no interest in the affairs of the living except where those affairs interfere with their own’.[14] Not only does this fantastical reimagining – and obvious critique – of a historical figure make it harder to separate fantasy from reality, Moses’ plans threaten magic and the Unsleeping City more than established consensus reality. He hopes to reshape the American Dream into his own image:

DM: This form of, and you see it, you can see it has the button up shirt and the slacks and is like, ‘I need an SUV and two and a half children’ […] it seems like [this is] Robert’s dream, a young rich handsome All-American thing that he has summoned through the Golden Door in New York City to form a realm here for his own.[15]

‘Timesquaremageddon Pt. 2’, (31:36 -33:35)

The myth of the American Dream, which exists in its idealised form in this fantasy world, celebrates diversity and equality of opportunity to all. But here, at the culmination of the first season, the reality of the myth is revealed: the rich, straight, white male, bland and ‘All American,’ who is systemically positioned to monopolise this potential for advancement, and act as the standard against which everyone else is evaluated. The threat is not the wild, chaotic power of the fantastic threatening our normal world, but instead a bid to reinforce a static and monolithic status quo.  Mendlesohn’s discussion of intrusion fantasy uses a rhetoric of domination, where the fantastic threat typically must ‘be negotiated with or defeated, sent back whence it came, or controlled’.[16] Yet here, the ideas of ‘control’ and ‘normality’ themselves are what constitute the intrusive threat. The heroes have been warned that manifesting dreams in the Waking World capitalises on and corrupts their power by giving them a singular, material form that causes them to mean less things to fewer people: ‘they’re called paragons, dreams of such magnitude and importance that causing them to manifest in waking life would break or rupture them’ (40:48-41:23).[17] This again echoes Mendlesohn’s description of intrusion fantasy – but rather than the fantastic ‘rupturing’ reality, it is instead the dystopian realities of the modern-day USA that are rupturing and destroying the limitless potential offered by the fantastic. While chaotic magic pervades this version of New York, the ‘intruders’ in this intrusion fantasy are separate from that: they represent a corruption of the magical potential present in Mulligan’s version of the city, and their disruption of its ideals threaten both the fantastical and Waking World.

By making the realities of the ‘real’ world into intruders, The Unsleeping City applies the terror Mendlesohn associates with intrusion fantasy to mundane society. Mendlesohn suggests that intrusion fantasy relies on ‘the belief in what cannot be seen but is sensed’, necessitating a ‘need for the audience to respond […] with sensibility not intellect’.[18] As The Unsleeping City reconfigures aspects of modern experience into external monsters for players to have this emotional confrontation with, facets of reality become uncanny and threatening. In the second season, when the Vox Phantasma Pete Conlan encounters Null – an annihilation of culture, community, and interconnection – for the first time, a series of skill checks reveals its nature to him and to the other players:

DM: You can’t see any of the real people in the world, but you see a world where people feel alone. You see a world where people have fewer and fewer connections to people around them, they have fewer and fewer connections to their own lives, the stories of where they came from and the ideas of where they’re going next.

‘Let’s Get Tiny’, (1:07:45-1:08:08)[19]

Null appears narratively as a colourless silhouette of a suited man, an uncanny reflection of corporate facelessness, and in gameplay terms as a homebrewed BBEG with extremely high stats that are ‘overwhelming’ or terrifying to the players in the challenge they present.[20] But this enemy also condenses, within a single figure, many common critiques of the pressures of capitalist urban living. Combining loneliness and depression with isolation from one’s communities, mythologies, and cultural history, Null becomes a personification of social alienation, and the way that neoliberalism has eroded meaningful social relationships while multiplying connectivity through markets and digital platforms. When confronted by Null, rather than accepting such modern-day phenomena as fact, the players first react emotionally, with fear, anger, and a sense of violation, and then strategically, using the mechanisms the game provides.

These intruders communicate the systematic oppression of minorities and the emotional struggles of individuals under capitalism, rendering such experiences tangible, and more importantly, capable of being fought and overcome. Consolidating dystopian aspects of Western modernity into singular, threatening figures forces the player to recognise, acknowledge, and confront these perspectives on society. But Mulligan also chooses to consolidate oppression and emotional struggle within the context of the D&D system: these enemies are not just fantastical but tangible and quantifiable, as they are given ability scores, actions, and hit points. This imaginative exercise means that defeating and eradicating social ills suddenly appears feasible. Players are given agency to imaginatively fight the pressures of their society. And – in the case of actual play – their audience can also enjoy this imaginative escapism as entertainment, alongside a cathartic confrontation with dystopia.

The Heroic Re-Enchantment of Modernity

Both villains of The Unsleeping City, while fantastic in nature, magically embody aspects of modern life, representing presumed ‘normality’ as detrimental to the fantastic’s limitless potential. Robert Moses’ bid to literally capitalise on the American Dream, and Null’s intensification of urban isolation, diminish the plurality of the Unsleeping City’s ‘pure’ magic thinking. Both villains are partial allegories for what Max Weber described in 1917 as the ‘disenchantment of the world’. This disenchantment, as conceived by contemporary theorists, was applied to ‘the loss of the overarching meanings, animistic connections, magical orientation, and spiritual explanations that had characterised the traditional world, as a result of the ongoing ‘modern’ processes of rationalisation, secularisation, and bureaucratisation’.[21]

Making this ‘disenchantment’ a thematic concern of a D&D campaign is a particularly interesting choice, given D&D’s own relationship to disenchantment. Michael Saler has argued that the communal practice of inhabiting ‘fantastic imaginary worlds’ – D&D being one of the most literal avenues by which to do so – is ‘best explained in terms of a larger cultural project of the West: that of re-enchanting an allegedly disenchanted world’.[22] While the binary between the enchantment of fantasy escapism and ‘disenchanted’, sceptical modernity has been questioned and is critiqued by Saler himself, The Unsleeping City subscribes closely to such ideology. While the villains of The Unsleeping City represent disenchantment, the heroes offer means of re-enchanting Mulligan’s New York. This juxtaposition is endorsed by the players, who all play magic users, with the only martial fighter – Sofia – even multiclassing into warlock. D&D gameplay becomes a balm for – or even a productive method by which to solve – disenchanted modern living. While Mulligan uses his worldbuilding to make explicit sinister aspects of modern life in the USA, the players are also encouraged to use their PCs’ own magical abilities to defeat these problems and ‘re-enchant’ their disenchanted world.

In The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Games, Grouling notes that ‘one of the primary reasons that players are drawn to TTRPGs is […] narrative agency’: a ‘productive interactivity’  which means ‘they have control over the story that develops from their gameplay’. [23]  This interactivity exceeds what is typically available in other narrative forms, such as novels or video games – it allows for collaborative authorship, in which player and DM work as co-authors towards finessing the final text. In The Unsleeping City, the weight of player agency is two-fold. Not only do the players have the same ‘productive interactivity’ of any D&D players, but their PCs typically hold positions of authority, magical and otherwise, uniquely enabling them to defend against the intruders. By inhabiting these characters, they imagine a world in which they can single handedly cure the city’s social ills.

Several players make explicit their desire for the ‘betterment’ of NYC through the PCs they write and choose to play. The valorisation of care professions is demonstrated in the authorship of Kingston Brown, the ‘Vox Populi’, a nurse and city domain cleric who protects and speaks for all the people of in-game New York; Kugrash, a druid whose vocation is to protect the city’s homeless population; and Ricky Matsui, a NYC firefighter whose belief in civic duty powers his paladin Oath of Devotion, with his later Oath of Redemption similarly encompassing updated moral ideals (having chosen to found a homelessness charity and continue Kugrash’s work). The overlap between these backgrounds in social work, and their classes’ magical powers posits a connection between the reenchanting of modernity and social justice. This connection is a hopepunk one: it argues that ‘genuinely and sincerely caring about something’ can embody the traditional ‘bravery and strength’ that D&D typically espouses, transforming the heroic archetypes of each class into something applicable in the ‘real’ world.[24] The term hopepunk was coined in 2017 in response to the prevalence and popularity of grimdark narratives, counteracting grimdark’s relentlessly bleak and cynical portrayal of human nature. Hopepunk proposes simply that the world is messy, filled with both good and bad. Exclusively dwelling on the bad is not the secret recipe for achieving realism. Hopepunk overlaps with critical utopia and critical dystopia, in its defence of optimism as an aspect of realism. However, whereas critical utopia and critical dystopia have a strong affinity with critique — for example, revealing oppressive structures by defamiliarizing them — hopepunk is more closely aligned with post-critique approaches. In particular, hopepunk has a deep interest in emotion and affect, and in modelling the uses of kindness and care in fights against injustice.

For instance Kugrash, written and played by Brian Murphy, repurposes the flavour text of the Circle of Shepherds. This subclass of druids ‘focus on protecting animals […] that have difficulty defending themselves’, ‘rebuke hunters who kill more prey than necessary’, and ‘prevent civilization from encroaching’ on the environments of the creatures they protect.[25] While this ‘canonical’ interpretation of the Circle of Shepherds is represented literally through Kugrash’s association with vermin, the description is also reinterpreted by Murphy as a critique of society’s dehumanisation of the homeless. He creates a druid whose vocation to care for the homeless is an act of atonement for his own past as a corrupt stockbroker – one of those ‘hunters’ who preyed on an urban capitalist ecosystem ‘more […] than necessary’. All three PCs derive their power through dedication to protecting others, but especially those from marginalised communities, with Kingston operating primarily out of Harlem, and both Ricky and Kugrash protecting disenfranchised urban populations. As hopepunk heroes, they wield power that has perils of its own, and they explore the challenges of being allies and accomplices to the city’s vulnerable, while avoiding slipping into the role of self-appointed saviours.

Compassionate actions are given positive consequences: for instance, in ‘Feasts and Families’, a Thanksgiving-themed roleplaying session focused on forging connections and alliances, Ricky’s decision to spend his downtime checking in on JJ, a non-player character (NPC), who is suffering from depression after arriving ‘in a city where he works all day and is overworked […] [and] feel[s] like nobody in the world here knows him or cares about him’ (1:04:30-1:04:54). [26] This interaction prevents JJ from allying with the Gladiator Corporation and with Null. ‘Ricky’s divine sense [a first-level paladin ability] tingles a little bit’ (1:02:06-1:02:08) during the encounter. While traditionally used to sense ‘strong evil’ and ‘powerful good’ – demonstrating the paladin class’s typical strong adherence to moral ideals – here Ricky’s paladin magic is adapted to his context as a social worker and befriender, enabling him to uncover JJ’s otherwise hidden loneliness, and Null’s ability to prey on those feelings to become stronger.[27]In this encounter, Ricky re-enchants a disenchanted individual through the act of forging a social connection, but also uses the ‘calm emotions’ spell to quell JJ’s depression, adapting D&D’s magic make such acts possible.

In her article on interactivity and player agency in videogames, Sarah Stang argues that games which endorse or condemn moral decisions primarily through the impact on NPC relationships present a ‘potentially more realistic approach to morality’. ‘The opinions of other characters, who are written to be flawed or even untrustworthy — and their own gut reactions to each situation’ matter more than what is termed ‘good’ or ‘right’ by a cumulative, supposedly objective system, mechanically superimposed on the narrative.[28] Stang also notes that moral decisions within games are ‘not enough to satisfy the player if he or she does not feel that the choices offered are meaningful’.[29] At the end of this encounter between JJ and Ricky, Mulligan states outright ‘I wasn’t expecting anyone to go talk to JJ! […] That was a cool, important thing Ricky discovered there’ (1:19:46-1:19:53), expressing joy at this unexpected interpersonal turn. Although ‘meaningful choice’ functions differently within the context of collaborative play as opposed to single player video games, Mulligan’s endorsement as worldbuilder and fellow author within the story incentivises Ricky’s act of compassion by assigning impact and meaning. Stang argues that the impact a player gives the outcome of their moral choice within a videogame is a ‘trick […] only fully possible in a medium like videogames, in which the player believes that the narrative is responding to his or her actions’. [30] But in the case of D&D, that narrative response isn’t an illusion at all.The human DM can respond to player choices improvisationally in real time, perhaps even revising their own authorial intention or adapting it to outcomes that players wish to see. In The Unsleeping City, mundane acts of kindness are chosen by the player but then rewarded by Mulligan, communally bending the plot of this story towards hopepunk as a remedy for modern disenchantment.

At key moments, the lines between the heroic deeds of a D&D character and acts of social justice in the real world become more blurred. In their final and climactic battle with Null, cleric Kingston Brown succeeds on a ‘divine intervention’ roll, one of the cleric class’s most powerful magical abilities, with low likelihoods of success. During divine intervention, a cleric can ‘can call on [their] deity to intervene on [their] behalf’.[31] Kingston, whose deity is New York itself, asks for the city to ‘do everything in your power to stop Null’ (51:17-51:20).[32] When it proves successful, Kingston’s act of divine magic manifests in a way that, to an outsider, is not necessarily magical:

DM: Throughout New York City, today is the day where the first article gets published about the cover-up of that [Gladiator] warehouse worker’s murder. People are outraged, in disbelief. Phones start ringing off the hook at City Council People’s Office. People move through the streets. A brick goes through the window of the Millenium Gladiator Campus, and a full-scale riot breaks out. Letters arrive at corporate headquarters […] they’ve been discovered for fraud and a city attorney, Liz Herrara, is going to be taking them to court. […] All over the city, people are talking. […] the city turns against Gladiator in this moment, even though they don’t recognise that magic has been done here, it has.

‘Two Sides of the Same Coin (Part 2)’, (51:34-54:16)

Although this successful roll causes Kingston to emanate divine light and aids the PCs in their fight against Null, narratively this divine intervention has little to do with the supernatural. It instead mobilises media, litigation, and popular insurgency to attack the corporation, and the systemic injustices that fuel this allegory for modern disenchantment. For Kingston Brown, the divine intervention of his deity involves rallying public opinion and generating political outcry – not a religious miracle, but an attainable course of action in the real world.

The resolution of this divine intervention is once again a hopepunk one. The term’s founder, Alexandra Rowland, claims that: ‘hopepunk isn’t ever about submission or acceptance: It’s about standing up and fighting for what you believe in […] It’s about DEMANDING a better, kinder world, and truly believing that we can get there if we care about each other’. Rowland also cites political protest and civic engagement as examples of hopepunk activity.[33] Mulligan’s antithesis to Null, the faceless entity of anonymity that embodies disillusioned and disenchanted modern urbanisation, is personal connection and concerted effort – not a magical solution, but one that required continuous work, very similar to Rowland’s call to action for hopepunk individuals to ‘keep fighting’.[34] The consolatory fantasy at work here, much like how Mulligan’s worldbuilding makes social ills visible, tangible and capable of feeling pain, is that such action will have immediate effect and a guaranteed successful outcome. Kingston is told that ‘Null is going to be defeated here, and you have never been more certain of anything in your life’ (‘Two Sides of the Same Coin (Part 2)’, 53:34-53:39).

While this divine intervention is not a deus ex machina in a traditional sense, it represents a consolatory fantasy of agency, and a re-enchantment of kindness. Acts of social justice, compassion and resistance become the plot armour of traditional D&D heroes, guaranteeing them a fantastical, storybook outcome. Considering that The Unsleeping City: Chapter II was streamed remotely in 2020 during the global Covid-19 pandemic, during which time Jeff Bezos (who, although not named in The Unsleeping City, is alluded to heavily through parallels between Gladiator’s and Amazon’s business practices) added $70 billion to his wealth, it is clear why these expedited happy endings and cathartic solutions to social ills may alleviate the modern disenchantment of players and audience.[35] But although it is easy to once again dismiss immersion in a fantasy world as merely escapist, The Unsleeping City – while lacking some nuance for the sake of story – also makes such a dismissal difficult. The boundaries between story and storytellers are blurred in actual play narrative. Audiences are not just immersed in the dream, but are also immersed in the mundane reality of the dreamers themselves. As they explore and expand this relatively new medium, Mulligan and the Dimension 20 castare probing potential new connections between what happens in the game and what happens outside of it. In the same way that its fantastical threats are often inextricably tied to modern day struggles, so too do the fantastical solutions conjured by players often relate back to real-world forms of resistance. The fantasy is that these choices will have the ‘productive interactivity’ offered by D&D: that is, that playing out hopepunk narratives will be guaranteed to  transform the narrative of late-stage capitalism. But in turn, it also raises the question of why this should not also be possible in the real world.


American Dream: All I desire is to cross the doorway and to be real, as real as you or anyone else. I understand you wish to stop me […]

Rowan Berry/Misty Moore: My love. For you are my love, my one true love. You don’t need to enter, you’re already there. And you don’t need to be real because you already are real. […]

DM: Your first piece of conversation with the American Dream where you spoke to it and tried to speak to it as it and say ‘I know you’, you watch a good portion of the fight go out of it

‘Timesquaremageddon Pt. 2’, (22:50-24:52)

The Unsleeping City is an urban fantasy campaign in which social problems and the ideals of political resistance are imagined as existing physically, with tangible, magical agency. In the above interaction – part of the final combat with the American Dream in Season 1 – a player chooses kindness and compassion. Their choice to not fight but instead attempt to understand the intruder, and draw it closer to the enchanted ideal it once represented, is given productive interactivity in its impact on the BBEG. This is a hopepunk narrative decision: it does not dismiss the power of magical thinking, or of kindness, but instead gives such beliefs and choices weight, solidifying their power through their mechanical agency within the gameworld.

Mulligan’s worldbuilding as DM within The Unsleeping City supports the reading of modern life as disillusioned and disenchanted – somewhat paradoxically, for an urban fantasy which ascribes fantastical power to disillusionment itself. Both conforming to and subverting Mendlesohn’s framework of intrusion fantasy, Mulligan argues that the established status quos of the 21st Century should not be defended from chaos and disruption, but instead acknowledged as corrupted, then challenged and overturned. In some respects, the supernatural entities of the Unsleeping City are not intrinsically harmful. The American Dream’s celebration of diversity and equal opportunity has potential legitimacy; even the arrival of Null at least enables a celebration of community care, cultural histories, and indigenous knowledge, within the magical thinking used to defeat it. What most harms this version of NYC is when these values, and magic’s unlimited possibilities, are appropriated by capitalist forces, in order to monopolise the imagination, and make it seem alternative forms of society are impossible.

Such allegories are useful for provoking an emotional reaction to the contemporary social realities of the USA, and the wider world. But within the context of D&D as a narrative form, the manifestation of dystopian reality as a supernatural threat fulfils a second purpose. It allows players to engage in a fantasy of agency, having the capability to fight and defeat such widespread social and political ills. This agency is in part a ‘re-enchantment’ of reality, as described by Michael Saler – not only do the players escape the ‘real world’ by immersing themselves in the fantasy of D&D, but the PCs they choose often represent a magically imbued version of a real profession, applying powerful agency to individuals within their community. The Dimension 20 cast’s performance of compassion and resistance, with Mulligan’s authorial endorsement, shapes theplot towards a hopepunk resolution to the disenchantment represented through Mulligan’s worldbuilding.

The Unsleeping City, as an actual play campaign, of course does not substitute for the real work of social justice. Yet it can potentially contribute to its cultural wing. In the real world, such work is sometimes energising and satisfying, but it is also often frustrating and exhausting. The forces you are fighting may feel nebulous and endless. It can be difficult to trace the good you do in the world, and this can provoke despair. So it is important that we not only do this work, but also generate stories about it, including stories of fantasy and magic. The solutions to disenchanted modernity proposed by The Unsleeping City are those of kindness, and of connection. This is partially dictated by the nature of the villains they are combatting. Robert Moses seeks to isolate the American Dream from minority groups and place it into the hands of the straight, white male elite, and Null seeks to erase cultural history and identity. It is therefore obvious that player solutions which operate in direct antithesis to these goals will be rewarded narratively. However, players’ PC decisions – in particular, this resolute advocacy of kindness and social justice – are made independently of the DM, and can reshape Mulligan’s story in unexpected ways. Ultimately, the primarily utopian aspect of this campaign is that the fruits of the adventuring party’s labour and resistance are rendered immediately visible, providing the satisfaction of meaningful agency to its players.

[1] José P. Zagal and Sebastian Deterding, ‘Defining Roleplaying Games’, Roleplaying Games: Transmedia Foundations, (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 2018), pp.48-94.

[2] Jennifer Grouling, The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Roleplaying Games (Jefferson, McFarland & Company: 2010), pp. 66-67.

[3] Evan Torner, ‘Actual Play Reports: Forge Theory and the Forums’, in Shelley Jones (ed.),  Watch Us Roll: Essays on Actual Play and Performance in Tabletop Role-Playing (Jefferson: McFarland & Company), p. 35.

[4] Torner, ‘Actual Play Reports’, p. 39.

[5] Dimension 20, ‘Building Your Own Campaign Setting (with Matthew Mercer) │ Adventuring Academy’, 3 April 2019, YouTube.com. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sig8X_kojco&ab_channel=Dimension20>

[6] Michael Saler, As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 8; cf. Max Weber, ‘Science as Vocation’, in The Vocation Lectures, trans. Rodney LIvingstone, ed. David Owen and Tracy Strong (Illinois: Hackett Books, 2004 [1917]).

[7] Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy, (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), p.115.

[8] See also: Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion, (Methuen & Co., 1981).

[9] Grouling, Narrative in Tabletop Roleplaying Games, p. 18.

[10] Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy, p.115

[11] Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy, p.xxi-xxii

[12] Dimension 20, ‘Nulla Dies Umquam Memori Vos Eximet Aevo’, The Unsleeping City: Chapter II, (2020), 2:18:03. <https://www.dropout.tv/dimension-20-the-unsleeping-city/season:2>

[13] Oliver Burkeman, ‘The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro review – a landmark study’, The Guardian, 23 October 2015, para.3. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/23/the-power-broker-robert-moses-and-the-fall-of-new-york-robert-caro-review>

[14] Wizards of the Coast, Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, (Renton: WotC, 2014), p.202.

[15] Dimension 20, ‘Episode 17: Times Squaremageddon Pt. 2’, The Unsleeping City (2020), dropout.tv.

[16] Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy, p.115

[17] Dimension 20, ‘Episode 9: Borough of Dreams’, The Unsleeping City (2020), dropout.tv.

[18] Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy, pp. 120-1

[19] Dimension 20, ‘Episode 11: Let’s Get Tiny’, The Unsleeping City: Chapter II, (2021), dropout.tv.

[20] Big Bad Evil Guy.

[21] Saler, As If, p. 7.

[22] Saler, As If, p. 6.

[23] Jennifer Grouling, Narrative in Tabletop Roleplaying Games, p. 18.

[24] Alexandra Rowland aka ‘Ariaste’, ‘The Opposite of Grimdark is Hopepunk’, ariaste.tumblr.com para. 3. <https://ariaste.tumblr.com/post/163500138919/ariaste-the-opposite-of-grimdark-is-hopepunk>. Italics in the original.

[25] Wizards of the Coast, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. (Renton: WotC, 2017), p. 23.

[26] Dimension 20, ‘Episode 8: Feast and Families’, The Unsleeping City: Chapter II, (2021), dropout.tv.

[27] Wizards of the Coast, Dungeon & Dragons Player’s Handbook. (Renton: WotC, 2014), p. 84.

[28] Sarah Stang, ‘“This Action Will Have Consequences”: Interactivity and Player Agency’, Game Studies, 19(1), 2019, para.21. <http://gamestudies.org/1901/articles/stang>

[29] Stang, ‘“This Action Will Have Consequences”’, para. 12

[30] Stang, ‘“This Action Will Have Consequences”, para. 22.

[31] Wizards of the Coast, Player’s Handbook, p. 59.

[32] Dimension 20, ‘Episode 18: Two Sides of the Same Coin (Part 2)’, The Unsleeping City: Chapter II, (2021), dropout.tv.

[33] Rowland, ‘Hopepunk and Grimdark’, para. 3-4.

[34] Rowland, ‘Hopepunk and Grimdark’, para. 6.

[35] Christopher Ingraham, ‘World’s richest men added billions to their fortunes last year as others struggled’, The Washington Post, 1 January 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/01/01/bezos-musk-wealth-pandemic/


Burkeman, Oliver, ‘The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro review – a landmark study’, The Guardian, 23 October 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/23/the-power-broker-robert-moses-and-the-fall-of-new-york-robert-caro-review

Dimension 20, ‘Building Your Own Campaign Setting (with Matthew Mercer) │ Adventuring Academy’, (3 April 2019), Youtube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sig8X_kojco&ab_channel=Dimension20.

——, The Unsleeping City, (2019), dropout.tv, https://www.dropout.tv/dimension-20-the-unsleeping-city/season:1

——, The Unsleeping City: Chapter II, (2020), dropout.tv, Retrieved from: <https://www.dropout.tv/dimension-20-the-unsleeping-city/season:2>

Grouling, Jennifer, The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Roleplaying Games, (Jefferson, McFarland & Company: 2010)

Ingraham, Christopher, ‘World’s richest men added billions to their fortunes last year as others struggled’, The Washington Post, 1 January 2021. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/01/01/bezos-musk-wealth-pandemic/>

Mendlesohn, Farah, Rhetorics of Fantasy, (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008)

Rowland, Alexandra, ‘The Opposite of Grimdark is Hopepunk’, ariaste.tumblr.com. <https://ariaste.tumblr.com/post/163500138919/ariaste-the-opposite-of-grimdark-is-hopepunk>

Saler, Michael, As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)

Stang, Sarah, ‘“This Action Will Have Consequences”: Interactivity and Player Agency’, Game Studies, 19(1), 2019, <http://gamestudies.org/1901/articles/stang>

Torner, Evan. ‘Actual Play Reports: Forge Theory and the Forums’, in Shelley Jones (ed.),  Watch Us Roll: Essays on Actual Play and Performance in Tabletop Role-Playing (Jefferson: McFarland & Company).

Wizards of the Coast, Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, (Renton: WotC, 2014)

——, Dungeon & Dragons Player’s Handbook, (Renton: WotC, 2014)

——, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. (Renton: WotC, 2017)

Zagal, José P., and Sebastian Deterding, Roleplaying Games: Transmedia Foundations, (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 2018)

Emma French is a SGSAH-funded PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow, currently studying for a PhD in Fantasy Literature. Her thesis examines how Dungeons and Dragons consolidates notions of fantasy, while also giving players the agency to subvert established genre convention. She graduated from Oriel College, University of Oxford in 2015, and from the University of Glasgow with an MLitt in Fantasy in 2019. She is a founding member of the Editorial Board for Mapping the Impossible: Journal for Fantasy Research, and an organiser of the Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations annual conference.

This article will be included in the forthcoming collection Utopia on the Tabletop (Ping Press). Thanks to the British Science Fiction Association, the Sussex Humanities Lab (Open Practice Group), and the University of Sussex School of Media, Arts and Humanities.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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