Urban fantasy is a genre that’s been gaining popularity and more attention lately. The genre blends fantastical elements like magic and non-human races with an urban setting, more modern than the typical medieval, middle earth settings for classic fantasy. Usually, this takes on a very modern feeling, like the much-maligned Netflix film Bright. In the actual play podcast Serendipity City, though, this style of world building is flipped on its head. Instead of hyper-modern, Serendipity City takes place in a re-imagined 1920s.
Serendipity City is an actual-play podcast that takes place in a sprawling, dieselpunk metropolis with a magical underworld (in more ways than one). Anarchists fight corrupt companies, shapeshifters fight for turf, dwarves work in the caves underneath the city, and through it all, our intrepid group of questionable heroes just wants to do the job they were hired for.
If you’re into audio drama, RPGs, dieselpunk, the roaring 20s, urban fantasy, lots of anachronism, booze, or any combination of the above, it’ll be right up your alley.
The most initially striking thing about Serendipity City is its lush worldbuilding. GM Michelle Nickolaisen (also of Unplaced) weaves the fantastical elements with the 20s setting effortlessly. The addition of dieselpunk–think steampunk, but a bit more retro-futurist than Victorian–makes the fantastical and the vintage blend together versus muddying them, especially since while all of these elements are present in the world, none of them are added without purpose. The fantasy is a backbone of how the world works; the dieselpunk is how the world reacts to the magical elements. It’s a blend that’s clever and cohesive, laying a sturdy and stylistic foundation for the storytelling without being overbearing.
The storytelling, like the world, is a combination of many elements working seamlessly together despite their differences. Nickolaisen plays the role of a GM who wants their players to tell a grand and beautiful story, but also can’t help but play into their hijinks. The players are the opposite side of the coin: they often want to be carried away by silly jokes and gags, only to find themselves more and more pulled into the narrative. It’s a classic part of playing a tabletop role-playing game, but it’s something many actual play podcasts can’t capture as well as a non-recorded game. Because most actual plays start with an air of importance–they have to make good audio, of course–there’s a tendency to either be comedy-forward or plot-forward only, with little room to grow. Both the players and the GM in Serendipity City blend both, making for a much more natural feel that evolves with the players. Its system, too, is a blend of different roleplaying platforms, adding one more way in which Serendipity City feels like a beautiful patchwork quilt.
Serendipity City stands out in its relative lack of combat, too. It seems like many actual play podcasts try to have one combat-focused encounter every episode, or at least a few times an arc. In Serendipity City‘s first arc, Nickolaisen makes it clear that the players do not necessarily need to fight an opponent in order to progress in the story, and the players decide to evade much of the conflict by becoming invisible instead. Later on, when the players are leveling up, Nickolaisen casually and un-sarcastically says, “You might want to consider buying a gun.” While many action play podcasters seem to think the listener wants to hear the battles, combat in audio usually falls flat and seems monotonous. With Serendipity City, there’s a wily edge to the storytelling on all fronts that make for much more inventive solutions to conflict, which makes for much more engaging episodes.
Where Serendipity City falls a little flat is in its editing. Early episodes do take some time to settle in, and they usually run for an hour to an hour and half. While the hour-long episodes are a fairly standard length for a podcast, the extra half hour does make it much more difficult to fit into a listening schedule. The edits could be a little closer when it comes to off-topic tangents, though editing too much would remove a good deal of personality that adds to how well the podcast works. Both the timestamps and the editing improve over time, too, keeping episodes to about an hour and adding some nice sound design to accompany each episode’s musical score.
While Serendipity City might take some initial investment from the listener, that investment will pay off quickly. It’s an interesting, different take on both the actual play medium and the urban fantasy genre, blending many different aspects into one cohesive, engaging story.