The Unsleeping City Season 2 Episode 3 Review: ‘The Mystery of the Haunted Subway’

The Mystery of the Haunted Subway

After a couple episodes of buildup, we’re finally getting to see the Roll20 combat setup in use! ‘The Mystery of the Haunted Subway’ is a running battle through an out of control subway- and it takes a serious toll on our intrepid heroes. 

Before I dig into ‘The Mystery of the Haunted Subway’ I need to apologize for missing last week. I had a plague – not The Plague, but unpleasant nonetheless. ‘Heaven and Hell on Earth’ was a hysterical episode that brought up a lot of important points, so I want to do a quick recap of my thoughts. 

  • Sophia is Not Doing Well despite maintaining her sobriety. I love that Esther has noticed that. From the casual mention of her tracking everyone, I get the idea that she’s secretly the lynchpin of the group. 
  • Ricky is also struggling with his new life, though he seems to feel like admitting that is selfish. When he talks about the questing blade and how he misses it, I want to hug him. I hope he gets it back… or another one… or something. Maybe Dale comes back one last time and gives it to him again?
  • Pete does so much better when he has tasks to focus on. He leapt right into action when he realized what had happened to Cody, and he’s been On It since. Maybe he should have been hanging out with Sophia and doing patrols the whole time. It would have been better for both of them. 
  • Murph is having a blast with Cody. The mental gymnastics that guy is going through to cope with having casually sold his soul to a relatively minor devil are incredible. Speaking of-
  • The way the other characters are treating Cody kills me. They’re trying so hard to be nice to him although you can see they’re like, “Oh man, this guy is cringe.” It both speaks well of their characters and gives me some hope that being in a supportive friend group will help Cody grow up a little. (Not like he does later in ‘The Mystery of the Haunted Subway’. I mean actual character growth.)
  • Kingston is doing me a big concern. Will what’s happening weaken his powers as it seems to be weakening him? Is he going to die this season? PEOPLE DIE IN THIS SHOW, YOU GUYS. 

The characters didn’t get too much time to socially mingle in ‘Heaven and Hell on Earth’. That doesn’t change in ‘The Mystery of the Haunted Subway’. It’s a full on scramble through a full train of anti-populi sentiment, and most of the action takes place over less than a minute of in-game time. 

The real star of this episode is the Roll20 combat system, which we’re seeing Dimension 20 use for the first time (along with a new purple player background which is easier on the eyes than the golden maps).

I’ve been pretty hype for this. Dungeon Master Brennan Lee Mulligan told us in our interview that Carlos Luna, AKA Cheese from Pirates of Leviathan, was the Roll20 wizard who worked with the art team on the system. He’s awesome, and of course we all know the quality of work produced by the amazing Dimension 20 art crew. With creators like that working on this combat system, how could it be anything other than spectacular?

You guys, this system absolutely lived up to the hype. Look at this.

The Mystery of the Haunted Subway breakdown
These aren’t even all the cars. There was the one with the vampires Kingston zotted with a lightning bolt and the witch who Ricky shamed into dissolving, too.

We have:

There are even “special circumstance” tokens, like this exploded roof that shows up when Frankenstein’s Monster goes up after Sophia.
  • A gorgeous map with detailed yet subdued graphics for each scene. I respect how they kept the backgrounds dark enough for the tokens to be easily visible (the haloing around player tokens helped, too) without sacrificing design.
  • Special “roof” tokens to hide the monsters in a room until characters arrive. They could have just used the Fog of War feature built into Roll20, so this is special. Dimension 20 always goes the extra mile when it comes to set building (even digital sets, it seems).
  • A full set of custom monster tokens and corresponding art. I know we’ve always gotten plenty of art in this show, but I don’t think it’s my imagination that we’re getting more this season. 
  • Special effects. SPECIAL EFFECTS. I know I’m not the only one who saw the blood spurt animations when Kingston got hit in that first train car. That’s very cool.
  • On screen Digital Box of Doom rolls. We did know on screen rolls played some part since they showed up in the preview. I’m relieved to see it’s just the modern BOD instead of being used for literally every roll, which would get real old, real fast. 

I have been using Roll20 all year (at least once a week, usually 2-3 times), so I can see how much work went into getting this right. Just the art alone must have taken a ton of time and back-and-forth reviews to make sure everything read well on screen and fit with the adventure requirements.

The team really nailed this. We need a full Adventuring Party that’s just the art team (and Carlos Luna) talking about how they put this season together. 

Brennan obviously put in a ton of time getting familiar with the system, too. I’m still getting mad at dynamic lighting and forgetting to make nameplates visible and he’s over there flipping groups of monsters up from the DM layer without pausing his spiel. I soothe my pride by reminding myself that if he DID need to pause the editors would cut that out… but honestly, it’s probably not that long a pause. 

This is a vast improvement over the combat scenes from Pirates of Leviathan. Sure, there were some “order of march” art and some initiative graphics, but without a battle mat it was a little hard to follow the action at times.

Important note: I’m not knocking Pirates! It was created in about 3 weeks while the art team was working on The Unsleeping City 2 and looks fantastic as it is. My point is more that there’s a huge step up in what can be done graphically without those time constraints.

The mystery of the haunted subway
The players keep finding ways to recreate the energy of a live table game, which makes my nerd heart happy. Look how stoked they are for Ricky’s Nat 20!

Although ‘The Mystery of the Haunted Subway’ is a combat episode, there was some story development for our new characters. Cody is dialing in on his new powers (and hopefully going to get to St Vincent’s before that aging is permanent). I have to give Murph credit for something significant here. He portrays Cody as this angry ridiculous guy but put enough depth into him that he isn’t unplayable in a group. Cody wants to work with the others. He looks for their approval without being a toady and genuinely tries to help however he can.

In short, he makes it obvious why the other characters are willing to spend time with him instead of forcing players to metagame to keep him in the action. A+ roleplaying as usual, Murph.  

Iga (or as the other players STILL know her, Anastasia) has grudgingly taken a more active role in the Unsleeping City with this fight. I love her. I can’t wait until she has to reveal her real identity to the rest of the group (or even her husband, who knows that something is up but not what is up). Her comments last episode about that magic box being passed down from mother to daughter makes me wonder if her daughter will become a bigger character over the season, too. 

Ricky Matsui underwent a major change in this combat, as well. He’s trying to be less physically violent. I noticed Zac Oyama struggling a bit in the early episode with how to make that a practical effect since so many of his paladin abilities have physical manifestations if you’re going by the book. Brennan stepped in to reskin his abilities on the fly. Instead of a punch or a strike as a “magic delivery system”, Ricky can use a verbal rebuke or gentle suggestion. 

This kind of flexibility – stepping outside the rules to fit a story better without unbalancing the game – is one of the most important skills a DM can have. Never get so caught up in technicalities that you crush someone’s search for character growth, friends. 

That said, I think Ricky would be a lot happier if he got the Questing Blade – really, any heroic magic weapon – back. From what he said it seems he thinks losing the blade also means the revocation of his ability to punch evil in the face. Ricky is so pure, I want him to be happy and confident again. 

In the last minutes of the episode we get another hint of what’s happening in New York. Nod is under a mysterious internal pressure. Small boutique stores are being bought up. Longtime residents are being chased out. The soul of the city is being muffled under the weight of Corporate Efficiency. Trust Dimension 20 to be so topical it hurts, because I see this kind of thing happening all over and it’s hard to know how to fight it. 

At least we can be reasonably sure to get a happy ending of some kind in the Unsleeping City, whatever happens in the real world. 

The next episode of The Unsleeping City Season 2 will air on the CollegeHumor YouTube channel in its normal Wednesday timeslot (7pm EST). If you missed ‘The Mystery of the Haunted Subway’ you can catch it over on DROPOUT. As always, check back here the next day to hash it out (and feel free to get in the comments if you don’t like my take!). 

Author: Khai

Khai is a writer, anthropologist, and games enthusiast. She is co-editor (alongside Alex DeCampi) of and contributor to “True War Stories”, a comic anthology published by Z2 Comics. When she’s not writing or creating games, Khai likes to run more tabletop RPGs than one person should reasonably juggle.

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