Harmontown: Cheapy Peepy

tl;dr A piece of garbage. Players who are grown men who should know better get slurring drunk and play D&D. Their characters torture and sexually assault a defenseless prisoner. They then abandon their quest and head off into the world, abandoning one member of their party.

Title: Cheapy Peepy
Season: Silver Flame
Podcast: Harmontown
Gamemaster: Spencer Crittenden
Dan Harmon as Carlos
Jeff Davis as Chad Fireliker
Steve Levy as DJ
Guest NPC:
Rob Schrab as Gary Shambling
Game engine: Dungeons and Dragons 5e
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

I hate Harmontown.

I first realized that there was a medium for playing RPGs in audio format when I heard a live performance of Harmontown at XOXOfest in 2014. I’d never heard the show before. About 2/3 through the show, Dan says, “Let’s play some D&D up here,” and I was really embarrassed for him. It felt like someone saying they were going to get completely naked.

But I really liked the performance. Spencer Crittenden is a skilled gamemaster. Erin McGathy, Dan’s girlfriend, also brought some good game. One variation of the live show events is that they would call up audience members to play other PCs, which made for a varied, interesting long-form show.

Comparing now, having heard so many better actual-play podcasts since then, I realize it’s not that great. It’s usually only the last 1/3 or 1/4 of the show. All the players drink, so their game play is not the best. The players improv a lot, taking their PCs into corners the PCs don’t really belong in. They never roll their own dice; Spencer rolls for them (and doesn’t call the rolls). The thing I love about introducing randomness into an improvised story by using dice or other tools is just not there in the same way. And, of course, neurotic Dan Harmon kind of bulldozes Spencer, and Spencer goes along with it.

And that’s back when Harmontown used to be good.

It’s gone through a lot of twists and turns. At one point they switched the game engine to Shadowrun, which was pretty great, and sufficiently encapsulated that they could have some continuity from show to show to finish a heist. At the same time they created HarmonQuest, a show on Seeso where they played D&D (with animators illustrating the game). Part of their agreement was that they’d have minimal or no D&D on the podcast.

And now they’re back. They’ve got a new campaign, with three PCs: Carlos, a tormented cleric in service to the Church of the Silver Flame; Chad, a druid; and Diarrhea Jr. (thankfully called DJ most of the time), who’s another cleric. Together they’re kind of like a church exorcist squad, shutting down heresy and dark magic around the land.

In this campaign, they haven’t been including audience members or guests in the game, based on the mistaken notion that the rotating cast made the show bad. This is not at all true; Curtis Armstrong, Kumail Nanjiani, and Gilbert Gottfried all gave great performances in the past.

The weak link has always been Dan Harmon. Dan gets twisted around the axle in almost every session, unable to make a decision, or flip-flopping back and forth between decisions. He holds up the party, does random assaults, and goes back and forth incessantly between points on the map. And, since it’s his show, the rest of the players let him.

As a further complication, a few months ago the venue where they did their live recordings was shut down by the city of Burbank. They’d never bothered to get fire permits or a liquor license. So now the podcast is recorded in a private studio. And instead of having a group of men get drunk and razz each other on stage, and then eventually play Dungeons and Dragons, in front of a laughing studio audience, the same group of men now gets drunk and razzes each other in private, and then eventually plays Dungeons and Dragons, to no laughter at all. The only word I can think of is “creepy”.

In this episode, the party has captured a prisoner and spirited him away to a farmhouse to question him. They first interrogate him, and after they realize that he’s not involved the crime they’re investigating, they strip search him and sexually assault him before letting him go. One of the players, Steve Levy, objects. “I’m not OK with this.” Dan and the other players continue over his objection.

It’s disturbing. It’s unethical to do it in fiction without dealing really frankly with the ramifications. They don’t at all.

Eventually, the prisoner gets away, mostly with the help of regretful PCs and the one voiced NPC. And now the party just gives up on this quest. They were trying to find some jewel, and they couldn’t. They don’t care. They’re just going to cut out on their own, quit their church, and go have other adventures. “Whew, what a relief!”

One player refuses to just bail. He goes to look for the jewel in the town they were just in. They leave without him. End of podcast.

The audio in this show is fine. The production is OK, although the format, pegging it on to the end of what’s mostly just a chat show, is frustrating. If they wanted to, with a little thought and attention, this group could do a really good actual-play podcast. Instead, they make something really bad. I give this 1 out of 5 stars, and I’ll probably unsubscribe from Harmontown from now on.