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2:46pm on Sunday, 1st September, 2019:

Damon Runyon Theatre


When I was in my teens, one of the subscribers to my postal games magazine suggested that it would be a good idea to set a role-playing game in the world of Damon Runyon. I'd never heard of Damon Runyon before, so I bought one of his collections of short stories (From First to Last). The first stories weren't great, but when the book reached the second second and changed setting they really took off. I bought the second collection (On Broadway) and enjoyed that, too. The stories do indeed fondly describe a world — that of 1930s New York — and as a world-builder I was very taken by them.

I haven't read the stories for 40 years, but I still have the paperbacks on my bookshelf (as opposed to the attic). It was thus with some enthusiasm that I discovered over the summer that one of my friends was a fan. He recommended that I try listening to the radio series that was made of some of the stories in the late 1940s. I duly purchased 10 shows on CD (yes, they still make CDs) and played them in the car on the way to and from work.

They're actually pretty good. They capture the period perfectly, with the characters speaking exactly how they should do for the place and time. The actor playing the narrator is particularly good, but the rest are also of the era. They sound as if they're straight out of a film noire movie. No-one speaks with that kind of intonation any more, at least not unless they're deliberately affecting it.

The stories aren't as good as in the books, as they've been adapted for radio format and have to fit a rigid timetable. An announcer introduces the show ("the Damon Runyon Theatre") and gives the title of this week's story ("by the master storyteller, Damon Ronyon") , then he hands over to the narrator (who always says "thank you"). The narrator, who is the same character in all the stories, then begins the story — but immediately after the hook goes to a commercial break ("which I will tell you about in a minute"). The announcer comes back and reminds us the title of "the famous story" we're listening to, then the narrator picks up where he left off and continues until the mid-point and another commercial break. After this, he almost finishes it except for the twist ("the pay-off"), which comes after a final commercial break. Once he's done this, the announcer takes over and tells us what we've been listening to, then the show ends.

All this means that the stories have to be told in about 20 minutes. They can't be read verbatim in 20 minutes, so they're dramatised instead. The narrator in the books doesn't have a name; when dramatised, he has to have a name so people can talk to him. They name they use is Broadway, which is fair enough as he does spend a lot of time there (in Mindy's restaurant). It loses something of the tone, though, because when telling the stories in the book it's all done through the narrator, who has a particular way of communicating ("Waldo Winchester, the newspaper scribe, is saying to me the other night up in the Hot Box that it is a very great shame that there are no dolls around such as in the old days to make good stories for the newspapers by knocking off guys right and left, because it seems that newspaper scribes consider a doll knocking off a guy very fine news indeed, especially if the doll or the guy belongs to the best people."). The character does speak like this in the radio dramatisation, but other people don't, which spoils the viewpoint.

Anyway, although I did like the radio plays, I don't think I'll be buying more. They're quite pricey for a start (they work out at over £2 a story), but the main reason is that I can't put the CD box anywhere both stable and reachable in the car. Wedging it in the door pocket sort of worked, but meant I had to bend the case (and it still popped out two or three times). I should probably download MP3s to my phone instead.

I do agree with the suggestion that Runyon's world probably would make a good RPG setting. I think that a slightly-earlier prohibition-era gangster setting would be more than somewhat the better choice for an MMORPG, though.

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Copyright © 2019 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).