(The shadow of Urban Shadows.)
I have been meaning to write a review for Urban Shadows for a long time. It is my favourite RPG of all time, and I was annoyed to see the negative reviews on DriveThruRPG. Perhaps this would start a series of RPG reviews on my blog.
I should start with how I got into the game. Like most people who got into tabletop RPGs, I started with D&D. I always have a soft spot for urban fantasy settings, more so than the high fantasy setting of D&D. Fast forward to free RPG day, and a friend of mine was running Monsterhearts. I instantly fell in love with the Powered by the Apocalypse system, especially with the character sheets/playbooks. One of my pet peeves of D&D is the unwieldiness of character creation. Things are never in just one place, and I have to flip through the player’s handbook multiple times and copy paragraphs onto my character sheet. (While the DM can hand out pregens, I find it detracts a lot from the role-playing experience.) In PbtA, there is usually a two-page playbook that each player goes through, ticking boxes and answering questions. While Monsterhearts is a great game, I prefer a game with less PvP and sexual content. (While I still haven’t read it properly, I know Monsterhearts has a really good section on consent and setting boundaries, but that is a discussion for another time.) After some searching, I found Urban Shadows (written by Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz Truman, and published by Magpie Games), which has everything I wanted, a more PvE focus, and the sex moves are replaced with intimacy moves. I read through the book and ran a number of games, and every Urban Shadows game I ran had been a blast.
I guess I should go through the mechanics of Urban Shadows, which is similar to other PbtA games. Urban Shadows has narratively driven mechanics, rather than one focused on simulation. You makes moves in the game, which usually has the variation of “If you do a certain thing in the story, roll 2d6 plus a stat. It is a hit on a 7+, and you choose from one of the following options. The results are more favourable if you roll a 10+.” There are 4 stats in the game; Blood is for both fighting and running away; Heart is one’s charisma and passion; Mind is intelligence and wisdom rolled into one; Spirit represents a character’s connection to the supernatural. I have a minor gripe with stats in PbtA game, and I will talk more about it later. The wonderful thing about PbtA is that the MC (Master of Ceremonies) never have to roll dice. I love the simplicity of it, and it is just one less thing for the MC to worry about, so they can focus on the story instead.
Aside from the standard moves, there are moves that deal with social aspects of the game, including the aforementioned intimacy moves, debt moves and faction moves. Your deal out debts in character generation, either between player characters, or between PC and NPC. A player’s action in the game can either make them more indebted or they can hold new debts on other characters. The advantage of it is two-fold. The PC-PC debts bring the PCs together. They are not random characters who just met in a pub, but they have histories with each other, and those histories have a mechanical significance in the game. The PC-NPC debts serve a similar purpose, making the NPCs more “real” to the story and giving them influence over the PCs. In Urban Shadows, the PCs “level-up” by interacting with various factions. There are 4 factions in the game; Mortality for characters that are mostly human; Night for your typical monsters of the night, such as vampires and werewolves; Power for Illuminati-ish individuals who want control of the city for themselves; Wild for beings who came from, or draw power from places beyond. The beauty with the whole faction mechanics is that it encourages the players to populate the city with interesting NPCs. Yes, in Urban Shadows, the players have as much initiative in creating the world and its inhabitants as the MC. The MC does not have to prepare a bunch of NPCs in advance.
(Picture from the official Urban Shadows page on Magpie Games.)
Another two mechanics I want to talk about are corruption and end moves. Every PC has a corruption track, and they are taken out of the game when it gets filled up. You gain corruption by choosing certain options in the basic moves, by meeting certain playbook specific criterion, or by using your corruption powers. You may think it is just a bad thing, but no, since you also unlock more corruption powers as your track advances. The PCs can succumb to their darker nature to gain more power and risk losing themselves to the dark side, or they can control themselves and suppress the beast within. People tend to see character death as a negative thing, and it should not be. (Well, unless a PC dies at the beginning of a session and the player has nothing to do for the next few hours.) Like other games, PCs in Urban Shadows can be taken out of the game via injury, as well as through corruption. When a PC gets taken out of the game, they have access to their end move. The end moves have powerful effects specific to the playbook, and they can be a heroic sacrifice to bring one’s allies closer to victory, or a vengeful curse to bring down those who wronged them. When a PC dies in Urban Shadows, they have a lasting impact on the world instead of just fizzle out of existence (and they can even come back as a threat if they were lost to the dark side).
Prep-less and Player Centric
Another thing I love about Urban Shadows is that a MC does not have to prepare anything prior to the game (other than knowing the rules). I just give players a map of the local city, and have them reference points of interest on the map. I do not prepare any plot nor create any antagonists beforehand. There is a session start move in the game, which requires each player to provide a rumour of what is happening in the city. I then combine the rumours with the character backgrounds to form multiple threats that are inter-linked. Coming from D&D, I was really worried about not having a pre-made adventure ready for my first Urban Shadow game, but everything worked out in the end. Some people are put off when I told them character creation takes an hour to an hour and a half for a one-shot, but character creation in Urban Shadows is not a solitary activity. Answering individual background questions only takes ten to fifteen minutes, and most of the time is spent divvying out debts. Each playbook has three debts to assign (either those they owe or own), and the players work together to find out how best to distribute them. In the process, everyone has an understanding of everything else’s character, and a camaraderie (as well as rivalry and sometimes animosity) is formed between the PCs. (For the record, none of the players complained that character creation took too long. Only some random haters on the internet.) One of the PbtA philosophies is “play to see what happens”, and I embrace it in my Urban Shadow games; every game I run is unique because I use my players’ ideas instead of forcing mine onto them.
(Front page of the Aware Playbook.)
(Back page of the Aware Playbook.)
I said in the beginning how the playbooks drew me into PbtA. Urban Shadows has one of the best PbtA playbooks in my opinion. Each playbook can be printed onto a single piece of paper, double sided, and folds into a three-column leaflet. The whole thing is in black and white, with amazing black and white character portraits that portray the grittiness of the setting (and prints very well on a printer). Every section is well organised and I do not have to flip back and forth in order to fill in the stats (looking at you here, Monster of the Week). I just love the design of the playbooks so much.
Themes, Setting and How I Run the Game
I guess I still have not actually described the setting nor theme of the game. Urban Shadows is an urban fantasy RPG, where the world we live in is actually inhabited by supernatural monsters that vie for control of the city. Since I mainly run one-shots, the game is often fast paced and action packed. At the start of the game, the PCs would be going on with their normal lives, but they are interrupted by the villains’ machination. Sometimes, the characters choose to fight the goons head on. Other times, they talk their way though or run away. In the process, they learn more about who the villains are, and what they hope to gain before a final confrontation. One of the MC principle I love in Urban Shadows is “Push the characters together, even across boundaries”. (What I do not understand is how some other PbtA games want the MC to split up the party.) As I mentioned earlier, I have already created inter-linked threats that concern more than one PCs. I would further nudge the PCs so that they would face the threats together, even if they have previously parted ways. (It is kinda like the Avengers reconvening in New York to fight Loki.) Sometimes, I think my way of running the game may not be as dark and as political as the authors have intended, but the table always have fun.
While I love Urban Shadows, I still have some minor gripes with it. The game itself is US-centric. Even though there is the Dark Streets supplement that contains advice for running games in different cities across the world, the core rules are not changed by it. The major thing that sticks out is how prevalent guns are in the playbooks, as well as the big freaking swords. (I am not sure if you can carry a katana openly in New York for that matter.) I wish there are less firearm options and more concealed weapons as choices for the characters’ gears, so it would be more plausible for them to blend in UK cities (and other non-US cities across the world). The other gripe I have is on the stats, which also applies to other PbtA games. In the games I run, there is sometimes that one power gamer who complains they cannot use their best stat on a move. While I would tell them to focus on the narrative rather than the mechanics, I can understand some of their frustrations. The names of the stats in PbtA are more abstract compared to traditional RPGs, which made it harder to gauge which stat to choose for the character they envisioned. I think many PbtA games would be better with stats that say what it is on the tin.
Overall, I cannot express how much I love Urban Shadows and how much I enjoy running it. I would recommend everyone into tabletop RPG and urban fantasy to give it a go.
Official Urban Shadows page on Magpie Games:
Urban Shadows on DriveThruRPG: