Urban Shadows (Designed by Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz-Truman) is another game from Magpie Games and another variation on the Powered by the Apocalypse system. Are you noticing a trend with me? Urban Shadows was actually the first Magpie game I went all in for. I heard of some of their previous work but didn’t know these games were all from the same publisher. Urban Shadows is also a system I’ve run about 30 times in a series of small interconnected campaigns. I always love playing with a new GM though, because I learn techniques on how to run the game or discover subtleties about it that had completely gone over my head.
Urban Shadows takes many of the elements of World of Darkness with a focus on the faction politics. The four factions of the game are Mortality (Aware humans, monster hunters), Night (vampires, werewolves, ghosts), Power (Wizards, Oracles, Immortals) and Wild (Fae, Humans tainted by demons). Players have two sets of stats: one related to their individual abilities and the second for their knowledge and connection to each Faction. There are Basic Moves but also Faction Moves that require rolling with the relevant Faction stat. You accumulate Debts on other players and NPCs and can spend those debts for favors or greater influence in negotiations. You “level up” or advance by interacting with the four Factions. On top of all of this, there is a Corruption track that is advanced by certain choices in the Basic Moves and by a Corruption condition specific to each playbook. You can pick up new Corruption moves but in the fiction this moves you closer to your character becoming an NPC threat in a later game or campaign.
Thursday evening we sat down at the table with Derrick Kapchinksy, a member of Magpie. This was our first time with him running a game so I was very interested to see how things went. There was also a complete newbie to the PBtA style of game and appropriately Derrick spent time going over the basic mechanics and making sure he was comfortable with the game. After the game, my wife and I talked about how perfectly Derrick described how the system worked, talking about it in the context of a conversation with some mechanics that come to the surface only when needed. Our novice player definitely seemed to take to the game quickly. The urban environs of our game was Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city Derrick is very familiar with. As with all Urban Shadows games it’s fairly important that the GM have a good understanding of the city so they can weave real world elements with a fictional supernatural underbelly.
I played Raul, a Tainted Iraq War vet. He sold his soul in the midst of a firefight to an Ifrit. The result was that he was the sole survivor of his unit and returned to the state haunted by the fiery demon. Now the Ifrit had turned its attention to Raul’s nephew as a potential new host. Raul’s own rage built as the influence of the demon increased causing him to becoming brutally violent with bystanders, he particularly focused on the homeless population knowing they wouldn’t have many people looking out for them. In the opening hour of the game we established that vampires had been wiped out by a fellow player’s Veteran hunter. The Fae filled in that power vacuum but now the vampires were returning to the city.
I was particularly impressed with Derrick’s Redcap enforcers. They appeared as teenage Native American young men in backwards red baseball caps for the Albuquerque Cannons (now the Isotopes). I love that clever blending of traditional folkloric beings with touches of modern life. It helps to create the atmosphere of the supernatural embedded among us. The game consisted in the players getting their characters deeper and deeper into trouble between the Vampires and Fae, culminating in a showdown at a vampire nightclub.
Urban Shadows is one of the best adaptations of the PBtA system. It has a lot of moving parts and thus can be daunting the first time you look over a character sheet. With a little reading up and given some time the fluidity of these elements comes to the surface. As long as you run and play the game with an emphasis on the political you’ll have a great time. This does involve a shift in the traditional tabletop mindset where players receive plot from the GM. Here the GM looks to the players to communicate what things they are interested in doing and see happen. When everyone is on the same page the system sings. If this type of dark, political, supernatural style of storytelling appeals to you then I say you need to buy this game. I know for me it’s provided hours and hours of great gaming sessions.
Urban Shadows – http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/153464/Urban-Shadows
You can also see Urban Shadows in play, run by the masterful Jay Brown here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZ5Vuy-KoEM
Tomorrow: Monsterhearts & Bluebeard’s Bride