Review – Dark Streets (Urban Shadows)

Urban Shadows is a game game of political urban fantasy – Powered by the Apocalypse and published by Magpie Games. It takes every sort of supernatural thing (and some mortal archetypes that hunt or otherwise interact with them), and crams them all together in the close quarters of a big city. Usually one that’s pretty gritty. The one supplement for Urban Shadows is Dark Streets.

Dark Streets has two primary draws, with a bit extra thrown in. First, there are four new playbooks. Second, there’s material on running setting your game is several specific real-world cities. Second-and-a-half, there’s some essay-type content on creating your own playbooks or running a game in a historical setting (note: unless to keep your game in something that can at least pass for a big city, significant adjustments will need to be made, because you’re losing a critical population density of supernaturals).

The four new playbooks are the Scholar (Morality), the Hallowed (Power), the Revenant (Night), and the Vessel (Wild). As if often the case with ‘limited edition’ playbooks from outside PbtA core books, these playbooks are a bit narrower and/or require a bit more work on the part of the Master of Ceremonies.

The Playbooks

The Scholar: The Scholar deals in arcane items – tomes, relics, and the like. Pretty much all of the Scholars extras and moves revolve around arcane items – a network to get them, skill at appraising them, extra ability using them, etc. The Scholar is both a narrow concept and one that makes the MC work a bit harder. There are characters who do go after arcane items, but it’s usually to use them, or destroy them, or build a library, or whatever – not just trade in them. And it means that arcane items go from a secondary consideration in the game to something that has to be there all the time.

The Hallowed: The Hallowed is a religious leader, and they have a Flock that believes in that religion and in the Hallowed (even if the Hallowed doesn’t believe in the religion or in themself). The Flock can be called upon to do … well, whatever the Hallowed needs them to do, if they roll well enough. As with the Scholar and their arcane item fixation, almost all of the Hallowed’s moves and extras build off of the Flock, making them more capable or even more fanatical. The Hallowed also has the ability to bestow a blessing of their faith – healing them, protecting them, or boosting weaponry. Having a Hallowed in the game does introduce a new element (the Flock), but it is not one that requires the same sort of shift that the Scholar does – the Flock is essentially an always present, very powerful NPC. Indeed, the Hallowed is essentially a ‘pet’ class – it’s not what they can do, it’s what their Flock can do.

The Revenant: The Revenant is the most straightforward of the new playbooks. Someone killed you, you’re back from the dead, you have an animal guide, and you’re out for vengeance (or maybe justice, it’s so hard to tell sometimes). That’s right, you’re playing the Crow (OK, technically, you’re playing as Eric Draven in The Crow). And the Revenant is my favorite of the new playbooks. Because you’re playing Eric Draven in The Crow. You can even go around and recite the names of your moves from the movie – “Abashed the Devil Stood and felt how awful goodness is!” (Yes, I know, it’s originally from Paradise Lost.) You’re also an unkillable combat machine. The Revenant’s drawback is that they aren’t really a long-term character. The MC advice on the Revenant even includes the phrase “If the Revenant lasts for multiple game sessions.” The MC needs to work to keep the Revenant’s blood opera on a slow roll, or they can take over the game – basically, the Revenant needs to be forced to be something other than just their archetype. Even so, it’s a character with a fairly defined end.

The Vessel: The Vessel is Frankenstein’s monster or a golem – a created being intended to serve its creators purpose, and imbued with certain instincts. The Vessel’s moves are mostly about combat and unstoppability – being able to take a ignore damage, fight against large groups as if you were one, or smashing through obstacles. But the Vessel’s story isn’t really about combat. The Vessel doesn’t track Corruption, they track Redemption – moving closer to humanity. The Vessel is, I think, the most broadly useful of the four playbooks (I like the Revenant more, but it’s still limited). It has long-term potential, broad possibilities, and doesn’t require a heavy lift on the part of the MC.

The City Guides

More than half of Dark Streets is taken up with the city guides. Each city is presented in 6-8 pages – a map (one page), a short description, five or so City Moves, representative images, something about who/what is in charge of each of the factions, a blurb about one NPC for each faction, and two threats (one page each). Dark Streets covers Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Bangalore, London, Kichijoji Daimachi, and all five boroughs of New York City (each of which gets the same treatment as a full city … which, as any New Yorker will tell you, is entirely fair … also, if you split up NYC, then every borough except for Staten Island would be among the ten biggest cities in the U.S. by population).

Unfortunately, I found that the cities suffered from trying to cram too many into too little space. For the cities themselves, either I know the city enough that I can use the sparse information as something of a reminder of what themes might work to embody that city (e.g., New York) … or I don’t already know the city, and there really isn’t enough there to get me to how to deploy that in the game (e.g., Bangalore, which I would make a total hash out of).

Similarly, the threats had me left feeling like I would have a hard time using them. Yeah, it’s pretty standard to write up a threat in a page, but the sample threats in the core book were all fairly narrow in scope. The stakes were manageable. The threats in Dark Street are generally campaign-shattering and city-wide. There’s a lot of work still to be done to try to use them. And that work really need to be done thoroughly, because they aren’t the sort of threats that you have a realistic option of ‘letting’ the players fail, because the consequences include things like permanent night falling over the city or the national guard coming in and wiping out all of the supernaturals.

Thoughts

If you really like Urban Shadows, and I do like Urban Shadows, then Dark Streets is the place to go to get more. Ultimately, however, I was disappointed in Dark Streets (and it’s the first time I’ve felt let down by anything Magpie published). The playbooks are really pretty limited, with only the Vessel having a lot of potential. There just isn’t enough content on the cities, at least for me, to even form a decent springboard to running something there. Maybe a more talented gamemaster can get from the book to reality more quickly, but I was left feeling like they could have easily at least doubled the page count on each city. As it was, they fell in a middle ground where it was a lot more than just some inspiration, but a lot less than a solid campaign framework.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.