Review – Urban Shadows

Urban Shadows is billed as a “political urban fantasy,” and it lives up to that billing. Characters are vampires, werewolves, fae, ghosts, mages, prophets, or just plain old humans, divided into competing factions and struggling to get by and maybe get ahead on the (frequently dark) city streets. The factions are heavily woven into the game mechanics, and players can anticipate a focus on fast-moving action and plots. Political machinations and ties between the PCs are pushed along with a focus on debts held and owed.

Mechanically, Urban Shadows is Powered by the Apocalypse, and follows that basic framework. Characters have stats, which range from -3 to +3. Attempting an action that might fail requires rolling 2d6, with 10+ for a strong success and 7-9 for a success at a cost (sometimes a significant one).

There are four main stats – Blood (fight/flight), Heart (charisma), Mind (perception, intellect), and Spirit (will and supernatural stuff). There are also four faction stats, with the four factions of the game – Mortality, Might, Power, and Wild. The basic moves use the main stats, while “faction moves” use the faction stats. The basic moves include attacking, escaping, persuading, figuring someone out, tricking someone, keeping your cool, and letting it out (which covers any sort of supernatural thing not covered by an archetype, which can be a lot because Urban Shadows mostly does not define what it means to be a vampire, werewolf, etc.). Faction moves include hitting the streets (looking for a contact or connection), put a face toa name (see what you already know about a newly-introduced NPC), or investigate a place of power. I particularly like putting a face to a name, because it provides a pretty clean way of determining who knows what when some NPC who is new to the game, but clearly isn’t new to the city, shows up. Note that advancement in Urban Shadows is based on making faction moves for all of the factions, rather than being based on failing rolls.

There’s also a lend a hand/get in the way, which is it’s own thing. It’s a basic move, but one rolls with faction. And instead of being an independent action, it is a modifier to another player’s action. It can complicate the mechanics in ways the other moves usually won’t.

There is also a set of debt moves. Doing someone a favor is one of those non-action moves – you do someone a favor, they owe you. There are also a specific set of ways you can cash in on a debt (no rolling). And there are two more ‘normal’ moves that do require rolls – refusing to honor a debt and dropping the name of someone who owes you in order to get something from someone else in their faction.

Character creation will be familiar to those who have played other Powered by the Apocalypse games. All characters use a playbook (here called an archetype). The archetype defines the baseline stats, with some player modification. Players will select from a limited number of move or power options presented in the archetype. The players will answer a series of questions that begin to define the existing ties between the player characters – here, that is expressed in terms of debts (e.g., ‘you promised to help _____, but failed; you owe them two debts.’). Archetypes also define an end move (what dramatic thing happens when the character dies), an intimacy move (intimacy being defined broadly, and including emotional intimacy), and a corruption move (which is just the trigger for when the character gains corruption). Speaking of corruption, there are also corruption moves. Mark corruption five times and the character gains a corruption move – usually a powerful move that gives more corruption every time its used. The fifth corruption advancement is the end of the character.

The archetypes (and their factions) are:

  • The Aware (Mortality): The Aware is a mortal investigator who knows something about the supernatural, and wants to know more. I think that the Aware is more likely than any other archetype to take the advancement to switch to a different archetype (they start hunting the monsters, they become one of the monsters, etc.). The other likely storypath is to join a secret society dedicated to learning about/counteracting the non-mortals.
  • The Hunter (Mortality): This one is pretty self-explanatory.
  • The Veteran (Mortality): I can’t think of anyone better than Abraham Whistler (from Blade) to exemplify the Veteran (I’m not saying there isn’t anyone, just that he’s the best I’ve got). The Veteran is too old for this stuff. They’ve been around the block and know (and are known to) the other denizens of the city. They have a workshop that they can use to churn out unbreakable speciality items for their buddies to use, or patch them up after a really bad night. The Veteran needs to get back out of the game at some point, or face a bad end – but unlike the other Mortality archetypes, they actually have the option of simple retirement.
  • The Spectre (Night): Yup, you’re a ghost. And not a particularly happy one. Note that the Spectre can (partially) manifest almost at will, so there is a built-in way to interact with the world, but it’s still relatively lonely.
  • The Vamp (Night): The Vamp must feed (although not necessarily on blood), but beyond that the exact parameters of their nature are left undefined. Rather than focusing on things like “what happens when you stake a vampire,” this archetype is focused on learning about others, drawing them into the web, and taking advantage of them.
  • The Wolf (Night): The (Were)Wolf is mechanically driven by two things – transformation and territory. The Wolf’s transformation is not, by default, a controlled one – they can only change during the full moon, and will probably change whether they want to or not.
  • The Oracle (Power): The Oracle is blessed and cursed with visions. There are side effects. And just because you know that a particular course of action is going to end badly doesn’t mean you can convince someone else of that. On a personal note, this is the archetype I used at the fantastic Urban Shadows one-shot I played in at PAX Unplugged 2018.
  • The Wizard (Power): The Wizard provides a relatively varied array of powers, based on what spells are chosen. What’s always present is that there are spells (tracking, elemental attacks, memory manipulation, defense, invisibility, teleporting, curses), and that there is a sanctum sanctorum.
  • The Fae (Wild): You are not from around here. The Fae is always a bit foreign, a bit mystifying (and probably a bit mystified). The Fae also have a variety of powers that play with concepts of favors owed (even moreso than usual for Urban Shadows), promises broken, and vengeance taken.
  • The Tainted (Wild): The Tainted is, along with the Vamp, one of the archetypes that has a strong pull towards the ‘monster’ side of thing. Because, for whatever reason, the Tainted made a deal with the devil (well, with a demon, anyway), works for that demon, and can transform into a demon. Now, that doesn’t mean the Tainted is all bad, and they do have free will, but it’s a pretty stacked deck.

I really liked the consistent presentation of how storytelling works in Urban Shadows – not the mechanics themselves, but the non-mechanical methods of the Master of Ceremonies (MC). In particular there’s a dual emphasis on “playing to find out what happens” and a straightforward presentation that provides clarity to the player about what’s facing them (which is not the same as clarity about what might happen later). The former is a push against plotting out what’s going to happen. The characters might plan this, and the antagonists might plan that, but ultimately there isn’t anyone (and that includes the MC) who knows how things are going to go. There is no plotted-out story arc or particular dramatic ending. I know that (even as a player) I can fall into overthinking and aiming for a particular set of story beats; Urban Shadows will beat that right out of you. The clarity emphasis ranges from topics like hard framing (scenes where there’s a specific stimulus the players need to deal with) to how to manage NPC dialogue (e.g., delivering some in-character lines, then specifically telling the player something like ‘he’s willing to help you, but you’ll owe him a debt’ instead of letting the conversation meander or wondering whether the player picked up on the offer). Urban Shadows also joins some other recent RPGs (e.g., Vampire 5th), in emphasising the ‘X happens. What do you do?’ – the plot always pushing forward.

On these topics and others, Urban Shadows drops solid advice throughout, not just in the MC section. But in the MC section in particular there are also helpful pitches about pushing the characters together, pushing the characters into conflicts, pushing the players to answer probing questions and then weave those answers into the game, letting the characters have a chance to shine (while still throwing bunches of twists at them, of course), and using PC-NPC-PC triangles. There’s a lot of more focused, game-specific advice for the MC as well – what kind of moves the different factions will make, and how to keep things interesting for different archetypes.

As is common for Powered by the Apocalypse games, Urban Shadows is a rules light game. But not as rules light as some others. The number of stats is relatively high (due to the faction stats). There are a relatively high fifteen standard moves (the ‘basic’ moves, plus the faction and debt moves that are always available to everyone). There are armor ratings and weapon damage and a variety of tags for weapons and groups that modify combat in various ways. I believe in something of an ‘uncanny valley’ in roleplaying games – a place where a game becomes mechanistic enough that it’s shifted away from being a wild, rules-light sort of experience, but where the mechanics (typically combat mechanics) aren’t robust enough to avoid problem situations (e.g., games where combat becomes very tactical but there’s no mechanism to prevent a character from perpetually staying out of reach while also using some ranged attack).

Urban Shadows doesn’t get to that sort of problem space, but there’s enough crunch going on with the combat that it warrants MC caution. For example, it’s possible to shoot a character once and just kill them. I’m not saying that isn’t “realistic,” and characters in Urban Shadows aren’t intended to stick around forever (hello, Corruption) – but it is a political campaign game where characters will generally have a bit more of an arc. So, while Urban Shadows is mostly focused on story, the MC will likely want to keep an eye on things like damage output and health levels more than one might think given that focus. This can be particularly true with the “get in the way” move, since that can completely flip the script on an otherwise successful move.

There’s an obvious comparison to be made between Urban Shadows and the World of Darkness, the granddaddy of supernatural horror roleplaying games. The different approaches can be reasonably summarized by comparing the number of Storyteller system books you’d need to own to know everything (Vampire, Mage, Werewolf, Wraith, Hunter, Changeling, Demon … and that’s just the core books). Urban Shadows is essentially complete with the one book (there is a single supplement, a city book). There are no comprehensive rulesets for every type of supernatural creature and their varied arrays of powers and weaknesses. There is no vast metaplot and worldbuilding. To be clear – I’m not saying either way is better (I do adore my World of Darkness) – but they sure are different. In Urban Shadows, the supernatural presents a framework for the sorts of stories that will be told, but the focus is not on supernatural beings, but on characters whose conflicts happen to be driven by their supernatural aspects.

Ultimately, for me Urban Shadows lands in the “really good” category. It provides a much different approach to a genre I like (and one that will be more accessible to someone just looking to dip their toes in the pool, even if they aren’t familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse). The archetypes provide a fairly wide array of approaches within that genre. The ‘gamemaster’ advice is generally excellent – I find the GM advice section of RPGs overall to be pretty hit or miss, and Urban Shadows was definitely a hit. And playing it was still my favorite thing at PAXU last year.

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