Wednesday, February 3, 2016

[RPG Review] Urban Shadows by Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz Truman

Urban Shadows is a Powered by the Apocalypse roleplaying game based on urban fantasy fiction like Angel or The Dresden Files, in which players take on the roles of mortals and supernaturals struggling to get by in a dark political city. In order to hold their own, they'll need to interact and make deals with the various factions in the city, and they'll tap into their darker selves to gain the edge they need to fight the darkness. But will they fall to darkness in the process?

The Basics
For those of you not familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse games, here's a quick primer:

All characters have access to a list of Basic Moves which are triggered when they attempt to do something in the fiction, as defined by those moves. Character design is 'class based', and players will have an extra set of moves specific to their character class (called Archetypes in this game).

When they want to make a move, they'll roll two six-sided dice and add or subtract a modifier based on the stat associated with that roll. Any roll of 7 or more is considered a 'hit'. 7-9 is a soft hit, which means your character succeeds, but there's likely to be a cost or a complication. A 10+ is a strong hit, and usually gives your character a little something extra as a bonus. A roll of 6 or less is considered a miss, but that doesn't necessarily mean you fail; it just means the GM (called the Master of Ceremonies, or MC for short) gets to tell you what happens. And you probably won't like it.

The MC never rolls dice. He instead has a list of moves he gets to make if you roll misses, if you give them a golden opportunity, or if the action flags and everyone's looking to them for what happens next. The MC doesn't have a scenario planned in advance either, because the guiding philosophy of all PbtA games is to play to find out what happens.

I think that covers the basics, now let's look at what's new and different (and great) about Urban Shadows.

Setting
By default, the game is set in a modern-day city populated by both mortals and supernaturals. Beyond that, the actual city it takes place in and the political map of that city are built during character creation and the first session of play, and are constantly evolving during play.

Before the first session, the players and the MC first agree on a city to set the game in, the MC does a bit of research about the city, and maybe the players do too. When they get together for the first session, the players make up their characters. While they're doing this, the MC asks leading questions about their characters, as well as who they know in the city, who the movers and shakers are.

Once they're ready to play, there are start-of-session moves which get each player to declare conflicts or rumours they've heard about certain factions and which determine how involved their character is in the situation. Some Archetypes also have their own start-of-session moves that can shape the way things kick off as well.

I'll be honest, I both love and hate these start-of-session moves (specifically the general one).

On the one hand, it really helps set the stage at the start of play, generating conflicts and threats for the characters to interact with right off the bat and they can be used at the MC's discretion later on to set up new conflicts as the old ones die down. This really helps emulating a living, breathing city with events constantly being put into motion, whether your characters are aware of them or not.

On the other hand, it is a lot of stuff to set up, especially for the first session after character creation (which takes a bit of time by itself). My first ever session of Urban Shadows was painfully short once we'd gotten through character creation and start-of-session moves. Admittedly, it didn't help that our online session was plagued with technical issues and we only had three hours because that was all some of the players could manage. But still, it feels like Urban Shadows might need character creation to be done as a separate session in order to leave room for the extra set-up time the first session requires.

Game Mechanics
A lot of the unique mechanics of Urban Shadows are designed to play to the genre that it's attempting to emulate, and they do it very well. In addition to the usual four stats, player characters also have Faction stats reflecting their relationship with the four Factions (Mortality, Night, Power and Wild) and each Archetype is affiliated with one of those factions. Players have a list of basic moves that they can trigger to get more information from contacts in a faction, find out what they know about specific members of a faction, or even figure out what a faction is up to by investigating their lair. The faction mechanic puts a focus on how characters interact with the different communities within the city; just as Harry Dresden must deal with the vampires of the White Court and the Queen of Winter, so must the player characters deal with the vamps and faeries and whatever else lurks in their city.

But the key word there is 'deal'. Characters must also make deals, with each other and NPCs, to get the information, resources and support they need; they do this by trading Debts. Debts are a currency in the game, with a set of moves to enforce their use. Characters start out owing Debts to each other (or NPCs) which are determined during character creation, and can end up owing or being owed more in the course of play. Debts can be cashed in to influence both PCs and NPCs to do what you need.

The mechanic is a neat way for players to influence each other (and for NPCs to influence player), while avoiding the 'mind controlled player' problem by allowing the PC to choose how they respond. They can refuse to honour a Debt, but in doing so they trigger a move which might result in consequences if they fail the roll and still decide to refuse.

Not only that though, calling in favours and making deals which you might regret later on is another big theme that shows up in the urban fantasy genre. A young wizard might make deals with the Fae that comes to regret in later life, a vampire PI might exchange backup or information with a friend on the force for the same in return later on.

Another big theme in urban fantasy is that of corruption. Protagonists might make deals and compromises, dirtying their hands to achieve their ends. They call upon dark powers or indulge their own darker impulses to get the job done. If they're not careful, they can find themselves turning into monsters themselves.

Corruption is reflected in Urban Shadows by a seperate advancement track, which characters advance by either behaving in a manner that triggers a Corruption 'drama move' specific to their Archetype, or as a cost of a move they've made. Advancing their Corruption track unlocks special moves, granting them more power but many of those moves also require them to mark corruption to use them.

The result is a slippery slope which eventually leaves them with only one Corruption move to unlock, and once they do so, they become an NPC. They've gone too far, and now they're a threat to their friends and allies.

As I mentioned, there are also moves called Drama Moves, and each Archetype has three of these. One is the the Corruption drama move I mentioned earlier. The others are Intimacy moves, and Ending moves.

Intimacy moves are a lighter version of the sex moves from Apocalypse World; instead of being specifically triggered by sex, they're instead triggered when characters share moments of intimacy, physical or otherwise. This is a good idea in my opinion, it encourages players to explore their characters' relationships with one another in roleplay, but avoids putting off prospective  players who might feel less comfortable about dealing with sex in-game.

There are also Ending moves, which are another idea I like. Too often in roleplaying games, the moment comes when your character's luck runs out and they die. And character deaths in RPGs can be a bit of an anticlimax, and feel a bit meaningless. The Ending move (which doesn't necessarily deal with character death, but often does) gives character death just that little bit of extra narrative oomph.

Some examples include wizards firing off their death curse (a la Dresden), or the people you were trying to protect escaping to safety, despite the odds. Your character's death (or retirement) does something, which potentially makes it a little bit less of a disappointment.

Beyond all of this, the system is just really well presented. It's the best presentation of Powered by the Apocalypse style play I've read so far. Not only are all of the basic moves explained in further detail to help players understand how they work, but the explanations are coupled with several examples of different ways of using them or of how not to use them, and the book is full of examples for other aspects of play that are just as useful.

Design
The artwork by Juan Ochoa in this book is brilliant, especially the portraits for each of the Archetypes. It's dark, moody and really captures the diverse urban environment that the game is set in.

The layout of the book is also very well thought out. The bulk of the mechanics is explained in the first six chapters, which are the player-facing chapters of the book, so by the time you get to the MC section you should have a solid understanding of how the game works. That much seems like a no-brainer, but I've seen some books which cover running the game in earlier chapters, which feels kind of weird to me.

More importantly, the player chapters cover each part of gameplay in more or less the right order. At least, the order each aspect is covered in doesn't feel jarring.

Additional Materials (GM Section, Sample Adventures, etc)
As mentioned before, this is a great presentation of the Powered by the Apocalypse play style, and the MC section is no exception. Just as with the basic moves for the players, the MC section digs into each of the Agendas, Principles, basic MC moves and Faction moves in depth, helping the MC understand clearly what all this stuff is for and how they can use it to run their game.

It also looks at how to deal with PvP if it comes up, and how to manage NPCs. It gives a lot of useful advice on how to guide character creation and the first session, including how to ask probing questions of characters and also provides an extended example of play, showing how the first few scenes of a session are run.

The material on prepping situations for later sessions in the form of 'Threats' and 'Storms' is probably fairly standard for PbtA at this point, but again, it's well detailed and exampled. The last chapter also includes the most useful advice on designing custom moves that I've read to date in a Powered by the Apocalypse game.

Online Support
There are several points in the book's text which point readers towards sheets for the MC (such as the Storm sheet), limited-edition Archetypes, or the Dark Streets supplement, but these are not completed as of the writing of this review. They'll be available eventually, but for now these are pretty much 'dead links' in the text.

That aside, there is a very strong and supportive community for the game over on Google+ (at least, for however long that lasts), where you can ask for advice or find new fan-created Archetypes, custom moves and threats to look at.

Conclusion
Urban Shadows is a really well-written game both as a Powered by the Apocalypse game, and in terms of how effectively its mechanics evoke the themes of the genre it is based upon.

While it can involve a lot of work on the front-end to get it up and running, it's well worth it because the end result is a beautifully tangled web of NPCs and conflicts for your group to interact with and which will help make the city feel alive and constantly moving, just like a city should feel.

If you're looking for a game to run something in the vein of Dresden Files or World of Darkness, but don't want to play the RPGs that are already out there for either, this is a pretty good alternative, and even if you do like those systems it's still well worth checking out.

Undecim Rating: 5 (Highly recommend)

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