Urban Shadows

Fun second session! A few notes and highlights:

* Added a third character, and it wasn’t as disruptive as I had feared. Now we have a Wizard, an Aware and a brand new Tainted. Adding him has expanded the setting even more and it’s right on the edge of Too Much. I think it’ll be time to start pulling the threads together a little tighter.

* I prepped four Threats in advance, and it was a useful exercise. I had sketched out five because I thought it’d be interesting to have one of every Threat flavor, but one of them just didn’t grab me. It was Passion, but it related to a single NPC and I came up empty on a countdown clock. I know I don’t need to clock every Threat, but nothing else really jumped out at me about it so I put that away. For now.

Thinking about custom Threat moves for the next session. I think they’d be fun to sketch out, at the very least. 

* The interaction between the Start of Session move and Threat prep was actually really fruitful this time. Rather than spinning wildly out of control, the rumors fed right back into the events and the relationship map. So that was interesting. I’m curious to see what episode 3 looks like.

* Man is it a relief to run an easy game. And really, Urban Shadows is as easy to run as any other PbtA game. There are only a couple things that make it hard, and that has to do with suddenly adding new NPCs and dreaming up debts on the spot.

* We spent a good bit of time within the Court of the Moon, one of the four fae courts that kind of run/own Dark Phoenix. Totally bonkers within the court, very stream-of-consciousness and weird. Animal-headed people, Alice in Wonderland style insanity.

* Probably the one place that PbtA games can sometimes leave me feeling exhausted is in how moves snowball. I already tend, as a GM when I run more traditional games, to run from crisis to crisis and leave literally no downtime at all. And man is that easy to do with the snowballing. I’ve got a couple character carrying harm and they’re gonna need to work to get some downtime. Which I suppose is by design.

* Lots of advancing tonight! I think everyone got one regular Advance, and the Wizard got her first Corruption advance as well. She took uh…I’m trying to remember…oh right, the true name direct damage thing. Not quite straight murder but it can dispense of individual NPCs with ease. I’m mixed on that move, to be honest, although it is fun to watch the Corruption ratchet up so fast. Probably by the fourth session she’ll get more circumspect about Corruption.

Otherwise, yeah, game ran fine. I’m not feeling inspired to do a blow-by-blow of events for this one. No standout scenes but it’s great, in retrospect, how eager and willing everyone is to throw out great ideas for MC moves. Hell, they practically run it themselves. 

I think I’m going to see more interesting developments come out of the third turn’s Start of Session moves, and how they fit with my Threat prep.

Urban Shadows
Ugh Prep

The helper sheet is missing one of the five Threat types.

Three Threats feels thin.

That is all.

Actually I wish the faction moves, MC moves, threat moves, agenda, principles and names were all on a single sheet of paper. I mean practically speaking, who doesn’t draw big relationship maps for this kind of game?

Cartel etc.

A conversation I had recently with some of my players about running Cartel at some point reminded me of my most notable transformation throughout a lifetime of roleplaying.

The conversation basically went like this (and also took place online, in sidebar, with a couple folks): 

Them: “I really don’t want to play Cartel.”

Me: “Oh really? I thought it looked like good drama.”

Them, pick one: 

• “God it looks tacky. This is real crime, you know.”
• “I hate drugs, the drug war, kids on drugs, all of it.”
• “Nope.”

At least two of these people have watched and enjoyed Breaking Bad, Narcos, other movies related to the cartels. One of them is a reader of Mexican narcofiction like The Black Minutes. 

To be fair, the other half of my world is all-in. It’ll get to a table sooner or later but this explains why it’s been so frigging hard to set it up. But this whole thing reminded me of the topic of credibility in RPGs, and my relationship to that topic.

It cuts across a lot of different ideas, so hold on tight. If you’re not good at reading the OP and all the comments, this might not be the right thread for you.

The Way-Back Machine

There was a stretch, basically from when I started in 1980 until the mid-90s, where RPGs were explicitly and exclusively escapist fun for me. In my experience, any and all efforts to treat them as anything more than that were universally terrible and borderline dangerous. Minds Eye Theater LARP was the worst offender, with make-believe power and domination structures bleeding hard into the real world without any formal intervention by facilitators. 

I’d also seen efforts to earnestly treat roleplaying as a form of psychodrama as well, either formally via design intent or informally as an exercise by ambitious GMs. Those were universally terrible and borderline dangerous in my experience. The goal was to address and possibly even resolve deep-psych stuff via the “safety” of an RPG: phobias, trauma, interpersonal problems. What can I say? It was the wild west, nobody knew better, the promise was powerful.

Then you had the folks, aiming for “high drama,” finding themselves in the deep end of the pool. If the goal is drama, well, you look at dramatic genre fiction for inspiration/emulation. And you end up with rape stories, murdered families, extremes of unpleasant human experience.  There’s a lot of terrible genre fiction to pull from and to hide behind.

They’re two different goals and boy do they get easily intertwined: the desire for powerful human drama, and the desire for powerful human experience

It’s really no wonder, in retrospect, that I – among many, maybe most of my peers – had come to understand RPGs as strictly escapist entertainment.

I remember a late-night BS session at GenCon…96, maybe, with major design and publishing luminaries. I was one of a couple up-and-comers who had gotten the tap on the shoulder. Steve Perrin, IIRC, asked “so is there an audience, you think, for more mainstream settings and topics?” And my answer, from where I was sitting in 1996, had to be “Nope. No way. Every game needs some woo-woo, something escapist, some way to goose the empowerment fantasy.” Everyone in that room shrugged and sighed and drank their beers. 

That’s a very common position out in the big world beyond small-press gaming, and if your personal roleplaying experience has mostly been in the small-press scene hopefully you understand that, at least in the abstract.

I’m not sure when that shifted for me, but it did. I wrote this essay for those people as one of my final gestures in The Business: http://www.rpg.net/oracle/essays/beginnerrpgs.html. The copyright is 1999 but an early draft of it was floating around in ’97 or so. 18 years ago? My personal journey has continued from there.

And We’re Back

Bringing this back to the subject of credibility, there’s this confluence of (at least) two different ideas happening. To recap: intensity of drama, intensity of experience. Two different play and design goals even if they look similar. And as long as credibility is a question, I think that’s why RPGs are so easily dismissed as escapist diversions.

Drama is where my personal play needs continue to lie. I think that’s because of my skepticism about roleplaying’s ability to handle personal experience. I mean the psychodrama part. I’ve always been super-iffy about games that poke at grief, trauma, addiction, dysfunction. Edgy/experimental games that burble out of Game Chef (for example) often trigger my skepticism on this front. Mostly I have deep doubts about designers’ ability to handle material with real-world implications.

But my skepticism about designers’ capacity to handle real-world human experience doesn’t make it objective truth! I know (in the abstract) that plenty of folks get that out of their games, and plenty of designers are fruitfully and successfully bringing that to the table.

So I find myself at the crossroads of that stuff with Cartel, surrounded by folks who haven’t gazed at their navel as intently as I do. I’m thinking about the drama; they’re thinking about addiction, celebrating real-world violence, reducing something problematic and terrible to “just a game.” You know, for escapist entertainment.

It’s interesting to me that the roleplaying community at large is often totally okay with other media tackling problematic material but we’re often way-not-okay when an RPG tackles the same material. 

I get that, and I think it comes down to a credibility gap at some point: we don’t trust the designer, or the facilitator, or the other people at the table. At some point, we don’t want to take that risk. I’m not persuaded that this is something you can address procedurally, like via an X-card or something. You can’t unring the bell, although you can stop going down a particular line of thought. But if I’m watching a movie about something traumatic and terrible, I (at least) have this trust that the writer and director have worked harder, researched harder, pulled in more experts. If I’m reading a novel or listening to someone’s album, I don’t have to rely on my fellow readers/listeners to approach the material correctly; I’m answerable only to myself.

So why do we watch Breaking Bad and Narco and Scarface but turn our noses up at Cartel? 

I propose it comes down to credibility, and this impulse to hold games out at arms’ length as amusing diversions and not creative platforms every bit as legitimate as novels and movies.

Mute Mute Mute

Seeing “oh yeah I saw this game in playtest X years ago…” type comments is always a healthy reminder of just where in the small-press gaming food chain I actually am.

I don’t know that I’d necessarily want to change that! I mean, first off, there’s the social and actual capital required to make that happen: the connections that are only possible from either being proximate to the creators (via address or convention attendance) or being a creator. Which, you know, maybe at some point.

There’s this weird thing about social capital, though, right? Like, the source of my meager supply is mostly in being a late adopter with a good memory. Oh hey, remember Psi Run? 2006? Paul is finally talking about it now. Hey, I nearly forgot about Our Last Best Hope, it’s already been 2 years. Two years! That’s several lifetimes in designer years. 

Kickstarter of course has juiced the cycle, and God bless them because that’s awesome. All the little microcommunities that have cropped up too; I too was one of those obnoxious insiders when I was playtesting Mouse Guard and Torchbearer and, hey, what a surprise: I was going to BurningCon and getting way more exposure to the creators. 

I mean, jeez, make no mistake: I’m not actually angry or hostile or anything about any of this! Just kind of amused, largely at myself, at the cycle of things. I was basement-deep with FASA and Pinnacle once upon a time as well. And man it was a lot harder back then to actually break in. I roll(ed) my eyes a lot at the gatekeeper talk after those awards this year. I mean really, a lot. 

Probably the biggest gatekeeper in my life right now is me, if I’m being honest with myself. I mean heck, I’ve got an ashcan of Cartel here and damned if I can get it to the table with anyone. That’s not especially insider-y; anyone can buy it. And of course I’ve already seen the “when I played this several years ago” comments, those healthy reminders of one’s place in the food chain. But it’s a fact: my life and the lives of those in my circles just don’t allow the sheer volume of play time needed to be able to spend evenings on risky ventures. Like pretending we’re elves in some novel way that maybe isn’t that fun yet.

All this dumb introspection ties back to my long-range thoughts about what I’d do with a Patreon. My ego says I’d like to use it to raise funds for artwork for my own design projects; my super-ego says my niche is to be the guy who helps sell everyone else’s long-tail backstock. Nothing but me says I can’t be both.

My internal gatekeeper says it’s more valued to be someone with insights into the next two years than it is to have Opinions about the last five. Weird, right? I’m sure the vast majority of folks who read the Indie Game Reading Club are more practically interested in what’s already out than what’s coming out.

I probably should have deleted this.


Just backed it, but it took reading through the whole project for me to buy into what he’s doing.

Wrath is like a best-of collection of key concepts that are both instant turn-ons and turn-offs. So I back it with very mixed feelings.

* Empire builder game: yay!
* FATE based: boo! (Sorry!)
* Episodic play: yay!
* GMless: uhhh…depends! Not my favorite RPG configuration but then again this isn’t exactly an RPG.
* Troupe style play: also depends! Mostly I dislike the experience, but it seems good and necessary given the game’s goals.

I’m hoping to get some hands-on time with this when I see Phil Lewis​ at the end of October.

Urban Shadows
Prep Ugh

Since I’ve got uh…some time on my hands today, I’m finally getting around to formal US prep.

It’s virtually identical to off the shelf Apocalypse World, with Threats (no Fronts). There’s also an overarching theme they call a Storm, which I guess is a super Front. I’ve read that chapter and I can’t make it stick, dunno why not.

One thing that surprised me is that they didn’t actually say how many Threats to cook up, nor how many Threats per Front. I seem to recall that AW recommends…four maybe? As much as I adore postapoc fiction, I don’t know why I haven’t run it a lot more

Anyway,I can’t decide if leaving that out is purposeful or just an oversight. If it’s purposeful, maybe a little discussion about how many Threats is “enough” would have been nice. I mean it’s no big, easily handled. Just surprising.

Scenes: The Best Worst Idea Ever
Urban Shadows

One of my favorite and most vexing concepts to have ever been introduced to roleplaying is the “Scene.” 

I can’t even remember the first time I saw the term, but it was a literal paradigm shift from How Things Were Done back in the time of your ancestors. Rather than asking how many minutes an effect lasted or how far your character could move, we had these effects and structures that lasted for a scene.

Has anyone ever actually defined just what a “scene” even entails? I feel like the concept is so deeply ingrained into a certain family of roleplaying that it now goes unexamined.

One notable time “scene” cropped up in a way that completely mangled a game was, I think, Spirit of the Century. My players were new to story-focused roleplay and had no idea what to do with scene-long effects. I remember one player having a scene-long aspect put on him and him asking after literally everything I said: Is the scene over yet? How about now? Now? When? Now? Ugh! I don’t recall Spirit of the Century ever providing a rigorous definition, either. Frustration all around. 

For me, a scene is both dependent on the game — some are structured entirely on “let’s have a scene where X”, so that’s easy because the scene has a clear start and stop — and is kind of like porn; I know it when I see it. This came up big-time in our Urban Shadows game last week and it got me thinking again. Mostly it got me thinking that nobody thinks about them. They’re the most important undefined procedure.

In US, the Wizard playbook has a fundamental move called “Channel,” which is how the character generates hold to later spend on spells. And there’s this tiny little throwaway limiter to it: you can’t Channel more than once per scene. Well! So of course my Wizard player wants to know just how this works: Can he have a second prep scene after the previous scene? Is that cheesy, and so what if it’s cheesy is it legal? Can I Channel now during a scene in my sanctum, then have a scene, then Channel again wherever (say while driving to the next scene, whateva), then Channel again right as the Big Conflict Scene is about to take place?

I mean, yeah. Some of that thinking is clearly rooted in a mechanically/legalistically minded approach to play. But that approach is what it is; I’m not going to tell that player he’s doing it wrong — starting the creative process from the procedures is just as legit as having the procedures emerge organically from the fiction. 

My instinct is to rule that a scene where all you do is Channel (or any other prep-type thing that “lasts a scene” or can only be done “once a scene”) is the prep. You don’t have back-to-back training montages; you just have a longer montage. I could see an argument for a Channel happening in its own scene, getting some hold, then sliding the Channeling in before or possibly during the showdown. We haven’t actually hammered out what the character’s Channeling looks like in the fiction, either, which for PbtA purposes is important as well.

Which brings me to this little infographic I ran into. I think it’s kind of interesting and asks interesting questions. Not all the questions apply and they don’t always apply the same way to every game that refers to a “scene.” 

Scenes in RPGs, as a unit of play, are pretty unique in creative work — I’m not aware of scene-type structures in improv (other than the frame of the complete work). I wish there was a different name for it. It’s somewhere between a movie scene (which is where August’s infographic applies) and novel scenes (which sometimes also pull waaaay back from the characters) and improv scenes (which seek to actually answer the questions en route).

My favorite part of “scenes” becoming an important unit of play is that all the implications come along for a ride. Scenes have beginnings and endings. Having a camera just walk along with the characters is now an avant-garde technique and not the assumed approach to play. Scenes are inherently authorial and, one might argue, anti-“immersive.” (I know, I know.) By couching our play in the language of storytelling, we get more story-like structures out of them. Yay! Except when it’s not yay. 

Anyway, have an awesome weekend. Catch y’all later.

Urban Shadows

First session went pretty well. It was my feared format: two players, and only two players, can make the game regularly so that’s what we’re running with for now. That said, the moves that trigger off and/or create connections with characters are so ridiculously juiced up in Urban Shadows that I’m quite satisfied.

We’re going with a Wizard and an Aware. The Wizard is ancient, a couple hundred years old, and freshly arrived in Phoenix (Dark Phoenix, GAF, unlike Actual Phoenix). She has no idea who runs the place and so that’s kind of her play angle. The Aware is a Navajo who has had a spirit encounter with a spirit calling itself Coyote, and is now paranoid that ancient gods are getting ready to wipe the world clean. The Aware ends up covering for the Wizard an awful lot; he has three debts on her.

The Debt economy feels good and very fluid. They used and earned probably three or four debts each tonight, through moves and actual doing-of-favors. 

Corruption is cool; the Wizard’s player is chasing that down while the Aware is kind of avoiding it. They were great about setting up their characters with nicely vulnerable setups, NPCs to threaten and have intimacy moves with.

The Moves seem to all work well. No objections, just a few little hiccups while folks try to mold the fiction to the things they’re best at and occasionally finding themselves backed into corners where they’re terrible — the Wizard trying to convince people to do things, for example. 

There are two wide-open moves, Unleash and Let It Out, that I think the players felt slightly awkward using. They’re basically “shit happens that isn’t covered by other moves” moves. Happily Let It Out, especially, has a nice, explicit list of what you can accomplish, so Letting It Out really does come down to skinning the move with your playbook’s milieu. 

Standard AW-style thing where you follow the PCs around and ask hard questions works just fine to get the game rolling. I think I’m pretty good at drawing connections and building little triangles as well, so I really don’t ever worry much about setting these things up. We also made the “Start of Session” rolls and god DAMN it was hard for me to parse how they worked — very awkwardly worded, where one player chooses a faction for another player to highlight, and (I think) that player then explains something going on relative to that faction. I’m 90% sure that’s how it works.

Anyway, we had plenty to run with. The details aren’t important. I don’t think we stumbled too badly over bad racial stereotypes. Setting the game in a city we know is good, too, and tbh it also let us know where we could confidently gloss over a boring part of the city and make it GAF.

What I’m going to be curious about is setting up the fronts, storms, whatever they are. The campaign materials. I’m just not super sure how they’re going to interact with the start-of-session moves. I guess they’re skippable, but they’re also free Faction marks and the fruit of advancement is so very sweet.

One thing that is nearly impossible to avoid is the do-gooder Hero on a Mission quality of the Aware. It’s baked right into how it works, which means it’ll be interesting to try and subvert that later on. 

Sorry I don’t have a better structured debrief here. First sessions of games like these feel wiiide open and pretty loose.