Urban Shadows Available on the Magpie Games Webstore!

All right, folks… it’s finally ready! If you’ve been waiting to pick up your copy of Urban Shadows, both softcover and hardcover books are now available in the Magpie Games webstore!



Run It Like A One-Shot
(But Not A Blood Opera!)

So a thing I’ve slowly been embracing the past couple years is running my games like each session is a self-enclosed event…and then having faith that there will be material for another one, and another, for as long as we want.

Usually it works great! And why wouldn’t it? It’s how a lot of good television happens. It’s how most good movies happen. But it’s also contrary to a lot of, I think, traditional thinking about how a series of RPG sessions “should” work — long buildups, maybe blow-by-blow scenes (i.e. a camera that follows the characters around without breaks), continuity. Oh, continuity. I can draw an unbroken line on the traditional thinking through novels (where chapters really aren’t free-standing creations) back to dungeons (which might be so large that you need several sessions to fight/beat them, and there’s really isn’t narrative continuity so much as persistent game-states regarding supplies, health and time). 

And no doubt the traditional approach has produced literally decades of highly rewarding and functional play. But I want to talk about this other approach now.

So for me, running a single session like it was a one-shot (but not a Blood Opera, more on that in a minute) looks like this:

* There’s very little time spent on inconsequential scenes. My working definition of “inconsequential” is that nothing actually happens or changes at the character level. So like…walking and talking scenes. Shopping. Slice of life stuff (although, wow, these can be super effective especially in a one-shot, but they need to be carefully applied). 

So maybe I’m better off saying “most scenes are very consequential.”

* Scenes are more self-contained and framed as their own beat, rather than as necessarily continuing unbroken from a previous scene or leading into another. Lots of “later, you find yourselves at the edge of town” type transitions.

* On the GM side, I’m not keeping my powder dry. When it’s time to frame up a new scene, I’m looking for the very highest stakes right now, and not spending any energy on careful buildups, foreshadowing, or other novelistic techniques.

* The situation/relationship map — I always run with one! LMK if you want to see photos — are tight as hell, with lots of arrows pointed back inward and very few new situations/relationships really being added. (NB Urban Shadows foils this for me via its Faction moves, and I’m having to be very careful to aim stuff like Hit the Streets back into existing relationships, rather than allowing the map to fractal out.)

* Lots of reincorporation. The first hour is when I arm everyone with Chekhov’s Gun(s). The last hour is when everyone’s Gun gets fired. Waste as little first-act material as possible.

* Aim for resolution of the big questions, but let new questions get asked. New questions are totally okay in a one-shot! And I think a lot of people feel like actual convention-style one-shots need to wrap everything up in a bow. But you don’t. That’s why giving players a chance to describe the aftermath of a con one-shot is such an effective technique: everyone gets to feel like it got wrapped up in a bow. But at the table, that’s where your session-to-session continuity comes from. Answer old questions, ask new ones.

Now, regarding wrapping everything up in a bow…one thing I’ve seen at many convention one-shot events is the powerful urge to turn the session into a Blood Opera: an orgy of violence, probably some PvP action, last character standing “wins.” Sometimes the game itself facilitates this idea that the very highest stakes are life-and-death — I can’t tell you how many Burning Wheel one-shots I’ve run have ended as Blood Operas, for example, because at every step of the game the narrative pushes players toward ultimately resorting to violence. It gets the blood pumping for sure! And it’s tricky to walk that back and set, you know, different expectations.

So, anyway. Obviously you can’t run your ongoing story arc one-shot-ish session as a Blood Opera, unless everyone’s on board with creating new characters and constantly reinventing the relationship/situation map. But for me, this is where the real work comes in: if life-and-death aren’t the ultimate stakes, what else matters? What are the Really Big Questions that need to be answered this session (up to but not necessarily requiring a life-or-death battle)?

I think it’s an interesting creative exercise, a useful constraint. In fact I’m finding it so useful that I’m feeling like ye olde Blood Opera is kind of a lazy cop-out. I’ve run plenty of non-operatic one-shots at conventions, had the players do their “so how does this all turn out for your character?” talk, and felt like it was a really satisfying experience.

Just leave off that last talk and pow, you’ve got your next session.

Urban Shadows

Session uh…five I think? Yeah. In the bag, tons of fun. Exploring another of my four faerie courts, this time the Court of Stars, filled with partying skeletons and sugar skulls.

I’m running every session like a one-shot now, and that’s a very useful head space to work from. For one, it escalates all my decisions into Big Deal space — there are no time-killing moves, no slow builds, everything is dramatic. For another, it’s helpfully detraining me from the blood-opera one-shot model that’s so very easy to fall into (at least when you’re one-shotting Burning Wheel!). 

More thoughts from the session, since I’m not gonna blow-by-blow this game:

* There are just a shitton of advances characters can pick up each session. I think everyone got a regular advance and a corruption advance tonight. That’s a lot of new stuff. And the relationship map has grown so elaborate that it’s not hard at all to hit all four factions in a session. 

* Players are getting really good at piecing together move combos, which gives them a feeling of more control than they had getting used to the game. Need to Circle track down a known NPC? Hit the Streets! 

* I’m really appreciating that I took the time to build up a bunch of Fronts after the first session. Totally worth doing, and they totally work with the start-of-session move where everyone announces a Faction rumor and makes a roll. I should say that I’m making them work and it’s not taking that much brainpower to pull off convincingly. 

* The first couple hours of tonight’s session was spent with each character pursuing their own agendas. On the one hand, yay, they’re not doing a superteam type thing. On the other hand, as a practical matter, that’s leading to some downtime. Hard to balance. It’s working, not a deal breaker, but I do have to manage that very carefully. Pull a pair of them together, break them up, pair them up differently, and so on.

* Shit has gotten so cray that I have no idea how to integrate the real world into the shenanigans going on. What do cops think when a Tainted takes his demonic form and goes to battle against another demon? In the streets, midday? There’s precious little talk about that, none really, so that’s something I need to think about. I feel like the characters are getting off really easy with what all the mortals are seeing.

* I’m not loving many of the threat/faction moves. They often feel abstract relative to what triggered them. Which can be a PbtA thing, I know: like, you missed your Escape roll so you kind of expect the MC move to be a direct fictional consequence of that, but it doesn’t have to be. In Urban Shadows especially, the MC move “conversation” feels more like a pacing tool than a conversation about the action at hand. Probably true of all PbtA games but I’m feeling it very keenly in this game.

* I don’t recall seeing anywhere that an MC move can be to advance a Front clock, but I’m doing it anyway. Works fine, keeps the background progressing.

* I deployed my first in-game custom move! As in EVER! “The first time the full moon rises over someone injured by a werewolf, they roll +spirit. On a 10+, they’re feverish and confused but the lycanthropy doesn’t take hold. On a 7-9, they succumb but they have enough time to Escape somewhere they can’t hurt anyone. On a 6-, they find out what happened in the morning!” It’s easy and obvious and worked fine. 

Anyway, the game’s hit its groove and it’s easy to run and play. I think we can easily hit 8 episodes and get at least a couple of my Fronts to come to fruition.

Blades in the Dark

I’ve been carefully not-reading the updates for this ever since I backed it up. I broke that fast today with the version 4 quickstart rules that Harper posted.

It looks awesome! Is it still being called a PbtA hack? Because man it has drifted afield of that. Mostly the dice thing is different, which is maybe a shallow evaluation (that vampire one is diceless and it’s still a hack). Also: no moves! Just skills! That seems like A Big Deal.

Lots and lots of interlocking moving parts. Are folks running this straight out of the quickstart? Jason Morningstar I know you’ve been campaigning for a while — are you just using the public(ish) materials or is John giving you more to work with?

I’m elbow-deep into Urban Shadows for a while but one of my secondary groups might enjoy this. Just wondering how playable it actually is (it looks fine).