Urban Shadows: Who Ya Gonna Call?

Ran the second session, and our first “real” session, of our side Urban Shadows game last night. My wife, plus another couple, total of three characters. To recap, there’s an Aware, a Hunter and a Spectre. As always, thoughts and reflections!

* The game is set in El Paso/Juarez, with a really heavy dose of Cartel style tension at work on both sides of the border. Our previous US game was set in (dark) Phoenix, which everyone knew perfectly well. This time I hit Wikipedia and a slew of alt-journalism sites that cover border news. The news is an interesting and tricky thing on the border, which anyone who lives here knows. On the Mexican side, the cartels will murder journalists who don’t cover (up) the news as they wish, so the mainstream outlets are dubious at best. And on the American side, the corporate and economic development interests are so obviously influencing the news that, again, one should be dubious about what they have to say. So that brings us to the alt-journalism world, where folks post news with questionable grammar under assumed names. IOW the facts are kind of a free-for-all.

I confess I was a little itchy about setting the game somewhere I didn’t know personally. After my research, though, now I feel like knowing your setting too well is constraining the same way as being a total canon-slave can be in Star Wars. So instead of trying to get things factually right, I aimed to get them thematically right: the war between Juarez and Sinaloa cartels looks like it mostly wrapped up in 2010, with Juarez allying with the Zetas and Sinaloa allying with Gulf and some others; reported crime is way down in Juarez but it’s almost certainly going underreported; El Paso is largely oblivious to what’s happening 2 miles away. Stuff like that. I think it worked! And it was certainly less generic than first session’s “a desert city, kind of like Tucson but maybe more DEA presence?” type vibe.

That said, I think learning your way around research to nail down thematically interesting stuff is a learned skill. But whatevs; I’m not gonna fault folks for researching wrong.

* The Spectre is a really tricky playbook to engage with, I think both as a player and as a GM. They are, practically speaking, immune to consequences beyond inconvenience. They’re also not great at affecting the fiction beyond information-gathering, making the Spectre somewhat redundant with the Aware. I think it takes a huge amount of player buy-in to agree to care about what the ghost cares about, and it’s easy to play it safe. I suppose it’s true of all the playbooks, but the Spectre can fairly trivially opt out of both the debt and corruption economies. Well I suppose I should say it’s easy to let happen and you need to facilitate with that possibility in mind.

Combined with the Spectre’s Corruption move — they take corruption if they walk away from victimization — it’s a very tough GMing challenge for me. But I’m trying hard to read the play charitably! If the player can’t actually let victimization slide because it’s just not worth the corruption, well, then I guess that’s why the ghost has held on for 230 years.

Feature or bug? Uncertain. I’m learning a lot. I think/hope the player is reading the incentives in the same way — that not owing anyone anything and never taking corruption is how a ghost survives forever, and he’s making a choice by not choosing — and not in an “every choice sucks” kind of way.

* I started the session by fleshing out the immediate lives of both my mortal PCs, and that was a huge help. Learned that the Aware, an Iraqi refugee, is torn between living in the Western world but having lots of family deeply committed to traditional Islam — interesting! Learned the Mexican-born Hunter has a huge extended family with a million cousins and aunts and uncles — dangerous for a cartel enforcer, which is also excellent. 

Then we hit the Start of Session move once more, to get the ball rolling because it’s been 3 or 4 weeks since we had our first setup session. Worked quite well just to get everyone re-invested in the situation, although boy it puts new players on the spot early to cook up creative stuff. It could probably use some kind of warm-up exercise (which, this time, the “tell me more about your friends and family” I think did pretty well).

I’m liking the Mortal storylines quite a lot, and they’re starting to entwine nicely. 

* This was also the session where I amped up the supernatural woo-woo in the setting. The Hunter discovered a stripper club that’s also a hardcore werewolf den, and the Aware stumbled into the local embassy of Arcadia’s Winter Court. 

I find myself constantly checking my creative urges against the (perfectly reasonable yet terrible) urge to explain terrible human behavior as “it’s the supernatural!”

So! I feel like the gears are nicely in motion now. Probably I won’t run a start-of-session move for the third session, just to keep focused on what’s going on already instead of constantly filling the relationship map with new circles and arrows.

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