Urban Shadows: Lessons Learned

I’m starting a new go at Urban Shadows tonight for my wife and another couple and I’m so stoked. Out of my gourd excited. I’m aiming for a very modest three sessions — my wife has never actually played an ongoing game of anything — and cross my fingers that we can extend it from there.

I learned a lot about how to run the game the last time I ran it and I think that’ll help a lot. Things that jump out for me:

* Make sure every character is deeply entrenched and invested in their city. In our last game, every character was a newcomer to the city, fish out of water. Dumb. That strains/breaks so much about the game. So don’t do that.

* While I love the urgency and action of treating every session like a one-shot, that also leads me to making my moves maybe a little too hard for ongoing play. So I’m going in now with an eye toward throttling the pace a bit more rather than stomping the pedal every time.

* The game has a start-of-session move where you keep expanding the situation: each player calls out a faction for someone else, and that someone else dreams up a lead/rumor/situation about that faction. Great tool for a session or two, and not great beyond that. We ended up with a way way messy situation and, again, way too much urgency on too many fronts. So the game felt reactive (not terrible) with the characters constantly losing traction on their own start-of-game “things I care about” statements (sort of terrible).

I re-read through the entire text this week with the experience of having run the game. It’s really helpful! I’m not sure why I couldn’t hook into the examples the first time through but having some actual-play context was helpful to me.

One thing that jumped out, like screaming blazingly loud…actually it was two things. First thing was the statement/admonition that misses are not necessarily failures. I most definitely default to that mode: oh shit, time for me to make a move? Let’s step on the gas. Again with the constant driving urgency and chaos. Again, that’s “fun” but boy it’s hard to, you know, build toward things. (With the acknowledgement that “building toward things” is really iffy when you’re “playing to find out what happens.” It’s a built-in semi-contradiction of the game’s RAW procedures and best practices.)

Really embracing that misses =/= fails opened my head up to the possibilities of “say the consequences and ask”. I think I just kind of skip over that move whenever I run a PbtA game, even though it’s the logical result of misses not being failures. Maybe because it feels redundant with Act Under Fire 7-9? Probably.

Anyway! In Urban Shadows there’s, you know, a whole paragraph talking about ways to deal with offering consequences for success. The one that jumped out at me? Making Corruption the consequence. Presumably with fictional dressing to make it extra-awful. But boy howdy does that potentially open up the Corruption economy. It’s easy-ish to sidestep that economy if a player super-duper does not want to engage it, because the written triggers are explicit: your Corruption drama move, refusing a debt, all that. But lordy, adding Corruption as an option to literally every move in the game? And it shows up once, once in the text. And once in the long example. A tiny little dose of something awesome, as well as really important.

Funny the stuff you learn when you read.

Now my big worry/challenge is coming up with a city to play in. Nobody at the table has enough shared experience with cities other than Phoenix (or Dark Phoenix as we played in last campaign), so just picking a city or city archetype out of a hat is equally good/bad I guess for everyone. A big west coast metropolis would be fun, as would be a really old east coast city. 

I may also pitch 750AD Toulouse and put my Werewolves in Aquitaine research to new/better use. Very very tempting, although “cities” were kind of small relative to modern cities — maybe the tens of thousands? But as I discovered in my research, just tons of cultural exchange and juicy intersectionalism.

I think Magpie will have some essays about playing in historical settings in Dark Streets but who else has hands-on experience with what may need to be tweaked? I know Brand Robins ran/is running something historical and French. Anyone else?

0 thoughts on “Urban Shadows: Lessons Learned”

  1. I have many thoughts about ‘Ancient Shadows’ that I’m still trying to form into proper words.

    Historical fiction can be tough but when you layer the supernatural over top of it, you have these really cool metaphors for all kinds of touchy historical themes. It’s the same trick we use in the default modern setting of US, but takes slightly different forms. I’d love to talk to you more about this, Paul. It’s something I want to explore more and more.

  2. Michael Prescott yeah, that’s basically it. A miss just formally means the MC makes a move. A lot of those moves smell like failure (inflict harm as established, put them in a spot, etc.) but not all of them. And the big one is where you offer a consequence and ask if they want it: you can unleash after all but only after the cops unload on you; you can let it out and extend your senses, but you’ll need to sacrifice someone’s eyeball to do it. And so on.

  3. Andrew Medeiros Happy to do that however and whenever. I love the idea of extending the game into history but boy is it easy to do wrong: fetishizing the setting details without engaging with the game’s themes is what jumps out as a road hazard.

  4. I am also in love with redirecting a miss/hard move to another character, provided the fiction allows. IIRC this comes out of AW, not sure if it’s US RAW.

  5. MadJay Brown I think that may fall under “turn the move back on them.” Which was another oh shit that’s nice moment for me on my re-read. Like, yeah man. You unleash all right. You unleash all over everything everywhere. You go nuclear. Go you!

  6. Between this and The Gauntlet podcast on the way to work this morning, I clearly need to go home and read Urban Shadows.

    What happens on a miss?

  7. Judd Karlman the MC makes a move, like all PbtA games. (I’m not sure how much PbtA exposure you’ve got so I don’t want to tell you stuff you already know. What do you already know?)

  8. Judd Karlman same same. AW and US are pretty close, nearly identical I think in the MC move choices. I’d have to compare the lists to see where they differ. I know US has a shit-ton more moves via city moves, faction moves and threat moves. Those additional lists in US feel a lot more like tonal notes than actual moves tbh.

    Reading explicit advice about those choices in US actually has opened my head up a little about how best to apply those things in AW, too.

  9. Agreed on move direction. There’s nothing like the look on a player’s face when they realize their ‘miss’ affects another player’s character. It’s GOLDEN!

  10. Andrew Medeiros I think I need to consciously and vocally restate to my players during play that 6es are misses and not failures. So that I’m constantly reminding myself. 

    I mean the game(s) is/are perfectly functional when you focus on straight up failures but this gives the MC a lot more room.

    I think the one PbtA skill I continually need to work at is how best to calibrate my responses as MC. My Dreamation SotI game was juuuust about right, I think, which is why we were able to have both a one-shot blood opera and a really sweet happy ending.

  11. Treating 6- as misses rather than failures makes the game waaaaaaaaay more interesting. There’s nothing I like less than failing at something important, whereupon everyone looks at each other and goes “so what do we do now that we can’t pick the lock?”

  12. One thing I have found myself doing when MCing re: failures and hard moves is either putting it in my back pocket or making the hard move outside the context of the immediate scene. For example if you want to take away something they care about you could have their mom get kidnapped. They won’t know for a while, but you made it happen because they failed the roll leading you to use a hard move.

  13. I completely agree on “misses” vs “failures”. I would rather err on the side of caution and so I’m trying to teach myself that when they miss, they always get what they’re after and I work on complicating that victory and then work my way deeper from that. The end goal for me is to give them what they want as a default approach, and then occasionally hit them harder when it’s not a jerk move and I can make their lives way more interesting with it.

  14. Also, regarding 750AD Toulouse. I know Mo Jave and Brand Robins have done historical France before. They probably can both offer some good insights. But I think they’re in Finland atm so I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  15. “Misses != failures” is, I suspect, part of a larger picture that I’m starting to think a lot about, which is that there’s more ways to look at a situation than “success/failure”, especially because fiction and real life don’t usually map onto that duality. Swords Without Master first clued me into that idea, but PbtA games are honestly really well-equipped to deal with it.

    I think there’s a few ways to go about it, but the most general way to describe this notion, I think, is that there’s multiple ways that a situation could go, and one of those ways is the one that you immediately desire. But if the dice don’t go your way, something else happens. It could be beneficial, detrimental, or both! Or neither! But the important thing is that it’s not what you wanted to happen, even if it might be better for you in the long run than what you wanted to happen.

    (Swords Without Master has this interesting additional wrinkle, in that even during the results where you get pretty much free reign in saying what happens, you don’t get total free reign, because you’re constrained by the Tone you rolled.)

  16. We did French Revolution where the Revolution didn’t happen because Louis made a deal with Baphomet.

    It was 10 years later in a demonic post apocalypse Paris that was basically a demonic playground with the PCs trying to protect their neighborhoods while figuring out if revolution was still viable, or if they would rather sell out for security.

    The game required very little hacking. Really, it’s an early modern period so you just assume guns take longer to reload and you have cypher books and pigeons instead of cell phones.

    Hacking to the premodern era is way harder as urban power dynamics were very different.

    Anyway, Finland is awesome. And in PtbA games when I MC and a player misses I basically do whatever I want that fits the agenda and directive of the game. Including totally giving players awesome shit that they didn’t expect they’d ever get.

    Like some girl going into a basement, blowing her Keep Your Cool roll and ending up with some famous dude’s lightsabre. Certainly nothing interesting could come from that.

  17. I find that Vincent’s realization that games don’t need a resolution system but a consequence system to be the single most important bit of PbtA tech. So while I fail to pull it off a lot, I do really try to run a mental checklist before reeling off a MC move to try and determine if failure is the most interesting consequence. Often it’s not.

    Frex the other night in my Night Witches game, one of the NPCs who has been giving one of the PCs a hard time about her affair with another PC (and this itself sprang out of not taking “there are no consequences for acting up” by one of those PCs earlier) got into another confrontation with the PC. Being a PC, she resorted to violence 🙂 so I called for Tempt Fate, and it came up 7-9. But the interesting thing there wasn’t for the PC to fail to beat up her antagonist, or get beat up herself–the interesting thing, I decided, was that she went way too far and almost put the NPC in the hospital. So on a miss…she succeeded even better, but that doesn’t matter, because the consequences will be worse than just getting into a scuffle. And that’s going to fall out later on as well.

    I am going to think long and hard about ways to turn moves onto other PCs…that feels very, very right.

    Paul, you’re right on about how the SotI game fell out at Dreamation–however, may I draw your attention to the final scene in the game. While I think I got a bit gamey there in a somewhat annoying way (sorry!), that was mostly because…while having Asgerd the Shield Maid screw up her attack and fall to her death would have been, to quote Frank Miller, a good death, it just felt…not good enough; so we were able to work out a non-failure mode for my miss on Tempt Fate that was so much, much more worse and also more satisfying, I think 🙂

  18. Oh, and somewhat coincidentally I was reading Urban Shadows today and I agree the consequence commentary was really good–and the chapter on making your own moves was the best one of its kind I’ve ever seen in a PbtA game. Triggers are so important! It’s my only gripe about SotI!

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