Urban Shadows: Unkept Promises and Promises Never Made

I’ve been running Urban Shadows for a while now, seven sessions to be exact, and our session last night was so aggravating that I’m having trouble writing about it. I’ve run a campaign of it in the past, I’ve run several one-shots of it at various conventions, but I’m left wondering if maybe I’m just no good at making this game work in a longer format. Or if there’s something structural about the game that’s only apparent in the long game, and I haven’t come to grips with it yet.

So, up front: the actual fictional content of the game, character by character, is really great. I would happily read a graphic novel or watch a TV show about each of the three player characters. We have:

  • A mortal arcane antiquities dealer doing the best he can with his limited resources to investigate and avenge the death of his mother, a powerful priestess revealed to have been a cornerstone of magical protection for her city;
  • A sexy-but-basic lady who’s found herself deeply entrenched with a demon’s alien plans, trying to balance life as a single mother against her dark lord’s commands to carry out a series of ritual murders;
  • A young-ish vampire living in the shadow of his maker’s vast empire, competing not only with other vamps in the area but other criminal factions, including ghosts of dead cartel goons who are gathering their power on the other side of the veil.

Those all sound great, right? But here’s an aggravation: nobody ever has a scene with anyone else. They’re all such strong storylines that there’s very little connecting them other than the setting. It’s a holding environment problem.

In actual play, each character will start out trying to accomplish something on their to-do list. That list continues to grow largely out of Urban Shadows’ Debt economy. Debts are supposed to drive folks together, but in our game the players simply stopped looking to gain Debt on each other via doing a solid for someone (i.e. the normal way one incurs a Debt) and instead letting the system generate Debts, usually on NPCs, usually as a result of Faction moves like Put a Name to a Face. And then those Debts, being procedurally generated and therefore not really rooted in fiction that’s happened at the table, get traded and laundered via various Intimacy Moves on each playbook. It all feels unrooted and fungible, like gold coins rather than human connections.

When the spotlight is on a player, they usually want to deal with some Debt they owe to someone, right? They probably have some big picture goal they’re striving for (Scholar: avenge his mother’s death; Tainted: complete her murder list for her dark patron) but first they need to Hit the Streets which frequently means Put a Name to a Face. The moves in Urban Shadows are awesome at helping the MC generate new twists along the way. But those twists the compound with regular Misses, and then things start snowballing. What started as a pretty quick “I’ll got hit up this NPC for information” turns into a lengthy series of fuckups and complications and twists.

If we were watching this show, who cares? I’ve been watching the latest season of The Magicians and single characters go off and do things, or do things with notable support characters, all the time. And it’s fine because I’m the only audience. Let’s have a whole session of Margo on a drug-fueled visionquest, why not? Let’s watch Clearwater traipsing around the world with his murderous demon friend, why not? But players at a tabletop game are both participants and audience, and it’s really hard to stay engaged, no matter how good everyone else’s stories are. When the phone games come out I know folks are bored, and those phone games are coming out. Something needs to change.

Working Theories

I have a few working theories and I’m using this post to work them out for myself.

  • Fronts: I started this game building out some fronts but I confess, I haven’t been good about tracking them, using them, relying on them to drive action. I had a really hard time doodling them up the first time, and I’ve felt resistant to working them out better. It’s not like I don’t have time to prep. I just don’t have an appetite to do so. There’s something un-fun about prepping Urban Shadows fronts and I don’t know why that is. I rather enjoyed prepping Apocalypse World and, really, every other PbtA game out there I’ve ever played. But there’s just something…don’t know. Boring? Unenticing? In any case, I’m looking at taking another swing at refactoring all the clocks in my game and rebuilding the front-of-fronts, called the Storm. I think that may give the players a better sense of what threats they share.
  • The Debt economy: As I mentioned above, I think Debt is hard for me to work well. I’m willing to say it’s a me problem, here. Issues I have trouble with are the fact that every Debt needs to have some fictional context before you can cash them in, right? Well, everyone’s got, I don’t know, five to 10 Debts. Context is hard to remember and even harder to wedge into play in many cases. So the players, I think, tend to turn Debt into contextless chits. They work the mechanics and not the fiction. And given the richness and complexity of Urban Shadows’ mechanics, that type of play is well rewarded. There’s also the thing I mentioned earlier, where the players simply aren’t helping each other with an eye toward earning Debt. Instead, they’re letting the system quantitatively ease the Debt economy via Moves, which isn’t really “the fiction” in the same way as “I’ll help you steal this thing and you’ll owe me later.”

    We had a similar problem with Debt in Legacy as well. I wonder if it’s just a fundamental concept that’s hard for us to play toward. It reminds me a little of the psychological jump players had to make in accepting losses during a Duel of Wits in Burning Wheel: it’s not enough to just lose the duel, you also have to do the thing you agreed to. And it sure seems like it’s easy to let those obligations slip away. It’s not enough to grudgingly go along, you need to at least act like you’ve been convinced to do it.

  • The moves: One of my favorite things about how Urban Shadows is designed is that many, maybe most, of the moves do a great job of prompting the MC to complicate the situation. Even some 10+ results will still add a little tweak or twist. But there’s something about them that’s different than Apocalypse World. I’ve been trying to put my finger on it. Maybe the scope or complication is bigger or different? I don’t know! Maybe it’s the particular set of Moves firing off with our particular set of playbooks. No idea. But the end result is that there’s constant creative pressure pulling everyone off their goals. What should be simple efforts become Herculean tasks after a couple 7-9s and a Miss or two. This point is where I most suspect it’s a me-problem: my instincts aren’t to complicate toward a goal. And that leads me to my last thought.
  • Snowballing: I’ve experimented with how to snowball moves in Urban Shadows more than any other PbtA I’ve ever run. I started out escalating too fast, Apocalypse World style, and everything predictably ended up on fire. I tried a really slow and subtle approach, quietly spooling out threats here and there and waiting to spring some perfect Big Twist down the road. The latter feels great and looks great. But these Big Twists my players land on invariably throw them off their ability to resolve anything. And I think that’s something baked into Urban Shadows itself: the game is structurally resistant to meaningful change. That’s funny because Apocalypse World of course counsels the MC to threaten every status quo. But in US, the city will always continue and the factions will always pursue their same strategies. There are structural limits to what the characters can actually accomplish.

Interestingly, other folks I’ve talked to regarding my game have also brought up that Urban Shadows hit a wall for them at the sixth or seventh session as well. I wonder if expectations-setting would help? Like: the game does slice-of-supernatural-life well so you might as well shrug and go along wherever your life takes you. But US starts every playbook setup by asking what the character is trying to accomplish. There’s a strong implication, I think, that everyone should have a goal and the promise that maybe they can accomplish it. This is a big difference from Apocalypse World, which doesn’t expect the characters to have goals. We just follow them along in their lives in the first session and then start threatening and complicating and spinning out new situations.

What I don’t want, and I think my players share this feeling, is to drive my players to spend all their time nose-down in the Moves because of that promise. And given the intersection of the game’s design and my own instincts – which, again, I’m totally owning here – I feel like that’s where everyone’s ending up: disengaged from the fiction and frustrated by their mechanical inability to get ahead.

Leave a Reply