Urban Shadows: Best Practices

A friend asked me this morning for advice on how to run his first Urban Shadows game. I’ve been thinking about putting my thoughts in one place so here they are.

* Next time I run US, I’ll make super-sure everyone is up in everyone else’s business on the first session. The Debt questions don’t really push hard to make that happen, so you end up with a sprawly outward-focused relationship map. Oh yeah, btw definitely draw an r-map for this game. I would advise quartering out the map, with the four factions being the quarters.

* I would run your game in demo mode for a couple sessions. The things I would highlight as novel are the Debt economy and the Corruption economy. The Debt/Corruption tension is kind of core to the game! So have an NPC call in a debt ASAP. Not a murder debt though. Something difficult but not terminal. Make it okay for them to blow off the debt, too, so they can make that Corruption roll.

* I’d also leverage each player’s Corruption move at least once in the session, give them tasty bait.

* Re hyperviolence: the game doesn’t have a robust violence system, so it might not pay off for them to try this. The only options they’ll have is Unleash and maybe Escape and probably Keep Your Cool. I think violence is stressful so I frequently make them Keep Their Cool as the fiction moves toward violence. Let It Out can also short-circuit a fight, just by being scary/awesome.

* Factions: They’re abstractions of communities, and IMO they don’t work great (and they’re definitely not cyberpunk style monoliths). But they can work if you stay mindful of which quadrant the characters are sitting in (hence my strong advice to draw a physical relationship map).

Mortality is just plain folks, and you’ll need to establish VERY EARLY how much exposure to the freaky stuff Mortality has in your setting. Are they oblivious? Is the supernatural known? Basically: does law enforcement know about vampires? I’d start there. But the game doesn’t define that, and that’s a big question to get out of the way early because Mortality can be the biggest pain in the ass to face once you’ve gotten their ire up.

You also have to decide on the line between power and mortality early. In our game, power means anyone of any ability with an interest in 1%er interests: political access, direct authority, and money. So that can include mortal beings, for sure, but almost certainly once you’ve gotten into that community you know about vampires and wizards. It’s a good Illuminati thing.

Night is criminals, so again don’t get distracted with the vampires and werewolves stuff. It’s gang-bangers and mafia and IME also the most racially fraught. It’s super easy to turn your werewolf pack into cholos in cruisers, so think about that a little.

Wild is immigrant communities, also an easy place to think about race. Like, in our Phoenix game, who are the outsiders? Easy to map fairyland onto, say, the tribes but yikes. This is a place where I feel like the writers spent more time in old east coast cities, where you have more prominent insular immigrant communities.

* Hit the Debt thing early and often. Prompt your players to cash in THEIR debts with NPCs, and have the NPCs do the thing, so they can feel how useful they are.

* Don’t ever forget the “what I care about” questions that are on everyone’s character sheet. Shit can snowball really fast in US, particularly with the Faction and Start of Session moves spooling out new content faster than you can incorporate it.

I’m sure the other US diehards will have better ideas than this. This is just a place to start talking.

0 thoughts on “Urban Shadows: Best Practices”

  1. Oh, one thing I do with character creation debt questions is tell the players that at least half (round up) of their named debts need to be another PC.

    I sometimes also have them play the “finger pointing game” (point at someone you have debts with) to make sure everyone has some debts pointed at them.

  2. So if I’m reading you right, the Factions aren’t a big driver of drama, but Debt is, right? I’ve sort of had this 1-to-1 relationship between the two, but it seems incorrect, yeah?

  3. Aaron Griffin yyyyyeah. I think I understand what you’re saying.

    But correct: “Night” doesn’t have a goal; it’s has a methodology. Folks who are criminals do crime-y things. They’re not a unified supervillain crew. Same with the rest.

    Really the factions, I think, exist to prompt different move sets and to, again, juice the situation with material. You advance by checking off all four Factions, which means to advance you have to introduce content that brings along with it four different move sets.

    But I wouldn’t at all think of the factions as really wanting anything at all.

  4. As I see it, both debts and factions (start of session moves and experience related) are good Drama drivers.
    Actually, most fiction should start from debts creating your character’s need to mess up with factions. Without debts, your character would have no push to do anything dramatic.
    So in this view, Debts might be seen as the primary drive.

  5. Watch The Wire.

    Stringer Bell – Vamp
    Omar – Hunter
    McNulty – Wizard
    Lawyers laundering drug money – Tainted

    Also check out the Dresden Files books. Please spare yourself from watching the show.

    Set your game in a town most people know. This might be one of the most fun aspects of Urban Fantasy rpgs.

  6. I only ever run one-shots, but have some advice.

    I agree that debts and corruption are the killer apps of Urban Shadows; use both early and often. Don’t be afraid to tell people to mark corruption for reasons other than their corruption move.

    In one-shots, no one ever fails outright on a miss: there are just lots and lots of very hard moves.

    Also In one-shots, I often advance a countdown clock as a hard move.

    If things get slow, some vamps with shotguns show up, and they’ve been looking for you. Why? Let’s find out!

  7. I like to think of Faction as a fractal. The Night Faction will generally all have similar world views and interests and that may or may not mean that they also have goals and motives that align. As Paul Beakley says, it’s definitely not a monolith, but they’re more alike than they are different.

    Then, you can zoom in and look at vampires and find the same thing. Then you can zoom further in and look at vampire lineages (or whatever term you want to use to talk about small or large groups). Then you can zoom in further and further until you get to an individual vampire (PC or NPC).

    I like working with that framework because at the start of the game, I’m not going to know much about each Faction, but as we start to introduce more and more fiction, I can start filling in stuff at the appropriate fractal level and zoom in and out of my fractal as the story demands.

  8. I do think Factions want things, but what they want is about a process. Night wants conflicts to be resolved with violence and dominance; Power wants conflicts to be resolved with power and politics. Many Urban Shadows plots revolve around having a conflict about how we’re going to have conflicts, i.e. a werewolf pack kidnaps a wizard’s kid which makes the wizards go fucking crazy and start a ritual that will kill every werewolf in the city.

    Some Vampires with Shotguns Are Looking for You. Why Are They Looking for You? What Do They Want? Let’s Find Out. is the name of my new Urban Shadows Netflix show.

  9. Mark Diaz Truman interesting! But it feels like a distinction without a difference. I’m not sure how “use these moves when Power is acting” is different than “Power wants to use these moves to act.” Answering that probably means wandering into Hypotheticalland, my least favorite Disney attraction.

  10. For me, it centers around alliances and agreements. Werewolves and vampires agree that kidnapping the kid was a legit move; oracles and faeries are horrified. I think it gives us a context for the fiction broadly, a way of thinking about why Factions feel like communities instead of arbitrary lines.

  11. Paul Beakley – I think what Mark Diaz Truman is saying is that you can use these different approaches to resolving conflicts as a new source of conflict that can escalate the original conflict to bring in more people within each faction.

    To use Marks example, the vampires may not care about the kid that got kidnapped, but once the Wizards bring their greater power to bear, they may think “shit! If they want to go all in for something like a single kid, that’ll fuck things up for everybody, including us.” Now you have the vampires trying to mediate this situation, which could easily lead to the Wizards bringing in a couple of Immortals, and then you have something much closer to a full on Night vs Power conflict all because werewolves and wizards have different ideas about proportional responses.

  12. So I’mma be non-helpful, as is my wont, and just talk about myself some more:

    What I do (which seems kinda in line with what everyone is saying, but I dunno, y’all are weird) is use the Factions of a given city to say something about that city while giving it a very four-color, easy-to-start-from base.

    So like, when I play US Toronto, Night is going to be violent — because their moves are all violence. But violence in Toronto doesn’t mean the same thing it does in American cities. So how does Night handle that? How do wolve and vampires keep a city of 2.8 million at under 40 murders a year?

    (They put you in a bag, ship you out of town, and murder you in Kitchener. It’s the only thing Kitchener is good for.)

    So, for any city I play in, the four factions are four basic impulses and roughly associated people who cluster around those impulses, in a way that speaks to what makes this city this city.

  13. Hmm, not much to add but keep your initial cast of NPCs tight as many more will be generated in play. Also, I think it is useful to ask the PCs to all be bound into the city for a long time – blow-ins don’t bind into the politics well.

  14. Rob Brennan oh dang YES, I totally forgot that point. All of our characters the first time around were new, no idea why it worked out that way, but the moves don’t fit the fiction very well when that happens.

  15. Paul Beakley I love your characterization of the factions above. eg I never thought of Night as criminals – is that explicitly in the book? It should be! Much easier to operationalize in the game.

  16. I agree this is a great thread but one of the things IMO that sucks about G+ is that this just disappears into the aether unlike all the old threads on a forum or blog. I spent a lot of time in the archives of storygames back in 2012 and learnt a lot.

  17. Rob Brennan you can share it to a private collection to bookmark it.

    I think one of the bigger problems isn’t that is disappears, but that it’s not even really findable. Some newcomer to G+ looking for US info isn’t gonna know who Paul Beakley​ is, so won’t ever find this…

  18. Aaron Griffin but they should find it under a search for Urban Shadows. This is a public Collection and it’s got a following. Not a huge one (my Nerdery one, which I don’t care about at all, is at least 3x by now) but enough for Google to feature it.

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