Lurking in the Urban Shadows
Drop the buckets of dice you need to play Dark Urban Fantasy.
There’s a vampire on the corner hooking hapless humans on its blood. There’s a demon making deals with desperate people who just need something too badly to say no. Werewolves stake out and eliminate competition for another slice of turf. And some humans just don’t know when to stand down against magicians, ghosts and worse.
This probably sounds like a couple of different games out there in the tabletop market – ever since the days of the early nineties, mature horror games have been ground out to catch a slice of the gaming pie. There’s a variety of systems from the ubiquitous Storyteller games, to more recent entries such as the Dresden Files Fate Core adaptations. These systems are rewarding, though they can sometimes come with buckets of dice or a reliance on a lot of foreknowledge of political groups; long, secret histories; and abstract measures of what it is to be… whatever boogeyman you’re playing (or playing against).
It looks like there’s a simpler way – Urban Shadows by Magpie Games.
Urban Shadows sets its gritty, urban experience up using a gritty but cinematic system, Apocalypse World, which emphasizes play based on moves from an archetype playbook. While this sounds perhaps a bit scripted, it has layers to it which assist in getting things done. It very much starts with basics, giving you a name, a demeanor, and a guide for starting stats which are all easy to handle. You then get shown your starting factions and decide a few other things about the character (the basic who are you stuff, plus a selection of basic gear to start with). Then you find out who you owe and who owes you within the party, you receive your most basic supernatural move, plus an option to select a few more depending on your archetype.
Boom. You’re ready to play. You’re now a dyed in the wool… whatever you are. You can choose to be a mortal magician, a hunter of the supernatural, a fae, a demon – there’s a total of eleven archetypes to choose from, but you may be a unique vampire, hunter, or oracle from the rest of your ilk based on choices and the way you opt to advance. Your playbook then offers you different options as you go up in experience or as you corrupt yourself by your supernatural nature (more on this in a bit), providing a little more room to stretch your legs than the traditional Old School RPG advancement tracks.
The system is really simple – you roll two six-sided dice to do anything. You pass your test on a roll of seven or higher, and that roll is modified by your stats (ranging from -3 to +3 – sometimes more when really powerful stuff or gear comes into play). If it sounds simple, it’s got another layer: a seven or better isn’t enough to get you where your going scot free. A roll of 7-9 means you get what you want, but it comes at a cost. You can find yourself owing someone who gives you a hand, or you can end up in a bigger problem, or you can find yourself bleeding at the other end – or a host of other things as moves dictate. A roll of ten or better means you did great and everything is the way it should be… maybe you even get some more options to pick from or put someone in debt to you.
Additionally it’s meant to make characters feel in control – the Master of Ceremonies is never really meant to roll dice so much as just guide things along, present the scene and adjudicate. The MC gets special moves he uses himself by simple fiat. the MC shows the characters what’s happening, but their rolls determine everything. The way you get conflict is when characters fail or only scrape by – it’s easy to scrape in this game, but hard to come out whole all of the time. This should lead to plenty of opportunities for players to make intricate situations in which they find themselves being drawn deeper into conflicts the longer they try to stick it out, be they physical combat or social maneuvering.
Additionally, there’s other interesting elements placed in terms of system. Often times, characters are creating the story (passing rumors at the start of each session) to get things kicked off. Sometimes they can choose to fall back on their monstrous natures or get in bed with the very creatures they fight to maintain an edge or attain supernatural power via corruption – though if you take too much corruption you risk becoming the most base and vile of creatures (an NPC bent on evil). You can also make custom moves as well for regularly seen things that don’t have a rule – the book cites for instance a city that has a serious problem with subway nasties. Just rolling through the public transit system requires you to roll to see exactly what, if anything, takes an interest in you down there.
Better still, if it’s a little weird or it seems too loose from a crunch perspective, the book provides ample instructions on how to implement everything. The tone is generally conversational and can typically set good examples for how to resolve things.
Pros and Cons
The game does a lot of positive things – it reqally does focus on making sure the characters are doing things. the GM gets to largely sit back and nudge things, provide information, and let the characters drive when it comes to the dice rolling. this is great for experienced MCs who’d like to take the weight off their back for doing everything. However, for a newer group of players, I could see how this might be a double-edged sword. Additionally, it can be frustrating for the player who wants a hard, defined rule for everything. If you want a game where you can min-max and always get that perfect head shot, you may be in for disappointment.
Another great feature is that they don’t come at you with long established histories. Vampires don’t have hard and fast rules for instance – you’ll sit down with your group and determine what kind of vampire you want. If you want the highly factionalized and intrigue heavy bloodsuckers like in the World of Darkness, you can do it – but you could make your vampires more along the lines of the Lost Boys or (ugh) Twilight. Same goes for your wizards. You want Harry Potter style wizards, you could roll that way, or you could go full on Carcosa and have magic require vile and abominable sacrifices for magic. Werewolves can be the tortured and unwilling shapeshifters tied to the moon’s phase, or you can have them wolf out on command whenever they please. Your group decides the mythos, and in that scenario, everybody wins.
One solid pro is that the game is meant to be political, no matter what you play. The game is not just about staking out territory and eliminating threats – it’s about intrigue, power brokering, and setting up your group’s empire. This isn’t some thing where you just run around killing things and reveling in dark power. There are people who want things. Powerful people – sometimes who aren’t even people strictly speaking. And they want things, just like you. And if you’re going to survive, you’re going to have to play delicate power games. The game is designed from the ground up to get you into situations where standing on principles is difficult, and that if you want anything, you’re going to have to pay to play – be it blood, money, or favors. Everything’s for sale, and you can’t trust anyone – maybe not even your own set.
The one thing that I could see as a specific drawback is that it does require a fair amount of on-the-fly thinking. One of the common things I could see coming up is when you succeed at cost (a die roll result of 7-9). It’s easy to fall back on crutches once you’ve run out of new ways to fail or get yourself in deeper trouble. It can call for a lot of quick thinking on the part of the GM. You could get around this with a little prep, but even the most prepared of MCs could find themselves running out of ways to ‘make things interesting.’ Likewise, players can run into the same drought as well. Given this, I wouldn’t recommend this for new players – it might be a mid-level game for people who’ve been around the block a couple times and are looking for something new.
The Sum Up
Magpie Games has a solid entry here. The industry has been looking more and more in the direction of Apocalypse World Engine games and this seems to be a solid entry in that arena, going other solid entries such as Monster of the Week or Legacy. The game should be able to stand alone on its own – not too much room for expansions since the playbooks largely cover everything you’ll need. So if you need something new to darken up the well-lit streets of your life, Urban Shadows could be your ticket to a world of blood and power.
Final Verdict: Four out of Five!
Urban Shadows – MSRP $19.99 USD (Digital Content – available discounted at RPG Drive Thru for $11.99 USD) – Magpie Games