Game Review: Urban Shadows

So in every gamer's life, there's comes a game that is your game. Y'know? The one you've been waiting for. The one that does the exact type of fiction you like telling. The one that has the cool bits you love and added shit you didn't even think of. The one that offers all the things and you dig your teeth into it and your nails and you go 'FUCK YEAH'. You know that game? That's Urban Shadows to me.

I mean, I'll be honest. I thought Monsterhearts was that game to me. It turns out, Urban Shadows is the grown up, complicated version of Monsterhearts. It's the game Monsterhearts becomes when you realize there are more vampires out there, more werewolves, more wizards, and way more hunters. You're not the chosen anymore, kiddo, you're just another hunter in the sea of a city that wants your blood.

Urban Shadows is the effort of Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz Truman. These guys are doing cool things and you should totally check them out and help them do cool things. It's a game about alliances, politics, blood, intimacy, and being a monster. Or well, figuring out what it means to be a monster while also powerless in a city that's all about power plays. It's terrifying, with enough heart to pull you back to the moments that make it dramatic and emotionally powerful.

Like many games, it's Powered by the Apocalypse, which means you need 2d6 to get going, and preferably some extras for the other suckers around you. If you're going to run or play this game, you really should read the book. I mean, you can get away with a lot of PbtA not reading the entire book. I do not recommend this approach for Urban Shadows. The playbooks and the moves sheets are great. But there are bits to your characters you'll only really get if you read the "Playing a Veteran" section of the book.

The book has also earned itself a reputation as one of the most comprehensive approaches to PbtA games, with well written and detailed examples of the moves, threats, factions (exclusive to this game), hard moves, and how to GM the shit out of the game. It also includes some new, fun stuff, like factions and debts.

Debts are by far one of my favourite things about US. Debts are the grown-up's strings. They're not emotional moments you can use to influence people later. They're moments when you agree you owe a favour later for a favour now. I've been playing and running this game so much I've seen debts come up at every opportunity. "Oh hey. Wanna help me go kill the hunter?" "No." "Yeah but you owe me, asshole." And then some dice are rolled and tension raises and seven episodes later people are still talking about that time you didn't pay back that debt when the dude asked.

Your reputation means something in US. You can't just keep rejecting people's debts on you, because their factions get pissed and think you're shitty, and soon, people won't deal with you. And if you fail at rejecting a debt, you can literally lose all your debts on everyone ever. Since there's no way to socially manipulate one another outside of debts, it means you loose all your social sway in the city, leaving you a target. Epic.

Factions are another interesting part. The game breaks up all the different archetypes into one of four factions. Night (vamps, wolves, spectres), Power (wizards, oracles), Wild (fae, tainted), and Mortality (hunters, veterans, aware) are the factions. They have some pull over the characters and help make that political part of the game even more real as they vie for control over you and your city. They help generate tension and rumours. Handily enough, they all also come with their own hard moves.

Instructions on how to GM the game nail how I think PbtA games, especially political urban fantasy games should be run. It's mean. And the city is mean. So your rules better be fucking mean. US doesn't pull its punches, it doesn't look the other way, and it smiles while it bleeds out your best friend. I love this. I eat it up. I want more. It's one of the best written instructions on GMing PbtA I've seen and even if you never play this game, you should read this section.

The art work makes a huge attempt at having intersectional and diverse artwork. The archetypes also have an ethnicity to circle, inviting the players to play around with their ethnic backgrounds. It's important to note just how inclusive the artwork is, how great it is, and how much thought was put into making the game not just about a bunch of hot white people, because really, the game could be that based on the pop culture surrounding urban horror/fantasy.

Within the book, a tiny part is dedicated to talking about race, sex, gender, and ethnicity and how those impact the story. It talks about stereotypes, how to unmake those, and how to make the game about racial and gender issues. Except... it kinda doesn't. I was super excited for the way US handled race and gender on the archetypes (character sheets), and wanted to see how the book broke down avoiding bad content while also making it comfortable to play with it.

There are about three paragraphs on this content. They are great paragraphs. But it isn't enough. It doesn't go into how to explore those heavy themes safely nor does it really give you a starting point beyond "make stereotypes interesting" and "include PoC on all spectrums." I firmly believe games should be about social issues and should embrace those issues. The book says to. It says do it. It just doesn't give much on how to nor provide the tools or guides it needs to. And as a white person, I know I've routinely felt uncomfortable bringing that element to the table. So while it's not a downfall of the game, if US wants to be a game having that discourse, in a 290 page book, more than two pages should be dedicated to that deep and necessary conversation.

There's more room here for intersectionality. The three paragraph examples, as I said, are great. It needs to be a guide for allies (because, let's face it, gaming is still a white man's hobby even though that's changing). However, all these examples are about racial tension (which is hugely important and I cannot stress that enough), but where are the examples of ableism, sexism, classism, cissexism, heteronormativity, transphobia, and queerphobia? This, in part, could be because the authors are male, and may not feel like it's their place to address these issues, although the issues are often mentioned in passing (which is more than 90% of games do).

Realistically, that's the only part of the book I found lacking. Everything else is executed to perfection, and it shows in the way it gets played. Even when playing with people I wouldn't consider A-list role players and complete strangers, epic shit comes out of that game that rips at your heart. It's dark and political and inescapable. Everything you want from that setting. It's World of Darkness without the bullshit.

Soonish (maybe?) there's a supplemental book called Dark Streets coming out you can pre-order. I have pre-ordered it and I want it. It comes with some new archetypes and city-specific content. Part of me is really interested to see if Toronto is in there, considering one of the creators is from Ontario, but on some level, having run so much of it within Toronto, I'd be happy if it were left alone. But then again, Toronto was just named the most diverse place to live. It's ripe for Urban Shadows.

Urban Shadows
Price: $20 softcover, $40 hardcover
Players: 4 - 5 is the sweet spot. I've run with 6. Don't.
GM Work: Moderate. Keeping track of debts and NPCs can be a headache.
Materials: Archetype books, basic move sheets, gm sheets
Feel: Urban fantasy/horror
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars, if only because I wanted more on dealing with diversity in gaming