It goes without saying that previous iterations of the Powered by the Apocalypse system is a favorite among RPG.LAB participants. Between Dungeon World and Monster of the Week, we’ve had a lot of fun. This time around we snatched up a copy of URBAN SHADOWS from Magpie Games and, as one would expect, we had a blast.
Although the book doesn’t come right out and say it, it implies an urban fantasy world that is ‘very similar to our own – only darker’, and by that I mean it is a paired down version of something that VERY closely resembles the territory covered in early World of Darkness material. Some of the art is even reminiscent of that old 90s period piece that made White Wolf an RPG juggernaut of that decade. That being said, it is not at all like the World of Darkness in a very important way – it is a single, two-hundred and ninety seven page book that gets to the point and focuses in on why we like playing monsters and why we like entangling these creatures of the night in all variety of intrigue and catastrophe.
Like the vast majority of Apocalypse Engine games, character generation is simplified by the selection of the playbook (called an archetype in Urban Shadows). In this case, the books are separated into four factions (I will talk more about this in the setting and mechanics subsections) and each has two or three types to choose from. The factions and playbooks are:
MORTALITY speaks for three archetypes – the Aware, the Hunter and the Veteran. This faction speaks for human affairs and interests and the three playbooks are for players for whom the supernatural is still something external.
NIGHT is the faction of those things that primarily go bump in the night. The Spectre, the Vamp, and the Wolf are the stock character types for most dark urban fantasy. These are monsters to be sure (If you want a more sympathetic treatment of these types of characters try the Apocalypse game Monsterhearts) and when playing them you will deal with their weaknesses and politics.
POWER is the faction of those mortals who dare to seize supernatural power and insight for themselves. The two archetypes are the Wizard and the Oracle.
WILD is the faction of the truly weird shit with experiences and desires far from mortal. The two archetypes are the Tainted (which is a human possessed by a demon or other sketchy supernatural being) or the Fae which might as well be space aliens insofar as their ability to seamlessly integrate into mortal culture and society.
Like all playbooks, these are checklists that make character generation extremely quick and easy to deal with lending to the one-shot or short notice readiness of Urban Shadows.
“Character generation was great. Fast. Easy. By the time we linked all the characters together we had a likeable cast of weirdoes.”
“Like other Apocalypse Engine games, the character creation is nice and easy. The character description options are flavorful, the architypes are cool.”
“I don’t think I did a good job in playing the character I initially created (she was not very serene!) Having said that, I like the simplicity that created unique characters with reasons to interact.”
In true Powered by the Apocalypse fashion, the setting for our game was cooperatively conceived. We decided on a fictional city situated in the real world. As the Master of Ceremonies, I decided I wanted to tell a moody story that didn’t necessarily put trenchcoat/katana at the fore. The characters (a degenerate Vamp, a disinherited Wolf, an ancient Tainted, and a very patient Aware) seemed pretty real and flawed and we wanted a world where their stories could be reasonably explored.
So Kingshore, Massachusetts came to be. Kingshore is a coastal resort city like Atlantic City, and like Atlantic City, it is in a state of terrible decline. It also enjoys the disdain of New England in general as it is considered a monstrous, neon horror that blights the provincial and idyllic route to Cape Cod and Nantucket. Off season, it is a gray and empty place where mobsters and monsters have made their moves since the late 19th century.
Behind the scenes, I gave interests and holdings to each of the four factions (making sure that PCs had a strong interest in these limited resources and opportunities) so that moving around the city would disturb these plans and create story and conflict. So once these drama traps were properly installed in four corners of the setting map, we were off to the races.
“The setting just sort of grew out of the cracks between the characters.”
“The setting really fit the feel of the game. An East Coast/New England, drizzly version of Sunnydale. I still have images from the game in my head.”
In quick summary, games that are Powered by the Apocalypse use a very easy 2d6 task resolution mechanic. You roll the 2d6 and add the relevant attribute bonus (generally between a -3 and a +3). Results of 6 or lower result in failure and the granting of an experience point or other benefit. Results of a 7-9 are successful but with a cost, consequences or plain old urgency. A score of 10 is usually a total success whereby the PC is given the opportunity to narrate his or her awesomeness as seen fit.
Beyond the basics, Urban Shadows also adds a political element that is invoked at the beginning of each game. Each PC has a relationship with each of the four factions represented by a simple modifier. That modifier can be tested or otherwise strained to determine further engagement with that faction.
Did you succeed fantastically when checking the Night faction? Then you enjoy the envied seat right next to the Vampire Prince at the very important council meeting later that evening. Did you fail horribly when consulting a roll with the Power faction? Then the sociopathic necromancer that once devoured the souls of your ancestors has discovered you at last.
“Very easy to grasp. Having played other versions of the Powered by the Apocalypse engine I had very few questions and play was easy.”
“Again, the simplicity allows for an easy back and forth where everyone can focus on their parts without being confused by mechanics.”
Although we probably could have leaned on some of the game specific systems a bit more than we did, we had a blast. The story got fairly complex and nuanced rather quickly. To be honest, I thought this was going to feel like really hand-waved and hollow experience of dated tropes and brooding clichés. It was anything but! In fact, I would say that the experience of this particular RPG lab was largely unsatisfying because, after three short sessions, we had to abandon the Kingshore despite there being so much more story to tell.
“George runs a great game. His take on horror helps a lot with this one.”
“I quite enjoyed Urban Shadows – perhaps the most of all the PotA games I’ve played so far. I think I’ll be running some US sessions after the current game I’m playing in concludes.”
George is the full-time assistant manager here at Games & Stuff. He is an obsessive collector of RPGs both common and obscure. It is likely that this habit will become the subject of a horror game sometime in the imminent future.