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PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

Takeaways from running Urban Shadows for a year

After running an Urban Shadows campaign for a year, I have a few takeaways to share.

One of my starting points with any RPG is “Does it do what it says on the tin?” Urban Shadows very much does what it says on the tin, and it’s a fantastic game.

1. After our group character creation session, I spent 1-2 hours turning the hooks, antagonists, and threads the players created into Threats, and I made debt tracker sheets and consolidated move lists for my GM folder.

That was the extent of my prep for the entire campaign.

2. Before each session, I thought about what had happened in the previous session, what the antagonists were up to (all noted on their clocks), and what the PCs had planned for the next session.

Occasionally, I wrote myself a sentence or two of notes so I wouldn’t forget stuff.

3. During the game, I took notes as often as possible without interrupting the flow of play. My group alternates weekly games, so with a two-week gap between sessions (and a shoddy memory!) notes are essential for me.

4. I also created an NPC Rolodex using a 3×5 index cards and a card box. Everyone important enough to name got a card color-coded for their faction with a quick description, notes, and a Drive.

This became unwieldy, and I may need a better solution when we go back to the game.

5. Likewise for my debt trackers. I left a half-page of room for each faction and they were totally full within a couple months. I should have had at least a full page, probably double-sided, per faction, and they should have been lined sheets.

6. Out of five regular players, three loved corruption, one avoided it like the plague, and one was somewhere in the middle. We retired two PCs around the one-year mark due to corruption, with a third just a point or two away from retirement.

7. My table included a mix of PbtA veterans, newbies, and folks in between. One thing I can confidently say that everyone loved about the system was how failures are handled. The whole table paused, excitement in the air, anytime a failure came up.

8. Using only player-created hooks, and logical outgrowths from those hooks, as toys in the sandbox produced an overwhelming amount of threads to keep track of. I regard this as a feature, not a bug; the Threats provided clear calls to action to mitigate option paralysis.

9. With 1/4 Threats fully resolved and another 1/4 on the ropes, we still have 2/4 of the original Threats in play after a year. This created a logical pause point to take a break from the game, and it should make picking it up again easier.

This is one of my favorite campaigns that I’ve run, and it’s a perfect fit for my preferred zero-prep sandbox style of play. Highly recommended!

I’m happy to answer questions about this campaign or Urban Shadows in general — just fire away in the comments!

Categories
PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

Monsterhearts 2 is a scintillating jewel

Hot damn is Monsterhearts 2 a good book. (It’s also an amazing game in play, but right now I just want to talk about the book itself.)

It’s lean, without an ounce of cruft anywhere on its frame. It’s devoid of blather. This is a bullshit-free presentation honed by years of actual play, design chops, and feedback from others. It’s fucking beautiful.

It’s also packed with advice delivered in the best way possible for an RPG: conversationally but directly, with its intended audiences in mind. I love design notes and anything that brings in all the stuff that exists on the edges of the actual text — like intent — and MH2 makes so much explicit so well that it just rocks.

MH2 connects with me on many levels, some of them much deeper than most RPG texts. This is rare, and I appreciate it. But it’s also a fun game that hits so many personal high notes for what I like in an RPG, and the book expresses those things clearly and without pretension.

As a physical object, the book is equally great. I love simple hardcovers with gilt, so I love this. I generally hate dust jackets on gaming books, but in this size, and executed this well, I love this one. (It makes a perfect bookmark.)

This is one of the best gaming books I’ve encountered, full stop. It’s exactly and precisely what it wants and needs to be.

Huge props to Avery Alder.

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PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

Urban Shadows is fantastic for spinning up a sandbox game

I love sandbox games and urban horror, and at that intersection sits the absolutely stellar PbtA RPG Urban Shadows.

I expected Urban Shadows to be good at facilitating sandbox play, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good it is. Since the proof is in the pudding, below is the brief recap of goings-on in El Paso, Texas that I provided to my players after our fifth session. For context, session one was character creation; we did start-of-session moves for sessions two and five (rather than every session); and our sessions are 3 hours tops, usually more like 2-2.5 hours.

Ignore the specifics and think broad — just look how much stuff is happening all over the city after this little play (bold names are PCs):

  • The Warden militia group gunning for Carmen and trying to make Angels’ Triangle their base in the city
  • A new vampire in town, Orlando Cranshaw, who wants to shake things up
  • Another vamp, Carlos de la Rosa, who is a rival to Desmond
  • Katya Ulanov, another demonic soul-trader who shares Nick‘s patron, who wants Nick’s territory
  • Mason Black’s coyote goons after Hector
  • Kyle‘s missing friend, Brandon, who was abducted by the wizard Mason Black
  • A group of coyotes who also want the Paper Shop building for their own, who have struck a deal with Orlando for protection
  • A missing senator’s son, Diego Hernandez
  • An extremely competent cover-up of the killing at Midnight
  • ICE on the prowl for Carmen, so they can deport her like the rest of her family
  • Veronica‘s visions: the Warden skinning Carmen in about a month, after assassinating Father Riley; Hector being choked to death by White Eyes in the sheriff’s office jail; and Father Riley’s death

And how much of that did I come up with, as the MC, before the start of the campaign? Zero.

Player backgrounds, and the Q&A we did for everyone during character creation, produced many of those elements. The first time we did start-of-session moves, several more came into play — including the opening scene for the campaign, another thing I hadn’t prepped in advance. Around session three or four, I generated Threats from all of the sandbox elements my players had created, and fleshed them out a bit with my own ideas. The rest grew out of session five’s start-of-session moves.

The mechanics of the game combined with the energy and creativity of the players produce a sandbox organically and with minimal effort. It’s clever, and it works beautifully in practice.

So far, I fucking love Urban Shadows.

Categories
PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

World Wide Wrestling is an over-the-top delight

Nathan D. Paoletta‘s World Wide Wrestling RPG reminds me of Action Movie World, another tight-premise PbtA game, not because they share a premise but because WWW 100% delivers on its premise (just like AMW).

Wrasslin’

My last contact with professional wrestling was in the 1980s, when I used to occasionally watch it as a kid. I dug the larger-than-life personalities, but it wasn’t my thing in the same way as, say, G.I. Joe (so much G.I. Joe!). That didn’t crimp my enjoyment of the game one bit — and being accessible to gamers who aren’t into wrestling is just the first of many things WWW does well.

On the night we played WWW, my Seattle group consisted of two wrestling fans, one more casual fan, one lapsed fan (me), and two players with close to zero knowledge of professional wrestling. Without fans in the group, we’d have leaned on WWW’s excellent “How Wrestling Works” essay and been just fine; with fans, we probably got into the action a bit faster than we otherwise might have.

Our GM bought this little wrestling ring, complete with figures, to make it easier for us to demonstrate what we wanted to do in the ring:

It worked nicely, and helped to set the mood. I think it’s this set, which is totally worth its $10 price.

Gloriously over-the-top

WWW’s playbooks make it easy to create colorful, grandiose, and suitably bananas wrestlers. We created characters as a group, riffing off each others’ ideas, suggesting concepts and special moves and looks and theme songs rapid-fire, and cranked out some memorably crazy characters.

We baked in relationships — rivals, mentor and mentee, etc. — during character creation, which the game facilitates, and that gave the GM (called “Creative” in WWW) fuel to prepare the bookings. He spent a couple of minutes matching us up against each other based on those relationships, and secretly noted who was supposed to win each match.

On my initial read-through of the game, I was concerned about that aspect of the system; it sounded confining. But in play, it worked beautifully. We were all excited about each match-up, and we all had the chance to flip the script and change who won the match; one player used this option at the perfect time, but otherwise we stuck to the bookings.

Ditto my pre-game concern that there might be too many mechanics for my taste. There are more moving parts than some PbtA games, but in play they all did their job and clicked — just like good mechanics should.

A unique rhythm

A game where most of the group watches two people play might sound boring for everyone but those two people (and the GM), but again, WWW sets things up so it isn’t. One person plays the announcer, using a prop microphone to provide color commentary, and that adds a layer of interaction and entertainment for everyone. (The role is supposed to rotate, but we quickly found our best announcer and generally stuck with him.) And of course the matches are quick, so after being on the sidelines in one match the spotlight rotates and suddenly you’re the center of attention again.

The division of wrestlers into babyfaces and heels — good and evil ring personas, more or less — also gave the players on the sidelines something to think about. Not in the match, but have a heated rivalry with someone who is? Use the right move, and you can show up and get involved anyway. This worked really well in play.

The evening played out as a mix of matches and out-of-the-ring scenes. We had fun cutting promos for our wrestlers, striving to outdo each other with cheesy one-liners and catchphrases. We didn’t delve much into the other side of the game — the real wrestlers behind the personalities, and how they interact outside the ring — that much, mostly due to time and this being the first session. But what we did in this session primed that pump beautifully for some more real-world action in a follow-up session.

The best way I can sum up my first WWW session is that there wasn’t a single moment that didn’t feel right. The game facilitates feeling right at every step, from character creation through individual matches through the behind-the-scenes stuff, and the mechanics work to keep everyone engaged and on point.

High-energy awesomeness

World Wide Wrestling is pure electric sex. It’s exhilarating to play, and the stuff I had reservations about after reading it — Creative booking match results in advance, the number of moving parts compared to the average PbtA game — fell away at the table.

The over-the-top goodness of pro wrestling is a perfect match for the collaborative, player agency-driven magic of the PbtA engine. World Wide Wrestling is a two cups of coffee, bring my A game sort of RPG for me: No one can coast, because everyone is involved an “on” pretty much all the time. I highly reccommend it.

Categories
PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

tremulus after two campaigns

I wrapped up a second campaign of tremulus, a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG of Lovecraftian horror by Sean Preston, this past Tuesday night. I’ve been meaning to write about tremulus for some time, because it’s a great game, it’s underrated, and I initially underrated it myself.

It’s basically “Call of Cthulhu by way of Apocalypse World,” which sounded like chocolate meets peanut butter to me when it popped up on Kickstarter back in 2012. After 19 sessions across two campaigns (one playing, one GMing), I’m ready to talk about it here on Yore.

First impression

My initial impression wasn’t favorable.

One of the things I love about being an avid RPGGeek[1] user is that when I want to know what I thought about a game four years ago, it’s easy to find out. Here’s what I said about it after one session:

I’ve played one session of tremulus, character creation plus an hour or so of play that was purely introductory. I can’t shake the sense that this isn’t a great implementation of Apocalypse World, but I’ll give it a more thorough shakedown as the campaign progresses.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement! My initial rating was a 7 out of 10, which was giving it the benefit of the doubt.

(Quoting myself seems insufferably pretentious, but I want to show how my thinking on tremulus changed over time, and it’s the easiest and most direct way to do that.)

Second impression

I stuck to my guns and gave it more thought as that campaign progressed, and things changed:

Several sessions in, I’m enjoying the game largely despite the system. It’s just not a particularly deft or interesting AW hack. There are some good bits, to be sure, but not as many as I’d like. The playbooks are mostly pretty boring and same-y, and I’d likely be having just as much fun with the same good group and a different system.

I enjoy PbtA games enough to like the core of what I’m getting here despite the fact that it’s surrounded with a fair amount of blah. The non-blah, for me, remains the Ebon Eaves playset aspect — that’s quite cool.

When I wrote that, I revised my rating downwards from a 7 to a 6.

It kept gnawing at me

But I couldn’t get that campaign out of my head, and it started to become clear to me that there was more there than I’d thought.

Months later, looking back on one of my favorite campaigns, I see that I’m conflicted about this game. Humdrum rules, but it’s fun to play. Do I wish the rules were more interesting? Yep. But Call of Cthulhu by way of Apocalypse World is pretty awesome.

New rating: 8.

Running tremulus

My online group enjoyed our first campaign, and I was itching to run an extended PbtA game, so we circled back to it with me in the GM’s chair. This showed me a whole different side of the game.

Yeah, there’s more in here that I love — the framework/thread/hazard tech is EXCELLENT. Doesn’t take long to pull together, dovetails beautifully with the playsets, and balances inspiration with prescriptive elements beautifully.

There are a lot more playbooks now, too, including many more with interesting features/rules — which were lacking in the core rules. The “tremulus ecosystem” has expanded into something very cool.

I love the “structured takeoff” provided by a playset + framework + playbooks. Lots of guidance, but no railroading or plotting things out. I see how the rules connect with that now, too, and overall I like the game a lot.

New rating: 9 out of 10. I’ve played 104 different RPGs as of this writing, and I rate 19 of them a 9 (and zero of them a 10).[2]

For me, this is a good example of how hard it is to assess an RPG without playing it. Which, you know, duh — but short of buying every book you ever see, you have to assess games you haven’t played.

My initial assessment of tremulus might have kept me from playing it, and I’d have missed out on a great game.

What I love about tremulus

The main thing I love is how it plays. I don’t do session prep, and when I GM I love sitting down at every session just like I was a player: not knowing what’s going to happen, and not having done any work between sessions. tremulus is fantastic for that.

It also delivers on what it promises: Lovecraftian horror with the trappings you expect from Call of Cthulhu, but all of the player agency, surprises, and not-plotting-things-out-in-advance you expect from a PbtA game.

tremulus also makes the clever choice to leave the amount of Lovecraft in your game up to you. By default, it assumes your group will be creating its own entities, cults, mysteries, and other setting elements in a Lovecraftian vein, rather than using deep ones, Yog-Sothoth, and all the rest. But if you’d prefer to play “straight CoC,” it supports that option as well.

The fourth biggie is the tremulus ecosystem. If you got into the game now, you’d have access to a wealth of playbooks, playsets, and other content that didn’t exist back when I first picked up the core book. The supplemental playbooks in particular are more interesting than the initial ones.

My group has played two playsets: Ebon Eaves, the peculiar town featured in the core book, and Frozen Wasteland, which is in the vein of At the Mountains of Madness (paid link). Both are excellent, and playsets are a huge part of what I love about tremulus.

Before you start in-character play, the players choose three options from the “What you think to be real” list and three from the “What weirdness you’ve heard” list about Ebon Eaves (or about whatever playset you’re using). Here’s the second list:

Those six choices (three from each list) produce two letter codes, like “ACG” or “BDE,” and those codes all have brief write-ups in the book. Every combination is unique, and quite different — two groups playing a tremulus game set in Ebon Eaves won’t play the same game unless they choose the exact same codes.

As a player, this approach produced the seeds of a town with several mysteries that were all spooky and creepy and interesting to poke at. As a GM, it gave me more than enough to chew on when setting up the game — which ties into another thing I love about tremulus.

To create the default setup (e.g., Ebon Eaves, an antarctic expedition), you prep only the questions that pop out at you — the starting point for the mysteries and weirdness, but no further. For example, in our Frozen Wastes game, one question was “Why is Professor Crawford so desperate to rediscover Hyperborea?” I didn’t know the answer until, through actual play, my players’ choices combined with my improvisation produced one.

All of that combines to facilitate Lovecraftian horror so well that as much as I love Call of Cthulhu, I’m pretty sure I’d reach for tremulus first.

Ia! Ia! tremulus fhtagn!

tremulus is a superb game.

It’s underrated, and it doesn’t get the attention I think it deserves. If “Call of Cthulhu + Apocalypse World” sounds appealing, I suspect you’ll like it.

[1] AKA the most useful RPG tool you’re not using.

[2] It’s also one of an even smaller number of games of which I own multiple copies. It’s got enough moving parts that I found it helpful to have two books on hand when running it.

Categories
PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

The Star Wars World RPG rocks

My group played our second session of Star Wars World this past weekend, and this unofficial Apocalypse World hack by Andrew Medeiros is now my favorite Star Wars RPG.[1]

One of the things I look for in a PbtA game is interesting playbooks, and SWW has those in spades. When I was choosing one, I “narrowed down” the field to a half-dozen, all of which were equally appealing. Every single one feels like Star Wars, and you’ll immediately know which iconic characters they reference.

That feel carries through to the reskinned moves, the Force mechanics, and then straight on into actual play. With no prep needed (or desired), a Star Wars story unfolds during play, full of pulpy action, careening from frying pan to fire to frying pan again.

My two benchmarks for licensed property RPGs are:

  1. Does it feel like [Star Wars]?
  2. Is it also the kind of game I enjoy?

I’ve played plenty of licensed property games that hit #1 but miss #2, and I don’t play them anymore. Star Wars World hits both targets.[2]

To play, you’ll need a copy of Apocalypse World — SWW consists only of the basic moves, playbooks, XP triggers, and a countdown clock sheet. It assumes you already know how to play AW, and have a good understanding of how PbtA games generally run. It borrows from Dungeon World (paid link) as well, and passing familiarity with DW might be helpful.

I’d love to see Andrew strip out the Star Wars IP and artwork, apply a light gloss (“When you call on the Energy . . .”), fold in the full rules, add MC advice and examples of play and all that good stuff, and publish SWW as a complete game.

There’s a Google+ Community for the game if you have questions about it. For the moment, at least, the game itself lives on Google Drive.

Star Wars World is a slick, competent hack that works beautifully in play. I highly recommend it.

[1] I’ve played lots of WEG Star Wars and Fantasy Flight Star Wars, and tried out Saga Star Wars. I’ve never played d20 System Star Wars (Saga is pretty close, though) or Star Worlds (which is another unofficial AW hack).

[2] Stay on target!