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.