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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

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
Tabletop RPGs

Using coins as Fate points for The Dresden Files RPG

Back when my group in Utah was playing The Dresden Files RPG (paid link), I wanted to try something different than my usual beads or stones for Fate points. I initially considered the official Fate coins: They’re lovely, but also not cheap, and like beads/stones they’re all the same.

And then I thought, why not just use actual coins? But not the same coin; not a roll of pennies, economical as that solution would be.

A few eBay searches later, I figured out that I didn’t want any tokens and that I did want circulated currency (more character). For about $18 shipped, I bought a pound of “world coins,” about a hundred coins with just a couple duplicates.[1]

I like coins, so there’s that, but they also seem perfect for Dresden. They’re often rich in symbolism, like many things in the Dresdenverse. They symbolize the diversity of a large city. And they’re actual currency, a handy reminder of the mechanical currency in Fate — and one that feels good to hold up when offering a Fate point.

They worked great in play. We always had more than enough of them at the table, and the purse I kept them any took up hardly any space at all. While that campaign has ended, my coin purse sits on my shelf of game aids, ready to serve in some other game.

[1] I also learned that “that coin smell” is actually the oil in your skin reacting to the coin, not the coin itself. Coins don’t generally smell like much until you’ve handled them a bit.)

Categories
Free RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

Soylent Platinum

On the day the UK voted to leave the EU, which happened to be the day after I read a heartbreaking investigative piece on private prisons, I woke up thinking about corporate greed, economic collapse, the excesses of the rich, Donald Trump, and human awfulness. And I thought, “I should design a game about eating the rich.

A bit later, I thought, “No, I should design a game about the rich eating other people. Kind of like Soylent Green, except there’s no way the rich would eat poor people. So who would they eat?

Soylent Platinum is the result: a free RPG about the rich eating the famous.

Soylent Platinum is designed for 3-6 players, with no GM. Everyone plays an obscenely wealthy person bidding for the privilege of kidnapping, killing, and eating the most famous celebrity in the world — while destroying the global economy for their own benefit.

As social commentary, it’s a lot less subtle than The Thief, my previous free RPG. As a game, it’s short-form, and there’s a bit of one of my favorite roleplaying poems, Stoke-Birmingham 0-0, in its DNA. Like the other games I’ve designed, it started as an idea that wouldn’t let go of my brain until I sat down and turned it into a game.

Alongside Stoke (which features a conversation with rules about tone) and Soylent Green, Soylent Platinum’s inspirations were the films Antiviral and Hostel and the RPGs Dark Conspiracy (paid link) — mainly its proles — and Dog Eat Dog (which weaves discomfort into its mechanics). It took me about three hours to design and another three hours or so to assemble, polish, and proofread.

If you give Soylent Platinum a whirl, I’d love to hear who you ate, how it felt, and what you thought about the game.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Bubblegumshoe: teenage sleuths, relationships, and a streamlined GUMSHOE system

Bubblegumshoe, by game designers Emily Care Boss, Kenneth Hite, and Lisa Steele, streamlines the GUMSHOE system[1] and tunes it for teen mysteries like Nancy Drew (paid link), The Hardy Boys (paid link), Veronica Mars, and Scooby-Doo. I had a chance to spend some time with my copy last night, and so far I dig it.

Teen mystery is a fun genre that doesn’t get a lot of attention in RPGs, this design team is fantastic, and while I think GUMSHOE is neat I also wish it was a bit lighter — Bubblegumshoe sounded like it would be right up my apple cart.

Small and impeccably dressed

Like every Evil Hat book I own, Bubblegumshoe features a delightfully clear, useful layout backed up by great artwork. I love how the text uses bold and highlighting (with the look of actual “swipes” of a highlighter) to convey key concepts:

Rich Longmore‘s interior art defines the feel of the book for me:

At 272 pages, Bubblegumshoe isn’t short, but its pleasantly breezy layout (great for my aging eyes!) and the book’s form factor combine to make it a relatively short book nonetheless. Short is good! Short means I can start playing sooner.

The plot thickens

So what’s Bubblegumshoe all about? The intro covers this nicely:

High schoolers solving mysteries in a modern, American small-town setting.

GUMSHOE provides the core mechanics: The system is driven by ensuring that the PCs can find core clues, offering them the chance to spend points to get better results, and leaving some things to chance. If your PC has the Research ability, and there’s a core clue — one that’s required to solve the mystery — in the library, just mention that you’re using Research and she’ll find it, no roll needed.

Bubblegumshoe builds on that foundation. Here are my favorite things about it (so far):

  • I’m a sucker for collaborative setting creation, so building the campaign’s central town, and then expanding on it through play, is awesome. It’s nowhere near as fleshed-out as, say, city creation in the Dresden Files RPG (paid link), but it’s solid and simple.
  • Relationships are a key component of Bubblegumshoe. Every PC has Loves, Likes, and Hates which connect them to members of the supporting cast — NPCs in the town the group creates together. These are more than just roleplaying hooks, though: Bubbblegumshoe PCs are kids solving mysteries, not adults solving mysteries — they don’t necessarily have “adult” skills. But with relationships, they can borrow them from adults based on their personal connections. I love this!
  • High school drama also plays a central role. In addition to Relationships, PCs belong to cliques and clubs, and social status is a big deal. A sizable chunk of the book is devoted to social conflict, and it looks like a nifty system. All of this stuff has mechanical heft, too: For example, “damage” from social combat costs you Cool, which reduces your effectiveness as a sleuth.
  • In that vein, violence is downplayed in Bubblegumshoe. There may be scuffles, even fistfights, and there will likely be chases and daring escapes, but this isn’t a game about kids carving prison shanks, stealing their parents’ guns, and beating up suspects. The book stays laser-focused on its specific niche, high school noir.
  • Bubblegumshoe has fewer moving parts than core GUMSHOE. There are fewer abilities, and the game feels like it would zip along beautifully in play.

I also love the Drifts — so much that they need their own section.

Rooby-Rooby-Roo!

Drifts are Bubblegumshoe’s playsets, tweaks and suggestions for adapting the basic formula to play different sorts of game. Here’s the iconic image of the default town, spun for the Bellairs Falls setting:

(Art by Rich Longmore)

I bought Bubblegumshoe with an eye to using it to run lighthearted Scooby-Doo mysteries, and while the default tone of the game is a bit more serious than that, Drifts are how I can get my Scoob on.

The book includes eight of them, each with an overview, rules changes, and some suggested types of story that work well:

  • Bellairs Falls is a town “where dark and destructive magics roil beneath the surface” — a solid option for supernatural campaigns
  • Danvers High is in the vein of Smallville: You play young superheroes (the game recommends using Mutant City Blues for powers)
  • Dymond City, an urban dystopia, for tales of gangs, crime, and survival
  • Kimball Middle School stretches the core concept to tweens, and lightens the tone
  • Kingsfield Academy is a boarding-school game setting where only the best won’t flunk out
  • Ruby Hollow is my jam: plucky kids, humorous sidekick, and villains who often turn out to be greedy white people in masks — Scooby-Doo, baby!
  • Strangehill Scout Troop 221 builds on Kimball Middle School, but the PCs are Scouts
  • Veronica Base, Mars moves the action to the red planet, and into a small, isolated base

The Drifts are great, and there’s more than enough here to get your juices flowing if you want to stretch Bubblegumshoe in other directions, too.

My stumbling block

The only thing that bugs me about Bubblegumshoe, which also applies to GUMSHOE, is its emphasis on plot. That’s a purely personal preference: I don’t think “there’s a plot” will be a barrier to the average Bubblegumshoe-playing group. It’s just not my jam.

The basic idea is that for a given Bubblegumshoe mystery the GM comes up with a hook, the spine — one logical path the PCs could, but don’t have to, take to reach the conclusion, and some scenes and clues built around the spine. The book also offers advice on going with the flow and changing things you had planned in order to accommodate players’ choices, and so forth.

To run Bubblegumshoe, I’d likely fall back on the game’s improv advice, which is sound (“do the usual stuff, but fuzzier”), augmented by what’s in its excellent section on “bubblespyramids.” This bit borrows the Conspyramid from Night’s Black Agents — one of my all-time favorite bits of game tech. You arrange clues on the bottom layer that are easy to get, then stack fewer clues on top of those, and so on, in a pyramid shape; the apex is the mystery’s conclusion.

That provides many ways into the mystery, and many paths through it, and gates later stuff behind figuring things out early on, and it seems like it could come together quite organically in play. Bubblegumshoe suggests this structure for season-long mysteries, but I think it could also work for mysteries lasting just a session or two — as the default approach, basically.

Bubble-yum

On balance, I quite like Bubblegumshoe. It’s a concise, flavorful look at a genre that’s under-represented in RPGs, its take on GUMSHOE is superb, and the blend of sleuthing, relationship drama, and small-town hijinx is deftly done — and looks like it’d be a blast in play.

[1] The guts of which are available in SRD form.

Categories
GURPS Tabletop RPGs

GURPS Creatures of the Night offers up some creepy gems

I snagged a copy of GURPS Creatures of the Night (paid link), by Scott Paul Maykrantz, because I love monster books and it sounded like this one might be full of weird and wonderful oddballs. Not all of its monsters grab me, but there are some delightfully disturbing creatures in here.

My copy was a whopping $4, and I kind of like that the cover features neither creatures nor night.[1]

Two short of a good sixty-nine joke

CotN presents 67 monsters, each of which gets at least a page; most run two pages, and a few run longer than that. The layout is utilitarian, but gets the job done:

(Artists are credited, but not by image; I don’t know whose work this is)

They’re all but stat-free, which is perfect since I don’t play GURPS — for me, this is a sourcebook for other games.

Coming off a stint designing Labyrinth Lord creatures, which need a paragraph or two of text at most (plus the stat block), the length of each CotN critter’s entry is a blessing and a curse.

When they’re good, it rocks. My favorite CotN creatures are the ones you could build an adventure, sandbox, or campaign around, and knowing how they tick is fantastic. But when they don’t blow my skirt up, the entries feel overlong.

Onwards!

A side order of campaign concepts

CotN opens with some introductory material, the best of which is a rundown of four monster-heavy campaign concepts:

  • Darwin by Night features scientist PCs investigating the supernatural, with a focus on gathering information. What I like is the spin, which is sort of “Scully meets Indiana Jones.”
  • In Demon Hunters, the PCs are the marines in Aliens fighting monsters from Call of Cthulhu, more or less. It’s got a darker edge than Ghostbusters or Buffy.
  • Seeking the Source postulates that every monster is related to every other monster, all serving the same master — or masters. That’s a neat hook!
  • The Impostor Wars is basically an Illuminati campaign, but the secret masters are puppeteer-type monsters.

This section is only two pages long, but it packs a nice punch — and I love that it provides excuses to use two of my favorite GURPS books, Warehouse 23 (paid link) and Illuminati (paid link), the latter of which would go great with The Impostor Wars.

After that, it’s on to the monsters. Here are five of my favorite entities from Creatures of the Night:

Betweeners

The name doesn’t convey how cool betweeners are:

Betweeners are giant creatures that float in orbit, between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. They are made of a delicate, crystal-like substance. […] Betweeners absorb genetic information from any creature they can capture. […] Betweeners snare the captured specimen in glass tentacles and slice it to pieces. The genetic information is absorbed by the crystal and stored in the betweener’s consciousness.

Once creatures are absorbed, Betweeners send them to Earth as scions, many of whom don’t know they’re working for a betweener. Betweeners accomplish this through a variety of supernatural means, and can themselves be the source of just about any monster-centric or conspiracy-related myth you choose.

And if you want to figure out what a betweener is, you may have to go inside it, which feels like a very “2001: A Space Odyssey plus Call of Cthulhu” moment waiting to happen.

Corpse-Kissers

Apart from a great name, corpse-kissers are both gross and creepy:

These are black centipede-like insects that invade corpses, reproducing rapidly as they eat the organs and bones inside. Leaving only the husk of outer flesh, they continue to multiply until they form a tightly packed mass.

Ewwww.[2] In the best way! But it gets better:

Static stimulates corpse-bugs to secrete their precious fluid. They thrive on the sound of radios tuned between stations and televisions showing “snow.”

I love these dudes. I also love the adventure seed “Fingered,” which accompanies them: All Secret Service agents, and many other spooks, are actually corpse-kissers. But why? And to what end? I’d play that campaign.

Darklings

Beings connected to the “darksome” — living darkness — the darklings harvest human organs. Not that weird, right?

The darksome becomes stronger when it can focus its power through human viscera. As it breathes through stolen lungs, pumps blood through stolen hearts, and twitches stolen muscles, it gains power in the world, which it transfers to the darklings.

Darklings replace their victims’ organs with “shadow” versions, fully functional — and nicely baffling for, say, a PC doctor who encounters a patient with one of these shadow-organs.

Lodgers

Another innocuous name, another killer concept:

A lodger is a sentient, insubstantial being that takes control of an inhabited structure to survive — a “haunted house.” The inhabited structure (a house, hotel, castle, RV, etc.) becomes the lodger’s body.

I love this explanation for haunted places — and how great it is that you can have a haunted RV? And like the best monsters in CotN, the lodger has another layer: As it consumes the emotions of those inside it (the more intense, the better), you track that in percentile terms.

Every time it hits 100%, it gets a new psychic ability and the counter resets. The older the haunted house, the worse the hauntings become.

Mooring trees

Mooring trees like to strike deals with murderers. What sort of deals?

The name comes from their ability to act as a supernatural anchor for anyone who strikes the deal — if the person commits murder, he can be instantly transported back to the tree.

That’d make a great hook for a string of “disappearing murderers,” an unsolved chain of serial killings, or a one-off monster of the week session. It’s a versatile concept, and I like it a lot.

(Artists are credited in the book, but not by image)

I can’t recommend GURPS Creatures of the Night (paid link) without reservation — many of the monsters don’t really grab me, and it’s overlong in places. But some of the creatures in this book are just sublime.

The best ones (and there are more than five I’d put in this category) have a strong, unique concept underpinned by just the right amount of depth and complexity, and the length of the write-ups gives them room to breathe.

Just writing up the five I like best has filled my head with ideas I’d love to use in a horror game.

[1] Twilight, at most.

[2] The Husk of Outer Flesh would make a great band name.

Categories
GURPS Tabletop RPGs

A blast from the GURPS: Warehouse 23 and Illuminati

We moved to Seattle last year, and about 75% of my RPG collection went into storage when we got here. Shelf space went way down in the new place, so only about 250 gaming books made the cut to stay out and accessible.

Two of those were GURPS books, and I don’t even play GURPS — they made the cut because they’re two of the best gaming books I’ve ever read, full stop: GURPS Warehouse 23 (paid link), by S. John Ross[1], and GURPS Illuminati (paid link), by Nigel D. Findley.

I rate both of these books a 10/10. I’ve read the shit out of them (just look at that cover wear![2]), and hauled them around the country on multiple moves, and they’ve been a well of gaming inspiration for years.

GURPS Warehouse 23

You know the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? This is that warehouse.

Warehouse 23 postulates that magic, conspiracies, secret societies, space aliens, weird science, and cryptids are real, and that the government keeps as much of the related stuff as possible locked away in the titular warehouse. So one thing this book is, is that: a marvelous sourcebook of all that great stuff, each thing with its own write-up. And as that, it’s excellent.

But you could build an entire campaign around the warehouse. Where there’s a conspiracy (or conspiracies), there are secret masters; you can fight them. Or join them! Someone’s got to acquire all of those Secrets Humankind Was Not Meant to Know, after all.

Warehouse 23 also walks you through lots of possibilities for who owns the joint, how Illuminated your setting could be (and how that impacts the warehouse), and what all that means to a potential campaign. Those lenses make the warehouse malleable, and Ross excels at making all of its possible incarnations eminently gameable.

Back to the stuff, though — this isn’t just a fancy equipment book. That would be dull. It’s a book of stuff which makes that stuff matter.

Take the Ark of the Covenant, for example. It gets a half-page of history and legends, a half-page on the Grail Order, a half-page on its rumored powers, and a half-page on questing for it and how to use it in different ways — combine it with other artifacts in the book, twist it sideways and make it not a physical artifact at all, etc. The two-page entry for the grail could be teased into a campaign seed in its own right, and that’s just one of the dozens of artifacts in the book.

Context is king, and the context around all of the weird and wonderful goodies in the warehouse is what makes this such a treasure trove of ideas. A world where all of this stuff — much of which is insanely dangerous and/or world-altering — would be an amazing gaming setting.

Which brings us to GURPS Illuminati.

GURPS Illuminati

GURPS Illuminati takes the core idea that there exists a world-spanning conspiracy — the Illuminati — and bends the whole modern world around it. It’s the default setting for Warehouse 23, but each book works just fine without the other.

Like Warehouse, and in the best GURPS fashion, Illuminati is bursting with ideas — all clearly and engagingly presented — which can fuel conspiracy-driven games in any system. It’s laced wth dark humor — like the list of 50 Awful Things About the Illuminati, which opens with this gem:

Everything here is true, even the false things

From there, you get an element-by-element guide to running this sort of campaign: character types that work well, ways to build the power structure of your conspiracy of choice, mapping the web of lies, adjusting for other genres, and on and on. The amount of good stuff packed in here belies the book’s relatively modest size.

Need secret societies? They’re in here. Need potential allies for foes of the Illuminati (likely the PCs)? Yep, they’re in here too. Oddball sidebars about conspiracies within conspiracies? Yeppers. A whole section on how to introduce the Illuminati, and the true extent of their world-dominating evil, to as-yet-not-paranoid-enough PCs? You bet.

And like Warehouse 23, it’s wonderfully weird. I get ideas from every page, and I’ve returned to Illuminati many times over the years — often just to read for pleasure, but also to stir up my imagination for various games.

I consider GURPS Illuminati an essential toolkit for running any game that even dabbles in conspiracies, and doubly so for one set in the modern world. Use it whole cloth, mine it for parts, blend it with other stuff — it’ll support you no matter how you want to employ it.

Like peanut butter and tinfoil hats

It’s fun to write about gaming stuff that I love, and GURPS Warehouse 23 (paid link) and GURPS Illuminati (paid link) are flat-out amazing books. They earn my highest recommendation.

[1] As an aside, S. John Ross has a fantastic list of personal GURPS book ratings (one number for reading enjoyment, one for play); you can also see just the best ones. Plus the big list of RPG plots. And Risus (which I’ve gushed about on Yore). His entire site is basically a rabbit hole full of joyful exuberance — which, in a lot of ways, is what I want Yore to be.

[2] I’d forgotten that Teenage Martin decided, for reasons long forgotten, to use the front cover of GURPS Illuminati for target practice. I’m not sure if those are BB holes or stab wounds from testing out homemade Wolverine claws, but both options are about equally likely.