Categories
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
D&D Tabletop RPGs

Gary Gygax on game prep, 1979

Thanks to Bryan Shipp over on G+, I just checked out this Gary Gygax interview from 1979 on Jon Peterson’s site — and it blew my mind.

Here’s Gary on game prep:

“Two to three hours per hour of play is generally what the dungeon master has to prepare with. He sits down and draws out the dungeon maps or, it could be a village that he is going through, trying to find someone. There’s no question that one of the reasons, as I was mentioning earlier, the young people play more than older people do, is because they have more time.”

That’s right: “Two to three hours per hour of play.” This level of game prep is unfathomable to me. For a four-hour session, that’s 8-12 hours of prep, a 2:1 or 3:1 prep:play ratio!

Looking back at a recent tremulus campaign I ran, I did a couple hours of campaign prep — not session prep! — and that lasted me for around a dozen two-hour sessions, for a ratio of 1:12 prep:play. For the Urban Shadows game I’m running right now, I think I did about three hours of prep — including making my own reference sheets for the game — and we’ve had 12 sessions of about 2.5 hours each, a ratio of 1:10.

But in terms of session prep, my preferred ratio is 0:1 prep:play. I was in the 1:1 range for a long time, when I thought I had to do that; I eventually moved to 1:6, which was a big step for me — but still not enough. For the past several years, my preference has been to sit down and see where the game takes us, just like the other players.

The voice

There’s more gold in them that hills, too, like this excerpt:

The dungeon master’s voice usually gives out before everybody’s ready to quit. That’s the end of an adventure.

What a marvelous image — and a great example of the spirit and enthusiasm of play!

Tests

I like this quote as well:

This is a – people like take to tests. We’re trained to in school. So it’s a testing type of a game and a fun game where you compete – but not against each other, as a group, so a group can work together and find a lot of enjoyment rather than making enemies, saying, “Hey I won the game.” Because you all play and you win as a group.

The whole interview is a spicy meatball, and there’s even a transcript if (like me) you prefer to read than listen to audio.

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.