Urban Shadows (US) is Magpie Games’ Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) game of urban fantasy; if political manoeuvrings with wizards, vampires, and demons is your jam, it’s a great game. It’s a great game whatever, actually, which is why I’ve developed a few tips for one-shot play that should help you if you want to bring it to a one-shot table.
I’m going to present this in two stages – what you do before it hits the table, and what you do at the start of play. Note that the book does have some great advice for one-shots in it already, but I’ve extended some of the advice to hit my particular sweet spot between player-driven and GM-prepped narrative. If you’d like more details on running PBTA one-shots generally, there’s a post here, as well as specific advice for Dungeon World.
You can make things easier for yourself by restricting the playbook selection for your players. This has two advantages – one, you avoid any chance of selection paralysis at the table, and two, you can focus your prep towards the playbooks selected. One from each faction is ideal – and I’d go with The Aware, The Vamp, The Tainted, and The Wizard for my choices – the Hunter has potential for some nasty PvP that some of your players may find uncomfortable, and The Fae has to keep track of promises as well as Debt which can be fiddly. If you have players pre-signed or know who’s going to play, you can let them pick, of course – but this helps to focus your thoughts on where they will be relevant. If you haven’t got anyone playing the Vamp, for instance, you don’t need to think about complex vampire politics.
Pick a City
Either use one of the cities already developed in Dark Streets, the setting sourcebook for US, or come up with one yourself. All you need for this is a defined group for each of the factions – for instance, when I wrote up Manchester 1997 for the Revelation convention I had the City Ghosts as my Night faction – a group of industrial-age spectres that keep the city surviving, and The Bridgewater Club as a group of hunters and graverobbers who sought to maintain the status quo – and represented the Mortality faction. If you’re able to, you could share your city write-up with your players in advance of the session. It’s also useful to develop broad brush strokes of one NPC for each faction. You need to be careful about introducing too many NPCs in your one-shot, but it helps to have some to start with so the players can generate them. Resist the temptation to have more than one NPC for each faction! Your players will generally invent more of them, and you can always create more on the fly for them if you need to.
Think of a Bang to Start With
Before play starts, think about an unavoidable event that can be happening that will bring the PCs together. Maybe something that threatens the whole city, or something that you know the PCs will hold dear – a reason for them to stick together. In play, the start of session move will give them more stuff to do as well, so your incident might be a backdrop or might be the key action of the session, but it should be unavoidable and with clear consequences.
Good ideas are an important area or location in the city being under threat, a massive monster being released or summoned, or a deadly NPC arriving and tipping the status quo. Even if it ends up being a backdrop, it should be something that sets multiple events in motion – it’s OK to have a deadly vampire killer on the loose, but make sure that his murders trigger an all-out Vamp-Werewolf gang war in the city, and have the wizards summoning blood demons to take out the most dangerous Vamp threats to them.
As well as an inciting incident, have a few ideas about how this event will climax towards the end of the session – the battle / binding of the demon, the restoring of the status quo, the NPC being chased off. Clearly it’s a good idea to have this as loose as you can make it, but it should be a clear endgame where the threat gets resolved one way or another.
Start of Play
Do Character Generation by the book
Get the players to fill in their Playbooks as per the rules on them. Follow the book advice on one-shots (one extra advance, 3 points of Corruption, one Corruption advance). Get them to go around and briefly introduce their characters after you give a brief overview of the city and the four factions you created. For each NPC, write their name and faction onto an index card and throw them in the middle of the table.
Do Debt – and make it a massive deal
Get the players to take turns in deciding Debt, and make a big deal of it. The book does advise this, but it helps to explicitly refer to Debt a key currency in the game – this is a game of factional manipulation and politics, so who owes whom is really important. I like to stress that 2 Debt is a big deal – you owe them big time, and they can call in a suitably big favour for this – anyone who owes 2 Debt to someone has a ticking time bomb of something being called in. In play, remember to remind them when they ask for something that Debt is the way to leverage it – and that they can always refuse to help with the appropriate Debt Moves.
Start of Session Moves
It’s easy to think that the start of session move doesn’t work for one-shots, but it really sings, especially if somebody rolls a Miss. I avoid giving any hints of my inital scene before they have done the session move, so that the PCs already have a lot on their plate before their unavoidable event happens.
Don’t pull punches! If they roll a Miss, it’s entirely appropriate to start them in a terrible situation. PBTA games are really resilient at letting PCs go from tragedy to glory, and back again, in just a few Moves, so don’t feel bad about starting with your Wizard captured by a recalcitrant demon he was trying to summon. When they mark their Faction, explain how the Advancement system works and that they are just 3 interactions away from advancing – they should be actively hunting down other factions to get their ticks. In the course of the Session Move, the players might suggest additional NPCs. Write them on an index card with their faction and put them in the middle of the table.
Check your NPCs
Before you launch your starting scene, take a look at the NPCs on the table and see if you can ditch any of them. If there’s one without any debt who doesn’t seem to be of interest to the group, suggest to the players that they might not feature in the game. They might have future plans for them – which is fine – but otherwise try to trim your NPC list down as much as you can. If this means ditching all four of your starting NPCs, so be it! The players inevitably come up with much more interesting characters.
Often PBTA games suggest you take a break now and collate your notes, look at how factions interact, and check you are ready to play. My own experience is that after the start of session moves I’m often fizzing with ideas, and the players are ready to go, so it’s better to start with the inciting incident now and have a break straight after it.
One piece of pay advice I’m terrible at following myself – make your hard moves soon! In a one-shot, once that first miss gets rolled in a risky situation, it’s fine to hit the player with unavoidable consequences; the “warn someone of impending danger” move is often slow. I prefer, in a one-shot, to “put someone in danger.”
So that’s a quick write-up of how I do Urban Shadows one-shots. It’s a cracking game and a great urban fantasy experience to bring to conventions. I’ll be posting up my Manchester 1997 setting shortly, so watch out for that – and putting up more one-shot advice soon enough.
Oh, and if urban fantasy is your bag, you should check out the kickstarter for the Liminal RPG. I’m involved in editing and producing some Case Files (adventures) for the system, and possibly more content depending on how far the stretch goals go. It’s already funded, so any extra Backers just mean more stuff gets written and produced for everyone!
I wasn’t sure how I’d take to Urban Shadows. The genre isn’t usually my bag, but I was keen to try it out at Revelation 2018. The city background you shared beforehand was invaluable for me. I thoroughly enjoyed the session too with some fine company around the table.
A trim NPC cast is definitely something I’d endorse.
I’d be interested to know if we traded debt more or less than is common in Urban Shadows games? It felt like it was cashed in and new debt created very regularly – sometimes more than once a scene. It gave the session a good tempo.
The debt trades also gave scenes a focus and point of resolution. Not explicitly, but I certainly found myself thinking about what debt my character (a Fae) could clear going into each scene, and what new debt he was prepared to take on.
This Fae didn’t have too many promises on the go; debt was a sufficient bargaining chip in most situations, but I knew I had a mechanism to take it up a level if needed. A bit like Manchester City finding another gear to wipe out their noisy neighbours.
Thanks, Jag – I think we probably hit the right level of debt trading, swapping it quite frequently as alliances came and went. What we didn’t do much of was interacting with debt over NPCs – which is something I’ll stress more when I next run it, that NPCs are very pliable if they owe you debt!
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[…] Edit: There are now a few more system-specific posts if you’re interested in running PBTA one-shots; look here for posts on Dungeon World, Monster of the Week, and Urban Shadows. […]
[…] I’ll highlight two Powered By The Apocalypse (PBTA) options for your Star Wars one-shot – Star Wars World, by Andrew Medeiros (I’m not entirely sure the link above is to the latest version – I got it via another blog – please correct me if I have it wrong), is a full-blooded hack of Apocalypse World with a moves and playbooks. I haven’t played it but from a read through it looks great and Andrew really knows his PBTA stuff (having co-designed the brilliant Urban Shadows). […]