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Urban Shadows 2e: An Interview With Mark Diaz Truman (Magpie Games)

The award-winning Urban Shadows is crowdfunding a second edtion on Kickstarter. In Knights of the Dinner Table #269, I reviewed the first edition of Urban Shadows; so hearing about a second edition of one of the best Powered by the Apocalypse RPGs piqued my interest. Mark Diaz Truman, C.E.O. of Magpie Games and designer of Urban Shadows 2e, agreed to talk about what’s new in the second edition of the game, what they’ve learned about PbtA over the years, and what they achieved during their recent Magpie Games Design Festival.

Urban Shadows- Second Edition 02.jpg

EGG EMBRY (EGG): Thank you for taking the time to talk about this Kickstarter. For those that don’t know, what is Urban Shadows 2nd Edition?
MARK DIAZ TRUMAN (MARK)
: Urban Shadows is a political urban fantasy tabletop roleplaying game in which mortals and supernaturals alike vie for power in a modern-day city. Vampires, faeries, hunters, wizards, and more clash in the shadows...or make backroom deals for their piece of the streets and skyscrapers. In the game, players take on the role of powerful archetypes, protagonists who are attuned to the supernatural world. While the mortal world remains ignorant of the struggles of the city’s supernatural denizens, they are caught in the middle of the physical conflicts and political drama of the city’s past, present, and future. We originally published Urban Shadows in 2015, after successfully kickstarting the game in 2014, and it went on to sell thousands of copies and win an ENnie Award for Best Rules. Now—more than six years later—we are returning to the dark streets of the city for Urban Shadows: Second Edition, updating the game’s rules, look, and tools to better support moving stories of political urban fantasy.

EGG: Both editions use the Powered by the Apocalypse system. What makes it the right engine to power Urban Shadows 2nd Edition?
ARK
: Over the last ten years, we’ve found that the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) system works best for games in which players are “playing to find out what happens” in an ever evolving situation, whether that’s playing young superheroes in a fantastical megacity or Mexican narcos caught up in la guerra antidrogas. It works less well for competence porn like heist stories or combat-heavy tactical crunch, mostly because the system works best when players are given touch choices and the gamemaster can continually introduce new ideas. Urban Shadows is all about the politics of an urban city, a shifting morass of allegiances your characters need to manage to stay on their feet. It’s the perfect PbtA game, one in which the main mechanics—called moves—help to focus and direct the narrative toward the kinds of conflicts that keep the story interesting. We’re so excited to refine and reinvigorate the game for 2E!

EGG: The first edition of this game has a solid fanbase. What inspired the new edition as opposed to offering more sourcebooks for the original?
MARK
: Over the past five years, Magpie Games has developed and created multiple games that broke boundaries and redefined what PbtA can do. Now, we think it’s time to apply the lessons we’ve learned to Urban Shadows, making a game that’s tighter and easier to run, but also filled with new ideas and improvements, including new tools for players and GMs. We’re also excited to create a beautiful new book with visionary art and fantastic graphic design. In short… we’re making Urban Shadows 2E because we’re thrilled to revisit and refine our work! In specific, we’re really excited to work on “the flow of play” from 1E to 2E. In 1E, the players generated their own rumors and didn’t have a ton of reasons to interact with other PCs, leading to some sessions in which each of the main characters went down their own rabbit hole. In the 2E we’re adding in a new mechanic—City Hubs—that focuses the action on one area of the city and gives folks many, many more reasons to spend time together!

EGG: That’s a good addition. In the game, you can play at more than one level as you have a character and a Circle. How does that work?
MARK
: Circles in Urban Shadows represent loose political groupings that illustrate the differing affiliations and loyalties in the world, each one a community with its own internal politics and dramas. Night, for example, are the vampires, werewolves, and ghosts who run the streets, all mortals who have been changed by supernatural forces into something “other,” still scraping and fighting for their piece of the city. Each character has a Circle to which they belong, determined at first by their archetype, i.e. the Wizard is a member of the Power Circle. During play, the Wizard can use their knowledge of their Circle (and other Circles) to hit the streets or put a name to a face, leveraging the broader city politics into a scene to advance their goals. In addition to invoking the Circles during the game, US2E also has a “faction turn” in which both the PCs and NPC factions can take actions during downtime. You might put out the word to your Circle that you need a bodyguard or a magical artifact or consult your contacts to find out what’s going on in a Circle that’s not yours.

Urban Shadows- Second Edition 06.jpg

EGG: The campaign page promises some new archetypes will be added to the new edition. What can you share about those?
MARK
: We’ve got two new archetypes we’re adding to the corebook: The Sworn and The Imp. Both of them bring the total playbooks per Circle to three, adding one to Power and Wild respectively, and help us bring in a new set of conflicts tied to each archetype. The Sworn is a character who has sworn an oath to protect and serve one of the influential factions in the Power Circle—for example, a wizard’s council or secret order of immortals. But can they maintain their righteous allegiance in the face of the city’s corruption? The Imp is a demon who has escaped hell through a loophole or administrative error, now operating a business in the city catering to supernatural creatures. But can they stay ahead of their expenses, ensuring they remain in the city and avoiding the grasp of hell? In addition to these playbooks, we’re also revamping and revising half-a-dozen playbooks from 1E supplements—The Dragon, The Immortal, The Vessel, etc.—and adding in even more as we reach new stretch goals!

EGG: There’s a free preview of the game, Urban Shadows (2nd Ed.) Quickstart. What parts of the new edition will fans find in the quickstart?
MARK
: We really take a lot of pride in our mechanics and system tools, so virtually the whole system is on display through the 40-page quickstart. You can see the basic moves, Debt and Circle moves, character creation, City Hubs, and the new “faction turn” in which the gamemaster actually rolls some dice to see how things turn out for factions behind the scenes! The final book is going to have a ton more info (250+ pages), including all twelve playbooks and a ton of GM advice, but you will have all the tools you need to play a full campaign if you download the free quickstart!

EGG: This setting is meant to create stories akin to Constantine and The Dresden Files meets The Wire and the John Wick franchise. The Wire is known for its reality while The Dresden Files is more over the top. How does Urban Shadows 2nd Edition accommodate both storytelling styles?
MARK
: Urban Shadows has a large focus on overlapping identities and conflicted loyalties, regularly putting characters into situations in which they have to make tough decisions about the future of the city. That said, the game operates at a metaphorical level, drawing upon more “realistic” fiction like The Wire to structure how those conflicts happen while using the tools and language of urban fantasy to make it easy for players to jump right into the action. In other words, we don’t exactly want to have players have to sit through a city council meeting as their characters to make progress on their goals, but... we think it’s pretty cool to watch a vampire appeal to the wizard’s council for a stay of execution on the sentence passed down against the immortal who violated the city’s most precious rules.

EGG: During quarantine, many companies held online conventions but your company took a different approach with the Magpie Games Design Festival. What did the festival focus on?
MARK
: The Magpie Games Design Festival was an opportunity for us to share tools and frameworks we use inside Magpie Games with our broader community, especially the folks in our Discord! I led a workshop in the morning discussing the fundamentals of PbtA design—which previewed many of the US2E changes to basic moves and the overall structure of the game—several participants ran their own playtests, and then we debriefed everyone with peer groups at the end of the day. The reception to the festival has been excellent! We’re excited to see the conversations, discourse, and design theory coming out of it. Right now, we’re looking at hosting another one in early spring, featuring additional workshops, playtesting, and peer review. If you’d like to be one of the first to know when we announce dates, join the email list or Discord today! And while we didn’t do an online convention, we also launched our Curated Play Program this past April, matching handpicked GMs with players through an online schedule of paid games. We’ve run hundreds of sessions—almost a convention a month—since April, and our games regularly sell out weeks in advance. Check our schedule here, including US2E games using the newest materials from the Kickstarter!

EGG: I dig those innovative approaches to connecting with fans online! Thank you for talking with me. For fans interested in following Magpie, where can they find more information?
MARK
: Check out our website, sign up for our email list [at the bottom of the webpage], follow us on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, and join our communities on Discord and Reddit!

Urban Shadows: Second Edition from Magpie Games
  • End Date: Thu, November 19 2020 4:00 PM EST.
  • “The award-winning tabletop roleplaying game of political urban fantasy returns with a bold new edition!”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Andrew Medeiros co-created the first edition of Urban Shadows. There are accusations against him (detailed here) that I was not aware of at the time of this interview. Andrew transferred his portion of the Urban Shadows intellectual property rights to Magpie Games and, as stated in the Kickstarter FAQ for the second edition, he “is no longer working on the project and will not receive any further financial compensation for his initial contributions to the game.” Because I believe in this RPG and Magpie Games, I'm publishing this interview with a link to the allegations.

Egg Embry participates in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program and is an Amazon Associate. These programs provide advertising fees by linking to DriveThruRPG and Amazon.
 
Egg Embry

Egg Embry

"Competence porn" is not a dig (is it a dig?) I expected in this article.

I'm not clear if the 1E supplemental playbooks are in the 2E corebook or if they'll remain supplemental.

Also, Urban Shadows fans, how does this compare to World of Darkness? (Well, the parts of the World of Darkness without katanas, mirrorshades and leather trenchcoats.) It seems like this is similar thematic territory, but focused on the social elements more than super powers. Is that accurate?
 

imagineGod

Adventurer
Was never a fan of Powered by the Apocalypse, too far away from D&D to be adaptable. But this Urban Shadows looks really professionally built.
 

Was never a fan of Powered by the Apocalypse, too far away from D&D to be adaptable. But this Urban Shadows looks really professionally built.
Yeah, PBtA games are very much purpose-built engines. A Monsterhearts 2 game and a Monster of the Week game would run very differently, even though, according to Netflix, they're more or less the same genre.
 

Skywalker

Explorer
I'm not clear if the 1E supplemental playbooks are in the 2E corebook or if they'll remain supplemental.

Also, Urban Shadows fans, how does this compare to World of Darkness? (Well, the parts of the World of Darkness without katanas, mirrorshades and leather trenchcoats.) It seems like this is similar thematic territory, but focused on the social elements more than super powers. Is that accurate?

The 2e corebook has 2 new playbooks plus the existing 10 from the 1e corebook. All 1e supplemental playbooks will be getting a 2e playbook in PDF, plus there are a handful of new ones.

Urban Shadows does World of Darkness better than WoD does IMO and finally delivers on the WoD promise. As Mark mentioned PbtA is a good ruleset for settings where the PCs are making the tough choices and the GM is there to adjust quickly and maintain the adversity. In comparison, the system in WoD is still mired in the style of older RPGs like D&D and had to cope by often reverting to poorly fitted concepts like Coteries, combat being a central mechanic, mechanically detailed NPCs, and getting missions from Clan elders.

Two places where Urban Shadows really shines over WoD is debt and corruption. The first is giving political and social interactions mechanical weight allows such interactions to being meaningful and the focus of the gameplay. Violence still exists and is something to be scared of, but tangling up others in intrigue and obligations is far more powerful. The second is a system that grants powers at the cost of dwindling humanity. Its much more fun and also more agonising for the player than the Humanity concepts in WoD and even provides for an end game if desired.

The one place where Urban Shadows differs from WoD is that it assumes that games will be about multiple supernatural types and not a group of the same type (like a Coterie of vampires). Some people don't like that, but I find this excellent in play as it forces the PCs to be involved in the wider city and see different sides to the various machinations. In a game about city wide politics, having just one supernatural type detailed only makes sense from the perspective of selling more books. This difference ignites that political gameplay and actively discourages PCs to silo themselves in a way that it makes it difficult to motivate them - something I have seen plenty in WoD.
 
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