Urban Shadows

Investing In: Urban Shadows

“The City Isn’t Safe

The streets are filled with horrors that will hollow you out for their own pleasure, killers and sadists waiting for a taste of your flesh and your fear, and dark things that linger in the shadows, reflecting back your own hideous wants and desires. The streets are veins of corruption, bubbling up into skyscrapers that watch over the urban landscape like the towers of ancient kings, home to the tyrants of the city who want nothing more than to consume all that you have to offer, leaving nothing behind.

And that’s just the mortals.”

What sets you apart from those dangerous mortals, or are you one? Numerous individuals in the know and monsters roam the city. The night is stalked by hungry, beautiful vampires. A werewolf protects the few blocks near the park. A wizard has a mansion downtown, but good luck getting his help. There’s a mortal hunter tracking the vampires’ plans and a veteran he checks in with. The fae watch the events unfold almost dispassionately, though they certainly care that the park is protected.

The City Can Be Yours

Wow do I wish all were healthy, well and things safe enough that we could’ve gathered at Gen Con earlier this month and be going to PAX this fall. Alas, it’s not, but thankfully we’ve our online conventions in the meantime and all those hard working admins and GMs making our games happening! I’d only heard of Urban Shadows from Magpie Games in passing at PAX Unplugged last year. I got to try MASKS, which I loved and enough to buy up the book, and I spotted Urban Shadows but didn’t have the chance to try it out. Well during Gen Con Online I finally got my chance and I promised I’d talk about it, so here we are!

Urban Shadows - preface

I had something I wanted to note about the Urban Shadows book before we dug into the game itself. I love the call out about playing something other than the white, cisgendered hetero normative character we often see in media. The very first bullet in the Race, Gender, and Queerness section notes:

“Play a character of a different race, gender, or sexual orientation from your own. You’re not a wizard or a vampire in real life either. We trust you.”

I simply love this and that it carries through all their material. Explore, learn, be and celebrate someone different. I felt this when I played MASKS and I see it too in Magpie’s attention to the diverse nature of these urban games. These cities were born from numerous individuals with varied cultures, upbringings, beliefs, outlooks, and lives. Reflect that in your work as a player and they encourage the Master of Ceremonies (MC) to do so too!  Sounds great right?  Well…

The Rules

Urban Shadows is Powered By the Apocalypse, so I guess that partially explains its success for the simplicity of moves, rolling dice, and well… ::looks around:: We’re in a tough time after all. Another shout out for all those making online art, media, games, and communities for us to enjoy while safely isolating and social distancing! (If you recognize my Rhydin, AOL roleplaying way of expressing my action, then extra points for you! Yes, I’ve been around a bit, I know…)

Thus you’ve got moves and abilities tied to roll 2d6 and adding certain stats. In this case there is Blood, Heart, Mind, and Spirit. Blood is for attacking or running away. If you’re looking to persuade someone, you’d use Heart. Mind is for figuring someone out, misleading/tricking another, or maybe deciphering a puzzle/piece of knowledge. Spirit is power comes to play, the main basic move being Let It Out. It’s a good move, allowing creativity with the nature of your character’s power, but it can lead to corruption!

Corruption is interesting. Like other Powered By the Apocalypse games you can gain experience from failing rolls, but corruption is also something you track in Urban Shadows. This is the dark road, the shadows taking you, your power becoming more important than people, etc. Every time you get five corruption you take a corruption move either from your playbook (Wizard, Fae, Hunter, etc.) or at the fifth time: retire your character but they may return later as a threat. So, enjoy your character but taking them down an evil, power-consuming path may lead to you having to fight them one day!

Ah yes, the playbooks or archetypes as it were! The Aware is a mortal investigator. The Hunter is a mortal as well, hunting down monsters or simply is a trained killer. The Veteran, also a mortal, is typically older with knowledge and experience at the ready. I note all three are mortals because that Faction matters, but we’ll get to that after! The faction of Night has a few archetypes in core as well. The Wolf and The Vamp are as you might expect with a decided bent toward the wolf being brutal and unlucky and the vamp being particularly seductive and immortal. The Spectre rounds out the trio as the lonely spirit or ghost. Two archetypes are in the realm of power: the Wizard of dedicated magical study and the Oracle of blessed prophecy. Finally, the Wild also has two archetypes. The Fae include the various fairy and otherworldly beings of almost alien belief and fickle, playful talents. The Tainted on the other hand were once mortals who sold their soul for power, wealth, or something else. Wild isn’t merely the natural wilds, but something apart from this world or reality!

The Tainted

Now why does that grouping matter? Well, the political intrigue of this game is what really caught my attention and why I was eager to try it out. Not only are there Stats but you track your rating in Factions as well: Mortality, Night, Power, and Wild. This helps associate your political power, affiliation, friendship, etc. with that faction. There are moves specific to these Faction stats like hitting the streets for information or trying to put a face to a name. Is it a fae? Well I hope you’ve got a good rating or at least roll well when trying to figure out whom they are! You might also need to investigate a powerful nexus of ley lines, investigate a club owned by a faction, or maybe you’re just trying to figure out who owns that spooky old house on the edge of town!

To build on that you have Debts between yourself and other PCs as well as NPCs. These are much like Strings in a Monsterhearts fashion, but really it’s that contract of owing someone or being owed something. It may be more implicit when you helped someone out, but either way it helps you cash in debts or call in a favor as specific moves! There’s even rules for refusal and refusing a debt can cost you more debt or even pissing off that person’s faction! Considering the people you’re working with are likely either immortal, extremely powerful, irksome or some combination of the three… Well, I suggest you find a way to make the city work for you if you want to survive, and that includes the people within it!

Each archetype has a few corruption moves that you gain through that growth mechanic. As an example, the Wolf can become a Force of Nature. Problem is, using this move (and other corruption moves) can have you mark further corruption. You gain a temporary +1 to Blood rolls but if you roll 12 or more, you’re marking that corruption! I had my Wizard being tempted by unseen, possibly demonic powers. He had Upon a Pale Horse, which let him call out the true names of an NPC to inflict 3 harm to them without any need to roll! Dangerous, scary, corrupting!

Our Game

Yep, that’s right, I played a wizard. Our game had a Vamp, a Wolf, a Fae, and a Wizard. We didn’t walk into a bar necessarily but… Well, I’ll get there. Magpie’s MC who ran our game (whom I believe was named Duan) was wonderfully supportive, creative, and encouraging! He had us fill in a google spreadsheet that had our 4 characters on it. It was remarkably useful for helping us personally but also seeing what others could do, what debts we had, etc. I’ve made a locked copy in case you want to take a look!

My Wizard was named Varin, a somewhat shaggy-faced guy with deep blue eyes who often said ominous things. He tried to find power in the natural world, which got me to put a point into Wild. I figured he worked as a landscape architect during the day, then went home to work some magic or study up. He traveled and moved cities often, partially chasing the next person to help, especially studying ancient artifacts but also to avoid those demonic voices haunting him. As part of the character creation you had to build your sanctum and I chose that I had various old tomes and a great apothecary (herbalist, natural world bent) but it attracted that otherworldly attention. I really liked that you introduced some flaws or dangers to help build plot elements. My Wizard maybe tried to focus in Druidic ritual and study, with a talent to draw power from ley lines (Channeling) and use elemental magic. But as noted previously, the dark powers whispered true names to him, always tempting him to use such corrupting influence to quickly end problems. But the Night faction? Yeah that’s where Varin had trouble. Then funny enough, the only debt I ended up being owed was by the Vamp (Lavinia) I helped keep a secret for: she killed a vampire rival who was killing rather than simply feeding. I owed plenty of debts however to the Fae (Trillium) for helping me keeping the demons away from my place and for holding onto a particularly dangerous artifact for me. The Wolf (Chris) had me for some debts too, bailing me out of trouble as I came into town (domain issues) and relative protection of my sanctum as I got settled.  Here’s a peek at part of the Wizard playbook!

The Wizard

We really got into the character creation. The Vamp Lavinia was ancient, charming, and irresistible. Still, she recognized bleeding humans dry was a no-no and you had to get along to go along, else the reaper would eventually find you. I loved how her player ripped apart the foolish Vampire coven leader we confronted. The witty retorts were wonderful. Our Fae Trillium on the other hand knew how to work his debts owed and make new deals. Great uses of illusion and working those promises against others. Fae are often great for that! The Wolf Christian (Chris that is) watched over a few blocks including a kid who could see prophecy. He was strong, protective, and good for a hunt. A shame he was targeted immediately by that coven leader. The game started with him waking up to a dead body planted in his bathroom and two cops knocking eagerly on the door!

The oracle kid saw not to get to Chris for help and came to my wizard Varin, freshly home from work and eager for a bit of chicken. It went cold… They left after a dressing down of Figuring It Out (Mind rolls!) from Varin to go see what was up with Chris. Trillium was told by elder fae that something was foot and tried to get ahold of the neighborhood Wolf but Chris was busy. He tried to trick the police into leaving, stashing the body in the shower, but wouldn’t you know his towel-round-the-waist just out of the shower plan failed. A bad Mind roll had the water running red and out the bathroom. A fight ensued! Lavinia was encouraged to attend the coven’s gathering that night, but she’d have no part in the foolish maneuverings of younger kindred! Still, she and Trillium thought it best to deal closely with the matter. Trillium found Varin and Chris heading downtown and Lavinia met up with us as we sought where exactly the coven was gathering. Lavinia got us in and well, diplomacy was attempted but it ended real quick! Illusions of light and then a powerful surge of it (courtesy of a Spirt roll and a Let It out from my wizard) had the vampires scared. Lavinia had her share of fencing in the past while Chris wolfed out. I opted for lightning over fire. They went down pretty fast and we confronted this foolish young vampire who met his end. A demon had been serving him and unfortunately, Varin had to make a deal to get him gone quick. That got me a corruption mark! But well, that’s the Wizard’s typical corruption gain: making deals with dark powers. Lavinia took the coven leader’s throne and Varin went looking for some fast food. He’d never gotten to eat dinner after all!

I loved that only in four hours we got such detailed characters with cool abilities, connections not only to ourselves but to the city. It made the characters real and the city immediately alive. Duan thrust the story upon us taking into account our connections and the drama was immediately felt. We had some socializing, some maneuvering politically, some fun banter, a little skillful investigation, and of course that exciting combat! It was extremely fun and I greatly appreciate the gaming opportunity for my first Urban Shadows. Thank you to my fellow players!

Magpie Opportunities

I encourage you to pick up the book and explore these themes, magic, and monsters yourself! Want to play but need a GM? You can sign up for the Curated Play Program with Magpie!

Excitingly, Magpie Games is planning a second edition to Urban Shadows! It’s one of their original games from back in 2014 so I guess I’m behind, but I’m ahead on this 2nd Ed business! Their amazing community manager Kate clued me in that the kickstarter would go live later in October! Just in time to feel the witchy, spooky charm of autumn we can dig into the revised rules. In the meantime, check out this exciting announcement trailer from Gen Con!

Also if you’re looking to try MASKS I can suggest some fun with a friend of mine! My fellow Order of the Amber Die member, Dan is running a MASKS game this weekend as part of UK Games’ VIRTUALLY EXPO. As of this writing there’s 2 tickets left if you want to invest in that incredible game! I’d be playing myself if I could!

There is still a little time left to join OAD member Daniel Scholler, as he GMs a full weekend of the Masks RPG at the…

Posted by Order of the Amber Die on Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Investing In:

I also want to hear what you’re Investing In! Leave me a comment below about what games, modules, systems, products, people, live streams, etc you enjoy! You can also hit me up on social media as silentinfinity. I want to hear what excites you and what you’re passionate about. There’s so much wonderful content, people, groups (I could go on) in this community of ours that the more we invest in and share, the better it becomes!

About Investing In

I wasn’t quite sure what to name my article series when I first started but the idea of showcasing or discussing things that make me excited, that I find new and interesting, or maybe I’m otherwise passionate about seemed to fit with the idea of Investing In something like the Pathfinder 2E mechanic. To use some magic items you have to give that little bit of yourself, which helps make these things even better. I like the metaphor of the community growing and being strengthened in the same way!


Banner – Urban Shadows banner, Magpie Games

  1. Opening and other excerpts from Urban Shadow core rulebook, Magpie Games
  2. Urban Shadows preface image, Magpie Games
  3. The Tainted, Magpie Games
  4. The Wizard, Magpie Games
  5. Order of the Amber Die facebook
  6. Urban Shadows 2nd Edition announcement, Magpie Games

Rob Pontious

You may know Rob Pontious from Order of the Amber Die or Gehenna Gaming's first series of Monster Hearts 2. He currently writes Know Direction's Investing In blog as well as a player for the Valiant podcast and Roll for Combat's Three Ring Adventure. He's been a lover of TTRPGs for over three decades, as a gamer, and a GAYMER. You can find him on social media as @silentinfinity.