Time to wrap up my Urban Shadows experiment with some analysis of what worked and what didn’t in the game. Some of this relates more to the group itself and some to how my personal meshes with the design ethos of Powered by the Apocalypse games.
Urban Shadows Retrospective
Overall the game did not work out as well as I had hoped. Perhaps my hopes were too high. I had a lot of fun running and playing this game at conventions and hoped to capture the same magic but on a larger scale with a prolonged game.
Part of the problem may have been a mismatch of expectations for my players and some of it was due to my own gamemastering style clashing with the rules. These two entwined not so much to ruin the game but to sap it of its potential.
Mismatch of Expectations
In retrospect the issue began in character creation. In talking with my players, they said it felt as if the playbooks had less in-built conflict than other Apocalypse games (like a Hardhold’s wants in Apocalypse World or the default assumption of dungeon delving in Dungeon World).
They also said that the playbooks seemed to describe more what you are than what your role in the game world is. Thus the players felt less initial direction and that led to less focus and excitement. This opinion mainly came from the player of the Veteran so perhaps it has more to do that particular playbook.
Obviously there is conflict in Urban Shadows. The Wolf’s territory and transformation both have serious downsides to deal with, ones I managed to bring up in play. Corruption threatens every character. But few of the playbooks are as set up to be threats to the others (besides the Hunter). In Apocalypse World, everything threatens a hardholder, brainers creep out everyone, a choppers gang are a bunch of thieves, and so on. PCs might be friendly but that is a long way from being friends.
But maybe for Urban Shadows I need to push more of that PC vs. PC tension myself.
The other problematic aspect of the game for the players was advancement. Bouncing between factions to earn experience felt artificial to the players. Rather than game the system, some chose to neglect interacting with other groups (which then sapped some of their enjoyment of the game).
Some of my mistakes are the ones I often make. I failed to establish many NPC-PC-NPC or PC-NPC-PC triangles. I’m bad with characterizing NPCs on the fly.
Personally I definitely ran this game much less hard than I did at the convention. I wanted to see things play out and not snowball things from climax to climax. But for Powered by the Apocalypse games that doesn’t work. If you don’t push hard, the game tends to stall out. I didn’t push corruption and so no one got any of the corruption moves or risked retirement. The threats never rose to the level that required the PCs to worked together and so the three of them were forever in different scenes.
I had my reasons for avoiding hard moves. I’ve seen the effects of being overly aggressive under other MCs. Under more forceful MCs, the snowball and increasing violence turned the entire setting too grimdark. Most of the NPCs died needlessly (i.e. with no time to care about them) leading to the PCs becoming murder hobos by necessity.
I don’t want that. I want to collaborate and build a world rich in NPCs and relationships. But doing that while keeping thing snowballing enough to make the Apocalypse World games run well is a difficult proposition I haven’t figured out yet.
Figuring Out the Group
In terms of direction, this group of players in particular had issues with self-directed action. With a sandbox approach, soft moves (which is my fault) and little initial direction this was a recipe for a lukewarm game. Supporting that line of reasoning the player of the Tainted (who has a strong direction and some of the harder moves) had perhaps the strongest plotline.
Not All My Fault
There were a few things I blame the system for however. I find Storm and Threat categories too artificial. In my prep I found myself struggling to shoehorn threats into the supplied categories.
I don’t need the supplied structure. I know the impulses and methods/moves of the threats I create and the added paperwork just doesn’t help me.
Going forward, I think I either need to push harder or provide the players more direction. Perhaps giving them a patron might be a wise course of action.
All in all I think this experience has convinced me of two things. First Powered by the Apocalypse games require hard moves even for ongoing games and that might be incompatible with a semi stable cast of characters (assuming violence is an option). Second, these games might not be the best fit for my GMing style.