Not since Microscope have I become so quickly enamored with a new game system. I was going to do a post at the halfway point, but I was so intrigued by its concepts that I wanted to see how the whole thing played out. Many thanks to Atlictoatl for recommending it (I was going to start with Apocalypse World, but Urban Shadows was something like $20 cheaper and it just fit better into my budget right now).
So what is it about Urban Shadows that hooked me? I guess it just operates at a level of abstraction that I find very satisfying. Which is kind of a squishy answer, I know, but we're working in kind of a narrow space here, so bear with me.
Let's pull back a bit and come at rpgs from the most general perspective possible. The way almost every rpg rule system works is by breaking down the fiction into three (more or less) distinct stages.
Stage 1: Declare what is interesting about the player character and translate into numbers on a character sheet.
Stage 2: Translate the numbers on the character sheet into a die roll.
Stage 3: Interpret the result of the die roll as some change in the character's circumstances or environment.
That's pretty much as vague as I can make it. But the reason I'm interested in making it so vague is that once you understand this common thread, you can see shifts in how these stages are interpreted. This is a well-trod subject, and if you want to read more about it, you should probably google "GNS theory of rpgs." I, however, am not going to be using the established terminology because the second thing you'll learn about GNS theory is that it's massively contentious and a lot of digital ink has been spilled both defending and decrying it. And personally, I don't want to perpetuate the bad blood.
So I'm going to make up some new terms for basic approaches to rules - the intuitive approach and the meta approach. The intuitive approach is where characters are described in very concrete terms - how strong they are, how smart they are, their skill at underwater basket weaving, etc. The intuitive approach has within itself various fashions and philosophies. Some games are very interested in specificity, differentiating between very narrowly defined fields - like broadswords are different than rapiers which are different than shortswords. Other games favor broad skills, like having one Close Combat skill that covers all forms of hand-to-hand combat, from swords to bare fists to axes and everything in between. Some games try to be comprehensive, having a full character description that attempts to cover all fields of human endeavor. Others are focused, covering only the subject matter that the game is interested in.
Any particular game may be anywhere on either spectrum - specific and comprehensive, general and focused or vice versa. What all intuitive-approach games have in common is that your character stats represent real things within the fiction.
The meta approach engages with the character as a character in the fiction. Stats are things like "plot armor" or structured around themes, like a "cats" skill that applies whenever the character is doing things with cats, but which doesn't map to any particular in-setting capability, just a tendency for events that happen whenever the character is around. Sometimes, a meta-skill can even be a backwards thing - a character might have a "colossal fuck-up" skill at maximum level and when it's used, they colossally fuck up in the fiction, but gain compensatory resources or broader control over the direction of the narrative.
This may sound familiar, if you read my discussion on actor-stance vs author-stance, but this isn't quite the same thing. Author-stance tends to work best with a meta approach, and there's something about the meta approach that gets you in the author-stance mood, but often the meta is just grafted on to a base layer of intuitive approach mechanics.
Which is a long way to go to talk about Urban Shadows. But I feel like it is very gently nestled in-between the two approaches. You could call it the broadest sort of intuitive, with stats like Blood, which relates to combat and evasion, or Mind, which is for knowledge and senses. Or you might view the stats as a particularly grounded sort of meta, which exist mostly to show you what sort of scenes your character will do well in. And the game is mostly played from an actor-stance, but mechanics like Debts, Faction, and Corruption will frequently throw your character off balance, forcing them into dramatically interesting situations whenever they risk too much or need an extra boost of power beyond their normal abilities.
But mostly what Urban Shadows does well is understand and adapt to the realities of roleplaying as a medium. Especially with the GM-facing mechanics, which encourage every roll to change the status quo. It is a game that seems hell-bent on eliminating lulls in the conversation while simultaneously encouraging an improvisational GMing style. It all comes across as extremely pragmatic and sensible.
Overall, I'd say that Urban Shadows is an elegant design that is extraordinarily versatile while also being easy to understand. I'm not necessarily a fan of its kitchen-sink approach to urban fantasy, but I could see how it could be adapted to a more focused setting fairly easily. It's a little dismissive of Vampire: the Masquerade style intrigue, but it would work fine for Werewolf or Mage, given custom playbooks.
Also, since I'm so often coming at this from the other direction, I feel compelled to point out - I am impressed by this book's sensitivity and level of social consciousness. It's radically inclusive, which is apt for a game set in the big city. Frankly, though, it's just nice to be less woke than one of these books for a change.
UKSS Contribution: There's not much setting here to work from, but I suppose The Tainted are kind of interesting. They're humans who have been merged with a kind of demonic spirit that gives them extraordinary powers. Maybe base a religious or mystical order around making these bargains and wielding their power.