Critical Hit: Urban Shadows – The Goblin Market Has Rules

tl;dr A high-action session featuring PvP combat and daring attacks, marred by many minutes of rules lawyering.

Title: The Goblin Market Has Rules
Episode: 438
Season: Urban Shadows
Podcast: Critical Hit
Gamemaster Brian Bergdal
Rodrigo Lopez as The Proxy
Matthew Peterson  as Ian
Sam Nelson as Alana
Rob Rasmussen as Klaus
Stephen Schleicher as Dr. J.D. Higginsbottom III
Game systemUrban Shadows
Rating: ★★★☆☆

You can’t put your best player on the bench for a week and expect to avoid some backseat GMing.

OK, that’s a pretty badly mixed metaphor. Let me make this more concrete: Rob stands out in this group as a skilled, intelligent player. He is doing an amazing job in the Urban Shadows season as the drug-dealing vampire, Klaus. His terse style and gamist instincts make his running of his criminal organization the high point of this season.

But his character was sidelined in last week’s episode when his crony on loan from the Vatican was caught trying to tail The Proxy. So Rob and Stephen sat on their hands this week while Alana and The Proxy battled it out over ten human souls and a spell book, and Ian, the revenant, made a fortuitous attack on a former persecutor.

So, we got a lot of rules correction this episode: what happens when someone takes harm during a move; whether someone triggered a special penalty on a miss for a move; what you can do when you retire a character.

Now, partly this was the fault of the game system. Urban Shadows seems to have a lot of moves that overlap or duplicate each other — for example, the revenant Ian tries to uses several different flavours of an “escape” move, to everyone’s confusion. And Powered by the Apocalypse games get kind of squirrelly when you get into player-versus-player combat.

And, hey: comments from the peanut gallery are part of any kind of gaming. They should be expected.

But sometimes you just need to defer to the GM and let them run the game, even if they mess something up. Especially if tens of thousands of people are listening. It’s hard enough to keep a story going without interrupting the flow.

Back to the game. When Brian introduced the subplot of the deal between the demon world and the Night Court of the fey, I thought it was ingenious. The party had just come off a successful combat where everyone had shown competence, resolve, and unity. But this new sub-plot highlights significant differences between the players. They may be allies at some points, but they’re not on the same side, really.

Last week’s episode ended on a cliffhanger, where the demonic The Proxy was about to murder 10 people in cold blood to collect their souls. It was such a dramatic scene, but one where the players really had no choice on how to move. (Kudos again to Brian on this.) PvP had to ensue.

The combat itself went well: dramatic ups and downs without a conclusive defeat or victory on either side. Both characters got to look really awesome. Again, there was some irritating uncertainty about whether to use Unleash or Let It Out at different points, but mostly the action keeps you on the edge of your seat.

I found it interesting that neither player lost their temper or tried to negotiate or wheedle their way out of the situation. Sam and Rodrigo are both experienced players, and I guess they’ve probably been in PvP combat before. But they also didn’t directly talk to each other through the whole scene. Interesting stuff!

The other great action for the week was the revenant, Ian, making another kill from his revenge list. Matthew is an interesting player: if he’s prepared, he can do some pretty cool actions with great narrative. If he’s not… he spends a lot of time waffling on-mic. One nice thing about the revenant playbook is that he’s got a really clear motivation that doesn’t leave a lot of options open for actions; he’s gonna kill his victim, no doubt.

There’s a lot of flavour that gets glossed over during this segment. When Brian names the woman that Ian finds at the Goblin Market, Veronique, Matthew responds with a cheer of determination. But we don’t actually get any facts about his history with her, except that she’s on his list and that he knew her before he died. And later, when she grows scales and claws like a dragon or lizard-person, she gets killed before we can actually figure out what’s up with her.

Overall, this was a good episode in a solid season. High quality audio, as usual. I’m really enjoying Urban Shadows so far, and I think the PbtA style seems to work well for short seasons for Crit Hit. Brian is really doing a great job with the GMing, creating a believable and complex world around spooky Hayes, KS.

Probably the tough part is going to be landing the plane. PbtA games aren’t really great for getting to climactic conclusions — things just tend to get worse and more complex for everyone, punctuated by occasional wins. I hope we see a good finish to this arc; it deserves one.