Critical Hit: Urban Shadows — You Did Get a Free Advance

tl;dr Rules-lawyering about advances and taking new moves in Urban Shadows takes up almost a quarter of the show.  We catch up with Rob’s and Stephen’s characters, which saves this interstitial episode, but party dynamics are becoming really unstable.

Title: You Did Get a Free Advance
Episode: 439
Season: Hays of Shadows
Season Episode: 15
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: ★★☆☆☆

So, let’s get this out of the way up front: character advances in Powered by the Apocalypse games are kind of weird. And the way the factions work in Urban Shadows is also really weird. But it’s not weird and interesting enough to talk about for 10-15 minutes out of a one hour show.

Two characters advance in this episode, and the players spend a lot of time talking about how they advance and what they can do. I’ve always like on Critical Hit that character advancement happens off-mic between GM and individual player, and now I see why. Character advancement does not benefit from democratic debate.

Fortunately the story is strong in this campaign, which keeps this episode from bogging down entirely. Last week (on Critical Hit), the story was hyper-focused on conflict between Alana and The Proxy, as well as Ian’s violent random revenge in the Goblin Market. In this week’s episode, we get to see what Klaus the vampire and Professor Higginsbottom were doing during the battle(s).

It turns out they were mostly reading books — finding out more about threats and tools they can use to stop them. I especially like how Stephen Schleicher is playing the magic goods dealer Higginsbottom. He’s a Foghorn-Leghorn bombastic southern stereotype, probably strongly influenced by Tom Hanks’s character Dr. Higginson in the Coen Brothers movie The Ladykillers.

Higginsbottom is great for comic relief, but Stephen has added a twist: the professor is obsessed with life extension. This has caused friction between him and Alana, the wizard, who thinks dabbling in this realm of magic is highly dangerous. In the current episode, the professor even muses aloud about using a deadly artifact, The Shears of Atropos, to murder his sometimes allies Alana or Klaus, in order to steal their power and extend his life. It’s chilling.

(The professor gave the artifact to Alana for safekeeping a few episodes ago, though, so I think it’ll be interesting to see the scene where he asks for it back.)

Rob’s drug-dealing vampire, Klaus, also gets a lot of screen time. I love Klaus. Rob is playing him as organized, careful, and strategic, balancing all the different forces acting against him and his criminal organization, using allies in the best and most interesting way he can. He reminds me of a chessmaster playing 8 games at once, and somehow staying ahead in all of them.

The most worrying part of the story, though, is Alana’s. Fresh from battle with the Proxy, she is regrouping back at her base, calling in all her allies to redouble their efforts and go on the offensive. She’s able to get most of the party on her side pretty quickly — Klaus had been helping her previously, and her brother Ian flips to her side on a phone call.

Ian’s quick change was a little disappointing — he was at the Proxy’s side in the prelude to the battle at the Goblin Market. Although he didn’t fight against Alana, it would be interesting to see the siblings on opposite sides here. But that doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.

Rodrigo, the player for The Proxy, doesn’t get any air time this episode, which feels uncomfortable. Rather than talk about rules of advancement in Urban Shadows, I’d much rather hear discussion about how player-versus-player dynamics are going to work out. How did Rodrigo’s character become the Big Bad so quickly?

I really hope that The Proxy ends up subverting Higginsbottom’s weakness and turning him. Making a deal with a demon for eternal life is a long-established trope, and Higginsbottom could be helpful in the Proxy’s upcoming fight. Although he’s also a really powerful PC and can probably hold his own.

Great audio as usual, but the pacing and narrative flow of this episode felt off. I’m really getting interested in these characters and their interactions, and I’d like to see them get more on-screen time to do cool things. The episode was cut short at a weird spot, too, which didn’t help. Overall, a below-average episode of an interesting story arc. I’ll be listening intently for how, and if, this resolves.

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