Running A Co-Play/Co-GM Urban Shadows Game

Continuing the discussion from What's on your gaming table?:

My wife (Moyra Turkington) and I often do games where its only the two of us, as we both play and GM. This is a bit unusual, and is something we’ve developed techniques for over the last several years. A lot of this is “we just know how to do it through practice” stuff, but I’ll try to capture some of the basics here.

The basic way the game works is that we’ll take turns as a player and as a GM. The player for a scene is the PC, and follows most of the normal rules and approaches for the game. We do, however, tend to be a bit “GM-full” in scenes even when we’re in PC mode – we will make up more details about the world and introduce ideas and themes more freely than most players probably would.

When you’re GM, you focus on running the scene and following the GM agendas as per normal. The one complication to this is sometimes one of your player characters may end up in a scene. There’s two ways we run it when we do this:

  1. We designate it a “no-GM” scene. This is for when there aren’t many/any other major or important NPCs in the scene, and it’s really just the two PCs interacting. In these scenes there tends to be lots of dialogue and few rolls. When we do roll we stick narrowly to the rules and text of the moves, and jointly decide on outcomes.

  2. The GM keeps GMing, using their PC as a “big bad NPC.” Basically the PC will roll anything that needs to be rolled, but the BBNPC can’t be killed (though can be maimed and etc.) and has more investment into the how and why of what they’re doing than you’d normally give an NPC.

The way we set these games up is:

  1. We come up with a setting and a basic concept. For example, right now we’re playing an Urban Shadows 2nd ed game in Chicago. We wanted to focus on the gritty labor history of the city and its contrast with its soaring, majestic architecture. So we picked an area just outside of the downtown loop, near enough to see the towers but itself quite poor. We decided our characters would be (mostly) based around there – or have come from there originally.

  2. We come up with an overarching event or theme that gives impetus to the setting. In the US game above, the event is that the Pharaoh (wizard ruler, in this case Burnham, the man who planned a lot of Chicago) of the city just died and all the powerful factions of the city are now lining up to take his throne.

  3. We make up a handful of factions, groups, or special interests who are at odds in that setting because of the big event. In this case we have a group of fae taking over the mob, a smooth talking demon who is leading gentrification and white flight, a group of Orisha bound into mortal bodies advocating for black lives, a mortal group of hunters (think Buffy) who have taken over the SWAT team and are doing murder to local supernaturals (so ACAB Buffy), and several others.

  4. We make a handful of PCs with ties – strong or weak – to those groups. Each of us usually has two or three PCs. They’re all tied to different groups, either for or against, and have debts, obligations, and relationships to those groups that will put them at odds or into alliances. The biggest trick here is setting it up so that a PC played by one player will not normally have direct conflict / contact with others PCs played by the same player. This requires a bit of effort and discipline, and sometimes some creative editing.

  5. Once we’ve got that all set up, we start launching scenes and pulling triggers.

Anyway, that’s the basics. Any and all questions are welcome, as I’m not really always sure if what I’m trying to describe is clear or not.

6 Appreciations

I ran a co-GMed PBTA game with multiple players. It was a Masks game. Each GM just made a regular Masks character and when he was GMing, his character (the Janus) just had obligations that he couldn’t avoid, and when I was GMing, my character (the Reformed) had been hauled in for another round of questioning by his crappy probation officer. We just GMed our sessions as normal.

I did kinda feel it a little bit. I have a real passion for superhero games that emphasize the difference between superheroic life and “real” life, and my co-GM didn’t really, so I found myself leaning harder and harder on stuff like “your FRIEND asks you for advice because he wants to ask out your CRUSH, what do you do???” and he was setting up increasingly dangerous supervillainous plots for us to fight. When I had villains come in they were guys in animal costumes wanting to steal a big bag with a dollar sign on it from a bank.

It went okay but I think we both would have preferred to just run our preferred game!

4 Appreciations

That’s really cool. I would imagine that the resulting game might end up being something like the Wire in resulting fiction. Is it anything like that? Exploring situations and a setting through the lens of different characters’ viewpoints?

Do you find any design features/rules are particular important, useful, or get in your way, when choosing to do this? Do you like for particular games for that, or have you found anything you both like works?

How do pull off that “biggest trick”?

How does the game actually proceed from scene to scene or viewpoint to viewpoint? Do you, perhaps, play out discrete scenes and then pass off the GM reins? Or think more in terms of rotating through the cast of characters, and the GM is whoever is not the player in each instance?

Does the game tend to focus on single-PC scenes more often than not?

Yes. These games are very scene based. You set up a scene, you play out that scene, you move to the next scene. Sometimes we’ll pause a scene in the middle to play another scene for various reasons – like heightening tension, dramatic irony, contrasting a theme in another scene.

So yes, it’s a bit like the Wire or other ensemble cast shows in that regard. (The Wire, in generally, is probably the TV show with the biggest impact on how I run games. Even more so than more genre stuff that you might expect.)

In terms of features and rules, we mostly do this with PbtA games. It’s hard to say if there’s anything specific about them that makes it work, or just our general familiarity and comfort. I think there probably is some degree to which most PbtA games work well for scene focused, snowballing problems, character-issue driven drama that is particularly apt. As is the ability to (usually) rapidly resolve conflicts, so you can get in more than 1 or 2 scenes each per night. Drama System (Hillfolk) might also work well, but isn’t currently balanced for 1 on 1 play. Defiant works, and World of Darkness games can be hacked to work. But WoD games tend to be mechanically heavy and bit swingy to work well.

As for the big trick… I think a lot of it is framing. Starting when you’re looking at the factions and their interests, and right through when you’re setting scenes, part of the process is to (quickly) ask if this is gonna jam up one of your PCs with another. If it will, try a different way.

The Wire might actually be an interesting example here. In the first three seasons the “big bad” is Avon Barksdale. And the “white guy protagonist” is Jimmy. But despite that, Jimmy never really focuses on Avon nor even gets close to having a scene with him. Jimmy goes after Stringer Bell – Avon’s right hand. So while their faction interests (cop vs drug ring) are opposed, the two characters are never pointed right at each other.

And finally – yes, most scenes are based around 1 PC. Or 1 PC with one other of the GM’s PCs playing a support / semi-oppositional role.

1 Appreciation

Alternating session by session could be extra tricky! Ha.

My very first exposure to RPGs was a D&D campaign where we rotated the GM chair, just as you describe, but each of us was supposed to take a turn. This didn’t go very well!

First of all, we discovered very quickly that some people just weren’t up to the task. So gradually we whittled it down to the two or three of us who were interested.

Second, yeah, creative differences. A challenge!

The session unit was wide enough that sometimes it was hard to “recover” and pick up from what someone else had introduced. One silly problem we had - silly, but it got bad enough that we had to stop the campaign (!!!) - was that the GMs started competing with each other about the “cool stuff” the PCs would get (e.g. treasure, magical items, special abilites). A very natural arms race/escalation - if the first GM has a special adventure where everyone gets a +1 knife, well, the next GM can’t just hand out another similar thing; they’re going to present (as a reward, carrot, whatever) something that’s exceptional in comparison to what is already on the table, or it doesn’t feel like much.

That said, yeah, creative differences are challenging in this setup, like in any other combined artistic effort (e.g. co-writing a book).


JD’s post makes me think of a few other things that I hadn’t considered before. They’re not directly system issues, but probably have an effect on cohesion in play.

A few things we do when we play these kinds of games include:

  1. Making soundtracks. We make a soundtrack for the game together. We get different types of music, artists, and genres together and spend part of Session Zero listening to our picks and talking about why we like them for the game. Then we put together a final soundtrack together. We also chose a theme song for the game, and (usually) a theme song for each of the PCs. The soundtrack does play, dimly, in the background during game. But I think it’s primary utility is in getting us thematically on the same page – talking about what sounds are our jam for the game gets us hooked on the same groove.

  2. Explicit talk about themes and meaning and all that artsy shit. While we’re making factions and characts, and as we go through the game, we talk a lot about what things mean to us, how we feel about them, and etc. It’s pretty normal to spend half an hour after game just debriefing about what happened, how we felt about it, what we’re excited to see next, and if there is anything we feel wobbly about. Helps keep up enthusiasm, generate new ideas, and keep us on the same page.

  3. Pictures and maps and other ephemera. We have Pintrest boards (or something similar) full of images of NPCs, places, settings, and etc. We also tend to draw and use lots of maps, all marked up with notes about what is happening where and why. This helps keep us focused on the same shit and to get the visual parts of the brain thinking about things too.

5 Appreciations