I am pretty sure that I have overthought this question in the past couple of days. In the long run I am coming back full circle to my initial gut reaction – and it is not terribly complimentary. There are so many games out there trying to show you their spirit from the shelf so I have considered a lot of the games I have played in this.
My gut reaction and answer…
Shadowrun, first edition. It perfectly evokes the games spirit and unfortunately also highlights a lot of the games flaws. I remember getting this game that was to blend machine magic and man in the early 90’s, maybe even 1989. the cover told a story that I had not yet been exposed to. It felt exotic, mysterious and marvelous to hold in hand and consider the cover.
Three people knocking over an ATM? Well, that is what it kind of looks like – in reality it shows the computer guy, the samurai and the mage in a battle with shadowy figures. This scene feels so Shadowrun. Or at least what we want it to be like. Interesting they chose only elves for the front cover for meta human representation which I never realized before. I always remembered the samurai as an ork.
But this also symbolizes the problem with the game (and all future editions). You look at the main protagonists and the decker is apart from them. He is facing another way and there is little to suggest that he is actually a part of the team. That is precisely the problem with Shadowrun too. Decker’s always take the focus away from everyone when they have to do their part in a run. It has gotten progressively better over editions but it persists today. When the decker got to do their thing the rest of the players just get shut down. Things in cyberspace happen at a different pace. Things in cyberspace have a completely alien system. Those in meat space can’t effect the Deckers action (though they can tag along now – equally as boring).
The idea of Shadowrun is a fantastic one but in realising the Gibsonesque reality it actually fractures the game. I love Deckers and with my background I truly identify with them above all the other character types in Shadowrun. But they break the game. When I started running the game I realised this and would do the Decker segments of my adventures one on one with the Decker prior to the full section. That way the Deckers player got the focus and it did not interrupt the game. Great idea when you have all the time in the world. I don’t anymore.
I have noticed that all the other games I have run after my first edition days no-one played a Decker. The players all vocalize the fact that they break the game and will not play them. This is one of the reasons I do not like running the game anymore. To me this game has a solid basis not only in magic and cybernetics but cyberspace as well. If it is ignored then the game just falls flat to me.
I went all over the place in considering this. I want to say that Conan Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, Super Squadron, Fragged Empires, Apocalypse World and Call of the Cthulhu were all on my list at one stage. This is great because it means that as a community we are really working well to market the games in a way that is clear and concise. Getting the spirit of a game across in a cover is a hard thing to do so congratulations to all the games getting it right.