Shadowrun Doesn’t Tell the Right Stories

This is most certainly a personal opinion post.  For many players Shadowrun is the height of fun and a brilliant RPG.  I do not want to take away from this but this is my personal appearance of Shadowrun as an “out of the box” RPG.  I had a conversation with Cameron Corniuk over my weekend about Shadowrun.  he remembered me writing a post about the game not telling the right stories.  This is how I feel about it but when I went looking for it I found that it was only an aside mention on another post.  So I am going to come out and express how I feel about Shadowrun and the paid material that you can get for it.

Shadowrun “Out of the Box”

So Shadowrun is a game of our world 50 years or so into the future.  A surge of magic has “awakened” mystical races and humans and other animals have evolved or transformed into new races and creatures in a process called Goblinization.  Technology has gone ahead in leaps and bounds, largely technology of a form that melds man and machine.  Cyber-technology is rife in certain circles and almost everyone on the street has some kind of modification to boast about.  Aside from that the computer-human interface has also taken off and people now “jack in” to the internet and use an augmented reality, with the hard core taking on a completely virtual reality when interfacing with the internet.  Videos and music are now purely electronic and take over a person’s system, some with heightened feeling so the biggest drugs these days are electronic in origin, living out other lives, rather than narcotic – though these do exist.

On the magic side their are people that utilise true magic.  To cast spells, to enhance themselves, to give objects enhancements, to serve a totem spirit or to even conjure other worldly spirits and bind them to their service.  Some magic also now allows for some kind of interface with the computer.  Magicians are few and far between but they are powerful assets and can be exceptionally dangerous also.

Finally, civilisation has altered.  Corporations are now the highest power to call to and act as small nations in their own power.  Native civilisations have been empowered by the upsurge of magic and taken back vast swathes of land from those that had once usurped them.

The players run characters that fit into a bunch of different archetypes or a melding of them.  They are really quite free with the character generation so you can make pretty much anything you want to play.  But in general they are all “Shadowrunners” or “Runners”.  Mercenaries and individuals that have fallen through the corporations cracks and ended up working for money on shady deals that the proprietors want done but do not want to be associated with.  Think of a futuristic version of the “A Team” or “The Expendables” and you will be well on your way to understanding where this game is at.

So, that all adds up to an exciting dystopian future loosely based on a melding of William Gibson and J.R.R. Tolkien in some kind of unholy combination.  So what do the creators and writers for this game put out?  Modules based on a common algorithm that goes something like;

  1. Runners meet with someone that their Fixer has organised a job through
  2. The Runners investigate the job and plan the run
  3. The Runners undertake the run and inevitably find that something complicates it, normally a shortfall in the information they have been given.
  4. The Runners make a hard choice about what they need to do and enact it.
  5. The Runners deal with the fallout of the run, perhaps taking revenge for being double crossed or having to deal with waves of haters wielding automatic weapons, spirits and magic.
  6. Repeat.

In the current version of the game there is a one page sheet that allows you to make these sorts of things up with a few rolls of a six sided dice.  Literally in less than a minute I could design an adventure for a group of Runners.  Most of the later modules for the game seem to follow this algorithm and many of the games that I have played in deal directly with this style game.  It has action and thinking and many people like it.  I don’t and I truly feel, looking at some of the material that FASA (the original makers of first and second edition) released for it, neither would they.

FASA Modules

When I first ran Shadowrun, it was 1st edition (in fact straight after it came out) and then later second edition.  The Shadowrun series was actually the first game that I ever bought modules for and back then they fit into the style that I had deduced from the history and the game.  I will discuss a couple of these modules for you to give you some idea about them.

Cover of Shadowrun module Queen Euphoria
Dealing with media stars is difficult!

The first is Queen Euphoria.  This module differs a great deal from the norm of a Shadowrun styled adventure and I am going to give no spoilers but I am going to draw on the image of the cover that sums up the circumstances of the module.  The module actually contains two runs for the runners that on the surface look exactly like the algorithm that I laid out above.  But the module is deeper than that.  The cover shows a beautiful woman, sensual to a degree, misshapen and remembering her successes as a “trid star”.  The themes in this module are all about corruption and the destruction of a human by the forces of technology and magic in this dark future.  The loved star is corrupted by others and twisted from her celebrated form, both of which are actually corruptions of the true individual.  Many people consider this a two part module but in fact these themes could not be portrayed without the two sections and this is largely why I think that FASA had these themes at the heart of the game.

Cover of Shadowrun module Harlequin
My favourite module of all time.

Secondly, the module that is without a doubt my favorite module of all time.  Harlequin.  This is an extended module which actually covers eight runs that are intended to be interspersed between the runners normal adventures.  There is weirdness in these modules like nothing else and they are all short bite sized adventures that play out an act of revenge between two individuals that are thousands of years old.  In researching this article I just read a description of this book that was obviously written by someone that had never played it – so mechanical.  This is what would happen if H.P. Lovecraft had decided to write a Gibson/Tolkien epic in his distinct style.  This is all about how humanity exists in so much of the unknown.

The module itself makes no qualms about this and does not try to humanize a lot of it by providing answers.  It just lays stuff out and the players, over time, get the feel that they are part of something so much larger than them.  Something dark, and perhaps even a little disturbing.

What Should Shadowrun Cover?

OK, so I have discussed what Shadowrun is, today – after 22 years as an RPG and I have discussed what I believe the goodly people at FASA intended it to be.  It may or may not surprise you that a lot of this actually stems from the fact that FASA consciously made Shadowrun and Earthdawn connected.  There are direct connections through the games that have kept many of us thinking about various actions of the meta-plot of both games.  There are layers to the FASA versions of the games that have sadly been lost as FASA dispersed and handed the licences on to differing companies.

To me though there are two important themes that should be investigated in adventures from Shadowrun.  I see Games Mastering as a way of learning about things.  Emotions, concepts and thoughts through stories that are made collaboratively.  I think there are two themes in this game that deserve, nay must, be explored in a way that many people seem to miss in this game.

What is it to be Human?

The first theme is probably the largest one that many people miss.  All of the “races” in this game stemmed from humanity and the exact presence of these goblinized creatures side by side with humans need to be investigated.  Literally they were born of man and yet they are vastly different.  Why?  How come they are not just different shaped and styled beings that act like humans – because that is the culture they are born into.  This is the first level of this theme, but the levels are many and varied.

Man meets machine is the next position to explore.  The more that a person changes about themselves the less “real” they become.  You can only push yourself so far before the flesh is too weak and the machine takes over.  There is biological modification, machine level modification and also the effect of magic on adepts as well to consider.

Corruption

This theme fits perfectly with the above and there is much crossover.  For example, the magicians that turn to the darker spirits and the much more Lovecraftian styled beings that exist in this setting.  they seek to further the aims of these creatures, completely alien aims that seek to transform humanity by corrupting them and breeding new twisted creatures.

Then there is the inherent corruption of corporations and their illegal involvements of the darker side of the world.  In 1993 when Shadowrun emerged, this was really a futuristic darker ideal look at what may occur.  In reality we actually exist in a world now that is much darker than this game of fiction could ever achieve, and that is before the corporations have truly taken over.  But this corruption is there.  What happens when the most powerful people are utterly bereft of moral fiber?  Do we fight back or do we keep quiet and keep on keeping on?  How much is too much?

Conclusion

There is a level to this that must be explored for me so that the game is used to its full potential.  Shadowrun is so much more than a fixed algorithm to me.  I moved to the point where I gave up on Shadowrun because it had become a little too formulaic.  I became too “burnt out” to keep it going and Earthdawn was new and offered a different take on similar themes.

I have to say that I am disappointed about the directions that Shadowrun has gone in and that is why I now seek to only use myself as the inspiration to come up with genesis plots for my players to help tell.  Through this I am certain that I will find the love again that is in this game and perhaps it will grow to be one of my face to face groups favorite games – keep rolling!

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