Monday, June 6, 2011

Shadowrun - A cybernetic dwarf and a corporate elven mage walk into a bar...

The year is 20XX, the world is changed, some say Awakened. Besides changing the specific number of the year from 2050 to 2072 with the passage of time, that line is the traditional introduction to the world of Shadowrun. Shadowrun has taken many forms since 1989, from its roots as a tabletop RPG (which is what I'll focus on) to a card game, many different computer and video games, and even a line of action figures meant to be used in a sort of giant-sized miniatures game. At the heart of the game is a simple concept. You take the genre of cyberpunk with street-based warriors fighting in the shadow of corporations with machine guns and cybernetic enhancements implanted in a near-future dystopia, and add in magic and traditional fantasy races. The concept has the potential to be ridiculous. The style that emerged from the successful blend of swords and sorcery elements with cyberpunk action resulted in one of the most popular roleplaying games of all time.

Classic cover, used for the first two editions of the rules.

How did two genres that are so fundamentally different combine in a manner that wasn't... well... silly? The foundation of stories in Shadowrun is a conflict between magic and technology. The setting says that magic rises and falls away in natural cycles, and these cycles could be predicted by ancient people, including the Mayans. The “end of the world” in 2012 (actually 2011 in the backstory of the game) was the prediction of the passing away of the last mundane cycle, and the start of a new Awakened world. The slow and steady progression of the natural return of magic was disrupted by an event known as the Great Ghost Dance. A group of oppressed Native Americans, disenfranchised for centuries, organized a sort of shamanic ritual in protest, and with magic returning, to everyone's surprise... it worked. It had the unexpected effect of “spiking” magic's return with some unusual side effects.

One of these side effects directly impacts what sorts of characters can be created in Shadowrun. Base races are human, dwarf, elf, ork and troll, with later supplements introducing more exotic races or variants on these basics. Humans, dwarves and elves are very similar to their equivalents in any other roleplaying game in terms of physical and mental qualities. Dwarves and Elves were born to human parents through UGE (Unexplained Genetic Expression) right around the time of the Great Ghost Dance. Orks and trolls are bestial, brutish and often discriminated against, trolls in particular frequently growing to over 8 feet tall, and with bony calcified abrasions poking through the skin. Near the beginning of the Awakening, these unfortunate souls may have been born human, but near puberty, they “goblinized” into their true forms, though most trolls and orks are born to parents of the same race now.

Something about this lineup seems off...

The rise of a Tribal Native American movement led by firebrands wielding magical powers that they never really stopped practicing, coupled with increasing corporate power and a series of natural (and unnatural) disasters and plagues spelled the beginning of the end for the United States as it once was. Dragons returned from long slumbers and people reeled as nations fell, resulting in much of the US splintering into smaller countries. Native American Nations, the Confederated American States, the United Canadian and American States and the California Free State among many others in North America. Europe fared better in terms of stability, with the exception of changes in Ireland. Ireland had an unexpectedly high elven birth rate (over 40%) and by the 2050s, political turmoil was stabilized in the region by elves consolidating power and declaring independence as the nation of Tir na Nog.

Corporations moved to consolidate power in times of chaos, buying each other until most businesses were run by multi-national conglomerates called “megacorps” with private armies and sovereignty as if corporate property was foreign soil. The rise of the internet into a augmented/virtual reality network called “The Matrix”, and cybernetic body part replacements/enhancements regulated and produced by the megacorps further changed the world of Shadowrun. Corporate espionage, theft of corporate property and “liberation” (whether that means defection or kidnap) of corporate personnel began a quiet war in the shadows between the corporate arcologies that attracted the services of hackers, mercenaries... and mages.

This is pretty much how I imagine the average CEO's day goes anyway.

This is where the characters come in, as shamans, mages, cybered-out snipers or martial artists, vehicle specialists capable of running combat drones and getaway cars (called riggers) and computer infiltration specialists (called deckers.) These Shadowrunners might work for corporations, organized crime, any number of governments or organizations to infiltrate or otherwise oppose any number of targets. The characters operate as a team assembled to do quasi-legal or illegal things, and are frequently betrayed and sold out, shot up, left for dead. Many action movie stories with a “magic meets cybernetics and big guns” twist can be told in this world, and people seem to love it.

Most skill resolution is handled by rolling a pool of six sided dice that starts out fairly reasonable (between 6 and 12 dice) to get a target number and count the number of successes. Dice rolling is open-ended, with Karma points used for rerolls under certain conditions. Shadowrun is currently in its Fourth Edition, having originally been published by FASA in 1989, now in the capable hands of Catalyst Game Labs. The setting itself has advanced its own timeline one year for every year that has passed since publication, and currently in the year 2072, we've seen a complete reboot of The Matrix, the fall of the City of Chicago, and a dragon elected President of the UCAS (and subsequently assassinated... sort of.)

As characters get more powerful... dice pools get bigger.

In the early to mid-1990s, I ran and played almost nothing but Shadowrun in (and immediately post-) college. I played and GMed mostly 2nd edition, buying a few books for 3rd, and I'd moved on to other things (mostly back to D&D with the 3rd ed revolution) well before 4th edition came out. More recently, I've started to make a character for a local trial run of the “Shadowrun Missions” campaigns, going to re-familiarize ourselves with the first season, running SR3e, and then move on into newer campaigns using the gorgeous 4th edition Shadowrun books. Anyone else have experience with Shadowrun, tabletop, maybe only on the Super NES or Xbox 360? (Hell, the Sega Genesis game was awesome, and to date the most faithful re-creation.) Let me know in the comments.
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The Angry Lurker said...

Never played the game but painted many a miniature.

RedHeadRob said...

Played the 360 online game! I loved it! Good controls, and fun mechanics! Its a shame that it never took off.

PeaceLoveandSharpies said...

How do you find time for so much gaming? :O

DocStout said...

@PeaceLoveandSharpies - My knee-jerk flippant response might be to point out that I am, after all, the "Unemployed" Geek, but that wouldn't be accurate enough, as I did just as much gaming with a full-time job. I watch a lot less TV than most people, so most of my leisure time is spent reading, writing or gaming. Occasionally, I'll follow a TV show or go to a geeky movie, but that's rare.

Zombie Ad said...

Played this a few times in it's first incarnation. Great fun, if a little strange to get used to the 'familiar yet new' setting.

A Beer for the Shower said...

Wow, blast from the past! I had almost forgotten about this game. I played this over 10 years ago... I'd recognize that classic cover anywhere. I loved the combination of technology and magic.

Biff Tanner said...

yeah it was a good one.

Dave said...

Yeah you defo love your gaming. Good post.

Chris C. said...

Never played this, but it sounds really interesting.

Anonymous said...

neat blog mmmm

Terminally Ill said...


Alpha said...

Excellent summary

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