I am a late convert to Shadowrun. Despite coming to the hobby in the 1990s, when Shadowrun was at its prime and the 1990s zeitgeist it rode so successfully was at its peak and I was a teenager and therefore at that time of life when you are most likely to find such things TOTES BADASS, it always seemed to be a bit goofy to me and my peers. The feeling was that Shadowrun went a step too far into the goofy with its inclusion of fantasy elements; if you wanted fantasy, D&D and other games served you perfectly well, if you wanted cyberpunk Cyberpunk 2020 was the gold standard (with GURPS Cyberpunk getting some kudos too, partly because GURPS was strong at the time and partly because of the ill-conceived Secret Service raid). If you wanted both fantasy and cyberpunk at once, that was… well… a little odd – and with its inclusion of elves and dwarves and orcs and dragons, Shadowrun seemed to the outside observer to incorporate fantasy in a kind of a cheap, lazy, Tolkien-imitating way which didn’t seem like it could mesh well with cyberpunk themes.
At some point after the early 1990s, Shadowrun dropped off my radar altogether. New editions came and went; FASA collapsed without me noticing, and a curious dance of licences and ownership ensued. 2007 saw the ill-conceived Shadowrun first-person shooter come out on the XBox 360 and flop abysmally – it managed to alienate fans of the game by excising almost all the lore and presenting a hollowed-out, oversimplified shell of the setting, whilst the decided lack of atmosphere or aesthetic depth combined with issues with the game itself ensured that a new audience would not be enthralled by it.
Then the Kickstarter happened for Shadowrun Returns, which I ended up backing for the sake of supporting new isometric-style tactical CRPGs. I ended up enjoying Shadowrun Returns a lot, liked the sequel campaign Dragonfall even more, and right now I am starting to play Shadowrun Hong Kong and loving it to bits. As a result of that, I’ve finally decided to give the tabletop RPG another look; it’s on its 5th Edition right now, and I also took a look at a copy of 2nd Edition to see if my dislike of the game back then was justified by more than setting snobbery.
One thing which the 2nd Editon rulebook offers that 5th Edition doesn’t is a more detailed breakdown of the timeline taking us from our present time to the Sixth World of a few decades hence. This timeline, rendered increasingly amusingly inaccurate as time went by in the real world, focuses a lot on the massed rebellion of Native Americans, who use the magic returning to the world to carve out nations for themselves and bring the USA to its knees.
This narrative has a bunch of problems with it, not least the intrinsic assumption that Native Americans are inherently magical and spiritual people who are way more in touch with things than pretty much everyone else. As I described in my review a while back, Deadlands also does this to an extent, but I actually found its handling of the matter a bit more palatable by the fact that everyone seems to benefit from the return of magic to an extent – Western occultists using rituals derived from Hoyle’s Book of Games and religious people with faith-derived powers and mad scientists get their cool shit almost immediately, and it becomes a factor almost immediately, whereas in Shadowrun everyone lags behind the Native Americans. Deadlands did not by any stretch of the imagination have a perfect record sheet when it came to dealing with these issues, but it at least didn’t succumb so wholeheartedly to magical Noble Savage oh-so-special placing of an entire group of people on a pedestal.
Perhaps the other thing that bugs me is how absurdly powerful the magic of the insurgents is in Shadowrun – but only in the backstory. In Deadlands it gives the independent Native American nations enough of an edge that they can protect their borders – but there’s the strong implication that the ongoing Cold War-style tension between the Union and the Confederacy has tied up so much of their forces that they haven’t been able to crack down on the breakaway nations, and if the Union or Confederate Armies were able to exert more force against the independent states they could well prevail. (Even a really good shaman in Deadlands can still get shot to bits.)
Conversely, in the Shadowrun backstory as presented in 2nd Edition, the Native American forces are overwhelmingly powerful to the point of commanding volcanoes, and it seems to me that they only allowed UCAS (the rump state left behind of the northern USA and Canada) and CAS (the new Confederacy) to continue existing at all because a dragon asked them nicely. Try to pitch a group of Shadowrun shamen against a substantially larger force of military goons with submachineguns, though, and they’ll have a hard time of it; magic might tilt the balance a little, but it isn’t such an overwhelming advantage that a Native American population depleted to the extent that it already has been by historical atrocities and subjected to a renewed wave of genocidal violence in the game’s future history should be able to take it and turn around and take over much of the country.
Mind you, I actually think the revived Confederacy in Shadowrun makes a bit more sense than the Confederacy that survived and abolished slavery despite that kind of abolishing the reason for its existence in Deadlands. For one thing, Southern pride which lives in furious, passionate denial of the role of slavery in the Civil War is a real thing today, and in a situation where the US is fragmenting already I could easily see that sort of sentiment getting turbo-charged. It’d have a foundation of historical revisionism and covert racism and wouldn’t be a political movement I would want to support, but I can believe it happening based on the axioms of the setting far better than I can buy Confederacy 1.0 giving up on slavery in utter defiance of the sentiments that drove its creation in the first place.
On top of that, one of the more fun details in the setting is that the Confederate American States’ most prominent homegrown corporation is Lone Star, one of the most prominent private police forces who lease their services to governments who hire them. Naturally, given that the very premise of Shadowrun is that the PCs are criminals undertaking black ops for various clients, they’re going to be fighting the police corporations far more often than they are going to be working with them. If you want to have cops that the PCs can shoot in the face without feeling bad about it, they may as well be slimy, authoritarian, police brutality-loving Confederacy revivalists who could credibly be portrayed, based on the tastes at your table, as anything ranging from corporate Klansmen to modern-day Pinkertons to the Shadowrun equivalent of Boss Hogg’s goons from The Dukes of Hazzard. (Mental note: if I ever run a Shadowrun campaign, include as a recurring bad guy a Southern-fried white-suited corporate orc called Boss Trogg.)
And that brings me to the silliest thing about the backstory’s extensive narration of the rise and fall of various national governments, however, isn’t the patronising Noble Savage stuff (that’s more sad and/or offensive than silly), or the system disparity (which is pretty silly), but the fact that the concept of national governments as such is actively irrelevant to the game. Since Shadowrun‘s cyberpunk side follows the William Gibson playbook straight down the line (to the point where reportedly Gibson was kind of annoyed that they didn’t acknowledge his work’s influence on what they were doing at all), it does of course take place in a setting where megacorporations are above the law, the work of government consists of choosing which corporate service provider to award which infrastructure contract to, and the few governments powerful enough to do anything more than that are caught up in geopolitical pissing contests that are only allowed to make a meaningful difference to the extent that the megacorporations, dragons, and other great powers of the setting choose to allow them to. The most powerful governments are typically those who have basically become departments of one or more corporation – like how Aztechnology rules Aztlan with an iron fist, or how the ruling council of Hong Kong enacts the will of the corporations with most power locally.
In short, the book ends up introducing you to the setting by spilling an awful, awful lot of words on stuff which is ultimately of less importance to PCs than who the major corporations are, who the major organised crime interests are, and so on. Given that when you are writing a sci-fi history of the near future you are going to end up producing something which is going to look more absurd and dated the more time passes, and the game itself involves a hugely counterfactual injection of fantasy tropes into an archetypal cyberpunk framework, I think the timeline presented is given way too much prominence; maybe some of the fine details of the transition between our familiar world and the Sixth World are handy for coming up with adventure ideas, but you don’t really need to understand any of that to grasp the basic premise of the game.
As far as the rest of the book goes, Shadowrun 2nd Edition offers a reasonably simple resolution mechanic – you add your appropriate bonuses from stats, skills, and circumstances to and roll an appropriate number of D6s, like in West End Games’ Ghostbusters and Star Wars games, but instead of adding all the numbers together you see how many dice hit or exceeded the target number, like in White Wolf games (who picked up the mechanic from here). Then, having introduced this nice simple idea, it offers you a bunch of different ways to complicate it. With less than 300 pages to cover character creation, combat, hacking of computer systems and vehicles, magic of multiple flavours, cyberwear, an equipment section, setting details, conversion notes for most 1st Edition supplements, and with a reasonable level of crunch applied to all of these ideas, the game really doesn’t have very much space to explain itself, and I found most of its sections kind of tricky to follow.
As far as playing this stuff goes, it isn’t so bad. Pick-up-and-play archetypes are offered, and the detailed character generation process involves picking what priority you set on species, magic, attributes, skills, and starting money (for cyberwear and gear) and spending the appropriate pools of points as you go. On top of that, it’s both incredibly suboptimal and enormously difficult to create a character who dips into all the rules areas – it’s far better to pick a role in your team, optimise for that, trust the other characters to pick up the slack, and only bother to familiarise yourself with the parts of your rules your character interacts with. If you aren’t a decker, you don’t need to know about how to do hacking; if you aren’t doing magic, you don’t really need to worry about the magic rules.
If you are refereeing the game, however, you don’t really have that luxury. You need to get a handle on how everything works not just to allow the PCs to do their thing, but also to construct adequate challenges to them in the first place. The brief explanations of different rules segments offered don’t quite, to my mind at least, give enough support to the referee to produce proper challenges without conducting extensive study of the rulebook – even if you just try to wing it, there aren’t clear guidelines offered as to how you are supposed to judge how tough an opponent is.
Fifth Edition weighs in at just under 500 pages, which would usually turn me off the core rulebook of a game but actually for the most part I find the extra 200 or so pages add stuff I thought was missing in 2nd Edition and trims back stuff that I thought was extraneous.
For one thing, much less ink is spilled on how the Sixth World got that way, and more detail is offered on how it actually is. For another, more or less everything has better explanations and examples associated with it. Best of all, though, is the way it provides much more extensive support for referees -pregenned stats for goons of all power levels, in-depth discussions about what sort of security measures are typically used on the mundane, Matrix, and magical fronts, pointers on security response team tactics, and handy rules of thumb for improvising dice pools for NPCs on the fly are all very welcome and make the prospect of running the game much less daunting. Players also benefit from being taken through the priority selection system much more carefully, to help you craft the sort of character you want.
Various additions to the setting – justified by the default time period moving forwards from the 2050s to the 2070s – include working in ideas which have achieved enough prominence since the game came out that it’d seem dated to pretend they don’t exist. Adding augmented reality aspects to the Matrix makes it easier for anyone to do non-technical data stuff without fussing about with datajacks, gives deckers a bit more to do in the material world, and adds a little pizzazz to the aesthetic by allowing the glowing neon tones of the Matrix to permeate the world for those able to perceive them. Wireless technology is brought into the picture but not quite as extensively as in 4th Edition – in particular, it’s noted that especially important systems are still wired in a traditional manner. On top of that, new supernatural elements are added to the setting in the form of the emergent practice of technomancy, whose practitioners are able to interface with the Matrix without equipment and can summon and control quasi-spirit entities from its depths.
The game still has the classic cyberpunk RPG problem of having action going on in the real world and the Matrix at the same time which ultimately leads to splitting the party on a techno-cosmological level (plus there’s the astral plane too), but it feels easier to take the baseline information here use it to justify keeping everyone involved, rather than having everyone talk amongst themselves whilst the decker does the hacking and having the decker sit in the corner playing games on their phone whilst everyone does everything else.
The weirdest thing about looking at a more recent edition of Shadowrun is that somehow, despite the inclusion of all the fantasy element, it weirdly seems more apt and less dated than the classic cyberpunk genre it draws on. The future is much weirder than we expected it to be back in the early 1990s, and in some respects having all these metahumans running around helps to underscore that. Moreover, the cyberpunk genre is in the awkward position where half of its premises have turned out to be disturbingly accurate, whilst the other half look increasingly laughable. Bringing in magic and myth basically sends the message that we are not even answering hard scientific plausibility’s calls any more, freeing Shadowrun up to present a vision of the Matrix that supports its themes, works in some fun ideas in a loose manner, and provides for a better game – and since the more absurd features of the cyberpunk conception of virtual reality may as well be magic anyway, it can pick them up and run with them in a way that a game trying to offer a more credible science fiction setting would have trouble with.
Shadowrun also casts a long shadow (pun most definitely intended, not even sorry). I would say it sits next to Vampire: the Masquerade (and mmmmmaybe Ars Magica) as one of those games you really need to take a look at if you want to understand the 1990s RPG publishing scene. Vampire drew on it heavily, of course, both in terms of its system and on the Punk half of its Gothic-Punk aesthetic, but there were also a swathe of games which attempted a similar genre mashup that seem to show at least some inspiration from Shadowrun. Tales of Gargentihr, for instance, added to its REAL FANTASY a style of magic that took massive aesthetic inspiration from cyberpunk; SLA Industries turns the dial in the other direction, mostly going for cyberpunk turned up to 11 but with aspects of the setting that could be seen as quasi-magical in the right light.
As well as tinkering with the fantasy-to-cyberpunk ratio, both games include very strongly defined assumed rationales for adventure that I think could well have been inspired by the way Shadowrun explicitly assumes that PCs are mercenary agents taking on jobs of a criminal flavour from various sources; Gargentihr errs towards the heroic, casting the PCs as members of a secret society of do-gooders who dedicate themselves to defending the innocent and righting wrongs, whilst SLA is biased more towards more grim stories where the PCs are troubleshooters for a megacorporation that may literally be more powerful than God.
Both flavours are fun, but Shadowrun has the advantage that its assumed mode of play – PCs are mercenaries taking on jobs on the wrong side of the law – simultaneously offers more support and at the same time more flexibility. The model of how a Shadowrun works has been refined by this point to a near-archetypal level, and the Fifth Edition book gives a lot of support for the GM in designing runs, giving you a much better picture of how they work than, say, the impression you get from Gargentihr of how a Clondis mission tends to go. At the same time, you can fine-tune the tone of the campaign to your table’s tastes simply by adjusting the tone of the jobs you go on. Want a more heroic game? Take on more jobs for the underdog and fight the power. Want to unleash hell and get a little dark? Take on some of the real greasy corporate jobs. Even better, because you aren’t tied to one boss for the duration of the campaign, if the table wants a bit of a palate-cleanser or a change of mood you can simply provide a mission to suit – and because the PCs are typically using an NPC fixer to find jobs for them, you can use the conversation with the fixer to provide a nice, natural moment for people to express their preferences.
In short, between the excellent videogames and the high quality of the current edition, I’m a new convert to Shadowrun. Thirteen-year-old me didn’t know shit: any game where you can play an elven master hacker called Ada Lovecraft and have that character concept be absolutely supported by the style and themes of the game is alright by me.