Genre mixing isn’t a new concept, just one that isn’t always popular or well conceived. When done well, it can define new genres, or even revitilize some that were lost. Combining elements of classic fantasy such as knightly orders, mysticism, and a struggle of good vs. evil with science fiction elements of space exploration, high technology, and galactic empires gave us Star Wars. Mixtures of science fiction of old with modern storytelling gave us the steampunk genre. When done poorly…well, you get a lot of B movie fodder that should never see the light of day.
At first glance, it’s hard to figure out which category Shadowrun should fit into. I mean, dungeon fantasy in the vein of Dungeons and Dragons combined with a cyberpunk setting seems…almost antithetical. Orcs with cyborg limbs? Trolls providing covering fire? Mages casually browsing the internet for information on spirits on a conspiracy website? Dragons doing a hostile takeover of a megacorporation? These images are…odd, to say the least.
And yet…Shadowrun is currently on its fifth edition. Clearly, they’re doing something right. Guess it’s about time to take a gander.
Jack in, ware up, and get ready, chummer: we’re stepping into the shadows.
Casting a ShadowShadowrun works off of an alternate history. Hovering around 1989, things start changing. Small bits at first. Different presidents and the like. However, two big shifts are of critical importance to the story.
The first is a law granting corporations the right to own land and extra-legal rights. In other words, corporations become their own, self-governing entities. This leads to the rise of megacorporations, massive corporations with capital to match. These corproations, by and large, become the ruling body of the world at large.
The second is just as important: magic returns. A few things come from this. Elves and dwarves start being born among the human population (which isn’t so bad) and humans start mutating into trolls and orcs (which is described as a highly painful process). Mages of various stripes begin cropping up again, spirits drift into the world, and dragons come back. That last bit is world shaking, as these are beings of immense power that have goals that range from corporate takeover to starting a late night talk show…
Both of these things reshape a lot of the world. In America, the Native Americans tap into magic for all its worth, declaring their independence after their land is handed over to megacorps. When war is declared, they ignite several volcanos to hammer their point home. Elves form their own nations, an international registry is formed, the world gets high tech with internet, cybernetics becomes common, the earth starts taking its anger out on humanity…you get the idea.
The end result is the world you start in. Most people are trying to scrape by, but the megacorps make doing so a living hell, the term ‘wageslave’ being common…and highly accurate. Some are born or pushed outside the system. See, there’s a worldwide registry, and people have a system identification number, or SIN. Those with are part of the system, SINners. Those outside, the SINless, have to fend for themselves. Some turn to crime, others to mercenary work.
And others start working the grey area. These people are known as shadowrunners. They pull odd jobs, ranging from corporate espionage, to wetwork, to…just helping a family find their lost daughter. Most are far from saints, but they do what they need to get by. Most games assume you’re a bit south of a law abiding citizen, but that you’re not a sociopathic murderer. Note I use the word “assume.” You get all types, after all.
The setting is…nuts. I mean, the weird thing is that it makes a lot of internal sense: magic comes back in a roughly modern setting and corporations are granted extraterritorality, so what happens? Megacorps and magic becoming widely adopted. Outside, the setting seems insane, but as you dig in, and internal logic starts for form. That said, the setting itself doesn’t really need to make sense from our perspective. The good thing is that it is internally consistent and goes out of its way to keep the themes and flavor no matter what.
One odd bit of fun is that the setting itself isn’t static. New editions don’t just represent new mechanics, but also tend to be an update of the setting. This can be fun since if you like the old mechanics, you can just continue to say you’re playing in a different setting than the updated mechanics. It also gives the feeling of an evolving world.
Run, Run, Fast as you Can…Making a shadowrun character is…kinda tricky. Various editions have had different ideas for how to go about it, ranging from point buy to priority systems. As a result, I’m going to talk about it in more broad strokes.
Generally, most shadowrunners are built on the concept of an area of expertise. Hackers? That’s a thing. Blasty mage? Also a thing. Front liner cybered-to-all-Hell-and-back, a.k.a. street samurai? You see where this is going. Shadowrun has several ‘archetypes’ which they give, characters statted out and ready to go with a general idea in mind. These range from mystically inclined gunslingers to cybernetic warriors with a code of conduct.
One thing of note: the sharpest divide is between those who will use augmentation, be it cybernetics, genetic crafting, bioware, or whatever, and those who will not. Usually, cybernetics are taken by characters who will not use magic (or who aren’t technomancers, more on that later). See, cybernetics eats your soul a bit. Each time you lose it, a bit of what you are slips away…and a each bit would make your magic a bit weaker.
Speaking of magic, there’s a couple things about it. First, every character chooses whether they want magic or another stat called Resonance. There are a few kinds of magic users. The first is the traditional magician. They can range from spirit shamans to blasty mages. The second major kind is adepts, which are physically inclined. Kinda mystic monks more than mages. Mystic adepts blur this line.
The other character type that’s a bit odd is the otaku/technomancer. They’re related…vaguely. Early editions of the game didn’t have the idea of wireless internet (hey, it was the 80s), so the concept of the wireless matrix evolved slowly. Otaku were originally folk that could hack the internet without need for a cyberdeck. They basically could tap in with just a datajack and raw will.
Technomancers are…stranger. They’re capable of hacking the wireless internet with their minds alone. No one is entirely sure how, mind, and the corps have a lot of curiosity…which is reason enough for most to run in the shadows. They have almost mystical abilities on the Matrix, able to summon sprites, channel a power called Resonance into fantastic abilities, and…well, hack the internet with sheer force of will. Like mages, their connection and powers start to fade as their Essence vanishes.
One stat of note is called edge. Edge is…kinda the luck stat of the game. Only players (and dragons…) possess it. It lets you do things like add dice, up your chances at success, or have a bit of fortune. In a pinch, you can also burn edge permenantly to do things like not die…which is useful.
Experience is called Karma, and…it’s a bit of a muddy concept. Early editions required you to do things like turn down money, donate it, or the like, for the sake of character advancement. Karma was literally good karma, and doing heartless actions caused bad karma. Newer editions got rid of this. Reputation became a more important idea, with notoriety being a far more problematic issue, and Karma merely being reduced for things like wetwork.
Characters in Shadowrun can be a diverse lot, but tend to fall into certain archetypes. Street Samurai are your warriors, deckers hack things, adepts hit things hard enough to kill them. Most editions have qualities, positive and negative, that are robust and help flesh things out.
Sixty Seconds of Pure Mayhem
A friend of mine once described Shadowrun as “Bad people doing bad things to other bad people for money.” While it’s certainly possible to explore other concepts, the game is ultimately about playing mercenary living in the grey areas of life.On average, the game plays something like this: you get a job offer from someone called ‘Mr. Johnson,’ who is anyone that hires Shadowrunners, and then you go on intelligence gathering, then planning. And then the run starts. Everything is done for cold, hard nuyen…usually. Sometimes you do things for favors, sometimes you do it for glory, and sometimes…you do things just because you want to help out the nice couple find their runaway daughter…who inevitably turns out to be a blood mage or an insect shaman or a cult leader. These things happen…
Generally, things don’t go according to plan. Think Firefly: things don’t go smooth. Maybe you get backstabbed by your employer. Maybe that info you got was out of date. Maybe Lone Star got swapped for Knight Errant and now your tactics need to change. Maybe you just fail that one disguise test. Half the fun of the game is dealing with things going sideways. Creative GMs really make the game that much more exciting.
And exciting is exactly what you want from this game. It’s tense: yeah, you’re a superhuman badass mercenary, but when you’re up against elites like Ares Firewatch or the infamous Renraku Red Samurai, you’re going to want an edge, probably more than one, and exploit it for all it’s worth. Every fight, every run, feels tense. And that, chummer, is why they pay you the big nuyen. It’s also what makes or breaks most sessions of the game. Shadowrun is…usually pretty unforgiving. Magic is risky, healing is difficult, and nothing can revive the dead. But the risk makes everything much more fun.
I should also say that every character type has their own variety of insane. One group I played with was a technomancer, a military sniper, a rigger, a martial artist, and a troll with an assault canon. Everyone had something to contribute, and everyone was a bit…nuts.
I mentioned a while back that dungeon fantasy and cyberpunk work well together. Well…at least not as strangely as you might initially think. See, ultimately, dungeon fantasy is about a bunch of adventurers going out, killing things, and getting treasure. Cyberpunk is usually about getting a job, killing people, and getting paid.
See, everything is ultimately motivated by advancement and money. And that’s the Shadowrun formula in a nutshell. It takes the notion of adventure and boils it down to what it really is: killing things for fun and profit. Yes, you can do good, and for your own sanity, your probably should, but…well, the whole “bad people doing bad things to other bad people for money” bit really does sum up your life. To quote Zengeif, “Just because you are bad guy, doesn’t mean your are bad guy.”
Light Up the Night
In a lot of ways, Shadowrun defined the cyberpunk tabletop scene along with the lesser known Cyberpunk tabletop game. What I will say is that Shadowrun thrives off of it’s flavor, which it has aplenty. Mechanics can end up a bit messy, and the edition shifts always bring detractors. Questions of game balance, metaplot…yeah, a lot of that is problematic at times.
In the end, though, nothing beats out the way Shadowrun styles itself. Whether you’re doing a grim black trenchcoat game or a balls-to-the-walls insane pink mohawk game, Shadowrun has something for you. It’s crazy, it’s bonkers, and it’s sometimes a trainwreck when it comes to mechanics. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
If you’re interested, there are a couple video games, particularly Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall, that are worth a look. Otherwise, 5e is a friendly edition to start on.
Well, omae, that’s all from me. Next time I’ll be delving back into World of Darkness again. Kinda hoping to get the new M:tAw…but not overly so.