Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday 28 July 2019

1989: Shadowrun

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Shadowrun: Where Man Meets Magic is thirty years old. Released in 1989 by FASA Corporation—a publisher then best known for its roleplaying games based on licensed properties such as Star Trek: The Role Playing Game and The Doctor Who Role Playing Game—it can be seen as the first great mélange roleplaying game, the first great roleplaying to successfully combine genres in one setting (much like Pinnacle Entertainment Group did with the Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game did almost a decade later with the Wild West and horror). This was a mix of the fantasy with the Science Fiction, specifically the Cyberpunk subgenre. The Cyberpunk genre had been popular ever since the publication of William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer in 1984 and the roleplaying hobby had been looking for a cyberpunk roleplaying game ever since. The publication of Cyberpunk 2013 by R. Talsorian Games in 1988 had fulfilled that demand and certainly throughout the early nineties, following the release of Cyberpunk in 1990, would continue to do so with a series of supplements. Cyberpunk 2013 and Cyberpunk would continue a straightforward exploration of a future which combined lowlife and high tech, the latter often put to uses their inventors or intellect property owners never imagined by those forced to live on the streets by radical breakdown or changes in society. The antagonists armed themselves, modified themselves with cyberware, replacing and enhancing limbs and senses, even directly linking themselves into Cyberspace, a planet-wide computer network, a virtual space where they could continue the same protests and fights against the encroaching power of the corporations as they did in the real world or ‘meatspace’. Shadowrun would do the same, but the antagonists did not just have access to cyberware and cyberspace, they had access to magic, for theirs was a world inhabited by Dwarves, Elves, Orks, and Trolls—and more—as well as Humans, and they faced not just the corporations, but Dragons too! In time, the Dragons grew to be powerful, personifying corporations and becoming media personalities, even running for President. It would be glib to describe Shadowrun as Dungeons & Dragons meets Cyberpunk, but it is a start and it might be a selling point, though more importantly, it would grow to become something much more. 

The setting for Shadowrun—the Sixth Age—is specifically tied to one date, December 24th, 2011. This marked the end of the five thousand year Mayan calendar and the beginning of the next. The change would see the appearance of dragons and the rise in magic until it would be recognised as a science. Then with U.G.E., or ‘Unexplained Genetic Expression’, mutant and changeling children began to be born, children who eventually recognised as Elves, and this would be followed by ‘Goblinisation’, in which a tenth of the population mutated into hideous forms, forms which would become known as Orks and Trolls, their appearance triggering global race riots. Together with the Dwarves, these new races or members of Metahumanity became known as the Awakened. Politically, the United States would be weakened as corporations were recognised as extraterritorial and Native Americans’ demand for recognition turned into an armed struggle that would eventually force Canada, Mexico, and the United States to recognise the Native American Nations under the terms of the Treaty of Denver. Worse was to follow with the data Crash of ‘29 as a killer virus destroyed data and systems worldwide, toppling governments and threatening to destroy the USA. In response, operatives co-opted by the US government and using advanced cybertechnology entered cyberspace and fought the virus. Not all survived, but several of those who did took that technology to market, ultimately leading to personal cyberdecks which allowed individuals to easily access cyberspace and travel anywhere from the comfort of their own homes. In the wake of the Crash of ‘29, what remained of the United States merged with Canada to form the United Canadian and American States in order to save both their economies and resources. It was followed by the secession of the Confederated American States four years later.

This is the set-up for Shadowrun, the Sixth World in 2050. The roleplaying game itself would be set in the Seattle metroplex, a UCAS enclave isolated on the West Coast by several members of the Native American Nations, including Tir Tairngire, the major Elven realm on the North American continent. Its rain-soaked skyline is still dominated by the Space Needle, joined now by the Aztechnology Pyramid and the Renraku Arcology, but away from the bright corporate lights, the city is surrounded by the Barrens, an urban slum-like wilderness that the city mayor never mentions—unless he has too. The likelihood is that the player characters make their home in the Barrens, surviving as best they can, undertaking runs in the shadows on behalf of corporate Mister Johnsons. Such runs are likely on rivals of Mister Johnson’s employer, easily deniable attempts to extract or destroy data or technology, extract persons, and so on. As shadowrunners they will face corporate security, corporate mages, and corporate deckers all attempting to stop their intrusion with the legal right to use lethal force, so they had better bring protection!

In Shadowrun, the players roleplay these Shadowrunners. In terms of characters, players have a wide choice of Races, members of Metahumanity—Dwarves, Elves, Orks, and Trolls—as well as Humans. They have an even wider choice when it comes to what it is their characters do. Primarily, these are presented as Archetypes, each with a full colour illustration and ready to play. The sixteen given include Elven Decker, Former Wage Mage, Ork Mercenary, Rigger, Rocker, Shaman, Street Mage, Street Samurai, Street Shaman, and Tribesman, all of which have been iconic roles within the roleplaying game. There are omissions from the list of archetypes, there being no Dwarves or Trolls, so archetypes like the Dwarven Rigger or Troll Street Samurai would have to wait for future supplements and editions of the roleplaying game. Each of the sixteen comes with background and commentary, followed by attributes, skills, contacts, and gear as well as cyberware and spells, depending upon the Archetype.

Characters are defined by nine attributes, divided into three groups, Physical, Mental, and Special Attributes. The Physical are Body, Quickness, and Strength; the Mental are Charisma, Intelligence, and Willpower; and the Special are Essence, Magic, and Reaction. Of these, Essence is a measure of a character’s nervous system and spirit, Magic is a measure of a character’s magical energy, and Reaction measures how quickly and how often a character can act under pressure. Notably, both Essence and Magic are depleted by invasive cyberware, so spellcasting characters tend not to augment themselves with such technology. Attributes range between one and six for Humans, but can be much higher for Metahumans, Trolls for example, can have a Body as high as eleven! Skills do not have such limits and notably include magical skills such as Conjuring for the calling and banishing of spirit powers and Sorcery for the casting of spells, and various aspects of Etiquette, such as Etiquette (Street), Etiquette (Media), and Etiquette (Corporate), for knowledge of and how to deal with particular subcultures. Skills can also have concentrations, like Firearms (Pistols) or Interrogation (Verbal), which improves the rating of the concentration, but reduces the rating of the core skill. So the character with Firearms (Pistols) 3 actually has a rating of 4 with pistols, but 2 with other firearms.

The primary means of creating a character in Shadowrun is to choose an archetype and get playing. There are guidelines for modifying the Archetypes, but they more showcase how fiddly it is modify an Archetype rather than build one from scratch or simply grab one and start playing. Part of the issue here is the priorities inherent to character generation. Creating a character begins with a player actually setting priorities in terms of what he wants to play out of Attributes, Magic, Race, Skills, and Tech. The stronger the priority, the more it plays a role in the character and for Attributes, Skills, and Techs, how many points a player has to assign in those areas or money his character has to spend. Importantly, if a player wants to play a Metahuman character then he places his top priority in Race, followed by the next priority in Magic if he wants his character to cast magic, whereas a spellcasting Human would need to have to make Magic his top priority. So a Dwarf Shaman would have the priorities Race-4, Magic-3, Attributes-2, Skills-1, and Tech-0; a Human Mage would have Magic-4, Attributes-3, Skills-2, Tech-1, and Race-0; and an Ork Rigger would have Race-4, Tech-3, Attributes-2, Skills-1, and Magic-0. Essentially, the priorities are a nice balancing mechanism, but they do force particular aspects of a character to be emphasised, whether that is Magic and Race over Attributes, Skills, and Tech or vice versa. Humans have the most options though, since they can place priorities in Attributes, Skills, and Tech rather than Race or Magic. On the downside, it means that it is very difficult to create a character who is good—or at least not bad—at everything, as all characters are specialists in one way or another.

Overall Archetype creation from scratch is not easy. Setting the Priorities is perhaps the easiest part, because after that a player needs to delve deeper into each Priority. Assigning Attribute and Skill points is straightforward enough, but deciding upon spells if a Magic using character, what Contacts to buy, and what gear to buy is not. Especially if in terms of gear, a character has a lot of cyberware or equipment, for example a Decker with his cyberdeck and its programs or a Rigger and his drones. This all takes time and really, the first edition of Shadowrun hints at the possibilities of character generation rather than fully supporting it. To fair, other roleplaying games had previously focused on playing archetypes rather than players creating characters, most notably Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game from West End Games, but Shadowrun does not adhere to the Archetype only option, instead hinting at the possibilities of character generation without fully supporting them, such as saying what the step-by-step process is for each character type.

The sample character is a Troll Shaman. His player has given him the Priorities Race-4, Magic-3, Attributes-2, Skills-1, and Tech-0. This means that he is a spellcasting Metahuman with little tech—certainly no cyberware—and little NuYen or money. The lower priority on Attributes is balanced by the modifiers for his being a Troll, but he is incredibly brainy for a Troll, whilst also being nowhere near as strong as the average Troll.

Troll Shaman
Body 5 Quickness 2 Strength 4
Charisma 4 Intelligence 4 Willpower 4
Essence 6 Magic 6 Reaction 3

Armed Combat 2, Conjuring 5, Etiquette (Street) 2, Etiquette (Tribal) 2, Negotiation 2, Sorcery 5, Magical Theory 2

Analyse Truth 3, Heal Moderate Wounds 4, Sleep 3

Dice Pools
Astral 15 Defence 2 Dodge 2 Hacking 0 Magic 5

Knife, Medicine Lodge Materials

Snake Totem; +1 reach for Armed/Unarmed Combat, Thermal Eyes, Dermal Armour (1); Allergic to Sunlight, Mild reaction

Mechanically, Shadowrun begins simply enough. It is a dice pool system, using six-sided dice. To succeed at a Success Test, a player rolls a number of dice equal to the appropriate attribute or skill for his character. Rolls of one always mean that a Success Test Fails, with rolls of all ones mean that the character has made a disastrous mistake. Conversely, rolls of six explode, letting a player roll again and add the result to the six. A simple Success Test would have a Target Number of two, a Routine would have three, an Average would have four, and so on. If a character rolls one or two success, then he has barely succeeded, three or four and he has achieved a noteworthy success, and so on.

Yet beyond these base mechanics, Shadowrun adds layers complexity with its different subsystems. Combat is not particularly complex, with players rolling successes to hit after adjusting for various targeting modifiers and then applying damage, the amount being determined by the means of attack’s damage code. So a light pistol has a damage code of 3M1. This means that it would inflict a wound with Power Level of 3 (against which the target makes a Resistance Test to withstand the damage), of Moderate Wound Category, and for each Success rolled above the first, would raise the Wound Category by one. Damage can be reduced in the same way, a player rolling his character’s Body Attribute and adding to the number of Successes to reduce the Wound Category as much as possible. Combat tends to be quite dynamic with characters being able to rely on their Dodge and Defence Pools—which renew each round—to get them out of trouble. That said, once vehicles come into play, a likelihood if a Rigger is being played, combat becomes more complex.

Similarly, Magic is not too complex. At its core, it is broken into two traditions, Shamanic and Hermetic. There is good advice on playing, a Shaman each having a  Totem, like Eagle or Wolf, which the Shaman’s player will roleplay his character acting like lest he lose access to his magic, whilst the Hermetic Mage is much more like a traditional magic-user. The two primary skills for magic are Sorcery, which allows for the casting of spells of all sorts, whilst Conjuring covers the summoning of spirits. The danger in any spellcasting is that it is fatiguing. A spellcaster can cast as many spells as often as he likes, but the more powerful a spell, the more likely it will leave him fatigued, even inflicting physical damage upon himself if he fails to resist the draining effects of the spell. Again, Shaman and Mages have their own dice pool to draw from, this time the Magic pool to support their actions, as well as a similar for use on the Astral Plane. The magic chapter includes a good grimoire of spells to choose from, though at the beginning of play a Shaman or Mage is unlikely to know more than two or three (though exactly how many is not actually that easy to determine).

The last of the subsystems in Shadowrun concerns the Matrix or the Grid. Here Deckers plug straight into cyberspace using cyberdecks and explore the virtual world, making hacking runs on corporate mainframes and datastores, dodging or neutralising the Intrusion Countermeasures or IC mounted by the corporations, including right up to the Black IC that will actually target and damage the intruding Decker’s own body. Decker characters needed to be equipped with cyberdecks and programs, the Game Master needs to create a network of nodes for the Decker to penetrate and explore, quite literally a separate play space designed for one character. Now whilst the actions of the Decker take place in the same timeframe as those of other characters, a combat turn the Matrix being equal to one in the real world, the character is nevertheless taking up a lot of game play, but then it was ever thus for such characters in Cyberpunk roleplaying games.

In terms of support for both characters and setting, Shadowrun provides a lengthy list of equipment, including a lot of guns and cyberware, plus a lot of lifestyle options such as music and simsense. The coverage of lifestyles continues with the advice for the Game Master, from the Streets to Luxury—something perhaps for the Shadowrunners to aspire to. She also receives some advice on how to handle various aspects of the rules, but really little in the way of advice for creating the type of adventures that Shadowrun is designed for. It does not help that the scenario included in the book, ‘First Run’, has nothing whatsoever to do with making the characters’ first run in the shadows…

The setting for Shadowrun is further supported with lengthy lists of contacts and NPCs for the player characters to run into, as well as a good bestiary of critters. The region around the Seattle Metroplex is also detailed as well what it is like inside it. Rounding out the book is ‘First Run’, the aforementioned scenario, which is more of an extended encounter in which the characters have their late night visit to a Stuffer Shack supermarket interrupted by a robbery.

Physically, the first edition of Shadowrun was an impressive looking book for 1989. The colour plates—for both the character Archetypes and the critters—are vibrant and eye catching, but a lot of the black and white artwork is exciting and dynamic too, capturing the exciting, if often grim nature of life as a shadowrunner in 2050. In general, the writing is also good, much of it full of flavour and detail which serves to build the world of the Sixth Age and engage the reader, whether it is in-game slang or the names of corporations and particular objects, their makes and models. The rules are also supported with decent examples of play, in many cases helping the Game Master to learn the not always easy mechanics for any one situation. Yet there is still the problem that the advice on what the player characters are meant to be doing is sorely lacking…

Reception of Shadowrun was mostly positive. Writing in Challenge #41 (1989), Julia Martin began an extensive review with “When I heard that FASA was working on a cyberpunk genre roleplaying game incorporating magic, I, “Oh no, this is going to be sickeningly cute or too strange to be believed.” But now that Shadowrun is out, I must admit that they’ve convinced me. The background for the game develops a plausible reason for the existence of magic in cybertech times.” before concluding that, “Shadowrun is a truly hot game.” and that “I highly recommend it to anyone looking for something really new.” Stephan Wieck gave Shadowrun an equally lengthy review in White Wolf Magazine #17 (August/September, 1989), his conclusion being a positive, though qualified one, that, “The largest problem with the game is that it has an ambivalent theme. The gamemaster is handed a setting filled with proud Indians, corrupt corporations, and nasty critters. But, after being handed all of this information, you’re left saying “Now what? What do I have the characters do?”. Plus, the fiction with the book is darkly humorous, whereas the artistry and background of the game lend towards a more serious, action drama theme. These problems won’t hinder an experienced gamemaster who can choose his own direction, but others could have a rough time getting their campaign off the ground. The introductory combat encounter helps a bit, but more information and ideas on running a campaign in Shadowrun should have been included in the gamemaster’s section of the book. For this reason, I would recommend Shadowrun to experienced or older gamers. To these players I give it a very high recommendation.” In Space Gamer Vol. II No. 2 (October/November 1989). Lester W Smith began his review by saying, “I have to admit that when I first heard that FASA was coming out with Shadowrun, a roleplaying game that combined cyberpunk and fantasy, I groaned out loud. The thought of elves, orks (FASA’s spelling most of the time), trolls, and sorcerers rubbing elbows with cyber hackers, corporate samurai, and biker gangs seemed just too silly to believe. But when FASA’s sixteen-page promotional booklet became available, I gave it a read and I was immediately glad that I did. In the booklet, FASA managed to make the promise more than just plausible; they made it exciting.” He concluded that, “In all Shadowrun is a very visual game system. That is, it encourages imagery and role-playing, without bogging down in overly dry rules.”

In comparison, William Gibson, when asked about cyberpunk and roleplaying games in The Peak issue 7, vol 100 (June 27th, 2007) acknowledged the appropriation, but was otherwise dismissive, saying, “[W]hen I see things like ShadowRun, the only negative thing I feel about it is that initial extreme revulsion at seeing my literary DNA mixed with elves. Somewhere somebody’s sitting and saying ‘I’ve got it! We’re gonna do William Gibson and Tolkien!’ Over my dead body! But I don’t have to bear any aesthetic responsibility for it. I’ve never earned a nickel, but I wouldn’t sue them. It’s a fair cop. I’m sure there are people who could sue me, if they were so inclined, for messing with their stuff. So it’s just kind of amusing.”

Yet, what is apparent from the reviews—two of them by industry professionals—is that initial reaction was one of disbelief, even incredulity. The idea that fantasy could work with cyberpunk seemed implausible, even cheezy. Upon seeing Shadowrun though, they were won over by the background which deftly explained how the two radically different genres could work together. This first response highlighted the strength of Shadowrun—its background, its mix of magic and machine, and more importantly how they work together in the Sixth Age. That background has advanced as many years, from 2050 to 2081, as Shadowrun has been in print. Now published by Catalyst Game Labs, it is currently in its fifth edition and about to receive its sixth, and in that time, the roleplaying game has received almost a hundred supplements, as well as being developed across almost fifty novels and a handful of computer games. The setting has gone through numerous storylines, including the election and subsequent assassination of Dunkelzahn, a Great Western Dragon as President of UCAS, the return of Hally’s Comet, a civil war between the dragons, and more. What is clear from the continuing storyline and the range of media across which Shadowrun can be found is the skill of its developers in not just making the Sixth World a living place for its fans and their characters to game in—especially in the Shadowrun Missions series, but also making it a franchise, an intellectual property that exists beyond its core format as a roleplaying game. Thus someone could be a fan of the setting without having played the roleplaying game at all, but instead read a novel or played a computer game. The likelihood of course is that fans of Shadowrun will read the novels and play the computer games too, but it broadened the appeal of the setting. This is not surprising of course, FASA Corporation, Fantasy Productions, and Catalyst Game Labs have all experience doing exactly the same with the BattleTech franchise.

The first edition of Shadowrun packs a lot of flavour and feel in depicting the Sixth World. From the outset it presents cool Archetypes that you want to play—even if you cannot really quite create your own from guidelines given with any ease—and paints a world divided by the haves and havenots, the bright neon lights of the former casting deep shadows on the latter, enabling them to operate with hopefully stealth or subtlety against the former. In comparison to later editions of Shadowrun, in the first there is a conciseness to the rules and the background, even if the rules are not always quite as robust as they could be. Above all, Shadowrun delivers its promise of magic and machine, of the arcane and the apparatus, of conjury and computing, and makes them work in a setting that is deftly built and explains why they do. It also explains why the Sixth World has been visited again and again, and expanded upon in multiple editions of the roleplaying game, in numerous supplements, novels, and computer games, to create a setting rich in detail and depth, and ultimately why it has remained a fan favourite.

1 comment:

  1. I think it was 1990 when my mate Andy Stanley mentioned he had picked up a new RPG book for us to try. We were in our 4th year of senior school.
    we sat down and worked out who would be playing what. It was decided that I was be the "decker" as this was the trickiest character.
    That evening we sat down and made up my character. A young whipper snapper called "Death Bunny".
    He was a street kid who had been surviving on his whits and instinct since his mum and dad were killed in a hit. his dad, a decker, had stumbled onto something. the kid his in the cupboard where his dad stashed his running gear. when the smoke had cleared the kid grabbed his dads deck, armoured jacket and colt manhunter and got the hell out.
    Death bunny is now a NPC in the games I run for my lad and his mates. helping them out with decking or offering the odd run or two.