GHR: Shadowrun

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

There’s hiding your light under a bushel and then there’s Shadowrun.

One piece of jargon you often see deployed by academics opining on video games is the concept of ludonarrative dissonance.  While the term can be unpacked in a number of different ways, it is usually taken to refer to a perceived tension between the story a game is purporting to tell and where the game mechanics are directing your attention. A good example of ludonarrative dissonance is the way that the cut-scenes in the Uncharted series are all about a lovable rogue pulling off heists while the playable sections are all about murdering dozens of brown people with automatic weaponry. An even better example from this history of RPGs would be how the core rulebook of Vampire the Masquerade wittered on about lost humanity and the beast within while the sourcebooks promoted a style of play that was much closer to that of a vaguely gothic supers game. Shadowrun may not be an example of ludonarrative dissonance, but it sort of feels as though it should be…

First published in 1989, Shadowrun foreshadows FASA’s later game Earthdawn in so far as it presents us with a setting heavily influenced by the tropes of fantasy RPGs rather than books and films. However, while Earthdawn can be viewed as an attempt to produce a setting that provides in-world justification for the tropes of D&D, Shadowrun is best described as an attempt to fuse D&D with the then more-or-less cutting edge science fiction of Cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk doubtless merits an essay of its own but what we now tend to view it as style of science fiction started out as a small literary scene with a number of adopted literary precursors including John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider from 1975 and James Tiptree Jr’s The Girl Who Was Plugged in from 1973.  While the original cyberpunks produced quite a broad range of works (since anthologised in a book entitled Mirror Shades), the term Cyberpunk soon came to be associated with a particular kind of story featuring a particular set of themes and a particular set of images most frequently associated with William Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer.

First published in 1989, Shadowrun took Gibson’s dystopian hyper-capitalist urban settings and filled them with wizards, elves, dwarves, goblins, trolls and all kinds of fantastical critters. These fantastical beasties were products of two near-cataclysmic events: A rise in the world’s ambient magic levels and a global pandemic that caused widespread genetic drift. Taken together, these two sets of events resulted in the emergence of not only spell casters and paranormal beasties and but also a range of human sub-species that came to be associated with the races described in fantasy literature. Thus, a typical Shadowrun group could include a hacker, a mercenary with cybernetic enhancements, a wizard, and meta-human variations on all of these archetypes.

Had FASA left it there then I suspect that Shadowrun would have remained little more than a geeky joke. Indeed, when asked to comment on the existence of Shadowrun, William Gibson said:

“When 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.”

William Gibson

In some ways, it would have been a lot easier for everyone had Shadowrun remained ‘Futuristic D&D’. This was not only the game’s elevator pitch but also the style of game that is most readily supported by the rules. Indeed, flip through the pages of Shadowrun’s five or so editions and what you will find is two things: Incredibly detailed character-creation and very involved combat mechanics.

Shadowrun was one of the first generation of games to remove randomisation from character creation. Rather than beginning the process of character creation by rolling your stats, your first decision was to determine your priorities. For example, if you wanted to play a spell-caster then you had to set magic as your first priority. If you wanted to play a meta-human then you had to set it as either your first or your second priority because meta-humans came with stuff like better stats and armoured skin. Other priorities included stats and skills but the priority associated with the game’s fighters (referred to as ‘Street Samurai’) was money in that more money meant better implants, better equipment, and bigger guns.

I always felt that this was quite an interesting approach to character, not least because it tended to produce quite well-balanced starting characters as well as prompting players to make interesting decisions about their characters from the get-go. Indeed, RPGs traditionally tend to have stats not only be the prime mover in character creation but also the things that are hardest to increase in play. In most games, the wise move would be to prioritise stats on the grounds that money and skills can be acquired at a later date but the cybernetic element to Shadowrun meant that your character could not only buy better skills in the form of chips, but also pay to make themselves stronger, faster, and smarter. So given that stats and skills can be reduced to ‘time + money’ and that money is nothing more than a way of acquiring better stats and skills, why not just start the game as an incompetent with deep pockets?

While the priorities system was more about choosing your starting character than anything else, it also served to funnel players into a chosen mode of engagement with the rules. Indeed, while you could just pick an archetype and start playing, people who played as Street Samurai would often choose to spend their starting cash manually meaning that character creation and development would be less about distributing points and more about these complex accounting systems where players would be looking to maximise the efficiency of their implants and minimise the resulting loss of humanity.

I said in my piece about Earthdawn that FASA’s replacement of universally-accessible skills with class-specific powers prefigured a lot of the changes made to D&D with the third edition. The same can be said about Shadowrun introducing a tactically-informed approach to character creation that would later become normal amongst D&D players.

Players were encouraged to believe that builds mattered in Shadowrun because the rules skewed so heavily towards the tactical. Indeed, I remember that the first edition rulebook contained exactly one adventure and that adventure was nothing more than an excuse for a firefight in a corner shop. In fact, Shadowrun was so combat-focused that it dealt with deckers – computer hackers who were the game’s only non-combat focused characters – by shuffling them into an entirely different mechanical sub-system that presented computer hacking as a form of tactical hex-crawling meaning that you could effectively sit down to play an RPG and wind up playing an even-more abstracted version of an RPG within the confines of the game.

Clearly, this is the game that FASA intended to make. By leaning into the more tactical aspects of the RPG experience they were not only ahead of their time, they also produced a game that was very popular, very successful, very well-supported and enjoyed a degree of popular visibility afforded to relatively few non-D&D games. If you are a non-gamer with geeky interests then chances are that you will have heard of Shadowrun, even if it’s only as an object of fun. Can the same be said of GURPS, Champions, or anything Powered by the Apocalypse?

In some ways, this degree of visibility was somewhat unfortunate as it meant that Shadowrun became known to people who were maybe not that interested in the kind of bean-counting hyper-tactical playing style that the game was built to facilitate. Search for online discussions of Shadowrun and you will find people rolling their eyes at the game and moaning about the system. That sense that Shadowrun was both a great idea and a terrible game is what I meant when I referenced the concept of ludonarrative dissonance. The problem is that while Shadowrun has always been primarily about accountancy and tactical puzzle-solving, the game’s setting was so rich and evocative that other types of gamers kept getting sucked in…

The cover to the first edition Shadowrun rulebook remains one of the most evocative pieces of RPG-related art ever produced. The power of that cover has two sources:

Firstly, the image serves the same function as old TV theme tunes in that it tells you everything you need to know about the game before you even sit down to start reading: There’s an elf with 80s hair hacking into a computer, there’s a sexy female wizard with a pump-action shotgun and there’s a native American firing twin uzis at a load of people taking shelter behind a futuristic-looking car. In the foreground, there’s a vent oozing smoke sat next to a load of old TVs dumped in an alleyway. That is Shadowrun.

Secondly, the artwork is the product of Larry Elmore, the man who handled the art-direction on TSR’s Dragonlance project and produced the covers to all of the millions of Dragonlance novels that sold throughout the mid-to-late 1980s. While a lot can be said about the kitsch stylings of 1980s fantasy art and how that style of art has not aged particularly well, Larry Elmore was one of the most successful practitioners of that style and getting him to do the cover to a cyberpunk fantasy game in an incredibly clever way of positioning a game in the collective cultural consciousness. Just look at the figure of the wizard, now think about the way that Elmore drew female warriors for the Dragonlance books. Without even opening the book you already know that Shadowrun is the same… but different.

While it would have been incredibly easy for FASA to present Shadowrun as nothing more than D&D with cybernetic implants, FASA actually decided to treat the science-fictional elements of the setting with absolute seriousness. In order to create a game-world in which it made sense for there to be cybernetically-enhanced trolls and elven computer hackers, FASA were forced to come up with this incredibly detailed future history that described how President Reagan’s 1980s curdled and twisted into President Dunkelzahn’s 2050s.

For example, one of the less widely recognised but undoubtedly brilliant ideas to feature in Shadowrun lore was the writers’ willingness to draw inspiration from the Native American Red Power movement of the 1960s and 70s. You see… when magic returned to the world of Shadowrun, the first people to notice it were the Native Americans and they rapidly weaponised their spiritual beliefs and used them to gain independence from the United States government. Once shattered, the American state was in no position to resist succession movements tied to meta-human interests. With Native Americans and Elves already pissing off to start their own countries, the remaining United States further split along the Mason-Dixie line leaving America a weird patchwork of high-tech trading enclaves, First Nation state-lets, magical post-human enclaves, and militarised racist fiefdoms.

As rich as this backdrop may have been, the core rulebook emphasised the centrality of Seattle to the Shadowrun experience, a decision that only seem more fascinating in hindsight. While people often talk about all the things that William Gibson and the cyberpunks got right, it is also interesting to remember some of the things that they got wrong. For me, the biggest failure of cyberpunk futurism was the inability to foresee the reversal of the white flight and the resulting gentrification of city centres. Indeed, as in the work of Gibson, Shadowrun’s Seattle was a derelict, gang-ridden, post-industrial warzone in which multinational corporations had built huge, self-contained, fortress-like enclaves referred to as arcologies. Clearly inspired by the suburban conformism of 1950s American corporate culture, these arcologies included office space, factories, housing, shopping malls, and cultural spaces. Once you took a corporate job, you were inside the machine and the machine provided for all of your needs in a safe environment meaning that you would literally have people safely attending operas and gallery openings mere metres away from a bunch of cyber-psychotics having open fire-fights over the last vial of crack. Aside from being an absolutely glorious representation of the class divide and neat piece of extrapolation from the suburban corporate lifestyle that was still in vogue in the 1980s, arcologies are almost historical artefacts in their own right. I often look at Golden Age science-fiction and laugh at the idea that humans might someday build a space empire but I also look at the science-fiction of the 1980s and laugh at the idea of corporations caring enough about their employees to give them somewhere nice to live.

For me, Shadowrun is a game with an extraordinarily rich setting that allows the creation of extraordinarily rich characters. Look at that Larry Elmore cover and read the opening short story by Robert N. Charrette and your fingers will be itching to roll up a character and go exploring. It’s just unfortunate that the game itself is only really interested in sending those characters into fire-fights.

In fairness to the designers of Shadowrun, they were following in the footsteps of games like R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk 2020, which took a universe full of cybernetically-enhanced pop idols and post-apocalyptic nomads and manacled them to a system that was little more than an ornate combat system bolted to a hex-crawling mini-game. This tension was also present in the source material as while the novels of Gibson may feel like crime novels with really exotic settings, writers like Walter Jon Williams had started using cyberpunk tropes to create more combat-focused adventure novels like Hardwired and this combined with the already-existing tendencies of Anglo-Saxon gaming culture meant that Shadowrun was always going to be a game of dull fire-fights waged against a glorious technicolour backdrop.

My perspective on Shadowrun may be unusual but I think it’s primarily down to the fact that while I did own the core book and played the game once or twice, I spent a long time reading the tie-in novels. In fact, on a whim I decided to take a run at Robert N. Charrette’s Secrets of Power trilogy and while the writing may not have aged particularly well, the books contain more ideas than most works of contemporary science-fiction. In fact, the opening novel Never Deal with a Dragon is so full of ideas that there’s barely any plot… just a series of beautifully evocative vignettes providing introductions to one of the greatest of all RPG settings.

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