What I (Eventually) Learned From Shadowrun

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Note: This is our 3rd installment from our guest-writer J, who we are reposting before our sister-site Statbonus.com sinks into the briny deep of the internet. If you’d like to hear more from J in the future (or if you’d like to dispute him) leave a message in this article’s comment section.


There is no doubt Shadowrun is an acquired taste (Ewww! You got elves in my cyberpunk!) with clunky–some might even say broken–mechanics. And although Shadowrun 1st edition was not my first RPG it is still the standard by which I measure all others. Why Shadowrun? Because Shadowrun was arguably the most successful game to ever hit our group’s table. This is the game that took a variety of inexperienced GMs running large groups of players (I believe we had 9 at one point) some of whom didn’t know what an RPG was when they walked in the door. And it worked almost 100% of the time. For years I tried to replicate its success with other games, rarely to any avail. There was just something about Shadowrun that made it thrive where the others failed– even with the same GMs and players.

Turns out it was more than one something, it was a combination of somethings:

1. Interchangeable team members

First off, Shadowrun is a game about shadowrunners, and shadowrunners are freelance professional criminals– emphasis on the professional part. If your Fixer set you up with a Decker then you could trust that Decker to do his part. His reputation was on the line. If he crossed the team he crossed his Fixer too. And a shadowrunner is only as good as his reputation. Cross your Fixer and you’re blacklisted. You’ll never work the shadows again.

Does she look like she’s in a mood to put up with any of your shit?

Thus in our Shadowrun game there was never a ‘why should we trust this new guy’ problem, nor was there ever a discussion about ‘social contracts’ or ‘genre conventions’. The shadowrun team wasn’t an ‘all for one and one for all’ kind of group. If our Street Sam took a Panther Cannon round to the cerebral cortex we just hired another one for the next run. And if a run required somebody with wilderness survival skills but our Street Shaman wasn’t suited for it, there was no being forced along– because that was the job. Your character was never stuck in the middle of a dungeon or on a starship two weeks from the nearest moon. Your character was in Seattle (or her suburbs) so stepping into or out of a campaign was as easy as catching a cab. A player could, and often did, have an unsuitable character bow out of a shadowrun in favor of an another PC that was better fitted for that kind of work. This allowed new players to join the game easily, and if somebody missed a session we didn’t have to run their character on autopilot just because they were in the middle of a campaign. None of our other games ever had this level of flexibility.

2. Setting Presentation

Shadowrun 1st edition remains one of (if not the best) RPGs ever published when it comes to presenting an original setting. Shadowrun unmercifully immersed you into its world. The immersion was so deep that the careless might drown. Of course there were maps of the city, region and continent, a fictional future history lesson, and ample illustration.

And this was just the inside cover art.

But Shadowrun didn’t stop there. Shadowrun did something we’d never seen before. While most of our RPGs concentrated on highlighting Player Character examples, Shadowrun gave us an entire section full of Non-Player Characters— complete with game statistics, character images, and in-character quotes. Because unlike so many of our other games that spent the majority of their time on the edges of civilization, Shadowrun was an inherently urban and modern setting. Therefore dealing with people was more than just a ‘trip to town in between adventures‘ kind of thing.

The creators of Shadowrun wisely equipped us with the tools we needed to deal with that urban environment. The Contacts section showed us who was worth knowing, how they looked, and how they spoke. That last one really helped us grok an NPC’s character. So much so that most of our Gamemasters made it a condition of character creation that all PC submissions include at least three personal quotes. And in my experience those quotes did a better job of conveying a character than any set of 20 questions.

And while I’m rambling about quotes, I should mention the other set of quotations in the core rule book that helped immensely. At the start of every chapter there was a in-character quote, sometimes not even relevant to the chapter’s topic, that helped us get a feel for the setting.

“We’re in the minority; Runners that are not jacked, rigged, or wakened. We live by our guts’ wits.”

-Jazzman Harker, Shadowrunner

Another thing Shadowrun had that we’d never seen before was a glossary of the the street slang in 2050. Some people thought it silly, but for us it worked wondrously. It helped us distinguish between player speech and PC speech, and allowed us to cuss up a storm in game without drawing negative attention IRL from anyone that might overhear our gaming session.

To top it all off, Night On The Town (the short story introduction) took a scene from a shadowrun and plunged the reader into that world with example characters so alive that it was Dodger, Sally and Ghost-Who-Walks-Inside, not the sample character archetypes, that we modeled our own characters after.

Bonus points for matching the cover art to the introductory fiction.

3. Inherent Structure

There is a reason old school dungeon crawling has stood the test of time. The inherent structure of a dungeon crawl informs the players of the situation in a way that’s easy to grasp. Even if the party enters a musty chamber at the bottom of some long-forgotten chthonian temple, to gaze upon the vulgar presence of an ancient abomination, and they decide not to draw their swords but rather to give an impassioned speech imploring the eldritch horror to switch long distance carriers, the players don’t feel lost. They know the standard practice is to explore the enclosure, kill the creature, and loot the chamber. They know what is ‘normal’, so when they do something that isn’t ‘normal’, if they deviate from that pattern, it’s OK. They have a star to navigate by.

Shadowrun had such an inherent structure, whereas our other games sometimes reached a dead end. When the participants didn’t know how to proceed because the objectives were created by the GM (and our GM’s weren’t that good) Shadowrun persisted, staggering on towards an ever higher bodycount. Sure, we had pauses. Times when the table didn’t know HOW to do something or WHERE to do something, but we never lacked for WHAT to do.

Take a moment to update your Facebook status, I guess.

By now even the most patient reader (listen to me talk like someone other than my editor is reading this!) must be thinking, “Thanks for going all fanboy on us, but was there a point to this rambling? What’s this got to do with my game?” Fair enough. Here’s the takeaway:

1. Rigid adherence to old school practices, such as one player running one character through an entire campaign, can get in the way of your game’s success. Don’t let them. If you can find a way to make your game work by breaking those conventions, go for it! For example, if you’re running a campaign around a division of police officers, don’t be afraid to allow a player to use a “guest star” PC for one of the cases. There are plenty of possibilities. Maybe she’s the lead investigator on the case from INTERPOL. Maybe she’s an FBI agent. Or maybe this case is being handed to a joint task-force. Maybe she’s not law enforcement at all, maybe she’s with the IRS, a bounty hunter, or even a psychic!

2. Give your players a place to stand. By that I mean you need to give them enough information so they have a feel for your setting. The more exotic your setting, the more information you must convey. Also, don’t fall into the trap of believing your setting is self explanatory. Take Star Wars for instance. Instantly recognizable, but are you referring to the original Star Wars movie, the original trilogy, the expanded universe? Or is this the Star Wars of the Mandolin Wars, or the Star Wars where Yoda took on Anakin as an apprentice? You don’t want your players to get blindsided (and I speak from experience here) because they missed that subtle reference you put in the description. Players are a paranoid lot on the best of days. Pull the carpet out from under them and you risk your game grinding to a halt as they become ultra risk averse.

3. Game structure is important and almost nobody sees it or teaches it. It’s difficult to believe, but my rural public school education didn’t include RPG adventure design, nor did we have any grizzled old D&D players from the early 70’s to enlighten us. We had to find our own way, with references that didn’t mention the importance of structure. And that, in hindsight, explains so many of our table’s failures.

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Pictured: Grizzled Shadowrun players…

Look at your setting closely. If your campaign doesn’t have an inherent structure, then you must make doubly sure every adventure you bring to the table has an obvious objective. Without an obvious objective (and a means to pursue it) your players are liable to create their own- this is always bad. Because it doesn’t matter if their PC’s new objective is to spend more time with their dear old grandmother, start a new hobby, or just waste time at the local bar, your game’s progress has hit a wall. Even worse, this behavior can become infectious and ruin other campaigns. Let me give you a real life example:

We had a guy in the group that was kinda into Wild West history and wanted to run a Wild West campaign. Of course we’re always looking for an excuse to pawn off the GM’s work on some sucker, so we handed the reins to the newbie to run a rules-lite romp through the Wild West. The game started off OK, but an unfortunate pattern emerged. Historical figures began to drop like flies. One of the players in particular made it her goal to rack up a body count. This girl didn’t just burn down the tavern– entire settlement were left ablaze in her wake. This being a historical campaign with a rookie GM, it wasn’t long before the campaign ran out of named NPCs and the whole thing sputtered to a halt.

Later we started a Star Wars campaign which quickly spiraled out of control, leading to some of the players quitting. The game died an early death after one of the squadrons of PC rebel pilots SHOT DOWN WEDGE ANTILLES.

In absence of an inherent structure or proper GM control during the Wild West sandbox, the players created their own structure: find the famous person and kill them. This became so well entrenched in the group’s play style that it became the default. So when we started the Star Wars game some of the players ignored the inherent structure… in favor of finding the famous person and killing them.

Bear in mind that the players doing this were not trying to be jerks. They thought it was what they were supposed to be doing.

Wait, you mean we’re supposed to NOT kill them?


Featured image and article images are property of Shadowrun and Shadowrun 1st Edition.

Check back Wednesday for Part 4 of J’s featured RPG articles.

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