If I could be playing any role-playing game right this very second, it would have to be Shadowrun, chummer.
If you’ve never heard of Shadowrun, allow me to summarize. If William Gibson and J.R.R. Tolkien stayed up all night doing blow and riffing on each other’s work, they might have come up with Shadowrun. In this game, set originally in the far off future of 2050 (ha!), magic has returned to a cyberpunk future. We have the usual themes of megacorporations ruling the world, and of crushing poverty in the cracks, but add to that dwarves, elves, trolls, and and orcs, among many other new “goblinized” races that have sprung back into being with the return of dragons, shamanistic magic, and good old fashioned wizardry. Native Americans have taken back much of North America, and what we think of the U.S. has shrunk considerably, with one major seat of power being Seattle, which is home to several of the giant megacorporations.
In Shadowrun, the players take the role of runners, criminal operatives who eek out an existence outside the system. It’s a game of heists, of moral grays, and I don’t think any game captures the feeling of living in 2017 better for me. In Shadowrun, everything is coated in a layer of grime, and there’s a strong sense of living in a world that’s the product of vast, uncaring forces that could crush you out of existence at any moment. Still, there is a lingering sense of wonder, and there’s the possibility of hope, of scoring big, of making it out. Dreaming of a better life is never quite dead in Shadowrun, but it always feels just a little bit out of reach. Maybe one more run will lead to a better life, but it’s more likely that your corporate masters will betray you, shoot you, and leave you to bleed out in the gutter because you failed to make your DocWagon contract payment this past month.
A lot about the news lately has reminded me of the thrill of playing Shadowrun as a teenager with my best friends, Hans, Jason, and Jared. The four of us cut a swathe through the cyberpunk Seattle that was epic and exciting. I think nearly all of us tried our hand at game mastering stories. Later, in college, I played in a epic campaign not as a runner, but as a runner turned DocWagon operative charged with heading into gun battles to save dying runners who were paid up on their contracts. Of course, not all was on the level inside of DocWagon. Conspiracies were discovered, and everything turned to shit in that particularly exciting way that always seemed to happen in a good game of Shadowrun.
A lot of games of Shadowrun played out like this:
- Players are presented with a job by the GM, hired by some shady NPC or fixer
- Players research and meticulously plan the job like professional criminals
- Job goes south in about 30 seconds, but players manage to succeed at their goal
Somehow, this never grew old for me, and even though we knew the plan was never going to go off quite right, it was always exciting to see how things were going to turn. Shadowrun was a lesson for me in how the desires of the participants don’t always make for the best stories. Can you imagine how boring Shadowrun would have been if every single job went off without a single hitch? You might as well get a job as a salaryman, chummer. At that point, you’re just workin’ for the man.
Shadowrun was never a perfect game, mechanically speaking. I’ve played something like four or five different editions, and I’ve never felt any of them balanced out very well. Cybernetically-enhanced reflexes were nearly always a must. I’m not sure what the current version requires, but back in the day, if you wanted to roll giant fistfuls of dice, playing a street samurai with enhanced reflexes was a sure-fire way to do so.
Me, on the rare occasions that I got to play instead of GMing, I always liked playing shamen. I’m not a very spiritual person, but the mystical/spiritual world of shamanic magic in Shadowrun always appealed to me in some deep and profound way. Nature spirits were intriguing, especially urban ones. The novel series by Robert N. Charrette played heavily in my interest, I suspect. I am often tempted to re-read these books with an adult writer’s eye, but I worry they would disappoint me.
For me, Shadowrun captures all the excitement of living in today’s upside down world, with none of the risks. There are many a day where I would happily return to the 1990s and play Shadowrun instead of living in 2017 in the Trump presidency, watching as corporations grow in power with each passing day. We’re getting all the negative parts of Shadowrun, and none of the good. Sadly, it seems like a magical awakening isn’t in the cards for us here in the real world.
For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself. But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me. I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.