Cultural Backdrop

Storm-wise, I seem to have avoided the worse. One or two flickers of power, but nothing compared to the catastrophic damage that seems to have befallen much of the Northern Suburbs. My sympathies to them, and to Neil who no doubt isn’t getting a day off today.

Also, kudos to Delia for a rockin’ party last night. Happy Birthday!

On the way home on Saturday, Neil asked a question to fill in the time, which was what I prefer to read/follow: Fantasy or Sci-Fi. I answered Sci-Fi, if only because the Matthew Reilly stuff I read is set with a slight futuristic bent, even if it’s only five years from now. Also, the only fantasy writers I read are David Gemmell and R.A. Salvatore. It occurred to me though that I really hadn’t read much in High Fantasy in the last decade and only slightly more that could be considered Space Opera. I’m not counting comics for the purpose of this analysis.

Neil then asked what, of the two, I prefer to have as a RPG setting and probably wasn’t ready for the somewhat lengthy analysis that eventuated. It’s something that’s been riding my brain since and I’m hoping that writing about it might concrete some things.

Fantasy is far easier on the role player from two points: The first is, generally fantasy doesn’t stray to far from the cultural definition of history. Describe a castle in the distance and it’s easy enough to pictures something you’ve seen in pictures, books, movies or in actual experience. Likewise, describing a small farming village draws some similarities across the board of players’ minds: Clay hut, thatch roof, muddy grounds, muddier denizens.

Science-Fiction – unless its set in an established universe like Star Wars – becomes a challenge though. Mainly because the future hasn’t yet been invented or defined yet. I do wonder whether it would have been simpler to describe back in the day when the barometer for when you’d arrived in the future was jet packs and moon-houses. Nowadays though, the directions in which the future progresses are diverse and infinite.

For example, I’m writing on a wireless keyboard, on my phone, which will then post this ramble to the internet for anyone else with the technology to read across the world. Two years ago, this was new to the general public.

But it’s less about what direction technology will take us, and, conversely, what direciton we’ll develop technology. It’s about the little things.

If I want to tell somebody something funny back in days of yore, it took conversation, description, storytelling. Nowadays I find it on YouTube, send a link and talk about it afterward via MSN, phone or, if I’m being prehistoric, in person. The difference being that one is simple for a GM to describe going around group of players; the other, not so.

And that’s what it comes back to: Setting. What’s going on in the background? As much as Science-Fiction is about writing about the present, there still needs to be descriptors that indicate you’re in the world of tomorrow. Comics, TV and movies obviously have this over the novel format as so much words can lose a reader whereas somebody ordering a coffee in the background of a scene and having it materialise out of nowhere through magical science machines sells the audience about where they are and what this is.

People who’ve known me have heard me lament about the waste of setting and system that Shadowrun is. The cyberpunk/magical future is an open playground for a variety of stories and while most centre around the secret industrial warfare between rival corporations or entities of vast and terrifying power, there is little time and focus spent on portraying the culture of Seattle in 2060 or so. Mainly because describing something a simple as a phone that is implanted into your skull or the steel and glass webbing of buildings that shine like crystalline hives can evoke many and varied images from one player to another. Which is fine for the big backdrops but less so when describing what a computer terminal looks like. Keeping players on message with your descriptions often sees the cultural backdrop abandoned in favour of moving the players along a story. Something I consider a loss.

Which is probably why I prefer to have pictures or videos on YouTube I can show instead.

Not sure I’ve finished this yet. More to follow…



  1. I don’t have a problem with Shadowrun, but then, I’ve seen/read so much cyberpunk type stuff that I can quite easily picture it.

    Also, as of 4th edition, computer terminals are mostly in peoples’ heads too. And the year is 2071. You lose the hacker sitting at his terminal, but you gain the hacker sitting in a car, or a pub, or walking down the street, hacking into systems wirelessly.

    I do get your point though. The necessity of the game type prevents you from having too much background. If you were to include your coffee example when giving players a description of a location, there’s a good chance they’d fixate on it, as you wouldn’t have mentioned it if it wasn’t important.

    • I own 4th Ed and found it to be far superior in conveying the type of future that Cyberpunk would thrive in. Although the notion of wireless technology had been firmly established as a developing thing so it was easy enough to see what was coming next. But I liked the inclusion of Matrix elements in the real world instead of divorcing them like 3rd Ed.

      Unfortunately nobody down here seems to like the rules system and so we play 3rd ed with some elements of 4th ed tech. Then again, we’re not, strictly speaking, playing Shadowrun either but I digress.

      I suppose what I’m trying to say that at its base level there are two schools of Sci-Fi (discounting Space Opera for a moment). The Spime Future (actual term) which is pretty much Star Trek Next Generation. The source of conflict is typically from without as the society you’re a part of is a veritable utopia. Rarely, with the exception of a malcontent or two, do you feel challenged by societal or cultural pressures as everyone pretty much accepts everyone and riches aren’t the driving goal.

      Which is why I love Deep Space 9 around Season 4 to 6 so very very much.

      The other half is the dystopian cyberpunk setting. Capitalism at it’s base and malevolent form next to the Socialism future of STNG. Sources of conflict come from the development of better technology for greater profit, but more so it comes from the clashing of radical cultures. Mages stick with mages, Street Sams with Street Sams Deckers with deckers and everyone hates the Corporations. Culture, more so than anything, is what needs to be presented in Cyberpunk and its through that culture that you reveal the development of technology. Or vice versa.

      The challenge of running a game of Shadowrun is that there is SO much that needs to be described: Neon adverts, gangs that only use a particular brand of cyberware, secrets, lies, everything is on display, or can be found. And what’s worse, you can’t actually chalk it up to the ‘magic’ of advanced science because to sell cyberpunk, you need to make it real.

      This could just be me though and it could just be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

      Masamune Shiro would be one of the best and one of the worst Shadowrun GM’s because he could articulate the future and sell you on the viability, not to mention show you the pictures– but you’d be playing for eight hours and have no clue what you’ve accomplished.

  2. As to Descriptions…

    Hey Ben, glad I finally got a chance to comment in depth here. (PS- It’s Glenn)

    You raise an excellent point; the lack of any definable setting in the future (largely because we don’t know what it’s going to be, or look like) means that almost every player’s interpretation of what the future is- is going to be different unless a singular guiding force tells them what it is. (GM’s description.) I like to play up technology; magic still sits a bit by the wayside in my games simply because my opinion of it’s been poisoned by the “one who shall remain nameless.” I try and be fair and balanced, but sometimes it’s really hard to know when you’re overbearing on your players and when you’re not being hard enough. Believe me, I can see enough practical applications for magic in the future. Trid Phantasm performers, for instance, would have their illusions or work captured on technological devices (ie- cameras) so you could have the most bizzare and yet, compelling special effects show without a single stitch of lighting or holographic equipment.

    However, if I can’t describe something technological or otherwise, I’ve found a great tool in my MSN games. As they say, a picture is worth a 1,000 words; in this case, I use the handwriting feature to draw out features that aren’t necessarily clear to the players. When possible, I try and describe in depth but sometimes for the sake of expediency this tends to run by the wayside. Fortunately, the handwriting feature helps quite a bit, as now one of my players seems to fathom how seriously he’s in trouble. (I only needed to draw the helmet of this guy and he’s going, “Hmm, this could be harder than I thought.”)

    That being said, I think there’s a few conventions for future tech largely based around interfaces- hand movement can direct the majority of traffic on a GUI for instance. Smart firearms mean that only certain users can use them, and after that they’ll help you aim. Cars look more like electric razors than the ’86 Chevy you’ve got out back. (Thanks Marv.) Unless you’re living under a rock, you’re connected everywhere and all the time; communications over the Matrix is the most obvious single concept that people can identify with as it’s a reasonable extrapolation from what we have today. Something to ask yourself would be, what’s reasonable to expect from security staff at a trainstation? Do they have mag detectors? Chem sniffers? Is thier security physical or electronic? Is there a patrol drone, or just cameras? Is this station underfunded, or the city-state standard?

    The main part, as you have said- is setting. What *is* the world of the future going to look like? In many of my games, the center of a city, or at least the inner rings always had huge concrete and glass skyscrapers looming over everyone; whereas the further one left a city center, it started to revert back to block apartments and offices, and finally suburbs on the outskirts. To that end, despite superior construction techniques that are no doubt available in the future, I can’t help but feel most people would still keep constructing their houses as they do today; only I feel as if it would probably be lighter (by large quantities of windows with two-sided trid-style tint) but substantially smaller in terms of size considering the miniaturization of technology.

    Anyway, that’s just a few thoughts on the wonderful world of Shadowrun.


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