Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Screen – Part 19: Shadowrun

First, a quick word from The Management:

At present, work has me away and training at God-Awful hours of the morning, which pretty much kills my general desire to do anything by the time I finish up in the afternoon. Add to this that I’m taking on a new hobby and trying my hand at NaNoWriMo (Also kicking my arse due to time constraints) I just haven’t had the time to update The Manifesto. I’ve got some bits of the next Colt Apollo, though barely enough for a Part 1 and nothing to follow up with a Part 2. Planning to get that done by next Tuesday.

The final kick in the shorts was the computer switching off for the last time, so I’m working off the Pocket Brain (mobile phone) until I can repurpose the old laptop to carry me through to the upgrade in December. Should have the data from the harddrive back by then.

Anyway, to recharge for NaNoWriMo and to keep The Manifesto going, let’s move onto the latest in Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Screen…


Yeah, you knew this one had to be coming…

For those of you who have been spared my wandering, ranting and always lengthy diatrabes of Shadowrun, well, your luck had to run out some time. I suppose you could close the window now though I’d prefer it if you didn’t. This concept and system remains my Everest as far as GMing goes and any time at which I wax bemoaning about it, I learn something different about the game or myself. I’m hoping it holds true now.

For those not familiar with the game; Shadowrun is what you get when you combine Cyberpunk with Dungeons & Dragons. It’s 2080 and capitalism has run rampant with ten “megacorporations” wielding the power of nations, while government tries to maintain the basic standards of living and pretty much failing. In addition to that, magic has returned to the world along with elves, trolls, dwarves, orcs, vampires etc. The best way to sum it up is imagine a large portion of America governed by Google whose CEO is a dragon.

The players take on the role of Shadowrunners; mercenaries who are hired by companies to perform acts of sabotage to remain competitive in the world. These acts range from stealing data or prototypes, kidnapping a rival company’s personnel or performing a hit on them. Certainly not legal, but its how one earns a crust.

Also, it’s the future so, in true Cyberpunk fashion, everything’s on computer somewhere and cybernetic augmentation is accepted, practiced and, in some societies, encouraged.

I’ve limited the scope of this concept because this article is going to be large enough as it is, but there are many different story opportunities for the imaginative GM. For the unimaginative GM, think of it as Final Fantasy VII only lower on the power-scale and no ‘bishie’ characters.

The problem is that, with one or two exceptions, nobody has realised the story opportunities this concept has; at least not to my satisfaction. I don’t know, maybe my expectations are too high.

My first experience with the game came with the introduction to a new acquaintance who would have a profound influence on my life by showing me what NEVER to do either in the role of Storytelling and, for that matter, life in general; which is weird as he is directly responsible for meeting some of my best and most valued friends. But we’re not here to talk about him as a person, but my exposure to Shadowrun and his failing to realise the merits of the system.

This individual had been playing Shadowrun for a couple of versions and ran, to his credit I grudgingly admit, a Shadowrun game that had some legs. Since then, few GM’s have enjoyed this success but that’s for later. While the game had legs, it was limited in a staggering number of ways in basic storytelling and recurring problems, the most pertinent of which was his reliance on magic.

Any opposition faced in-game was invariably a magic-based threat. Any problem to be overcome was magic-based in nature. Any overarching storyline was dominated by magic as the central theme. To borrow a scripting term, magic was the MacGuffin of his adventure– the way whacky affairs would be written off or inconceivable leaps of story logic were explained. And it was employed EVERY GAME.

Which brings me to my first problem: Not with magic in the game itself but rather with most GM’s reliance upon it as a quick fix to a story or an antagonist. And, sure, magic is a part of this world and should be used, but it’s also a world that has made significant technological leaps and technology is a lot more accessible to this world than magic. You can buy cybernetic enhancements from anywhere while only one in six people have the potential to work magic. Yet for such a small number the time spent dealing with it was 100%. This got so bad that a player-friend made a character that developed a justifiable hatred of magic in all its forms over the course of that character’s life, given how often he’d been screwed by it.

To be fair, magic is an easy system to use once you understand how to make it work. The section on technology is as dry as a refreshing glass of sand. There is very little imagination in the, admittedly, varied amount of cybernetic enhancements and gadgets and while you could argue that it’s the province of the GM to use it creatively, I’ve always felt the purpose of a roleplay sourcebook is not only to present the rules in concise and cogent language but also to inspire. The Shadowrun books didn’t get this idea until its Fourth Edition.

If you’re reading this, it’s because you have the skills to access the internet and the resources to afford a computer or other device and an internet connection. You’re reading this in a location wholly separate from where I wrote this and you have the ability to comment on its contents from where you are. You may be reading this from a desktop at home or at work, from a laptop on the move, maybe even from a mobile phone. I’m writing this on a laptop to save mobile phone batteries, but, depending on whether I get it finished here or on the move, it will be stored and published from my phone courtesy of a folding bluetooth keyboard. Odds are that we have never met.

I take you through this to highlight two very important things: The immensity of what we can do, RIGHT NOW, with available technology and how much we take this for granted. And there’s a lot I haven’t mentioned regarding the infrastructure of the internet and the FREE resources of WordPress. Take a moment to examine how you go about your life and what’s responsible for making it possible. Do you feel a sense of amazement, of achievement, are you enchanted by that which is possible? Good! Now bloody well put that into your Shadowrun game!

The second problem of Shadowrun is a shared failing of the GM and the book. Technology in Shadowrun is unwieldy and unforgivable in its complexity. While we’re considering things, think about this: What’s more threatening, a wizard who cast magic to torment your mind or disintegrate your body, or a tank that’s remotely operated by somebody several miles away. Each are horrible to encounter but the thing to understand about GMing is that SO MUCH of it is improvised storytelling. Decent GM’s let players control and contribute to the story, which will mean that the GM will need to prepare scenes, characters and threats on the fly most of the time. To improvise without disrupting the enjoyment of the game, the GM needs to feel confident that he/she has a good grasp of what the players are going up against, which is whyy the Shadowrun GM’s I’ve played with, barring one or two, will fall back on magical elements, in which they’re well versed, as opposed to technological elements they’ve barely read.

But even without facing down a cybernetically-enhanced threat, this avoidance of technology carries across the game on a whole, which ignores one of the staple elements of the cyberpunk genre, the pervasive influence on capitalism, through technology, driving developments of social change.

Let’s go with another real-world example. There was a time about eight years ago where you COULD NOT convince me of the merits of a mobile phone. I would not have one on my person, I would scoff at people who said I should get one and I believed my life was much better off without what I regarded as a wireless leash. I was in the hospitality industry which, you may be aware, comes with its own demands for improvisation. The need to quickly contact additional staff is made much easier with a phone and, to its credit, is more convenient for the staff member who needs the money but doesn’t want to wait at home for a call they might never get, and I say this to highlight my disdain for mobile phones because even under those circumstances I REFUSED to have one. It wasn’t until I moved to Brisbane that I got a phone and this was only by virtue of receiving a second-hand one from a friend as a birthday gift.

In this case, being reachable for employment opportunities was a necessity and I also got a timepiece and an alarm clock in the one piece of technology. After a while, it died and I received another second-hand mobile that came with a 2MB camera, which I rather enjoyed having. In addition to this I had a Tetris-based game which made the train trip to town and back a pleasant affair, again all of this in the one package. When I got a shiny new mobile as part of my employment package, it came with a better camera, a new game and, by then, I was making drafts of SMS messages to keep notes. I was also being made aware of what else could be achieved with phones thanks to Warren Ellis, who still writes his some of his comic strips on a Nokia N95. When I lost the position and the phone, it was all I could do not to click my heels together and race down to Vodafone to buy an N95 myself to pair with the Bluetooth keyboard from a failed Pocket PC experiment (cause I was still opposed to mobiles back then). I cancelled that contract about a year later to get my current phone, the N97.

Nowadays I read all news from the internet on my mobile as well as friend’s journals and other sites. I can Google topics from practically anywhere, I can read and update Facebook (another tale of stubbornness that changed to outright necessity that I won’t bore you with) as well as this site, and I can write scripts, game ideas and, hopefully, novels. I keep in contact with friends I don’t see often and can check in on them at my leisure, as well as be invited to events. I am a spider connected to many things in a web of wireless signal.

And here is my third problem with Shadowrun: Everyone should be just like me and nobody is. By which I mean as connected as me, not in all the other weird and wonderful ways. In Shadowrun – particularly Fourth Ed where the game developers realised that a future where everything was still dependent on wires in 2080 while we’re moving to wireless in the here-and-now – there is a digital shadow for EVERYTHING. Information is everywhere and accessible as looking at an object. We’re approaching something like this now with barcode readers in phones and experiments in bodgying up augmented reality technology using existing technology. It changes how people learn and what is required of a generation, a trend we’re seeing where adaptability and the ability to rapidly acquire and use new skills are outweighing studied and stored knowledge. Technology has made it possible at this moment to store data outside of your brain to reference. What separates us from Shadowrun is an infrastructure, cheap new technology to leverage it and a generation to acclimatize to having information at the wave of a hand.

This is what it should be. It’s really very not in the games I’ve been in and this is more about how one runs a game than what the book tells you about running a game. GM’s, me especially, horde information about the game to dole out to players in carefully measured doses and there are two reasons for this: The first is I rely on mystery and discovery to advance my stories so it’s anathema for me to tell my players everything without them working for it or paying some kind of price. The second is regurgitation of information or The Parrot Effect.

The Parrot Effect is when you recount some bit of knowledge, results of deductive skill, a clue, a conversation or any other piece of information that a character should know, while in front of the other players. The player who is then the ‘expert’ has to then either echo what I’ve just said, put it into his/her own words, which can contaminate the veracity of that information, or will simply say “What he said” or “I relay that to the rest of the group”. It’s because they’ve already heard it and it wastes time to hear it again.

The thing about Shadowrun though is that this blanket of information is available to everyone with the technology or ability to see it, so there is little problem with making bits of information available across the whole of players if it were sourced from The Matrix (the Shadowrun name for The Internet). Indeed it’s encouraged and a weightier description in the Shadowrun world adds to the feel of this environment. Even better when you can throw in inane bits of trivia or change how you describe something.

“Walking valley-like streets of Seattle, towering buildings walling you in on either side swallowing the sky in its concrete jaws, you feel its 17 degrees on street level with a breeze travelling south-east at 5h making the change of precipitation 87% likely”.

Cold? Yes, but that’s the game.

It also changes how people research/investigate game scenes. Sure, deductive reasoning and judgement remains the province of the organic brain, but factual details can be easily accessed from the digital realm to influence that outcome. Imagine if CSI didn’t have to go back to the lab…

GM: “Throat was slashed from right to left at a declination of 5%. The wound, while sharp, is jagged and crooked, pulling down as it sliced through the neck. Jugular is nicked, not severed and body temperate has cooled 3 degrees indicating the victim was killed 30 minutes ago.”

Player 1: “So it was somebody who knew the victim, was shorter, probably improvised a weapon and it was very sudden. Not planned at all. Possibly a crime of passion… by that guy over there!”

Player 2: “Let’s roll”

This is just one example of how things have changed and what needs to be communicated to the players to improve the immersion in your story. Something else to bear in mind is the rapidity of obtaining this information. Imagine blinking your eyes twice and having a Google search window overlay your vision. It’s like having a library with you when you walk!

The trap to avoid though is to not inundate your players with all the minutiae of Shadowun life. Remember that the characters have had time to get accustomed to the tidal wave of information that comes from stepping outside the door. The blinding amount of advertisements is throttled by personal firewalls and shopping preferences. Enough to sell an idea, not enough that your players lose focus in the story.

Players, this also applies to you as well. Think about how your character does things with the technological improvements. How are things different, how are they the same? Describe some mundane things like eating dinner out of a tube because real food is too expensive or what a walk down the street looks like to your character. This is a great way for you to contribute to, and improve, the story.

A lot of what I’m talking about is social dynamics and the impact technology has. And while I started this article with the derision of magic, it’s equally important not to ignore the impact of physics-defying powers or races that are alien in form and culture. It shouldn’t be hard to think about what happens when you introduce a new race into a world where one can still be judged by skin colour or place of birth. However, while I’m somewhat pleased with how magic is communicated in culture, technology is, once again, ignored. One of the easiest to research, though I can’t speak as to how pleasant you’ll find it, is the subject of body modification.

For those not willing to subject themselves to some pretty gruesome images, take it back to the basics. Body modification has been around for almost as long as we have. Piercings of the ears, nose, mouth and other bits are, however savage, rudimentary attempts to leverage social standing through technology. Sharpening bones or other materials with tools that are then rammed into parts of your body is still using technology to advertise how important you are, and it’s something that’s carried through centuries to our time. Piercing ears was frowned upon until it wasn’t. Then it was eyebrows, tongues, bellybuttons, chests, arms and genitalia. Tattoos apply to body modification and it’s something that’s evolved in technology, but it’s a timeless practice across many cultures. What happens when you introduce replacement arms that are customizable in appearance, function, abilities and usage? What about for those who just want something shiny? How do they relate to others who wants shiny limbs? How do they relate to those who don’t?

For those who have a stronger constitution, look at internet sites like BMZine where people are happy enough to split their penis in half or jam stainless steel through their urethra. People willing to test the extent of a body’s function (to varying effect; cut a penis in half and it will not work properly ever again) for the sake of appearance by bifurcating their tongue or scarification. People willing to burn Celtic designs into their skin by igniting gunpowder, or get a USB socket implanted into their arm, just because.

If anything you’ve read then just gave you the shudders or raises an eyebrow, translate that to your game. Chances are there will be social cliques opposed to cybernetic enhancements in a culture where the human body has become disposable.

Remember that it’s not just for appearance that people want to enhance their body with cybernetics (Cyberware in Shadowrun parlance and ponder the etymology of that term for deeper understanding of the world). Consider my example of a mobile phone and then imagine how that would be like where a phone is hardware the size of a thumbnail implanted into your body. It becomes a sixth sense in a very real sense of the word; something you can query or something that affect your impressions or judgement. Imagine, for those of you who use Facebook or a chat program what it would be like to have those social tools with you 24/7 and as easy to use as blinking. How does this change your relationships with these people? Do you still ‘Friend’ 500 people and what do they mean to you? How do you handle relationships that can be dismissed with a ‘Reply’ or ‘Ignore’ button. Players, you’re included in this one too.

It becomes even more in-depth: Think about your work environment and what tools you require to accomplish a task. Would your company mandate cybernetic implants to increase your productivity and how would you feel about that. Are these enhancements yours or the company’s? Is it a contractual condition that you surrender them upon leaving the company prior to an agreed date? Are your chances of obtaining a position or promotion influenced by what cyberware you possess and would you include that on your resume? How do you feel about listing body parts on your resume given the strict equality requirements of merit-based job selection of the present? Put that into the game!

On the subject of work environment; imagine not only having company assets rammed into your body but also that they dictate where you sleep or what you eat. That your company’s values overwrite the laws of society or that, technically, working for this company in this location technically means you’re no longer a citizen of your country. What kind of culture does that bring? To whose flag do you stand? How about in the world of high-stakes, profit-driven competition with rival states. Think about the basest political motives, real or imagined for the War on Terror in Iraq and then consider what that would be like for you every day for the rest of your working life? Imagine your work colleague is a soldier for the company, that he or she is payed to defend and/or kill people not aligned with the company’s best interests and then being awarded Employee of the Month for doing so.

This is Shadowrun as I see it. This is Shadowrun as I’ve never seen it handed before.

The premise of the characters is, by and large, to survive in such a world. The world itself is the antagonist and the players are simply trying to live and, maybe, do that last job that sees them clear. Others have struck it rich before, why not them.

Let me expand on that: It’s not just the mission of the week that normally makes up the scope of most Shadowrun games. It’s not just the rote of getting the job, milking the pay out of the job, reading the rulebook to buy a whole bunch of things for the job. Do the job, get betrayed or get done by the twist and then either succeed or fail. It’s a petty world where you’re not the only one struggling to get by. There are information brokers and hackers and muscle for hire and gun dealers and hopeless addiction, woe and misery. Your players are, or are trying to be, Shadowrunners, the elite who do the stuff few dare with money and reputation as your reward. You are the gunslingers in a dried-up prospecting town. The samurai in a farming village struck by drought. Only your honour has a price, you’re only as good as your last job and, usually, everyone owes somebody something.

And this brings us to our final point or problem; the missions, or ‘Runs’, to you the parlance. Everything I’m talking about above relates to social networks and there is a reason for this: When profit margin dominates the world, then there are rules and procedures and policies that exist to ensure that money is made in a proven and repeatable method. These rules or networks are ripe for exploitation when one looks beyond the staid mission concepts of kidnapping, robbery and murder. When the expense of evening the score outweighs the reward, it’s stopped. When a building or project is running at a loss, it’s halted. With a society predicated on murderous competition, any delay suffered could mean the loss of this year’s product to a rival company. And this type of damage, into the millions, can be wrought by one person or a handful of people. This is called ‘Superempowerment’ and it’s a word that is synonymous with Shadowrunners.

To close this off, some things that explain the concepts I’ve listed a whole hell of a lot better:

This is where ‘Superempowerment’ comes from as well as the notion of disrupting physical and social networks, the prospect of making profit-loss the condition of victory, reslient communities (Perfect for the DMZ of The Barrens) and Fourth Generation Warfare (Open-source war). This is the first site you should check before running a Shadowrun game. Go to it before you go to the FASA website.

He’s proliferic across the web that a Google search or YouTube query will yield results. Bruce Sterling is a Science Fiction author, a futurist and an avid follower/lecturer on the possibilities of Augmented Reality. He is also the person who reminds us that the reason everyone in Cyberpunk wears sunglasses to is to hide eyes that have been doped with stims, drugs, cybernetics and other crazy things while not getting any sleep.

Matt Jones is another futurist and one worth googling as well for the future of digital technologies, phones and the like.

Warren Ellis reads/listens/debates with all of these fellows for research into his comics which are fantastic reference material for Shadowrun and cyberpunk in general. I’d recommend Doktor Sleepless, which has only really just started with 8 or 10 issues, to get an idea of the complacency of technology that’s about 10 years away from us. MSN/Twitter networks fitted into contacts, people implanting themselves with mechnical bits to impress others and establish identity. The other work of his to consult is Transmetropolitan, in which the technology is a little more fantastical but the entropy/glory of society in the future is great reference for your game. It’s also a completed body of work.

Challenge yourself and the players. Shadowrun is a rich world in a wretchedly-complex system and poorly-described story, true, but as GM, the rules only apply to you insofar as you allow.

Next week, Behind the Screen 20 will be another retrospective and more conclusions, assumptions, concerns and corrections will occur. And hopefully there’ll be a Colt Apollo before that.

Posted by Wordmobi



  1. You yourself have attempted on occasions to provide the experiences you felt were lacking but some of what you’ve ruminated on was not fully explored and expressed as the ideas laid out in your prose.

    To Wit: In the aeon that has passed since you arrived in Brisbane, have you had the occasion to attempt to show your group how shadowurn ‘could be’ and did it meet your desired goals?

    I would only add that as GM conceiving the possibilities of an information age was difficult simply because the applications for the ability to seamlessly combine information from disparate sources was a great stretch of the imagination.

  2. Regrettably, no; though perhaps it’s just as well. I can talk a good game but I don’t know, even using this, if I could run a good game.

    What I’m playing at the moment isn’t Shadowrun, even though it uses the system and all of the background. It’s referred to as “Cheesy Crap World” by the players and GM. But it’s fun enough.

    Hope to give it another shot someday.

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