I miss 1st edition Shadowrun. More on this in a moment.
I know that the line between what is “Old School” and “New School” in role-playing games can seem pretty hazy depending on the blog you happen to be reading; “subjective” may be the most apt term. For a lot of people “old school” represents a particular state of mind, or perhaps a childhood nostalgia. Personally, I don’t subscribe to this (i.e. that the line is subjective or one of nostalgia)…but then, my main interest is in game design (particularly good or “coherent” game design), and some of the design choices made by “old school” authors (consciously or not) have real merit and (I feel) applicability to present day design.
So when I talk Old School, I usually mean “pre-1986” (i.e. back when Cliff Burton was still making music). Yes, there was a definite “personality change” that occurred around 1983 over at TSR (as evidenced by the kid-friendliness of BECMI), but I see the first major changes in DESIGN theory beginning around1986. That’s when GURPS comes out and folks start thinking “hey, maybe this RPG I’ve been writing should model everything from the get-go, rather than tacking on sourcebook after sourcebook (a la AD&D).”
By “everything” I mean “every possible occurrence in the game world” and by “model” I mean “create game mechanics that can be used to address the issue.” After 1986 the only two real questions on which game designers may differ are:
a) Should the game include a metagame mechanic…or not?
b) Should personality/social mechanics be modeled with objective rules…or left to individual “role-playing?”
Other than those questions, most post-1986 RPGs are functioning about the same, regardless of which particular dice you want to use to resolve your “skill roll.”
I find nothing particularly innovative about Shadowrun, though perhaps my sense of RPG history may be lapsing here…was SR the first game to have a set “health track” for all characters? As opposed to variable “hit points?” I know Car Wars and FASA’s BattleTech both provided the same number of “hits” to individual pilots, but Shadowrun may be the first RPG I know that distinguished individual toughness via how well a character RESISTS damage rather than how much damage he or she can take.
[now, of course, many games use the former mechanic, including White Wolf games, D6, and most “rules light” generic or adapted systems]
Well, anyway, regardless of whether the SR damage track is “innovative” or not, it’s still just another resource pool to manage…as is the “mental damage” track used for both stunning attacks and spell fatigue.
Anyway…blah, blah, blah. Forget “design” for now.
I was first introduced to Shadowrun by my friend Scott back when the game first came out. Wikipedia assures me this was 1989, but I was already in high school in 1989 and I thought Scott and I had come to a “parting of ways” by then. Perhaps we had a brief reconciliation at the time.
[I lost contact with most of my gaming buddies from middle school upon entry to high school, though I later (in college and after) reconnected with most of ‘em. However, none of us game together anymore…]
My first character was created from the Elven Decker archetype…and yet I don’t remember Scott actually running a game for me…maybe the Stuffer Shack scenario, though if so, I’m sure my guy would’ve been quickly smoked. I just thought the character concept was cool…not to mention the fact that I started with a motorcycle (a Yamaha Rapier!) and had a cool outfit.
But I don’t remember ever playing Shadowrun as a player. I RAN SR as the GM later in high school (circa 1990 or so) and had a blast with adventure modules like Demon in a Bottle and Queen Euphoria (as well as the aforementioned Stuffer Shack). Even without sourcebooks, the game was pretty much complete in and of itself, though I ran it with the Street Samurai handbook and (later) the Grimoire.
But that’s really all you needed. The Sprawl Sites book was great for generating random adventures, and the Seattle Sourcebook was cool because, you know, SEATTLE and all. But if you wanted to run D&D with guns, the 1st edition of Shadowrun was pretty much the ideal game in a nutshell. Later on, during those “crazy mid-20s,” I ended up selling all my Shadowrun stuff because I figured I’d never play it again. Why not? Well, though it was a little “rules heavy” for a pick-up game (the only type of games I was playing at the time), mainly it was the embarrassingly cheesiness of the game setting.
Really. No matter how “dark” the designers intended the game or how “realistic” their justifications for the game setting, the fact remains that to play Shadowrun required you to find a group of players who enjoyed A) fantasy role-playing, B) cyberpunk role-playing, and C) mixing the two. YOU try asking some newly minted buddy, “Hey, you want to pretend to be a dwarf with bionics?” let alone a troll wizard with an SMG.
I felt embarrassed just having the thing on my shelf…it was all the more embarrassing because I tried so hard to have “serious” games; ones with “dark” or “mature” themes and “adult situations,” you know? Role-playing was more than simply firing up the table-top version of WoW and “going on a raid;” I was one of those poor suckers who fell hook-line-and-sinker for White Wolves spiel about “telling stories.”
Later, my love of all things cyborg prompted me to pick up Man & Machine for the cover alone, which led me to buying the 3rd edition of Shadowrun as well as the 3rd edition Cannon Companion…and there my collection stood, unmolested (and un-played) on a dark corner of my shelf until this last week when, inspired Ryan's recent posts, I dug deep into the Shadowrun world and started picking up a ton of used books. Oh, yeah…and I re-read the 1st novel (Never Deal with a Dragon) and started re-reading the 2nd, all in the last four or five days. Here’s what I’ve acquired (and re-acquired):
- Magic in the Shadows, 3rd edition GM screen (with paranormal critters guide), Queen Euphoria, Demon in a Bottle, Street Samurai Catalogue (2nd Edition), Sprawl Sites, Seattle Sourcebook, first three Shadowrun novels. This is all in addition to Man & Machine, Cannon Companion, and the 3rd edition of the game.
Yeah, quite a bit. But there is an almost total lack of 1st edition stuff available (no core book for example), or else I would have acquired more…THAT’s the shit!
I checked out the 4th edition, and I’ve read the reviews…hell, I read ALL the 3rd and 4th edition reviews on RPG.net. And what I’ve read confirmed my own impressions from skimming the new materials: I want none of it. The 3rd edition is very nice and except for its lack of completeness (compared to the 1st edition: No starter adventure! No critter catalogue!) and the over-kill of its sourcebooks (I would probably only use half the material found in CC, M&M, or MitS) I would probably prefer it over the 1st edition stuff. Probably.
But there sure is a lot to recommend those earlier books…especially the Timothy Bradstreet artwork in those early Shadowrun adventures. Damn…that guy is a Beast, to use a popular football euphemism. He can make you want to run the wankiest little street mage just by drawing the illo all shadowy and badass…and the real tough guys (like Lone Star cop Grissim or lion shaman Pride) are just soooo full of character and menace thanks to Bradstreet’s work…I should probably just buy up all the old modules to which he contributed.
However, artwork isn’t the main reason I went out and got these books, nor is it nostalgia,nor “historical value.” I went out and picked up this Shadowrun stuff so that I could PLAY Shadowrun…or at least dummy up a B/X version that would be more streamlined to play.
Why has the game gone from “embarrassing” to “playable” over night? Well now, THAT is an excellent question. The short answer: I’ve figured out what Shadowrun IS. The answer is two-fold:
1) Shadowrun is D&D with guns. This is the kind of thing Chicago Wiz is doing with his “modern OD&D.” Someone asked: why can’t I have elves and dwarves and wizards with machine pistols and sawed-off shotguns? Voila! Shadowrun was born!
You still have “scurrilous rogues.” Characters are still “going on adventures” (i.e. “missions”). You still have the basic character types: fighters and wizards and rogues and priest (um…shamans). You still have elves and dwarves. People still hang out(and get hired) in taverns. People still are mainly concerned with ca$h. Like Old School D&D you’re often rewarded for using your brains over your brawn…but combat is a big part of the game. This is D&D…but D&D of the near Earth future. All the “setting stuff” is just flavor…this is cyber-D&D-punk…which really is no more nor less cheesy than D&D.
2) Shadowrun can appeal to a couple different types of people: youngsters (like teenagers and early 20s military dudes) who could care less about “cheesiness,” and oldsters (like me) who can either A) not take themselves so seriously, and/or B) are loose enough to commit to the mindless mayhem and madness.
Now that I have a son, I have a feeling HE might like to play an elf with a cool motorcycle and submachine gun. Who am I to deny him the chance to do so? Come on, Dad…ya’ wuss!