Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Shadow Run – Old “New School”

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!

: )


  1. I am perplexed by but one line...

    "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."

    A Troll. Wizard. With a Sub-Machine Gun.

    And you encountered people at some point in your life who said, "No. That does not sound fun."

    Really? Wow.

    I can't STOP people from asking me to run Shadowrun.

  2. I also love Shadowrun and never got much of a chance to play it.

    I find that the new editions changed the tech so much by advancing it that it doesn't feel right anymore. I want my decker to plug a wire from his brain into his cyberdeck, and from the deck into a terminal in the wall. Wifi? Technomages? WTF seriously? I want the 80s punk plus green circuit boards thing going on, I don't WANT grimdark!

    I do think the 2E Shadowrun rules streamlined things a lot (for example removing variable damage staging so 9M3 just became 9M, effectively to convert back you'd call it 9M2). The vehicle rules always seemed clunky to me and I think it would work a little better if it had figurine and maneuver rules like in Car Wars.

    There are of course bad loopholes, like physical adepts in general, trolls in general, the incredible usefulness of non-active skillsofts and a chipjack, the deadliness in general and especially when dealing with automatic weapons and/or light armor, the dissociation between ability scores and skills (1 CHA and 6 Street Etiquette, yeah).

    Despite all, I love the setting and the premise. I love cyborg elf Japanophiles fighting mutants in the sewers to get into the basement of the secret research facility. It has so much potential! Plus you get to drag in all the real-world cultural artifacts and places, it's crazy how much potential it has. Best part: use any action or scifi media to get ideas for the game. Movies, books, comics, etc.

    I suggest you read the William Gibson books. Ask someone who's read them all to suggest a couple, I've only read a couple myself but they're definitely the source material.

  3. @ Barking Alien: I suppose it depends on what kind of players you have. If you are introducing new people to RPGs, many consider this "weird" or "dumb." If you're talking 13 year olds who get jazzed by over-the-top violence than, yes, I have encountered enthusiasm...the last SR game I ran was for my younger brother and his buddies when we were kids and they ALL played troll "street samurai." Most of the adult players I've gamed with need to be in a particularly "whimsical" mood to play something like this...though I haven't run it by my latest Thursday night group.

    Maybe I'M the snobby one! I AM trying to "loosen up" these days.

    @ D30: I HAVE read Gibson's books (except Neuromancer, dammit...keep putting that one off for some reason), and I wouldn't compare SR to it, except superficially...SR just doesn't have a literary precedent as far as I can tell.

    I agree with a lot of the other stuff you're slotting, though, chummer...personally, I think 3rd edition does a good job of closing loop holes, though I do NOT dig the nerfed initiative. As for the 4th edition, we are totally on the same page (why does 4E seem like such a bad idea in so many different game systems?).

    And yes, the real world stuff is cool, though it feels tricky to make ALL of it work (if there are ghouls in the sewers than what happens to the tourists in Underground Seattle? If Redmond is the Barrens, than what the heck is Bothell, or "Bought Hell" as the kids call it out here).
    ; )

  4. Personally, I don't find the deadliness a loophole or a detraction. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    I still have my 1E H/C (signed by Elmore), Street Samurai, Critter Catalog, Seattle, and the NA Guide. Oh, and Grimoire. It's the one game I never felt like I had to buy every book. It was complete.

    Grimoire fleshed out the magic, but wasn't needed. CC fleshed out monsters, but again, no need. SSC, more gear, but not needed. The setting books? Nice fluff. Plus I like the fact that the Alamo was moved to Six Flags in Arlington. :) but, again, not needed.

    The only adventure I kept was Mercurial. Loved that one.

  5. Damn you and your roving interests, JB! I've been tinkering with a Shadowrun "clone" based on Swords & Wizardry rather than B/X, but yeah - D&D with guns. I love the concept of SR but not the rules. I wanna play this sucker using the D&D ruleset so bad!

    B/X Star Wars... yeah, color me interested, but not likely to buy it.

    B/X Shadowrun - I'm buying that sucker. Please make this one!!

  6. Oh, and for the record: I'm a player in ChicagoWiz's Modern OD&D game too. I think it's gonna be a blast.

  7. I remember buying the 1E Shadowrun rulebook at a B. Dalton's in a shopping mall, and really liking the idea of the game. Unfortunately, I never did manage to play it.

    The flavor of the setting is what I recall the most. The bad-ass, fast and loose attitude that permeated all of its products.

    Did you ever read the fan produced Neo-Anarchists Guide to Everything Else? Extremely well done and captured that "flavor" of 1E perfectly. You can still find them online here: http://www.hoboes.com/pub/Role-Playing/Shadowrun/NAGEE/

    I still have my 1E rulesbook and a supplement or two stored in a box in my attic. I should get it down and flip through the pages again...

  8. @ Anthony: O for the days when games were "complete!" I never even bothered with the Critter guide myself...I was happy with the handful of monsters in the original book (I've always felt SR ran better as "monster lite").

    @ Koren: I will see what I can do, man.
    : )

    @ Alan: I WISH I still had my 1E book...the fact that there's no 1E stuff available used emphasizes my musings that this may be the best edition. ; )

    Thanks for the link...I'll check it when I have a chance.

  9. We called it "Fluffypunk", but we loved it. I stopped playing around third edition and have never gone back, but after reading this, I must admit that I'm feeling nostalgic.

  10. Shadowing is cool. We had a special Hungarian book, which I described Hungary in the Sr world. We used this book for gaming. It was very awesome when my troll character cruised in my borncity.:)