Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Cry Dark Future: Shadowrun or B/X?

Where to start, where to start...hmm....

I believe (a bit) in signs. Omens. Not excessively, mind you (I'm not reading my fortune in the coffee grounds at the bottom of my cup), but probably more than the average person. I take a lot of non-rational things on faith, of my religion...but sometimes I look at the way my brain formulates thoughts and consider it downright superstitious. Like not allowing a black cat to cross my path. Or refusing to drink a beer until the Seahawks have scored a touchdown.

Anyway, I don't see everything as a "sign" but sometimes I do.  And the other day, a couple long-forgotten Shadowrun books emerged from a dusty hiding place, just when I was getting all gung ho about trying to finish up a writing project or two. Regardless of whether it was some sort of omen, it triggered something in my mind to say, hey, let's go and revisit Cry Dark Future. I mean, I did finish the text (a couple drafts anyway), and I did have a couple people go through it with the editor's pen, and I did get a lot of positive feedback in play testing...maybe it's time to just call it a day and get it published. I know there's still some interest floating around out there.

[yes, DMWieg, you're one of those people...]

But I also know I've written that before and gone down that same mental road before and something's stopped me...more than once. So let's take yet (another) hard look at the thing. A new look, if you will. And what it'd take to salvage this thing.

First thing's first: there already exists a game called Shadowrun. Lots of people have played it. Lots of people like it. Lots of people like the ideas in it but not the system. The first edition of the game was probably the tightest, in terms of execution and design, but the third edition was probably the best. When I wrote CDF I took the game and (with minimal thematic changes) used these two editions as my main base. I wanted a B/X system that played like SR1 and SR3, even though it didn't use dice pools and health tracks.

And it does.

But hold on a second. Let's look at some of the things that make B/X a great game.

It's simple to learn. Character creation is easy. The magic system is easy. The combat system is easy. Designing adventures is easy. And the built-in advancement scheme is not only thematically appropriate, it also evolves the game in such a way that allows for steady growth of content (through accessibility) coupled with increased power that matches the learning curve.

In other words: you start as a low-level shmuck facing shmucky challenges and graduate to a bonafide hero facing heroic challenges. And you learn more about the game (whether we're talking tactics or spell lists) over time, just as your character gains "imaginary" experience.

That's not really Shadowrun's bag. In Shadowrun you create a character that is competent in one or more areas. You face challenges that might be big or small, usually with commensurate reward. Over time, you might gain power (especially magician characters), but really all the content is on the table from the get-go. Do you want a character to have the best military armor, cyberware, and heavy machine guns in the game? You can start with that. Do you want your magicians to be able to summon giant elementals, turn opponents to stone, throw fireballs, astrally project, and mask an entire adventuring party with a single spell of invisibility? You can start with that, too. The only question is which role do you want to play in the party (the samurai, the decker, the shamanic mage) and min-max your build appropriately. Or heck, just take one of the character write-ups already provided in the rulebook and "add name."

More than D&D, Shadowrun's GM is tasked with producing entertainment for the table...because there's nothing that's really pushing the players to DO anything. It's not really in "the spirit" of the game, but nothing prevents you from, say, assigning your top priority in chargen to resources and spending the whole bundle on a decade of "high lifestyle." Dude...I just retired my character! I win!

Sure, players can create individual backstories that provide motivation and impetus for adventuring...but leaving aside for the moment that sticky wicket (and explain again why you're not just spending your free time writing fiction?) is the GM supposed to coordinate multiple "storylines" that may be at odds with each other? And what about the players not interested in coming up with these backstories? Or the difference in quality between backstories? Or the fact that a GM might prefer one set of stories to another (and thus favor it in scenario design)?

D&D starts adventurers at the beginning of their careers...players are, in fact, creating their own "origin/backstories" in their adventures (if you want to think about it in those terms). They are pushed to grow by the very career path they've chosen for themselves. Over time...should they survive...they will achieve a kind of ascendancy, a leg up on all newbie adventurers that (later) join the campaign. Sure, in real life the old and worn down eventually get pushed aside by the young and ambitious...but D&D is still heroic fantasy. I mean, we're fighting dragons here people!

Shadowrun (and CDF by extension, since it was built to emulate that RPG), is about covert operatives in a (fantasy) dystopian future using their nefarious skills to achieve...what? A comfortable life? But why not just get on the payroll for some megacorp security team? Get your benefits and your stock options and whatnot?

Do you folks get what I'm saying? Unless you decide to play one of the "ugly" mutant meta types (or decide your character has some sort of "anti-corporation" backstory), it's not like your character is even fighting for respectability; she's already respectably competent and utterly employable!

I guess I just don't believe it anymore: the Shadowrun concept. I can live with the weird fantasy and the cyber-tech and the "Sixth World" stuff...the setting is fine, even if a little cheesy. But if I'm going to push characters to do dangerous jobs and pull reckless stunts I need some better carrot than the one the game is dangling. Because just being able to shoot fantasy dragons with fantasy automatic weapons isn't really good enough to sustain a long-term campaign. It's not enough to sustain my interest anyway.

So that's what I'm ruminating on now: how to make CDF more like B/X. How to make characters less competent and more needy to fire up their ambition to play...and continue playing.

Without making the game into some sort of post-apocalyptic cyberpunk setting.

More later (though helpful suggestions/comments are, of course, welcome!).


  1. My suggestion is let me read the dang thing! Shadowrun Anarchy was a good step to simplify the game, but CDF looks very cool. And I'd submit that Shadowrun is about growing in power, but it is less ability focused and more gear focused - Because face it, even spells are basically gear.

    Also, maybe you can almost stagger the narrative in CDF - you start as low level hangers who work their way up to fortune as megacorp runners. I mean, really what was the point of DnD besides get more powerful? High level runners get more cash to throw at augment, weapons and vehicles, and move from terrorizing Redmond to infiltrating a lunar colony

    1. @ Tanner:

      Ha! Never saw Shadowrun Anarchy...I'm checking out a PDF of it right now. Thanks!

  2. I shall have vindication!


    ...odd. Jut a few days ago I was revisiting my own attempt at B/X cyberpunk from late 2015...

  3. Uh, what about me, JB? No shout-out? I post and harass you on nearly every CDF post too! Glad to see you've got this tickling your brain again. I'm still eager to see your B/X take on Shadowrun, however it evolves. Your previous work speaks for itself, quality-wise. I'm with Tanner here - we just want to read it!
    @DMWeig - I was recently rereading all your WB cyberpunk posts (and the OneDice stuff too). You should at least compile that into a single pdf and get it out there too.
    My own interest has cycled around yet again and I'm once more looking at my own old notes and failed efforts and trying to make some progress on my own take - as a supplement for BX Essentials this time. We'll see what comes of it...

    1. Well, at least *someone* liked it.

      But me reading that stuff, you reading that stuff... this confluence of events is clearly a sign that JB needs to finish CDF.

    2. Yes, Reese, I haven’t forgotten you (though I suspected you might have quit reading the blog). There’s a couple of you out there that are my major “pushers”...and thank you for that!
      : )

    3. Quit reading?! Never, good sir! Been quietly following along for a number of years now.

  4. In my cyberpunk games you don't sign on with a megacorp for a paycheck, benefits, and stock options because the megacorps don't offer that. Their job security is a life where it doesn't matter how good you are, you're just a cog in the machine. You get three squares, a cot, work as much as they tell you to work, and toe their line or get shot out into the streets. Your comfortable life is only in comparison to the street dregs. Unless you're connected inside the company, you're just another employee ID with quotas to meet. Megacorps are too big to be a meritocracy.

    And if the PCs live outside the system long enough and successfully enough to get a rep, then their existence makes them problems for the corps. Sometimes useful for specific jobs, but still assets that are problematic to bring onto the payroll. What makes them good operatives makes them untrustworthy corporate cogs.

    1. @ Tom:

      Yeah, I’ve been seeing a bit of that around.

      Even so (and I’m going to post more about this when I have a chance), there’s something about starting “lower down on the totem pole” that I like.

  5. Looking forward to reading it! I love talking about cyberpunk gaming. I don't get to play it nearly often enough. I'm enjoying reading your stuff.

  6. A bit belated I suppose but later editions of Shadowrun kind of leaned into the notion that Shadowrunners were primarily drawn the SINless - functional unpersons in the high tech glossy future. Taken to an extreme you have a class of people who _can't_ engage with the normal modes of commerce/career/education to obtain anything and so become an expendable, marginalized and legally unrecognized workforce.

    Which sounds a whole lot like your starting B/X adventurer to me. People who exist outside a given society and have to hack it into a desired shape (be it a lordly domain, a wizards tower or temple) by force of arms and daring. Maybe your 'punks don't take over the city but maybe they carve out their own protected turf where their tribe/gang/corp/wizgang can ride out the corporate espionage and brushfire wars the sweep the City on the regular. Throw in financial incentive up front (you a 'borg? congrats, you're the 6-million-nuyen man and you owe every last cent. A mage? Welp that blood pact that got you your powers put you in deep with the law and you needed to be sponsored by your local chantry so would you like to pay up in blood, xp or creds?) and the fact that legitimate means of advancement are closed off and your PC's will be running the shadows in a hurry . . .

    1. @ Cirlot:

      Better late than never! Thanks for feedback.
      : )