Saturday, 5 February 2011

Running From the Past

I blame the internet.

Stuart started it in his review of Interface Zero; a casual mention of Shadowrun got me thinking about the game again, but it wasn't until JB started a series of posts on the game that I caught the bug and dug out my copy of the second edition.

Shadowrun was my first proper role-playing game. I'd played a bit of the multiplayer Fighting Fantasy, and I was aware of the hobby, but I was more interested in Games Workshop wargames at the time. My main gaming buddy at the time introduced me to Tim, who showed us this box of miniatures he had; they were fantasy types, orcs, dwarves and the like, but they had sunglasses and machine guns. Tim told us that they were from a game called Shadowrun, and invited us to play. From that point, we played Shadowrun for about three years, although oddly enough, I don't think we ever used the miniatures.

Through Shadowrun and Tim, I discovered more games, including my first -- and until a couple of years ago, only -- encounter with D&D, and a disastrous dalliance with Traveller: The New Era. Somewhere in there, I fell in love with Call of Cthulhu, but Shadowrun was always a constant, and it was only really Tim's departure for university that ended our time with the game. I played a bit of the third edition when it came to be my turn to enter higher education, but it didn't click with me and I left it behind. Up until a couple of days ago, that was the last time I looked at a Shadowrun book.

Looking at it now, I'm surprised at how much of the system we didn't use. It's what would be called "crunchy" nowadays, in that it does not attempt to have a rule for everything, but goes into great -- and likely unnecessary -- detail on the situations it does cover. Given my tastes of late I'm almost certain that if I ran it today, I would not make use of this detail, but that's not to say that I wouldn't run it at all, as there's still a lot to like.

The central mechanic is elegant and quick, one result of which is an unobtrusive close combat system which does its job without fuss. The drain mechanic -- the downside to spellcasting, in which casters risk taking damage from their own powers -- is a great idea, and is perhaps my favourite part of the entire system. The second edition also contains almost -- there's no adventure included, which is a shame -- everything you need to play, and all in a book about the same size as a D&D player's handbook; now Shadowrun was also the first time I encountered power creep, and Tim had a stack of supplements about a metre high, each of which gave one type of character an edge over the others, but none of them were necessary, and the game runs just as well from the core rules alone.

Except for decking. The computer hacking system in the second edition rules is a mess and while it was improved by subsequent sourcebooks, it never quite worked, and I can see why so many GMs just dumped the entire aspect of the game. It's a shame, as it's one of the key topoi of the cyberpunk genre, but the game is perhaps better off without it.

One other criticism of the game, in particular the older editions, is that it's dated, and it is true that there's a definite 1980's feel to the setting, but to me that is part of the charm.

It's more a product of its time than an accurate prediction of the future, but that doesn't make it of any less value as a setting, just as the outdated notions of the 1930's and 50's don't make a rockets-and-rayguns setting any less fun today. Any game which lets you play a grenade-launcher-wielding elven rock star or a motorcycle-riding ork wizard is just fine by me.


  1. I can't help but have a sort of knee-jerk (negative) reaction when I see anything Shadowrun-related! Somehow in my personal sense of aesthetics it's just not possible to take the three elements of 1: cyberpunk, 2: the 1980s and 3: Tolkienesque fantasy, and blend them into a palatable whole. They are all very cool elements individually, but my soul will not suffer them to be mixed. I don't know why.

    I think you've hit on a big part of the no-go for me --
    Shadowrun's 80s feeling and slick (by the standards of those days) artwork. It's the straw that breaks the camel's back for me, so to speak. The cyberpunk / Tolkien mashup pushes things far enough (honestly, too far), then mixing in the 80s as well pushes it into the realms of 'absolutely no way'. :)

    All that said, motorcycle-riding ork wizards do have a slight tantalizingness to them.

  2. I think that's a common reaction, and was back in the day, too; I recall being ridiculed for buying a Shadowrun book in the old Adventurers' Guild shop in the North Laine.

    I can understand why the incongruity of the various stylistic elements puts people off, but it's one of the things I like about it.

  3. I recall being ridiculed for buying a Shadowrun book in the old Adventurers' Guild shop in the North Laine.

    Haha! Publicly ridiculed? Surely not by the staff of the shop?

    Yeah it's a game I'm sure I could enjoy if the right GM ran it with the right twist, and if I could put aside my prejudice / confusion as to what on earth is the point of mixing those disparate elements. I did have an enthusiastic German explain to me fairly recently why Shadowrun is cool, and I remember being semi-convinced at the time, though I seem now to have lapsed back to my former (largely unfounded) opinion.

  4. The Germans love Shadowrun for some reason. And yes, it was the bloke running the shop who decided to take the mick.

  5. I've never understood game store owners belittling their own stock and the people who buy it. I remember a friend was starting a Wood Elf army for Warhammer and, as he was buying his first couple boxed sets, inquired about tactics: "What are Wood Elves good for?" he asked.

    "Good for fleeing off the table!" came the retort. Zing.

    I was intrigued by Shadowrun back in the day. I bought the Street Samurai Catalog purely for the art (which I gleefully copied and used in the cyberpunk-esque comic book I drew in the back of science class in 8th grade) and later bought the 2nd edition rulebook during a visit to Seattle (which seemed somehow appropriate). That Elmore cover really sold it for me. Never got a chance to actually play a game, unfortunately.

    I do hope you've seen this:

  6. I'm actually playing in a campaign using this very system at the moment in Haywards Heath. :) It's the first time I've ever played any sort of Shadowrun and I'm really enjoying it.

    But I can completely see that the mix is jarring.

  7. Matthew, I'm glad you're enjoying it!

  8. I loved Shadowrun 2e. I spent a big chunk if the 1990s playing it. My brother is a talented artist and used to create custom figure flats for the game. Heavily combat-oriented though, and we'd spend a lot of time debating how to carry out an op. I loved the team karma mechanic, which gave you more action dice the longer your team of runners stayed together. The magic system was also the best of any RPG I've played. Some people got hooked on all the hardware and bioware the supplements provided, but you really could take that or leave that. I found the kit in the core rules was enough. Favourite point for me was bringing down a dragon with a surface to air missle! I've played 3e Shadowrun as well and that seems okay.


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