I love Shadowrun.
If you have read earlier writings, you will know that is mostly true. I love the concept of Shadowrun. As a child that grew up in Reagan’s America, I love the entire genre of cyberpunk, that future dystopia with injustice and fighting against the established order to effect change, bettering mankind (or just self). However, I have always had an issue with the way Shadowrun tackled the genre.
As I mentioned in Shadowrun, Sixth Edition: Finally, a Cyberpunk Game, the main positioning of your characters in the setting is you play willing operatives of the ruling elite to maintain the status quo. It looks like you’re playing people bucking the system and striking against the megacorporations – heck, I had a player back in the SR2 days whose background consisted of “orphan” and “I hate megacorporations” – but each edition of the game contained a variation of the following:
When a corporation or other sponsor needs someone to do dirty work, they look to the shadows. As ‘deniable assets,’ runners make advantageous—and expendable—tools.
Hilariously, SR5 has a line about how we, the heroes of the setting, do not work for the corporations – instead, we choose to work for them.
Shadowrun’s sixth edition was announced, and it appeared to embrace the -punk part of cyberpunk as much as earlier editions fetishized the cyber- part. They call hackers in the Matrix “rebels”. They say that you actively go about changing the world, challenging the status quo.
How far can [the megacorps] push people and nations before they break? How hard can they hit before the people of the world decide to hit back?
Shadowrunners believe that the time to start hitting back was yesterday.
It’s about damn time, I wrote.
Then I read the book.
There is the general in-world writing about basics of the setting. Right where it introduces shadowrunners – the people you play in the game – there is this:
We do the off-the-books work that enables the system to keep running as if everything in the world is okay.
Okay. That doesn’t sound too good.
We are, after all, at-will laborers working for the most dangerous forces on the planet.
Hold on. Where are the rebels I was promised? Where are the people that are hitting back a day too late? Everything, and I mean everything, in this section about what you do in the game is the exact same missing-the-point of the genre: you work for The Man. Sure, they let you punch some other The Man, but you work for the oppressors of the setting to ensure they stay strong.
There is a section called “Ten Ways to Make a Living in the Shadows”. Seven of these state or imply that you do these on the behalf of megacorporations. Two are on the behalf of organized crime. The last one that does not specifically imply you are a tool of a larger force is murdering other people.
Our reality exists in an employer/employee dynamic that is generally filtered through a middle man. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to know who you’re working for…
Begins a section that talks about who hires you, but they are all the same: the people (and things) in power hire you. Only one section mentions getting a job from private individuals who “offer the illusion of benefiting the greater good” but the writer believes “these employers are playing an angle.” Do not fool yourself into thinking you will be doing any good, however. “[T]aking a minute to do some good helps offset all the drek I do for the corps in order to keep the ramen coming.”
There is nothing in Shadowrun’s sixth edition that lives up to the promise of the marketing material’s positioning of who you can play in the game. There is nothing in the book about being rebels. There is nothing in the book about deciding to strike back at the megacorporations that control the setting. The only thing that is made absolutely clear in the game, with all the talk about how bad the corporate ruling class is, is this: if you running the shadows, you are a tool.