“Can I play Shadowrun in it,” is the question I see asked when a new roleplaying game comes out. Now there are two that are vying for my attention to be my next Shadowrun game: The Sprawl and Shadowrun: Anarchy. I wrote 1300 words on Shadowrun: Anarchy on Thursday and a few more than that on The Sprawl on Friday.

While I tried to keep each post focused on each game system, a bit about Shadowrun: Anarchy seeped into the last post, comparing gear and how one gets it during the game. Here, I’m going to directly compare how the two systems handle certain tropes and note where I’m having difficulties.

Wallpaper from the recent Shadowrun: Hong Kong computer game.
Artwork from the recent Shadowrun: Hong Kong computer game.

So, gear. In the last post, I wrote “See, in Shadowrun: Anarchy, you’ve got stuff. If it’s on the character sheet you’ve got it.” Conversely, if it’s not on the character sheet, it’s not there. At least this is what it looks like, especially when pinning down elements about your character on a character sheet as notes to riff off during the improvisational-heavy Narratives. Your SR:A character has a few lines of gear: a toolkit, a commlink, a motorcycle, some stim patches. Anything not covered in the weapons, armor, or shadow amps, is simply not there. There is a way to bring things of importance into the game by spending Plot Points, spending them to say “Oh, but I have this grappling line gun in my car’s trunk.” But I’m inferring that from the section on Plot Points. That section gives the following options for spending them: changing the order of Narration, taking two movement actions, heal, take a blow that was intended for someone else, make a free attack, make someone’s stuff malfunction, have a surprise threat appear (why a player would choose this for no benefit is beyond me), or add a special die that might make things awesome. Nothing at all about “have a piece of gear you need be available, within reason” or “reveal that you’ve had some information about the situation”. Nothing that brings that cutaway to the planning phase like we see in so many heist movies and television shows. But there’s a line about “If you come up with another creative use for Plot Points, go for it! Plot Points are meant to change the game in fun and interesting ways, so don’t be afraid to use your imagination.” Doing a Preparedness action or Flashback to establish that yes, I was a professional criminal, and yes, of course I would have that communications scrambler device that weren’t on my character sheet seems like a no-brainer to directly include in the rules.

If I were writing SR:A, that’s the first thing on the list to players.

Not that gear does anything in Shadowrun: Anarchy. Like Cues, Disposition, and Tags, it’s just a list of stuff on your character sheet to reference if you need help getting through a Narration. “Oh, I have a top of the line commlink! Maybe I’ll use that to…” But more on that later.

Compare to how The Sprawl handles gear: in the playbooks, gear is defined as aspects of your character. You’re an infiltration expert, but do you stealth your way inside, disguise your way in, hack your way in, or knock out people and stash the bodies in a broom closet? The gear choice you make in the playbook talks about your style. The Preparedness ability[1] comes into play when doing legwork, stockpiling [gear] and [intel] to be used later on the mission to say, “Well of course I’ve got that.” It shows that your characters actually are professionals and would have thought of bringing along things and knowledge that us gamers would have taken for granted or completely overlooked. That “I have this thing we needed just in case” is something that showcases the competence of our criminal protagonists. [gear] and [intel] are handled better here in The Sprawl, even though they’re still nebulous concepts.

Speaking of nebulous concepts, one of the biggest problems I have with standard Shadowrun is determining a good payment for a mission. There really wasn’t a good way to calculate what the payout of a gig was in any edition of Shadowrun until fourth edition? And even then, the payment for work performed by these criminal gangs seemed low. Like “why would you do this for a career” low. Why be a criminal? To make fast money. To get that score. But the prep work to payoff ratio in Shadowrun always seemed to be not worth it. Calculating the amount beforehand was crazy, too. In SR5, the calculations for how much one would get paid included the attributes and skills[2] of the opposition (which is a strange metric) and if the runners were going to be outnumbered at any point[3] among other odd considerations. So you couldn’t actually have the guy at the table sit down and offer the runners 15,000 nuyen. Just “some amount that will be determined after the run is over”.

“Well, I was going to pay you guys twenty thousand, but you got in and out without attracting any attention or having to fight the security mage, so I’ll be giving you 8000 nuyen.”

Regardless, when a mission in Shadowrun was over, the runners were still scraping by or putting their money back into their gear and cyberware and toys. It’s not that they were stupid with money, it’s they probably could have gotten more just working day jobs as consultants for Knight Errant.

Neither Shadowrun: Anarchy nor The Sprawl have good solutions for this. SR:A uses Karma as the payout, The Sprawl uses Cred.

Karma:[4] Karma replaces Nuyen in SR:A. Pay 1 Karma for full armor or cyberdeck repair. Buy new weapons and cyberware and shadow amps with Karma: it’s 2 Karma to buy a new weapon or two pieces of Gear. Or you can just forgo physical rewards and use Karma to improve your character’s skills and attributes. But when the payout for a mission is four to six Karma, where is the profit in crime? Hey, I’m hiring you to break into the Pentagon. You’ll get enough to purchase a new pistol, fix your computer, and maybe have enough left over for a business-class plane ticket from LAX to Tokyo, one way.[5]

Cred: It’s similar, but stupid. When you get a job, you “put your reputation on the line” and stake 1, 2, or 3 points of Cred. Complete the job and get paid? Then you get it back and that same amount as well. Did you choose “and the job pays well” when doing the Get the Job move? Then you get your 2 Cred back, then you get it again and again. If you get hosed and blow the mission, you don’t get any of that Cred back. So the thing that’s dumb about this is you use Cred as money and as reputation. When you Hit the Street (move), you might have to buy stuff with your Cred. Where did that initial 1, 2, or 3 Cred go? Here’s how it plays out in The Sprawl:

Tuck has 5 Cred and gets a job. She stakes 2 Cred on the job, which means on the actual job, she has 3 Cred to spend to get stuff. She needs to get something from her fixer for this mission, a quite illegal narcoject gun and some KO darts. That’s 2 Cred. She now has 1 Cred left. The mission is successful, but the crew didn’t choose the “job pays well” option: Tuck staked 2 Cred, so she gets that back and then 2 Cred more, bringing her hidden Cayman Island bank account to… 5 Cred.

But what if she staked 3 Cred? Then when she got that narcoject gun and ammo with her last 2 Cred, she’s down to 0 Cred. Job is done: 0 + 3 + 3 again = 6 Cred. Stake 1 Cred? Tuck starts off at 4 Cred, spends 2, dropping her down to 2. Job is now done, so 2 + 1 + 1 again = 4 Cred.[6]

Again: where’s the profit in crime? Why are we staking any of our initial money on completing a mission? Looking at the fiction, what’s going on here? Apocalypse World has money abstracted to units of barter because in a post-apocalyptic world, money doesn’t matter, but trading goods and services does. In a cyberpunk crime game, money is important. Do I have enough money to buy an upgrade to my cyberware? Did I score enough cash in that haul to retire in a nice mansion in the French countryside? Not in The Sprawl: I’m hiring you to break into the Pentagon. You might lose cash on the deal. You might get enough to go see a street doctor to patch up the gunshot wounds you got when you broke in. Not much else.

Why is Cred tied into both money and reputation? Why is Karma tied into both money and personal improvement?

Did you ever see Leverage? The pilot episode, the criminals go on a gig and walk away with a crapton of money after the one job. “Buy my own island and retire money,” says one of the crew. Your SR:A or The Sprawl characters will be lucky if they could upsize their value meal at Stuffer Shack after breaking into the Renraku Arcology, making off with the prized MacGuffin.

Let me jump a bit and just talk about Shadowrun: Anarchy’s characters. There’s a big section on the character sheet for Dispositions and Cues, plus discussion about creating Tags for your character, but none of these three actually do anything in the game. All three are just there if you are stuck for WWMCD? – what would my character do? – when it’s your turn for a Narration.

In other games, these would actually impact the game play. Cues would be aspects in Fate: Jinn has “Because Shiawase products are the best, that’s why” as a Cue, but he’s forced to use this old Mistuhama deck: “I’ll give you a Plot Point if you trashing the deck, leaving physical evidence behind”, the GM offers. Tags would be tags in Apocalypse World. Jinn is in a club called Meatspace, where some of the hot-shot hackers of this side of the sprawl wind down and the newbies show up to earn some rep for themselves. “Hey Jinn, you’ve got +decker and +runner, so you’ve got contacts in the hacker-scene and you know your way around the freelance criminal world. That’s pointing me to say you’re somewhat known here at Meatspace. This one guy, Three, who works for the Ortera mafia family nods to you with a smile when you come in. You’re pretty sure he’s going to be looking for payback soon, but Meatspace is neutral territory. What do you do?” Dispositions would be beliefs in Burning Wheel, keys in Lady Blackbird, or those ideals and flaws in D&D 5e. “Compliments draw out the good nature in others,” reads one of Jinn’s Dispositions. So if Jinn manages to charm his way past an obstinate corporate middle manager without blowing his cool, maybe he gets an extra die on his next roll?

But instead, they’re just there as prompts and take up a lot of space – seriously, there’s spots for ten Cues and each pregenerated character has at least eight. It’s strange that they don’t do anything, especially the Cues. After all, the game engine is called “The Cue System”, so it’s odd that the thing Catalyst named their system after doesn’t actually affect the system.

That’s not to say that The Sprawl doesn’t have stuff that takes up a lot of space on the character sheet that doesn’t have anything to do with playing the game. On the playbook is a section about the character’s name and look, things that every Powered by the Apocalypse game[7] includes on the playbooks. In Apocalypse World, it makes sense to have a section of names to choose from: even though you create your own apocalypse in AW, there’s an implied setting. “In Apocalypse World, it’s like they have cultural references without the cultural referents. They don’t know what a mother superior is, so they think it’s reasonable to name the baby it,” Shreyas Sampat is quoted in Apocalypse World. The Look selections also showcase how Vincent and Meguey Baker sneak in their setting: the Brainer has five choices of gender and four choices of clothing, but they all place the character in a visual motif for such a wide-open setting. When we’re talking about a known setting, like a cyberpunk dystopia or an American high school in the 90s or a four-color comic book superhero game, we don’t need to use these name and look tools to help establish the setting.[8]

Maybe it’s best to see what happens on an actual criminal endeavor. In Shadowrun: Anarchy, you pick a Contact Brief, which is an outline for a job/mission/adventure. There aren’t any rules on how to make your own, but these are so basic, it’s rather simple to build out your own: come up with the pitch, do up a few objectives, and outline three or four scenes. In The Sprawl, it’s a bit similar: the GM preps an outline with XP benchmarks and perhaps writes a few custom moves for the mission. Outlines for SR:A are a bit more descriptive than the ones in The Sprawl, but one of the mantras of Powered by the Apocalypse games is don’t pre-plan the adventure, play to see what happens. Sure, you can put in milestones like “when you find the VP, mark XP” and “when the VP is dead, mark XP”, but you don’t have to plot out what scene one looks like, what scene two looks like, and so on.

Starting missions is quite simple: you’re there, listening to the pitch. Here’s where I lean towards one game. Anarchy oddly has half the pitches as boxed text, leading people in the game world to say stuff like “there’s six Karma in it for you if you can help me out.” There’s a bit of discussion around negotiation higher or lower Karma payouts, but the pitch scene has the players looking and making probing questions and probably some matrix hacks to find out as much as they can. Possibly we’re making some skill rolls to determine what we can find out about the client and target to set a better price or negotiate some gear, or “maybe we’re not going to take this job, but we’re going to take this job because that’s where the game is” stuff. But I’m really drawn to The Sprawl‘s Get the Job move for this. Roll +Edge, and pick one (if you rolled 7-9) or three (10+) from the following: the client provides useful [intel], the client provides useful [gear], the job pays well, the meeting doesn’t attract attention, and the client is identifiable. I like that “quick roll to get the basics and then keep going” aspect of the game. Also, the ones your players don’t choose might happen in the fiction: the client isn’t identifiable, so you’re really not sure who you’re working for, but they money they’re throwing at you? Oh, that makes up for it.

Also, you know those scenes in movies or television where there’s an investigator in an office and the guy in the office has all the power and isn’t going to spill the beans and the conversation gets to a point where the guy ends the meeting, not by throwing them out, but the atmosphere turns chilly and it’s time to end that scene and the protagonist reads the room and leaves, maybe with one last quip? And then you try that scene in a roleplaying game and the guy in the office with all the power ends the meeting but the players are all “naw, we’re going to keep asking you a ton of questions and we’re not leaving until we get all of them answered to our satisfaction” even though they’re socially outclassed and the guy with all the power has all the power and they just won’t fucking leave the room and end the scene? Get the Job solves that.

Then we move to Legwork, where The Sprawl has several moves to handle things that come up during the researching the job phase. The longer the players spend doing things in this phase that interact with the world, the greater the chance the target hears about them. The more rumors that get back to the target, the more alert the target is to the runner’s threat. Do too much Legwork and the target could wind up identifying exactly who is coming after them, deploy assets appropriate to prevent the runners from hitting them, and might even advance the target’s Corporation’s threat level. But there’s not much here that keeps the players from taking a step back and start making that plan for an hour to take down the target, which, because it’s just them talking and planning, doesn’t advance the Legwork Clock.

Shadowrun: Anarchy doesn’t seem to have a specific legwork phase: sometimes the briefs just jump the protagonists right into the mix, sometimes that first scene is a traditional legwork phase. As an example, one of the missions begins with the runners investigating a carjacking, listing a few ideas for investigating: hacking nearby cameras, talking to witnesses, asking spirits for help. It’s not the full-on legwork phase that might take place in a traditional Shadowrun game – boom, you’re there, at the scene of the crime. Or bam, you’re stepping off the boat on the docks of a strange land. Or maybe bam, you’re in the diamond exchange, about to draw guns. The structure of the run in SR:A moves the story forward to the action bits; players who want to go through the motions of getting the plans for the warehouse, scoping out the security on the place, and sending drones, spirits, and pre-emptive matrix runs to test security on places might not grok the power of the Plot Point to say “we’re cool about this, because I’m spending a Plot Point to say we did stake the place out earlier and know we’d need that communications scrambler to blank out the feed going to the security room.”[9] So, by default, I’m saying there is no Legwork phase in Shadowrun: Anarchy.

Shadowrun: Anarchy continues with the mission going on and the mission resolves and we’re updating our Karma pool and improving the character. If the Contact Brief has the whole mission being a double-cross, the last scene is probably scripted to be just that.

The Sprawl continues with the mission going on and instead of going scene by scene, we play to see what happens until the mission resolves. Then we do the Getting Paid move. The Legwork Clock started off with six empty segments; you count the number of remaining segments and add that to your roll, then choose one (7-9) or three (10+) from the following list of five choices: it’s not a set-up or ambush, you get paid in full, the meeting doesn’t attract the attention of outside parties, the client is identifiable, and you learned something from the mission and mark another XP. Like Get the Job, it’s implied that the choices your players didn’t make might happen in the fiction: they’re paid in full, but it’s a set-up – and the target’s security force has tracked the runners to the meet. And then it’s over, runners update their Cred and XP and improving the character.

A lot of words, and I’m still on the fence about the two games. But I’m coming down closer to one side than the other. Next time: I pick a game and tell you why.

  1. Taken from GUMSHOE. []
  2. There was a multiplier based on the highest dice pool the runners would face, which is insane because the runners might not even encounter the person that’s throwing 12 dice around. Which means that if they did the job professionally — sneaking in and out without being detected — they’d be paid less than if they alerted all the NPCs and had to fight their way out. []
  3. Again, if they screw up and security descends on them, they’re going to be outnumbered, but if they play it cool and get in and out without alerting the opposition, that’s not going to happen. []
  4. Whoa, more cut and paste from the prototype edition. “Character Advancement rules are not provided in this preview but will be available in the full version of Shadowrun: Anarchy.” What? Who (didn’t) proofread this thing? []
  5. That’s just over $2,000, if you’re wondering. []
  6. Assuming you chose the “You are paid in full” choice from the Getting Paid move. You might wind up not even getting back to square. []
  7. that I’ve seen, at least []
  8. Although the name part might be good for The Sprawl, giving suggested street names to new players. Look in this setting is equivalent to Shadowrun: Anarchy’s tags – note ‘em once, never use again. []
  9. Not that it’s stated you can do this in the book. []

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