I love Shadowrun.

See, there was an illustration of an elf hanging off a helicopter’s skids. The elf was shooting a submachine gun at someone. The guy looking at this illustration – Jordan Wiseman, if I recall correctly — said, “I want a game where I do that.” And Shadowrun was born.

That happened a few years after I discovered William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Max Headroom. This game was introduced to me when the in-game clock was 2056, and it hit me with the full force of a hurricane. This was the game I wanted to play. A future dystopia with a band of people working together to fight the system and get rich while trying. It’s twenty minutes into the future, but what a future it was: magic had returned.[1]

Not the actual image, but from Shadowrun's Crossfire card game. Art by Gordon Bennetto (http://gordonbennetto.tumblr.com/)
Not the actual image, but from Shadowrun’s Crossfire card game. Art by Gordon Bennetto (http://gordonbennetto.tumblr.com/)

The game was complex, which was just fine for me back then. We wanted something that simulated the multiple minute variables that would occur in a combat situation because that’s how roleplaying games worked: they all came from the wargaming roots of Dungeons & Dragons. But as new sourcebooks and new editions of Shadowrun came out, the base game stood by the crunchiness of its lineage, while I… Well, I moved on.

I wasn’t the only one. I started noticing in message boards and discussions about new games, one question would invariably come up: “Can I play Shadowrun in this?”[2]

There are three things I consider when deciding what game is next: investment by the players, quick combat, and an emphasis on storytelling.

Traditional Shadowrun has the people with player characters participating in the GM’s story. They’re playing protagonists in a story and (by the rules) have no other impact on the game world. Other games I’ve played in the past decade and a half have blurred that divide between GM and player: Primetime Adventures’ second edition could give narration rights to any player, Apocalypse World tells the MC to turn questions back to the players for their input, and games like Dresden Files, Smallville, and Unknown Armies has the local setting creation shared among everyone playing the game. I firmly believe that if you get a player to create a thing in the game, they’re more interested in that thing.

I once ran a Shadowrun game (using Fate) where we did that: an NPC appeared in the game and I turned to a player, giving him the NPC’s name and look, telling him she didn’t like his character. I asked him why. That player responded with an answer I never would have come up with that day at the table. It was an answer that was about his character; it told us all what type of conflict mattered to that player.

About the same time, that player ran a Pathfinder game, which was fun, but combat just dragged everything down. I don’t remember much from that short campaign, but I do recall that there was this one combat with all four or five of our heroes facing off some bandits attacking a town. We had four, maybe five rounds of fighting that seemed to have a great deal of time between each player’s actions. This combat scene, which took maybe thirty seconds in-game, took just over thirty minutes to play out. During that, my character’s action would be to swing a weapon and… miss.

Not exciting at all.

When it was my turn to act, sure! But during the time we went around the table, waiting for our action again?

Back at Shadowrun: every edition was like this. In an earlier blog post, I talked about the crazy number of steps it took to cast a simple lightning bolt-like spell. (Up to fourteen, depending on if it hit.) Each time we got into a combat situation, the pace of the game would slow way, way down. This always seemed odd, given the amount of space in each edition’s core rulebook that is devoted to combat. In a game where fighting is implied to happen in every game session, wouldn’t those rules be streamlined to make those combat scenes more dynamic?

Other games move combat scenes forward in a quicker way, but do so by taking a wider view of a fight scene than examining combat moment-by-moment. Where D&D, Pathfinder, and Shadowrun are all looking at each moment (even though D&D has always claimed that a combat round takes place over a longer period and there’s just the one roll to see how the one important swing resolved), a game like Apocalypse World steps back with it’s Do Something Under Fire and Seize By Force moves. Primetime Adventures goes back even further, making a physical conflict the same weight as an emotional or social conflict, asking the players to resolve the entire issue with one simple action.

Games like Apocalypse World and PTA I enjoy combat scenes: they continue the narrative in a way that doesn’t slow down the story being crafted at the table. Dungeons & Dragons’ fifth edition plays a lot quicker than the earlier three versions (3, 3.5, and 4), but still slows down enough in combat scenes that I try to keep the players from fights. My group doesn’t play Shadowrun’s fifth edition because of the tightly-scripted combat issues.

Well, that and the planning phases. Shadowrun can be a heist movie. But unlike most heist movies where the planning for the heist is told in flashbacks or concurrently with the action, the planning phase for Shadowrun always seems to take at least an hour of time at the table. It doesn’t seem to matter what players I’m with or what actions I take to move them along, the players always want to come up with a plan that always seems to fall apart with first contact with the opposition.

I love how Leverage solves this with Establishment Flashbacks and Wrap-Up Flashbacks: Trix drops down into an empty museum hallway, but it’s not empty – there’s two guards there, surprised as she is. “Hey, did you remember to do that thing earlier,” Jackson prompts. Trix then narrates a flashback where she’s wiring something into machinery. Back in the present, Trix has her arms up and counts down, “Three, two, one.” And then the fire alarm goes off and a fire break door slides down between her and the guards. They can’t do anything but watch as the thief lifts the Monet off the wall.

In that Leverage example, the players make their characters look cool by giving them the illusion Trix and Jackson planned for everything, and gets everyone straight to the action, not wasting time on a plan that’s not going to take into account everything (making the protagonists look like they don’t know what they’re doing) or wasting the GM’s time where he doesn’t get to play the game for at least an hour. Bam, we’re right into it.

Now I’m thinking of what game I would turn to, if I were to run a Shadowrun-like game. There are two recent contenders, Shadowrun: Anarchy and The Sprawl.

anarchy-coverShadowrun: Anarchy, a new rules-light version of megacrunchy Shadowrun, posits to address all three of these main concerns. I’m still a bit worried about the combat thing because it looks like everyone still has similar combat pools and similar sizes of damage tracks. But the default mode in Shadowrun: Anarchy is storytelling, not combat-telling, with each person at the table narrating a bit of a scene: adding to the overall story with elements each person brings into the game.

the-sprawlThe Sprawl is a PbtA game, which means it’s based on Apocalypse World. I’ve used that game above a few times as an example of a game that addresses my three wants in a game. But then Anarchy came out, just a month or so after The Sprawl did. The Sprawl doesn’t have the magic element of Shadowrun, but there is an expansion in the works called “The Touched” to bring that in to the game.

At this point, while I love Shadowrun, I’m torn between these two games. So I’ll be looking over how each one plays in the next few days. Next time, we’re looking at Shadowrun: Anarchy.

  1. And it wasn’t that Vancian magic system that D&D and its clones ran. I hated the “you cast a spell and now you don’t know how to cast it again” systems. I never read those books Gary and his friends did. []
  2. Usually asked right after “Can I play Star Wars in this?” []

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