A few days ago, Catalyst Game Labs announced Shadowrunâ€™s sixth edition. Looking over the press release for it, the new version seemed to be the same old thing, just newer. Until I read a tweet from Steven â€œBullâ€ Ratkovich, which was directed at the â€œassholes in the back rowâ€ who were complaining about diversity, inclusion, and politics in a cyberpunk roleplaying game.
My reaction on twitter:
Wait a sec. Did someone say that game designers should leave the politics out of their cyberpunk roleplaying game?
I peeked back at the press release for the game and was surprised at what I read. The back of the starter kit and the website at shadowrunsixthworld.com all seemed to focus on a different default approach to the game: the game specifically points out that the protagonists in the setting can organize against injustice. Which is what cyberpunk is all about: itâ€™s a critique on globalization, technology, and capitalism and how it doesnâ€™t improve the lifestyles of the people. Itâ€™s a genre of science fiction that looks at how people survive and, dare I say it? Fight back to correct a broken world. This new edition appears to grab that ethos.
â€œIt’s the first edition of that game that doesn’t automatically position the protagonists as people who willingly do the dirty work of the corps,â€ I wrote.
There was a response to that comment, generally agreeing but saying thereâ€™s always been the option to work for the side of good. I honestly donâ€™t recall that from my days of second edition.
So I looked through the various pdfs and physical copies of the gameâ€™s core rulebooks to double-check. Hereâ€™s what I found:
When a corporation or other sponsor needs someone to do dirty work, they look to the shadows. As ‘deniable assets,’ runners make advantageousâ€”and expendableâ€”tools.
Every edition, except for the fifth, has a variation of that line.
In the first edition, that is exactly what you do. You’re an asset doing a corporations’ dirty work. But as the campaign goes on, the players might have motivations that the GM should incorporate. One of the suggested examples is “take on a corrupt corp”, which is the only thing in there about justice.
Second edition was described as a cleaned-up version of first edition. The text in both core books are quite similar, only slightly rewritten, but again, a version of that line is in the introduction and on the back cover. This edition also brings in the concept of a Mr. Johnson, implied as the (only?) way runners get gigs. Heâ€™s described as a corporate connection: â€œHe’s got the bucks and he’s got the jobs. And he’s also got a private army to hunt you down if you cross him.”
Both of these editions contain a bit about player motivations: “make money, take on a corrupt corp, deal with elves” and “hunt down a particular enemy, or find a lost love, or take revenge on a corporation that did them dirty, or find a specific teacher or piece of custom gear”. While that does instruct the GM to take player motivations into consideration when running the game, these are things to consider after playing a few sessions of the game. So while they might take up the one of the seven examples that actually talks about the aesthetics of cyberpunk, pretty much, youâ€™re a corporate stooge in these editions.
Third edition starts hinting at social justice, rising up against The Man, and making the work a better place. In a new â€œWhat Runners Doâ€ section, the last lines of the last paragraph about not being a tool of the corporations. “Finally, some are inspired to run by a sense of social justice; they want to damage the powers-that-be however they can while providing for the underclass. These runners are known as â€™hooders for their Robin Hood outlook.”
Except that entire section begins with the â€œdeniable assetsâ€ line from above.
Pretty much everything else reads as if youâ€™re still defaulting to working for these large organizations â€“ if not corporations, perhaps organized crime? Two other potential employers are a mage looking for rare materials and a husband looking for his wifeâ€™s kidnappers, implying that the runners will have to resort to illegal means. Either way, these arenâ€™t in the spirit of cyberpunk. (What I find hilarious is that guy specifically wants to find the kidnappers, not the kidnapped wife. This isn’t a noble good-guy cause: he’s not in it to rescue her, he’s in it for revenge.)
Fourth edition (20th Anniversary) has the same â€œWhat Runners Doâ€ section, slightly re-written. Starts with that line, more corp, corp, corp stuff, and thereâ€™s that line about â€œbut you can also do good in the world.â€
Both of these editions continue with the Behind the Shadows section about player motivation we saw in the first two, except the fourth edition drops the â€œwait until you play a bitâ€ line. The implication is yes, you can start embracing the punk part of cyberpunk right away even though the rest of the book reads â€œbut we assume youâ€™re working for The Man.â€
And then we hit Fifth Edition.
Here, they actually rewrote the game. The intro, the how to run the game, the timeline, the what you do in the game bits from first edition to fourth were pretty much the same â€“ it was as if FASA, FanPro, and Catalyst just rewrote what came before like a high schooler writing an essay â€œin their own wordsâ€, but itâ€™s obviously just a rewrite of a wikipedia article. I was surprised that the gameâ€™s text was completely rewritten.
The back cover blurb surprised me even more:
You are whatever you make yourself. Will you seek justice? Sow seeds of chaos? Sell out to the highest bidder?
Dang. The game takes the default positioning of the first four editions and calls it “selling out”.
The â€œdeniable assetsâ€ line is gone. The player motivation bit is gone. The â€œWhat Runners Doâ€ section is gone.
But digging in, nothing has changed.
[The megacorps] donâ€™t need to own us. So we drop out, stay away from the life of a corp drone, and find another way to be. We do the jobs corps donâ€™t want their regular employees to doâ€¦
In other words, we wonâ€™t work for the corporations â€“ weâ€™ll work for them instead!
Even more depressing, the goal isnâ€™t to just work for them, itâ€™s to become them.
We still have to dance to the corporate tune to some degreeâ€”who doesnâ€™t? …. Then, maybe, instead of being one of us, scrambling under the heels of the powerful, we can be one of themâ€¦
There are five alternate campaign modes in the back of the book. None place the characters in a position to be active agents of change in the world. None provide motivation to improve the world they live in. One actually places them in positions of wealth and power.
The default setup remains. Youâ€™re a tool of your corporate masters.
Thatâ€™s pretty much that.
Shadowrunâ€™s sixth edition copy is all about justice. It literally is the first version of the game that looks to position the protagonists to change the world for the better. Over at the Shadowrun Sixth World website, they write:
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.
Look at that. You don’t work for them. You fight them!
The corps are behind it all, trying to make sure Matrix use stays on their terms. But they have to deal with rebels (known as deckers)…
What’s that word again? Rebels.
You’re playing Shadowrun? You’re fighting against The Man!
Sure, there still is copy about how you might work for corporations (to update your 5e game to the 6e ruleset), but the majority of text is all about how Shadowrun finally is going to be a cyberpunk game.
It’s about damn time.