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.

So… yay?

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.


  • samitefan1

    Genuine and somewhat naive question for you: How, in your mind, are Shadowrunners to survive in a corp-dominated world other than by working for them? The setting makes it *extremely difficult* to earn a wage not garnered, in one way or another, from a Corp source, does it not?

    An even more naive question for you: More broadly, how does an individual, or a group of individuals, live and survive in a truly cyberpunk manner, as you have defined it, without inevitably bowing their head to established “powers” in significant ways?

    As a GM, what framework would you suggest for creating a storyline/game wherein individuals in SR or SR-like settings can meaningfully Cyberpunk it up without being incongruous with the pervasive and intrusive presence of corporations emblematic of such settings?

  • Thomas

    Thanks for your question!

    If we posit Shadowrunners as earlier editions promised — criminals bucking the system, working for themselves and not The Man — then we’re really telling a story about futuristic criminals in a cyberpunk setting. If we want futuristic cyberpunk criminals, then we’re looking at something else entirely (although a futurecrime story can be cyberpunk).

    Let’s say we want to go for a cyberpunk story instead of a story in a cyberpunk setting. Then you’d need to embrace the genre, which is equally punk and cyber.

    While I would have the protagonists work for the corps and use that work life to show how oppressive the corps are, you could get by with them living off the grid and skimming the take from various criminal acts. You’d have to set things up the way (I think they would) work in the real world: large scores take a lot of planning. (There are tales of various heists that wind up with months of planning for a big payoff — the Antwerp Diamond Heist was a year and a half in planning to net $100 million.) Rather than play out day by day missions for little more profit and with more risk of death than working the BuyMore Customer Support phonebank, I’d think about jumping forward in time a bunch for bigger “we can retire and buy an island” scores.

    But I’m getting off topic here.

    In order to maintain a lifestyle while this big score is in motion, there could be other smaller scores (and other non-heist off the grid means: sex work, pushing drugs, working for a charity, getting in on a barter economy by hooking up people with cable and electricity).

    Generally, if there’s a series of small scores, let them scrape some of the cash from the proceeds. Have the client thank the Shadowrunners by giving them a cut. If they’re just doing crime, they can earn money off the grid that way.

    This changes up standard Shadowrun scores. Instead of breaking into Ares R&D for datafiles to sell to Aztechnology, you’re breaking into Ares to distribute the files online because Information Wants To Be Free or perhaps it would embarrass Ares or bring to light the horrible thing Ares does. Instead of extracting a researcher from Fuchi because Renraku wants her, you’re extracting a Fuchi researcher who just wants out and to disappear. Where does the money come from those? Maybe the Fuchi researcher? Maybe a collective that wants everyone to know that Ares Soylent Green is people? Maybe from a client because Information Actually Wants To Be Sold For A Reasonable Price.

    In a cyberpunk game, these criminals will be instigating their own criminal activities, seeking out their own clients or having clients know to come to them. That way the money stream doesn’t come in a paycheck straight from the corporations.

    Targets to strike against would be the established systems that perpetuate the status quo of the setting: the corporations themselves; local, regional, national, and global governments; tools that are used to oppress others, such as the police. Clients would be the typical Robin Hood feel-good people and organizations: charities, political clubs and movements, unions.

    And all that is predicated on the thought that money is a thing that’s important in your game. (It might be! But if it is important, should it be a thing where you need to keep track of each and every nuyen or should it be abstracted, like Coin in Blades in the Dark, where you really only need to keep track of if your criminal (a) has money on hand for emergency purchases and (b) has enough to retire nicely?)

    Or I’d take a cue from Leverage, where the show starts off with that “we can buy an island” score, and from that point on the PCs are alturistic and working for the little guy. In that sort of setup, our PCs are driven not by money but by a sense of social justice. (In my current cyberpunk game, the PCs have jobs, so we don’t worry about money issues that much. If they want to buy some gear that isn’t illegal to own and the cash from their job lets them do so, they just can have it.)

    I could go on about the framework question, but here’s what Shadow of the Beanstalk (FFG’s cyberpunk setting for the Genesys system) has to say about that:

    “In Shadow of the Beanstalk, you play a (nearly) normal character living out their life in New Angeles.… However, while you’ve been working to get by in your daily life, forces beyond your control or awareness make moves that threaten everything you know and care about.…When your “enemy” might be a citywide criminal enterprise, megacorporation, or even the government, beating your opponent may not be an option. Instead, you’re going to have to use everything you know (and learn a lot of new tricks) to survive, and to ensure your friends and family survive as well.

    “So, in this game, you’re going to be making a slightly above-average citizen of the greatest megalopolis on Earth. Once you get caught up in events outside your control, you’re going to have to become a skilled and dangerous opponent of the forces that could destroy you.”

    So you might “be a criminal trying to cheat the system,” which is where the Shadowrun group template comes into play, but it sets the focus on the establishment interfering with your hopes and dreams while your protagonists attempt to strike back. How you do it comes through play.

  • Thomas

    Oh, and a friend of mine wrote on twitter that he “always liked Cyberpunk 2020 over Shadowrun. The rulebook made it clear that adventure hooks should be something like ‘ArasakaCorp is trying to drive people out of your neighborhood so they can buy the land cheap; find a way to stop them.'” I’d suggest looking there for ideas about what/how a cyberpunk game can handle stories where one isn’t a willing tool for the dystopian parts of a cyberpunk setting.

    Another friend is working on a cyberpunk game set in a permanent autonomous zone, so the concept of money may not even be an issue. Having your “criminals” be part of an anarcho-communist collective is the perfect way to have a Shadowrunesque game without Shadowrun’s suckling-of-the-corporate-teat default gameplay.

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