Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Running with the Shadows

So. SHADOWRUN. (Excuse me a moment while I put on a little background music, in honour of my good friend Sean Dupel.)

Despite the fact that SR is an offender of the "Buttwyth Magick" rule, it's a setting I have a lot of affection for. I played in a long campaign back in Kingston, and ran a dramatic campaign a couple of years ago called SHADOWRUN: DISAVOWED that I'm still very happy with. And like most gamers, my nostalgia occasionally brings me around to familiar stomping grounds even when I really should be running something new and different.

So let's talk about what a new SHADOWRUN game might look like, if I were to run it today.

First of all, I'd probably run a new game in the setting, rather than trying to do a sequel to DISAVOWED (despite my plans along those lines). This may dismay some of my players, but it's best to always focus your stories around characters whose stakes are set as high as possible. It might be a mistake to try and escalate the story of those characters any higher, and maybe they earned their semi-happy endings (and bittersweet ones) after all they went through. New characters would have new problems to wrestle into submission, new supporting characters to love and hate, new kinds of stories to tell.

Secondly, I'd definitely start talking with my players about what kinds of characters / stories we were going to tell with the same question I posed to the players of my FIREFLY game a few years ago: What is the one thing your character absolutely cannot walk away from? In a game about mercenaries, it's all too easy for players to take the position that their character is only interested in money and has no attachments, but Lone Wolf characters are boring as shit. There's no story you can tell about those guys that they can't decide to abandon if shit gets too real. HTHD players know that what makes characters interesting is their vulnerabilities, because that's where story lives. So everybody's got to have at least one.

Third, I'd want to revisit something that I really intended for DISAVOWED that didn't really happen. I wanted the game to be more grassroots, in its approach to "runs", in the style of the TV show BURN NOTICE. The characters were intended to be deeply involved with the lives in the Sprawl community around them, doing little jobs that humanize them and make them a part of the world instead of globetrotting rockstar assassins. The heroes of DISAVOWED, as I should have realized, were way too laser-focused on resolving the story of who burned them to get too interested in the sidelights I'd wanted, so that fell by the wayside. I still think the basic idea is a good one, though, and it could work if you built the campaign from that. To do so, I would have the players cooperate to help build the neighbourhood where they live.

Build Your Own Sprawl. Collective Dark Futurism. You get the idea.

I'm picturing a situation where the players have a rough layout of the neighbourhood -- six 3x5 cards on the tabletop could be arranged to represent city blocks very nicely -- and take turns adding things to it. Where do people live? How have they reclaimed abandoned or run-down buildings and turned them into living space? What little businesses flourish in the area? What kinds of cultures live beside one another there? Where does the community gather? Where is the scariest place in the neighbourhood? Add notes (or little drawings) to the cards as necessary.

Next, add antagonists to the mix. What gangs operate in the area? Do organized crime have a stake in the neighbourhood? Do the cops regularly raid or harass people in the area? Is the city trying to drive people out or seize properties to sell to a corporation? Are there any underground political factions operating in the area? Any shady rackets? Any paranormal animals that lurk in the shadows?

Then a few allies and acquaintances to connect player characters to. Who's the person in the neighbourhood that locals most respect? Who keeps the peace? Who can you go to if you're in trouble? Is there a doctor who operates a clinic there, possibly illegally? Who is the most desperate person in the neighbourhood, and what's their problem? Are there other skilled operators like the player characters who they can call on for help, like a mechanic, a rigger, a fixer, or maybe a hacker? Does magic have a presence in the neighbourhood?

Once you've got a tapestry of street culture to serve as a backdrop for the players' adventures, you're ready for them to make up characters and decide who and what they're connected to in your neighbourhood. Of course, players always bring their own stories to the mix, but if you've got a collective setting to draw on, they're a lot more likely to put down roots there.


  1. Half way through reading - let's build it!
    Now to finish reading, excuse me...

  2. So, like, hybridizing some of the map building and location-relationship implication techniques we used with Deadlands: Sutured Kansas, with the index card location things we did with your homebrew, last year? Dig it.

  3. I think what I was initially inspired by was THE QUIET YEAR, but yeah - similar wells. I've done collective mapmaking in several games, including GOLDEN SKY STORIES and my online DUNGEON WORLD game. Very handy when you want everyone to have the same image of the setting in their minds.