Running with the Demon


Shadowrun is a game filled with imagination set in the postmodernist dystopia of the bleak near-future. Shadowrun is also one of the biggies, a game created by one of the roleplaying giants that generated video games, action figures (well, all right, they were like giant mage knight figures) and a novel series. Because of this, why is it so underground?

As a youth I found myself attracted to a certain type of fiction. When I was very young, I read William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy; I watched Johnny Mnemonic knowing full well that it was a short story included in the Burning Chrome collection; I fed myself on Bruce Sterling, Philip K. Dick and was obsessed with Blade Runner.

Merriam-Webster describes cyberpunk as such:
Pronunciation: 'sI-bur-"p[ng]k
Function: noun
1 : science fiction dealing with future urban societies dominated by computer technology
2 : an opportunistic computer hacker

Though does that really do the idea of cyberpunk justice? Let us take into consideration the Japanese fascination with cyberpunk culture as well as the American love of it. Face it, we're a cyberpunk society. I can walk around and watch television on my phone while downloading music off of my ipod from a nearby wireless connection that the wardrivers (people who hack into drive around, hacking into wireless connections to test security) have not found. We live in a world where you can download anything, everything you want. The information age is quickly giving into the cyber age. We are becoming a people wholly engrossed in our computers and what they can truly do for us.

This is not a bad thing. To the contrary, it is a truly amazing thing -- something I had longed for as a child. I suppose I was a little bit thrilled when I discovered Shadowrun, at least the video game.

Not only did this game have all of the fantasy and magic that interested my friends and me (we actually started with Warhammer and created our own mock RPGs based on the world without knowing there was a real, designed one), it had that dark, forboding atmosphere of the near future. Where else could you find the two blended to such a degree that it was almost completely intertwined. So the video game was my first exposure to the Shadowrun world, the Super Nintendo version, in terms of canon, was something of a disgrace.

Shadowrun Media

Here is a brief run-down of some Shadowrun themes. First of all, if you are a decker, you are a computer hacker, a console cowboy with all of the know-how to bring the modern corporation to its knees. You are probably fitted with a datajack that allows you to interact with the cyber-world directly through neural input, the cyber-world known as the Matrix (keep in mind that Shadowrun was invented in 1989 and William Gibson's Neuromancer was written in 1984). If you are a mage, you follow a certain path, either hermeticism (the idea that magic can be codified and contained within rituals and formulae) or shamanism (a more natural form of magic that calls upon a totem animal and requires you to use shamanic lodges to research your magical abilities). Mages do not get cyberware, which is an intrusive piece of electronics that allows you to manipulate your body in such a way that evolution or the higher power never intended. Cyberware restricts the flow of magic through the body, preventing one from accessing higher degrees of magical acuity. If you are a street samurai, you are a force with which to be reckoned. You strengthen your body with cyber augmentations and muscle replacements, you receive direct implants into your nervous system allowing you to move faster than anyone else. You are one with the gun, one with the blade and one with your fists.

Jake Armitage, the main character of the 1993 Super Nintendo Shadowrun game, was all three of these. He was a shaman/decker/street samurai that worked the streets of Seattle, had amnesia and was able to smooth talk his way through just about anything. If all else failed, he could always draw his assault rifle and mow his enemies down with some well placed spells. Sound like any players you know? Now, canon-wise, this was probably the most grievous error, the rest of the game played up the Shadowrun universe quite spectacularly, with a matrix interface for decking and a system for adding cyberware and even an underground arena to test yourself against various boss-like enemies. Instead of gaining levels, you received karma (much like the pencil and paper RPG) to upgrade your skills. It was very revolutionary for its time for a console RPG.

There was a game also released for the Sega Genesis which was truer to the Shadowrun table-top that I was never able to play. Essentially, you play a Native American (known in Shadowrun as an Amerind) Gator shaman named Joshua who seeks to avenge his brother Michael's death. It had a more well-designed map of Shadowrun's Seattle and was noticeably kinder to the idea of letting in some pencil and paper aspects to the gameplay.

Last year, there was another game in the Shadowrun legacy announced under development by FASA itself under the Microsoft licensing agreement for Windows Vista and the XBox 360. From press releases, it seems to be more or less a first-person shooter with some aspects of the game involved (there are trolls, elves, orks and dwarves. For some reason, there are also gnomes).

Shadowrun In Print

Shadowrun has always had strong ties to literature. Since the cyberpunk movement started as a literary movement and spread to other sectors of the media (especially music), it's only logical that a game directly derived from a literary movement would create its own contributions. There are forty English novels and 30 German novels based on the Shadowrun universe. The ones in America were published by Roc publishing in collaboration with FASA, the original creators of Shadowrun.

Recently, WizKids, the current owners of the Shadowrun license, have begun releasing new Shadowrun novels. The old ones are very hard to find, usually requiring one to shop e-bay or local used book stores. These novels were mostly character driven, offering a viewpoint of the streets that was more or less biased towards racial and political views the characters held, depending upon the author. It was also probably one of the only long-standing cyberpunk series that maintained a standing in mainstream science fiction, although it was placed in the fiction series category at Barnes & Noble and Borders along with D&D novels and Star Wars novelizations.

From the novels I read, the characters were fairly well-developed with a penchant for common cyberpunk stereotypes. One that stands out in my mind in particular was obsessed with a fictional character, a mage that used a dart pistol called a Narcoject pistol. He had a very basic vehicle control rig (making him a rigger, or someone who can jack into vehicles and control them like an extension of his body) and a fake Narcoject pistol who was conscripted into a shadowrun in some effort to find a purpose for himself.

FASA stopped releasing Shadowrun novels in 2001.

Shadowrun: The Game

The driving force behind Shadowrun is that you are a criminal who works for various corporations doing their dirty work, somewhat like a covert operative. You maintain various identities and keep yourself away from the lime-light, using the money acquired from your corporate ties in order to purchase more cyberware, better programs, better spell formulae or nicer toys. Also, you must keep yourself off the street, and there are systems designed to provide the player with a lifestyle.

In addition to the option of playing the game as a "living setting," you have the option to create one-shot or campaign-style games. Shadowrun gives itself to being played in multiple ways, though it's usually best to play a longer game considering the length of time it takes to create a character (I knew someone who usually took about four or five days to create a Shadowrun character). Because the world so resembles ours, it is easy to create believable character backgrounds. Also, consider the fantasy aspect and that it allows you to play pretty much whatever you want.

Unfortunately, Shadowrun is also the least played major roleplaying game despite all of this. There is a wealth of information about the game and a thriving community, but compared to the communities of Dungeons and Dragons and the World of Darkness (especially Vampire: The Masquerade/Requiem) it is very small, almost underground.

I've spoken to twenty gamers in the past week about Shadowrun. The majority, a startling 18 to 2, have never played Shadowrun or have even seen one of the books. About a third of them have actually heard of the game and the rest were completely clueless.

My theory behind this obfuscation of Shadowrun is due to the obscurity of the cyberpunk setting. Many people enjoy cyberpunk media; the Matrix remains to have a huge fanbase and following considering the Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game, Matrix Online. There was a fairly obscure game released by R. Talsorian Games called Cyberpunk 2020, which depicted the Gibsonian dystopian future in a direct, complimentary light. Probably due to lack of interest and sales, the game was discontinued, though more recently has been re-released as Cyberpunk version 3, which has its dissenters as most revised, revamped game settings have.

Which brings us to the new version of Shadowrun, also known as SR4. The system was changed to such an extent that it hardly resembles the old Shadowrun; it more or less resembles the newer version of the World of Darkness, perhaps in an attempt to draw in newer players with an easier system, making this a prime time to pick up a copy of the rules and start playing.

Essentially, the reason behind this article is about raising awareness of the game and to convince you, the reader, that you might enjoy this sort of world. Cyberpunk purists often consider Shadowrun to be a little frivolous, but to newer, younger gamers, what could be better? Not only do you receive the same pleasure of killing that dragon and taking his horde (in this case, probably information and Swiss bank accounts) but also you can delve into a world wherein there is no cut and dry alignment that forces you into one stereotype or the other, instead filling the void with gray areas, raising the issue of ethics and morality.

So why not set down your broad sword and pick up a cyberdeck? Instead of casting that spell in that dungeon, why not the sewers of Detroit? As always, all you need are a few friends and some dice and you can start your quest to becoming a star in corporate espionage. And why shouldn't you? The shadows are so inviting.

As an old, crusty Shadowrun player I appreciate this plug for my RPG of choice.

While Shadowrun might be "underground" in many places, it's still one of the top three RPGs in Germany. The 4th edition base book also won Best Rules and Best Product at the 2006 ENnies. Shadowrun may not seem like a runaway hit by your informal poll, but the devs claim it has continued to be financially successful even in the face of the recent RPG market downturn. This is evidenced by the pending deal that will greatly expand the full time staff working on the RPG.

Glad to hear that; my poll was very informal, more or less a poll of the area in which I live. Shadowrun, I've noticed, is kind of polarized in the United States to the coasts. The middle parts (I live in Oklahoma City) seem to be...not as up to snuff on things not WoTC or White Wolf.

As an aside, my wife usually plays German characters in Shadowrun.

I've played SR3 and now my group is getting ready to put down a d20 campaign in favor of an SR4 campaign for awhile. Shadowrun has been our non-d20 system of choice for years. But then my group is on the West Coast so that may explain why.

I have to say, it is hard to believe that the SR4 rules won Best Rules. They aren't horrible but there are definitely some less than intuitive things about the rule system like the fact that build points that you create the character with do not equal karma points which you develop the character with. Compare that to GURPS where a character point is a character point.

Personally, I like the old rules; the build points seemed to average out a little better in second and third edition.

I'm not sure what I think about the technomancers. They are like watered-down Otaku.

Shadowrun was pretty popular in its day. If an informal poll of twenty people you know indicated that eighteen of them hadn't heard of it, it's probably more because its heyday was thirteen years ago and not because it was never popular.

I've never had a chance to play Shadowrun as an RPG; I can't find anyone to GM (and I'm not enough of a GM to do it myself). I used to play the Sega Genesis cartridge sometimes, and I have a fairly good collection of the original series of novels from Roc/FASA. Even within that original set of novels, the earlier ones written by the game developers are the better ones, as they spend more time painting a portrait of the gritty, urban, technological civilization of Shadowrun and less time dwelling on interactions between characters.

A more user-friendly WOD-style rulebook for the SR RPG sounds like a good idea.