Sometimes when you start a new roleplaying game all you have to do is ask around and people will quickly come out of the woodwork to play. Very often this is the case with Dungeons and Dragons variants (Pathfinder, 5th Edition especially), but very often I find that it’s rather hard to get players interested in games that aren’t the big DnD. Especially those who haven’t done a lot of roleplaying in the past and so aren’t aware (yet) there is a wide world of other games as well! In my case, I’ve recently decided to start a Sunday Shadowrun game and some of the people are interested in “roleplaying”, but not so much on what Shadowrun is.
Explaining Shadowrun is a little more complicated than traditionally trying to get the gist of what Dungeons and Dragons is about across. Shadowrun combines a future corporation led cyberpunk dystopia where orcs, dwarfs, trolls, elves and fantasy monsters were introduced to “our” world after magic re-awoke in 2011. This creates some wonderfully evocative contrasts between individuals fully decked out in futuristic cyberware with assault rifles, vs. shamanistic characters who summon spirits and defend themselves with magic.
When I sat down to think about “Why do I want to run Shadowrun and what kind of plot am I going to have?” I was immediately drawn to concept of transhumanism. Transhumanism is a huge part of Shadowrun as a setting, with many runners being decked out with “chrome” (a slang term for cybernetics), or having augments to access their tron like computer matrix and even control remote robotic drones. Naturally with how prevalent this in the setting I wondered “What happens to the people who can’t afford to keep up?”
This of course isn’t the most new or novel question, as it has been explored in other science fiction including the excellent Shadowrun Returns and Deus Ex Human Revolution. None the less, in terms of roleplaying games I’ve run it’s not one I’ve really had a good chance to ever present and Shadowrun has multiple perspectives on the issue (being in the Cyberpunk genre) that are increasingly becoming relevant today. Who owns genes? What will we do when technology advances enough to replace limbs? Increasing power corporations have over governments (which led to them eventually usurping control of most of the world by economic coup).
This gives me the basic theme of my campaign and informed the way I started writing the basic outline for the plot. Now I needed to decide how to implement this theme of social unrest against largely metahuman or cybernetically enhanced corporate interests. Essentially do I have an action thriller type game, with lots of explosions, vehicular chases and narrow escapes from security forces? Or perhaps a more slow burning style that resembles something more like Blade Runner in terms of being futuristic Science Fiction Noire – just with Shadowrunners?
In the end I decided to go with a mixture of the two contrasting styles: I wanted to have moments of intense action, but also a considerable amount of slower scenes allowing for roleplaying and fleshing out character/world. An attempt to have my cake and also eat it at the same time if you will. This also meant going more for a Game of Thrones style game, where shocking character deaths or those of NPCs could happen at any time – one that seems quite supported by the rules (Shadowruns combat on an initial look seems very lethal!).
Naturally my next question was, “What about setting?” and on reading most of the core book I was actually attracted to China, which in Shadowrun is a very divided nation. Once I went looking for art of futuristic Chinese cities and found the excellent work of Kuczek Adam, which I wrote about earlier, I knew I had where I wanted to set the game. Now I just needed ways to sell my vision of Shadowrun to players and how to get them as excited about this campaign as I was.
Firstly, some art doesn’t hurt and two pictures in particular I felt emphasized where this game was going:
This piece of art I found searching for Shadowrun Cyberpunk on the official forums was a perfect match for the gritty noire feeling that I was going for – in contrast to the sharper futuristic look of the overall city.
If at all possible a couple of pieces of art that show how you have initially envisaged things is perfect to show your players when starting out. It lets you quickly give them a visual “This is what I am going for” without having to overwhelm them with a novel of text to do so. Additionally I also decided to include an image of an “action” scene, just to give the runners a hint of what the game might be holding in store for them on a future adventure:
Noting of course that getting absolutely perfect art that matches exactly your vision is often difficult to do, unless you are a very talented artist and can do it yourself. Alas, I am not, but there are plenty of great images on the internet to use and if you take your time searching you’ll always find something close enough! Remember that even if the art isn’t perfectly 1:1, you’re just trying to give players an idea of what they should be envisaging: Not the ONLY way they should see everything.
With the general theme and an idea of what my players should be expecting, I moved onto character creation guidelines and then some communal world building ideas. Communal world building is a terrific concept that I’ve increasingly taken from some Pelgrane Press products, most notably 13th Age, Nights Black Agents and Bookhounds of London. In these games the players are given opportunities to define important aspects of the world and game: In 13th Age players define “One Unique Thing” about their characters, in Nights Black Agents everyone writes things about what they think are true about Vampires (then the Director decides which bits are or aren’t true) and in Bookhounds of London everyone has a part in creating the store. Getting my players to create the store, what it looked like, name the NPCs who worked there and so on was immensely productive and gave them a sense of ownership of this part of the game.
With my upcoming Shadowrun campaign I am going to do the same thing and borrow a couple of ideas from the fantastic Nights Black Agents. Firstly, I’m going to have my players create their own “Safehouse” where their characters go at the end of each run. They’ll be able to describe what it looks like, what’s in it, what kind of neighbourhood it is in, who their neighbours are and things that they will want like local street docs, merchants and that sort of aspect. Then I’ll probably (once I’m done digesting the rules for Shadowrun) talk about how I intend to implement two great ideas from Nights Black Agents: Network and Cover points. In NBA Network gives you access to contacts, potentially important allies and other things – but at the risk they could be compromised by the characters enemies. Cover is also a great thing for such a game, where characters can come up with certain identities to help them get into different places such as saying “Oh I used to work security at Renraku and I’m great buddies with Chen Yao, he’ll vouch for us”.
Finally when coming up with a name and general idea for how to make it feel “Chinese” and not just like we were playing in Seattle with some odd scenery, I came up with two ideas: Firstly to try to use Chinese names and titles for things where possible. For example I called the campaign “Mostly Flesh and Steel” and had a friend who could speak Chinese help me translate it into Mandarin like so: 鋼鐵 血肉 為主. In fact I started to get some written translations for many of the things that I was adding to the game to use as player handouts or to say out loud. Using Chinese is not just a gimmick for the sake of things, but an important way of building the world and making it feel authentic.
Hence when I have gone looking for players recently to gauge interest in a Shadowrun game I’ve been able to give a summary like so: I am running a Cyberpunk Noire styled game with spy thriller movie elements*, about how the rising gap between people who have access to cybertech or magic is becoming a major source of tension in the highly populated city of Shanghai in China. So far this final pitch looks like it has worked very well, with plenty of interested players but unfortunately the downside to that as always, is there isn’t enough room to take everyone in one game.
Hence that whole thing about getting new people to run games at the club I go to (which I will write about soon!).
*Think Jason Bourne and Bond for example.