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Icarus Protocol: Laboratory Debugging

Starting a new campaign is always an extremely fun, but daunting prospect because it involves a lot of establishing of different concepts and this becomes harder again when you are doing so in a new system. This means that the first Run I designed was meant to introduce concepts slowly, give the players some “Friendly” combat that should be reasonably survivable, but allow them to explore how the rules functioned. Shadowrun is a very rules dense system (to say the least) and the best way to get people to learn is to slowly introduce rules elements over time. So you don’t try to do overly complication Astral/Matrix/Meatspace fights right off the bat is what I’m saying 😛

None the less, even with the “tutorial” feeling I didn’t want this Run feeling like a throwaway or something that was not important to the overall game. Indeed, I had always designed it as imminently important to my particular Shadowrun’s world and in many way it sets in motions the events of the other campaign Mostly Flesh and Steel. So this “tutorial” was meant to help everyone learn the system, but also had some majorly important consequences on the nature of both of my campaigns.

No pressure!

To begin with, I’ll talk about how I built this Run and some of my logic behind doing what I did. The vast majority of my players in this game are new to Shadowrun and in some cases, entirely new to roleplaying as a concept as well. This means that concepts need to be broken down and put into ways that are easily communicated, such as the initial interaction with the Aztlan military patrol at the start, how combat works and of course I need to start doing some world building to give my players the best idea how to fit their characters into the world. Initially I had my players build their characters as Street Runners, which limited options in terms of finances for gear.

My first discovery about Shadowrun was that there is an enormous amount of “Accounting” to do in terms of gear, which I’ve simplified in some cases like ammunition (though I certainly pay attention to some things, like how many missiles are being lugged around by players). There is a tremendously large amount of gear that is useful or at least worth taking in Shadowrun, so I decided to help my players with this just getting them some recommended items: A main weapon, some fake SINs (if they needed them), some licenses and other essential equipment that a character would require to get through alive.

Partly this is because my players still needed to polish off their characters and partly because I found that there is a ton of equipment in this game, which I (as the GM) need to explore a bit more. Commlinks were obvious important ones and so were the main weapons and armor the characters could wear. Armor is a rather important thing in the world of Shadowrun it turns out! Especially given that you don’t want to get shot often (if at all!). I made it pretty clear to the players that they would be going into an area full of potentially hostile things and there was no need to be wearing a classy corporate suit to this as a result!

Designing this scenario was also a challenge, because I rapidly discovered that even basic assault weapons like an AK-97 can really hurt Runners – especially when fired FA. So I designed the initial combats to be quite generous in terms of how many turns enemies could get. Naturally there were two ways to do this:

A) Ensure that enemies couldn’t use their main weapons too well (few dice means few hits, which gives the Runners a good chance of getting glancing blows or even negating attacks entirely on defense)

B) Limit armor penetration and bursts/full auto modes of fire (so certain pistols became useful for this).

C) Enemies initiative should be limited so that they can get 1 or at most 2 initiative passes a round. All ranged enemies were restricted to getting only a single initiative pass (So at most 10 initiative maximum).

This actually was when I became quite satisfied with the tactical depth in the rules for Shadowrun. A game that can readily and easily be tweaked with direct predictable results on the way combat plays out was a great thing to discover. The best way to justify this sort of thing was to use largely robotic enemies, like Drones, which were badly “damaged”. Thus their reaction, intuition and agility could be badly dropped making them less likely to go first in initiative and unable to hit the broad side of a barn.

In any event, with some fine tuning to ensure not everyone just instantly dies in the first session out of the way – it was time to actually begin! The Shadowrunners in this game are called:

“MWS” Mister With Shotgun – Mystic Adept
Just Eric – Technomancer, uhhh, Decker I mean.

Kelpie – Face
Skemm – Rigger

I also have another player, but they were unable to come due to an unfortunate illness (this weekend was notable for missing players being sick!) so it was three initially, with one player coming later. In any event, on starting a game I always find it is best to get the players to state their characters name, give a description of themselves and then tell the others about what they do in general “I like hacking computers!” or “I like shooting people, a lot!”

This kind of thing can be awkward for players now you’ve put them on the spot, but will pay dividends later for establishing characters and beginning the whole “This is how you roleplay” aspect. It’s worth noting again most of these players are entirely new to roleplaying in some instances or have only played other games before (DnD and my Trail of Cthulhu campaign in particular). So getting people into the mood to roleplay their characters always begins with basic ideas like “Who am I? What do I look like and so forth”.

To this end I decided to just give them some time to ask questions of one another in character, try to establish what they were doing and why. The basic premise of this Run being that they are out to look at an abandoned laboratory, which was shut down under dramatic circumstances 3 years prior (noting that this game is technically a flash back too, as it begins in 2074, 1 full year before Mostly Flesh and Steel and when this game resumes in the second Run). Now the Mr. Juan (I make the Mr. Johnson moniker more specific to each region, in Mostly Flesh and Steel it’s a Mr. Wong or Mrs. Wong) wanted the players to enter the facility, find the data and steal it for his (or her, they met in the matrix originally so who knows what the true gender of that digital icon was) own purposes.

As the Runners pulled up in the sleek APC, they were soon intercepted by a military patrol. This was not intended to be a particularly dangerous situation, as Kelpie had already seen to the correct fake SIN and license (part of character creation) for this role. So she was able to con the security personnel into thinking that they were following up on leads in the area for Aztechnology. Not wanting to delve into things further, given what happened to the “Last lot” who went in there, the security waved them onwards but did answer a few questions. Notably that by “Last lot” he meant another security team who went in with six members…. but one came back out. Plus he advised not to hang around or explore too much in the destroyed town ahead: Toxic spirits were everywhere and worse things, apparently.

In any event the Runners reached the previously secret entrance to the lab, accessed the door and were soon in the loading bay. Here one of the players, Kelpie gave me an excellent suggestion I hadn’t originally thought of: Stripping some of the vehicles for spare parts. I allowed him to make an engineering roll and then find some valuable electronics, some unexploded (but sellable) ammunition and other things for some extra Nuyen. It felt especially important to me to reward suggestions from the players early on and make them work, so this was a great idea. It also gave me an excuse to drive down the APC, which was convenient because Skemms player arrived just at this point.

After getting Skemm to describe himself and what he did for the party, I then went ahead with moving the Run forward. Here is where I emphasized that normal aids that the Runners would be used to weren’t present in the laboratory anymore like Augmented Reality pop-ups and similar. Generally speaking, the lab was dimly lit as only some of the lights were functional but given this was “Team Elf” (3/4 players characters present were elves) this was not a big deal. This is until they reached the elevator, discovering that it had been opened and someone left behind a bunch of climbing gear going down.

Looking in the matrix, there was the option of powering the lights or an AR info-popup, usually used to guide visitors to the facility to different places. Let me just give you an idea how fun this was for me, because the players were immediately paranoid about plunging themselves into darkness in a shot up series of rooms where something *really* bad clearly happened recently. Of course, I actually didn’t intend to ambush them in the dark or anything of the sort, but just the idea was enough to get them worried – which made for a pretty satisfying moment. Eventually they did turn on the AR and I got to interact with them using it.

Naturally the AR was badly damaged, reporting that the facilities had seen massive destruction and that the central elevator was the only way down. He was a bit quirky, repeatedly referring to errors about a floor that didn’t exist and noting that most “organics” were dead. The AR seemed very concerned the Runners were not authorized personnel, so informed them to promptly report to security if they were intruders and hand themselves in. Security was on helpfully pointed out as being level 5 and was the first place the Runners decided to go. Most disappointingly, before I could go and ask them about their user experience with the AR they cut the power to it.

He only wanted to know out of a 1-5 rating how their AR infopopup experience had been 😦

In any event they moved to level 5, getting to the security room after rappelling down (thankfully without too much drama) and attempted to open the door. Except the security host malfunctioned and instantly saw them as an enemy, directing two broken down security drones at them and a killer ICE system at Just Eric in the system. Here was where I broke down slowly how combat worked, showing how to roll initiative, what it meant, how players got different turns and so on. While the drones were enough of a threat, nobody really took a bullet and the characters managed to prevail easily enough in both meatspace and the matrix. One drone being dramatically exploded by Kelpies arrow while Skemms heavy pistol accounted for the other.

In the security room they made several discoveries, notably that the air conditioning was being used to freeze the lower most level of the building. Additionally a scientist called “Dr Schrier” had been largely responsible for these orders and that there were numerous references to a “Project Icarus” here. Investigating the Trideo files, they found a series of three videos showing a woman with purple and black hair in various stages of development. The first with another Doctor, called Dr. Garcia who was trying to take her away from this facility. Then a second a year later showing security executing her in cold blood before the vibrantly haired woman. The last trideo dated on the day the facility fell to ruin showed the same woman, only standing over the previous security guard and then executing him bloodily and messily.

Yeah, there were some big hints in here as to what happened and it wasn’t good. This woman had immense magical power and the Runners hoped they wouldn’t run into her….

In any event, they immediately went to the lowest level of the facility and then ran into the former security team – who had been dismembered by some kind of heavy security drone. One survivor, who was only alive by sheer luck shot at them a bit, but Kelpie was able to convince him they weren’t hostile and were there to help. John was grateful to see non-hostiles and highly apologetic for his initial outburst at them. Here he immediately warned the party there was a large, heavily armed drone somewhere in the facility that had ambushed them. He believed it was badly damaged, but it could still put up a whopping fight if required.

The act of mercy in saving this guy I decided should have an interesting moment a bit later on, but was nice to see the Runners not just murder knife the first wounded NPC of the game. As always though, the decision to murder knife or not to murder knife is always a contentious one, but I feel this time they made the right decision. If such altruism holds up in future though….

This was actually some really important information, because once they knew what they were looking for Just Eric easily located where it was in the matrix. They then came up with a cunning plan to turn him invisible and then overtake the drones host before it could act, preventing it from hastily murdering them. This worked perfectly and then they had command of basically their own self-walking exploding bomb, which would be most helpful once they turned on the air conditioning.

Once they realized the archived files couldn’t be accessed until the facility was powered up in Dr. Schriers laboratory, they set up with the hidden door (covered by magic) leading down to the lower level the one they decided to watch. With good reason, because it was also incredibly cold and whatever was on the other side would have basically been cryogenically suspended. Initially they got 20% of the files once the power was back on unimpeded, but then the door started to heat up and then dramatically shattered! The purple and black haired woman who stumbled forth afterwards, with an army of HMHVV infected ghouls behind her, did not seem impressed with the Runners presence.

Here the action focused on a fighting retreat, as the Runners stood their ground as long as possible versus the ever growing horde of approaching unfreezing ghouls (increasing by N+2 every round. So 4 first round, 6 second round, 8 third round and so forth). In order to keep this somewhat interesting and survivable, the woman didn’t do a lot of magic initially – just using full defense and saving her large initiative pool for defending herself (or moving if need be). The ghouls charged down the Runners, but due to being partially frozen were very susceptible to bullets (and arrows it turns out). A dramatic drone explosion also helped keep the numbers down and prevent the woman from targeting them with a spell of some kind.

Eventually at 45% downloaded they realized they would be rapidly overwhelmed if they stayed and pulled out – running to the elevator. Just Eric tripped up, even as Skemm and Mister With Shotgun downed more ghouls chasing them. Thankfully Eric had brought a grappling gun and cleverly used it to scoot along the floor and away from the horde of chasing ghouls. Here is where I wanted to reward the characters altrusim earlier, even thought John had lost his leg due to the battle with the heavy drone, he knew he wouldn’t have much longer anyway. Instead of trying to retreat up the elevator with them he stayed behind. Here I used this as a chance to demonstrate the power of suppressive fire to the characters as he leveled his automatic and let fly down the corridor at the approaching ghouls.

To add to the horror, as the Runners waited for the elevator to ascend and the gunfire to suddenly stop short, the annoying AR popup was back. Notably scolding them for the mess they had made and if they could direct insurance information to his databases to “get in contact with his people”.

Ah popups, the true enemy of mankind.

In any event, the party hit the top floor running and soon got the APC, with the strange woman and her horde of ghouls still in hot pursuit. They got out followed only seconds later by the woman, who had picked up tremendous speed and was outrunning the APC by this point. Once outside though she stopped… All the hostility was gone and she looked upon the sky, felt the rain on her skin for the first time and suddenly, was no longer interested in attacking them! The Runners decided to swing the APC around – possibly considering running her over, but within moments she brought forth massive feathered wings and then ascended into the sky, disappearing out of sight within moments.

The Runners, realizing their escape was somewhat fortunate, turned the APC around for home and didn’t look back. After this run though, things became majorly easy and they succeeded at numerous other Runs, becoming experienced and accomplished Shadowrunners in their own right.

Then one day in 2075, almost a year later, what should have been another trivial Milkrun became something so much more….