As I have been moving through my two Shadowrun games, Icarus Protocol and Mostly Flesh and Steel, one of the problems that has come up was my inexperience with the system. In many ways the core design of these two games was that I planned to have the two plots intertwine and also the two groups of players at the same time. Unfortunately the amount of work this would require, combined with one of the games being very disrupted due to regularly losing players out of the game consistently has derailed those plans. Hence my decision to change one of my Shadowrun games to Trail of Cthulhu in future.
While both Icarus Protocol and Mostly Flesh and Steel are coming to a “natural” end in a few months, I’ve decided to take the lessons learned and apply them to a new setting: A massive multi-corporate owned space station hovering above Earth. Eden’s Ark is an opportunity to do something very different with the system and change up the setting immensely. As well as providing some interesting opportunities for space combat – amongst other things – I wanted something that I could really put a new or interesting twist to. Most notably in raising some interesting questions such as “How did the corporations get magic functioning on the station?” and of course “What is the true purpose of Eden’s Ark?”.
With these questions in mind, I decided that the core conceit of Eden’s Ark was the mystery behind this station, its inhabitants and the various strange politics of it. The Runners thus occupy a role that is closer to being more like a “Noir” detective than the way I’ve run Icarus Protocol or Mostly Flesh and Steel. To this end, I wanted the runners to have more of a “desperate” feel to their financial situation and thus fixed one of my main issues with the previous two games: The amount of Nuyen available. As a general rule, in both of the other games I was giving Nuyen out in the 10-100k range quite often – which is actually something that Shadowrun (as a system) doesn’t seem to really like that much.
It seems that Runner’s need to feel more “poor” and thus desperate to take certain jobs than the way I made my players feel. In addition, the larger amounts I was giving eliminated certain issues and considerations entirely like lifestyle, buying programs and similar. Additionally scrimping for all the cash and resources that they can possibly get is very within the style and genre I am going for, which is quite literally “Detective Noir on a futuristic Cyberpunk Space Station”. Obviously a very different theme and concept to either of my previous two games.
Eden’s Ark itself is a dramatic and multi-faceted project on the part of the various megacorporations in Shadowrun. Ostensibly to extend metahumanities reach into space with a major platform other than some of the smaller, usually one corporation owned, research stations Eden’s Ark has attracted thousands world wide to it. Some have come for a new opportunity, others for adventure and many others to make a considerable profit. Timeline wise, Eden’s Ark is within its third year of operation at the beginning of the campaign (which places it in 2078) and it’s clear there are already numerous problems. Opponents of the ruling corporate council often find themselves being suddenly depressurized or without oxygen at awkward moments, major smuggling operations are a routine affair across the station and growing tensions mount as key aspects of the station fall increasingly into disrepair.
Of course this would be bad enough by itself, but then something was delivered to the station from Evo’s research base New Japan on Mars and nothing has been right on the station since. Strange headaches have affected many, with a corresponding increase in psychological disorders and general “space madness” as well. The worst affected are spontaneously joining an emerging and dangerous threat to the station called “The Followers of Angelus”, named after their strange an enigmatic leader with a strange “Angel” like chrome.
This group has begun to destabilize the facility even further with several attempts at sabotaging core systems, numerous disappearances and even several assassination or bombing attempts. Why they are attempting to do this and what exactly was on that ship from Mars are the core questions of this game – hence the choice of a slower investigative style of game and genre. In many ways, Shadowrun is actually going to be very good at this a it has a wide variety of skills, both active and knowledge wise for the Runners to have for prying information. Of course this does lead to a question: If I make the core conceit of the game based around solving a mystery, what happens if the players roll poorly and miss a core clue?
After all, one of the core differences between two games I dearly love in Call of Cthulhu and the very similar in style Trail of Cthulhu, is the way they treat how players gather information. In Call of Cthulhu, it’s entirely possible to fail checks and possibly miss getting information out of say, an important tome or miss the connection to the case hidden in an old newspaper article. This is because by default, gathering information requires checks based on random dice rolls and if you roll badly enough it might mean your investigator misses the clue. Trail of Cthulhu does away with this by inherently designating “Core clues” in each scene, which as long as one of the investigators has a skill relevant to getting it and uses it they get it.
Trail of Cthulhu inherently uses this system so that the game continues to keep flowing and so that the players don’t become “stuck” due to a random die roll. It doesn’t of course mean they learn absolutely everything, such as that the Shoggoth is vulnerable to electricity, but it does keep the game flowing to a conclusion (even if that conclusion is bloody dismemberment and madness). Shadowrun of course relies more on Call of Cthulhu’s approach, with dice rolls determining how much information (if any) a Runner might learn from a given scene. This of course is rather problematic design wise, because if I can’t rely on players having information to advance the plot forwards it often requires rather torturous contusions to compensate. A good example of a solution I used in Call of Cthulhu was giving the same information in multiple ways (to give more chances to advance the plot).
However, Shadowrun actually does offer me another solution and it’s built right into the way the system works: Buying hits. In some cases with GM discretion, a character can exchange 4 die to just buy 1 hit automatically on a test. Normally the situations these can be used are fairly limited, but in this game as it is supposed to represent very competent investigative style Runners it works ideally in solving the above problem. Whenever a clue would be considered “core”, I can simply look at the pool the player is rolling and if it is above 4 simply say that they succeed at getting the basic information. Rolling beyond that would be simply for further information – but no matter what they roll they still get the core clue required.
In this way I can have a bit of a random factor to what information or knowledge the players can derive from a scene, but still ensure that there isn’t an inherent fear of the game bogging down anywhere. This approach also still rewards having a high skill rating as it increases the odds of getting more useful clues, while also preventing frustration at not having an idea what leads to follow to advance the plot. Essentially I can have my cake and eat it as well, which is a fair compromise because I am rather fond of Shadowrun and want to give it another try – though I did consider running this campaign in the excellent Ashen Stars.
Another core ideal behind this campaign was simplifying my work as the GM where possible so I didn’t need to constantly reinvent the wheel. In my current games, I’ve often had to make new stats quite often for security forces, different NPCs and similar. In this game, I intend to put a lot of that work in up front for what many station “gangers” look like and are typically armed with, same with the Star Security forces (the police/corporate military of the place) and some of the various other factions. So when I want to have an encounter with some general jobbers for the Runner’s to fill full of holes, I have easy to pick up and insert NPCs at the drop of a hat.
Overall I hope that the pacing, “down on their luck scrounging for cash” kind of Noir detective theme and unique setting of an already decaying “new” space station makes for a compelling campaign. I also hope the stark contrast in style and setting from Icarus Protocol helps keep Shadowrun feeling entirely fresh, while also showing the flexibility that is in this wonderful (if immensely rules dense) system.