Icarus Protocol: Burger Caesar
I’ve spoken about the importance of tone in a game before on this blog, but one of the things I’ve not inherently mentioned that often is how you can use a change in tone effectively during a campaign. The tone of Icarus Protocol has veered a bit towards being very dark, with stolen organs, assassinations and similar being common subject matter. With the finale only a couple of runs away, which deals with some difficult decisions and an overall very dark tone, I decided that I needed something a bit lighter. Burger Caesar is basically a “sillier” run, which was designed to be more light satire about corporate trademarks and interests than serious. This non-serious tone helps to alleviate the previous “dark” runs feeling and means that when certain events happen in the finale, there is more of an actual contrast. Remember, being dark and brooding all the time eventually makes everyone entirely immune to it.
When I created this run, it was initially based based on a weird situation in Australia where a major international fast food outlet isn’t able to use their name. This is because a smaller outlet has the original and has the trademark, so the bigger company needed to change to something else. I thought to myself, “What would happen if a larger corporation in Shadowrun couldn’t get the name for one of its stores from a smaller one?” and further thought “Most importantly, they couldn’t do it by normal legal or buyout means.” Hence, the idea of having Shadowrunners hired to discredit and attempt to drive a small fast food outlet out of business was born. So when you read this play report, just remember that everything here that happens is all about nothing more than getting a trademark for a company to call themselves “Burger Caesar” instead of “Hungry Carlo’s”.
Meeting the Mr. Juan
When I thought about how to begin this run, I really wanted to emphasize the guy giving the runners the job in the first place. The Mr. Juan, who was somewhat recognizable as the owner of the major Aztechnology supported fast food chain “Burger Caesar” was in a pickle. Very recently on the corporate court, a legal ruling had taken him by surprise where a small vendor in Tenochtitlan, happened to have the trademark and right to the name “Burger Caesar”. This mean that worldwide, the Mr. Juan’s stores were all known by the “proper” name of Burgar Caesar, except in Aztlan where they went by the name “Hungry Carlo’s”. Naturally the ruling infuriated him and the legal pursuit of the name would take months to get back to court. It was especially frustrating because someone was seemingly bankrolling the smaller business legal fees, so he couldn’t even bankrupt them by keeping them in court indefinitely – how frustrating!
So after a suggestion by a close friend within the company, he turned to more illegal means of doing things and this is why the shadowrunners were now here. In order to get across to the players that the Mr. Juan was slightly unhinged, I decided to go with a kind of bombastic almost “Snake oil salesman” type persona. Offensive statements, strange mannerisms, casually dropping some swearing and speaking very fast gave him a very unique feel. Meanwhile, throwing in some denigrating comments about his own employees and his beliefs about how much actual “meat” should be in his products (very little btw) capped it off nicely. Despite his general offensiveness though, he was a canny negotiator and quickly rebuffed the runners attempts to get substantially more money out of him.
Incidentally, I decided to ham this up especially by emphasizing how disgusted the Mr. Juan was at pronouncing “Caesar” wrong. Most people say “SEE – ZAR” but he pronounces it more like the German term for a ruler, “KAI – SER”. Any time a player did it wrong he immediately corrected them. This kind of roleplaying is really easy to do and builds an immediate “character” in your players minds. Real people have all kinds of strange habits, mannerisms and opinions, so bringing odd hang ups or habits into your characterization of your NPCs can really differentiate them from one another.
None the less, the runners took up the job and then decided to investigate Burger Caesar to see if there were any vulnerabilities. The first and most important that they discovered, was that the establishment had an interesting insurance policy that did cover them from most kinds of sabotage – legal or otherwise. There was one curious thing on the list, which at the time I mentioned somewhat off hand but my players immediately seized upon: Insect Spirits. They weren’t insured in the case that anyone became violently ill or possessed in store due to Insect Spirits of any kind. Now at the time I can’t honestly remember why I put that in there except as more of a throwaway joke. Largely because I did have a general method for how the players might ruin the fast food joint, or even potentially work for them, in mind.
Like any good firmly derailed session in an RPG, the immediate plan turned onto how to exploit using Insect Spirits to ruin the company. What followed was an extremely good test of my flexibility as a GM, requiring me to make a small out of the way black market magics dealer and some contacts for the Runners to enact their plan. Oh, their plan you ask? Dose the food of the restaurant with Deep Weed – which makes those who imbue it more susceptible to possession – then have an Insect Shaman use the now more “vulnerable” individuals to bring forth some impromptu Insect Spirits into the place. Naturally the result of this entire mess would devastate the company financially and they would be forced to sell – there’s no insurance protecting them from this after all.
And you know, possibly lead to a swarm of insect spirits everywhere if not properly managed (but we’ll get to that).
Thankfully for the runners, their black market magic contact knew both the insect shaman for the job and could tell them where to get sufficient deepweed. Unfortunately, she demanded a favor first and the runners had to eliminate an “unruly” client who hadn’t paid his bills. This off the cuff fight actually worked fairly well, with Eric getting a substantial shooting while in VR from a drone that managed to mark his position (due to a failed hack). Even so, the damage to the runners was generally minimized and they accomplished their goal, getting the information that a shipment of deepweed to a Shiawase lab was coming in soon.
To me this seemed like a satisfying way of adding a bit of a potential car chase, giving them an opportunity to jack a vehicle in the desert and show off that Skemm was an expert at sewing fake uniforms. Unfortunately this particular encounter turned into possibly the longest and while dramatic, frustrating, combat I have so far run in Shadowrun.
His Name was Jobber Paulson
Discussing what went wrong with this encounter requires me to get a little bit into how the rules for shadowrun actually work. The first and most important thing to remember, is that each combat “round” doesn’t inherently give each player just the one turn. When a fight begins, every player rolls initiative and the total is subtracted by 10 for each “turn”. This means that if you have a high starting total, like 30 or so, you’ll act 3 times in the round while whoever got say, less than 10 only acts once. Multiple cycles for each combatant slow combat up a lot, especially when you’re looking at multiple drones or characters with plenty of bonus initiative dice. It’s not unusual for one round to have more than 12+ individual turns.
In this combat were the three player characters, Skemm plus 3 drones (Davis the vehicle VI, the Steel Lynx and an Optic X3), Eric the Technomancer plus his sprite, Mister with his guardian spirit, a Jobber (we’ll get to Mr. Jobber in a lot of depth later), Sael (Magician), Lyria and the two riggers driving the trucks in the convoy. This is an extremely crowded fight for one battle and three runner’s to handle, but I didn’t anticipate that it would turn out to be so difficult and take so long. Firstly after initiative, considering the number of individual elements in hot-sim VR (therefore rolling 4d6+DP+Reaction initiative) there were a lot of people with initiative scores over 20. So a minimum of 3 turns each. With Mr. Jobber rolling utterly amazing getting four turns, this made for a grand total of 29 total turns between all of the combatants.
Due to the amount of turns, with particularly ineffective shooting/decking rounds and slowness on my part in keeping track of everything, this combat took a total of four hours and fifteen minutes or so over a two week period (I was late to the second session sadly, so had to finish this off over two sessions). Essentially an entire session by itself was taken trying to get through just this particular combat. Most of all I delayed out this combat, which wasn’t even supposed to be that difficult, by engaging with some rules I have yet to use a lot of in Shadowrun so far – such as grenades. One grenade caused a considerable amount of consternation in “How does this work?” and then eventually gave me the added burden of something else to keep track of.
Most infuriatingly other than the length of the combat and the rapid increase in sudden difficulty/lethality, was how the only character I put a minimum of effort in began excelling. So I’m not going to say it’s a total surprise to me where you make a fight and there is just that one enemy, who above all odds does an amazing job. It’s usually not the case when it’s just a throw away guy I made in five minutes who could be described as “Assault Rifle Jobber”. If you’re wondering about my term “Jobber”, it’s what I call generic minions or fellows who exist to pad out encounters. Here though Mr. Jobber managed to outdo both of the NPCs I put effort in, with the decker/pistol specialist Lyria and the mage Sael both dying without too much impact on the fight.
The Jobber with his AK-97, very high initiative and amazing ability to not be hit by *anything* meant he kept the fight going for a considerable while. In fact not only did the Jobber do that, but he almost one shot and killed my first player character in Shadowrun when he inflicted 1 box of damage off “instant death” on Mister. His other achievements were helping with the surviving rigger running over the steel lynx drone (which again, I almost destroyed in one hit) and managing to almost blow up Davis (the runners personal APC/transport) with his disposable Aztechnology striker. In effect the amount of damage inflicted across the runners was considerably higher than I thought he would manage.
In some ways, this fight was frustrating but it was somewhat redeemed by the sheer hilarity of the carnage inflicted. It also had one of the best moments that has happened in my shadowrun games so far, where Just Eric decided to pull out his Katana and charge down the jobber escaping in the last drone truck (the rigger having met an unfortunate end just before then). Despite the ridiculous odds against him for this attack, some of which were because he wasn’t actually very good at using the katana, he managed to hit. Not only did he hit, but the Jobber’s insane luck straight up ran out: He got impaled and killed through the door of the truck by the Katana – ending the fight.
The runners had the deep weed they needed, but the entire battle had been much more of a drain on their resources than I wanted or anticipated. Additionally the sheer length of time of the fight was also a considerable issue. Let’s discuss what went wrong.
Overestimating and Underestimating Elements
What happened in this encounter, including its higher than expected difficulty, length and Jobber who excelled beyond all means is not an uncommon thing in a roleplaying game. There will be times where you, as the GM, just have insanely hot dice or your players will roll like they couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn at point blank. It’s also a good lesson in game design, because the fact this encounter turned up this way was entirely my fault and the system was not a huge factor. Here are my main mistakes and how, in hindsight, I should have fixed them.
- The Jobber. The reason this guy excelled was because of his very high amount of initiative dice – 4d6 – combined with having an assault weapon. Shadowrun places a lot of power in the hands of assault weapons like AK-97s and other guns that can “Full auto”. More so if you decide to judiciously use these things. Additionally, I gave him and used the term “Jobber” while actively naming the other two characters I put more effort into. Naturally “You don’t even have a name tag!” is a powerful effect and my players shot both the mage and other named enemy to bits. This left the guy who actually proved to be more dangerous free reign to take a better position and make that fully auto assault rifle count. By the time the players realized he needed to be dealt with, the majority of the damage had been done and he survived what attacks they threw at him.
Fixing this would have involved making it more clear that he was actually more of a threat. Spending most of the first initiative passes being distracted by how grenades work – which ultimately amounted to very little – instead of showing how strong that assault rifle was would have been better. Likewise while suitable “comedy” names for seemingly irrelevant “minions” can be fun, it did help lure my players into underestimating the threat of Mr. Jobber. There’s a very good reason both of the named enemies died in this encounter first, despite them ultimately proving to be much less of a threat.
- The total number of enemies and things for the players to deal with in this encounter – remembering there are only 3 runners – was simply too high. I originally thought that I would get a couple of other players when this started to occur, which meant I hoped that there would be at least four participating. Due to players dropping out, I only had the 3 runners to work with and I made a very bad error: I overestimated how much the non-jumped in drones and summoned spirits could affect the combat. In reality, because they roll a poor amount of dice for attacking or were outright targets – in the case of the spirit – their effect was rather subdued. In particular, the decent intuition and reaction of Mr. Jobber made him particularly hard to actually hit for them without an exceptionally lucky roll.
In reality I should have absolutely reduced the number of things going on in this encounter. The guards should have had just the one vehicle – that had the deepweed – instead of two as a good example. This would have meant the runners attention would have been far less divided than it was. Getting rid of both riggers and vehicles occupied a lot of their time, which would have been better spent trying to kill the active enemies. Alternatively, having one of the security guards removed would have enabled them to end the encounter faster and thus we wouldn’t have spent a session worth in time on one combat. In essence, I won’t rely on players making up numbers with drones and other things in future over a full, actual, runner.
Overall while the encounter did manage – somehow – to provide some high drama and intrigue, it far exceeded its narrative and gameplay purpose. What I wanted to be a reasonably interesting hijacking, turned into a very overdrawn firefight and definitely more potentially lethal than intended. Either way, after some game reorganization and with the great near catastrophic hijack behind us, it was time to introduce new players and characters!
Spiking the Restaurant
At this point I had reorganized my games to get a couple of new players into Icarus Protocol. Bringing them into the run was narratively not too hard either, because I had wrecked Davis rather deliberately in the battle in order to justify “calling in a pickup”. The new characters were:
Bavishana – Pakistani born Dwarf and the new party Face
Sophia – Elf and another general Magic user (somewhat more focus on combat spells compared with Mister)
These characters were both excellent additions to the party, because we had previously lost Kelpie (Face) and Mamba (Street Samurai), so the extra capabilities in diplomacy and combat were welcome.
In any event, it was time to actually finish off the run and here I needed to consider some things. While I allowed the new players to introduce their characters, roleplay with the existing characters and ease their way into the run to finish it off, I was only thinking about one thing: I do not want another combat this session. By this point even though I’m writing this report all at once, you’re actually looking at around 2.5 sessions worth of play and that’s a long time for one run. A further fight would potentially not be able to be finished the end of the session, which could extend out my “lighter tone satire run” out another part session. As a result, I used my GM fiat a bit to make life somewhat easier.
For example, I allowed the players to get in touch with Arias and let her know something bad, probably involving spirits, was going to happen at a location downtown. Arias, being suspicious of the players but overall wanting to keep them on side, decided to make a suitably armed HTR team available. Yes, this is a total cop out and yes, I absolutely should have forced the runners to fight their way out of the restaurant filled with chittering Insect Spirits. I also deliberately glossed over further interactions with the Insect Shaman herself and getting her alongside, because technically the party had already semi-negotiated with her previously anyway. Although neither solution was satisfying to me and I felt inhibited some great roleplaying moments, I did need to think about the time spent on the run so far. Essentially both things sped up the narrative towards the conclusion – actually spiking the food.
Thankfully both dice and the players plan assisted my goals. Eric was able to easily hack the restaurants systems and get control over their security systems, all without much drama. This meant getting Sophie and Bavishana into the place disguised as “Health inspectors” was easy. I even got to ensure Eric got a nice moment where the manager almost found out they were imposters, but Eric dramatically crashed the guys personal computer and reset it before he could do so. Skemm starting a fight outside in the restaurant drew out the manager and the kitchen staff, leaving the two “Health inspectors” to spike the food.
Once the deep weed took effect the Insect Shaman did her bit and the resulting chaos ensured that Burger Caesar’s business was finished. It only came at the low cost of 80 deaths due to the rampaging Insect Spirits! Either way, the party debated the morality of this a bit and then decided to count all of their money, which says a bit about the conscience of your average Shadowrunner. Most importantly, it had been a really smooth run and I didn’t feel like there was any real threat of needing another combat.
With only two more runs to go before I end this campaign, I’ve come to the point where I feel I have a good grasp on how I want to run Shadowrun in the future. Eden’s Ark, which will be following on from this game, is going to have a lot of changes. For now I’m pleased with how the overall run worked out, but the long combat right in the middle extended this out a bit further than I would have liked. Either way, I am hoping the final couple of runs builds to an exciting crescendo and I finish the game off in genuine style.