One of my great regrets from last year, was how I bungled the running of my two Shadowrun games quite considerably. For one thing, I didn’t really have a good grasp of the system when I started running it, because Shadowrun is a majorly dense system in terms of both mechanics and style. The most notable way that I made serious missteps with both games, was that I never really captured a balance between Pink Mohawk (blowing things up) and Black Trenchcoat (More careful infiltration) styles. Both games I asked players to build characters that didn’t necessarily do well in one or the other, with some situations having much more difficulty than intended because of it.
After a lot of thought, I’ve gone back to my original idea for Shadowrun: Mostly Flesh and Steel. This campaign, set in the now annexed city state of Shanghai in what was formerly China, sets to examine how widespread augmentation stratifies society. Shadowrun is a fantastic system and setting for exploring transhumanism as a concept, not the least is because a large subset of people were turned into non-human fantasy races (orcs, elves and dwarves in particular). With the rich having access to biological and technological augmentations, which would give them a massive advantage, what might that look like to society in general? Especially one in a country torn apart by warring corporate backed factions and with an extremely high population?
What happens to the people left behind in this system? How do they respond and what do the corporations do about them when they start to get agitated en masse?
Mostly Flesh and Steel Redux: Getting the Tone Right
The original Mostly Flesh and Steel was confused to say the least. At one point, I had this major AI villain whose hatred of technology had something to do with a personal family loss from when it was formerly human. There were cults involved, people turning others into cybernetic murderous zombies and some hints about the inequalities inherent in such a system. Unfortunately the way I designed this game and presented it, the entire thing ultimately came up very short and I could describe my plot as “Argle bargle zombies argble blargle”. Okay, that’s a bit of a simplification but my story had no real focus or anchor for anything going on. I went back and forth between cultists and corporations, without really considering how they related.
Core to this confusion was a bit of a kitchen sink approach I had to everything in the game. I had subplots about the Yakuza and Triads, backed by their relevant Japanese/Chinese based corporations going against weird cultist elements, revolutionaries and so on. By the time I was introducing killer sentient AI in the game, I’d basically thrown nearly every single Shadowrun cliche and element at the wall to see what sort of stuck. Essentially, when writing a story for a game you want to keep your elements fairly low, because too many makes the plot confusing and overly convoluted. In all of this, the interesting stories I wanted to tell around transhumanist concepts were entirely lost.
Part of that is because when I ran the game, I could never decide if it was supposed to be about high action shootouts and chase scenes (Pink Mohawk), or slow careful infiltration and investigation (Back Trenchcoat). In the first case, that’s why I had the basic zombies and similar enemies with the spectacular assault at the start of the game with the PCs narrow escape. Likewise, I sort of experimented with runs being divided harshly into having combat, stealth, hacking or dealing with magic as core gameplay conceits. In reality, Shadowrun is best when you’re blending these elements all together naturally, such as combat only when an unexpected problem occurs or magical defenses being as key to any security as your matrix ICE.
Although I concluded this game, I wrote much more for it and my other Shadowrun game at the time than I ended up using. Mostly this was because I brought my games to a quick end last year, but also because I just had a lot of problems with consistency and similar. After much thought and while planning to start a new campaign, I ended up thinking that I really wanted to re-approach this game. As some of my players are from this game or my other Shadowrun game, this does make a little bit of a problem. I needed to hit the most feared and dreaded of all buttons a GM has: The reboot key.
Wait, we’re playing the same game again?
Naturally the question my players asked was is “Wait, did you just say we’re playing the same campaign again?” and it’s a good one. For one thing, I have effectively just said that what the players did in the previous game no longer happened at all. Another important consideration is that some of my players were actually in Mostly Flesh and Steel, so might be wondering if this game is actually going to be different. It wouldn’t really be that fun to just play a game where you already knew what the twist was going to be, would it? The first thing I did was assure my players this wasn’t going to be the same and it really isn’t.
When you hit the reboot button or say that I really want to do something again, you should only do so if you’re 100% confident in the idea you’re trying to redo. For me, my disappointment in how I handled the previous Shadowrun games made me really want to approach my old ideas. In fact the reason I am confident doing this exercise in the first place, is because I feel my world building and design will be a lot closer to my original intention. A good example is how I intend to portray this stratification of society by the affordability of different augmentations. A good deal of effort will be spent on how the general populace has become highly disgruntled at this, especially due to the instability caused by tensions between the Japanese and Chinese corporations.
These tensions dramatically escalate into the Chinese New Year Incident, where a simultaneous and vicious terrorist attack across the city deals a tremendous amount of damage. Naturally the corporations, suspicious of one another already, blame their rivals for the attack while simultaneously working to put down increasing tension. Most of those killed were non-augmented or the poor, which leads to widespread dissatisfaction across the city. From this rises a populist uprising and thus the political situation the game is set across is born. This is a much less confusing and convoluted start, than the players being involved in an attack involving creating cyber zombies and so forth.
In fact, how the game started was by far my biggest departure for this game. Where before I had the players directly involved in the New Years Incident, here I decided they were just ordinary civilians at this time. Whatever happened on New Years cost them their jobs, or position or made their lives hard enough that they were forced into the Shadows. From here when the rent is (almost) due, they meet with a fixer in the hope of making suitably quick cash and the story spirals off from there. I felt this opening conveyed the horror of the situation, without the effect of railroading the players into a decision that basically made them terrorists. In fact, I think that’s one of the biggest problems I had with how I opened Mostly Flesh and Steel – with a total bang, but not a good one.
Another thing I decided to do for this campaign, especially over the long term, was dispatch the concept of starting my players using the Street Level rules in the book. Street Level does create some less powerful runners, but it’s such a huge penalty in money and similar resources, that it can make life being certain characters far too difficult. For this campaign especially, I didn’t want having their basic stuff to do their jobs be remotely difficult to get. The only consideration I made here was that they automatically don’t carry any money over – from either lifestyle or their original priority in wealth. This is to enforce a bit of desperation through the first run called Rent’s Due.
Although I’m not opening the game with a gigantic bang, I feel this allows me to build a lot slower and more carefully. In particular, I wanted to focus on world building, interactions and dialog between my players for the first session. This might be a bit different than the usual concept of starting a bar fight, but the overall tone of this game is going to be more Blade Runner and Black Trenchcoat, less Pink Mohawk. I’ve seen enough of how Shadowrun is played and how my players tend to do things, that this is going to be a reasonable expectation that they will find that fun. So why not go definitively with that kind of style?
Ultimately when you reboot a game, you should be doing so based on if you can improve the original idea substantially and if it won’t feel like doing everything all over again. While I intend to use some material I already wrote before, I’ve got a good sense for how I want the game to actually flow and work – especially in terms of world building. So while I’m retreating old ground, I’m definitely not going to be just telling the exact same story with a new coat of paint. This time, I’m going to tell the story I wanted to in the first place and not get too caught up in ridiculous cyber zombies or similar. Not that I have anything against cybernetic zombies of course and maybe, just maybe, dismissing them so much just to throw my players off in this post.