Shadowrun: My Friend, My Enemy

Taking a bit of a break from other writing to poke around on here.

Because I’m an addict, I’ve been mulling around what I’m going to run next. I have, at any given time, three or four ideas that I’m poking around. This usually results in me pulling down game books and poking through them, leaving them scattered around the apartment and frustrating my girlfriend with the mess I’ve made. I also bounce these ideas off my girlfriend to get some feedback.

The other day the girlfriend said, “I know what I want you to run next: A Shadowrun game that doesn’t suck.”


It’s funny how two people can say the same phrase and mean very different things. When she said, “A Shadowrun game that doesn’t suck,” I immediately thought of all the frustrations I’ve had with running Shadowrun for… Oh, dear god, nearly twenty years. While I’m feeling increasingly comfortable with less roleplay-driven games, there’s still a special level of frustration I associate with Shadowrun. It conjures to mind all of the bulky character creation that just drives me nuts.

For her, she mainly wanted something better than the game she played in high school, where the GM let another player do awful things to her character when she missed a session and wasn’t around to do anything about it.

Now, the girlfriend delights me by being the sort of person who does not quail in the face of complex rule systems. She would be quite up to the challenge of making a Shadowrun character, but that doesn’t mean other people we game with would be. And it doesn’t mean I’m up for dealing with the rules.

When I mentioned this in my Facebook status, I got a few bits of input along the usual lines. One person pushed for the storygame angle, specifically Wilderness of Mirrors. But Wilderness of Mirrors doesn’t seem well-suited for campaign play. I would be more inclined to use Primetime Adventures, but I’m not really interested in a Shadowrun storygame. (And, as always, I’m frustrated when people don’t see the difference.)

The other advice was GURPS, which also doesn’t do much for me. GURPS run by a GM who knows GURPS can be fun. But I don’t want to deal with it. The core mechanic is simple, but all the extras that help you sculpt a setting are overwhelming to me. Plus, if I just moosh together the cyberpunk and magic rules for GURPS, it will feel different from Shadowrun. I imagine someone well versed in GURPS could monkey with it enough to replicate the Shadowrun cosmology. But that requires a love and knowledge of the system that I utterly lack. Most other adaptations to generic systems suffer from the same problem.

I’ve poked around the idea of doing it diceless or semi-freeform for a while. But my attempt at doing that has met with mixed results. I wasn’t happy with my ADRPG-esque adaptation of the rules. It was a little too open and didn’t help guide choices for the players. Those unfamiliar with Shadowrun felt lost in the options. I’ve also considered adapting my Pulp Chaos/Rebma Confidental rules into a more generic format, but it doesn’t seem like it would work well for regular play. The advancement in the rules is built more around, “You show up once a year to play, here’s a bit of reward.”

This has led me to think about what I like about Shadowrun and wouldn’t want to change, and what I don’t like and want a better solution.

I love the setting and cosmology. And I’m kinda fussy about it. There’s a dynamic between technology and magic, and a cosmological geography that I specifically enjoy. I like the canon. I sometimes mess with canon in my games, but I like the raw framework. It annoys me when people get it “wrong.”

I hate the rules for cyberware (and, to a lesser extent, gear), especially in character creation. The whole tracking of nuyen and Essence costs is nightmarish, especially in comparison to the character creation for mages and adepts. As characters advance, it gets more obnoxious. It’s easy to front-load cybered characters. But it’s harder to make them as viable in long-term advancement. You reach a wall where it’s hard to get anymore cyberware, while the mages and technomancers have no limit to what they can do. You also run into the problem of, “Cash and XP are not equally valuable to characters.”)

The idea I keep coming back to is to map the cyberware rules to the rules for adepts. You have an attribute called “Cyberware,” that works just like Magic (or Resonance). Instead of initiation, there could be upgrades (overhauls?) which allow you to get more cyberware. Normally you run into the problem where the only way you can get more cyberware is to save up millions of nuyen to get slightly better equipment. Meanwhile mages are learning how to punch down buildings.

The hard part seems like it would be figuring out what to do with cybernetic implants (or other equipment) that falls outside of what an adept can do. How do I handle hacking if you aren’t a technomancer? Tactical computer implants? Datajacks? Skillwires? I have no great ideas for these.

6 thoughts on “Shadowrun: My Friend, My Enemy

  1. nuadha_prime

    I have seen some good conversion work done for Shadowrun in Savage Worlds. I think I may have mentioned the Savage Worlds system before. It would work really well. Best of all, the current rulebook is only $10 and is a system you could run a lot of genres in.

  2. admin Post author

    I own Savage Worlds, having bought it for Deadlands: Reloaded. (You can find my OHW review if you poke back through things.) It’s a fun system that I could see being good for games in general.

    I’ve poked around infrequently for conversions. The one that comes to mind is this:
    http://wiki.houseofgenius.com/index.php?title=Savage_Shadows

    It lacks some elements that I hoped to find. Primarily, it doesn’t cover the tech/magic rift. I thought the “cyberware as magic” rule to be neat, it also seems a little too limiting. If I’m reading this correctly, you can only either take “cyberware” or “magic,” and there was always this need sort of double edged sword of cyberware being helpful, but also costing you magic.

    It also lacks the deeper magic that you find with Initiation, which is something else that is very important to me to preserve.

    Poking through, the author also gave a pass on technomancers because he thinks they suck. I, on the other hand, thought it was cool as all hell. Very evocative of Gibson’s Count Zero.

    If you can find something better, I’ll check it out, but I’m so far underwhelmed.

  3. admin Post author

    For me there’s a difference between mooshing together cyberpunk and magic rules, and making a game feel like Shadowrun. You can do the first pretty easily with any of a bajillion generic systems out there. Recreating the parts of Shadowrun I want, though….

  4. harleqwn

    I heart SR

    That being said, I think a combination of less time + less games with crunch and more with stories = frustration with the SR system in any of its glorious editions, nostalgia aside.

    I guess, at the heart of SR, what is SR to people? Mr. Johnson jobs, deniable assets, Wage Mages, cybered orcs and elves, dragons running megacorps, and artificial intelligences in the Matrix?

    I bought the 1st ed. when it came out and was hooked. I started running and playing it immediately. The 2nd ed. didn’t take long to love more than the first as it fixed some glaring rules and kept the genre in tact for our group. Heck, the GenCon RPGA Shadowrun point build system was even good enough for me to run on the spot with 20 min. to prep. I never picked up the third because I wasn’t gaming face-to-face at the time. Last year I got the 4th (20th anniversary ed. as a gift from the wife). I am now in a semi-regular ftf group and I’ve read three quarters of the 4th ed. book and I haven’t felt a driving urge to finish it because I’m at the cyberware and gear section and I’ve lost steam. It all feels different, because I’m very different gamer now.

    I want the setting and the coolness factor, but honestly, I don’t feel like I have the patience and the memory to run the game a without playing it for a while. That may happen with the ftf group if we can fit it around the other game priorities.

    For convention games, running Sprawlshu, using the free Wushu rules has worked really well, if you want to have your runners be kick ass types in a cinematic flow. It’s not suited for subtleties.

    In response to some of your comments on Mages (Magic) or Technomancers (Resonance), and Cyberware (Essence), there is a blatant attempt for game balance. Whether it works or not is open for debate. As you mentioned, with Mages and Technomancers you get to do more cool things so long as you keep bumping up your Magic or Resonance stat. Like you said, there is no forward motion with getting more Cyberware. In fact, the system penalizes PCs of any kind for getting it in comparison. I think that Cyberware is more real in terms of cost to power differential. You get some limited ability and pay for it with your humanity that you cannot get back. With Mages and Technomancers when you get more Magic or Resonance you only get better. There is no real price tag for your character. No risk in losing yourself to Astral or Virtual space. However, anyone with lots of money can get Cyberware usually and do not need special training or backgrounds. Maybe use of Karma more liberally to “buy” things like gear could be an option? Maybe applying some risk to getting infinite power for Mages and Technomancers?

    Regarding Technomancers and Hackers and Riggers, that’s something I’ve still not figured out how to resolve and maybe that’s due to having run 1st and 2nd ed.s for so long and the wireless Matrix (which I like) has de-classed (like fighter, thief, cleric) the Hacker into something else. Technomancer awesome innate hacker and those people who have bought gear and serve a similar function. Data hacking/combat and rigging as individual roles don’t seem to be as defined either with practically anyone being able to connect to the Matrix via their PANs and comlinks.

    I like the idea of having a kind of dual track of Magic and Tech as powers in an urban fantasy game. Maybe that’s simplifying a system too much, but I guess that if you can find a way to spend Build Points or Karma/experience to do the same as money then you can extrapolate what you need from it. For example, you go on a run and you steal a Renraku artifact and then fence it. The GM gives you Karma that you as Players can call money or favors with a contact or whatever in order to advance your character through a story… I take my share of the funds (3 pts Karma) and get an upgrade to my Wired Reflexes, or pull together a group of Shaman to go on an Astral Quest for power.

    That all being said, I’m going to give SW a try this year and will likely run an SR game at a con using the lethal Dogs in the Vineyard rules since it’s worked great for Star Wars already.

  5. admin Post author

    Re: I heart SR

    I think we’re on the same page about Shadowrun, at least in terms of our experience. SR was the second game I played after AD&D 2e, and we never looked back after that. We tried other games, primarily Earthdawn and oWoD. But we kept coming back to Shadowrun.

    I was pretty underwhelmed with Dogs, though, so that probably won’t be the route I take. Were I to go all indie game on this, I’d be hard pressed to do anything besides Primetime Adventures. I’ve heard of people repurposing Agon or The Mountain Witch, but I’d prefer a bit more of a standard RPG setup.

    SR’s the sort of game where I love the setting a little too much to bend on some details. I bend on some, and play around in the background, but nothing drives me nuts more than someone getting it wrong. I played in a freeform game at ACNW several years back, where we got to be “any character, any genre.” Someone had a character from Shadowrun, and she was both a master hacker and mage. I kept my mouth shut, but my hackles were up. I don’t care what you do if you mash up magic and cyberpunk, just don’t call it Shadowrun.

    Part of my drive to try and find a different way to use the rules is that I want to break out of the “only shadowrunners” mold. Most campaign alternatives in the book are things like “be cops instead of Shadowrunners!” But ultimately it feels like you’re playing the same game as before, with just a different skin. Many re-workings of the game with indie RPGs focuses on the shadowrun part of Shadowrun. What I would like to do is have a mixed cast of varying backgrounds in a roleplay-heavy game.

    The cyberware thing is kinda weird and definitely punitive. SR definitely seemed to come from a stage of roleplaying games where nature and technology were at odds with one another. Much of what came out in the oWoD after Vampire fit this mold pretty heavily: Werewolf, Mage and Changeling all had this to varying levels. I like the idea of cyberware being a form of the Dark Side: It’s faster, easier and more seductive. But it comes with a price tag. Where I balk with the SR rules is that the price makes cyberware unplayable long term. If there was one currency in the game that was evenly applied, that could make a lot of difference. Then I just need to fix the hacking rules. ;)

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