I’d be lying if I said general ennui and frustration with roleplaying games is some new thing. I’ve been dissatisfied with a lot of roleplaying games for probably the last decade, but occasionally it spikes up and I want to rant and foam a bit. I almost had a new post written when I bought the newest edition of Fading Suns. It had changed a few things, but left in a lot of the bits I thought were ill conceived. Now Shadowrun 5th Edition is coming out and I feel similarly frustrated. I want to grab someone and yell, “You left the bodies and you only moved the headstones!!”
On the flip side, a lot of Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts have made gaming a whole different level of fun. And it’s gotten me to dust off a lot of game ideas that I’d otherwise given up on.
As games, roleplaying games are weird. In what little mainstream you can claim for a niche industry, I feel it hasn’t entirely shaken off its wargaming roots. The mechanics are a reflection of your abilities, with some special attention invariably paid towards combat. But then you get to people who really love the roleplay: the portrayal of their character, the creation of a good story, etc. Sometimes you even hear the well-worn line about roleplay versus rollplay.
Which establishes this sort of weird paradox: You are playing a game, but you are discouraged from using the game mechanics to do well. You get called a “power gamer” or a “min-maxer” or whatever. You have all these books of rules, but you are the asshole for wanting to use the rules to the best of your ability.
The mechanical approach has traditionally been to layer on incentives to add flaws to your character that can lend story elements. Otherwise most game design involves (as best I can tell) “new ways to roll dice.” Within the last several years you’ve had those young folks and their indie games trying to change the idea behind how roleplaying games work entirely: what if the rules for the game are about the story and not about the combat? If you are using the rules to your full potential, then all you’re doing is making a better story.
Which pisses off people. It pissed me off. I know the first time I played Primetime Adventures I felt like I’d been tricked. “This is not a roleplaying game! Why has everyone told me this is a roleplaying game?! If I weren’t out of shape I’d flip this table! Rawr!” Because it was a very different sort of experience. And some people think of the lack of roleplaying related rules in traditional roleplaying games as a feature, not a bug. It leaves the vista open to do whatever you want. It’s not like you need rules to have a conversation.
And this leads to no serious change happening to improve roleplaying games. The last hope may have been D&D 4e, which is probably the New Coke of roleplaying games. They tried to treat Dungeons & Dragons as a game, and create the game based off of what people said they wanted. And then it all blew up, leaving Pathfinder to scamper in and claim a huge chunk of market share. Because apparently no one wants change. The most common complaint I heard was that it turned D&D into an MMORPG, as they had broken characters down into the role they play in combat.
Which brings me back to Shadowrun 5e. I have a long and troubled history with Shadowrun in general. It was the second game I’d ever played, after our Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2e game stumbled slowly to death. It’s kind of a weird obnoxious beast, and I’ve been persistently frustrated with how cyberware is handled in the system. If you want any heavily cybered character, you really wanted to have a spreadsheet. I’ve done it with pencil and paper. I know it’s possible. I’ve also passed gall stones. I don’t want to repeat that either.
Cyberware was also a dead-end for characters. You play a mage, and you have this open ended ability to just get more and more powerful. If you burn up all of your characters resources to max out your cyberware starting out, then that’s it. You can, in theory, save up money to buy more cyberware, but that becomes prohibitively expensive over time.
Our campaigns always ended up with mages who had more money than they had a use for (because everything they wanted cost XP) or street samurais who had more XP than they had a use for, because there’s only so many skills you can buy. But only the mages were able to actually improve. The street samurais just spent all their time selling everything they could fit in a backpack on every run, and trying to scrape up every nuyen in hopes of getting the delta-grade wired reflexes 3.
I liked Shadowrun 4e. It wasn’t perfect, but it felt like a step in the right direction. Cleaner rules, a way to accommodate a broader diversity of magical traditions, advancing technology so that it fit with more modern notions of advanced technology. Cyberware was only slightly improved. It still encouraged a spreadsheet. They had also canned a lot of the cheesy fake swear words from the previous editions and some of the other slang (like “deckers” became just “hackers”), which I thought was a bummer but I guess they felt the need to say, “We’re grown-ups, we’re not writing for 14 year old boys, we don’t need fake swear words.”
Shadowrun 5e feels like it’s trying to atone for some perceived mistakes from the previous edition. They brought back all the fun slang. They brought back the “priority system” from earlier editions. They beefed it up a bit more, so that it sped up character creation a bit more. And that was their purported reason for many changes: to speed up character creation.
And then they get to buying resources. And the table of gear for the first sample character gets its own page. To be fair, this is the one with the most money to spend on gear. They fit two tables on the following page for two other sample characters. I mean, imagine that you have $400,000, and you need to list out everything you are going to buy with that. There is no way that’s fast. And with that, you also need to note all the effects the gear has on your character.
It may be that this isn’t a flaw for some people. It may be that some people like the acquisition of mad lewt. But for me its just an exercise in tedium. I had more energy for that fifteen years ago, where I’d do stupid things because I took a strange pride in doing things the hard way.
The book does offer pregens, which is a mixed bag. Sure, they do all the math for you. But (a) there’s no translation of what all the gear you have does and (b) Shadowrun pregens have traditionally sucked. They are fallback NPCs in canned adventures. “Use the Street Samurai character in the core book.” Then you do and the pack of street samurais get murtilated by the party. And I’m not talking seasoned player characters. These are fresh from the character creation booth.
It may be that I have a narrow experience with playing Shadowrun, but almost every game I’ve run or played has been about violence committed by magical cyberpunk murder hobos. (Except I was that weirdo that had this beautiful inner landscape for all his characters.) I’ve run games with very story and character driven arcs, the pinnacle of those being The Motley Institute. So it’s bizarre that they have pregens that aren’t built to do well in combat. (See note above about not playing the game like a game.)
In the past when I’ve whined about this, friends have suggested if I didn’t like the rules it’s not the right game for me. But there was a cosmology that was hard to reproduce. I played a GURPS Cyberpunk game with GURPS Magic slathered on, but it felt different. I’ve tried to do hacks of Amber Diceless with very meh results. And, ultimately, I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel.
I’d probably be trying to figure out how to reconcile myself to another version of the same-old same-old, but I feel like I’ve stumbled across something brilliantly simple with Apocalypse World and it’s many hacks (like Dungeon World!). I mean, hell, Joe McDaldno broke down the whole set of mechanics into a very generic set of rules.
(As an aside, why the hell haven’t you backed Joe on Patreon? Seriously. He just sent out a free RPG that made me cry. I’ve never fucking cried reading a roleplaying game before. But it was just so beautiful and tragic and wonderful.)
I think this is where I finally say goodbye to traditional Shadowrun. I might still play it if someone runs it, because I’m still a chump. But I can get everything I love from it with none of the awful. And if I just want to kill dudes old school, I’ve got Shadowrun Returns on my laptop and Shadowrun Online coming out soon. I wish you luck, Shadowrun 5e. I hope we meet again under better circumstances.