Something came to mind the other day that I had considered earlier, but never really discussed. Well, I take that back. I think it may have come up before, but in bits and pieces scattered across this blog. That matter is what happens to Shadowrun, and by extension other fictional settings—literature, gaming, or whatever—as the game world has expanded and continued over the last twenty-two years.
If you look at the world information in the earliest games, even as a matter of presentation, it’s usually given in asides. The two most common, perhaps only, real ways to convey of the world outside of Seattle (or another setting in sourcebooks for non-Seattle settings) and nearby environs is through shadowtalk and the news blurbs at the end of the modules. Malaysia was not covered in a sourcebook until sixteen years after the game was introduced, and yet one of the most memorable items that I can recall from The Seattle Sourcebook is that according to scattered references in shadowtalk Federated-Boeing had covertly aided in aid of a rebellion and possible coup against the Kuala Lampur government in or around 2048-49. One of the most influential of these pieces is probably the news item in the back of Imago that announces Johnny Spinrad purchasing Monaco. That item was basically used as a stepping stone to bring back Johnny and make him a major European player in Shadows of Europe and other books written by or influenced by Peter Taylor, who admitted to taking a rather keen interest in this character.
Here’s the thing. It becomes a bit less interesting when you go on to explain how Spinrad purchased the Principality of Monaco. It becomes a lot less free for GMs and players to get away with imagining the world at their discretion when the entire northern hemisphere has now been covered in pretty good detail over the last two decades, and interesting parts of the southern hemisphere have also seen material focus on setting locations like Bogotá, Lagos, and Cape Town. I mention this because there has been a constant theme in the cyberpunk genre, in a nod to the noir genre, of the world-weary protagonist. That isn’t to say, however, that they are necessarily world-aware. However, it doesn’t matter in the macro scale because their stories take place in their world—the world as they know and deal with. In some if not most cases the fiction has as a means of introducing world and conflict to the reader done what noir does, and dumps the protagonist into the most vile “ocean” of (in)humanity the character could imagine and then forces them to swim for their life.
What cyberpunk does in appropriating the punk aspect is to pit the protagonists against the very powers and world the character comes from as being The Problem—that they are responsible for putting the jackboot to the throat of humanity. Books like Mercurial actually use the term “bad guys” as if the grimdark world of shades of grey has good and evil. But there is good and evil in cyberpunk, and there definitely is in Shadowrun.
What’s the point and how does this affect setting?
Well, the point goes to something that happens in genre sequels. Eventually you have to escalate the conflict and expand the universe, and in doing that you are going to blow up that manufactured impression that the world is a dark and evil place where the protagonist is one of a few in the bulwark against some undefined evil. At the very least you are probably going to start running into more of the bulwark. Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” The same goes for the “travel” writing of creating and expanding upon the world in a fictional setting like Shadowrun’s. You cannot make the globe a massive clone of Seattle. Logic and value are both going to insist that this does not happen. If it’s a clone, then what’s the point? If the rest of the world is the same, then why the capricious use of Seattle as a previously established unique setting?
I think I’ve made my point pretty clear that I am an optimist when it comes to the future. Foolishness of being so aside, it is a necessity to the setting. Even at a micro level there has to be something worth doing for the characters. In the cyberpunk genre, many of the characters could (and some do) retire over decades. However, it’s that punk aspect that is a compelling force that I see as making them unable to give up. They are never going to stop fighting once they have a taste because that’s who they have become. They are committed to an endeavor because of or in spite of the odds. To them, what other choice do they have? And it’s easy to think that and play it up, that even if they wanted to escape the driving motif of cyberpunk is that the worst of the worst are also ubiquitous and the most powerful.
Except that once you start building the world, the guy who is the biggest and baddest in Seattle isn’t necessarily the guy you worry about in other parts of North America. And the same goes true for the world at large. To paraphrase Jamie Foxx’s character in Any Given Sunday, “There’s a billion people in China who ain’t heard of Ghostwalker.” So there is a way to escape, a place of refuge, and a side who can support you. Let me just quote myself, from Spy Games, p.124
(>) I understand the frustration that many feel, but there are also a lot more opportunities now to walk away if you are sick of being jerked around by some desk spy. Espionage is political, and there’s always someone who will back your private agenda these days. You can play the game, go independent, go corporate, or go into the shadows. I have no respect for traitors, as some old friends have learned.
Every side and every group eventually have some sort of refuge, home, or backer. With enough time and patience a setting such as Shadowrun can and probably has covered them. Also, with enough time and enough cooks stirring the pot everyone and every group is going to come out looking like what they are—three-dimensional characters who are drawn in shades of grey, and whose actions don’t necessarily conform to a single agenda or towards some monolithic plot and power structure/entity.
Writers eventually confront this obstacle of what to do within this. You may read first edition material and think, “What kind of fucked up world is this?” If you’ve read everything up to now, then you know what kind of a fucked up world Shadowrun has created. There are things that are superhero comics-level batshit insane. However, it removes in some ways the allure and the drama that comes with wondering how in the world your characters are going to survive in a world where go-gangs battle the military nightly on the Seattle highways—and win. But then you see more of the world, and it becomes clear that there is a reason for this that does not necessarily equate to go-gangs being inherently better. The problem does become one if you adhere to the storyline and “fluff” canon because whatever demented fever dreams your brain was coming up with back in 1990 are probably not the official line in 2011.
It’s a shame to the creative endeavor that building a world is like building a dam. It has more substance to it, and there is more known data that contains potential for expansion. However, it cuts off other routes for the water to flow, and unless we’re discussing the DC Universe you can’t just reboot the thing without causing some serious damage. Even “repairing” something only serves to patch over something that others may have thought was a good piece of material, and you’ve still in the end just locked the rest of the thing into one closed system only with a shiny new patch over one part that may or may not be just as good as the old “broken” piece. And this metaphor just extends to the fiction, the “fluff,” which many people seem to think is malleable and optional (And it is, like everything in any RPG. However, one hopes that it all works with the rules and “crunch” as a holistic body of work), and not to the rules. However, that is a whole other post.