desvoeuxroad asked: I just came across your "Have Fun. It's A Game." post and found it very interesting. Shadowrun started off with what many would consider a ridiculous concept: a dystopian future dominated by megacorporations... with elves and dragons. As a result, don't the developers *have* to err towards seriousness to balance out the core concept? I agree wholeheartedly that Shadowrun often seems *too* serious, but where is the happy balance?
I saw this question this morning sitting in my inbox, and I have been mulling it over all day. It’s a game, true, but perhaps it’s been more of a case of my own evolving perception of the game. There was a component about how the CP genre, including SR, was a twisted reflection of the thoughts and fears of the times when the game was created. Another aspect has been my thoughts on how at some point the game had again become a commentary on real life.
As far as original commentary goes, it’s interesting that Dark Knight Returns is the subject of this blog post. The most important part, which generally applies to SR, is:
DKR, despite being set in the future, is very much a book about the fears of the ’80s: street gangs running wild, organized crime seemingly unstoppable, lunatics becoming celebrities instead of being locked up. Twenty years and change later, it’s still a great story, but it seems less visceral than it did when everybody was convinced we were being swallowed up by crime and it didn’t matter since the nukes would fly any day now.
That’s exactly the world that exists when you read the Big Blue Book (The first edition rulebook. My fellow freelancer Rusty happened to send me one of his copies for Christmas since I didn’t have one anymore) and for the most part the Big Black Book (That would be second edition) where some of the names have been changed.
But none of that actually answers the question. I don’t really see the premise as being that ridiculous. Much of the fantasy elements within the game are even recognized as such in-game, such as organizations like the Sons of Sauron and that perceptions of metahumans and dragons are based on depictions of such entities in pre-Awakening media. To an extent, yes, some of the Serious Business has been toned down even from the first edition just for the sake of actually being able to play the game, but there were always undercurrents of horrific racism and bigotry towards the Awakened. I guess that’s where my perception is colored by my own gaming experience. We would focus especially on the really awful, just terrible side of life in the game and just beat that imagery into the entire shared world in which we operated (Shadowland, which is no longer active).
I’m not sure where the balance should be. I guess to a certain extent it depends on how high concept one is willing to go, but even then something like “A dragon hires you to steal a magic blanket from the burnt-out ruins of Tehran, where another dragon keeps it without claiming ownership. But he can’t do anything to you, according to the millennia-old rules of this game they are playing.” That’s a real run in a book full of runs just like it that ends with you in a magical dreamscape where a group of street criminals decides who gets a giant amber egg that contains the memories of a a dragon who killed himself to prevent Cthulhu from coming to Earth, but his brother came out of the hole he ripped in reality and wants said egg even though the dragon defied convention of dragon rules by making a paper will like your average human. And to get you to give him the egg, one of the dragons, who single-handedly owns the largest corporation in human history, offers the group of street criminals the future equivalent of 50 billion dollars.” And that was again in this Serious Business time.
As a writer, I am loathe to explicitly point out how absurd this stuff is in-game, because the fact is that as a fictional universe this is the characters’ reality — from the players’ characters to the most powerful plot device characters to the man scraping by on the street of Lagos to whom the PCs would be almost godlike in their skills and lifestyles. So there’s maybe some winking here and there, but the thing is that the absurd in reality is reality in the game, and has to be treated as such. That disconnect is really the key. I used to discuss the differences between CP2020 and Shadowrun, and invariably their dislike of Shadowrun would rest on metahumans. My standby defense for years was, “Well, there’s racism. It’s not totally cool.” If someone asked me now, I would just say, “That’s how the SR universe rolls. It’s not real.” Go back and read this post and the linked article about letting fiction be fictional. The funny thing is that while we were arguing about realism and racism and metas and magic, we missed that cyberpunk doesn’t exist as a genre in the same way because it came to pass. The world in many ways that we feared in the ’70s through early ’90s came to pass. Like I wrote in “Have Fun,” a lot of the crazy, inconceivable things in Shadowbeat, which were clearly based on material going back to Network and Stephen King’s and others’ post-apocalyptic material came to pass. It wasn’t the destruction of civilization, specifically western market-oriented civilization, that led to all of these social and other barriers being broken down; it was because of its own success. That’s the ultimate absurdity about the genre, which cyberpunk predicted, was that neo-liberalism, libertarianism, hyper-capitalism, or whatever worked. We “destroyed” ourselves (depending on your POV) by making everything and anything commodities and available. It’s what Carl Schmitt predicted would happen with the victory of liberalism over his own writings, that without enemies everyone is a competitor; without conflicts, everything and everyone has a price. In Shadowrun, the corps maintain an global detente with each other, collaborate with governments and criminal syndicates, the latter two having their own relationships (There are “ambassadors” from the major syndicates in DeeCee to deal with the feds). And of course, everyone uses runners and tolerates each others’ use of them, like any other tool.
There are some serious issues at stake in the game, beginning and ending with the fact that murder and violence, combat of all sorts, is a major component of the game. It’s a game where there is no overarching existential conflict in most of the settings where the runners will go, and there is no global existential threat. Even though all of the corps, some countries, and even some indpendent actors like Winternight can destroy some of the world the fact is that because of the nature of the game as a shared, continuing fictional universe you know that no one is going to do it. System Failure came close, but of course it didn’t end the world because, well, look at CPv3. Mike Pondsmith did end that world … In more ways than one.
Really, I don’t know how to answer that question because it’s so subjective. I think I can have the most fun playing up the fact that most of the characters I play and write about work within the system. There’s very little punk to them in that they just want more; more money, power, influence, whatever. They work within The System and manipulate others and various circumstances. Because of the richness of the world, I can have them interact with and exploit a lot of things that could not be done in real life. With powers and magic or whatever, I can have them do stuff that is not possible; Jedi Mind Trick stuff. My main character did evil things even by Shadowrun standards, and it was just that when the story ended that had she suffered for her actions. But she won. That’s the fucked-up part. Everyone got what they wanted, but at a price. It was cool. It was fun trying to figure out how to deal with the strange stuff that I could throw at the players as a GM and see how they reacted.
My first writing credit will be in Spy Games. I am a longtime student of espionage, and it figured prominently in my SR games for years. Generally speaking, it is a deadly serious matter. In making it fun, a good way of looking at making the material useful and fun for players of all stripes was when someone asked what kind of James Bond we should be shooting for among the wide array of espionage archetypes. My response was that if we do our job right, all of them. It goes back to the realism and fiction aspects. There is a huge variety of material in the universe, and I get to play with it all. I used to hate that because Shadowland, as a giant electronic sandbox, was open and was super-canon so that everyone knew where everyone else stood (Critical when there were thousands of users; not so important when twelve of us were the last ones standing after 15 years). But as players, you don’t have to use any of it. My hope is that there’s enough malleability that if you don’t like the character we use or some aspect, you can exchange it for something/one else without too much trouble.
There has to be some of that richness in the canon story, though. That’s why I am disappointed in the neutering of the Tirs, especially, and pretty much all of the Awakened states. Great, another shithead country in transition that looks just like every other fucking country being controlled by corps, shadowy plotters, etc. People want to have fun, and have different ideas of fun themes, settings, characters, whatever. We should at least pretend to give them some of that. I think the current writing crew is doing a pretty good job in giving players all that we can really give you all: Options. At the end of the day, it’s your fun to have. This is a hyper-interactive medium and hobby, and that’s the real point of my post is that I can’t tell you how you have fun because it’s so subjective, but I hope I help.