09 August 2013
The Old Dragoon Revisits - SHADOWRUN FIRST EDITION
I remember when I first laid eyes on Shadowrun in early 1990. Schoolmate of mine sold me a stack of Shadowrun books he'd gotten and decided he didn't really want. BRAND NEW ONES. I scored the corebook, the Street Sam Catalog, and a couple of the early modules- I wanna say DNA/DOA and Mercurial. There is something about this game that keeps me coming back. There is a wonderful alchemy going in in Shadowrun, an arcane alloy made of artwork (Laubenstein, Bradstreet and others with cover by ELMORE) setting and unique rules. Put them all together and you get something quite unlike anything I'd ever held in my hands.
Opening the book, the first thing that presents itself is a map of Seattle - on my copy I've got notations from some of my players from the early 90s who put their safehouses and apartments on the map. The Renraku Arcology and the Aztechnology Pyramid are quite notable on the map. The next page shows the classic Shadowrun logo with the ram skull, above which is a piece of Meso-American-inspired art. This is where it starts getting REALLY cool.
The introductory fiction "A Night On The Town" really, REALLY gets the setting into focus quickly. Even better, it's directly tied into the cover art, which is a lot less usual than you'd think. "And So It Came To Pass" has to be one of my favorite data dumps to bring people up to date with the world as it stands in the Shadowrun universe. Now, here's where things get a little odd for some people living in 2013- this was written back in the late 80s, using late 80s assumptions for what technology would look like going forward. Bear that in mind when you see things like telecoms that stay at your house, or 500-nuyen mobile phones that just make phone calls. I usually deal with this by telling my players this world took a vastly different technological path post-1980s, and that just because we have something now doesn't necessarily mean we have it in Shadowrun. The Shadowrun tech is at the same time more advanced, and less than what we currently have- and I'm OK with that. I have often said that I like my Cyberpunk 20 minutes into the future of 1987, and that's the way I'll continue to GM it. Moving on.
OK, so there's not really enough of a Native American population left to pull off what happens in the history section. I'm good with fudging that, because I like the implication that the Amerind peoples (of which I have 1/4 blood myself) get to stick it to whitey in a pretty epic way. I used to think about how unrealistic corporate extraterritoriality was, and the huge corp influence on government, and the idea of completely electronic commerce, and putting all your important data on a worldwide computer network so it could be hacked, and... wait... we're living it? Never mind. Perhaps not ALL of Shadowrun is that far-fetched. Just the parts about spellcasters and elves.
In the Game Concepts section we look at the rules. And what rules they are! At the time, the only dice pool game I could say I'd played was really Star Wars D6 from West End Games (and it's parent game, Ghostbusters.) In those games a player rolls the entire dice pool and adds the values all together. Shadowrun was the first game I'd seen to have the individual dice checked for success and failure. We'd see this again in '91 with Vampire: The Masquerade with d10s. So, first dice pool system. Also, first system I'd played with what has come to be called 'exploding' dice. Roll a 6 on a d6, and roll another one and add them together. That was new at this point as well. Compare the successes to what is needed, or to the successes of the opposing character, and you're golden. Not nearly as complex as it looked at first- but there are some strange mathematical issues. The most glaring example is that there's no functional difference between a target number of 6 and one of 7. If you roll a 6, you've already got the 7 if the second d6 comes up a 1.
Another strange mechanical issue is that armor counts as free successes against damage. In Shadowrun, weapons do a set amount of damage, with that damage becoming more severe if you rolled extra successes and less severe if the target makes a good dodge or body roll to resist the damage. This was called 'staging' the damage up or down. Weapons had various staging numbers (this was set permanently at 2 in Shadowrun 2nd Edition) with the lower numbers representing a weapon that varied in damage more often, and higher numbers representing a weapon that usually did its normal damage. The 3L1 Tiffani Self-Defender only needed 1 success to stage the damage either way, but the Ares MP Laser's staging of 8 (!!) meant it was nearly always possible to hurt someone with an MP Laser, but next to impossible to kill them.
While we're discussing rules strangeness, note that the entire combat section of this game is 11 pages. This is VASTLY smaller than the rules in later editions. I'm not sure if this is good or bad - but I lean toward good as I come from the Basic D&D school of Game Mastering - if there's not a rule, make it up. And I prefer not to have to look up zillions of rules. Games like D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder try to cover all the bases, but in some ways they hem players in by explicitly ruling what they can do with the implication that anything not covered by the rules is off-limits. In the old days, we made it up as we went, and had a fine time. A good example of this is 2-weapon shooting. One of my players has to go all John Woo every damn time she plays Shadowrun. I couldn't find the rule for it in SR1 when we played our retro-game, so I just made up a rule. The rule in SR2 is present, but VERY restrictive to the shooter, who takes a TN penalty on top of losing any benefit of smartgun or smartgoggle interface. This just seems... off... in a game that has a reputation for high-action gunfights. The system handles Orcs and fireballs, it can't really say it's going for hyper-realism. So... rulings, not rules.
OK, so I've gotten on a rules track and skipped character gen. Let's finish covering the rules, and then we'll talk about characters.
Magic. OK, this section is a glorious mess. I'm still not sure I grok all of it, since most players I've had for the last 23 years NEVER go astral, summon anything, or enchant anything. In fact, few of them make use of talismans or fetishes, most of them just go D&D-style flash-bang on their magic. In this version of Shadowrun, your Sorcery skill gives you magic pool, but it's the force of the spell that really has an effect on the outcome of the spell. Magic can be quite overpowering in this version of Shadowrun if you're not careful- especially the mana-based magic. Shadowrun NPCs (and some players) had a habit of having mediochre Willpower stats in favor of more directly combat-oriented applications. This meant mana-based magic would drop them like they were punched by George Foreman. Brutal, and not a whole lot to do for it, except for the REALLY effective spell defense rules in 1e, where the mage can lend Magic Pool dice to the entire party for spell defense. This is why you geek the mage first!
The Matrix. Another glorious mess. I don't think I've EVER played the Matrix rules as written, but it's a goal of mine to do so someday just to see how it would flow. Most of the time, I have players that don't bother playing anything but street samurai, riggers, and combat mages. Nobody wants to bother with the complexity of the decker, and it's just that complexity that I, as a a player loved. Which programs do I load into memory? Can I swap them fast enough to get the job done and get out? How long will it take me to design and cook new chips to make my deck more badass? Nope, most players just want to shoot stuff. Oh, well. The decking rules use the concept of the Cyberdeck as a container into which the programs fit. Programs are like skills or weapons for the Decker to use in the Matrix, and the deck itself can be enhanced with response increase, more memory, more storage, etc. It's sort of a sub-game within Shadowrun that I was very fond of - but many people aren't. This is because once the decker goes full VR, it's kind of a solo-show for the Decker while the other players take a bathroom break or go get pizza. Shadowrun 4 and 5 try to mitigate this through various means, but for some reason wireless matrix and augmented reality feel too much like real-world tech and not enough like Shadowrun to me.
OK, character creation. One of the things I loved about Shadowrun was the priority character gen system. Most, if not ALL of the games I'd played up until that point were random-generation games. D&D, Traveller, Marvel, etc. I'd not gotten too far into GURPS or anything like that yet, so the idea of allocating priorities and points was pretty darn cool. I liked the concept. In practice, metahumans kinda got boned. Ever notice how low the attrivute scores were for most of the pre-gen metahumans? I mean, the Elven Decker pre-gen had a Charisma of 3 and a Body and Strength of 2? Better buy some armor, Chummer, and hope you're not the party face, despite being an elf... One of the wonkier things in Shadowrun 1e and 2e was the ability to put top priority into gear/cyber/stuff and get a cool MILLION nuyen to spend. I've yet to see someone spend that much scratch elegantly. You usually end up either trying to buy a single, REALLY hot piece of deltaware and eating most of it, or ending up with a chunk left over that isn't enough for anything super-awesome but is still somewhere around 200k nuyen, because by the time you've spent 800k what do you really need?
Ah, the gear. Iconic stuff in there. The Ares Predator (the Robocop gun)... The Colt American L36 (the Battletech gun)... The Panther Assault Cannon (Don't be a troll without one!)... I will note that the choice between the Harley Scorpion and the Yamaha Rapier was pretty much a telltale of what kind of player you were. Also - the Dodge Scoot. For Deckers who spend too much of their starting scratch on decking stuff.
CRITTERS! This part of Shadowrun, much like the Native American themes, are woefully underused in the more modern versions. Awakened creatures really do help establish the feel of the world. I mean, it's not just people who have been born dwarves and elves or goblinized into trolls and orks. There's dragons, and phoenixes, and sasquatches... sasquatchi... yetis. All sorts of stuff just in the corebook, not to mention the excellent Paranormal Animals of Europe/North America books.
So it it just nostalgia? Well, I don't really think so. Last night I ran part one of a two-shot of Queen Euphoria for my group of people who have never played SR1 before. We have a Decker, a Former Wage Mage (Healer), a Street Samurai and a Former Company Man. We've done a bit of Matrix, a bit of combat, and a tiny bit of magic. So far, the rules have held up. Nothing has come out as overtly broken, and we've had a hell of a time. The players carried out a classic Shadowrun-esque extraction of Euphoria in her penthouse through disguise, skullduggery, hacking, seduction, bushwacking with a Narcoject pistol... Everything's been pretty smooth so far. Did I fudge the decking? A bit, yeah. But then, I did that back in The Day. Did anyone actually PLAY AD&D 1e initiative as written? Nobody I know- so no foul. I'll know more when we go back tonight to finish up the adventure.
Variable weapon staging might be a little confusing, but to be honest the players have kept combat to a minimum to get the job done, get in and get out without attracting undue attention. They even managed to talk their way into and out of some potentially shooty situations- unlike most Shadowrunners who don't know how to do a job all quiet-like. We'll see where the night takes us - but so far I'm pretty damn happy with my pink mohawk and mirrorshades. See you twenty minutes into the future of 1987, chummers.