Shadowrun and the Invisible Bridge

First things first: Bundle of Holding is once again offering its Ars Magica Fifth Edition deal. You can also still by Shadowrun Fourth Edition from them for another 9 days. I strongly recommend considering either; they’re both deals where you get enough sourcebooks for a campaign for the price of one core rulebook.

So, back to Shadowrun, which I bought last week and am still pondering. Fourth Edition’s rules are way less clunky, but having digested the material more fully, I think the biggest problem I have with the setting is that it assumes that, without a lot of work from the gamemaster, that you’re going to be a mercenary illegal immigrant in a U.S. megalopolis. Any trip to glistening corporate Japan or the jungles of the Amazon are just temporary gigs your undocumented slum-dwelling sellsword gets to pay the bills; at the end of the day, you’re back in Seattle or Dallas or Chicago or Boston in a crap apartment cleaning your smartlinked automatic shotgun for the next meet with the “Mr. Johnson.”

Having said that, the “I am a rootless armed drifter” kind of story works better for me not in the setting they have, but in another. I’d throw out the entire setting fiction (the year 2070, Dunzelkahn the dragon, the VITAS plague, the “crash of ’64,” south Florida seceding from the already-seceded Confederate states into the Caribbean League) and set it in an “alternate universe past” America of the 1970’s.

I just read Rick Perlstein’s social history of the 1976 presidential primaries The Invisible Bridge, and one of the really interesting things Perlstein points out is how chaotic the years 1972-1976 were for the people who lived through them. The Symbionese Liberation Army was active, as were dozens of other militant groups on left and right. America was discovering that the FBI and CIA were spying on or trying to kill nearly everyone. There was a meat shortage followed by an oil shock. 1974 saw over 80 terrorist bombings.

In short, drop elves and cybernetics in, and the only thing that changes about the 1970’s is people have more to be afraid of.

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Dystopias and Johnny Dollar

So, thanks to Bundle of Holding, once the download finishes over my “I am too cheap to pay for cable and FIOS doesn’t serve my area” DSL connection, I will be the proud owner of Shadowrun 4th Edition. I’m familiar with the third edition, which I found required too many of the wrong kinds of dice at the wrong times, but was otherwise okay.

However, as I look over the rules, I feel that, like Eclipse Phase recently, I want to do a “freelance insurance investigator” campaign, as in the old radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar or the anime Master Keaton. I like Johnny Dollar for the theme better, because he had the “action packed expense account” which makes justifying the expenses to your client at the end half the fun (“N¥3505 for one hundred HEAP 7.62mm rifle rounds, because Renraku’s private security attempted to actively dissuade a witness from discussing the events surrounding the loss”).

I think part of this is that I’m not a teenager playing RPGs anymore, and roleplaying a street samurai (the unaffiliated mercenaries of Shadowrun) who is living in a crappy apartment scraping together odd jobs to pay the bills has lost its luster. It’s somewhat like my immediate post-college career, but with the ability to shoot people. Don’t really want to go back to that. At least have a regular idea where your clients come from and a veneer of respectability, as opposed to, “some guy will pay you next month’s rent, half upfront, to transport this mysteriously squirming duffel bag across town; don’t open it and especially don’t fall in love with the red-haired elf inside.” Which of course you do and do, and then the next adventure is failing some other super-sketch job to pay the bills but at least you can fence the machine guns you stole off those dead security guards for rent money. Repeat every four weeks. And the elf girl left you because you sleep on an inflatable mattress that smells like industrial cleaner and random people keep kicking in your door and spraying the place with automatic weapons fire every couple of weeks, the latter she might have tolerated if you just had enough cash to invest in some real cotton sheets and a new mattress.

The other thing that appeals to me about insurance investigation is that I find a lot of Shadowrun’s backstory to cause me to lose my suspension of disbelief right there at the gaming table (e.g., breaking into uncontrollable laughter upon hearing about the parts of America ruled by elves). In order to run a “sandbox” style of campaign, for example dealing with social justice in Seattle, getting to know all the different communities and their melange of species and religious beliefs, etc., you have to be able to reconcile the setting with your imagination. As I’ve posted about Eclipse Phase and its use of terrorism and hypercorporations, for me this requires a lot of “patching” holes in the fiction where I say, “hey, I read news about law and international relations all day, and things just don’t work like that, even if cybernetic elves and nature spirits are involved.

Directing the campaign to a specific type of story — in this case, detective style insurance investigation — allows me to just gloss over it with a layer of noir. Something went wrong. Someone else stands to benefit. Should they?

With that level of understandable, real world focus, it doesn’t matter if you’re investigating the supposedly accidental breakage of a dragon’s psychic crystal throne or the murder of an orc who knew too much at a corporation named after a word picked out of a Japanese 101 textbook.

An aside: seriously, RPG designers of the late 1980’s: could you not have noticed that basically all real-life zaibatsu have family names with some form of industry attached or Anglicized names (e.g. Panasonic, formerly Matsushita Electric Industrial Company)? It’s way more likely to have Japanese bad guy companies named “Fujida Heavy Industries” or “Takeda Consumer Biochemicals” or “Futuro” than “Shiawase” (“good fortune”).

The dragons and orcs and plugging into the Matrix is how the story gets done, but isn’t the story itself. It’s a story I want to tell more than the one the setting wants me to tell.

Any System – Eleanor Roosevelt’s Commando Squad

I have a one-shot adventure concept that takes maybe two hours of prep time, and I want to share it with you, the three readers of my blog. Every time I run it with my group, people love it.

The premise is that, during WWII, Eleanor Roosevelt, known historically for being a pretty amazing person, secretly ran an all-woman commando squad for missions “the men” considered impossible. Each player in the game is one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s commandos on a secret mission against the Axis. I’ve run this both as a Guns of Navarone-style historical adventure, and as a Wolfenstein/Hellboy-style “stop the Nazi occult or super-science thing” adventure, and they’re both fun.

First, start with a “generic” RPG rule system, one that says it will simulate anything. I’ve had decent results with the second edition of Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM), less success (but still fun) with the diceless Best Friends, and next time I’ll likely run it with Savage Worlds.

An aside on system choices: BESM was really flexible, but the “tri-stat system” made the game a little flat; the game basically could have been diceless as either you were going to succeed in your roll or you were going to fail spectacularly. Best Friends was really designed for the players to combat each other, not Nazis; players with the higher versions of stats everyone wanted to use ended up hoarding the story points needed to do skills outside your range. I have high hopes for Savage Worlds, especially since the machine gun rules are the first I’ve seen in a while that have the visceral satisfaction of pumping someone full of lead that I got when playing Cyberpunk 2020 in high school.

Step two is to generate “archetype”-style characters for your players. This is a one-shot, don’t bother forcing the players to waste time reading the book. Any time I’ve made the players choose the characters have been a little rougher as it’s often the first time for them on a system or we just are in a hurry to play. The pre-gen have done a lot better.

These characters should be somewhat specialized; while they all should be able to hide in bushes and shoot at things, you should have some archetypes, usually more than there are players so they can have a real choice. Examples:

  • “The tank”: this is the commando who isn’t sneaking around anywhere because she’s carrying a BAR and possibly a bazooka and enough ammo for both to take on an entire division.
  • “The face”: this is the commando who packs an evening gown, heels, and a cigarette holder into her kit so she can (with her perfect German) talk her way into Schloss Burgberg without firing a shot.
  • “The mechanic”: usually also decent at driving vehicles, this is the commando who can fix or jury rig anything that could physically be fixed or jury-rigged.
  • “The pilot”: If there’s a flying component to the adventure; my adventures often have the commandos coming in by glider or stealing a plane to flee, because that’s fun.
  • “The saboteur”: An expert in sabotage. Probably carrying an unhealthy amount of explosives.
  • “The doctor”: Dammit, Jane, she’s a doctor, not a
  • “The capable soldier”: this is the one who’s good but not superlative at shooting, driving, etc., for players who can’t decide.

The first time I did this I based at least some of the characters off of famous women who could have been, before they were famous, in a WWII commando squad. Julia Child is the best example; she actually did work for the OSS in Burma in WWII. I also made a Heloise (as in “Hints From,” born in 1919 according to heloise.com) who was kind of a MacGyver character.

The adventure should be sketched out only in the most general terms. You can do as The Lazy Dungeon Master suggests and just have all the options briefly written on 3″ x 5″ notecards; I like to outline each potential scene and fill in with just enough bad guy stats so I don’t have to make up the baddies’ level of gun skills on the fly. An example outline scene:

You are in a glider being towed by a B-17 flying fortress. Once you clear the B-17’s normal bombing run over Germany (so you will be hiding with lots of other planes), you will be cut loose and fly the glider to Castle Burgberg. Takeoff is good, but you hit a lot of anti-aircraft fire while the B-17 towing you is doing its run, and it gets blown to bits.

Now it’s up to the players to prevent the B-17 from dragging their glider into a hostile German city, then, despite having been released too early, find their way in the dark with no engine to something approximating an appropriate landing zone. Let them figure it out.

Don’t stress about there being a “right” solution or the players having to do the adventure a particular way. To be honest, the more I’ve let the players in this scenario make their own solutions to these problems, the more fun everyone’s had (strangely, also the more collateral damage).