Shadowrun is a bottomless pit of entertainment. Digging into it is invigorating yet messy. Progress isn’t measured by how far down you get, rather it has everything to do with how precisely you wield your shovel. Dig too deeply too soon and your ditch is going to collapse under the burden of its own ambition, entombing your character in dirt you’ve neglected to clear. If you take your time, however, the system allows you to carve out trenches as intricate as you see fit.
After finding a group willing to put up with fresh meat, I decided to join their ranks along with my roommate John (not to be confused with our other roommate, Eric, cousin of Dennis for those keeping score at home). My limited comprehension of the game’s setting and mechanics led me to envisioning my first character as a technophile, specialized in rigging drones and piloting vehicles. John wanted to be a top-notch infiltrator.
I first heard about Shadowrun thanks to its many video-game adaptations. It features a unique amalgamation of sci-fi and fantasy filtered through a distinctly cyberpunk perspective, where a realm of magic, orcs, elves and trolls is recontextualized within the premise of a near-future dystopia. All the Gibsonian elements are present and accounted for: oppressive corporations, cybernetic augmentation, globalized computer networks and plenty of gunfights. Think Dungeons & Dragons meets Android: Netrunner.
Like any other tabletop role-playing game, actions are determined by your character’s stats and the outcome of rolling dice. Everything from negotiations to fireballs are figured out this way; all a player needs to do is declare an action and the game master – or GM, who is responsible for creating missions and controlling non-player characters – will help figure out what exactly should be rolled, if necessary. Above all else, staying in-character is paramount to enjoying Shadowrun.
We stepped into the first session armed with ignorance, courage and pre-generated characters, not to mention hopes of not slowing down the group too much. I’ve always considered myself a strong swimmer when diving into the deep end, but the weight of Shadowrun had me struggling to stay afloat. Its rulebook is almost academic in scope. Unlike the other tabletop games I’ve featured thus far, these rules weren’t to be learned – they were to be studied.
Luckily John and I are running with experts. Most of these guys have played for years and know the guidebooks inside and out. They were immensely patient, especially seeing as we were strangers to both them and the Sixth World. (That’s what you call Earth in Shadowrun when you’re part of the in-crowd. See? I’m learning!)
The campaign we joined is set in Manhattan, which is one of the tamer locations thanks to the city resting under the thumb of corporate regimes and organized crime. Order is preserved at the cost of any sense of liberty or privacy. Between its frequent security checkpoints, rampant extortion, and pervasive surveillance, Shadowrunners operating in the area are suggested to tread lightly. There’s no storming a headquarters with guns a’blazing in New York. Combat happens on occasion, but solutions with more finesse are encouraged.
My pre-generated character was printed from one of the many available online. Since I was still figuring out what flavor was my favorite, it was nice not having to decide anything and just jump right into a session. As a rigger my abilities included controlling an army of automated robots, capable of both surveillance and combat, and having extraordinary skills as a driver. Over the next six, yes six, hours, we were sent on a manhunt for a former employee of an influential corporation who seemed to be fixing to skip town.
How we went about all this was completely open-ended. It was fantastic, to be limited only by imagination. I settled into my support role, trying to come up with clever implementations for my mechanical minions while mostly avoiding any confrontation. One of our fellow players, a minotaur boxer dubbed Facepuncher, was good enough at finding trouble for all of us. Mr. Puncher and a mercenary strikingly similar to Marv (of Sin City fame) were our enforcers, and we also ran with a charismatic computer hacker who took point in most conversations. Watching each of these guys embrace their personas was a truly interactive storytelling experience. I’m hooked. Now I just need to design my identity.
While I am still playing around with the finer details of my tabletop avatar, I know I will play the role of a shaman. Tech-savvy characters have a lot more rules to learn than most, it would seem, and I found this out the hard way. As much as I love the idea of being a digital puppet master, I don’t think I can make the most of it quite yet. Instead, I intend to use my magical aptitude to cast illusions, healing spells and, of course, the occasional lightning bolt. Shadowrun gives you a wide variety of attributes, skills and qualities to choose from, all of which I will dig into over my next confession. Until then, just know that Sol “Sunny” Phlynn, the blind Buddhist elf, will be checking in now and again to boast of his exploits. Stay tuned!