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Thoughts For the Shadowrun GM

May 27, 2006

These are my personal views when it comes to the Shadowrun setting. I’ve run several (successful) campaigns over the course of my gaming career, and these points are what I feel are the most important things to keep in mind while running an SR game.

  1. Shadowrun is a game about strategy.
    First and foremost, Shadowrun stands out as a role-playing game because of the roles the characters play. These are not wizards in their towers or fighters just out of the mud-pens of their local lord’s castle. They’re modern folks, cynical and savvy to the ways of the world they live in. The way that this shows itself in many SR games is in the planning stages of shadowruns. Players use their own intelligence and the knowledge that their characters have built up to arrive upon a logical plan that, if everything goes perfectly, should see them through their next job with little or no problems. Now, just like in the real world, that little plan lasts exactly as long as it does not touch reality, but the planning stages of Shadowrun are almost as important as the actual runs themselves. So, don’t leave your players hanging. Give them hints, clues, nudges, whatever it takes. That guy at the bar overhears them talking about their next run and offers them up some info about the corp they’re looking into. One of their contacts just happens to be sleeping with a security guard who works at the facility they’re considering. Don’t make things easy, but don’t make them sit there trying to guess what you want them to do, either. Shadowrun is about more than just smashing the orcs and saving the princess, so make sure the players know it, and reward them when they demonstrate that they grasp this distinction. (BTW: Nothing wrong with smashing orcs and saving princesses either…just a different show.)
  2. Shadowrun is a game about combat.
    Strategizing is grand and all, but the other great part about Shadowrun is the fire-fight. Heavy, fast, exciting firefights can be just as mentally challenging and interesting as a good long planning session. In fact, most SR players that I’ve come across are in the game for the gunplay first and the planning second. So, as the GM, it’s your job to give them some action. As with all things, moderation is suggested. Don’t have a running gun battle punctuate every scene, but try to give them a little bit to chew, at least every other week. If your group is fine with planning and stealth, then make sure they get a lot of that, too. Just don’t go into a campaign expecting all the players to want to be a complete wraith. Shooting the sec-guards on the way out is sometimes just too tempting.
  3. Reward clever planning, no matter what you intended.
    The biggest flaw I’ve seen in Shadowrun GMs (and I fully admit to having done this myself) is failing to take into account what it is the players are going to do on the run. As GMs, Shadowrun allows us an extremely rare opportunity: To know what the players are going to do before they do it. However, many SR GMs I’ve seen construct their runs around what *they* want to do, and end up baffling the players when the run goes off. If the players spend a significant amount of time planning for their next run, the actual run had better have *some* resemblance to their plan, or they’re going to want to throttle you. Strategizing is only fun in retrospect. If their plan goes off without a hitch, they realize what a great time they had coming up with it. If the run resembles more of a gigantic cluster bomb than a plan, they realize how bored they were coming up with that plan, and become hostile. Now, just like with gathering intel, don’t make it *easy* for them. If the plan they come up with has no bearing on reality, then the harsh light of reality is likely to teach them a very valuable lesson. If they’ve come up with a great plan, but it wasn’t what you expected them to do, roll with it. That probably means the corp security didn’t expect it easier. And, just as the word of the parties’ brilliant plan goes out over the corporate security nets, so too will you be ready for their next cunning plan.
  4. Don’t double-cross your players. (every week)
    One of the major flaws of the published Shadowrun adventures is that many of them require that the Johnson double-cross the team at some point during the module. This is a bad thing, and in fact is completely counter to SR cannon. The badness stems from a simple thing, which whether in the real life or in the shadows needs to be cultivated: Trust. If players begin to expect that their employer is going to be double-crossing them, they will feel less and less compelled to trust the setup to a run. And, despite in-game motivations on the parts of the Johnsons and runners, the real reason you’re there is so that you and your buddies can have a good time. In-game cynicism is perfectly normal in the face of double-crossing employers, and can quickly lead to surly and argumentative players. At the same time, realize that the double-crossing employer is in those modules for a reason. The two-faced Johnson is one of the most compelling plots in the Shadowrun game, and when it’s done right can result in extremely entertaining storytelling. The key, then, is to use this plot device sparingly. After all, would you keep coming back to work if your manager regularly had people try to kill you?
  5. Keep the Meta-plot straight.
    A persistent issue that comes up on the Dumpshock forums occurs when individuals running games come in and ask questions of the assembled masses. Usually, they involve some intricate piece of minutia about the game, and are answered quickly because Dumpshockers are total SR dorks (and power to them). The issue occurs when they begin to dispute the knowledge of their teachers, and after many posts and reposts to threads, it comes out that the reason the person is so clueless is because he knows absolutely nothing about the Shadowrun game world. In his games, he tells us, all orks have magic powers and the Tir nations are at war with each other. Now while this does sound like an intriguing twist on the setting, and there is nothing wrong with shaking things up (see my next point), if you’re going to attempt to get information on Shadowrun from other players chances are they are going to inform you based on the cannon that has been built up by FASA and WizKids. Don’t go looking to the Shadows of North America sourcebook for information if, in your campaign, the Bug City contagion spread throughout much of the North American Midwest and much of the country is now under martial law. Similarly, make sure that your players know about your unique changes before they start the game. Most SR players are going to be familiar with the cannon, and suddenly finding out in-game that Shapeshifters are spirits is going to come as a rude shock to them.On a related note, if you do decide you’re going to use the cannon campaign setting, use it. Don’t drop pieces out of it just because you find stuff like a dragon becoming president boring. The cannon only holds together with most of its parts intact. If you start dropping things like the Big D’s assassination or Bug City, you’re going to quickly find that all the rest of the books you’ve purchased are pretty worthless. Trust me, it’s not hard to stick to cannon, and it doesn’t require you to own all the books. A free and easy way to make sure you’re caught up is to utilize the Shadowrun Timeline Explorer. That, and the main book, should be all you need to keep you playing any time between 2050 and 2063.
  6. You don’t have to use the meta-plot.
    All that said, why stick to the meta-plot if you have a good idea? All the examples I just gave above have come from games that I’ve heard about or participated in. As satisfying as Shadowrun normally is with the cannon intact, perhaps for you the real thrills will come in walking players through the liberation of Milwaukee from insect spirits, or in leading a resistance movement against the dictatorial president Dunkelzahn and his awakened shock-troopers. Gaming is first and foremost about imagination, and the main book is your spring board. Go nuts!
  7. Watch your weight: Cut down on Twinkies.
    I’ve made many shadowrun characters, and nearly every time I do, I have to stop myself. Because just like every other shadowrun player, it’s very tempting to create my character without fleshing out a background first. SR is a very numbers intensive game. The combat rules are actually quite simple, but their robustness can lead to many opportunities for what’s known as “Twinking”.Twinking. Verb. To utilize the game system of a table-top role-playing game in such a way as to make your starting level character as powerful as possible.For the most part twinking is okay. After all, you want to be able to throw interesting challenges at the players, and the stronger they are at the start of the game the quicker this will be able to happen. However, given the proximity of equipment like shotguns in the main book to equipment like main battle tanks and shoulder-launched missiles, Shadowrun has a tendency to make hard core twinks glaze over in a sort of dice-related sugar rush. Remember a few simple things and you’ll make sure to keep the weight down. First, no piece of equipment with an availability code greater than 8 is available to starting characters. If the equipment has an availability code of 5 or higher, and I don’t feel comfortable with it as a piece of starting material, I have no problems in saying no to players. Lots of characters have a tendency to show up in the first game with sixes in a lot of skills and attributes. Explanations are definitely in order for that sort of accomplishment. If your character is a 13 year old with a Sorcery skill of 6, there had better be a damned good reason. The most tantalizing thing for twinkers is the old standby – Resources ‘A’. One million nuyen can buy you a lot of toys, and if you’re not paying attention some of those toys could make hours and hours of your careful planning moot. “Oh, the Dragon is looking at us funny, huh? I pull out my SAM-pack.” Denying your players Resources ‘A’ may cause some whining, but may save you a huge headache in the end. Finally, always remember during character creation that you have a vision for how this campaign is going to be run. If you have a problem with a character concept as proposed by a player, bring it up with them. At the very least, make them explain to you where they’re coming from, what they’re trying to accomplish with the character. If it doesn’t fit with your campaign, perhaps there is some way you can work with the player to go where he wants to go without treading outside the bounds of your campaign. An open dialogue with your players may be your most valuable tool to avoid the dreaded twinkage.
  8. There is no such thing as a character with no family.
    Following close on the heels of twinkage in the problem-child train of Shadowrun player moves is the classic lone assassin character concept. Every shadowrunner, it seems, is a relentless killer who went through exhaustive military training, sometime during which is parents, siblings, and all his childhood friends perished. When he arrives upon the scene as a beginning character, he has no ties, no compunctions, and lives for the kill. Bullshit. Even Argent, the badass samurai of Nigel Findley’s books, had friends. He probably even had a mother somewhere. Make sure you drive home to the players the fact that they’re real people in a real world. They grew up somewhere, they knew people as children, and they had parents. What happened to them? Are they still alive? What would happen to the character if they showed back up? These types of questions are crucial to making a character in any game believable, and in a modern RPG they’re even more important because of the connotations of a modern familial relationship. Heh. I’d love to meet Argent’s mom.
  9. Make them deal with Dragons.
    Not literally. Well, not necessarily. Shadowrun is not just a game about guns, explosives, and a world-girding computer network. It’s also about magic, and the intertwined magical flavour of Shadowrun is what makes it stand out from the crowd. Make sure that the players don’t just think of magic as another type of gun. Have “Magical Things” happen around them, to make sure that they realize that magic is, literally, all around them. A shaman with a spirit begging on the street corner, a woman with an illusionary dress at a corporate party, magical beasts and truculent talismongers, all contribute to make sure that your characters know they’re not playing Cyberpunk. And, frankly, sometimes you do need to bring out the big guns. Dragons and why they have a reason to be in the game can provide several weeks of entertaining backstory and intrigue. Lofwyr himself may be overkill, but several of the other dragons are much more approachable, and some of them that aren’t greats are downright friendly. Heck, if they go to the right nightclub in Denver, they can meet one in person for the price of the door cover.
  10. Everybody Dies. (But they should get to live first)
    Finally, I’d like to discuss one of the big dangers of Shadowrunning: Death. The megacorporations play for keeps in nearly everything they do, and sooner or later you’re going to send your players up against opposition that may be to hard for them. Now, most shadowrun players understand the dangers inherent in Shadowrunning, and are prepared for the possibility of their character not making it through a particularly tough session. The death of a character is very frustrating, effectively nullifying all of the players efforts to date in-game and in preparation for character creation. So, my last statement is to consider the mortality of a character carefully before weighing in on the side of the Reaper. If a character has lived an interesting and full life as a runner, karma siding with the bad guys for once makes sense. But killing a new character one or two sessions old just seems a little pointless. Fudging the dice every once in a while is a time honored GM tradition. Don’t use it all the time, but let your players get into the meat of the campaign before death starts becoming a constant companion. Also, if you feel comfortable with it, make sure you offer your players the option to use the “Hand of God”, as detailed in the Shadowrun Companion. Of course, all bets are off if the players insist on doing something dumb. At that point, the universe is asking you to cack them. And good luck doing it.
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