On Shadowrun: Nostalgia for a Game I’ve Never Played

I grew up with Dungeons & Dragons — along with Marvel Super Heroes, Champions, Star Frontiers, and James Bond RPGs — so it’s been fascinating watching D&D’s belated resurgence into the mainstream, from livestreamed play sessions and a big budget live-action movie to inside baseball business minutiae. I actually spent way more time reading the various books, creating characters, and writing backstories than playing the games, and when I started playing again as an adult several years ago*, I even wrote some fan fiction.

My rabbit holes tend to run deep.

[*NOTE: In searching for that fan fiction link, I had the disorienting realization that it was literally 20 years ago?!?!]

A couple of months ago, I started replaying Shadowrun Returns, the video game based on the Shadowrun RPG, which debuted in 1989, right after my initial RPG-playing days had ended so I didn’t know much about it. Returns is my favorite kind of video game, an immersive RPG with narrative consequences and turn-based combat, and most importantly, no first-person and no voice acting. The full trilogy was added to Game Pass a while back, and I just finished the second game this week, Dragonfall, and absolutely loved it!

One of my favorite aspects of the video games is their full embrace of the moral grey areas you live in as a Shadowrunner — a literal mercenary for hire committing a wide range of crimes for money, in the real and virtual world. Where D&D offers nine alignments with a lot of nuances to play with in between, there’s no alignment system in these two games. You’re pretty much playing on the Chaotic side of things and being Chaotic Good is arguably much harder than Chaotic Evil, but it IS an option.

I found myself torn between choices several times, where doing the right thing, in my book, sometimes felt like I was jeopardizing the larger mission. Nevertheless, I did complete one mission through negotiations and charisma rather than bullets, and there was even an achievement for it. Charismatic Combat Decker FTW!

After completing Dragonfall, I read up on the different story branches based on key decisions and was relieved to find that one of the ostensibly tougher final choices avoided a disastrous outcome that would have emotionally wrecked [me] my character if it had happened. Reading a Reddit thread of other people explaining and justifying their choices was fascinating, too. I was considering replaying the end for the different achievements, but one is so antithetical to my actual morals, I don’t think I’d enjoy it!

Even relatively linear narratives can offer moral flexibility if they’re well designed, and both Shadowrun Returns and Dragonfall pull it off.

The Sixth World

I honestly don’t know how Shadowrun escaped me all these years, but its combination of D&D, The Matrix, and Mission: Impossible is 100% my shit!

Imagine: fantasy races, magic, cyberpunk, and elaborate heists sitting atop an intricately fleshed out near-future world that uses the Mayan Long Count calendar and corporate greed as its main pillars. It’s as problematic, corny, and compelling as you’d think — and I’m totally digging it.

In addition to playing the video games, both of which left me wanting more, I bought the main sourcebooks and Beginner Box for the latest edition, even though I’m pretty sure I’ll never get to play it, because the worldbuilding is so impressive I just want to soak in as much  of it as possible.

Poking around Board Game Geek, a new-to-me favorite website, I discovered Encounters: Shadowrun, and a lukewarm review that complained about its complexity while confirming it could be played solo, sold me on it. Playing boardgames solo wasn’t something I even knew was a thing until a couple of years ago, and I’m happy to confirm it really can be played solo. The push your luck mechanic makes for fun, quick gameplay, while the Shadowrun flavor is nicely integrated, which is arguably where some of the complexity comes in. The various mechanics took a few turns to get used to, and I can see it being even more fun with 2-4 players as escalation becomes a real factor, but I will also happily go solo now and then when I’m done with the video game trilogy.

(I’ve learned that Shadowrun is notoriously difficult to run because it has so many complex sub-systems, which just makes me love it even more!)

Of course, no good RPG is just about the games, and Shadowrun is no different. I’m about one-third through Shadowrun Legends: Never Deal with a Dragon by Robert Charrette, one of the original novels published in the setting, and it’s pretty much what you’d expect from a 1990 sci-fantasy novel. Clunky af, full of exposition, and so far, really fun.

I’m even reading it as an ebook that I had to sideload onto an ebook app I’d never used before, so you know I’m in deep!

Because Shadowrun itself isn’t one of the biggest RPGs around and the two most recent editions have apparently been met with outright scorn or ambivalence from its core audience, and live play sessions aren’t my thing, I haven’t found much of interest on YouTube yet. It doesn’t help that a lot of the Shadowrun slang is corny on the page, it’s often absolutely ridiculous when spoken aloud.

That said, I just stumbled upon the Neo-Anarchist Podcast, a long-running podcast from one of Shadowrun’s contributors that, three episodes in, is a lot of fun, unpacking the history of the Sixth World in short episodes. The host, Opti, pulls off the slang with an exuberant touch that might even convince me to check out his play sessions that take over the feed in later years.

Coincidentally, I’d serendipitously run across Opti on Mastodon a couple of weeks ago while skimming through the hashtag, and saw that he’s launching a new game called Subversion, that’s similar to Shadowrun with a few twists, particularly its community concept and morality options.

While I’m waiting to learn more about that, though, I’ve got plenty more Shadowrun to dig into, like this jaw-dropping gem from 1990 that makes my fan fiction look like literary fiction…

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