Shadowrun Subverted? A First Look at Subversion RPG

Imagine going so far down a rabbit hole that you end up breaking through into a completely different world, and possibly liking it even better?

As I’ve written about a couple of times already — and have posted even more on Mastodon — I’ve been immersed in the world of Shadowrun from multiple angles for several months now, getting to the point where I was even creating my own character, mainly so I could write stories about him. I’m still very much enjoying it, but the complex process of creating a character, combined with the seemingly toxic relationship its community has with its current publisher and latest edition, made me think twice about how much of my free time and creative energy I want to keep putting into it.

There’s a huge difference between thinking you’re unlikely to play something and being 100% sure you never will, and over the past week I started realizing the latter was probably true, especially after Harebrained Schemes announced their new not-Shadowrun game, which looks amazing! (I will continue to enjoy Encounters, though, lukewarm reviews be damned!)

Early on in my Shadowrun travels I found this great podcast covering Sixth World history and lore by Opti, who I eventually learned was a freelancer who’d worked on Shadowrun itself and had started his own company, Fragging Unicorns, “inclusive gamers and energetic creative types who want to tell great stories, create fun games, and foster the good stuff in life.” Shortly thereafter, he announced their new RPG, Subversion, and although I was initially intrigued by what appeared to be another cyberpunk-fantasy setting with a few twists, I was particularly drawn to its core concepts of representing a community rather than just being a mercenary, and what appeared to be a more fluid approach to morality.

Subversion RPG: Rebellion and Community

I’ve been leery of Kickstarters for a while now, after being burned and/or underwhelmed by a few projects I’d backed several years ago, but I jumped on Subversion on its first day and was amazed by how quickly the funding started pouring in. It was partly because the game sounded really interesting, but also because I’d become a fan of Opti’s work on the Shadowrun podcast and wanted to support his new project.

I’m not sure how much of his Opti persona is really him, but there are some underlying themes he regularly touches on in the podcast, which I also caught a few times in this great, wide-ranging AARPG interview, that really seem to be baked into Subversion’s DNA.

Remember the “This is the world liberals want!” meme? Subversion is the game they’d be talking about, and I mean that as high praise.

While it has the requisite cyberpunk trappings of economic dystopia and extreme power imbalances, it flips Shadowrun’s integration of fantasy on its head, imagining a world that a) always had magic and fantastic lineages (aka, races), and b) building upon Babylonian mythology as its foundation instead of the usual European or cringey Japanese inspirations. In Neo Babylon, magic has ruled for eons and technology is trying to level the playing field, disrupting the balance of power while crushing the underprivileged between them.

In this world, the cops (Lawjacks) are implicitly a gang.

Most appealing to me, though, is one of its core pillars: community. In Subversion, your character is an envoy of a larger group — a neighborhood, a church, an organization, a gang — representing specific, meaningful values, and your actions have consequences, good and bad, for your community. Engaging with your community is baked into the gameplay loop, too, and you actually create your community as the first step of the character creation process.

Fluffy Crunch, or Crunchy Fluff? Yes.

I read through the draft rules over the past week, first out of curiosity, then getting sucked in enough that I decided to test out the character creation process myself. It takes a similar approach as Shadowrun, defining your character before getting into any numbers, and puts it on steroids!

Subversion front-loads the storytelling fluff (supported by intuitive mechanics tied to narrative foundations) that used to be the most fun part of D&D for me but mostly came after the numbers were sorted out. To fully lean into the process is to basically write a story bible for the main character who will feature in a series of novels. It includes where they’re from, and A LOT of flavor about that place and the people who live there; who they know; what they know; what motivates them; what derails them; and what they own.

In total, it’s a 21-step process and you don’t start doing any real math until the 17th step! That isn’t a complaint — it’s where the system really shines, in my opinion — but it’s definitely not for everyone.

It took a while to get to the number-crunching part of the process as I developed a community loosely based on the Treme, facing political corruption and gentrification, while ultimately positioning my character as an aspiring investigative journalist dedicated to exposing corruption and exemplifying transparency when wielding power. That core value is straight from one of the game’s main factions, the Sunlighters!

Rebellion isn’t just a marketing hook for Subversion.

I’m still fleshing out the details of the community (Claremont Park) and my character’s relationship with it, but I enjoyed the creation process a lot, and am happy with the initial outline it helped me sketch. I don’t know if I’ll ever actually get to play a session of Subversion for real, but I’m really liking the idea of getting into a new world in the beginning and attempting to tell my own stories within it.

NOTE: As a brand new system, there’s no automated character creation tools to turn to like I did with Shadowrun, so I ended up creating my own spreadsheet to wrap my head around some of the math because it gets pretty complicated, even using their templated arrays as a foundation. If you’re curious, you can check it out via this Google Drive link.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep messing around with my scrappy journalist who bends a lot of the rules and see if there’s an interesting story we can tell…

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