Just wanted to post a video embed to the latest episode of Dystopian Review, centered around Shadowrun Returns! Below that, you’ll find a cut-and-paste of the original Dystopian Review article I wrote for Suite101. It’s been over a year; I can do that, right? (Note: I doubt they’ll care; originally written December 20,2012.)
About Shadowrun, the RPG…
Tomorrow, on December 21st, 2012, the world is going to end; at least according to some interpretations of the Mayan Long Count. In Shadowrun, currently owned by Catalyst Game Labs, that just means magic and dragons return alongside of cybernetics and mega-corporations! But can a pen-and-paper roleplaying game reallyqualify as a serious Dystopian art form? The answer may surprise you!
Shadowrun – Dystopian Decking
To begin with, Shadowrun is currently in its fourth edition of existence. I was introduced to the game in college, and as you may have guessed that was during the third edition. With each edition, the world that players explore has gotten older; 3E (as it’s called in geek-speak) was set in 2060-2063, while 4E is set in 2070 and later. The first thing a player would notice, therefore, is that technology has advanced – and it mirrors the real world technology of the time. Let’s take the Matrix…
No, not that Matrix; we’ll get to that another time! In Shadowrun, characters can have cybernetic data-ports implanted in their body and can connect to a virtual-reality internet called the Matrix. Remember, Shadowrun was originally created in the 1980’s; this isn’t a bite off of the movie. In 2060, the only connections typically seen are direct and hard-wired. By 2070, thanks in part to a massive computer disaster caused by a rogue AI (long story), the Matrix has been rebuilt to be mostly wireless. The comparison to real-world technology is virtually obvious.
Now, if this sounds a lot like some of the scenes in William Gibson’s work, such as Johnny Mnemonic (in particular, the movie adaptation!), that’s because they are incredibly alike. Where Shadowrun divorces Gibson is in its interpretation of the Mayan “Long Count,” and the supposed apocalypse we’re in for – at the time of my writing this article – 24 hours from now! The “fifth” world comes to an end, and the “sixth” begins with a bang. A magical bang.
Magic returns to the world with a vengeance; those peoples who remained spiritual (Native Americans, Australian Aborigines) are the first to recognize and seize this power – and with it, their former lands. America is torn asunder as a result, while in Iran the city of Theran is conqured by Aden, one of many Great Dragons which rise from their slumber. As “the Awakening” continues, people seem to transform at random into Orks, Trolls, Elves, Dwarves, and other mythical “Metahumans.” Racial discrimination exists in a brand new form, as non-“Human” people are unable to become fully-fledged citizens – never mind the hate-groups which spawn. Then again, those who are find themselves with a System Identification Number (SIN), which is tracked wherever they go and used to monitor their lives.
As everything settles down, however, the nightmare really begins: Corporations have steadily increased their strength, and have received a similar – no, probably greater – status than sovereign nations have. The property they own is essentially independent of the country it exists in. Without a SIN, working for one legitimately is almost impossible. Therefore, all too many Metahumans are forced into the shadows, running illegal missions to help one Mega-Corp gain power over another.
Running the shadows – for fun and profit. And nightmare worlds!
So now that we know where the name of the game came from, the first question to answer is whether or not it’s any fun. The first part of the answer is the old D&D standard – “The rules are just guidelines.” But even under the most stereotypical of circumstances, Shadowrun is fun. Yes, it takes hours to play; and, yes, sometimes a bad dice roll can spell doom for your character. But that’s part of the fun – characters are up against the odds, struggling to survive and make a few “cred.” It sounds familiar to the starving artist!
As to whether or not Shadowrun delivers a satisfactory Dystopian experience, my answer is simple: Absolutely. Novels, movies, and artwork such as comics or paintings each have their own way of injecting the reader/watcher/viewer into the horror, but role-playing adds a new dimension to it. While it’s fair to say that most forms of art “interact” with the audience, none of them – not even the best modern-day video games – can create as vibrant a dialogue as a player struggling to figure out how to break into Renraku’s newest facility and save their friend. Pen-and-paper games have no limitations in their programming because they have none. There is no end to the game; if one player’s character dies, he just rolls up a new one and joins the old team, and the story continues!
Shadowrun is a product of fusion – dungeons of dragons meeting a cyberpunk future, where “street samurais” who are armed to the teeth with cybernetic limbs and firearms end up going toe-to-toe with corporation-employed mages who can fling balls of fire from their hands. Is it original? It’s hard to say that any of it’s ideas, taken independently, are brand new. But as a solution? As a blended drink? It’s damned tasty. It’s also a damned horrifying world, too, satisfying the Dystopian genre quite well.
And if the world does end tomorrow, even if it “ends” the way Shadowrun stipulates it will, hey – it was a great run!