For a very long time Shadowrun was my favorite game system and setting. These days I still like the setting, but my annoyance at a host of small details in it is stronger than my wish to play in it as written. Still, it’s useful to think and talk about these details. It allows me to figure out what I want to do better in my eventual home-brewed rewrite.
One of these details isn’t small at all, however. In fact, I’d go as far as calling it the great irony at the heart of the game, as the title of this post implied. It was developed from some forum posts I made on RPG.net.
But First, The Good Parts
I don’t want to be unfairly critical of Shadowrun1. I know a few people who write for it, and the last thing I want is to give the impression that I’m attacking them. I’m not. This entire article is my personal opinion and in no way meant to disparage any of the fine people who are passionate enough about Shadowrun to write for it professionally. So let’s begin by talking about something that this game does right.
One of the best things about the setting design of Shadowrun is that it presents players with a very clear mission-based structure. The infamous question of “But what do we do in this world?” is answered very early and very clearly. This is a game about completing dangerous missions for money, just like D&D is about killing monsters and looting dungeons. Someone asks you to play Shadowrun, 99 times out of 100 you know the rough overall shape that campaign is going to take. You see a heist movie and you start thinking about it in the context of Shadowrun in your head, even if it doesn’t have all the same style elements, because the premise is strong.
Shadowrun nailed the answer to this important question so well that it kinda spilled over to other similar games. It became the default playstile for Cyberpunk 2020 against the wishes of its own authors, and it often gets adopted as the answer to “what do we do” in Transhuman Space2, which is so adamant about offering none in its pages.
Like a lot of Shadowrun setting elements, though, this structure has an excellent premise but its implementation gives rise to a lot of unintentional oddness. Or, in this case, to a Great Irony.
This irony, I think, emerges when the strong premise above gets combined with AD&D-style adversarial GMing, which was very popular when Shadowrun was first written. I believe it to be entirely unintentional, since as far as I can tell Shadowrun’s design methodology was mostly based on the Rule of Cool with a dash of “everyone else does this”. If it’s intentional, though, it’s among the greatest acts of trolling in all of gaming.
Isn’t it Ironic?
Okay, so the Sixth World is ruled by megacorporations who control every aspect of people’s lives. Most of these people live hand-to-mouth and work themselves to death in order to prop up the decadent lifestyles of a few billionaire executives. “Wage slave” is pretty much a synonym for “low-level megacorporate employee” in this setting.
But as the flavor text tells us, player characters are supposed to have managed to escape this cycle of misery. They live in the shadows cast by those giant corporate towers, and they have the skills to oppose the megacorps and make their independent way in the world.
Or do they?
I’ll admit I don’t know how things are structured in the most recent editions3, but I remember that the Shadowrun Companion for Second Edition contained detailed advice on how much money your PCs should be paid for those risky missions. I call it the “rent plus change” model.
According to the book, GMs should pay PCs enough for them to cover their lifestyle payments (i.e, rent and food) for the next month, with a little bit left over for resupplying consumables and eventually upgrading a piece of gear after a while. This was per month, not per run. If you had only one big run that month, it would pay this amount. If you had several, they would pay proportionally less so you’d receive the same “rent plus change” amount.
This was perfectly in-keeping with the AD&D school of GMing and design, which demanded PCs “earn” their power and had cool gear that cost money as a significant part of that power. If they earn “too much” money, they would get “too powerful”, and no one wants that! If your players look like they do, it’s because they’re cheating cheaters who cheat and should be punished for it.
Almost all published adventures started with a scene where the party met with Mr. Johnson to discuss the job. In the vast majority of these adventures, Mr. Johnson is a shady corporate exec working for one of the megas. And the GM text for this scene always included the oh-so-funny “If the players refuse the job, announce that the adventure ended, pack up your things and go home.” This is a joke about how the PCs don’t have any choice but to take the job as presented. In fact, the flavor text for the same scene almost always assumes they’re hurting for cash just before they get that call from their contact setting up the meeting.
So yeah, those fiercely independent PC shadowrunners? They’re all wage slaves too. And the game advises the GM to keep them that way.
Were the original writers oblivious to these implications, or are they still laughing today about how no one seems to have noticed? I don’t think I have seen any official discussion about this contradiction in any of the books I’ve read. It’s just taken as a given, and never questioned.
This central irony gets funnier when you add in two sets of rules that were published in the same edition.
An early SR2 sourcebook called The Grimoire contained rules for making magic items. It required a lot of skill tests and time, and the materials were still super-expensive, but the final monetary cost was cheaper than buying the item.
“Do you buy or make your items?” would have been mostly a question of personal preference… if the book didn’t also have rules for making those materials from raw natural resources. You could use them for enchanting or sell them for half list price. You could even make orichalcum, the magical metal used in the creation of the most powerful magic items.
Orichalcum was so expensive that a single 10-gram “unit” cost the same as a sports car or as almost nine months of High Lifestyle. The process for making it was time consuming and laborious, but not really dangerous or illegal. And a skilled character could end up with multiple units of orichalcum at the end of that process. Selling even a single unit would more than pay the cost of the necessary equipment, which was reusable.
With these rules, a team of PCs that includes at least one magician has no financial reason to run the shadows. They can just set up an orichalcum-making operation instead, and live like kings.
The Shadowrun Companion sourcebook includes rules for stealing cars and selling them on the black market, which theoretically were meant to be used in a campaign where the characters were gangers instead of Shadowrunners. You could sell an entire stolen car for a fraction of its market value, or break it down for parts and sell those over several days and get money equal to the car’s full list price.
Stealing cars is of course illegal and dangerous, but it was trivial for the typical PC party in this game. After all they have the skills to routinely break into top-secret research labs full of intricate and deadly security measures.
The cheapest four-wheeled vehicle in the book was the Ford Americar, your typical “generic crummy sedan” that filled every street. Stealing and dismantling one of those every week would pay roughly five times the amount recommended in the “rent plus change” advice in the very same book. Or perhaps you could steal one limousine or fancy sports car per quarter. In either case, it was again much safer and more profitable than running the shadows.
Shadowrun + Irony = Awesome
When these two “oopsies” were first discovered, I remember seeing a lot of GMs go absolutely ballistic over them. The accusations of “munchkinism” flew thick and fast, but in true those GMs were mad that the PCs were doing something that wasn’t in the script. They reveled in describing the disproportionate response law enforcement or competitors would visit upon the PCs, which was just an excuse to punish the players for veering off the rails.
Personally, I think these two altertane activities are fraggin’ awesome, precisely because they allow the party to truly break free from the grind. If your players decide to retire from shadowrunning and make orichalcum or boost cars for a living, I fully believe that the right response is to play along and make the campaign be about that! All of those things mentioned as hard blocks by curmudgeonly controlling GMs are actually excellent adventure hooks. And I’m pretty sure any decent player group is going to keep finding non-monetary reasons to return to the shadows. There’s still people to help and megacorps to destroy, after all.
So I say that the first thing a team of shadowrunners needs to do is to find a way to leave classic shadowrunning behind for good. It’s a sucker’s game. Stay independent, take care of your community, tear down the system, make the Sixth World better.
Which already makes me nicer than most of the people who proclaim themselves its true fans. ↩
I stopped at the end of Fourth. ↩