Sunday, July 30, 2023

Shadowrun (1st Edition)

Content Warning: Genocide

Confession time: sometimes I succumb to hubris. I develop a plan in my head and it seems so cool, and hey, the effort and expense can't be that much, right? Occasionally, this leads to great things - buying the full Mage: the Ascension set worked out pretty well, even if I'm now 2-3 books behind the curve. But sometimes. . . more often, if I'm being honest . . . I get in over my head. I get a good night's sleep and when I wake up, I realize that, despite the grandiosity I felt when I went on an all-night wishlisting binge, the game I'm thinking of collecting has a giant back catalogue, a dedicated fan-base that keeps the prices pretty stable, and a lot of edition redundancy that would most likely wind up being pretty dry. Sometimes, I catch myself in time, as I did with Earthdawn 3rd edition, and I make the reasonable decision to not buy a bunch of books I'm never going to use. Other times, it takes an unwise purchase before I catch on. . . as happened with Shadowrun 1st edition.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not feeling any sort of terrible buyer's remorse right now. It's just that I've realized that I have absolutely no use for this thing. It's a lot like the Shadowrun 3rd edition that I fell in love with, but there's less of it. This isn't like Mage, which dramatically changed focus between editions. Nor is it like Dungeons and Dragons or Exalted, where there's a great deal of mechanical experimentation. The rules seem largely the same, with 3e having greater clarity and rigor, but still using the same type of dice to make the same type of rolls. I noticed a few bits and bobs that improved between editions (removing the automatic allergies from metahuman characters was a good move, for example), but nothing that compelled to do a side-by-side breakdown.

Likewise, with the setting. It's less detailed, more implied, but all the major beats are there. It was kind of funny when the history section talked about the Soviet Union's reaction to the events of the early 21st century, but not like ha, ha funny. They still didn't survive to the starting year of 2050, even if the reasons for their break-up were different than the real world's, so it's not even like the bulk of Cold War-era sci-fi where you wind up with Soviets on the moon or some shit. I imagine that, of all the sci-fi franchises that bridged the pre- and post- Soviet eras, the adjustment to match real-world events was among the smoothest. 

And that was the biggest dissonance. Everything else felt very familiar, with setting elements notable only by their absence."Mr Johnson" doesn't even show up until the glossary. And the megacorps are name-dropped, but not explicitly listed. I can say with confidence that Saeder-Krupp (from Lofwyr's "critter" entry), Renraku (from its Seattle Arcology), Aztechnology (the same), Mitsuhama (from the opening fiction), Shiawase (from a Supreme Court decision), and Ares (from the equipment chapter) exist, but if I didn't already know the significance of the names, I'd assume they were just random background elements.

That could be a significant difference. I've been thinking about this book as having a lot of stuff in place, even from the very beginning of the game, but I could be getting the causality wrong. It could just be that when later adventures needed a new corporation, they just used one of the names from the core book, and over time canon solidified around a few popular choices. Maybe the thing about the dragon who owned a corporation was originally a throw-away line, but people found it so interesting that it resulted in Saeder-Krupp becoming a major setting element.

Time is funny that way. The only way I can know for sure is to track the progression of the metaplot in real time, perhaps by assembling a complete collection of 1st and 2nd edition material and reading it in order of release . . .

No, no. Gotta talk myself down here. I've already dismissed that idea. I can't afford it and I don't have the room, even if I could . . . Besides, my 3e stuff gives a pretty complete overview of the Shadowrun world c. 2060, no need to go looking for more. . .

Okay, close call averted. I guess, for all that I complain about it, FASA's metaplot strategy worked on me. First edition starts in 2050, each new book advances the timeline just a bit, and so it's not just a matter of new books contradicting the old. The first edition core felt familiar to me in part because it was the third edition's past. It feels like the most natural thing in the world to be curious about what happened in between.

Still, I'm not going to do that, so there's no point dwelling on it. Let's wrap this up by talking about the big issue with this book, the one I've been conspicuously avoiding so far - its absolutely Not Okay portrayal of Native Americans.

And fuck if I know what I'm supposed to say about this. My natural instinct is to give it points for at least being politically radical. It's sometimes hard to tell, because of the history section's neutral voice, but I'm pretty sure that in the first section, about the "Resource Rush" and renewed conflict between the American government and American Indians, we're supposed to side with the Indians. 

Right? It seems very obvious to me now. The government steals the last of the Native Americans' land, rounds them up to go into "re-education camps" and there is talk of "The Indian Question" that seems like a very deliberate word choice.

But then, when it does bust-out the g-word, it's as part of a rhetorical question, "Was this a deliberate plan of genocide, as Coleman would one day claim?"

I mean, yeah, probably, but why are you asking me? It's an issue that comes up from time to time with older works. John Milton really didn't intend to make Satan so charismatic, even subconsciously. He really did have such a dour and soul-crushing theology that he couldn't tell "better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven" was one of history's rawest lines. To him, the line was a flashing neon sign pointing to this guy being totally and irredeemably corrupt. It was unthinkable that someone could ever think that there was anything better than serving God. That a character would boldly claim otherwise was a sure sign that they were evil incarnate.

So, it's possible that the answer to the rhetorical question was meant to be "no, the United States would never enact a deliberate plan of genocide." Certainly, the "Street Cop" description ("A few cops have, as always, succumbed to the temptation of their positions and become 'bad cops,' but most remain true to their honor") suggests some unexamined conservatism on the parts of the authors (almost as if they're reluctant to really embrace the "punk" part of the genre), but I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt here for two reasons. The first is that I'm familiar with FASA's larger body of work and while they didn't always do it well, it's clear to me that they at least thought about these matters. The second reason is that this book was written relatively recently, and I'm pretty sure 1989 was on the cusp of the 90s trend of reevaluating the historiography surrounding colonialism. Dances With Wolves would win Best Picture for 90-91 and Shadowrun has a very similar vibe.

Also, like Dances With Wolves, this book winds up hitting almost every item on a "how not to write Native Americans" checklist. And that, too, feels authentic to me. I called it "politically radical" not just because it portrayed the USA as a villain, but because of the way that villainy was resolved - the emergence of magic is an equalizing force that allows an alliance of Native Americans to defeat the US military and decolonize much of the western United States. However, while the premise has genuine punk potential, the execution . . . let's call it "idealized to the point of being condescending." The reason the Indians were able to win is because they were more in touch with nature, and thus their innate spirituality let them get the jump on everyone else once magic re-emerged.

The end result is a cyberpunk setting that does almost nothing to explore the punk potential in an oppressed group turning the tables on the capitalist-imperialist hegemony that rules the world. Instead, the Native Americans are used as a stand-in for an environmentalist critique of capitalism (and even then, it's mostly using "technology" as a stand-in for capitalism - in particular, soy takes a real beating here, despite being environmentally much friendlier than most of the foods it replaced). It's not nothing, but also, it's not good.

All that being said, I still really like Shadowrun. It's got a unique voice that's apparent even at this early date, and when it's not being racist, it does a lot of interesting fantasy world-building. There's a lot of room for improvement, but I'm looking forward to seeing if they can pull it off.

Ukss Contribution: I'll admit, the racial issues surrounding this game's depiction of Native Americans are beyond my ability to completely parse. The feeling I got was "well-meaning, but clumsy to the point of offensiveness." It also had some issues with anti-Asian bias (including one appearance of "the Orient") that it clearly inherited from 80s cyberpunk. It didn't make me too terribly uncomfortable, but why would it? I'm as white as they come. It's not as bad as Destiny's Price, which I gave a pass to, but I'm thinking I made a mistake with Destiny's Price. I'm going to pick something, though if you were to come to me and say that Shadowrun was beyond the pale, I wouldn't be inclined to argue against you.

My choice here - a dragon owning a major corporation. Not Lofwyr, specifically, because he's too iconic to Shadowrun, but essentially the same archetype.

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