Monday, August 21, 2023

(Shadowrun) Threats

Threats is an example of what I've come to think of as the classic FASA format - it's got 13 credited authors spread out over 104 pages, presumably because the whole thing is divided into a series of short, system-agnostic stories that each present a villainous conspiracy (or "threat," if you will) along with some brief advice for how to use that story in an rpg. There's maybe three pages of actual rules content in the entire book, but if you're comfortable with a fiction anthology that disguises itself as an rpg-supplement, there's a lot of good stuff here for lore junkies to dig their teeth into.

The strange thing for me is that I got this book on one of my habitual collection binges (in the brief halcyon days between my post-COVID raise and inflation destroying the benefit of that raise), and so this is technically all new material for me, but a lot of it feels familiar. Maybe that's the flip-side of making a metaplot heavy game - new books shake up the status quo, but then the even newer books will say, "hey, remember that event that shook up the status quo . . . well this new thing is an even bigger deal."

Still, it's nice to get stuff in its original context. I always sort of inferred that there were immortal elves, from the way the "commentors" (another FASA trademark - narration getting interrupted by randos who insist the narration is full of shit) would allude to the rumors of immortal elves, but this book is the only time I've seen it explicitly spelled out - "Okay, let's just come out and say it. There are immortals running around the Sixth World." I like that. No teasing, just openly pitching an idea. 

Not everything I learned was to the later lore's benefit, though. I was already familiar with Winternight as a sinister organization with a goal of human extinction, but this is the first time I ever encountered its ludicrous secret agenda of bringing the Norse gods to life by jumpstarting Ragnarok. I don't know a lot about the folklore at work here, but as a plan it's theologically dubious to the point of being an active distraction. I still like the name, though. It's gloomy and spooky and suggestive of the barren world that will be left behind if they succeed. Good branding in service to a bad plan.

The only real strike I'd make against the book is the way its fantasy racism dovetails with real racism. I was on the bus when I read the Alamos 20,000 section, and it made me very uncomfortable to flip to the full-page art with the prominently featured swastika. It provoked one of those anxious internal conversations where I imagined myself explaining, "no, these are the bad guys, you see." Although, as a reading experience, the later Human Nation section was even worse.

Were it not for the temporal impossibility of such a thing, I'd suspect it of plagiarizing the Daily Caller. All of the tropes were there - x percentage of the population, responsible for greater than x percentage of the crime, rapid breeding threatening to overwhelm the superior, but less populous races, lower IQ because of skull shape, etc. I get that it was an attempt to depict what the villains believe, but damn

It's made worse by the fact that, in Shadowrun lore, orks and trolls really do get a penalty to their intelligence score. And orks really do reproduce with superhuman rapidness ("Orks give birth in litters of four to eight.") It's the book's position that all metahumans are entitled to equal dignity and that any organization that argues otherwise is a villain to be opposed, but then it juxtaposes real-world racist beliefs, presented in-setting as an ignorant racist screed, against the naked facts of the game rules, which are in line with the racists' narrative. What the fuck are you trying to do, FASA? What's the end game here?

I'd like to think that it was just carelessness, but that theory is belied by the fact that there was clearly some effort put into the verisimilitude of the fantasy racists. I suspect the real intention was to use fantasy racism as a lens to examine real racism, but the execution was simply inept.

Overall, though, Threats was a good read. There's a certain Shadowrun vibe that it just manages to hit - bleak cynicism coupled with outrageous fantasy nonsense ("Bulldrek, fenrir wolves. Nobody uses them as watchritters. You can't train the fraggers - they're too crazy. They'll rip their handlers to shreds along with everyone else in range.") It may just be a glorified fiction anthology, but I'm highly invested in seeing how this fiction plays out.

Ukss Contribution: I wasn't kidding about being impressed by Winternight's branding. It's a great name for an apocalyptic cult.

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