Wednesday, March 20, 2024

(Shadowrun) Bug City

One thing I really appreciate about these old FASA books is their unabashed fiction-first approach. It makes them easy to read. Instead of feeling like I'm pushing my way through a series of encyclopedia entries, I feel like I'm listening in on a conversation, where characters with different personalities and points of view react to interesting fantasy/sci-fi happenings in a realistic way.

The downside of this is that sometimes, as happens in Bug City, you'll get a situation where you spend 2-3 pages of valuable rpg supplement real estate on technobabble error messages, characters shouting each other's names in a panicked role-call, and just generally being confused. Yeah, congratulations FASA, you effectively communicated the confusing nature of the early days of the Chicago quarantine by being legitimately confusing to me, as a reader. What's going on? Bedlam. I get it. A more responsible rpg supplement would have condensed that down to a single sentence, "The underground shadowrunner message boards were in a panic as access to the outside grid was shut down," but you do you.

And, if I'm being honest, I'd have found my suggested approach to be terribly dry, so there are advantages to doing it your way. It's just not very efficient.

Granted, efficiency isn't necessarily what you want when you're trying to tell a fantasy/sci-fi/horror story about a city being locked down and abandoned after an extradimensional invasion by body-snatching bug spirits, but just a little bit more efficiency might have helped me focus more on potential shadowrunning activities. As it was, I spent most of the book thinking, "whoa, these guys are really screwed, aren't they?"

As an adventuring environment, bug-ridden Chicago has a lot going for it. You're trapped behind these makeshift walls, and if you get too close to the barrier, the UCAS military will gun you down. There's an oppressive claustrophobia to it that really heightens the bleakness of the breakdown of public order, the roving gangs and warlords (though the book doesn't actually make clear what the difference is), and the brutal survival elements (money is basically worthless, so you have to barter and ration your essential equipment if you're going to get anything done). Then you have the insect spirits themselves as a persistent inhuman threat, combining body horror with the reflexive disgust that comes from seeing a really gross bug. 

There's a tenor of apocalyptic desperation where Bug City would work really well - you're fighting monsters with one hand and defending yourself from human threats with the other, all the while the world is falling down around you and there's a sense that it doesn't need to be that way. If the UCAS were a better government, if it actually cared about its people, it wouldn't have abandoned them. It's a pointless waste of human life and potential, driven by a timorous and indifferent response to a genuine outside context problem. You can definitely make that into a memorable game.

The only thing that really holds Bug City back is the titular bugs. So much about the insect spirits is needlessly . . .  Shadowrun-y. The fact that they're spirits, for one. It's a decision that's very logically rooted in the setting metaphysics - they're invaders from the metaplanes, those uncharted spirit worlds beyond the astral that no one's quite sure whether they literally exist or are created whenever a person thinks about them too hard - but their origin overwhelms every other interesting thing about them. The reason the locals are having such a hard time dealing with the invasion has more to do with the fact that the invaders are spirits than the fact that they are bugs. Some of the creatures spend most of their time manifested, and nobody's sure why they do that because in astral space they are immune to most conventional weapons. They need to infect physical bodies in order to reproduce, but a successful reproduction results in a new spirit and the half-bug physical creatures known as "flesh forms" are just weak merges. Someone tried to blow up a hive with a nuclear bomb, and that didn't really kill them, but it did cause inspect spirits throughout the containment zone to go into a kind of torpor where they rest inactively in the astral realm until strong magic passes too close and they wake up again. And this last thing is a big mystery because magical theory suggests a nuclear bomb shouldn't have done anything at all.

That's not how you do zerg, guys. The way I see it, the insect spirits need three traits to be an effective apocalypse/horror threat. First, they need to be primarily physical and act mostly in the physical world. You need to be under the impression that this is a threat you can answer primarily with bullets. Second, they need to reproduce and expand at an exponential rate, so that it becomes clear that containment was never a viable long-term plan. Finally, they need to be just strange enough that your most obvious ideas won't necessarily work. Nuking the hive buys you some time, but it doesn't actually decisively solve the problem.

The way I'd do it is reverse the relationship between true forms and flesh forms. As it is, only the most powerful insect spirits can exist as pure spirits, which ultimately means that their attempt to establish a beachhead in the physical world is more of a side-effect of the queens' presence in the astral than it is a direct goal. If they were weak and tenuous in astral form and only really gained their full powers in physical form, then that makes the physical world the ultimate prize in the conflict. Destroying their physical bodies would be a significant victory, but it's not decisive, because they can bounce back from spirit form.

Or to put it another way, fighting a queen is supposed to be the boss battle, but if the queens are strongest as true form spirits, then only the magical characters can truly contribute. If their power comes instead from their physical forms, then the climax of the adventure happens when the whole party is beating the shit out of them, and the part about getting rid of them once and for all by banishing their spirits back to the metaplanes can be part of the denouement. Or, maybe, the queens are just helpless baby factories that would be easily dispatched . . . if you didn't have all these flesh form workers and soldiers in the way. 

It's a minor complaint, though. I wonder if it just comes from having high-level access to the mechanics of the game. Maybe players who were encountering flesh forms as terrain hazards in unrelated heist or human v human conflict games would just view them as creepy bug monsters (i.e. all they ever had to be). 

This is also, indirectly, a sourcebook about using the city of Chicago in the Shadowrun universe. The setting chapter is very helpfully written as an "out of date" guide to Chicago as it was, with insect-invasion-related changes added on as annotations to the text. It's a useful bit of cyberpunk worldbuilding, with corporate conflict, a corrupt relationship between city hall and organized crime, and the occasional weird fantasy stuff.

I'm not sure how I feel about "ghoul rights" being framed as a civil rights issue. Yes, they are fully intelligent people, suffering from a disease that they didn't ask for (there's even talk of second-generation ghouls, who were born infected), but some of them also really sound like they want to kill and eat people. I guess I'd need a little bit more context to know for sure which side I'm on (it's unclear exactly how radical "murder for purposes of anthropophagy" is among Chicago's ghouls). Post-invasion, they make an interesting third faction - able to defend themselves against the insect spirits, thanks to their ghoul powers, but with no love lost for uninfected metahumans, who herded them into an open-air prison and threatened to wipe them out before all this shit went down. I do feel like Ghoultown's post-apocalyptic practice of hiring street gangs to bring them "food" (i.e. living humans who they will subsequently kill and eat) makes them considerably less sympathetic. But I do kind of like the idea the containment zone is trapped between an incipient bug apocalypse and an incipient zombie apocalypse, and the zombies just happen to be the doom that can be reasoned with.

Finally, I've got to say something a bit uncomfortable - this is a book about futuristic sci-fi Chicago that does not have a single identifiably Black character. A couple of the art pieces could be interpreted to have Black subjects, but it's ambiguous (because it's a black-and-white drawing with moody lighting and post-apocalyptic levels of dirt and ash). Certainly, none of the named characters in the "movers and shakers" section were identified that way (though not all are white - one of them is Sioux). I'm pretty sure this is just a 1994 oops, but it's particularly noticeable here because there is a bit of fly-by bisexual representation (the son of a powerful corporate executive who has not yet been eaten his mantis spirt domme because he's too cute). So we know for a fact that FASA was capable of remembering this sort of thing, but they inexplicably didn't

Overall, I thought this was a pretty fun book that pitches a campaign I'd actually want to play (with only a little bit of tweaking), but it doesn't really reach the heights of FASA at its best, so I'm inclined to judge it more harshly than if I were reading the exact same book from some of its contemporaries. Still, I bought it because it filled a metaplot gap that I'd long been curious about, and I was largely satisfied with its performance in that regard. I guess, technically, it's the second-best Shadowrun book I've read so far (Threats was more interesting and more gameable), but I have a feeling that's because I'm just getting started.

Ukss Contribution: In the old, pre-invasion Chicago, there was a series of conflicts known popularly as "the Alderman Wars." As a concept, it's not that amusing: different districts of the city competed for resources and tax dollars, so their local representatives hired criminals to wage proxy wars on each other in a mad scramble for civic graft. But I do find the name to be absolutely precious. I think it's because "alderman" is such a specific and old-timey sounding title. It adds a certain charming fin de siecle quality to your wide-ranging gang wars. There will be a city in Ukss with a similar governmental structure that is similarly corrupt.

No comments:

Post a Comment