Saturday, April 27, 2024

(Shadowrun) Rigger 2

Hoo boy. This was tough. My level of investment started low and then it just stayed low, the entire time. I would turn a page and congratulate myself for enduring the trial of the Electronic Countermeasure rules, only to find myself facing the Electronic Counter Countermeasure rules. Is this punishment for my hubris? Is it a test of my faith in the beauty of rules-heavy systems? Or is it just that I decided I was going to try and read my Shadowrun books in something approaching order of publication, and because I didn't really understand the edition change when I bought Rigger 2 (Jonathan Szeto) and thus am burdened to read a rules-focused book before I read the game that I bought it for?

Actually, it's none of those things. It's more that I'd gotten used to thinking of Shadowrun books as metaplot driven pseudo-fiction and I forgot that some of them are actually here to work. The only way I was ever going to be invested emotionally in this book is if I were planning on playing a Rigger (or GMing for a rigger player) in a game of Shadowrun. Luckily, I don't need to be emotionally invested to have an opinion.

Now I just need to decide what my opinion actually is. The problem here is that to truly evaluate Rigger 2 you need to wade into one of the longest and most contentious controversies in the rpg discourse - rulings vs rules.

Eh, I feel a little dirty even writing that. Imagine me on the edge of a cliff, with arms outstretched, waiting for the incipient flames to take me. . . 

And now that the drama is out of my system, I can back this up with a quote: "The existing Shadowrun rules relegated the rigger to the status of a non-player character; not because his role was insufficiently thought-out, but because the rigger was not given enough rules within the system to spread his wings. . ."

That's probably as eloquent a summation of the pro-rules side as we're ever likely to see. The idea being that objective, pre-established rules are a way of enhancing player agency. If there's something you want your character to do, you can figure out how to do it and you don't have to ask permission. The book tells you directly what conditions you need to meet and what the outcome is likely to be. You can then trust yourself to the purity of the dice.

Rigger 2 also has the distinction of eloquently demonstrating the strongest counterargument to that approach. To wit, the bulk of the actual text. A particularly notable example: "Because of the special nature of the MSST (mobile subscriber simsense technology) system for remote control networks (the protocol remote-control decks use to communicate with their drones), the rules for electronic warfare against remote control networks differ from the rules for electronic warfare against standard radios (p 184, SRII) and the Electronic Countermeasures rules for Sensor Systems (see Electronic Countermeasures, p.31)."

I left the page references in not out of any passive aggressive urge to pad the quotation's length, but because they convey an essential piece of information - these three very similar activities, that are likely to be performed by a single character, under very similar sets of circumstances, are found in three different locations spanning two different books. And you have to know them all. That's the price you pay for purity.

The question then, is whether or not it's worth it. I think, in the case of Rigger 2, specifically, it probably is. Though my reason for thinking that is nothing more exalted than some intuitive behavioral profiling. I'm making some pretty big assumptions about the sort of player who really wants to play the getaway driver/techhead in a futuristic sci-fi/fantasy rpg. Like me, personally, maybe I would cry if my character was about to fly away in an airplane and the GM fired back with "all the airport has is low-grade fuel, and once you add the loot to the cargo bay, you're going to be overweight, so consult the tables on pages 82 and 83 to determine your overall fuel efficiency and then we'll cross-reference it with this topographical map to see if you can find a safe landing space within your flight range. But a person who really likes airplanes, on the other hand . . .

Wait, I think I might be finding my inspiration after all. Not as a gearhead, per se, but setting it out like that does speak to a longing I've experienced before. The strange urge to go full sim. I make fun of things like Sunward's Martian Time Zones, The Wilderness Survival Guide's fish protein percentage table, and Flying Circus's . . . um, variable weight airplane fuel efficiency calculations, but there's a part of me that gets it. No, more than gets it. Yearns for it. 

But there's always something that holds me back. I think it's the dread that I may one day have to look my friends in the eye, mid car chase, and ask "so who was wearing their seat belt?"

Because there are rules in Rigger 2 for wearing a seat belt. In order for those rules to be worth anything all, there has to be a circumstance in which it's beneficial to wear a seat belt. In order to apply those benefit, you have to establish whether the seat belt was being worn. And since this is a game largely driven by talking, you can only really establish that kind of preparedness by asking the players. But who would say "no" to that question? Most RPG players understand context. They're going to be able to figure out that the GM wouldn't be asking unless the seat belts were going to imminently become very important. There's no upside to not wearing one.

But it can't just be automatic, can it? The whole point of having this level of granularity is to provide options and tactical challenges. Maybe you do put in some benefit to not wearing a seat belt - (it's harder to shoot out the window, perhaps). But then, is the GM left to enforce that

If I recall, the last time I used these rules, the way I handled it was "roll an INT check to see if you remembered to buckle your seat belt," which always got a laugh at the table, but is probably bad game design. I probably should have just gotten into the habit of asking every time. It would have been a lot to keep track of, but that's part of the appeal of playing a deep-sim-type game, is it not?

Nonetheless, I can't help but think of the narrative I'd be creating. Even assuming I could muster the focus to remember to ask the question in advance and to remember the answers at the appropriate time and even assuming this was the sort of game my players wanted to play, and they weren't fixing to throttle me for my nitpicking - a truly faithful execution of the seat belt mechanic would require me to ask every time the players got in their vehicle and then for nothing to come of that question nine times out of ten. It completely undermines a simulation if there is a causal relationship between asking about seat belts and the car getting into an accident. Those events must be unconnected. Yet doing it that way flaunts the deepest and most fundamental storytelling rules. It's adding entirely superfluous information. In any halfway competent story "who's wearing their seat belt" is foreshadowing a crash. Because people only have so much bandwidth and so you have to respect that with an economy of detail.

The result is that however much I may fantasize about doing a nitty-gritty game with a million different subsystems, the thought of actually doing it for real scares the hell out of me. Shadowrun 3rd Edition is probably not going to be the game to cure me of this ambivalence, but I'm looking forward to seeing how the past 20 years have changed my perspective.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of perfectly fine vehicles in this book that completely fail to fit in with the aesthetics of Ukss thus far. I'm also at a loss for things like characters, locations, or political concepts that I could adapt (there are a couple of fiction pieces, but they're mostly a showcase for vehicles). Which means I'm going to have to do the thing where I reluctantly expand my vision of Ukss to fit something new.

I guess my favorite thing was a borderline slapstick image - using the Mana Wall spell to knock someone off the back of a motorcycle. See, in Shadowrun, mana spells only affect living creatures and completely ignore technological devices. So the motorcycle passes harmlessly through the barrier, but the rider runs smack into a wall. If something like that happened organically in one of your games, you'd talk about it more or less forever. (The way it interacts with enclosed vehicles is strange - so long as the mage can't see the passengers, the Mana Wall will not affect them, which is why it's vitally important in the Shadowrun universe to always have tinted windows).

I'm not sure how to turn this into a setting element, though. Therefore, I will instead just be adding motorcycles to Ukss. I owe them that much for their role in making me laugh in a book otherwise filled with dry vehicle statistics.

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