Friday, May 24, 2024

Shadowrun 3rd Edition Core

The original Shadowrun was published in 1989 and was set in the year 2050. If the timeline had not advanced between editions, we'd have passed the halfway point on its timeline five years ago. Shadowrun 3rd Edition was published in 1998 and set in the year 2060. We'll pass the halfway point in its timeline in 2029. In either case, I'm in the awkward position of feeling like the timeline's endpoint is less foreign than its beginning.

Maybe it's a matter of being middle-aged. I definitely remember a time when CDs felt really futuristic, and certainly when I first read this book, all those decades ago, I never even blinked at the idea that we'd still be listening to them in 60 years, but that person - the callow, fresh-faced sixteen-year-old who had barely even heard of the internet and whose experience with capitalism was purely second-hand and abstract - seems utterly alien to me now. I still occasionally cringe at his social faux pas, and sometimes am a little bitter at the way he squandered his potential, but it's all so distant. The late-capitalist cyberpunk distopia of the year 2060, on the other hand . . . that shit feels imminent.

At various points in the text, I'd find myself asking "who is all this for?" Upon reflection, it was mostly for that know-nothing kid, and only a little bit for me. . . 

And I'm not just talking about the superficial stuff, like the fact that the equipment section had futuristic pagers and ruinously expensive computer memory (a hard drive capable of storing a single two-hour movie would, by strict reading of the rules, cost as much as two months of rent). I'm actually part of a dying breed who can still remember when scamming a free long-distance phone call from the telecom company was an impressive bit of techno-wizardry. No, I found Shadowrun 3rd Edition to be unsatisfying on aa deeper level - it's a distopian sci-fi world that somehow manages to miss most of my current anxieties about the future.

I mean, there is pollution and the privatization of public services, but not one word about global warming. There's a deadly pandemic, but they kind of gloss over it.  Fools! Twenty-five percent of the global population dies and that gets one paragraph. Did they not have any idea how utterly traumatic it would be for even one tenth of one percent of the world to die of a deadly plague? That shit changes you.  I still flinch whenever I hear someone cough in public.

Even the megacorps are . . . off. Don't get me wrong, they're still evil. They still plunder the world out of a reckless pursuit of profit. But they're also cradle-to-grave-employers who actually make products. Not one of the AAA megas is just a shell company with one employee who occasionally smacks the side of an automatic foreclosure machine while a bunch of fascists trade the stock back and forth with each other. Even the healthcare system is not quite so ruthlessly profiteering. The hospitalized lifestyle costs 500 nuyen per day, and it's not clear what that would be in dollars, exactly, but it's about a half of a month's worth of low lifestyle, which is just an unbelievable deal from where I'm sitting (I make about 30k a year and even one night in a hospital would ruin me financially).

None of that is necessarily something I'd elevate to a fault, but it does make the book feel weirdly old-fashioned. Although, I suppose that's just the curse of sci-fi. Every few years, people get a new thing to stress out over. I'm sure that 6th edition feels much more contemporary. You can even see this process at work in 3e itself. The list of megacorporations was heavily biased towards the Japanese for all of 1e and 2e, but things are shaking up. One of the Japanese corporations went bankrupt, another moved to Russia. There's a Chinese corporation now. Because in 1989, the rapidly growing Japanese economy was seen as a threat to American business, but a decade later those fears proved unfounded.

I think, as a critic, I really need to meet Shadowrun 3e where it lives - as a crime simulator with magic and elves and shit. And as a crime simulator it works okay. There were times in the last week where I was reading these densely packed rules and really hating my life, but they're probably not all that bad in practice. Most tasks can be broken down pretty simply into 4 steps - the action, the response to the action, the outcome of the response to the action, and the response to the outcome of action. Successes upstream have an effect downstream, usually at a rate of 2-to-1, and the only thing you really have to remember is what dice pool to roll and which of the hundred modifiers you're going to apply to the target number. You sometimes get something that seems complicated, like the hacking system, but most of that complexity turns out to be a dozen different dice pools you have access to and/or target numbers you can impose on other peoples' dice pools. It's a lot to remember, but it's a lot of the same sort of thing, so it's not quite as bad as it could be.

I can see, though, why all my Shadowrun games tended to devolve into pixel-hunting heist planning sessions. The game encourages that sort of thinking. Many of the challenges are easy if you bring exactly the right sort of tool and near-impossible if you don't. I think, in the future, if I ever run this system, I'm just going to lean into that aspect of the game. My previous habit - stewing behind the GM screen, grinding my teeth waiting for the players to finalize the damned plan so we could get to the action already - that was unhealthy.

Now, do I have to talk about the weird race stuff again? Because Shadowrun is weird. When it talks about all the metahuman varieties, the "human" entry is as perfectly succinct and non-judgmental an explanation of the concept of privilege as I've ever seen. But then the "troll" section has a line about how people "assume trolls are dumb because [they're] big" and then a few pages later the trolls get a -2 Int penalty (in a game where attributes are rated 1-6). 

And that's not even getting into how it deals with real world ethnicities. It's probably good that I'm seeing a bunch of specific Native American tribes, but is it okay that sometimes the context is nonsense like the Salish-Sidhe Council? Like, maybe it undermines the triumph of indigenous people against the forces of colonialism just a little bit if a real nation like the Salish have to share billing with something out of Irish folklore. And it definitely feels uncool to characterize Tsimshian as racist authoritarians who destroy the environment. Sure, it's "realistic" that if you're creating a half-dozen new governments out of basically nothing, then at least one would be oppressive, but seriously, what did the Tsimshian ever do to you? I feel like, given the history between European settlers and indigenous peoples, you've got to have at least some justification more robust than "someone had to draw the short straw to be the bad guy."

It's really a shame, because the peoples of the Pacific northwest have some really interesting ideas that could work well in a cyberpunk setting - like, what does it mean to celebrate something like the Potlach in the context of a global economic system of decaying capitalism? FASA should absolutely not have explored that, but it makes me wonder what sort of Tsimshian or Tlingit or Salish sci-fi we could have gotten if the world were just a little more just.

Let's wrap-up here. This very book was my entry to the Shadowrun franchise, and twenty years ago, I absolutely adored its juxtaposition of genres and thorough game mechanics and even hoary old tropes like cybernetic implants and decking through the matrix felt new and exciting to me. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I still find that stuff kind of cool, but to really get into it I have to revert mentally to the person I was back then, and young me was . . . an ignorant jackass. It's a hard thing to convey (and an embarrassing thing to admit), but I found the Native American Nations to just be cool in concept. Looking at the familiar map of North American and seeing these unfamiliar, non-European names, that was enough, in itself, to impress me. I didn't think to ask any follow-up questions. So I can't help feeling like Shadowrun is a really cool rpg setting . . . provided I don't ask any follow-up questions.

Considering how much I'm looking forward to reading the rest of my 3e books, I am probably more comfortable with that bargain than I should be.

Ukss Contribution: It's kind of a backhanded one this time, but it's not quite ironic. The equipment section quite specifically lists both katanas and dusters (i.e. trench coats) as things you can buy. The uncontrolled burst of pure 90s nostalgia was almost too much for me to handle. Ukss has gotta have at least some trench coat and katana guys.

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