Monday, May 6, 2024

(Shadowrun) Target: Smuggler Havens

After reading Target: Smuggler Havens I can't help but feel just the teensiest bit responsible for 90s FASA's absolutely chaotic supplement release strategy. The Game Information chapter, in the course of giving me rules and plot-hooks to go along with the book's smuggling-related fiction content, bid me to reference twelve different Shadowrun books (not including the core, which I have to grant as a gimme, because that's what corebooks are for). I think about this and I ponder the alternate reality where I say, "fuck my dwindling shelf space and modest budget" and proceed to collect a complete set of Shadowrun supplements and . . . it feels like seeing what happened to the other guy, after I passed on the Monkey's Paw. And maybe it doesn't make a lot of sense to feel responsible for something that happened when I was a teenager and only owned something like eight AD&D 2nd edition books, but I'm keenly aware of the fact that the target audience for this book was people almost exactly like me.

Which is probably why I enjoyed it as much as I did. I'm not entirely sold on the idea of smuggling as an alternate Shadowrun campaign model, but that's less a shortcoming of the book and more a lack, on my part, of any great experiences with "rural cyberpunk" as a genre. I can see how evading the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, and Customs Enforcement is a parallel challenge to the corporate security and privatized police forces of the game's normal heist capers, but I can't quite wrap my head around it as a team activity and Target: Smuggler Havens really didn't make a case for the illicit transport of cargo across international borders as a form of punk rebellion against satirically exaggerated capitalism. I can't help but think back to Broken Dreams and its smuggling plot-hook of outwitting the MPAA by transporting pirated movies on physical media. The contrast with this book's toothless and vague trade in telesma (spell components, basically) is palpable. That's embarrassing - being out-punked by Transhuman Space, of all things.

Target: Smuggler Havens almost gets there, when it suggests that New Orleans is a hub for zombie smuggling, but it barely scratches the surface of the concept's potential to be a 21st-century parable. Zombies "never ask for raises or strike for better working conditions?" Whoa. You may really be on to something. Take it a little farther, tie it in with the genre's overall themes of corporate lawlessness and the objectification and commodification of the human body for the sake of capitalist rent-seeking. Oh, no, we're done? Okay. I guess one paragraph is enough for this potential game-changer of a campaign arc. It just seems a shame, because this is one of the few times that Shadowrun's juxtaposition of genres actually enhances, rather than distracts from, the overall political critique that is so essential to good cyberpunk.

Another time happens a little later in this same book, when discussing Japanese whaling vessels - "Of course, the whales fight back now." Big salute to our magically-awakened cetacean comrades, organizing in community defense against imperialist aggression. Someone should make an rpg-scenario about that someday.

I'm being a little too hard on Target: Smuggler Havens, though. It's not really an adventure book, it's more of a setting expansion, taking us to corners of the Shadowrun universe hitherto unseen (I'm assuming). I can now theoretically run games based out of Vladivostok and New Orleans.

And as sci-fi/fantasy locations, they're pretty good. You've got international intrigue and different criminal factions (though, as pointed out in Mob War! it's unclear how the Mafia continues to justify its existence) and that extra Shadowrun special sauce of weird swamp monsters and insurrectionist taiga shapeshifters. But I'm feeling that same dilemma I always feel when an rpg goes to real places - it's cool to see the world through this fantastic lens, but what sort of hash is the fantasy making of the place's real culture and history?

With Vladivostok, I don't have even a glimmer of a starting point. On any average day, I spend approximately 0 minutes thinking about it. Shadowrun's Russia is going through a bit of a hard time, thanks to sectional conflict and an authoritarian central government, and I might normally say that such a depiction is in poor taste, but seeing as how neither fictional nor real-world Russia has much respect for Ukranian sovereignty, I'm kind of okay with it. It's not like they're depicting a historically marginalized group like the Lakota as a bunch of trigger-happy xenophobes . . .

Oh, right. Although, I suppose the worst you could say about that is that it's pretty typical for the setting. If you're caught smuggling almost anywhere, border patrol will shoot you. No real reason to think the Native American Nations would be the exception.

New Orleans is trickier. Call it a victim of early Shadowrun's half-assed worldbuilding, but I'm finding it difficult to square the city's history of fraught racial politics with the notion that it considers itself the "cultural and spiritual capital" of the Confederated American States. Likewise difficult to swallow - the notion that it lost the status of political capital to Atlanta. Maybe my brain has been rotted by too much contemporary politics, but having two of America's most iconically Black cities form the core of a state whose borders exactly mirror the Confederacy gives me the heebie jeebies. I once said the lack of Black characters in the Chicago book was an oops. This shoots past that to a full-on yikes.

It doesn't help that Shadowrun also has this weird thing where the fantasy races act as a stand-in for racial prejudice, but also the real world races they're standing in for are still there, just hanging around (this shows up in the Vladivostok chapter too, where a lot of the city's population are metahuman refugees who fled persecution in Japan, but then there's a thing where the nearby oceans are unsafe because Japanese corporations will hire Chinese and Korean pirates as expendable assets). The absolute recklessness of this approach is perfectly captured in the following quote:

"Because voudoun began as the magic of the oppressed, it touches the outcasts of New Orleans, especially the poorer metahumans pushed to the outskirts of the metroplex. The tradition is strongest among orks and trolls. . ."

Ahhh!!! I am not nearly smart enough to do this work. I feel like I'm just one or two supplements away from reading about the vibrant and creatively rich tradition of orkish rap music. Like, you can't just take a Black thing and make it a goblin thing, right? Not in a world where Black people exist. Not even if you're overall positive about the culture you're borrowing. 

I think that's probably the essence of Shadowrun, though. This is a future where much of the world is decolonized . . . because indigenous people are just that more magical than the rest of us (not just in America - Russia lost a large chunk of its territory to native Siberian shamans). It's probably a pretty bad form of representation but . . . do they get point for trying? I don't fucking know.

Now I feel a little guilty for ragging this book about its missed opportunities for anti-capitalist satire, because it turns out that a big part of the game's appeal for me is a similarly shallow "but the elf has a machine gun." By that standard Target: Smuggler Havens is exactly the sort of book I'm looking for.

Ukss Contribution: I really like zombie smuggling as the premise of a mini-campaign, even though I'd prefer the PCs to be trying to shut it down. However, reading this book has made me keenly aware of the fact that Ukss does not have anything like the Free City of Kronstadt - an anarchic stateless port of call for pirates, smugglers, and rogues of every description. Every fantasy setting needs a place like that. Sorry, zombies, I don't make the rules.

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