Thursday, June 6, 2024

(Shadowrun) Predator and Prey and Critters

I decided to do these two books as one post because Critters was mostly just a compilation of previously published material and half that material was previously published, word-for-word, in Predator and Prey (Brian Schoner, Jennifer Brandes, Chris Helper, and Bill Aguiar). Plus, both books combined are 144 pages, which is almost certainly less than whatever it is I'm going to read next. It just seemed a more economical use of my time.

The best way to describe Critters is "what if someone speed-runned a monster book." After a brief introduction describing a few dozen standard "Powers of the Awakened," it rattles through a list of strange creatures, presented in a condensed stat block. It's not terrible. There's admirable variety, some of them are pretty fun (like the Juggernaut, a 14-meter-tall armadillo whose armor can shrug off most forms of small-arms fire), and the paragraph or so that most of them get is . . . sufficient to give a rough sketch. It's a little disappointing, because FASA did some great monster books for Earthdawn and none of that thoughtfulness is apparent here, but, well, this is a pamphlet that was bundled with the Game Master's Screen and despite the prevalence of weird creatures in the fantasy genre, Shadowrun is also a cyberpunk game and it's not really about fighting monsters.

Moving on to Predator and Prey - it is a compilation of three short adventures that each focus on fighting monsters in a cyberpunk world. You can definitely feel the weirdness of the premise (at one point, it even gets satirical: "Push the familiarity of it. Pretend to roll for random encounters. Ask the players if they want to map out where they're going. Make a point of writing down their marching order." - it's a good bit, though it borders on being a little too smug). But even so, two of the three adventures feel like fun digressions from the game's usual heist capers.

The most notable part of the first adventure, "Forbidden Fruit," is my weird emotional reaction to its central goal. You're supposed to venture into the Amazon rainforest and poach a rare plant, so some rando corporation can attempt to cultivate it outside its native environment. For some reason, I was initially shocked - what, no, the shadowrunners can't be poachers, they're supposed to be breaking into corporate laboratories and stealing the data that's generated by other people poaching. Breaking and entering, felony homicide, resisting arrest - those are the sort of crimes I signed up for. Smuggling endangered species? Count me out.

I can't really say why I'd feel that way, except that I can be something of a silly-billy. It's probably the same basic sentiment that ensures the dog always survives the disaster movie. 

My random hang-ups aside "Forbidden Fruit" is a classic genre story - a team of corporate scientists goes into the jungle and one-by-one the members of the expedition are picked off by the parasitical creature that lives inside the endangered species they were planning on poaching. It's up to the heroic mercenaries to kill the creatures before they spread out of their habitat and into a new environment that is not prepared to handle them. You're actually penalized an experience point for poor biosecurity. Nice.

I also liked the third adventure, "Baser Instincts." It introduces the single greatest bit of local bureaucracy I've ever encountered in a piece of genre fiction - Paranormal Animal Control. That's not just a whole campaign premise, it's a potential tv series. "Aw, man, there's a hell hound in our yard, I'd better call the county and have someone take it away." That's absolutely something that could happen in the Shadowrun universe and it's amazing.

"Baser Instincts" didn't quite have that level conviction, so it livens things up with a mystery plot - some magical force is causing the local paranormal animals (which mostly guard corporate facilities or reside in a military zoo for captive breeding purposes) to become aggressive and attack humans. An agent of Lonestar (the company that provides privatized police service for Seattle) has gone rogue and commissioned a group of shadowrunners to look into it, possibly administering street justice in the process. It's a perfectly fine side-quest, but an absolutely amazing pilot episode.

Which just leaves the second adventure, "Wild Kingdom." Sigh. Did I piss off a warlock or something? I'm starting to feel like I'm cursed to have to parse the weirdest fucking racial stuff.

It's an adventure where the players visit west Africa and are tasked with tracking down and recapturing an escaped slave. Because the slave trade is alive and well in the Shadowrun universe and for some reason Africa is where the megacorporations have the easiest time practicing it. 

I tried to work out exactly how far you could get in this adventure without becoming willfully complicit and I think, if you're good at not asking questions, you could probably get about 2/3rds of the way through and still have plausible deniability. You start off guarding a cargo ship as it travels from Miami to the free city of Sekondi (in the real world, the twin cities of Sekondi-Takoradi are a prominent port in Ghana). Your employer neglects to inform you that some of the cargo is an imprisoned scientist who is bound to a lifetime of forced labor in one of Phoenix Biotechnology's African research facilities). En route, your ship is attacked and the scientist is kidnapped by a rival corporation. Your Phoenix Biotechnology handler gives you an ultimatum - retrieve the scientist or forfeit your pay and be stranded in Sekondi with no easy way home. 

And I suppose, if you were determined, you could remain ignorant. Dr Dicristofaro was already a slave and he was taken in order to become a slave for a different corporation. But you might assume he was working for Phoenix voluntarily and see what you're doing as a rescue mission. So you infiltrate this new compound, dodge or fight the paranormal guard animals (as per the theme of the book) and only after you find his empty cell would you learn that he's already been liberated by anti-slavery activists.

When that happens "Dicristofaro begs for his freedom and the runners have a moral decision to make."

But do they, though? Is that seriously the direction this adventure wants to explore? You're expecting me to GM a game where the players are tasked with recapturing a fugitive slave?

And I have to digress for just a moment here to acknowledge that Shadowrun has always had "extraction" missions where you kidnap a corporate employee (sometimes with their consent and assistance, sometimes not) and that certainly implies that corporate employment is not strictly voluntary.

But if extraction is already such a big part of the Shadowrun ethos, then why did we need to go to west Africa to have an extraction plot? From where I'm sitting, it looks like it's a slavery plot because you're going to Africa. The players have gone to Africa and the first thing they do after setting foot on dry land is to rescue a white American from Black African slave traders. 

To the book's credit, the anti-slavery activists you (maybe) eventually have to kill are themselves Africans, but then they're described as "Three Afrcan orks in their late twenties, they look like extras from Euphoria's Jungle Huntress: serene yet wary, at home in the humid jungle." I have no idea what that description was actually meant to convey, and the fact that they're all orks strikes me as FASA being weird about race again, but. . . at least it's not a White Savior narrative?

I don't fucking know. All I do know is that unlike the biosecurity penalty from the first adventure, you earn the same amount of xp regardless of whether you capture the guy or let him go and the final encounter is a giant set-piece battle that doesn't make any sense unless you're transporting a captive the antagonists want to enslave. It's a grimy, unpleasant story, and I kind of hate it for that, but I am forced to (very reluctantly) admit that it fits in well with the more noir-ish portions of the cyberpunk genre. I could almost see it working if the players refused to carry out the job on principle, I followed the book's advice and had the Mr Johnson punish the PCs by withholding payment, and the now-stranded characters were just playing an African campaign now. I'd have to be careful to make the distinction that the players were not being punished for their good deed, but were in fact being rewarded with a cool new African setting for their cyberpunk adventures, but it's a decent narrative.

Unfortunately, it's the only decent narrative to come out of that adventure. Like, sure, maybe it's true to the genre - the PCs are criminals, morally compromised because a corrupt system demands corruption to survive. And maybe it's not out of line with other adventure types (not all "extraction" missions revolve around a voluntary change in employment). But I am not comfortable with a west African Shadowrun that involves capturing an escaped slave. And I'm not entirely sure I'd even be comfortable with a fellow player who was comfortable with this plot. 

It's not entirely beyond the scope of something that could be worked out with a session 0 discussion, so you shouldn't necessarily imagine me as being outraged that such a thing could even exist, but I will say that I'm struggling to imagine a more difficult session 0 disscussion. 

Who knows, maybe it's good to reflect and be thoughtful about the intersection between capitalism, racism, and colonialist exploitation, but "reflective" and "thoughtful" were not the vibes I was picking up from the "Wild Kingdom" adventure.

Let's wrap this thing up, shall we. To summarize - Critters was a dry, but functional book. Good value as a reference bundled with the GM Screen, but not substantial enough to stand on its own as a supplement. Predator and Prey . . . was a lot of fun when it was being goofy, but the serious part gives me pause. I can't decide whether it was meant to be challenging or if it just didn't realize how serious it wound up being.

Ukss Contributions: For Critters I'm going to keep it simple, as befits a simple book. The critter I liked most was the saber-toothed cat. They just got a cool style, you know.

Predator and Prey is trickier. If I go with my most ungenerous interpretation of "Wild Kingdom" (and there were times when I was tempted to) that ruins the whole supplement for me. But if I go with "this book has four authors, credited by chapter, so there are two who are identifiably not on my shit list," then I could justify picking something from one of the less . . . challenging adventures.

And that has to be Paranormal Animal Control. It's just so perfectly rpg, I love it.

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