Devil in the Details: Lessons on Imagination, Mechanics and Fluff from Shadowrun

We had our first session of Shadowrun last weekend, which is a refreshing break from 4E when a change of pace from its hyper-gamist combat-prone fun is needed. The interesting thing about Shadowrun is the amount of attention it gives to detailing everyday existence for the inhabitants of its world. While it wouldn’t be the first, let alone the only, game that turns its focus towards the economy and politics of its setting, these details are of greater import to players than they would be in other RPGs.

Simply put: some RPGs will give you loads of information about industries such as agriculture and mining, the particular form of governance exercised in various regions and the religious beliefs of a myriad number of peoples. More often than not though, these details just don’t matter when your characters are a cut above the common folk.

The economy isn’t something you care about when you’re looting dead bodies and local politics is something you end up destabilizing through your actions. Player characters, whether in Star Wars SAGA or Dungeons & Dragons are essentially superheroes in the Frank Herbert sense of the word – destabilizing figures that pay little attention to the nuances of the world in their quest to make things right according to an abstract moral code.

But in Shadowrun, even the player characters are just “little people” who have to worry about their rent, their purchase records and their identities in the system. In a world where every player transaction is recorded and most missions operate within a time sensitive window, every little detail matters. Is your gun legally registered or are you operating with a fake permit? Do you live as a cardboard box nomad, or in a well-furnished but easily traced apartment? For me, the differences between 4th Edition and Shadowrun brings arguments about ‘role-playing’ into sharp focus.

The initial books of 4th Edition hand wave many of the fluff specifics of economy and politics within its core books and reduce settings like Eberron down to their basics. It’s a conscious decision born out of the desire to a) create strong mechanics that avoid many of the cumbersome effects of mechanical detail and b) allow players and DMs the freedom to build what they want on an ‘as-needed’ basis.

The result is character and story concepts are not nearly as restricted as they used to be. There is no ‘Well, you can’t be a twelve-year old wizard because the fluff clearly states that wizards are at least forty years old and besides you’ll take stat penalties below the age of 18’ or ‘both the fluff and crunch state that half-elves can’t have the Mark of Making and orcs can’t have the Mark of Finding.’

Shadowrun, on the other hand, provides so much detail. it sketches a tightly defined history, an intricately detailed setting and mechanical support for everything from vehicle modification to summoning elemental spirits. The result is that character and story concepts are easier to develop because all the components are there. The parameters are restricted so that choices are easier to make.

I’ve always found the former design ethos challenging because more often than not, I’m a broad strokes kind of guy when it comes to imagination. I can draw up a 21st century update to The Planeteers starring Aaron Eckhart, Tricia Helfer and Lou Diamond Philips featuring an Ellis-style supervillain but I couldn’t really draw up story specifics. I can develop a 100 word pitch on Namor the Sub-Mariner movie as a ‘reverse disaster’ film told from the eyes of the villain but I can’t tell you the climax or denouement.

Thus 4th Edition I think is suitable for those who possess either a disciplined imagination, a purposeful approach to the design of a campaign, or both. Furthermore, it complements those whose ambitions are often pummelled by comprehensive mechanics. Shadowrun on the other hand, is suitable for those who are comfortable juggling heavy mechanics but have difficulty tightening their story focus or lack direction.

I’m not suggesting that these two games are of rigid appeal to completely distinct player/GM bases. There is no ‘perfect’ game for sure, but their respective strengths are intentional or not, tailor made to certain types of imagination. I say a pox on those who think that ‘role-playing’ is the exclusive domain of one design style. If one newbie player and his girlfriend DM can see past system dogmatism, then so should the grognards.

If you thought this post was thought provoking, consider supporting us by purchasing any number of RPG products from such as the Legacy Era Campaign Guide for the Star Wars SAGA Edition RPG, the 20th Anniversary Edition of the Shadowrun Core Rules or the new adventure site supplement Hammerfast for D&D 4th Edition.

7 Responses to “Devil in the Details: Lessons on Imagination, Mechanics and Fluff from Shadowrun”
  1. morrisonmp says:

    Strangely enough, as someone who loves 4e D&D, my other favorite RPG of all time is Shadowrun. I think it bears saying though, that what I like about 4e Shadowrun is the way it simplifies and streamlines many of the highly complex rules from previous editions. Combat has been vastly simplified and the “dangerous” parts of many things in the world have been minimized to reduce the effect on characters (for example, Move-by-Wire is no longer hard on characters and spellcasters don’t lose permanent essence to damage anymore).

    The new edition of Shadowrun and the new edition of D&D have a lot more in common, to me, than they have different. I see what you mean about setting details, but remember, over it’s 20 year history, Shadowrun has always been a setting that had a ‘metaplot’ running through it and has grown with each edition. D&D has always been a core set of rules with a myriad of settings, both official and homebrew.

    • I get what you’re saying and that’s kind of what I meant as well. Shadowrun’s metaplot is concrete and defined. It’s a set of rules inextricably bound with its setting. D&D is more a set of rules for a genre (action-adventure fantasy and all of its subgenres and genre-in-laws) which gives you permission to run anything.)

      Essentially speaking, I could draw the same inference between D&D and ANOTHER setting-heavy RPG, but I think Shadowrun represents that contrast best.

  2. callin says:

    I think what you are really talking about here is setting. 4E D&D has no setting in the core rules. Eberron is a setting, but some would say it does not help to bring out the mood and feeling. Shadowrun is a superb setting. Notice I said “is a setting”. It is one of the best settings ever created. It quickly brings you into the world and shows you how to play within it. Shadowrun was designed to evoke a feeling, whereas 4E is designed to present a set of rules.
    Many of the things you said Shadowrun has that 4E is lacking can be covered in a proper setting book. I have played in D&D games where money/economy was a driving force for the players. Some settings downplay the magic and bring a parity with the world and its NPCs. It’s all about the setting.

  3. Lancar says:

    The minutiae of player transactions is an interesting change. In my 4th edition game, I rely on these sorts of things as possible hooks. “What do you mean you got that scimitar in Karrnath?” and “Residuum doesn’t matter here, do you have enough coin to pay the inn fare?”

    All the stuff that 4e’s missing, costs for mercenaries, boat rides, I steal from the 3e books. It translates well, for the most part. But I only do it because of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies. A majority of my players are the types to kick in the door, guns blazing, leaving the legal and monetary problems to the Cleric who took the Merchant background.

    I wish I could play Shadowrun. I’ve always liked the art, the style, and the story snippets I read (and the orcs). Based on past experiences with WoD and certain types of 3e campaigns, it won’t work too well with my group. Matthew, move to Los Angeles and play with me.

    • It’s funny you mention stealing from the 3E books because I do that ALL the time. The 3.5 books also give me more ideas. I sometimes think 4th Edition is to an extent written for first-time DMs but not first-time players, because it really doesn’t do much to provide robustly-developed adventuring details, so confident are the writers in the creativity of their customers.

      Also, it would be cheaper for you to fly to Manila.


  4. Charisma says:

    I’m curious, are there any near-future sci-fi (cyber) games that don’t use the “Megacorporations run the world” approach?

    • I think just stringing the components together — “in the near future” “science fiction” and “cyber” — invite megacorporations into the design of the setting. It’s like ‘swords and sorcery’ and we all assume that it takes place in some kind of feudal/medieval/serf-oriented society.

      For other near future games, I think there is a Starship Troopers RPG, but if you substitute ‘corporations’ with ‘military’ you could get the same tone anyway. For a near future with less sci-fi, well there’s a bevy of post-apocalyptic games out there like Deadlands and the Morrow Project. Gamma World doesn’t count because it’s set 500 years in the future.

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