Thursday, December 04, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #8

After my tentative and fumbling experiences with Fighting Fantasy I didn't play another role-playing game for about five or six years. Instead there was a bit of a diversion as I contracted discovered the Games Workshop affliction hobby through the mighty HeroQuest then got stuck into Space Marine, Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40,000. One day my friend Tim came to me and said something along the lines of "if you like orcs with guns you'll love this" and he was not wrong.

I fell in love with Shadowrun and it was my group's main game for years before we moved on to something you'll be seeing later in the top ten. The mix of fantasy and cyberpunk rubs a lot of people the wrong way but it never bothered me, perhaps because I was already blending genres with 40K or perhaps because Shadowrun was -- aside from some dodgy early 90's anime -- my introduction to cyberpunk, so I didn't know any better.

It also helps that it is coherent and consistent and that the authors haven't just mashed magic and elves and neon and mirrorshades together without thought. It seems an odd thing to say about a game like Shadowrun but the mix of genres makes a sort of sense; for example, the more metal one puts into one's body -- in the form of cybernetic limbs, and so on -- the more detached from one's own life-force one becomes and since magic is tied in with such forces, the use of magic becomes more difficult, more dangerous, or even impossible. As such, magicians need to be careful about modifying their bodies and even -- here's the consistency again -- about getting shot too many times, because it doesn't matter where the metal comes from or whose choice it was to put it there.

There's something pleasing about this logical approach, even if it seems contradictory in a game about the return of magic to the world. It feels good to know that if an enemy wizard casts a spell, it is possible to trace that spell back to him and -- if he hasn't taken the right precautions -- enact sorcerous vengeance. It means that games of Shadowrun feel like puzzles; it's not about action -- although using a helicopter to take on a dragon is always going to be a laugh -- but about planning and trying to work out what kind of defences the target has, how to deal with them, and how to respond to the inevitable countermeasures. In a sense every adventure is the Tomb of Horrors, except even if you survive some git in a sharp suit is going to double cross you when you get back to base.

That kind of focus isn't for everyone and while emergent narratives can and do happen the bulk of the game will be mission-based, at least at the start of a campaign. That said, the game Tim ran for all those years back in the Britpop era was more or less a sandbox as we roamed Seattle, picking up jobs and putting powerful noses out of joint, until it sort of dwindled away as open-ended games tend to do.

If I were writing this series of posts ten years ago Shadowrun would have a higher position in the top ten and the reason that it doesn't is that as I've aged I've become less tolerant of everything complicated rulesets. The core mechanics are simple and robust -- roll a number of six-siders and for every one that equals or exceeds a target number you get a success, with the more successes rolled the better -- but Shadowrun's scope is so broad and the applications of those core mechanics so varied and situational that it can be overwhelming. It can sometimes feel like a number of individual games -- one for the gunbunny, one for the rat shaman, one for the hacker, and one for the getaway driver -- all using the same rules, sort of like playing all the World of Darkness games at once.

I've played in games like that and they've been great fun but they're also beyond my ability to, er, run these days, and that's one major reason why I haven't played Shadowrun in years. Every so often I think about digging out the second edition rulebook and running a short campaign, or perhaps buying the latest edition and giving it a try, but that complexity always puts me off. All that said, back when Tim was in charge we tended to ignore the hacking and vehicle sub-games anyway; maybe that's all I have to do in order to walk the neon-drenched streets of future Seattle once more.

Next: willkommen nach Berlin.

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