When most people think of role playing games, they think of fantasy settings. After all, the origins of the genre were strongly tinged with fantasy and most of the games that followed tried to copy what was already successful. There have been some games, though, that have seen more potential in these games. Their creators realized that the mechanics could be adapted to almost any setting.
One game that proved that RPGs could be more than just swords and sorcery was Shadowrun. This cyberpunk-tinged game has expanded out to novels and video games, but remains one of the best examples of how diverse RPG settings can be.
The publication of Shadowrun begun in 1989, under the auspices of FASA. The game company would publish the first three editions of the game, which are generally considered the definitive game versions. Shadowrun would continue to be a central product line for the company until 2001, when it closed its doors.
After Shadowrun was closed, the game license was picked up by WizKids, with both Fantasy Productions and Catalyst Game Labs receiving certain rights for publishing and/or creating new products. While WizKids wouldn’t do much with the license, several new editions of the game would be published over the years.
Fourth and Fifth editions of the game continued to push forward the timeline of the series and bring the technology of the setting into a future that could theoretically follow that of today’s world. Perhaps the most important development in Shadowrun has been the introduction of Missions, a series of persistent character player campaigns that can be played at home or in gaming shops. These Missions are currently on their fifth season.
Shadowrun’s last major publication was in 2013, though there have been several games, novels, and other products released since then. The game itself largely continues through Missions, though the rights holders claim that more Shadowrun is on its way.
Shadowrun is heavily influenced by the cyberpunk movement of the 1980s, and William Gibson’s Neuromancer in particular. While Gibson has generally been less than enthused about the use of his work, he’s never made any moves to stop the publication of Shadowrun.
The game is also influenced by Mesoamerican beliefs, particularly the long count calendar. These beliefs were most influential in the “Worlds” concept at the core of the game’s changes, as well as some of the themes of growth and change. Together, the two seemingly opposed concepts come together to make a very unique game world.
Shadowrun’s setting is considered a mix of genres. The most obvious, especially in its adaptations, is the cyberpunk nature of the setting. As such, it’s a dystopic setting of technology gone wild, corporations with ultimate power, and people making a living in the shadow of massive technological upheaval. It’s a game that mostly takes place in cities, in the dark, and often in the rain. There’s a strong tinge of noire to many of the games run in the setting, albeit in a way that adds for a little less fatalism for the average player.
Shadowrun is also a game of magic. All of the races of that are common in fantasy are present in the game’s setting, although in forms that are a far cry from their usual Tolkeinesque roots. Magic is a force in the game, though it’s certainly not one that everyone can use. It’s a setting where the fantastic exists alongside the mundane in a way that makes magic seem very normal. Wizards don’t live in towers, but there might be a magician in the apartment across the hall.
Shadowrun’s setting is all about the mixture between the two elements. It’s not impossible to see a magic user working with someone who has wireless internet implants in their head. It’s also entirely probable that the local megacorp is run by a dragon. The blurring of those two lines helps to make the setting what it is.
Shadowrun is a post-apocalyptic game, in that the world as we know it has long since gone past. Sixty-odd years in the future, everything has changed. There’s been a mega-virus outbreak, several nations have endured civil wars, the internet has been destroyed, and (mostly importantly) magic has returned to the Earth.
In the midst of all the chaos, the way the world is organized has been changed. Some nations have fragmented and rebuilt themselves. In many cases, though, it has been the corporations that have benefited. Most characters live their lives being bounced between the edicts of mega corporations and the rules of their government. Meanwhile, society is still trying to organize itself into something resembling normal, especially now that humans share the world with a variety of races that haven’t walked its surface in millennia. It’s a time upheaval, but for some it’s also a time of massive opportunity.
Characters in Shadowrun come from all walks of life, but are generally united around a few concepts. Strictly speaking, most games revolve around characters who live their lives somewhere on the outskirts of the law. Because of the unique nature of corporations in the setting, these characters tend to be those who work off the books and without the same kind of identification as their peers. Shadowrun characters are, in short, almost always outsiders.
While there are no character classes as such in the game, characters tend to be divided between those who use mundane weaponry, those who use technology, and those who use the setting’s version of magic. In all cases, though, they’re more closely connected to a sort of cyberpunk version of technology than exists in today’s world.
Because characters tend to exist outside of the law, it’s often possible to play characters with a great deal of subtlety in their morality. Unlike games like D&D, strict moral alignments don’t really work in Shadowrun. If one abides perfectly by the law, it’s unlikely that one could be considered truly ‘good’. Likewise, those who operate outside of the law can have perfectly acceptable moral codes. There are many shades of grey for characters to explore in the game.
Because Shadowrun is a world in which magic has returned, player characters can be of a number of races. Unlike most settings, though, these characters are all (more or less) considered to be part of humanity. They come from human parents or are humans who were mutated into other forms, eventually going on to breed with one another and form diverse races within the world. Taken together, though, they still create a population that has a great deal in common with humans.
Characters can take on a number of possible roles. Player character races include:
- Humans – similar to the real world, though usually technologically augmented
- Orks – larger, stronger, and a bit less intelligent than the average human
- Trolls – huge and prone to mental illness. The rarest type of metahuman
- Elves – tall, with pointed ears. Have their own countries around the world
- Dwarves – short, long-lived, and can see in the dark
There’s a great deal of prejudice between humans and the other races, as well as between the metahuman races themselves. There are also several variants within each of the metaraces, which tend to complicate matters even more for those trying to figure who qualifies as a ‘true’ human.
Technology plays a huge role in Shadowrun. Though there have been some attempts to keep the game updated with technology that at least resembles what’s available today, the flavor of what’s in the game definitely takes its cues from the late 80s and early 90s. This is a world where technology is a little out of control, one where it largely replaces the role that magic has in fantasy games.
On one hand, technology is a fairly mundane part of Shadowrun life. Characters can upgrade their own bodies with cybernetic implants, genetic implants, and even nanotech. How out of the norm this is tends to be dependent on which version of the game is played, but most characters will have at least some kind of augmentation to make their lives easier.
Shadowrun also introduced an in-game worldwide computer network called the Matrix long before the film was ever conceived. The Matrix was initially a construct that had to be physically accessed through data ports in the head that connected to cyberdecks. In time, there would also be individuals who could access the Matrix without having to use a cyberdeck, called Technomancers, who can access versions of the Matrix without the use of any technology.
Generally speaking, the tech level of Shadowrun is exactly wherever the GM needs it to be. It can seem incredibly outdated or hyper-modern, depending on how it is described. All in all, though, the world of this game is one that is born out of a 1980s conception of that into which computer technology would evolve.
One of the major features of Shadowrun’s setting is the ascendance of corporations to the status of non-governmental organizations. In the setting, all of the real power is concentrated in the hands of these corporations, giving them immunity to the law and allowing them to rule territories as the de facto governments. Most citizens are under the control of one megacorp or another, and they tend to be more afraid of being on the wrong side of corporate law than anything else.
Corporations tend to make up the major antagonists of the game, though some GMs do place players in the role of individuals working for one or more corporations. These companies have the same kind of assets and armies that one would find in a villainous organization of a fantasy setting, though with a great deal of money and societal clout to back up all of their actions.
The nature of the conflict between corporations tends to be the driving force behind most plots in Shadowrun’s fiction. Players will either work for against a major corporation and try to keep them from accomplish a specific goal. Because the corporations are so monolithic, though, there’s no sense that the players can ever completely bring them down. At best, players are given the ability to make their own lives a little bit easier for a while – at least, until they get in the way of another corporation.
Magic is a complicated subject within Shadowrun. Because the entire field is linked to the Sixth World, only those who show a certain ability can interact with magic. These individuals, called ‘Awakened’, are split into three groups that follow specific ‘Paths’ of magic – magicians, adepts, and magical adepts.
Magicians are closest to the traditional RPG mage or wizard class, casting spells and summoning spirits. The term ‘magician’ covers an incredibly broad realm of possible characters, from traditional Western magical figures to indigenous shamans and beyond. Their methods of access magic can vary greatly, but they all pull their skills from the same source.
Adepts, on the other hand, use magic internally. They are more similar to the traditional roleplaying Monk class, albeit with a more mystical than spiritual bent. These characters can run up walls, move with incredible speed, block weapons with the bare hands, and generally perform the actions that are more in line with fantastical martial arts films. These characters all follow different paths, so no two adepts tend to have the same skills.
There are also magical adepts, which split their power between the two types of skill. They tend to be jacks of all trades, individuals who aren’t nearly as skilled in any one thing as their counterparts but who seem to be far more flexible. They’re fairly rare within the setting, though players tend to enjoy them due to their ability to use both types of magic with relative ease.
Shadowrun’s game system is a d6 system, which makes it a bit different than that of other roleplaying games with which players might be more familiar. Rather than using skillpoints as a modifier for dice, the player is assigned a number of dice equal the rank of his or her skill. When making a combat or ability check, the player will roll that number of dice against a set goal number – beating the number will allow the player to complete the action. It’s not a terribly difficult system to pick up, but it’s different enough from D&D that some players have difficulty adapting.
Another major mechanic that sets Shadowrun apart from most of the roleplaying crowd is that it did not feature character classes. Instead, players were given the ability to build their characters as they saw fit. The game did, however, provide a number of in-game archetypes to help players figure out which combinations of skills and abilities could work well together.
While these mechanics don’t seem revolutionary today, they were a major break from the way games were played at the time. The character creation and design process in particular has been hailed as a better way of giving players choices in developing their own characters. While far from perfect, it is a method of creation that has inspired many of the modern roleplaying games that have been published in Shadowrun’s wake.
As one might expect, Shadowrun’s universe is not confined simply to the world of the roleplaying games. Like most roleplaying games that were released around its time period, Shadowrun seems to have been designed with at least some ability to blend into multimedia settings in mind.
As such, a variety of products from novels to video games to collectible card games have been released over the years. In fact, some of these products are so noteworthy on their own that they have attracted consumers who have no other outside knowledge of the game itself. Shadowrun is one of the few roleplaying games that seems to have been just as successful outside of its initial sphere as within.
Shadowrun’s history with novels has been somewhat more complex than that found in most other games. There have actually been over sixty Shadowrun novels published over the course of nearly thirty years, but they have been divided among several different companies. There’s not really a cohesive Shadowrun novel universe to point at, though there are many novels that at least tie together.
It’s also important to note that Shadowrun novels have been far more popular in Germany than in the English-speaking world. There are a host of Shadowrun novels that take place in German, were written by German writers, and have never been translated into English for mass-market consumption. As such, a great deal of the fiction surrounding the game is inaccessible to part of its core audience.
With that said, Shadowrunner’s novels do a fantastic job of fleshing out the universe of the game. While the sourcebooks themselves are well-written, the novels give a sense of personality and urgency that’s hard to find in the in-game text. These novels make a great supplement for GMs who are looking to get a better feel for the world, even though some of the books are relatively hard to find these days.
Shadowrun has been quite successful when it comes to the video game market, with a slew of games that introduced plenty of new players to the setting. The series is probably most famous for its earliest entries, with the Sega Genesis adaptation being singled out for its high quality despite its early appearance on the console. All in all, three games that were definitively tied to the world and spirit of Shadowrun were published on early 90s consoles.
There is also, of course, the notorious XBox 360/PC shooter entitled Shadowrun. The game isn’t considered to really be a Shadowrun game, but rather a game loosely based on the setting. It does have its fans, though, and it’s historically important for being the first PC/console crossplay game developed by Microsoft.
In recent years, Shadowrun has received something of a second life in the video game world. Afeter a successful Kickstarter, Harebrained Schemes released Shadowrun Returns on the PC. Incredibly similar to the early games, it was Shadowrun with a host of modern day improvements. The game was successful enough to get three expansions and there’s constant talk of a sequel. Shadowrun, it seems, is made for the world of gaming.
Shadowrun’s legacy is easier to see if you’re willing to take a wide view of the game. It certainly helped to keep the cyberpunk aesthetic alive much longer than most would have assumed, arguably aging better than the material that inspired the game.
It is a direct antecedent to movies like The Matrix and helped to bolster an aesthetic that probably would not have taken off without its influence. Culturally, Shadowrun had a far wider reach than the audience it directly touched. If you look into the films and novels that define the cyberpunk genre today, you’ll find a fair number of Shadowrun fans.
At the same time, Shadowrun was also arguably one of the most important games for the health of the overall tabletop gaming market. While it certainly never reached the level of prestige of Dungeons and Dragons, it did help to reinforce the idea that RPGs didn’t just have to be set in fantasy settings.
Shadowrun, along with games like White Wolf’s World of Darkness, was just different enough that it could work as a proof of concept for almost anything else. It’s telling, perhaps, that one of the earliest adaptations of the d20 system was d20 Modern, a game that feels a great deal like Shadowrun. Shadowrun opened doors to pathways that are still being explored throughout the gaming industry today.
Shadowrun is a different kind of roleplaying game, but one that deserves praise. Whether you’ve encountered it through the RPG, the video games or the novels, it leaves a mark on how you perceive the world of role playing. If you’ve got experience with Shadowrun or just want to learn more about the game, come talk about it more with us at the LitRPG Gaming Forum. See you on the other side!