I’ve been playing role-playing games since Christmas 1982. That’s just about 28 years of reading hundreds of RPG books, from rule books to magazine articles to short and long fiction. In the beginning it was Dungeons & Dragons, and while there have been other games during those nearly three decades only two have stuck out as my favorites; Dungeons & Dragons and Shadowrun.
Shadowrun, which was first released in 1989, is a near future dystopian fantasy/sci-fi game where you typically play a criminal in a world controlled by corporations and dragons, where magic exists and has enough influence on culture that even MIT changed their name to MIT&T (Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Thaumaturgy), and sadly, I haven’t played it for nearly 5 years now. But as of 2004 I had read every Shadowrun game book (90+ books), excerpt (at least 3-5), and novel (35+) (at least the products publish in America, there are additional books published in various European countries that I haven’t read).
In role-playing games there is the idea of the “game world” or “campaign world.” This is the world in which the game is played with “world” being in its broadest sense (think cosmological). As players you can create your own world, but D&D and Shadowrun both have published worlds, where they, the publishers, construct the continents, politics, cultures, regions, species, races, etc. In published books they update and detail different regions, peoples, societies, etc. These books tend to read like fantasy travel guides. For D&D there were multiple campaign worlds. In the beginning there was Greyhawk. Then came the Forgotten Realms and on its heels came Planescape, Ravenloft, and many others. For Shadowrun there’s always been one world, our world with our people, species, races, and cultures only on an alternate timeline that significantly diverges from ours in 2011 when magic “comes back” to our world.
In the summer of 2008, Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition was released. It completely changed the rules and feel of the game, for better or worse. I lean towards worse. In past versions of the game the “travel guide” books would come out and mixed in with the guide part, the fictional story-telling, would be additional rules to add to the game in order to give that region its own feel. With the 4th edition of D&D, these travel guides have been completely dropped. They no longer exist. The books they publish contain rules, additions, updates to the rules, but all severely lacking context. In a word, I find them boring.
Now, one might say, “so what?” To that, my answer is that the travel guide aspect allows for “immersion.” It allows players to create characters with ties to people in local communities, create backgrounds for their characters; they enhance the ability to create an integrated history for that persona which the player plays…it fosters the “role” in role-playing. For the Game Master (Dungeon Master since we’re talking about D&D here), the person that controls everything from the monsters to the weather to the local farmers that the players meet, it allows them to draw upon individuals and settings that the players are familiar with. The travel guides anchor the improvisation storytelling to a foundation-script.
All that is gone. For the past two years it has been a barren landscape of grey rules coming out of the Dungeons & Dragons product line that reads like it is written for 8 year olds.
A week ago, after nearly 5 years, I finally started buying some Shadowrun books (thanks Leif!), mainly because I loved the old (pre-five years ago) books and secondarily because I really want to play Shadowrun in 2011…the year when magic comes back in the fictional world. I bought an adventure book, a book that has new gear (weapons, vehicles, drugs, etc.), a book that updates Seattle to the current timeline, and a comprehensive timeline book of the Shadowrun universe that includes write ups on many countries as they currently stand.
On opening the first book, Seattle 2072, I nearly cried. It is beautiful. It captures why I love Shadowrun above all others. The book is written (like its 1989 counterpart set in 2050) like an actual normal travel guide. Really. The first section (after a two page short story) reads:
“The City On The Sound
“Seattle: the Emerald City, premier metroplex, the western port and outpost of the United Canadian and American States, an urban locale of culture, history, and vibrant activity nestled amidst the Native American Nations and the thriving ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle is a prime destination for travelers; for business, and urban sight-seeing vacation, or an extended visit to the surrounding wilderness. This Guide looks at the things you should know when planning your next trip to Seattle, the City on the Sound!”
But it is written like a travel guide that has been posted to an underworld online distribution site, where the various criminals and quasi-criminals (i.e. Shadowrunners) can post their own comments. Right after that opening paragraph a very famous shadowrunner posts the following:
“Seattle, city in the shadows. Welcome to our version of the popular “Living Planet™ Guide to Seattle, where we make the Guide a little more “living” than the publishers originally intended by stripping out much of the oh-so-helpful commentary on tourist attractions, family-friendly places to eat, and top ten lists of the Most Romantic or Most Reasonably Priced establishments in town. Instead, we focus on the “real” Seattle Metroplex: the crazy, mixed-up, fucked-up place that has been and continues to be one of the greatest haves for shadowrunners and edge societies in the world. If you want the tourist stuff, buy (or pirate) an original copy of Living Planet’s Guide for yourself. If you want the real skinny on what’s going on in the Seattle shadows, then you’ve come to the right place. We’ve got intel from the usual suspects along with some local experts I’ve invited onboard. Enjoy, and use it well.
And the rest of the book is filled with shadowrunners commenting on the best places to work, people to avoid, where to buy illegal items, what corporations are in control of what areas, and so on. Nearly every paragraph contains something that can be used by players or game masters to help add depth to their game.
Then I opened the Sixth World Almanac. I was expecting something similar to the Forgotten Realms book, The Grand History of the Realms (which was published just before the change to 4th edition D&D). The Realms book is a timeline of that fantasy world covering thousands of years with small font size basically in the following format
Year N: So and so nation did this.
Year N+1: This guy did this causing this event. And over there so and so nation did this.
Year N+2: This event happened. This person was born.
And every couple of pages is a sidebar, a detailed half-page write up on some interesting or important event.
But Shadowrun’s Sixth World Almanac? Granted, it doesn’t have thousands of years of history to write up…only just under a century. But instead, the sidebars are the timeline, the Year N…, important events. The rest, the majority of text, are fictional write ups on important events that are written “in character.” The write ups are presented as news articles, lyrics to best selling songs for that year, excerpts from interviews of important personages. I only flipped through most of the history so far. But I read the excerpt of the flight recorder for EuroAir Flight 329, in 2041. I read the last line and began to sob. I know, I’m getting old. Maybe ten years ago I would have just gotten chills. But regardless…when was the last time that a D&D book inspired such passion?
The last half of the book presents two page (on average) write ups on many nations across the world from the perspective Shadowrun’s fictional wikipeadia-equivalent (much like the Seattle’s book “Living Planet Guide”) with shadowrunners throwing in their two nuyen in a forum style commentary.
The Sixth World Almanac also includes several short stories, two pages or so each, sprinkled throughout the book.
Then there’s the gear book, Arsenal. The 4th edition D&D equivalent is the Adventurer’s Vault. The Vault is 223 pages mundane and magical items (mostly magical) where the only fictional text, text not relating to the rules or how the item works, is in brief, one-sentence, descriptions on what the magic item looks like.
Shadowrun’s Arsenal is 199 pages that is written like an online catalog from 2071 that includes one page short stories as well as the forum-style comments from shadowrunners.
Shadowrun books are, on average, more expensive that D&D books (though D&D’s new line of “Essentials” looks to be lowering the overall cost but at the expense of even further lowering the quality). But the entertainment of the Shadowrun books, which read like fiction (anyone familiar with Lauren Myracle’s “ttyl” teen novel?), is a step, no, several stories above anything that D&D 4th edition has produced in the 2+ years that it has been out.
In the past 2 years of playing just D&D 4th edition I’ve only taken pleasure, I’ve only had fun, with the fact that I’m with friends and the stories that we, collectively, have been creating. But with Shadowrun, I’m having fun the moment I’m reading their books.
(As a side note, the only piece of fiction that I wrote that got accepted, and I’ve only attempted to get published through Shadowrun or D&D publishers, was a Shadowrun short story, Some Runs, but the magazine that was to publish it went under before the issue in which the story was to appear was printed.)