Shadowrun is a great alternative to Dungeons and Dragons, just in case you can’t get enough of our current cyberpunk dystopia
Shadowrun has been one of my favorite settings for as long as I can remember, and one I think doesn’t get nearly enough love and attention. Long before it was a series of successful video games, it was a tabletop role playing game, born in 1989.
If you aren’t familiar with the Shadowrun universe, we’re going to talk more on the setting and less on the specific rules — and I promise I’ll try to keep it brief.
What is Shadowrun?
Shadowrun is the merging of typical TTRPG Tolkienesque fantasy with a grim cyberpunk future complete with high technology. Cybernetics, AI, Guns, High Magic, and every fantasy race you can think of co-exist in this world. It combines the genres of Cyberpunk, Urban Fantasy, Crime Noir, Conspiracy theory and theological Horrors into a single universe. You can have an Elven arms dealer selling the latest gun-slinging tech next to an Ork Shaman summoning elemental spirits to help heal a person’s injuries. It’s set in the near future.
The magic of the world is born through spontaneous emergence. Often referred to as the dawn of the Sith World, Dragons roamed once again and humans turned into the various mythical races we normally associate with classic fantasy. In North America, indigenous people started to display real power through their ceremonies, allowing them to once again call upon powerful spirits in what was referred to as the Ghost Dance movement. It allowed them to take back control of much of the Western U.S. and Canada, and they formed the Federation of Native American Nations. Some cities, like Seattle, remain under U.S. control, and in fact a lot of the traditional game settings take place here.
Alongside the magic, technologies and social developments usually associated with Science Fiction also grew. Megacorporations control the lives of their employees and command their own armies separate from the U.S. government, and the largest of these enjoy a status of Extraterritoriality similar to heads of state. Cyberware is present, replacing body parts with mechanical replacements. Bio technologies also exist giving augmented vat-grown designer body parts and organs to those willing to shell out, or sell a piece of themselves in servitude to one of the Megacorps. A worldwide computer crash early in the setting gave birth to the Matrix, a worldwide network that users can interact with through direct neural interface and operates something akin to what you see in the Tron movies.
Of course, with all these developments comes a lot of organized crime, and more than enough corporations participate in espionage or assassinations. These operations are called Shadowruns, and make use of specialists either indentured or hired to do the necessary dirty work. Shadowrunners are deniable assets, operating with assumed identities that if they are captured can be discarded. The runners that survive earn something almost as valuable as Nuyen (the currency of the game world), a reputation for survival and for getting the job done. Leading to bigger and more exciting jobs with larger risks, but even larger rewards.
Unlike traditional games, there isn’t the typical Tank, Healer, DPS class triad in place. Instead the game utilizes what are called Archetypes. These are the various overall umbrellas that individuals fall under. Players are encouraged to customize their character to fit whatever specific roles they want within this framework.
- Street samurai are enforcers for hire whose combat skills and reflexes make them the ultimate urban predators. Like D&D fighters but with guns and cybernetic arms or light-sabers. This can range from an ex pit fighters, ex military or police or just someone who is really good in a fight. They make a reputation for being honorable and have a code of conduct very similar to their name-sake. They can specialize in close combat or ranged weaponry, and can be decked in cyberware or bioware just as often as being purely organic.
- Deckers can slide like a whisper through the databases of giant corporations, spiriting away the only thing of real value—information. Think the movie Hackers, except you can actually go into the machine Tron style! When they Hack the Gibson, that means they’re often doing battle in the matrix with their own programs against massive security AI or routines, often modeled after creatures of myth like Cerberus.
- Drivers can manipulate vehicles and drones for a variety of purposes. Unlike Deckers they focus on things in the material world and gaining control of them. Very useful when you see security drones about that need to be bypassed, possibly without a fight. They also normally have a bonded mechanical companion. Think like a Ranger, but for machines!
Mages, those rare folk who possess the gift of wielding and shaping the magical energies that now surround the Earth, are sought after to spy on the competition, heal and buff their allies, sling spells against an enemy, commit magical sabotage, and any other purpose that their employers can dream up. This can be pure arcane, be any flavor of magic user (warlocks, sorcerers, druids, necromancers etc) and some even bargain with dark horrors of the unthinkable worlds for their power!
- Shamans are specialized mages whose attunement to the natural magical forces allows them to support themselves and fellow shadowrunners with a variety of defensive spells, as well as summon spirits in combat. Buff and Debufs are usually where this one shines. They also summon spirits like a Final Fantasy Summoner in order to assist in their tasks be it combat, healing or general spying.
- Physical Adepts use the awakened magical energies of the world to refine their bodies to the point of absolute perfection and become the ultimate fighting machines. These are like the monks of the old Kung Fu movies. Capable of extreme feats of strength and agility they can be just as deadly as a Mage or Samurai combining all of their strengths into one package.
Why I love Shadowrun
I fell in love with Shadowrun because it has something for everyone. The campaigns can be varied and can deal with Eldritch Horrors, pure technology or corporate story arcs, can be all about that high fantasy life and everything else you can dream up in between. It also subverts some of the things you would find in a traditional fantasy setting. Orks and Goblins aren’t necessarily evil, they’re just living beings. There are no preconceived notions such as Elves and Dwarves don’t get along, and the way players can customize means no two parties are ever the same, and no two runs ever have to be the same. It gives a lot of freedom already baked in to do whatever you want to do.
Oh, also, Dragons running megacorporations just makes a whole lot of sense to me.
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