Backlog Burnout: Shadowrun Anarchy

Shadowrun is a weird beast. It is arguably the most well-known cyberpunk tabletop RPG (at least, until Cyberpunk 2077 made a bunch of video game nerds well aware of Cyberpunk, but I have gripes with Cyberpunk), but it’s also weird: eschewing a traditional cyberpunk setting, Shadowrun describes a world in which magic and technology coexist. In this world, orcs, elves, and humans coexist, and characters can elect to load themselves up with cybernetics and technology, or channel their magical abilities to become a potent mage or shaman. Characters might need to hack into advanced computer systems in order to collect leverage on an ancient dragon, except instead of sitting on a hoard of gold, that dragon is CEO of a mutlinational tech conglomerate.

The common sentiment of the internet on Shadowrun is a love for the setting, which is a bananas genre fusion of spellslinging and gunslinging, but a general dislike for, if not fear of, the rules. Shadowrun is notoriously pretty dense with rules, with multi-step procedures for basic tasks like firing a gun or casting a spell that requires so much number crunching and dice-chucking that it’s just too much work. So, in a pretty smart move, Catalyst released a rules-light port of Shadowrun called Shadowrun Anarchy.

Before I talk about Anarchy, I want to talk a little bit about what I want from Shadowrun as a mechanical framework. I’ve only ever run the Third Edition of the game, the last to be put out by FASA before the license changed hands to Catalyst, but from what I understand the following sentiment still generally holds true.

For me, Shadowrun‘s crunch was the cost to entry for a game that leans heavily into the natural narrative arc we usually associate with heist fiction: characters receive an objective, spend a large quantity of time preparing for that mission, then execute, along the way reacting to unanticipated twists and failures as they come. Many of the points of friction people experience with the system can be understood as subservient to this idea of narrative. The game’s near-pornographic obsession with specificity on the character sheet creates a fidelity that lets players feel like they’ve prepared precisely for the job at hand, turning every mission into the players’ own Ocean’s Eleven. There’s a joy to be had in this sort of meticulous planning: learning that your extraction target is Belgian and being able to take some character ranks of French, loading up on armor piercing rounds after scouting a corp’s heavily armored troll security, loading up on parachutes (and double checking the fall damage rules) in case you need to make a quick exit from a corporate high-rise.

Similarly, the game’s dice mechanics ensured that even the most well-laid plans ran the risk of going off the rails at any moment. Shadowrun‘s notorious dice pools involved players throwing down a comical amount of d6s (frequently a double digit amount) and counting successes among them. These dice rolls then incur a series of checks, and chances for response by the target, which add in a layer of unpredictability. Dice rolls in Shadowrun are rarely cut-and-dry success and failure, as the game on the mechanical level is always looking to slip in wrinkles and caveats. Yes, you had dead aim while shooting this guy, but he exerted himself completely to jump out of the way. No, you weren’t able to dodge that baseball bat, but you’re so beefy with your cybernetic implants that the bat crumples upon hitting your skin. Yeah, you threw a fireball, but you threw it too good, and now the whole block is on fire.

Unfortunately, in Third Edition, these checks on every dice roll to see how and why specific actions are wrinkled or subverted in interesting directions also require a lot of number crunching. To fire a gun at someone on Third Edition is a seven-step procedure, involving a meticulous calculation of range and checking of modifiers and gun attributes, actually firing the gun, checking if the defender dodges, checking if the defender resists the damage, and staging up or down the effects of the shot depending on outcomes. Dice need to be rolled up to three different times in order to calculate if an attack lands. Compare that to D&D, where an attacker rolls once, usually just a single die, compares the result to a static number, then bam you’re done, and this system looks… fiddly.

All this to say, while I like Third Edition’s resolution system, I mostly like it as a consequence of liking the narrative moments it produces, moments where things can always go wrong at the last minute and unpredictability seeps into every moment. There’s fun to be had in watching a system you meticulously planned working, and there’s also fun to be had in a plan going off rails and improvising. If your extraction target is Flemish, not Walloon, and those trolls are actually wearing heavier armor than you expect, and those high-rise windows are double reinforced, you need to improvise on the fly. If a light system like Shadowrun Anarchy can replicate that feeling without the corresponding math homework, I’m more than happy letting my Third Edition rulebooks gather dust for a while, especially since most of my current groups generally dislike crunchy combat rules. Does it do that? Well, I think it tries, but I don’t think it succeeds.

Anarchy‘s dice system, which is an adapted form of the Cue System, is a sort of trimmed-down version of what I’m used to in Third Edition: a character and their opposition rolls a set of dice pools at the same time, counts successes, most successes wins, and any successes you get over what you need occasionally incurs a boon, almost always increased damage, but sometimes the vague “something else good”. I generally don’t love this vagueness; it can be hard to quantify on the spot how much of a boon I should hand out given a number of excess successes (“You won this Speech check with 3 excess successes, so you convince him…. three better?”). I always ran into this issue with a similar system of Advantages running Genesys, and always gasped for relief when the game provided clear tangible rewards I could hand out for a given number of successes. But, hey, we have a framework for unpredictability, and the action-counteraction process of earlier has been reduced down into a simple dice roll, I’m down. (I should note this is also basically how dice rolls work in the current, Sixth Edition of the game).

Unfortunately, with these simplified rules comes a corresponding lack of fidelity, which is where my problems with Anarchy arise. Let’s continue looking at the process of shooting a gun, which in Anarchy, is bog simple. You roll your weapon skill, the defender rolls their Agility, compare who got more successes, whoever got more wins, bam, you’re done. Here, the solution is also the problem: there are very few knobs to tweak here, very few moving parts in this calculation, and as a result, all relevant modifiers to this roll, all relevant preparation, all basically has to affect this one roll. Whether you’ve got a full-auto assault rifle firing flaming bullets at a moving car, a precision sniper rifle with a thermal scope firing at a target on a foggy day, or a knife soaked in poison trying to slip in the ribs of a target in a kevlar vest, all any of this stuff can really do is increase the number of dice on one side or decrease the number of dice on another. Mechanically, all of these narratively interesting things have the exact same effect.

As a result, Shadowrun Anarchy seems to deeply dissuade preparation, the construction of the plan, or half of the heist-like formula I talked about loving so much. Choosing the right tool for the job doesn’t matter anymore, because all of the little ways you can prepare, things like gun attachments and environmental bonuses and careful target selection and the billion other little factors you were paying attention to before, all fundamentally do the same thing mechanically, so you just want to pile on as much good stuff as you can, try and stack your side of the one relevant dice roll as high as you can with little consideration how you do it. The book itself seems to reinforce this idea: while normal Shadowrun offers a veritable Sears catalogue of guns, spells, equipment, skills, and anything else you could need, Anarchy gives you a scant couple pages. After all, if all shooting is in the game is comparing your Gun number versus someone else’s Not Get Shot number, who really cares what kind of gun you’re holding.

Now, this reduced possibility space for preparation is actually the side-effect of another fairly large change, one which I think is a far more concrete example of Anarchy‘s reduced emphasis on player planning: Shadowrun Anarchy implicitly assumes that players will not create characters, instead offering a bank of 30ish premade characters designed to be picked by players and brought into the game. There are rules for character creation, but they are buried fairly late in the text and most rules text explicitly refers to the use of these premades, so their use is pretty easily read as the default state of play. On some level, I feel like a little girl playing with dolls. In normal Shadowrun, I get to pick out the doll, choose the outfit I want for it, maybe some accessories, articulate it into the pose I want. In Anarchy, I’m instead given a set of dolls cast from a single piece of plastic: the clothes don’t change, the pose doesn’t change, you can’t make it your own, all I can do is pick the one I want and hope whatever story we’re playing today uses the exact way this doll was made.

Shadowrun Anarchy isn’t for me. If I want a rules-light game that still creates mechanical space for each dice roll to produce unexpected consequences, Genesys does that in a more interesting way by decoupling the creation of positive and negative side-effects from the outcome of a roll (that is, a successful roll can still have bad side-effects, and vice versa). Hell, if I want a mission-based game that cuts dramatically down on prep time and character fiddlyness, Blades In The Dark is easy to hack, and still allows players the narrative satisfaction of successful planning by playing with the chronology of the story, framing planning as a series of just-in-time flashbacks rather than a laborious prerequisite to a mission.

Not to say Anarchy is for no one. I think if you don’t care as much about the heist-style narrative framework as I do, and want to focus on a more improvisational, off-the-cuff style story where cool characters can just be cool, Anarchy is totally sufficient. On top of that, its extremely minimalist rules framework means that the system can handle Shadowrun‘s bonkers setting with minimal mechanical overhead. A traditional Shadowrun party can include a spirit-summoning sorcerer, a hacker who extends their consciousness into the internet, a rigger remote controlling a series of drones and vehicles, and a soldier-for-hire loaded with guns and cybernetics, and the fact that all of these concepts run on basically the same rules in Anarchy makes it really easy to run a game that has all of these bonkers ideas in it that isn’t loaded down in edge cases. Plus, the game has a decent primer for Shadowrun‘s setting relatively unencumbered with the baggage of 30 years of plot developments, plus a deep dive into my home of Seattle as it exists in the setting that has tons of details to mine.

I’m a bit bummed that Shadowrun Anarchy isn’t for me, but it did get me thinking a lot about complexity. Especially in the modern design space for RPGs, complexity is something we tend to abhor; the current design movements (the OSR, PbtA, Forged In The Dark) are exceptionally rules-light and focused on abstraction over fidelity. However, I think there’s something to be said for the thought that some ideas require a baseline amount of complexity to come across, and that the boons of complexity in game design are similar to those of complexity of real-life, namely a feeling of mastery and satisfaction in growing to understand complexity. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too averse to designing complex games, since some games can use that complexity as an instrument to a final design with the same precision that many games use simplicity.

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