Sunday, August 21, 2016

Introducing the River City Wrecking Crew

Original Shadowrun logo by Jeff Laubenstein, Jim Nelson, and Dana Knutson. Photoshoppery by me.

I'm nostalgia's fool when it comes to a number of RPGs. Shadowrun, like Traveller, Pendragon, Cyberpunk 2020, and Call of Cthulhu, is a game that piqued my interest, but I jumped in somewhat late in the game once I had the economic means to buy the books. At any rate, by the time I took the plunge Shadowrun had hit its third edition and it wasn't getting a lot of good feedback due to the introduction of otaku - kids able to access the Matrix without cyberdecks - in addition to the changes made between editions.

So, I just held onto what second books I had and waited. Fourth edition rolled around and I hemmed and hawed, unsure about technomancers and what they could do to the world I fell in love with in the second edition, but it was Shadowrun's 20th anniversary, so I grabbed the 20th anniversary edition of the rulebook and I was hooked - sort of. By this time, the books were hitting the $45.00 mark for the core rules and sourcebooks were $30.00. With Catalyst at the helm, the PDFs weren't much cheaper than buying them in print. At any rate, I took my time and got what I could.

At any rate, having divested myself of the local convention and FLGS gaming scenes, I decided to try and assemble my friends for a hybrid play-by-post/Roll20 game. The majority of the game will be handled in a play-by-post format to accommodate everybody's changing schedules and we'll have an actual live meetup on Roll20 once a month if possible. After getting no input from the group on what to run, I just made an executive decision and BAM! Shadowrun. :)

Why Shadowrun?

Why not? Cyberpunk is a good genre, but Shadowrun has a bit more character, despite William Gibson's opinion. What's that? You want to know what William Gibson thinks about Shadowrun? Well, if you insist.

From an article by Ben Lincoln in The Peak (issue 7, vol. 100, Oct. 19, 1998):
Peak: "How do you feel about the role-playing game systems out there that are obviously based on your work?"
Gibson: "To the extent that there was a Cyberpunk movement-and there wasn't, really, but to the extent that there was, the five or six people who I knew in 1981 who were doing this stuff and had a radical aesthetic agenda, at least in terms of that pop-art form of science fiction, [and] one of the things that we were really conscious of was appropriation. Appropriation as a post-modern aesthetic and entrepreneurial strategy. So we were doing it too. We were happily and gloriously lifting all sorts of flavours and colours from all over popular culture and putting it together to our own ends. So when I see things like Shadowrun, the only negative thing I feel about it is that initial extreme revulsion at seeing my literary DNA mixed with elves. Somewhere somebody's sitting and saying 'I've got it! We're gonna do William Gibson and Tolkien!' Over my dead body! But I don't have to bear any aesthetic responsibility for it. I've never earned a nickel, but I wouldn't sue them. It's a fair cop. I'm sure there are people who could sue me, if they were so inclined, for messing with their stuff. So it's just kind of amusing."

Shadowrun - then and now

*snerk* Whatever. Like Gibson, some gamers deride Shadowrun for its mixing of genres. In reality, it helped to revitalize RPGs by taking two genres and making something new and different rather than another bog-standard fantasy or sci-fi game. Though I'm a fan of high fantasy more in the realm of Tolkien - which includes halflings - Shadowrun still resonates with me despite its lack of halflings. I guess it's because adding magic and faith to a high-tech dystopia gives the setting a bit more hope than normal. Some people seem to enjoy grimdark settings without so much as a glimmer of light. I need light, even if it's a light at the end of a tunnel - and not necessarily from an oncoming train.

Why Omaha?

Just to break the repetition of "Why not?", let me answer that question with another question. Why Seattle? Seattle has been the base setting for Shadowrun since the beginning. Yes, the various editions have covered various other cities, including Denver and Chicago, and some enterprising fans have given their own home towns the Shadowrun treatment. For all that it has to offer, Omaha deserves some Shadowrun lovin' as well.

Omaha - what it is and what it isn't. What it will be once the game is over is another question... :D

For the record, Omaha isn't an oversized farming community. Trust me, I've lived in places like Iowa Falls and Cherokee, and they're both cities that still hold tight to their agricultural roots (at least they were when I left them behind). Omaha is truly metropolitan in a lot of ways. That doesn't mean that it's forgotten its cowtown roots. Even though the stockyards are no longer in operation, agriculture - and beef in particular - are still a big part of Omaha. Likewise, the shadows of Omaha are certainly more than trolls and orks wearing cowboy hats, drinking crappy beer, and listening to country music. It's also more than elves and humans living the high life out in West Omaha.

The history of Omaha encompasses many cultures, the most important of which is that of numerous Native American nations and their lore. Shadowrun lore has centered mostly on Native American nations in the American Northwest - the Pueblo, Ute, Salish, Algonkian (or Algonquian - not to be confused with the Algonquin), Athabascan, Aleut, and Tsimshian. The Sioux are also covered

The Midwest was home to many more tribes and nations than just the Lakota and Dakota Sioux. Just as everything in nature is interconnected, so too are the tribes. That means I've got a lot of research ahead of me, but I plan to enjoy every minute of it.

Omaha is also home to Offutt Air Force Base, Eppley Airfield, and the Union Pacific Railroad, which means that events like the Crash, Crash 2.0, the infestation of Chicago by insect spirits, and the subsequent exodus of Chicago residents has had an effect on Omaha in various ways. So, yes, Omaha has a lot of plot potential in Shadowrun. Of course, I'd be lying if I said I didn't get some help fleshing this stuff out. Mike Fontaine wrote up an awesome sourcebook on Omaha in Shadowrun which I'm helping to edit, and there were several local gamers who also helped me fill in some of the other gaps.

So Here's The Setup...

Tales isn't your average Shadowrun campaign. A lot of times the stereotypical campaign can be described as “mercenary” or “organized mayhem”. “Tales” is intended to be a little more heroic and cinematic. Our heroes and anti-heroes are new or established employees of River City Investigations, a private detective and consulting agency that works both sides of the Missouri River, but is based in Omaha. There will still be organized mayhem, but hopefully for the better, not worse (hence the "Wrecking Crew" bit).

 

Not a real ad, not a real detective agency. Artwork ©1989 Jeff Laubenstein, from Sprawl Sites (©1990 FASA Corporation, ©2016 Catalyst Game Labs),  no infringement intended. Photoshoppery by me.

There are also a number of themes and concepts we may explore and investigate in the campaign:

  • Black Ops, Hearts of Gold: Although the characters are antiheroes or perhaps even criminals, they still know right from wrong and act for the better of others and the community – even if it means they have to give up the big payoff. Overall, they run the shadows in order to get the big payoff and get out or otherwise improve their situation or the life of someone close to them.
  • Starting Out Small: Rather than starting in media res, the heroes start out small and grow in power; as they grow in strength, the scope of their world grows as does the heroes' influence.
  • Balance: There are many forces in Shadowrun that are purported to be the “ultimate”. Magic. Faith. Technology. Money. While they can impart great power to those wield them expertly, those who do not exercise the proper amount of responsibility and respect can find themselves off-balance. That imbalance can easily lead a person to be blinded and corrupted. Only by achieving balance can one maintain harmony.
  • Strength in Diversity/"United We Stand": In Shadowrun diversity has grown beyond just skin color and beliefs. Trolls, orks, elves, dwarves – and others – have given some cause to rethink their approach toward and philosophy about life. Those same changes have given others all the more reason to cling fearfully to their outdated notions and prejudices. Only by overcoming those prejudices and fears and by embracing diversity can we find strength.
  • The Bond of Family/Power of Love: The turmoil found in Shadowrun's future history has no doubt torn families asunder as well as reinforced the bonds of kinship. Does a hero come from a family torn by strife? Will they find their own dreams at odds with that of a patriarch, a matriarch or sibling? Will they mend the torn bonds or break with tradition?
Of course, there's the cinematic/heroic aspect and other details to consider as well, including Rule Zero.
  • The Rule of Rules: Every piece of tech, spell, metavariant, variant rule, etc. is subject to change or removal at the discretion of the GM. Even if a game element is initially permitted, if it is later deemed incompatible with the campaign, it will be modified or removed. Any characters (PC or NPC) that use that element will be required to adjust to the change (in other words, no grandfathering). The GM will attempt to keep this sort of thing to a minimum (if at all), but sometimes this may happen in the process of keeping the rules appropriate to the campaign setting. Rationale: Some things that may seem like a good idea at one time may turn out to be a bad idea in use. No grandfathering also maintains a consistency with the game setting and prevents people from abusing the letter of the rules if they choose not to respect the spirit.
  • The Pilot Episode: The first adventure will essentially be the “Pilot”. That way if something goes sideways or needs to be altered or “rewound” so to speak, it won't ruin the rest of the campaign. Essentially, this is a variation on Rule Zero (see above) but applies in tandem with Rule Zero.
  • Episodes and Arcs: Like Buffy and Angel, Tales will be mostly episodic but those episodes will get the heroes involved in wider arcs. As a result there will be “villains of the week” as well as the big bad evil guys.
  • Tone: The influences and inspirations of this campaign include The Dresden Files, Leverage, Buffy, and Angel, along with a variety of cyberpunk authors and movies.
  • Layers and Revelations: Rather than dive in with both feet and founder around, we're going to start at the shallow end and walk/swim toward the deep end. This is to allow me – a neophyte Shadowrun GM – and any players new to the system and setting to adjust to the complexities and idiosyncracies.

To kind of further illustrate the tone of the game, here's the theme song for the campaign (George Lynch's "We Don't Own This World) and the end theme (Tomoyasu Hotei's "Tenkuu no Diva"). Some people might not think these songs fit, but if you're looking at things from a cinematic point-of-view, they do. To me, cyberpunk music is more than techno or industrial metal. There's so much more to Shadowrun than gunplay and hacking the Matrix, and as I've said above, there's so much more to Omaha than just beef and agriculture.

So that's the game in a nutshell... a very large nutshell. Whether you're a spectator or a player, watch this space for more developments, chummers!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Kenny Baker: The Most Metal Star Wars Actor Of All

Gorramit, 2016! Quit kicking me in the feels! And stop stomping on my childhood!

The most metal man in the Star Wars movies. Rest in peace, Kenny.

In case you didn't know, Kenny Baker, the man who put the heart in R2-D2, died yesterday at the age of 81. While I never had the honor, let alone the opportunity, to meet Mr. Baker at any kind of science fiction convention, I have to say I admire the dedication he had to his craft despite the bad deal he physically got from life.

I honestly believe that he was perhaps the most metal of all the Star Wars actors. While Peter Mayhew and Anthony Daniels had to contend with the heat and sweat of their costumes, Kenny had to deal with dwarfism and its associated ills on top of it all. What's more, Kenny's late wife Eileen - who was also afflicted with dwarfism - played an Ewok in Return of the Jedi, so she understood and shared her husband's struggle. In the heat, cold, muck, and bugs, Kenny Baker was more than just a little person in a metal shell. He was the personality and heart of R2-D2. He was metal.

Thank you, Kenny, for the happiness you brought me and millions of other fans. Rest in peace.

Good Riddance To Bad Rubbish

Work has been taking a lot out of me physically and mentally, leaving me with little desire to create and write. In short, the soundtrack in my head has been Slough Feg's "Psionic Illuminations" and occasionally Blue Oyster Cult's "Veteran of the Psychic Wars" played on one continuous loop for the past couple of weeks.  However, the following topic made me sit up and take notice because it's a milestone in the history of the hobby, especially for those of us who started rolling our polyhedrals in the early and mid 1980s. What I'm talking about is the sentencing of Thomas Radecki, one of several individuals who were a scourge and pox on gamers during the satanic panic of those days.

Radecki permanently surrendered his license back in 2012 after he was accused of trading psychiatric drugs in exchange for sexual favors. I'm not going to get into the foul details of this blackguard's misdeeds; you can read those for yourself in the links above. As an individual who has been counseled by a number of upstanding and excellent caregivers in the mental health field I'm disgusted that Radecki betrayed the trust and violated the human rights of his patients for his own sick gain. Thinking of him makes me throw up a little in my mouth even as I write this.

I find it odd and ironic that the 70-year-old Radecki's sentencing to 10-22 years in prison intersects with discussion of the satanic panic and its effects on several popular RPG forums. Why people found it necessary - let alone desirable - to dredge up memories of a terrible time in a lot of gamers' lives, I don't know. Then again, the Internet is a weird place where a lot of people seem to take pleasure in others' suffering.

I was fortunate in that I didn't suffer many (if any) terrible effects from the satanic panic. I lived out in the boonies of northwestern Iowa and kept my gaming to myself; I didn't try to share it with anyone until high school, whereupon I received some pointed teasing from some classmates because they didn't understand it. Other gamers had it much, much worse, not only at the hands of their classmates, but also from "concerned" parents, relatives, and other figures of authority. I use the threat quotes because in some cases the "concern" about "satanic influences" was just another excuse to enact spiritual, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse upon the victim.

This karmic smackdown has been a long, long time coming thanks to the slow-turning wheels of our overloaded and oft-abused justice system. It comes as cold comfort to me - as I'm sure it does for the victims of his direct abuse - that Radecki is finally getting what he deserves only because patience is not one of my virtues. Some figures of the satanic panic have experienced a merciful fade from relevance and prominence, while others remain due to the tenacity of their ignorant beliefs. While the court of law has proven one cannot libel or slander the dead, I won't even bother to speak in detail about Sean Sellers and Patricia Pulling, each deceased now 20 years. Doing so won't undo the harm they did, nor will it affect their ultimate fate.

Having written this, I can honestly say I feel a little better. Hopefully this turn of events brings us closer to ending this painful chapter of our hobby's history and gives closure to those afflicted by it.