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Fear the Rebuttal - Shadowrun

Scott "Fowl Sorcerous" Wachter
Tabletop RPGs Editor

In the past I have expressed distaste for the long-running RPG, Shadowrun. The reasons for this have been alluded to, but most stem from the genre-mash of cyberpunk and high fantasy. Each is a great taste but they do not belong on the same plate much less in the Reece's-esque confection presented by FASA and Jordan Weisman. A few of my colleagues in the game commentary field at the Fear the Boot Podcast came to the defence of the setting in a recent episode. I will summarize their points as I make counter-arguments, but the full episode can be found at this link.

1. Art for the game is based on the more evocative ideas of the setting, rather than truly reflecting the content.

Shenanigans! For over two and half decades Shadowrun has had editors, art directors and designers whose job it is to know the tone and feel of the setting better than anyone else and see to it that every element of the product is reflective of those ideas. If the supernatural elements are supposed to less pronounced than the game's art depicts, then perhaps they should not be commissioning so many images of elves in business suits, cyborg dwarves and dragons astride skyscrapers.

2. The use of fantasy tropes made the game more accessible to gamers in the early days of cyberpunk, when the genre was unfamiliar to the public at large.

Shadowrun was released in 1989; eight years after the short story Johnny Mnemonic was published, seven years after Blade Runner hit theatres, the entirety of William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy had been released. Sure, the genre was a few years away from its pop cultural zenith in the mid-nineties, but it is undeniable that the genre was well entrenched in the speculative fiction scene (both on the page and the screen). Heck, it was already entering the gamer lexicon with R Talsorian's Cyberpunk 2013 and Cyberspace from Iron Crown Enterprises being released the year prior, the only reason GURPS Cyberpunk didn't beat Shadowrun to the shelves was some legal troubles with the U.S. Secret Service.

Did FASA really underestimate the gaming population such that our puny imaginations could grasp a near future of ubiquitous technology and corporate greed without also including trolls to slay? Three other gaming companies seemed to think we were ready for it, the movie industry was confident enough to add a bunch of narration to fine film, the publishers behind cyberpunk fiction seemed to like the idea. So why does Shadowrun get off easy with diluting a rich, new, genre with something so tiresome as second-hand Tolkien? The human mind is an infinite canvas that has little need for more elves.

3. The fantastic elements are allegorical to real life issues, allowing people to gamers to play with the issues without offending any sensitivities.

I'm sorry, did I miss a memo? Did the genre we have been discussing get renamed cyber-adult-contempo? One of the reasons why the genre has endured in the pop-culture consciousness is the key theme of exploring the fears of the current day in the darkest possible way. Which means you have to tackle those issues directly. Unregulated corporate policy is scary because a bunch of MBAs in a room with a lot resources and very little regulation is a scary thing, much scarier than a dragon.

This is not to say there aren't outlandish elements in cyberpunk, transhumanism and transreality play a big part in a lot of works of the genre, but they are grounded in futurism and speculation. High fantasy is escapism, the problems of the characters inhabiting those settings are completely removed from reality as we know it. By juxtaposing present day fears and complete escapism; it undercuts the core of both genres. In summation: your genre-mash is bad and you should feel bad.

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