Beyond the Shadows: The Shadowrun Companion

I wrote a lot for this book.

It was definitely a team effort, and I give props to everyone on the credits page. Writing, editing, laying out, and organizing game information are all important skills to any book, but the organization is the one that strikes me, these many years later. We (meaning the nine authors) wrote a bunch of freewheeling player and gamemaster advice questioning what Shadowrun was really about and how far players could push it.

I don’t remember how much I wrote for this book exactly (25,000 words comes to mind), but when I read it now, I remember writing drafts of a lot of text that were modified to become the final copy.

On this page, I’m going to talk about them. A lot. Much of what I will say might make sense if you played the game. If you haven’t… carry on, soldier.

Parts I had a hand in:

In Their Own Words

Character Creation Options

Edges and Flaws

Contacts and Enemies

Advanced Rules

Running the Game

Alternate Campaign Concepts

In Their Own Words

When I wrote “In Their Own Words,” the opening “black information” flavor text, I imagined runners grousing about their fellow teammates in the virtual cool-off-chat-room known as ShadowCell. In retrospect, it’s as subtle as a baseball bat to the head, but then Cyberpunk 2020 called their gamemastering book Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads, so I figured subtlety might be lost on the average reader.

I wrote with a specific player in mind. The player has many names, but he always plays the same. He (or she, but having run seven or eight campaigns and many convention adventures now, it’s almost always a he) is playing a game with lethal spells and automatic weapons and wants to use them. It doesn’t matter much who he uses them on, be it cops or robbers or fellow teammates, because he hasn’t really given a thought to the consequences of his actions. He thinks it will be fun, and maybe it will. But often it isn’t.

And the death of fun means the death of a roleplaying game. It gets relegated to “eh, we tried it for a while, come join this campaign of this other RPG we’re playing.” And I didn’t want that to happen to Shadowrun. I wanted the world to expand and thrive, because the world had so much more potential than what a sixteen-year-old boy sees when he picks out the Street Samurai archetype and starts to play whack-a-mole.

I played with players who tracked every kill because they thought the game was like first edition D&D and that was how you tallied up experience points.

I got betrayed by another player and sniped him with a Walther 2100, and when he made his next character, he still didn’t learn intraparty homicide was a bad thing.

And yes, I played with Kane, the prophetically-named rigger held up as “the guy never to team with,” with four separate characters, because he literally got chased out of Seattle, California Free State, and Aztlan. Kane was a trip to play with, because he constantly got the GM’s attention, wound up with a destroyed vehicle, and the rest of us would bail his butt out. He took out loans from the Mafia. He set off a suitcase nuke in North Korea (it was 1992, so it wasn’t quite as problematic then). So for damn sure he got a mention.

Kane’s player also created Kodiak, a cybered shadowrunner whose cyberpsychosis went so deep he thought he was a bear (yeah… weird but true) and my second Shadowrun GM ever came up with The Black Archer, who thought a compound bow and muscle replacement made him Seattle’s superhero. So I’d seen some strange stuff in my time.

And I had advice to give.

Character Creation Options

My writing partner (Jennifer Brandes at the time, now Jennifer Hepler) and I wrote a lot of the text defining statistics and what they really mean in real-world terms, and gave a first draft of the former Navy SEAL decker character. The edited example of the character isn’t that great an example, because it omits 1) that his low statistics reveal that he’s gotten rusty, and 2) he doesn’t start with a cyberdeck.

I mean, what we had was him designing his own deck for 110,000 nuyen or so, and you need the Virtual Realities book to do that, so I see why it got nixed as core rules advice, but then he doesn’t start with a fucking deck.

As for the new metahuman types, I found fault with most of them from a powergaming perspective and a scientific rationale perspective. I nerded out about how the metatypes should always work out to +3 Attributes and how binocular species would never revert to a monocular ones like in the case of a cyclops… but as soon as I saw the art of “Sgt. Rokk,” the cyclops with a badge, I was on board for just about any lunacy the game threw my way. The Night Ones could have orange fur that looked like bloody Morris the Cat if they wanted. Bring ’em on.

I tried to write shapeshifter rules, but stuck too closely to the Critters stats, and they got nixed. I loathed Striper and it came through in the text, which is a terrible way to write appealing game rules. The ones in print work better from a game balance and lore perspective. Consistency really should take a back seat to those.

Edges and Flaws

We proposed a lot of these. A lot of names got changed. Calling Animal Affinity “Tarzan” probably would have gotten FASA sued by Disney, so I don’t mind that in the least. The ones I’m the most glad made it into the game are the Edges and the Flaws that encourage characters you wouldn’t normally gravitate to. Paraplegic mage with higher education like Professor X? Mercenary who just got out of prison? A ganger who gets a bonus fighting as long as he’s in his neighborhood? Sure.

The ones I like the least are the ones that essentially let min-maxers do what was previously only available to a specialized character. I don’t need to play a physad to get Pain Resistance and I don’t have the drawbacks of bioware? I’ll spend that point in a hot second. But in fairness, it all comes down to context. If you come into my campaign with a Detective archetype with no cyber, no magic, and a block or two of Pain Resistance because he gets beat up by corporate thugs who want him off the case all the time, I’d totally overlook that.

Contacts and Enemies

Jennifer and I wrote the Enemies rules, and they survived largely intact. I think the example of the Rating 6 enemy was once pithier (“What do you mean, you’re slotting Damien Knight’s wife?”) but I’m pleased with how they work. We tied the base level to the amount of starting nuyen and not Attributes or Skills because in my experience, the players with the cash end up starting off the most powerful. Implants are the most  obvious route, but there’s also just owning rigger vehicles with devastating firepower, spell locks for the mages to crank up Reaction, and so forth. My first high school Shadowrun GM called it “the magnet effect.” You get more powerful, you get more powerful enemies. Them’s the breaks.

I’m particularly proud of the 20 Enemy Motivations and 20 Reasons Enemies Don’t Kill You When They Damn Well Should, which I like to point out as a resource for any writer.

Advanced Rules

I wrote a few minor ones that pop up. I didn’t do anything extensive like the SOTA, instead I went for staggered Karma Pool advancement and melee weapon reach. Both seemed needed in my campaigns: 15 Karma Pool can make you pretty unstoppable, and Second Edition’s brutal Reach rule meant them who has more Reach wins. Easy fixes, and I’m glad they got in.

Running the Game

I had a lot to say here, but it comes through only in patches in the final text, which is fine. The part that survived intact the most was the Shadowrun Mission Archetypes, which is a giant dump of adventure ideas.

Alternate Campaign Concepts

In retrospect, compared to many people I’ve played with, I had some breadth of experience when it came to alternate campaigns. My campaigns in high school included a gang campaign, a short stint where my hitmage joined Lone Star, and we had a series of counterterror jobs taken from old Top Secret: S.I. modules with some magic and cybertech thrown in. It wasn’t Special Forces, but with physads and street sams, it came pretty close.

The Special Forces campaign details came about in the usual way. I knew I had to get it right, because there are plenty of RPG players who have been in or are currently serving in the armed forces. And my personal experience was just taking a couple of military history courses intended for ROTC and having a family member in the Air Force. So I did what any writer would do when they are just learning how to do research: I asked my mom.

“We could e-mail Bob,” my Mom said. “Bob’s Delta.”

“Uh… Delta Force?” I asked.

“Yep. Send your address by.”

I tried not to break a mirror high-fiving myself and proceeded to e-mail Bob. So that’s why the descriptions of the team requirements sound like someone who has an inkling of what they’re talking about, and the stuff about cops is based on the very few cop shows I’d seen at the time.

I think the weakest of the write-ups my partner and I put down were the media and the corporate security half of the police write-up. I’d change them both now.

Corporate security never fired my imagination because at that point in my life, I’d never held a corporate job. The one GM I knew who ran adventures where you played guards, waiting for shadowrunners to attack, didn’t make it sound exciting. But being part of a well-funded megacorporation, full of internal and external rivals, doing black ops because you’re more reliable and trusted than the freelancers? Yeah, I could get behind that. Get rid of the discouraging language saying metahumans are less common and play the “company men” from Team Ares sticking it to their Aztechnology rivals. Being the hatchetman who has to clean up other corporate types’ messes (firing, brain-wiping, lethal solutions, etc.) for one of the big corps sounds like it has potential.

Fortunately, Lone Star had plenty of easily-grasped appeal, and its own sourcebook, so the entry works pretty well regardless. Over the years, as the quality of cop shows has increased (CSI, Law and Order, The Wire, etc.) the campaign will have a lot more to draw on than it did in the mid-1990s.

The media entry also suffered from the medical syndrome I call “Written By a 20-Year-Old.” While I loved me some Shadowbeat, I didn’t watch television at the time, including the nightly news. Now, in the age of bingeing on The West Wing, The Wire, The Newsroom, and living through endless news cycles of scandals, it seems like the most natural thing in the world.

The cast of characters for a media campaign are all around you. They’re pundits your reporter has to book on his pirate trid station, and then worry that they’ve sold him out to Lone Star. They’re the talking heads on the major news stations that are serving the megacorporate-military complex whenever they go to war based on a lie. They’re stealthing their way into the White House Correspondent’s Dinner and getting their pictures taken with the President.

I actually ran a pickup game recently based on a news story about how dangerously unsafe our fleet of trains carrying fuel are. It went like this:

  1. Whistleblower wants runners to blow up an aging maglev train to call attention to train vulnerabilities.
  2. The catch: it should be as safe as possible. The detonation has to happen somewhere remote rather than an urban area. (I chose a Tir-to-Seattle freight express.)
  3. Runners figure out how to slow train down in remote area, get on board, Narcoject or kill guards. They then use Demolitions or a weakening acid on the train so it breaks apart when it gets back up to 200 kph.
  4. Runners leap to safety from now-empty fuel-laden train going 150 kph.
  5. Big boom that hides evidence.
  6. Reporter gets exclusive footage of explosion, interviews. Reporter applies public pressure to government and train corp.
  7. Politicians fund upgrade of train fleet, saving lives in the long run.
  8. Profit.

I always appreciated the alternate campaigns I didn’t write up: I’m pretty sure Zach Bush wrote the DocWagon campaign entry and Steve Kenson wrote the magical campaign. I never really considered a magical campaign a thing, since every dang campaign I ever ran ultimately ended up with like 5 players who kept playing magically active characters and 1 dedicated cyberguy with a ton of money and stats. I just assumed that was how Karma worked and how smart players rolled.

Jennifer and I wrote a little of the gang rules, but the leadership battle stuff and the sample gangs that gave a facelift to the Seattle Sourcebook gangs were someone else. I’m not sure who.

I guess the Companion still does its job, these 20 years later, because now I want to play Shadowrun.

The Shadowrun Companion (for 2nd Edition) can be found here. The third edition, which retains much of it, is here.