Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Shadowrun Anarchy: My Take

This is going to be a terrible review. It’ll be scattershot, disorganized, unclear, overwritten, and contradictory.

Like Shadowrun Anarchy.

Catalyst calls Shadowrun Anarchy an “Alternate Ruleset.” We’ve seen other companies try variations on this: White Wolf’s Storytelling Adventure System, GURPS Lite, Rolemaster Express, HARP. It’s a great idea. Make it accessible for newcomers and bring back the fallen. Shadowrun’s among games with a rich settings and a major barrier to entry: a dense system, often expanded over multiple sourcebooks. See Earthdawn, Fading Suns, Iron Kingdoms. But Shadowrun’s an easy and vivid pitch: cyberpunk with Elves & Orks. Over decades multiple publishers created an amazingly cool world. Every sourcebook looks hot.

So an easy, rules-simple, player collaborative version excited me. I hadn’t played Shadowrun back in the day. I’d been among the Cyberpunk 2020 snobs. But over the years I’ve bought SR supplements. I even tried a couple Fate Accelerated sessions to get a feel for it. I wanted Shadowrun Anarchy to be good and I bought the physical copy and the pdf. I read through it multiple times. I tried to distill the rules. I ran a couple of sessions. You can see the AP for those online (Session 1, Session 2). 

And it feels like a massive missed opportunity. It didn’t work for me.

LINE CROSSING
On the one hand I didn’t care for the way Shadowrun Anarchy actually played. My players didn’t dig the structure and I felt like the rules fought me. That’s about the kind of game SR ends up being. On the other hand there’s the concrete problem of the presentation. Let’s leave aside that they had errata immediately and the print version doesn’t have corrections. The writing makes SRA more difficult than it needs to be. The text actively works against the reader. It desperately needs a strong editorial hand to go back to the start and rethink how to convey these concepts.

There’s also a conceptual split in the rules. There’s the structural approach- making the game a conversation. That’s intended to make this collaborative, more modern, and narrative-leaning. But then there’s the actual mechanical approach. As agile as Shadowrun Anarchy’s scene framing mechanic may be, it the system then bolts weights onto it. That’s a problem.

Finally there’s the split between what this book could have been versus what it is.

WHO IS IT GOOD FOR?
Shadowrun Anarchy isn’t clear about its audience or purpose.

If we’re trying to bring in new players, then I can understand the amount of setting summary in the Shadowrun Anarchy. I can maybe even understand the large number of sample characters. But the rules themselves are unfriendly. They’re text-dense, disorganized, and barely highlight important rules.

On the other hand, if we’re trying to bring in current Shadowrun players with the dangling offer of lighter rules, then a large chunk of the book’s wasted filler. 33 pages of setting background and Seattle description. Even the number of sample characters seems overdone alongside the rules for character building.

Or perhaps they’re trying to get fallen trad Shadowrun players. The highly story-game structure’s going to be a hard sell. And rather than illustrate why this approach works with Shadowrun, the book buries things under stats and mechanics.

That crushing weight means Story Games will be put off by the sheer mass of stats and numbers. Add to that complex and opaque character sheets. Often your CS is your best hook for new people. They’ve got great illustrations for the sample characters, but there’s so much going on within the actual sheet.

In trying to serve so many audiences, Shadowrun Anarchy serves all of them poorly. It swings between approaches.

TAKE YOUR CUE
Shadowrun Anarchy uses the Cue System, previously seen in Cosmic Patrol and the Valiant Universe RPG (my look at the latter). The basic idea is to put narrative power into the hands of the players. Each turn begins with the GM’s and then in a set order we run through each player’s Narration. On your narration a player can describe what their character does and what’s happening in the world: things that show up, people you meet, changes of circumstance, etc. If something they’re doing has a chance of failure they stop to roll dice. There’s no hard limit to what someone can do on a narration, except in combat. There they can only make a single attack action on a round.

The limits of player narrations are unclear. What level of abstraction are we working at? Are we playing out a whole sequence- “OK, I go to talk to the Fixer to get info on this and he tells me some things” (move to a roll) or are we breaking things down further than that? “I go in and scope out the Fixer’s location, and I see X, so I…”. Note that if another player wants to interrupt someone’s narration to take an action, they have to spend a Plot Point to do so, one of a couple game resources (we also have Edge, Karma, Armor, and Damage). While it’s not explicit in the rules, I expect if the narrating player wanted to bring them in to act, they could spend a point. That economy’s necessary because the game hard a set turn order. You have to either work your narrative around that or take steps to break it. I’m used to hard ordering in combat, but not outside.

To be fair, the game does say you can explicitly engage in Talk Time. Someone has to declare this and get table agreement to move into this mode. This can only cover freewheeling discussion. Once a PC gets to any test they have to return to the standard order. It’s a split that reinforces how the game locks down the usual narrations. Players can kibitz on others’ turns, but otherwise one person leads everything at a time.

WHAT ABOUT THE GM?
“On a player’s narration, the GM only has the following responsibilities.
*Deciding whether an action requires the player roll a Test
*Declaring what modifiers (if any) apply to a Test
*Determining what Attribute(s) applies to an Attribute-only Test
*Roleplaying NPCs
*Making defense rolls for NPCs
*Knowing the information in the Contract Brief
*Arbitrating rules discussions
*Declaring that a player’s Narration is finished (such as if a Narration has lasted for too long)
Many other elements that might be considered traditional RPG gamemaster duties—describing the scene, detailing what NPCs are doing, having enemies appear, and so forth—fall to the player who is currently giving a Narration.”
Rich Rogers has described this approach as “putting the heavy lifting on the players.”

The GM starts each turn and has their own narration. There they give a run down of the current situation and “advance the plot.” Exactly what that means isn’t clear. Again, there’s little guidance for scale or scope. Like Valiant, you play Shadowrun Anarchy with a pre-set adventure, called a Contract Brief. That has the setup, pitch, objectives, backdrop, etc for the mission. It also has the scenes you’re expected to play through. They’re written concrete and linear, though elsewhere the book says they can twist.

It’s another case of the rulebook being unsure what it wants. If they intend these to be flexible, why not write them more flexibly? As it is they’re tiny sections of railroad track. In most of them, Scene 2 is contingent on certain things happening in Scene 1, and so on down the line. They provide little guidance about scale.

THE DANGERS OF CHOICE
The book’s also massively unclear about who should see these Contract Briefs. In the rules section, it says the group looks through the Briefs and picks one. It specifically mentions that info there is for the players. But when we get to the Briefs chapter, it’s marked as GM only. Which one is it?

So here’s the freaking thing that bugs me. In several places, Shadowrun Anarchy tell us “this is how we play.” OK, I’ve got that in my head. That’s the assumption I’m taking on in reading the rest of the rules. But then much later, we get a “this is how we play” contradicting or swerving the earlier rule. Now I have to go back and re-read in light of that.

Because there’s a pretty big difference between a game that assumes the players know what scenes they’re angling towards in their narration and one where they don’t.

Oh man, this game.

BURNING CHROME
On the other hand you have Shadowrun Anarchy’s mechanics.

Charles Picard wrote about Mutant Year Zero this week and he said something that stuck with me. “When I refer to narrative or story games, I’m talking about games that (and I’m speaking very broadly here) build their mechanics to focus on the unfolding story of the game, rather than mechanically simulating aspects of the game world.”

Shadowrun Anarchy has a weird clash between the story framing and mechanical side. SRA does a lot of consolidation and reduction of the game’s earlier mechanics. According to SR vets, players roll smaller pools of dice—usually now 8 to 12d6s. All powers have been lumped together as Shadow Amps. The book has a list of examples, but also has a point cost system for buying these abilities. So they’re closer to GURPS powers and more complicated versions of Fate’s Stunts. But a major point of contention has been that the sample characters break these rules.

Despite that mechanical reduction, it’s still complicated. Lots of stats and skills, weird exceptions sub-systems, several calculation steps. Any test, for example is opposed. If there’s a rolled test, the GM’s rolling dice either for the active opponent or the passive difficulty. So both player and GM have to choose and form pools, roll, activate additional powers, count successes (usually 5 or 6s on each die) and then compare those. If we’re in combat, we take that margin of success plus the weapons damage and apply that to the character. They then apply that to their armor and then to their damage track which has several levels with rising levels of penalties.

Combat’s not fast for several reasons, including the rolling. Here’s an actual example from our play. Sledge, our Ork street samurai goes in to attack a group of corporate security. He’s swinging a Mono-Katana around. He rolls 10 dice for this attack (skill plus A ((Agility because they use one letter abbreviations for the stats…)) for dice #). On average, he’s going to get three successes. He gets to reroll one die because it’s an Agility test. So let’s be generous and give him four successes. The Corporate Security rolls A + L (Agility + Logic) for 7 dice. That means an average of 2 successes. So Sledge has a margin of 2, he adds that to the 6P (Physical) damage for a total of 8 points. Awesome.

Except the Security Guard doesn’t drop. The SG has Armor 9, which he marks off, leaving him with one point left. Let’s say on the following round Sledge swings again for the same amount. The SG’s still up. They lose their last armor and then take 7 damage. They have 10, so they remain up with 3 points left. But now the GM has to track their die penalties (-3 in this case).

On average a stock standard guard will take three shots from a PC to take down. That’s assuming luck holds. Don’t even get me started on a Small Drone, which is even tougher to take down. In the GM section there’s a small passage suggesting from time to time you could handle opponents as mooks. But, “While this shouldn’t be embraced very often in an RPG setting, as that approach would most likely make an evening’s gaming a tad too boring, the GM should be willing to embrace this type of scenario every now and then…However, this option should be used sparingly.” When the rules stop off twice in a paragraph to warn me about doing something, there’s a message.

JUST CHANGE IT
But that “mook aside” is one of many rules changes you speed-bump over. Shadowrun Anarchy has tons of alternate rules, optional mechanics, and different systems. They pop up throughout the rules text. “You don’t have to do it X, you could do it Y.” I’m all in favor of optional mechanics. I played Rolemaster for years FFS. But there needs to be a clear, solid statement of the base rules first. Instead we have rules thrown in a blender

There’s more. The writing’s opaque in places. We jump from section to section on dense pages without a good map of where we are and what rules we’re working through. That makes it horrible when you have to go back to find something during play. I felt like I was back in the 1990s: text heavy pages, poor use of headings and callouts to guide, verbose writing requiring parsing. The rules have weird implications and odd placements. For example, you have to pay a Plot Point to move twice on your narration. But we only get this idea of switching from tactical to larger scale in the movement section.  It creates an even larger break between the narrative side and the weirdly crunchy resolution and combat side.

And there’s no example of play.

I repeat: there’s no example of play in the entire book. We have all that setting and 60 pages devoted to NPCs, but not any example of play.

YOU KNOW WHAT’S COMING
Shadowrun Anarchy didn’t work for me as a GM. I found the rules badly written, making it hard to figure out exactly what they intended. I tried my best to GM Shadowrun Anarchy, but it felt like running through molasses. I wanted to like it and thought I was open to different systems. I’m running point-heavy Mutants & Masterminds, tradindel rpg Mutant Year Zero, Fate, and PbtA. Look at the variety of stuff I’d run for TGIT Gauntlet Hangouts.

Let me give my gut feeling about Shadowrun Anarchy, purely gut. It chickened out. As I said at the start, Shadowrun Anarchy doesn’t do a great job defining its mission. But certainly the lead-up buzz talked about a rules-light, accessible, and narrative focused rpg. That’s a great goal. But Shadowrun Anarchy can’t let go of all the systems and crunch. There’s elaborate chrome and a deflated version of the original systems. Rather than fully rethinking those mechanics, they just put them in a dehydrator. They couldn’t take the leap: recognize the strength of their IP and find a new system approach.

Other games have managed that shift. I’ll point to Mutant Year Zero as the best recent example. But I’d say Mutant Chronicles, another branch from the same tree, manages this while staying crunchy. 7th Sea’s another example of an older game pulled into the modern era. Shadowrun Anarchy’s not in bad company though. As I’ve mentioned before I’d hoped Feng Shui 2 would be awesome and modern. But it kept some core concepts about initiative and actions that make it as game I don’t really want to play. I’m half hopeful, half nervous that the new edition of Scion will give us a lean and accessible system.

Shadowrun Anarchy’s hobbled as well by its presentation and writing. It needed an editor the caliber of Amanda Valentine or John Adamus to bring coherence. Games have gotten better about this in recent years. I think Urban Shadows, Tianxia, Coriolis, and 7th Sea offer strong examples. I think rules should be accessible, logical, and easy to reference. SRA’s anything but.

I’m not fond of writing negative reviews- I’d rather point people to things they should be looking at. That’s doubly true for something I wanted to like. That being said, if you’re enjoying SRA, more power to you. I’m glad it’s serving your group. I didn’t work for me.