Friday, December 13, 2013

Fireside Chat: Game Settings, and Systems

What is Shadowrun? When I've been asked that question I usually embark on a long description of the game, the setting, and the fluff. This works for new players, and helps people understand what they are getting into, but it's limiting in and of itself. Let me give you an example.

I happen to frequent a local game store, as I like to shop local, and as chance would have it one of the fluff writers for Shadowrun 5th Edition also frequents the store. We got to talking, and she took me to task after I stated that Shadowrun was based in Seattle. Her point being that, as she wrote for Catalyst, she knew that the plot wasn't going to be Seattle-centric, and therefore I was wrong to state that Shadowrun was based in Seattle. This got me to thinking, first that it's silly for a person who is a representative of a company, however, peripherally, to be arguing with that same company's customers, and second, what exactly is meant by a setting, or really, a system at all?

Let's look at system first. There are two main game systems. The first, is a threshold based system. This is the D20 system, in a nutshell. You have a target, if you roll over it, you succeed, under it, you fail. You also have a success based system. This, is Shadowrun. You have a pool of dice, and if enough dice succeed you pass, if they don't you fail. If you want to describe Shadowrun in minimalist terms, you would describe it as a success based D6 system. That's it. There's no trappings of settings, or fluff, it's simply the system that is used, and the type of dice rolled.

Now, let's talk setting. Setting is where the game's fluff takes place. This is often confused as being where the game itself takes place, but once you remove the fluff, you're often left with very little in terms of setting. In Shadowrun 3rd, and 4th, edition the game's setting was Seattle. In my mind, this continues into 5th Edition as well. Regardless of the official cannon. Why does this matter? Let me explain.

For years now, I've wanted to run a role-playing game set in Prohibition. That is, 1920's era, New York City. In order to run such a game, I went looking for a set of rules who's fluff meshed with the setting I wanted to run. What I should have done, and this comes back to the discussion in the game store rather neatly, was adapt a game system, to fit the setting I wanted to play. What's to prevent me from taking the D6 based success system of Shadowrun 5th Edition, and dropping it into a 1920's era setting? Nothing. That's the great thing about viewing a game as a system, and not as a setting.

But, let's keep it a little closer to home. I have a group of players, and they've never been to Seattle. Tacoma means nothing to them, nor does Redmond, Bellevue, or Lake Washington. The setting, as it's presented, is meaningless. Why use it? I know we get attached to a setting, and we feel that we have to do whatever it is that the designer wants us to use, but why not set a campaign in your own home town? Have your players meet Mr. Johnson in your favorite local watering hole, and meet up for after-the-Run dinner at your favorite greasy-spoon.

Remember, it's your game, and your players game, if they want to keep the setting in Seattle, great. If not, great. Do what you want with the system, regardless of the setting.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Tactics: Riggers, Deckers, and Party Design

I'm a car guy. I love vehicles in Shadowrun. It always pained me in 3rd, and 4th Edition that most of my teams had an NPC rigger. Strictly from a mechanics, and flow perspective it wasn't feasible to have a PC rigger. Once the player had spent most of his money, and/or build points into a vehicle they had little incentive to get out of the vehicle. This meant that one player would usually sit out the run, until the group needed a quick getaway. This, to say the least, was no fun. Drone riggers fixed this to a point, but then the drones took over the scouting and combat roles, and other players who would usually be performing those roles ended up sitting twiddling their thumbs. In the end, most GMs, and most groups, abandoned the Rigger.

Even in 4th Edition, where the vehicle rules were better, few groups ran a PC rigger. When I picked up Shadowrun 5th Edition, I had low hopes for a lot of the mechanics. After reading through the Matrix rules, and wanting to build a Decker for the first time in a long while, I moved on to the vehicle rules. I fell in love with the amount of synergy between Riggers and Deckers. That was a master-stroke and one that has fundamentally altered the way I run, and plan, my games. You can no longer have a Rigger without a Decker. Opposing Deckers are now a massive threat to a NPC, or PC, Rigger.

This has prompted a shift in the metagame, the dynamic of the "Default" party. When I say default party I want you to think back to D&D, specifically early D&D. When you sat down to play D&D with your friends, as I often did, there was a default set of characters that had to be played, or the party never quite worked. You had the Fighter, the Mage, the Rogue, and the Cleric. Granted, some of these roles could be filled by other classes but the optimum build was always those four. Shadowrun, despite not having classes has an optimum build. In 3rd Edition you could do without a Decker, provided you had someone with good hardware skills. You needed a Face, but often times you could get away with another player taking some social skills, and a decent charisma. Usually, in my groups, that was your mage. There was no real call for a Rigger, in fact most of the time you only needed a car, and didn't even need the driving skill, 4th Edition was more or less the same. However, 5th Edition changed all that.

Let's look at the default build-point based 3rd Edition party.

- Street Samurai (Usually metahuman, Ork, Troll, etc.)
- Socialite (Elf, usually)
- Magician (Elf, or Human)
- Wildcard (Medic, Hardware guy, gun nut, decker, adept etc.)

The point being, with a Street Samurai, Social Character, and Magician, you had the game on lock. There was little you couldn't do with those three builds. The forth character was syntactic sugar, a nice to have, but not needed for the group to accomplish their objectives. The issue here is simple, you've reduced the game to a formula and whomever got stuck playing the forth man was in for a less than stellar experience.

With 5th Edition, things shifted. Sure, you can turn your network connectivity off, but the bonuses for wireless connectivity are huge. So, you leave your gear connected. Most characters won't even think about being hacked. As a GM, you let the following story play out. Runners get a job, they get hacked, badly, things go south, their gear goes haywire, guns won't fire, cyberware bricks, commlinks smoke and fail. Everything goes south. It's not hard to orchestrate, and it proves a point. So now you have to run a PC Decker, it's flat-out required. Now let's look at the default party again.

- Street Samurai
- Socialite
- Magician
- Decker

Still looks awfully formulaic. But, let's take it one step further. Why take a dedicated Socialiate? Your Magician, if they are a conjurer they will have a solid Charisma. So, your Magician becomes your Face. If not your magician, pick a character with a decent Charisma and tack on a Negotiation skill.  It's not hard to imagine. So now we have an empty spot. What do we do? We take a Rigger. Why? Because noise forces them to be johnny on the spot, and drones are incredible. Plus, it's nice to not have to walk to the meet.

So now your baseline party looks like this:

- Street Samurai
- Magician (with Negotation)
- Decker (possible with Negotiation, if the Magician isn't a conjurer)
- Rigger

Everyone has a job to do, there's enough overlap to handle injuries, and nobody is left sitting out because they've done their part. 5th Edition solves the wildcard character problem, while promoting synergy within the team, and making your Rigger, and your Decker into best friends.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Fireside Chat: Mages

I wrote two blog posts on the magic rules in Shadowrun 5th Edition, specifically Spellcasting, and Conjuring. I wanted to take a moment and write one more post about an interesting opinion I read online while building my canned characters for my first session.

"Being an aspected mage actually penalizes for taking power limitations at priority C.  (At priority B, aspected magicians are equal to magicians at least in terms of the karma value of their bonuses.)  At priority D, obviously there isn't a comparison.  The obvious conclusion however is that nobody should ever play an aspected magician except at priority D, unless you are going to be a conjurer, and even that is debatable.  (Of course, then there is the question of why you would ever want to be a magician instead of a mystic adept, since Mystic Adept > Magician > Aspect)."

Courtesy of Ricochet here

Now, let's look at this a bit closer. At priority A, there's no Aspected Magician, so you have to choose Magician, or Mystic Adept. I cannot fathom why you would take priority A for Magic. By taking A in Magic you are selling yourself short. So much of the game focuses on Attributes, and Skills, I cannot fathom why you would waste A on Magic. Especially when B is nearly as good, and leaves your top spot open for Attributes.

Priority B is where I like to start with every Magician I've built. I look at it like this: If I'm building a human Character, then Mystical Adept, Magician, or Aspected Magician all make sense. Remember, if you're going to take Magician, you might as well take Mystical Adept. You don't have to buy the power points, but having the choice doesn't cost anything, and can leave interesting growth options open to you down the road. If I'm building a non-human character and I'm not going to have a large number of extra points to add to my Edge, and Magic, then I prefer the Aspected Magician at this level, as the one higher point in Magic can help offset the lack of special attribute points from the metatype. That being said, a full Magician at priority B can be solid with a non-human metatype, you need to balance the metatype choice, and the rest of your priority choices though.

Priority C is the first level where I'd actually consider taking an Adept. You have a reasonably high Magic, and you've left Priority A, and B, free for attributes, skills, or metatype. Though again, I'd caution against taking Priority A as anything other than attributes. For Magician, Mystic Adept, or Aspected Magician I have to agree with Ricochet. The skill group for the Aspected Magician simply isn't enough of a benefit to make me not want to take the full Magician or Mystic Adept. Magic 3 is still solid, especially if you're playing a human, or other metatype with a few special attribute points to bolster your magic rating.

Priority D, this is an interesting one. You're left with Adept, or Aspected Magician. You get no spells, or skills, for free. Why would you bother taking Priority D for Magic? Honestly, I would only take Adpet at this Priority. Given that all Adepts have to buy power points with Karma you might as well take Attributes, Skills, and Metatype/Resources as A, B, and C, and use the special attribute points to up the magic attribute, and the skill and attribute points to build a solid foundation for a character. I can't advise taking Aspected Magician at D, as there's simply too many demands on your skill picks, and karma, to make a mage work at such a low priority.

This is one of the only failings of a priority based build system. You end up with character builds that simply aren't as good, or aren't even viable. In the end, you're going to see a lot of Human Mystic Adpets. If this was intentional by the designers, or not, this is definitely the way I see things going.

Attributes: A
Magic: B (Mystic Adept)
Skills: C
Metatype: D (Human (3))
Resources: E

That's your cookie-cutter mage build, in my opinion.

I'm curious though, does anyone have an idea for a character that doesn't seem possible? I'd like a challenge. If you can think of a character concept post in the comments, and tell me what the character concept is, and what you'd pick for Metatype, Attributes, Skills, Resources, and Magic. I'll pick a few I like and see if I can actually build them.

Run Recap: First Session!

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving, or at the very least, a great weekend. As I mentioned in an earlier post I ran my first Shadowrun 5th Edition game this past Friday. I had planned to run a four player street-level game. I had developed a run that should have been a challenge, while highlighting a number of the mechanics in the game.

Once I arrived and got the session started I ran into the first of a number of hurdles. My forth player was a no-show. He'd been called into work, and wouldn't be able to make it to the game. This meant that my group was going to be down either their mage, or their primary combat character. Figuring it would be easier to work around the lack of the gun fighter I handed out the three pre-generated characters, explained the basics of the game including skill tests, limits, and opposed tests, as well as covering some of the language I would be using in game, and we got started.

As this was both a one-shot, and a new group, I kept things informal, allowing table chat, and questions as they came up. If this was a more serious group I'd have kept the cross chat to a minimum but I found that in this case it helped move things along as the one experienced player could field questions as they arose, freeing me to ad-lib a less dangerous version of the run.

We began with the meet. I went with my usual method when I have a new group, each player gets a call from their fixer, or other main contact. On the call they were told that a job was in the works, but the timeline was short and they needed to get to the '12 Stone Steps' I cut out a lot of the pre-meet work that I had planned. I let the players wander around the Tacoma waterfront, described the environment, and the police presence. I had made it clear to the players that they would need to play nice with police, and all three of my players took it to heart and showed up to the meet with small arms, under jackets, in concealable holsters. In the end, it worked well, and the descriptions of the police provided enough dramatic tension to keep the players involved. As my players staggered into the bar over the course of an hour and a half of in-game time I played up the bouncer, worked in a few concealed weapons rolls, and was lucky enough to have the bouncer spot one of my players guns, and give him a bit of trouble. As none of the characters knew each other I was able to work the meet in such a way that the group formed organically, with each player coming to the table when I needed them to.

This is one of the things I love about Shadowrun. You can effortlessly side-step the problem you run into in every D&D game, that is, why would a bunch of strangers meet up at a tavern, and go treasure hunting together. It makes no sense. At least in Shadowrun each player arrives at the meet with the idea that they are there to do a job, and get paid. Much simpler.

Once the introductions were completed, the players, and Mr. Johnson squared off for some negotiation, and then the players went their separate way to work their contacts for information on the new gang pushing BTLs in Tacoma. This wasn't part of my original plan, but I found that having the players decide their own next steps generally works well. I had planned a table of extra information, but as I was running a player short, I ad-libed and after some money changed hands, each of the players had a piece of information. Some of the information was duplicated by multiple players, but when the group got back together they were able to plan their next few steps.

I had deliberately designed the run to have a few safety features. One of these was the fact that several of the characters had Lone Star ties, and Lone Star was actively surveying the gang that the runners were targeting. This allowed me to bring in reinforcements if the run went south. This also made the players reconsider a direct confrontation, as the police are nearby, and would get involved. While this wasn't my objective, I found the fact that the players themselves took the time to talk about the pros and cons of a direct confrontation as a good sign. In the end the team mage used an improved invisibility spell, and went out to do some direct reconnaissance.

Unfortunately due to time constraints that's as far as we got, and I'll have to save the rest of the run for another day. All in all I thought it went incredibly well, and I'm looking forward to another game in the near future.