Friday, January 24, 2014

Fireside Chat: Thematic Encounters

I'm in the process of gearing up for my next run. At present I have three players, two of which are veteran and one veteran role-player, who has no experience with Shadowrun. This has gotten me thinking about an are where a lot of GM's fall short. Playing the bad guys.

In other Role-Playing Games, like D&D and Pathfinder, the opposition is fairly clear. You have monsters, and they follow the usual cinematic flow of going from little, to big. Everyone knows the big bad guy at the end of the castle is the boss fight, and aside from a handful of traps, and maybe a hidden door or two, the bulk of the opposition is the monsters themselves.

Shadowrun is different. Both in the scope of the potential opposition, and the wide range of the severity of the opposition. This mean that you have to think about Shadowrun opposition in a completely different way. So, instead of viewing security as a challenge to be overcome our players let's look at security as a narrative device.

When we approach the idea of opposition in Shadowrun I divide encounters into two rough groups, the first being combative encounters, the second being thematic encounters. While most of your time will be spent planning the combative encounters, it's the thematic encounters that occur most often.

What do I mean by a thematic encounter? This is a tough one, as it's not a hard and fast rule. However, when you design an NPC, that you don't think is going to result in combat, that's a thematic encounter. Of course, sometimes, your thematic encounters turn into combative encounters. Every run has at least one thematic encounter. Most GM's call it meeting Mr. Johnson. However, I like to have a number of other thematic encounters. Think about every person you encounter in your day to day life. The barista that makes your coffee, the ticket taker for the subway, or the cabbie that gets you to work, the doorman for your apartment, and the homeless man on the street corner, All of these people have the possibility of being thematic encounters. While these encounters might seem trivial, but a good GM knows that their players live in an area, and that area is populated by other people. Those people can become regular sights, contacts, enemies, or friends. Over time, the group can come to expect these people in their day to day adventures.

I base my games in Seattle, and love to have my players live, and run out of a specific neighborhood. Areas of Seattle, like Tacoma, or Freemont, or Capitol Hill, make for amazing backdrops for Shadowrun. These areas, and the people that populate them humanize the game. It's one of the reasons I love playing Shadowrun over any other role-playing game. I love the people, the city, and the thematic elements that as a GM you can weave into the story. This is one of the reasons I always keep a folio of the people, the NPC's and the locations in my games. Over time, even across story arcs and characters the players in my groups develop an attachment to the areas and the people in the game.

When ever I talk about thematic encounters, and the power they can have in a game I like to tell a story about a tinker that I used in one of my long running D&D games. This tinker was a throw-away NPC, older human that would wander from town to town with a cart full of goods. I described him as a bit of throw away color in one of the villages my party stopped into, and without really thinking about it, described him again in the next village. This, while a mistake on my part, caught the attention of the group, and they began looking for this tinker in every village they stopped into. So, not one to waste a good story, I had him randomly pop up in villages and towns, or on the road carrying a vast array of stuff. Never anything too useful, but if you needed a ten foot pole, he was your man. Over time this tinker developed a bit of a mythos, my group couldn't believe that it was just a tinker, they assumed there had to be more to the story. This is the best part of a thematic encounter, your players become invested in the NPCs.

Let's turn this around to Shadowrun. You have a player, in a low lifestyle, on the edge of Redmond, they have a mild addiction to alcohol, and so they stop into their local Stuffer Shack on their way home. As a GM, I can gloss over this little transaction, doing nothing more then making a note that they've satisfied the addiction for the next few days. Or, I can use this as a thematic encounter. I can describe the store, the sales that are running, the girl behind the counter, and the homeless troll that's always sleeping against the side of the building. I can have a bunch of wannabe gangers loitering in the parking lot, and have them harass the character, to see what they do. Maybe I can have a Knight Errant officer in his car in the parking lot, see if I can't spook the player into going home instead, and triggering the negative effects of the addiction.

No dice need to be rolled, but this is a perfect way to build an environment, to show your players that they don't exist in a  vacuum between their lifestyle, the meet, and the location for the latest bit of mischief.

Hopefully this has shown a little of what you can do, in a storytelling perspective. Next week I'm going to go over combative encounters, and how I design physical, astral, and matrix security for my runs.


  1. My players have a tendency to run with ideas they get from random npcs in Shadowrun, even more than other games. For example, one time they were on a run acting as a bodyguard for trid-star/wannabe shadowrunner, when they met a young fan who also wanted to be a runner. To me it was just supposed to be some window dressing, but they realized they could exploit the hero worship and took to giving the kid "runs" of his own. Kid didn't last long...

  2. Lovely!

    I've always found the little thematic details are what bring shadowrun to life.

    I'm running a game set in Denver and decided I wanted a softball first session. So, I had the group brought together for a little old fashioned intimidation. Illegal boxing match needed a fix.

    The first session ended with all the players in an awful bind: They realized they actually liked the boxer and his AWOL UCAS Marine trainer.

    The next two sessions were them overcomplicating and convoluting an elaborate plan to try and fix the fight without screwing over the boxer. They Narc'd on the trainer and took over for him ringside and slipped him a mickey at the appropriate round.

    And when a riot broke out for reasons which were, surprisingly, not their fault, they worked like a team to haul the boxer's ass out before shit got too heavy.

    That run would have lasted almost a third as long if I hadn't added a little flavor to their targets.

  3. Excellent write-up! I definitely have found myself following the philosophy of adding in at least one thematic encounter per gaming session. The players give me all sorts of ideas when they interact with NPCs and the environment.

    Great post and I look forward to more GM Advice-type stuff!