Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Thoughts on Anarchy

Last week, I wrote a review of Shadowrun: Anarchy, publisher Catalyst's new "alternate ruleset" for Shadowrun. This is a blog addendum to that review based on my first playthough with the game, this last Sunday. My review of Anarchy can be found here.

For Sunday's game, I had four players. All four used the pregens: one was a shaman, one was a decker, one was a street samurai, the fourth was an "action archaeologist." The pregens for Anarchy are awesome, and do a really good job of both being playable and approachable while also providing precious hints about the world of Shadowrun, and material for player narrations. I highly recommend using pre-gens for one-shots in Anarchy, despite how straight-forward the character creation rules seem.

The run itself was more or less made up on the fly, by me. Inspired by one player's choice of the action archaeologist, I tasked him with creating an artifact to be the target of this session's run. Once he had something, I asked the decker player, an avid Shadowrun fan, to give me a megacorp that would conceivably be holding the artifact. We ended up with the legendary fragment of a wall in China being held by Aztechnology on display in a corporate museum. Coping the contract brief structure as presented in the corebook, I created three scenes, jotted down a quick list of tags, bookmarked the NPC entries for security guards and a couple of drones, and went to work.

I really appreciated how fast and easy run design was for Anarchy. To be fair, Shadowrun is a fairly easy game to make adventures for, anyway...a couple of rolls on the random tables in the back of the corebook, some bookmarks for relevant NPCs, and you're good to go...but the devil is always in the details, and many a Shadowrun adventure that I've ran (or attempted to run), have fallen apart under the many and varied systems and sub-systems that comprise SR's fifth edition rules. Anarchy had my back from the start, with a straight-forward, narrative-based system that empowered me to just keep the game moving rather than sweating the small stuff. That endorsement alone may be enough to convince any fence-sitters to take the plunge into Anarchy. 

Coming from a more-traditional RPG background, I was openly skeptical of Anarchy's shared narrative, the so-called "Cue System," but I did see potential. In practice, my assessment was spot-on. The player-run scenes were often awkward and sketchy, but when it worked, it worked really well. My main focus for the next time I run Anarchy will be to help direct the shared narratives better. For this session, I pretty much cut the players loose after describing the scene. Next time, I may make the players fully aware of a scene's tags, perhaps have some suggested ideas for narrations built on those tags, and maybe have some consequences (good and bad) ready to deploy, based on the player's narrations and their failures/successes on the dice. Like many "story-based" RPGs such as Fate Core, the cohesiveness of the narrative and the overall strength of the game lies in the players' hands as much as it does the GM (perhaps more so). This can be great if your group is up to the task, but if there are players at your table who'd rather BE in a story than TELL one, that can lead to problems. Nothing a good group can't overcome, mind you, but problems, nevertheless.

I have more thoughts on this, but I'm going to leave it here, for now. I look forward to my next game of Shadowrun: Anarchy!


  1. I was one of the players, the Street Samurai.

    I'm pretty much in agreement with Ed's assessment -- when the system worked, it worked really well, and I think that the "success rate" will improve with practice.

    Two things hindered me: one is that I'm only familiar with the Shadowrun Universe in "broad strokes." This was a straightforward enough story so that wasn't a big deal. I also was unsure just how much leeway I had in where to take the story, or just what I needed to add. Plus, my own experiences as a GM make me very hesitant to do something that might "short-circuit" someone else's game. Ed caught on that some of us had such problems, and started giving hints -- for the final scene, a car chase, he asked me to come up with something to create an explosion. He must be psychic to come up with something like that for me, cause I loved the opportunity.

    When I had the "microphone" again, I looked at Ed and said, "three words: liquid oxygen truck". Ed's expression said he liked the idea as much as I did. I said something like, "I fire a few rounds into the oxygen tanks. And by 'a few rounds', I mean 'an entire magazine.'" Boom. Oooooooo, yyyyeeeaaahhhh....

    I can envision that the "shared narrative" system might be intimidating to someone new to RPG's. (And isn't it ironic the got rid of Shadowrun's legendarily complicated mechanics, and added something else to intimidate new players?) A good GM, and Ed is a good GM, could easily help by letting the player just participate in a traditional RPG fashion, and letting them contribute once they get a feel for it. That could be a way to give a heckuva great "first game" memory to someone, if the GM and other players work with the newbie to create an idea that makes for a really impressive scene.

    I remarked to Ed during a bit of downtime that it seemed like the system would mean a lot less prep time required on the GM's part, and he agreed. That's good, of course, but I wonder if the system would work for running a long-term, multi-part epic story, if the GM has a vision of how it will proceed. (Perhaps it starts small, a woman seeking to divorce her wealthy husband hires the runners to steal some evidence, but they eventually find, oh, who knows, maybe a sex tape that destroys his Presidential campaign...)

    One thing not related to the system... Ed mentioned the pre-gen characters. There's about thirty of them, and it's really too many. I think they're organized, sort of, by having an example of each of the Shadowrun "character classes" (shaman, decker, rigger, face, samurai) up front, but not completely -- a classic mage doesn't show up until near the end of the list. If you want to use them to run a pick-up game, the organization will hinder that. I think it would be very helpful to have some straightforward archetype characters, with suggestions for how to tweak them (make the mage specialize in illusions instead of explosions, make the samurai an elf who focuses on ranged combat, instead of a troll who likes swords, etc.)

    Ultimately, I'm with Ed -- I look forward to playing this again.

  2. "Plus, my own experiences as a GM make me very hesitant to do something that might "short-circuit" someone else's game. "
    This happens if someone is used to having the game master do all the work (prep in this case), and then serve it to the players. Just go with Impro och Play Unsafe and help building on each others ideas with "Yes, and", and things will become more clear that group are in on it together.

    "I can envision that the "shared narrative" system might be intimidating to someone new to RPG's. "
    Quite the opposite, and even the idea of having a game master can be strange to them. It depends on what kind of game they tried the first time. I played with experienced and totally newbs with games like InSpectres, This is Pulp and other no-prep true-on-the-fly games over fifteen years on conventions. When it comes to learning games where everyone build on others ideas, newbs pick it up in 10-15 minutes where experienced (traditional) players takes about twice that time.

    It just depends on what you're used to.