Sunday, September 25, 2016

Fatalistic Shadowrun and the Elision of Gore (Thought Eater)

Here are some more entires for ROUND THREE of the Thought Eater Writin' About Games Tournament.

These are not by me, they are by two anonymous contestants, vote for which you like better.

The theme for this round is to describe the significance of something that's missing from an RPG text.

Here is the first essay, if you like it best, send an email to zakzsmith AT hawtmayle with the subject line "LIH" and nothing else.

You were born without papers, in the shadow of a government or corporate enclave, never allowed to enter. Maybe your parents were anarchists, criminals, or just too poor and powerless for anyone to give a damn about. You lived in a slum (where else?), in the refuse of the elite. Disease, violence, squalor, pollution, and despair killed or mutilated so many of your peers, no matter whether they were monsters or saints or hustlers. If you’re honest with yourself, you realize that you weren’t any different, just luckier, and, perhaps, more of a monster than most. What is the line between courageous and psychotic? Whatever that line is, you walk it. You are willing to risk your body, your mind, your soul, and those of others, in pursuit of an exit. You run, but the shadows always follow you. This is the escapist game we play, a game with no escape for its PCs.

The door begins to shut at character creation. The only way to acquire papers is to take the flaw “Sinner,” a reference to the SIN (System Identification Number), which marks someone as a citizen of state or corporation. The various versions of this flaw all force the shadowrunner to pay taxes and make runner easier to identify, especially in the aftermath of a run. The criminal version of it puts the runner at the mercy of the justice system (the runner is basically paroled), and the corporate version makes the runner a failed corporate stooge or a low-level lackey, with little or no actual power in the corporation but hated, to the point of being targeted for death, by many of the SIN-less, the people the runner has to deal with every day in order to accomplish runs. Worst of all, a runner with SIN tends to be cautious and boring since if the runner is caught, off to prison the runner goes, losing whatever small benefits they had, and exchanging their national or corporate SIN for a criminal SIN. SIN can be acquired during gameplay, but as a friend once explained to me, no sane corporation or state would give a SIN to a runner without first equipping said runner with a cortex bomb, or something similar.

Still, if a runner can’t have a real SIN, the runner still needs a fake one to do anything in society, even buy a soy taco. This is what most runners opt for. A fake SIN keeps a runner trapped since it can be detected during any transaction, depending on the security level of the device checking the SIN. A fast food restaurant will only give the SIN a cursory glance, but trying to get a lease for a fancy apartment will put the SIN and the runner under great scrutiny. And all of these transactions create a trail. Eventually, the runner’s luck runs out (or an angry decker simply hacks into the runner’s life and outs the runner’s fake SIN to the authorities), and the SIN evaporates, and the runner needs a new SIN and, essentially, a new public life.

You might think that having a lot of money would help, but that too is a trap.  Money in Shadowrun comes in two forms: credsticks, which are like cash, tied to no one but much more portable and much more easily stolen, and money tied to a SIN, like in a bank account. Due to the dangers of a SIN being found out and the ease with which credsticks can be stolen, runners have to live like tax evaders--always spending their money on something or hiding their money under their mattress (see note 1). Most opt for weapons, cyberware, or magic items -- tools of the trade. This is good for runs, but it keeps the runner in the shadows.

Is there any physical escape? If PCs travel too far outside their neighborhood, their relationship with their contacts will suffer. Also, area knowledge is a powerful thing, and constantly moving makes area knowledge a weapon to be used against the footloose PCs. PCs from the neighborhood, however, can make use of area knowledge. Finally, the PCs’ reputation and criminal record will eventually travel with them too, and sooner rather than later in a world with better-than-modern electronic communication as well as magical communication.

What about other worlds? There is a small box in the core rulebook (fifth edition) that admits to the possibility of mages and shamans visiting other planes of existence, but the only support for that kind of play is Aetherology, a short supplement (39 pages) with some evocative details but short of the specific details that many gamers expect, and that Shadowrun delivers for its core setting. A GM would have to design almost everything about the metaplanes himself or herself (or liberally steal from other sources such as D&D’s Planescape). What about outer space? The world is too broke for that, mostly, and it is a hostile place to mages and shamans, and there is little support, and what support it does have (in Target: Wastelands) makes it clear that magic won’t work in outer space. Nor should you expect some kind of people’s revolution. The corporations won, and they won big. Any one corporation might fall, but the system remains.

It is the system that even blocks social escape. Shadowrun actually has three such systems: Street Cred, Notoriety, and Public Awareness. These reflect its cyberpunk origins, since that genre is very concerned about reputation. In Shadowrun, a high Street Cred is a positive, but its only effect is to allow you to keep more of the successes that you roll on social skills where Street Cred would matter. Notoriety does not have a precise effect, and exists mostly to allow the GM to punish you for being obnoxious and to reduce your Street Cred. Public Awareness makes you better known, and at high levels, you might achieve the fame of outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde or Pablo Escobar. Their fame, ultimately, did not protect them, nor will it protect PCs. Instead it acts like a target painted on them.
What is left for the PCs to do but to act outside the law? For the most part, their very existence is illegal, and becoming legal is difficult to impossible, so the PCs might as well murder and steal, but Shadowrun points out that there are different ways to be an outlaw. In this world that is a maze with no exit, PCs can still choose what to do and why they do it, and yet, morality matters less, grand things matter less, and personal choices, impulses, loyalties, and the details of the world matter more. If you choose the evil corps as your target (and they make a great target with their wealth, arrogance, and 100% dedication to evil), criminal acts against it are mitigated and downgraded to the courageous mischief we see in caper films or even upgraded to the doomed heroism of samurai and gunslingers (a great ending for a campaign). But until that glorious end, your PC is still a criminal. The runners steal and murder, but they also save the day. Shadowrun’s seemingly shoddy construction allows for PCs who can be dastardly and heroic and have a grand time doing so, and, indeed, who have little choice but to both be part of the world and be gleeful, semi-heroic bastards.

Is it possible to play such characters in other games? Of course it is. There have been semi-heroic bastard PCs since the early days of roleplaying, and some adventuring parties in D&D, Rifts, and other games seem to consist of nothing but such PCs. They are a lot of fun to play. But there are other PCs too. Some PCs are unwilling to take a risk. Others are virtuous or villainous to a fault. Others don’t care about the consequences of their actions. Others are so powerful or competent that they make other PCs unnecessary. Others are depressed and angst-ridden (see Vampire) or very serious about their honor (see Legends of the Five Rings).

But by removing the escapes from the shadows, the Shadowrun rules and setting direct the GM and players to create a specific game experience that encourages PCs to be semi-heroic bastards by discouraging overly “good” or “evil” behavior since both can make runs more difficult, by encouraging players to build PCs who are specialized (basically, encouraging PCs to choose a class) and who thus will also have weaknesses so they must rely on their teammates, encouraging risk-taking, since doing nothing leads very quickly to poverty, and by keeping PCs focused on a narrow geographical area, players have an easier time becoming immersed in the setting. Again, it is possible to do all of this with other game systems, but this is the Shadowrun default.

By limiting or eliminating certain choices that are common to other games and settings, Shadowrun creates a distinct yet common gaming experience for its many players. D&D players can talk about the wonders of Planescape or the silliness of Castle Greyhawk or the survival-horror of Dark Sun or the dungeon they sacked. Vampire players can talk about their super-heroes with fangs or their cunning political schemes lasting centuries or their Near Dark style epic road trip across America. Rifts players can talk about their human-animal hybrid characters, or their power-armor characters, or fighting for or against the Coalition or traveling to completely different dimensions.  But in my experience, when I talk with others who have played Shadowrun, the topic is always the same: The run.


If Shadowrun had a dark satirical streak (ala Ray Winninger’s Underground), the most popular cybernetic enhancement would be a pouch in your body where you could easily hide and retrieve your credsticks: “Wait, wait, I gotta pull it out...there it is.”

Here is the first essay, if you like it best, send an email to zakzsmith AT hawtmayle with the subject line "SIR" and nothing else.

So, for this round of the contest we are to find something that our topic avoided, that the author is not aware it avoided, that the readers at large are not yet aware was avoided, and find interesting things that omission can tell us.   I've decided to take a look at Combat in gaming.

Love and Gore: the Sanitized Combat Experience

Roleplaying games across the spectrum are a form of reality emulator.  The open ended nature of actions in an RPG is one of the great features which let them mimic lived experience in a more dynamic way than other entertainments.  It even exaggerates the options for action beyond what is possible, into the realm of what is imaginable, so as to make the life inside the game way more fun than the real world.

Pretend fighting is one of those play activities inherent to mammals.  We find it fun so we have made Combat one of the mainstays of the RPG experience.   The emulators we use to make the reality of the game world are missing something essential to the experience of real fighting: trauma.

When you stab that goblin in the balls it isn't a traumatic experience, it's comedy. You don't hear his agonized screams ringing in your ears for the rest of living memory, his blood doesn't run over your hand staining it in your mind despite your compulsive attempts to wash them over and over for years thereafter.  If combat in the game even remotely resembled the real thing, it would not make for an enjoyable pastime.  It would be an emotionally tolling horror genre miserycrawl.

Even further removed from the combat in roleplaying games are the battles in tabletop wargames. The roots of roleplaying games were seeded here, and if you think about what wargames are it's kind of fucked up. It takes a deeply disturbing and psychologically scarring event: War, and turns it into a form of play where you push pieces around harmlessly on a map.   Even the idea of lining up your battalion of pieces that represent lines of soldiers, to knock other pieces over to mark them as dead, is a little bit cracked. The concept of "Soldier" is a cultural construct which serves to reduce the humanity of an individual so they are a killable thing.  Objectifying a living, feeling being crescendos to a disturbing logical conclusion when you represent a person who is dying as an abstract game piece on a board.

The wargame origins of the RPG genre might have biased the design process in the early game.  It could be the reason that fighting is so prevalent in most paper and dice games, as opposed to other parts of the human experience.   There are examples of another way to build an RPG experience.  In the King's Quest series of video games your obstacles are seldom combative in nature.  Exploration, collection, and puzzle solving play a much larger part of the experience than combat.  Character relationships, dialogue, and even romance occupy a larger portions of those adventures.

A cursory look at the design choices made in 4th Edition D&D will show you what the end result of the wargame bias can look like.   Combat is everything, the interesting powers all help you fight in some form or fashion.  The rate you use and regain your powers is largely measured by how often you rest between fights.  The rest of the varied experiences of life are condensed into a meager handful of skill checks.  The traumatic and visceral experience of fighting is codified into initiative turns, measured movement rates, and tidy dice rolls.  It quantifies something terrible and divides it out into safely experienced and knowable parts, so we can use it as a form of play that dominates the narrative.

If the play fighting in our RPGs more closely emulated violence in reality, combat would be the less attractive option for obstacle resolution.  We can also deconstruct the methods used to create tabletop combat and apply those systems to the other parts of the human experience in an effort to redress the imbalance. We might break the experience of romance down into its constituent actions.  Initiative rolls could be made for dilated pupils and raised hairs on an arm.  Stun saves could counteract the emotional paralysis between first base and second.  Encounter powers would activate when we engaged in a social bluff instead of a battle.  Carousing would get a d100 table.

I think that altering the balance between trauma and play in our game combat might be a useful tool for shaping a game's design, and in turn how we shape the imaginary lives lived at the table.

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