Darwinism Doesn’t Exist in Star Wars (A comment on the Mandalorian)

Warning: (Minor) spoilers ahead.

As I’ve said, holidays are for faith, for family–and for Star Wars. I indulged in two of the three yesterday, binging the first four episodes of The Mandalorian (which I’d held back from watching for just this occasion) with my dad.

Part of me still expects to see Clint Eastwood’s face when the Mandalorian finally removes his mask given the laconic gunslinging of the titular character and the show’s rigid–maybe too rigid–adherence to the tropes of the western genre.

It’s a fun show, if a little simplistic. The fights have plenty of eye-candy (though also a lot of flaws for those of us with some knowledge of the way of the gun) and the plot paces along quick enough to leave the gaps in logic behind before you think too much about them. In that way, it’s classic Star Wars, though part of me also feels that this story could take place in any space opera setting and has Star Wars grafted on as fan-service more than being a story deeply embedded within the Star Wars universe–though this is perhaps my watching with a too-critical eye rather than a reasonably critical one. Did I say that the show is fun? I can’t say that enough–if you want something fun to watch and/or need a Star Wars fix, The Mandalorian will fit the bill nicely.

But I’ve mainly put this post here to rain on the parade of “Baby Yoda” memes and paraphernalia. Yes, the kid is super-cute. Yes, he’s very endearing. Yes, his antics are highly amusing. And yes, the Star Wars nerd in me is very excited to learn more about Yoda’s species (even if our reference to the character has been relegated to “Baby Yoda” because neither the character nor the species has yet been given a name). The problem, though, is that I don’t believe in Baby Yoda beyond his (her?) status as McGuffin and marketing ploy by Disney (one that is sure to be extremely successful, I’m sure).

Here’s why this post is placed in both the “Fiction” and the “Fatherhood” portions of the blog: I’m now six months into fathering Hawkwood and Marshal. It’s been tough, which was not unexpected but which doesn’t change the fact that it’s tough. I haven’t written too much about it on the blog lately as I’m still struggling through and sorting out feelings myself, and while I’m usually willing to parse through my thoughts and feelings publicly (at least insofar as the blog’s readership qualifies this a truly “public”), these I feel it’s more appropriate to play closely to the chest for the time being.

Suffice to say, though, as I know all parents do, I have times when I ask myself, “how much longer is it going to be like this? How much more can I take?” There are redeeming moments that take the edge off of that frustration, but managing it sometimes feels like a full-time job. On top of an actual full-time job, the task of raising and caring for the children, staying closely-connected with K, writing on my novel and the blog, and making some time for some other hobbies, it’s a lot.

And that’s why I find Baby Yoda such an unbelievable character. I can accept a species that lives for 900+ years. But one that remains a toddler for at least fifty years? Nope. A species cannot survive such a catastrophic development–though perhaps it explains why there are so few of Yoda’s kind in the galaxy and why those there are seem to be possessed of boundless patience and Zen-like stoicism.

Yes, Baby Yoda is extremely well-behaved for a toddler (at least so far as I’ve seen), though also possessed of a stubborn streak characteristic of the age. I don’t expect to see a scene where, furious, the Mandalorian throws his helmet on the ground (forgetting his oath, of course), utters a string of profanities and wonders why he ever made the decision to become Baby Yoda’s protector in the first place. It would be in keeping with the tropes of the category of story that’s being told here, it might be the deepest characterization of the Mandalorian we get, and it might be the most verisimilitude we could expect to see in a Star Wars story. But we won’t get it.

Now, I don’t want to bring up the shame of midichlorians again, but I can’t help but compare the idea of a creature that stays an infant for more than five decades to that level of storytelling gaffe. I know, I know, we’re talking about a setting that includes easy faster-than-light travel, stories following relatively unnuanced workings of Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, the Force and many other elements that openly defy credulity and beg the kind of willing suspension of disbelief that is part and parcel of the enjoyment and success of the setting. Even so, it’s often (for me, at least) the attention to verisimilitude in the details that paves the way for the greater fantastical elements of a setting. For example, this is, I think, what makes Max Brooks’ World War Z so wonderful–if you can accept zombies, the rest of the stories within play out thoughtfully and believably, making the acceptance of zombies a low price of admission.

To see that Darwinian evolutionary forces sometimes simply don’t exist in Star Wars undermines that willing suspension of disbelief–I enjoyed watching the show in spite of this, but I spent an inordinate time while viewing wondering how a toddler could survive fifty years of being a toddler, what kind of saintly parents would be necessary to make such a system work, what benefit there might be to having a creature mature so slowly, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

Just me?

Roleplaying Mental Illness

I’ve been thinking about this topic a bit recently (for no particular reason recognized by my conscious mind, and nothing decipherable from my dreams, at least), and I thought I’d contribute my personal thoughts and opinions on the matter. A few prefatory notes:

  1. If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you may remember that I’ve now lived with clinical depression for fully half of my life (thankfully well controlled so that its effects on me are minimum or none). I know what it’s like to struggle against mental illness, and I understand the stigma that still, unfortunately, exists in the minds of many. But this post isn’t about my experience. I believe that this is an important issue for all roleplayers, not simply on an awareness basis (though that, too), but also because mental illness, if handled well and by agreement of all involved, can add depth and drama to a story–but also runs a high likelihood of being offensive, misguided, and ridiculous when the topic is not handled with care.
  2. You’ll probably also note that my writing on gaming has been focused on Fate RPG at present. The Fate Accessibility Toolkit has been recently released, and my understanding is that it has a treatment of this topic as well. I have not read it, so I don’t know how my opinions fit with the approach therein. Regardless, I can’t imagine that reading multiple opinions and approaches on the topic would be harmful–likely it would be helpful.
  3. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist; I’m a lawyer, gamer, writer and aspiring theologian. None of my comments here should be taken as an attempt at serious medical commentary: we’re not talking about the pathology of actual mental illness here; we’re talking about fictionalized mental illness portrayed for dramatic and narrative effect in games we play–and portraying said fictionalized diseases and disorders in a way respectful to and mindful of those who live with the reality every day.

Getting It Wrong
I don’t have any particular instances I can think of where I had a player roleplay a character with mental illness in a way that was anything other than cartoonish, and that’s perhaps part of my basis for writing this post.

Let’s take an example many of us will be familiar with–a character playing a Malkavian vampire (or Malkovian if NWoD) in Vampire: The Masquerade (or Requiem, if you prefer). I have only seen players portray such characters as a bundle of nonsensical nonsequiturs intended to justify chaotic randomness and the player making all decisions by whim or, even worse, a roll of the dice. This is painful to all involved, except perhaps the player of the character, which is bad RPG group dynamics.

Not to offer criticism without an alternative, here’s how I think a typical Malka/ovian character should appear at the table: entirely “normal” most of the time. Then, occasionally, the character says something off, but in a way that might be a miscommunication, a bad joke, or something else that’s weird but only disturbing or threatening according to a certain interpretation. It’s only occasionally that mental malady truly overtakes the character, triggered by elevated tension or specific events, when it becomes painfully obvious that the character is gripped by beliefs or motivations that simply do not match with reason or the facts of the world. That inability to let go of incorrect beliefs or to overcome unwanted and unreasonable compulsions is where the horror of mental illness is found–for sufferer and for those around him or her. Vampire is a horror game, however, so that’s the point of portraying mental illness or psychological conditions in such a game–whether as a vampire who inevitably suffers from such or as a different type of character who suffers from the same for reasons mirroring those in the real world–unfortunate genetics, after-effects of injury or physical illness, unhelpful thought patterns maintained over time, mental trauma, etc.

The Age of Diagnosis by Committee
With the availability of Google, Wikipedia, WebMD and the like, there’s a growing habit among we who lack any significant training in psychology, to attempt to diagnose personality disorders or pathological mental illness in others. Most often this is our political figures (there’s even a current research trend to analyze sociopathic traits in the types of people who run for or are successful in political office, even if otherwise seemingly mentally healthy) and our celebrities, but it just as easily infiltrates our gossip about the people with whom we work and live.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Since the birth of neuroscience and psychology/psychiatry as well-respected fields of academic and scientific inquiry, historians have jumped at the opportunity to diagnose major figures in our past (particularly those whose behavior was erratic or who had a reputation in their own time for being mentally ill) according to modern psychological theory. There’s George III of England, who likely suffered from porphyria, any historical figure who claimed to have visions from God, who are most often retroactively diagnosed with either temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE-X) or schizophrenia, and plenty of persons we’d like to think of as having a mental illness to explain their crimes against humanity.

Of course, except in limited circumstances where DNA testing might be available and a mental illness had a wholly or mostly genetic cause, we really can’t know what historical persons did or did not suffer from. This trend is less about those analyzed and more about us, about the human tendency to want to categorize things into neat boxes to avoid ambiguity and uncertainty.

There is also a tendency to use this tactic to elevate our historical milieu over the past. We can says things like, “There was so much violence in the middle ages, a sociopath wouldn’t just find it easier to survive, he’d find it easy to thrive!” i.e., thank God we’re so much less violent and so much more reasonable now than people used to be. I doubt that very much. In the case of the TLE-X explanation, the point is most typically to apply a materialist paradigm to the past so that we can laugh about how backward and superstitious people were then and how much better we are now for embracing “reason” over religion (despite the obvious logical, philosophical and epistemological flaws in such arguments, which I’ve addressed elsewhere on the blog).

It’s precisely in the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent to mental illness where we find narrative drama. For several reasons, I’m going to suggest that we put down our DSM VI’s and focus on narrative.

Why Diagnosis is Unhelpful For RPGs
(1) It causes us to use stereotypes.
It’s likely everyone reading this (or nearly everyone, at least) has read or played in an RPG with a sanity system. I’m not going to point out any offending games specifically, but these systems tend to play out in one of two ways: Most often, the system involves preset categories of mental illness (usually given the names of official categories that might be found in the DSM) and prescribed behaviors for each category as a mechanic for something that, by its very nature, defies easy mechanics and particular expectations. Alternatively, the system relies on discrete behaviors rather than full categories.

Here are some of the problems with these systems: First, if the result of the “insanity” (a problematic word for such systems anyway) doesn’t match the instigating events, the disconnect makes the system lack any verisimilitude, which most often causes players to lose any interest in believability and play the system and its effects for laughs. Second, these systems often focus on limited behaviors, which builds idiosyncrasy in a character, but not necessarily serious character development. When the behavior, rather than motive, is the issue, the risk of cartoonish roleplay becomes exponentially higher.

This kind of system further pushes us toward caricature rather than character because it operates as a shorthand to approximate mental illness without much care toward our actual proximity to the truth of experience. My players love to roleplay, but most of them are not interested in doing a lot of research to play their characters. I cast no aspersions on that; every roleplayer has different goals in approaching the game and I suspect that most gamers want to focus on the game without having to do “homework.” But it means sloppy roleplaying on issues that require great research or experience to do well, like mental illness.  This is poor form on its own, but when you have someone at the table who has experienced mental illness, personally or in close loved ones, and who potentially continues to struggle with those issues, such a lackluster approach shows a disrespect and lack of empathy destructive both to relationships and to a safe gaming environment.

(2) It makes us rules lawyers of character.
I’ve played with enough gamers who believe that the rules as written constitute the “physics” of the game and trump everything else–fun, good narrative, drama, efficient play, etc. My personal opinion is that the culture, if not the history, of D&D pushes people toward such a belief (I understand that Old School gamers will vehemently disagree; this is a debate for a different set of posts).

When we translate this approach to a set of rules describing a mental illness a character may have, then the rules of the mental illness become a permission for bad behavior by the player. This is not a result of roleplaying mental illness itself, rather it is a prioritization of discrete values and prescribed results (i.e. rules) over the reality of mental illness. “The player argues, ‘because I have…uh, kleptomania…I have to steal everything I can from the Baron. And because I have schizophrenia, I believe that the rest of the party members actually did it, so I blame them.'” Not fun for those other players, probably not relevant to the narrative, not a development of the player’s character in any meaningful way and not a cooperative approach to roleplaying in a group–in other words: annoying, unrealistic, and offensive.

Despite the categorizations of the DSM VI and its predecessors, every presentation of mental illness is different (it is, after all, an expression of a unique soul and psyche), so pigeonholing a disease into a set of rote behaviors is contrary to experience.

It is commonly said that naming a thing gives you power over it. This may be the exception that proves the rule, where naming the thing gives it power over you as you feel obligated to meet a culturally–not experientially–based expectation of the thing so named.

(3) Human behavior is based on a complex interaction of beliefs, the matrix of preferences and thought structures that constitute personality, and experience. Not on hard and fast rules.
Again, I’m not an expert in psychology or psychiatry. But my training as a foster parent has opened my eyes to the complexity of behavioral motivations in children, particularly those with traumatic backgrounds, and I can’t imagine that the same is not true of adults.

My point here has a common thread with my two points above, but I’d like to think that the first point focuses on our respect for others, the second focuses on our approach to gaming, and this one focuses on our approach to narrative.

When we put a name on a mental illness, there will be a temptation to judge every choice a player makes in consideration of his character’s condition against the rubric of our expectations on the disease or disorder specified. Where above I discussed the problem of a named mental illness providing an excuse for a player to dump on his fellows, the opposite is also true–the other players may feel compelled to weigh in every time the player whose character has a mental illness touches on the mental illness as a factor in the character’s behavior and choices.

Sometimes, limitations foster creativity. Here, they only stifle a player.

Psychosis Because of That Which Should Not Be
The descent into madness is a well-tested narrative trope as well as a key feature of the Cthulhu Mythos–and I’d dare say that it was Call of Cthulhu that first broached the issue of sanity systems in games (but I haven’t done the research to verify).

But that’s not the only place that we see such a theme; there are many narratives–often horror–that center on such an idea. Losing the ability to discern reality from fantasy is an existential terror. Perhaps, though, that’s actually something separate from what’s going on in the Cthulhu-verse. There, it’s an exposure to a hidden reality that fragments the psyche. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t treat the results in a similar way, because the source of drama is the inability to differentiate between real and unreal (or meaningful and meaningless).

And this result, this slippery slope, this descent into a darkness in our discernment, has nothing to do with using shorthand diagnoses to act out a caricature of mental illness, nor does it need any name to work its drama and tension upon narrative.

The key here is having the player feel the same ambiguity and terrifying uncertainty that his character does–this lies wholly in the realm of the gamemaster, without need for reference to rules and dice. It begins subtly at first, with the GM giving a certain detail of a scene one way at first and differently later. Maybe it was an honest mistake, but maybe the player can’t trust everything the GM tells him. With a proper basis of trust between players and GM, the player will quickly come to understand that this is part of the story unfolding upon his character, not the GM being absent-minded or a jerk. As more important details get changed on the character, as he acts to devastating effect based on misperceptions fed to him by the GM (as the arbiter of the character’s sensory input), as the chain of events from a mistaken perception or belief becomes longer and longer before the player is able to realize that something isn’t right, the deeper the descent, the direr the desperation, the more doubtful the decisions made. This captures the experience of an unraveling mind without the need to diagnose schizophrenia or some other illness and then feel hidebound to its definitions. Furthermore, by not diagnosing anything, you increase the ambiguity about the character’s plight.

If necessary or useful, you can associate this system with some mechanic for measuring the abstract and relative loss of reliability in a character’s beliefs and perceptions–this can be done with a Fate-style stress track (though a use of Consequences may run into diagnostic issues), with a PbtA “countdown clock,” with a pool of points, or any other method used in RPGs to track condition, so long as the mechanics are used as a guide to how the GM portrays the character’s interaction with “reality” rather than a strict codification of behaviors or named psychoses.

It is popular now to have as many of the elements of a tabletop RPG as possible be  “player-facing.” This should not be, because that knowledge allows for extended metagaming and undercuts the effect of the distrust of the GM’s communications by giving the player something to compare or judge from. As I mentioned above, this requires a relationship of trust between player and GM and an agreement that everyone wants this to be an element of the game. The player needs to be willing to accept the discomfort and frustration that naturally accompanies this type of situation as a worthwhile experience (because it’s interesting from a “what if” standpoint, allows a safe exploration of an experience dangerous and terrifying to have in reality, or satisfies some other goal of the gamers coming to the table).

When It’s Not Me; It’s You
The horror game need not be the only genre in which mental illness may play a meaningful role in the game; nor does a descent into irrationality need to be the game’s focus, as it must surely be when the system described above is employed. How then, can we represent mental illnesses in a more balanced way that benefits the story but does not consume it? Particularly if, as I’ve argued above, any diagnosis of a mental illness is a Thing-Which-Ought-Not-Be-Named?

The answer, I think, is a relatively simple one. We focus on character beliefs that do not match with reality (as reality is generally accepted, I suppose). This could be a debunked conspiracy theory that a character unrelentingly clings to in spite of the evidence. It could be a wrong belief about some fact in the world, an impossible expectation, a delusion of self, a magnified fear, or a perceived relationship between things that anyone else would see as causally unrelated. These beliefs may be small ones that only rarely come up in the game, or they may be so fundamental that they almost always have some effect upon the character’s decisions.

If we focus on beliefs instead of behaviors and let the behaviors flow from the mistaken beliefs and perceptions, the character behavior will have a higher verisimilitude, greater fidelity in both dramatic interpretation and depiction of realistic characters and events. The risk of caricature remains if the beliefs in play are not carefully considered and crafted by the player(s) and GM, but even if the portrayal of the belief devolves into parody, that parody is farther divorced from any particular person who has been labeled as having a particular mental illness, somewhat blunting its offensiveness, at least.

This provides better guidance for the player than a set of strict “rules” of behavior to follow, is likelier to result in behavior more related to and helpful to the overall narrative of the game (or at least not obstructive thereto), and matches more with our experience of mental illness in others (at least mine).

Unless someone gives us a label to use or we fall into the game of armchair diagnosis of people who annoy or offend us (dangerous on many levels), we don’t experience other people as exemplars of particular disorders or diseases. We might call someone “crazy,” but in the colloquial and lay use of the term we mean exactly that the person acts in a manner we believe to be contrary to common sense, rationality, and the facts as we understand them to be, not that the person exhibits particular quantifiable markers that seem to indicate a particular differential diagnosis. We are better equipped to name a mistaken belief someone seems to have than to diagnose them, particularly when the illness is one of conscious and interior experience, not something plainly writ upon the body.

The focus on beliefs over expected behaviors also gives us a fuller view of the experience of mental illness. If you’ve watched The United States of Tara, you’ve seen at least one successful narrative that captures both the heartbreak and suffering involved in mental illness and the times where its effects are more lighthearted–perhaps even amusing. Likewise, centering our systems of “(in)sanity” in games on beliefs may allow us to more safely laugh at absurdity without laughing directly at a condition suffered by real, living people. That is my hope.

Corruption Systems and Sanity Systems Are Not the Same
In fantasy or otherwise “grimdark” settings, there is a tendency to have a system that represents the idea of “corruption,” though the meaning of that term is often ambiguous at best.

The term, I think, has its basis in the sense of “moral corruption,” as with the corrupting influence of Tolkien’s One Ring as a vessel of the corrupted and evil will of Sauron. Other roleplaying games and settings have used that term, but not necessarily the meaning. The roleplaying games for the Warhammer settings, for instance, typically have corruption systems. But these systems amalgamate an idea of moral corruption (usually, though, through the eyes of themselves corrupt societal structures) with the body horror of unwanted mutation (perhaps problematic for its symbolic portents for ideas of “purity”) and with the Cthulhuverse idea of a degradation of sanity and moral fiber that results from seeking out those Things-Which-Should-Not-Be!

I have numerous problems with conflating ideas of sanity and judgments of morality. On the one hand, there is a tendency going back at least as far as the 19th century, to call immorality or criminal activity a form of “insanity.” This dehumanizes those who commit criminal offenses, simultaneously insinuating that they cannot be held fully accountable for their choices because of mental illness and yet classifying all antisocial behavior as abhorrent and inhuman and thus allowing us to ignore the possibility that, under the right (wrong) circumstances, we might engage in just the same kind of behavior. Neither aspect of the argument is logical, philosophically or theologically sustainable, or even useful in a societal sense.

Perhaps I’m overthinking here (although I reject the existence of such a thing altogether), and I understand that some will respond, “Get over it; it’s just a game! What are you making such a big deal about?”

Regardless, both the would-be game designer and the aspiring theologian in me must protest the conflation of these ideas. If you want your game to have a conceit that exposure to certain things is damaging to the psyche, great; that’s what sanity systems are for.

If you want to have a system for the degradation of a character’s morality, fine, although my personal preference is that such ideas are a matter of roleplaying more than mechanics (though there are excellent ways to manipulate changes in character Aspects in Fate if you want a middle-ground).

If you want a system for body horror resulting from exposure to dark magics, that’s cool, too, if it suits your game and your players are on board.

But aggregating all three into a single system dilutes the effects of all of them, not to mention the philosophical problem of determining what the numbers mean for each of the influencing factors. Suffice to say, while mental illness may lead to immoral behavior, that behavior should probably be viewed in light of the mental illness as a mitigating factor in determining the extent of culpability, so morality and sanity systems should probably remain separate, unless you intend to make the argument that sanity and morality are closely intertwined, which I reject.

Conclusion
Like good fiction, good roleplaying allows us to explore difficult existential or experiential issues in a safe place where we can imagine the consequences that flow from particular troubling situations and then leave them at the table when we’re ready–or need–to walk away. Like other difficult issues–racism, religiously-motivated extremism and hatred, poverty, violence and all other manner of social strife–has a place in roleplaying, at least for those groups who want to struggle with “serious issues” over the course of their play (and not every gaming group, player, or campaign needs to). But when we choose to dive into such difficult topics that are also very real experiences for people who may or may not be sitting at the table with us, we have some moral responsibility, I think, to do so in a respectful and at least semi-realistic way. Not only is this good ethical roleplaying (which term now makes me want to think and expound more on the morality and ethics of roleplaying games), but without it we’re missing the point of including tough issues in our games at all.

When properly addresses, dealing with those tough issues in a roleplaying game opens up our eyes to things we may not have thought before, deepens our understanding, and increases our empathy for others. And that, in my mind, is roleplaying at its finest–when it entertains us, teaches us, crafts meaningful narrative and helps us to become better humans.

I’ve got a friend who is a gamer and fellow writer and who works professionally in raising awareness of, compassion for, and competency in dealing with mental illness. I’m going to ask her to at least comment on this post, if not write a follow-up (or perhaps rebuttal!) with her own ideas which, given her training and experience, likely have more weight than mine on this topic.

FFF’s Guide to 6th Edition Shadowrun Characters, Part V: Make Your GM Happy

For the previous post in this series, click here.

I’ve ferociously tapped out a lot of words on the subject of making characters in the sixth edition of Shadowrun, and I truly hope you’ve found them to be valuable. But so far, I’ve only tip-toed around what makes Shadowrun so great–the setting and the characters that inhabit it. In this last post in the series, I’ll talk a bit about the non-stat details of building characters.

It is very easy for the mish-mash of genres that Shadowrun is (not to mention some of the things that inhabit it) to give the impression that this is a gonzo or pulp-style setting. Certainly, you can treat it that way, and I’m not going to tell you your wrong if that’s your preference. But for me (which you’ve probably seen coming if you’ve read more than a handful of my posts), the excitement of Shadowrun (in addition to having some of my favorite things: magic and cyberpunk, in one setting) is the sheer what if? fun that can be had when the setting is approached with verisimilitude in mind.

There are a number of (uncomfortable) parallels that can be drawn between the real world in 2019 and the Shadowrun setting: governments that seem to care less and less about certain types of people, private companies and concerns with far too much power and far too little oversight, racism and divisiveness prevailing over unity and compassion, and an ever-increasing and deepening divide between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else. There’s plenty here to latch onto anchor the believability of a Shadowrun game.

That trolls and orks are the focus of racism rather than members of specific ethnicities or religions is an easy translation (and perhaps a safer space for exploring some of those problems than a strictly real-world equivalent, which can, of course, still be found in the Shadowrun world).

The technology of Shadowrun seems to be a relatively realistic progression of our current technologies, provided that full-immersion VR and DNIs are possible.

Magic and all that goes with it is perhaps the hardest point of verisimilitude, but given our culture’s fascination with “real world plus magic” stories (Harry PotterThe MagiciansThe Umbrella Academy, just to name a few), there’s no reason to suspect this constitutes a special hurdle.

So, creating characters who live and breathe in this world, for whom this is everyday reality, should not be so difficult. And that’s why I’ve titled this post as I have–developed, nuanced and believable characters are a GM’s dream.

It is more narratively interesting, for all involved, I think, for characters to be threatened in ways that are not simply based in the stats of the enemies they must physically confront, or the difficulties of the obstacles in the way of their success. The more interesting challenges are those that force moral questions, require the characters to choose between the lesser of two evils or between self-interest and altruism. The more interesting threats are those that challenge a character’s worldview or that act against those (non-material) things the character holds dear.

While the shadowrun may be at the core of the game, and it can certainly be played such that the overarching world plots and the revelation thereof are the campaign’s focus (this is the way the game line has been developed in many ways), the best drama for me comes from plots in how the characters relate to each other and those around them while living the life of a shadowrunner. When the players take the position that they do runs for money but have character goals (whether or not internal or external) that they have their characters regularly and doggedly pursue, then they have three-dimensional characters who really live into the conceit of the shadowrunner lifestyle.

This height of roleplaying intensity and drama requires both a dedicated GM who can respond and improvise on the spot to player-character driven plot developments and then look forward to incorporate those developments into the overall plot of a campaign and players who are willing to put in the time to develop their characters enough to drive the action of the plot with the psychological needs and global desires their characters have. Since this is a series on building characters (and a not-so-subtle opportunity for me to explain to my own players what I’d like to see from them), it’s that latter part we’re focused on.

To begin, the SR6 rulebook devotes some space (perhaps not as much as I’d really like, but some) to developing a character history and idea before starting with the Priority Table. Previous editions have jumped straight into the mechanics, so this is a step in the right direction and, again in line with the edition’s move in a more narrative direction while not abandoning fully the detail and grit of its (historical) system.

Additionally, the rulebook asks the player to think about how their character feels about (and, by extension to what extent they’re comfortable handling) the darker and seedier sides of the Shadowrun setting. For a setting where prostitution and human trafficking has progressed to forcing sex workers to use personality chips to override their natural personas with personas designed to fulfill the sexual fantasies of their clients (see Bunraku Parlors), this is an absolutely necessary conversation if you’re going to play into both verisimilitude and the grit (and existential horror) of a cyberpunk setting.

I’m sure that there will be comments about “special snowflakes who need trigger warnings” and “catering to social justice warriors,” but people who make those comments are not people I want at my table. As a game, everybody needs to be able to have fun. As an art or literary form, everyone at the table needs to be comfortable enough with the subject matter to engage in it, and forcing discomfort on participants is not a way in which this medium can be successful (though I acknowledge that forcing the observer into a state of reflective discomfort may be a worthy goal of art in general).

GMs should not leave the book to do the heavy lifting on having these conversations–this is a Session 0 concern of importance.

But back to characters. What can the player do to create both a character that is more interesting to play (because s/he/they are more than the sum of their numbers) and that gives the GM more to work with in developing the campaign?

Let’s start with the basics. Your character needs a name, and if you tell me is Dr. Murderhobo McStuffins, you’re dead out of the gate in my game–and in the most embarrassing and ignoble way I can devise. But bring me a believable name–even a strange or exotic one–and you’re on the right path. Give me a street name with a story behind it, even a simple one, and you’re starting to find some favor.

On of the best examples of a really interesting street name comes not from Shadowrun but from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series. We meet the Named Man called “Shivers” as a hardcase who has it out for Logen Ninefingers, and we find out just what a hardcase he is in his “adventures” with Monza Murcatto in Styria. We assume that his name has an equally hard origin until he reveals that he’s called Shivers because he went to take a piss in a river before his first raid, fell in, was dragged a good ways and came out without his clothes and shivering. That’s how you get a street name!

A good backstory can give your GM great hooks to involve you in stories that go beyond, “you meet Mr. Johnson in a trendy club.” And knowing the life-changing events in your character’s past can give your GM the ability to pull at your character’s (and your) heartstrings, adding drama and interest to the campaign. It can also help your GM to give your character chances to shine in both action and drama.

It’s tempting to think that this requires a long written backstory, and then that you need to give it stylistic treatment. I can assure you that bullet-points that get the gist across will suffice, and that’s something you might realistically spend the time doing (this isn’t a judgment, just a statement of reality; everyone is busy).

Your character’s background can help to reinforce the genre (high tech, low life; systematic oppression and inequality of power and resources; the mysteries of the Awakened world; the constant shadow games and betrayals of the megacorporations; the commoditization of all aspects of life; the descent of the planet’s ecologies as it they are indiscriminately stripped of resources for short-term gain). If your GM has some campaign themes in mind, your character’s background can reinforce these as well.

Ideologies are important, too. Does your character have a faith? Does your character go to mass every Sunday, but spend his time there playing AR or VR games? Bear in mind that you don’t have to be religious yourself to play a religious character; Joss Whedon (who I like to call my favorite atheist theologian) has written or said a lot about his fascination with the narrative of characters of faith, particularly when they’re struggling with that faith. Roleplaying a character of faith doesn’t require an admission of truth in what the character believes, and we could probably all stand a little more empathy with people of faiths that don’t match our own.

Of course, ideology and faith are not necessarily the same thing, though they’ll certainly influence one another. Is your character an anarchist? A collectivist anarchist or and individualist anarchist? Even the punk philosophy has its points of contention; no ideology can be roleplayed with integrity without some nuance to it. And that makes for interest in-game situations–what if your anarchist character is approached to do a run for an anarchist collective, but you don’t agree about end goal or means? That’s interesting.

Everyone alive has goals for their future–the ability to set a future goal and plan for it is an important distinction made between animal and (meta)human intelligence. Even if your character doesn’t think often about what her goals are, she has them. The more important they are and the more conscious she is of them, the more they can be used to drive the plot. Sure, your character is a runner right now, but does she want to save up enough nuyen to eventually open a bar for other runners to hang out and share intel in? Is she looking for that one big score that will allow her to spend the rest of her life on some beach in the Caribbean League? Does she want to kill the Mafia don who she sees as responsible for her sister’s death? Does she want to be known as the best decker in her city? All of these goals might influence both character and plot.

Contacts are a great way to flesh out your character and give the GM hooks as well. How do you know your contacts? Do you like them? Do they like you? Loyalty and liking each other aren’t the same thing.

All those fake SINs I recommended your character have? They all have (fake) personal details attached. You should come up with at least the very basics for each one. Think of driver’s license information: what’s the name on it? how old does it say you are? what does it say your profession is? where does it say you live (general area should suffice)? what does any associated picture look like (clean shaven, long hair, different colored hair)?

The more details you have about who your character is, the more opportunities the GM has to tailor events, situations and plots to involve your character in more than the mere “this is the mission we’re currently playing through.” I want to reiterate here that the focus on character development should not be coming up with a well-written, in character semi-memoir to date or a short story representative of the character. Yes, you can do those things if you have time and will, and they might be helpful. But if you start them and don’t finish, that’s not going to help you and your GM very much. Start with easy stuff: bullet-point descriptions, a small collection of pictures that exemplify aspects of your character, and other small stuff provides plenty to begin with–you can work on your own (and, as necessary, with your GM, to build and add-on details as you go).

One of five-point Edge expenditures allows you to intrude somewhat on the GMs prerogatives and to add a detail to the story–this is a great way to insert something into the plot when you have an idea related to your character details.

Even if you don’t often (or ever) resort to that assertive method, the more you give your GM to work with, the more interesting and custom-tailored he can make your campaign, whether he’s creating it from scratch or using premade adventures.

Don’t skimp on this aspect of character creation, but be efficient, too!

FFF’s Guide to 6th Edition Shadowrun Characters, Part IV: Specific Build Advice

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Mystic Adepts

After being overpowered in the previous edition, mystic adepts have been returned to the role that suits them (and the rest of the rules) best—jacks of (many) trades, masters of none.

If you fall into the trap of trying to match the physical adept on one side or the full mage on the other (or, God forbid, both!), you’re going to spend a lot of time pouring over minute build details and never be satisfied. Don’t do it!

There are a few ways to build very effective mystic adepts, in my opinion, but the focus will always be on flexibility of approach rather than raw power. Right off the bat, don’t spend many resources on combat spells—with a Magic below 6, your damage output isn’t going to be worth the Drain. Stick to old-fashioned (or, more likely, new-fangled) firearms for dealing your damage.

Some sample character ideas:

  • The Stealthy Face – Particularly if you’re able to work with your GM to port over some of the adept abilities from 5th edition (Facial Sculpt, Melanin Control, Etc.) and you focus your spells on the Illusion and Detection categories (again, even more helpful if you’re able to port over the broader range of spells from previous editions), you can build a very solid character with a primary focus on social interaction or stealth and the other role in a secondary position. In my mind, this is the best role for a mystic adept, because good tradecraft is as much about unpredictability of approach and strong improvisational skills as anything else. The mystic adept gives you options, and that’s what a good spy needs.
  • The Arcane Defender – I’m not convinced that the mystic adept is better suited to this role than a full mage or physical adept, but this approach does seem fun to play. Take a specialization in Counterspelling, a high Conjuring skill, the Astral Perception power and other Adept Powers that will help you to bring the pain to enemy spirits.
  • The Asymmetrical Warrior – Again, perhaps not as powerful, straight-up, as a street samurai or physical adept, but if you can play cleverly, you can achieve things that neither of those archetypes can touch. For this approach, I would take only the Sorcery skill of the magical skills, with a specialization in Illusion. Take your spells from the illusion category and focus your Adept powers on combat-related powers. I’m of the opinion that you’re better off enhancing firearms abilities than hand-to-hand ones, but you can do just fine with either (or both, if you don’t mind the long haul of initiation to fully realize your character). Your focus here is on misdirection, ambushes, hit-and-runs and keeping your enemy off-balance. This is a great build if you’re new to a group that already has one or more pure-combat characters, or if you’re starting a new campaign with other players who want to focus their characters on combat—you can tee up a lot of things for them to knock out of the park.
  • The Wheelman – This one’s perhaps a little of a stretch, but follow me here. You use your Adept powers for Increased Reflexes and improving your Reaction and Piloting skill. You choose spells that constitute “dirty tricks” to use against other drivers. As always, you won’t have the raw power of the dedicated Rigger, but a Rigger can’t suddenly blind another driver or throw up a Physical Barrier behind himself!

Physical Adept

There are a lot of ways to build an interesting and effective Physical Adept, particularly once you port over the old adept abilities from SR5 (or wait for the new expansion books to come out). If you’re wondering, it took me less than 2 hours to sufficiently modify the adept powers from the old Street Grimoire to be used with SR6.

When you’re looking at the full gamut of abilities available to adepts, it can be a little daunting. If your GM will let you port over the Adept Ways into SR6 Qualities (also easy to do), then that can help you to think about your build.

The easiest thing to do, though (and which may always be the case), is to think about the two or three roles you want your character to be able to serve in and pick your abilities accordingly. Earlier, I talked about a Face needing some good defensive skills since he’s usually at the forefront of an ambush or sideways negotiation. The PhysAd is a great way to accomplish this, taking some socially-oriented powers (Voice Control, etc.) and supplementing with Mystic Armor and Improved Reflexes.

In modern close-combat doctrine using small-unit tactics, the SOP when confronted by an enemy at hand-to-hand range is not to engage him in hand-to-hand combat if avoidable—it’s to drop out of the way so your teammates can engage the target with their firearms. The PhysAd powers mentioned above take that approach—you’re focusing on surviving and getting out of the way so your supporting team members can fill the air with lead rather than trying to take out the targets single-handedly. You’re likely going to be outnumbered as well as being the primary target; unless you’ve got a mass of Edge ready to go, lay off the heroics.

As a former competitive shooter in tactical pistol, I love the idea of the Gunslinger Adept, especially since the John Wick films give us an excellent idea of what a Gunslinger Adept in action would be. Augmented characters may be able to scrape in more abilities for this role at character creation, but the PhsyAd arguably has more staying power in the long term. The other thing to bear in mind is that the PhysAd’s abilities are harder to detect before they’re used—no cyberware to be detected by a scanner, and abilities that make it possible to kill three men with a pencil. A pencil!

But it’s easy to fall into the belief that PhysAds should all be Wuxia kung-fu masters or action-hero gunslingers. With the full range of adept abilities from previous editions ported in, you can play a natural savant whose intelligence and insight makes him the consummate mastermind for the rest of the team, or many, many other options.

I’ve spent a lot of time on ways to build a PhysAd without a whole lot of practical advice, so let me shift gears a little. There is no reason not to have a Magic of 6 with a Physical Adept. In fact, you should strongly consider spending your Karma for the first level of initiation (11 Karma) and increasing your Magic to 7 from the get-go (35 Karma). That extra point of powers is probably the best expenditure of your “freeform” character creation points.

I recommend the following Priority array for Adepts: A- Skills, B – Attributes, C – Metatype, D – Magic, E – Resources. If you don’t spend any of your Metatype points on “standard” attributes, you still end up with Magic 6 and Edge 5. You’ll be pressed for equipment, but you won’t need augmentations, so the most expensive aspect is out of the way anyhow, and you can focus the rewards from your first few runs on correcting this deficiency with better Fake SINs, more weapons, and a vehicle, if desired. If it works with your Qualities, I highly recommend the Aptitude Positive Quality with this arrangement, for reasons previously discussed.

Magic-Users

The first thing I’ll say about building a Magic-using character is: expect to be frustrated by how much you’ll feel like you need to stretch your character resources. That’s normal and part of the cost of playing a wizkid—full mages and shamans are supposed to be relatively rare, remember.

If you’re going to play an aspected mage, I recommend focusing on Conjuring over Sorcery. My natural inclination (for no discernible reason, mind you) is Sorcery, but Conjuring gives you much more flexibility with how you use your magic and requires fewer starting resources. And, I’ve seen far more memorable things done in-game with conjuration than with sorcery. In my upcoming game, I’ve added additional spell modifications and collapsed spells with multiple versions into a single, modifiable spell to bring Sorcery into better parity with Conjuring, but your GM might not do this.

If you’re playing a full mage, bear in mind that spells are one of the cheapest things to purchase with Karma. I recommend you prioritize your skills, attributes and metatype over your beginning magic rating. Again, with Priority C in metatype and Priority D in Magic, you can still have a full mage with a starting Magic of 6. You’ll only start with 2 spells before spending Karma, but if you devote all of your Karma to additional spells, that’s the best bang-for-your-nuyen you can get for Karma expenditures at character creation and you can still come out with 14 spells. If your GM has ported over spells from previous additions and collapsed spells in the same manner I have, you’ll end up with a lot of flexible mojo options. Even if they haven’t, 14 spells and Conjuring will give you a lot of options.

As your character progresses, Karma will be the thing you need most and, typically at least, Nuyen will be the thing you need least (though you’ll still need a fair amount). You’ll have foci to bond, initiation to…initiate, more spells to buy, etc. In terms of cash, you’ll need to maintain and improve your lodge, buy reagents and pay for your focus habit (whether creating yourself or purchasing).

If you are using the rules-as-written, I would avoid devoting too many resources to Artificing—the rules make it possible to lose Essence on an Artificing test that does not allow the expenditure of Edge! That’s not a risk worth taking for the average magic user and, if taken to be a fact about how magic works in the Sixth World, most Artificers should, statistically speaking, burn out after a while at their profession. That means two things: (1) only aspected magic-users unfortunate enough to only have skill in Enchanting are likely to be Artificers and, (2) under basic economic theory, this rarity and the risk of focus creation means foci should be extremely expensive. But, if using RAW without thinking too hard about the logic behind it, just buy your damn foci and be done with it.

I’m either going to ignore this rule altogether or at least allow Edge expenditure on this test for purposes of avoiding critical glitches. Even then, only high Edge characters should engage in Artificing.

An aside: As it stands, the Karma cost to increase Attributes is the same as it is to increase Skills. I think that this is likely an intentional design decision related to the consolidation of Skills that happened in this edition. Part of me, though, wonders if it is a typo or design mistake. Particularly with Agility being linked to so many different Skills, you’d think the cost to raise it would be higher, though if you make the cost to raise each Attribute different, you open up a whole can of worms in conflict with the design approach of the whole ruleset. It would take some statistical analysis far more complex than I am able (or care) to do to make a real determination of whether the benefits from each Attribute (and the benefits of Attributes compared to Skills) really supports the Karma costs given in the core rules. I imagine that this will be a point of contention for some gamers looking for reasons not to like the new edition (and, if that’s how they feel, I won’t begrudge them sticking to 5th edition, but my gameplay approach finds a lot more desirable in the new edition, thank you very much). Regardless, having made a lot of 6th edition characters in preparation for writing this guide (and because I’m the kind of nerd who finds that to be a fun exercise in and of itself), I don’t see a drastic effect on play from the Karma distribution.

It does mean, however, that you’re generally better off with higher Skills than higher Attributes at character creation, though the many demands for character resources at chargen will not always allow you to take this approach. To get the fullest use of your magical ability, there are four skills you need: Astral, Sorcery, Conjuring and Enchanting. If you’re strapped for points, I recommend dropping or reducing Enchanting first. You’ve probably gathered that I prefer characters (both mine and my players’) to have some basic competency in most aspects of being human (like social skills—I am loathe to play a street samurai with a Charisma of 2 and no social skills, leaving your only option in conflict the most instinctive of human reactions: fight, flight or freeze). So, think about having some points to spend on skills like Con, Influence, Stealth, Athletics or defensive skills as well as your magical skills.

It is harder, though far from impossible, for full mojo-makers to cover beyond their primary role because of the many resources that must be devoted to magical ability. I recommend one of two approaches here: pick one backup role and focus on it or use those character resources available as a backstop, not focusing on excelling in a secondary role but trying to limit your vulnerability when caught in situations outside your forte by having two or three points in a number of non-magical skills. As I mentioned before, specializations can be used to stretch points as necessary.

The Focused Concentration Quality was powerful in the previous edition, as it helped to resist Drain. The 6th edition version, allowing spell maintenance without penalty, is even moreso. It’s not a cheap Quality—technically you could achieve a similar (and actually more powerful but more expensive and less flexible) effect by spending Karma on Level 1 Initiation and taking the Quickening metamagic for one less Karma, but a Sustaining Focus will cost you almost twice as much Karma (between paying for the purchase of it and the Karma to bond it).

You’ve got a lot to spend your Karma on already, but if you can afford a level or two of initiation, I think that’s well worth it.

Riggers and Deckers

I must admit that I don’t build or play these types of characters as often as I do others, so take my thoughts here with a little more suspicion than in the other categories—and accept my apologies that my thoughts are not as deep and detailed as they are elsewhere.

Even more, perhaps, than Street Samurai and other highly-augged characters (and for similar reasons) Riggers and Deckers need a lot of Nuyen to be viable and the “buy once, cry once” axiom especially applies.

My opinion, if you’re running a Decker, is to take Priority A for Resources and buy the best cyberdeck and cyberjack you possibly can, making all other expenditures secondary. Who cares if you have to sleep on the street, VR is comfortable everywhere, amiright? Of course there’s the strong possibility of being shanked for your gear while you’re zoned out, but what’s the cyberpunk lifestyle without a little risk?

You’ll need a fair amount of skills, so that’s the best candidate for Priority B. Priority E, obvs, should be Mundane, with your choice of how you assign C and D. Karma will likely need to be spent on shoring up both Skills and Attributes.

Riggers have it just as tough, or tougher. You may not need a cyberdeck, but you probably still need a cyberjack for its protective qualities, and you’re not a Rigger without a control rig. You’ll need Piloting (duh), Engineering and Electronics, so you’ve already got a few important skills to think about. On the other hand, the Rigger is the character most insulated from other types of interactions, so your need to put lots of points into other skills for contingencies is somewhat reduced. But, if you have a GM like me, who’s read and taken John Wick’s (the 7th Sea John Wick, not the “bang bang” John Wick—unless they’re actually the same person) Play Dirty books to heart and who’s going to make sure you at least occasionally have to deal in meatspace, better to be safe than sorry.

A variety of drones will allow you to fulfill combat roles as well as surveillance and operational security with some ease, and your various viewpoints to the area of operations may put you in a good position to advise and direct team tactics.

Again, you’ll probably need Priority A to go to Resources, with Priority E at Mundane. I’d recommend prioritizing Attributes over Skills on this build for the secondary effects that you’ll get from your Attributes (Initiative, resisting biofeedback, Condition Monitor boxes, etc.)—with the understanding that a lot of your Karma is going to go to shoring up your skills (and some may still go to Resources!).

A few practical notes for your Rigger character:

  1. Your team will expect you to be the driver, so you should probably have a ground vehicle large enough to transport them all.
  2. Your team will expect you to be the mechanic and tech guy/girl for non-Matrix stuff (and maybe even for Matrix stuff!). You’ll have the Engineering skill by default (at least you should), but think about putting resources into kits and facilities as possible.
  3. Your role as driver and drone-manager will often mean your teammates see you as an overall logistics person. You might choose your Contacts accordingly.

Technomancers

This will be short and sweet: I haven’t yet read the 6th edition rules for Technomancers and I haven’t tried to build a Technomancer character yet. Those of you who want to play one are on your own for the time being.

Street Samurai

First, if you’re going to play this kind of character, a true Street Sam, do the character justice. Read some books about Bushido (A Book of Five Rings, Hagakure, etc.), watch Ghost Dog, etc. Don’t play a stereotype of a modern samurai, play a nuanced, believable warrior of the cyberpunk streets who believes that, while the technology and context of warfare has changed somewhat, the morality and ethics of the warrior should not have.

With that out of the way, there are several ways to build Street Sams, and none of them is wrong. You can play a generalist, buying those augs that seem interesting to you and hopefully constructing an augmentation gestalt that is more than its individual parts.

Or, you can specialize. Here, I tend to think of the old D20 Modern classes as a rough guide—you can be Tough, Fast, or Strong. You could focus on Smart or Charismatic, but they don’t so much fall into this category.

There are some augmentations I think are givens (for any augged character, really). Platelet Factories are cheap, both in Essence and Nuyen, and provide what is essentially three points of Body in resisting Physical damage. Second is the Sleep Regulator—this may not have a hugely obvious mechanical effect, but shadowrunners work odd hours and jobs that don’t exactly allow for regular sleep breaks. It’s also cheap in terms of Essence and Nuyen. As a third, I usually recommend cybereyes and cyberears before other augmentations. If your GM understands small-unit tactics and you expect to be up against trained security/law-enforcement/military forces, you should expect to see (and perhaps use) a lot of Stun (i.e. flashbang) grenades, making Damper and Flare-Compensation almost essential.

As a side note, it’s always bugged me that Damper isn’t included in the Audio Enhancements for earbuds and other non-aug audio devices—I’ve added it in as an option for my game.

If you’re going to do much shooting (and, if you’re a Street Sam, odds are good) then a Smartlink, and Vision Magnification are almost essential as well—as are low-light and thermographic vision for target identification. I imagine the spatial recognizer performing much like those red flashes at the corner of your screen when someone off-screen is shooting at you in a video game, giving you cues as to which way to turn to locate an attacking enemy. That’s not its only use, but being able to pinpoint the location of a sniper after he fires a few shots is a tactical gamechanger.

It’s tempting to take cyberlimbs for the “cool” factor; I get that. But I honestly thing they’re too expensive for the return in most cases and should be taken mostly under two circumstances—(1) it makes narrative sense for the character (she lost a limb sometime in the past), or (2) you’re going to install a cyberweapon. Just bear in mind that it’s not always an advantage to have a weapon you can’t leave behind in certain situations. Yes, it may be concealed, but corporations and shadow-actors are typically smart enough to keep scanners. Also, at least in my take on the Shadowrun world, expect for opponents to get Edge against you in high-society social situations if you’re rocking obvious cyberlimbs, you poor SoB who couldn’t afford to make his hand look like normal. I tend to think that there are far better augs before cyberlimbs to give you bang for buck. As a counterargument, though, Kristin Ortega’s cyberarm in the Netflix Altered Carbon is pretty badass. A Sam considering a focus on raw strength should consider muscle enhancers first, but paired cyberlimbs may be a viable option.

If you’re going to focus on close-combat, wired reflexes and other Reaction enhancers are a must. You need to avoid being shot while closing for that katana strike, after all. Other augs should focus on increasing strength and hand-to-hand damage.

Sams focusing on toughness (and I think you get a lot of bang-for-your-buck here, though its not as flashy as other approaches) can take Orthoskin, Bone Density or Bone Lacing enhancements, the Quick Healing Quality, Damage Compensators (and perhaps be a troll—actually, though the super-tough combatant who just refuses to go down is also a sort of metaphorical troll, I suppose).

Sams who want to truly focus on speed above all else are going to spend the majority of their resources (Nuyen and Essence) on the highest end of Wired Reflexes and Reaction Enhancers (compatible while wireless-enabled).

If your Street Samurai is going to be your team’s main combatant, then I would take a more generalist approach to your Skills (and therefore available fighting styles). Based on my experience in both martial arts and firearms training (with no combat experience to speak of, for which I’m thankful), I’m a believer that anyone who is going to carry or use a firearm also needs to be skilled in close-combat (unarmed at least) to deal with in-your-face situations and weapon retention.

If you’ve got multiple combat-focused characters in your team, you may want to think about specializing a little bit. Specialize in pistols and unarmed combat for a sort of John Wick combatant, or think about a focus in long-range weapons for a support-sniper role (which, honestly may be better suited to a non-Street Sam character who won’t need as many augs).

Note that the Specializations under Firearms in SR6 are extremely confused, having edges rougher than a mole that needs a biopsy—what’s the difference between “Rifles” and “Longarms” for instance? I recommend changing the specializations to match weapon types specifically—Pistols, SMGs, Shotguns, Assault Rifles, Semi-Auto Rifles (or something similar). Just check with your GM when choosing specializations here.

You’ll also want to take a thoughtful approach to your arsenal. It’s common for Street Sams to spend a lot of Nuyen on guns (and hand-to-hand weapons), and there’s nothing wrong with that, but do it with a purpose. You can only carry and use so many guns at once, and various permissive/non-permissive environments and run objectives are going to call for different approaches.

One of the main foci (in my mind) is having a set of weapons for covert work and a different set for overt combat. With covert weapons, suppressors are a must and concealment should be a concern. With overt weapons, you want mods that are not compatible with your covert weapons (like gas vent) to increase weapon effectiveness when you can maximize it without having to worry about balancing other concerns. The Ares Light Fire 75 has the best suppressor (at -3 to detection over the usual -2), but the Ares Viper Slivergun is a more powerful pistol with an integrated suppressor for improved concealment. The Ares Predator VI (which now competes with the Savalette Guardian for when you need a pistol that just does work) is an excellent choice for an overt weapon—especially when you add gas vent and a quick-draw holster.

I tend to recommend that you have both covert and overt pistols and one weapon in every other category; when building my own characters I tend to take a suppressed SMG like the HK-227, an overt assault rifle and shotgun (don’t get me started on silencing shotguns) and a covert long rifle.

Don’t forget less-lethal options—particularly if you’re focused on close-combat, your character is going to take point on those “Capture” missions. Tasers, stick-n-shock, the Super-squirt and other options should be considered.

It’s a Shadowrun trope for a Troll to lug around an assault cannon or minigun, but this honestly doesn’t make much sense to me. For one, this is a good way to make sure your opponents send an attack helicopter and a tank to respond to you. Two, collateral damage is a thing, guys. Unless you have a mission that specifically needs a launcher or autocannon, leave it at home.

Also, don’t forget grenades.

Other Characters
This is a very broad category that will include a lot of characters (in some ways, characters who don’t fall into a category above automatically fall into this category), so I’m going to treat it fairly generally.

If you’re not falling into one of the other categories, I recommend you prioritize Skills and Attributes above all else. Set Priority E to mundane and use C and D for Resources and Metatype, depending on how augged you’d like to be. See above under the Street Samurai heading for my personal “must-have augs.” Your mileage may vary.

The best thing about making this kind of character is that it becomes about the character’s background and narrative more than the mechanical or meta-game concerns. This is where you find some of the most interesting characters: those whom circumstances have recently forced into the shadowrunning life and who will struggle to turn their previous experiences into effective skills and knowledge for the professional criminal. Betrayed sararimen, disgruntled Lone Star officers, bored trust-fund kids, people who’ve never known a legitimate SIN and more can all be found in this category; when they’re played well, they’re a joy both to the player and to the GM—they truly fit into the “play to find out” approach of modern narrative games. Desperation and being ground down by oppressive and unjust societal systems is far more cyberpunk than any amount of chrome.

Honestly, the best advice I have for these kinds of characters is just to build them based on who they were before they became a shadowrunner, and have fun turning the narrative details into Attributes, Skills and Qualities. With VR games and instructional options, every character really has an excuse to have any Skill, so don’t be afraid to put some points into those skills that are necessary to shadowrunning at character creation, even if the character has never fired a gun in real life before. But if that’s the case, roleplay through the drama of that first firefight where life is actually on the line—there’s so much good stuff there, and an appreciative GM may throw some Karma your way for adding so much to the story. I sure would.

Conclusion

This post has not covered, and cannot cover, the very many types of characters you could build (which is a feature of the system, not a bug). Thinking back, the Shadowrun character creation system is probably a very large part against my bias against class-based and leveled systems (though I intellectually understand their great value for establishing genre tropes and significantly easing the character creation and leveling systems).

In the next post, we’ll look at the most important part of character creation: the character that isn’t represented by numbers on a page.

 

 

FFF’s Guide to 6th Edition Shadowrun Characters, Part III: General Advice

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Minimum Standards
An established (not necessarily starting) team of shadowrunners ought to make sure every member has at least a minimum competency in a few areas: at least one combat skill for self-defense, some ability in the Stealth skill (with a specialization in Sneaking if you want to go farther with a few points), and some ability in the Biotech skill (with a specialization in First Aid to stretch points). If your GM is going to enforce the rules (on Page 247) that you need the Electronics skill to figure out how to turn the Wireless effects of your gear on and off (I certainly won’t be enforcing it—that’s too important a thing to do to require a skill point for it!), then a character ought to have at least one point in that as well.

Essential Gear
Even the core Shadowrun book has enough equipment in it to make one’s head spin, and purchasing equipment is often the longest phase of character creation. The Sixth Edition is no different.

For new players especially, it’s easy to lose track of (or to never find) a good explanation of what gear is absolutely necessary for a person to function. Here’s what you need:

Fake System Identification Number(s) (SINs)

Every Runner should have at least one fake SIN (System Identification Number). A SIN is required to use public services—like riding the bus—and in nicer parts of town, corporate security or local law enforcement will make a beeline for anyone who doesn’t have a SIN when scanned.

Your runner may have been born with a SIN (which I’d assume her to adequately have distanced herself from aside from tissue matches or fingerprinting, unless the SINner Quality is taken), but remember that anonymity, privacy and security are essential for a runner to survive long enough to make it big.

If you want to carry a gun, drive a car, or not be arrested for having restricted cyberware (or being Awakened), you need to make sure that you have the proper fake licenses attached to your Fake SINs.

The lowest Resources rating on the Priority Chart gives you 8,000¥ (before you spend any Karma). The least expensive Fake SIN (Rating 1 with no licenses) costs 2,500¥ and will stand up to only the most cursory examination (automated public transportation scans, etc.). Plan accordingly.

Commlink

The commlink is your phone, personal digital assistant, tablet and computer all rolled into one. You need to have one to survive in the modern age of the Sixth World. If all you can afford is a cheapie, by all means—but have one.

Lifestyle

Because it’s found earlier in the book and not in the Gear section, it’s easy to forget that you need to have a Lifestyle, which represents your monthly payments for food, shelter and basic services. Under most circumstances, a runner probably wants to maintain a Low Lifestyle—saving money for those things that will keep her alive or for that magical future day when she can retire from the life and live comfortably ever after. Remember, it’s cyberpunk: high tech and low life. But don’t be a Squatter.

If your character is the paranoid type, comes from a background in tradecraft, or has the resources and understanding of the risks of shadowrunning such that he or she would have at least one bolthole somewhere that no-one knows about, purchase multiple Lifestyles. Just remember that they have to be maintained, too.

Image Link, Sound Link and Micro-Transceiver

If your character doesn’t have cybereyes and/or cyberears, you need to shell out for at least a visual device with image link (Rating 1 Contacts with just this feature are 75¥) and an aural device (which automatically has sound link—Rating 1 earbuds are 50¥). You need a micro-transceiver, too. This equipment allows you to keep in constant contact with the rest of your team and to share valuable information. Communication and information sharing can be more valuable than wired reflexes and a Panther assault cannon if you’re clever.

Trauma Patch

Every character should probably carry one of these. They’re expensive (500¥), but necessary in a desperate situation to prevent loss of life. A shadowrunner team is many things, but they’re sometimes a team of covert(-ish) combat operators—and they should think like it. Every soldier carries at a bare minimum an IFAK (individual first aid kit) to treat the commonest types of injuries. A trauma patch isn’t a substitute for all of the devices, materials and life-saving techniques your team should have access to, but it’ll do in a pinch.

The Mechanics of the Build

What follows is my personal advice (along with my personal biases) on creating Shadowrun characters in the Sixth Edition after spending several hours with the character creation system.

What Do You Need to Know?

Before you make a character, you should get a feel for the world of Shadowrun in 2080 (Page 14 on) and the basics of the game mechanics (“Game Concepts” Chapter starting on Page 34). If you’re going to play an Awakened character, I recommend also reading the Magic Chapter (at least the basics, starting on Page 127)

Lay of the Land

For ease of navigation, some “bookmarks” for you:

  • The Description of Attributes is on Page 37
  • The Priority Table is on Page 63
  • The Skills Chapter Starts on Page 92
  • Qualities Begin on Page 66
  • Adept Powers Start on Page 156
  • Spells Start on Page 130
  • Mentor Spirits on Page 162
  • The Gear Listing Starts on Page 244
  • Advancement Costs (for spending Karma) on Page 68
  • Rules for Contacts on Page 66-67

Min/Max

Yes, I complained about the Archetypes being min/max-ed, but there’s actually a distinction here. The Archetypes are min/max-ed as to their final ability ratings and all of that, with very specific foci and almost no character resources spent outside of that focus.

The min/max-ing I’m referring to is in the expenditure of the 50 Karma points you get at character creation. Choose the upgrades that you’ll spend on and allocate your attribute points, skill points, etc. from the Priority Table with that in mind so that you maximize the value you get from that beginning Karma.

An example: Going from Firearm’s 5 to Firearms 6 is worth thirty Karma. Purchasing Electronics at 2 requires 15 Karma. Where should you allocate your Priority-Table-Given Skill Points? To your higher-rated skills, spending Karma to fill in gaps for basic necessities. Likewise with Attribute Point distributions.

As a matter of good gaming etiquette, I’d check with your GM about his or her stance on this behavior. As hard as I intend to be on my players, though, I’m happy to let them have this benefit.

As a side note, the discrepancy/ambiguity created by loose design in the use of Karma points to round things out might be viewed as a problem, and I would agree that it is while I’m looking at Shadowrun from a designer’s perspective. As a practical matter, though, just decide on an approach and keep running.

Specializations Are Your Friends

Specializations are cheap to purchase with Karma. So, don’t use Priority Table Skill Points to buy Specializations unless you really need to spend the Karma elsewhere. That said, use Specializations to push your character resources farther at character generation. Most characters are only going to need Pilot (Ground Vehicle) for instance, or Biotech (First Aid). If your character does not have combat as a primary focus, consider using specializations (say in Pistols and/or Unarmed Combat) to get some basic competency without devoting a lot of Skill Points.

Augmentation: Buy Once, Cry Once

It used to be that you could only purchase base-grade cyberware and bioware at character generation, but this was further back in the timeline; by 2080, apparently, even Delta-grade cyberware isn’t too hard to find.

According to the rules as written, you cannot purchase Illegal gear with an Availability of 7 or higher. Check with your GM to see if they’re going to modify this (frankly, it probably should be). If used as written, at least some of the cyberware you want to get your grubby hands on can be purchased at Delta-grade, or at least Alpha or Beta.

Contrary to the Archetypes in the book, you’re better off buying the best grade of hardware you can reasonably afford rather than dumping in base-grade. Why?

First, the higher the grade of cyberware, the harder it is to detect. That’s definitely to your benefit. As or more important, the higher the grade of cyberware, the less Essence it costs. Yes, you could have more bonuses and benefits if you just pack in basic cyberware and bioware, but you never get more Essence.

You can remove old cyberware and replace it with a higher grade, which will never raise your Essence back to what it was, but will leave a “gap” to be taken up before it drops further.

Example: You’ve got an Essence of .4 after putting in all your (basic-grade) cyber. You’ve scraped together some nuyen and if you want to take on more cyber, you need to make some room, you you’re going to buy a Beta-grade version of something you already have to replace it. The basic version cost you 1 Essence point, so the Beta-version will cost you .7 Essence. Your Essence stays at .4 after the replacement, but your total Essence cost on your Cyber is now 5.3 instead of 5.6, so you have an extra .3 worth of Essence to use up before your Essence drops below .4.

If you follow the example above, you’ve now paid 2.5 times the value of that piece of cyberware (1 time when you first bought it, and another 1.5 times when you bought the Betaware version). That adds up to a massive drain on your character’s lifetime nuyen.

Don’t Skimp on Edge

Edge is central to the new edition of Shadowrun in ways it has never been. You start each session with an amount of Edge equal to your Attribute rating and, if you have more Edge at the end of an encounter than your Attribute, you lose the excess. An Edge of 5 means that you can hold enough Edge at once for an alpha-strike use of the highest level of Edge expenditure when you need the boost.

That doesn’t mean that you need to have an Edge of 5, but I certainly wouldn’t want to run a character with less than 3. If you have to, spend Karma to boost it. Even if you have no points from the Priority Table to allocate to Edge, it would only cost 25 Karma to get it up to 3.

My initial feeling is that Edge is the new Initiative Augmentation in Shadowrun—don’t leave home without it.

Understand Attack Value and Defensive Value

Particularly if you’ve come from a previous version of Shadowrun, there’s a learning curve to grokking how AV and DV work in awarding Edge during a fight. As you pick your weapons, armor and augmentations, pay attention to AV and DV—they are, along with the fundamental overhaul of Edge, the New Big Thing. Choosing between a weapon with a one-point damage bonus and a higher AV is something to carefully consider.

Consider Initiative Augmentations Carefully

It used to be that characters with initiative augmentations vastly outclassed those that didn’t in combat. This is no longer the case—it now takes a Level 3 initiative augmentation to gain a second attack (or second Major Action of any type) in combat, and that’s the most you’ll ever get.

This is a very welcome rebalance, in my opinion, and it makes it worth considering whether you need such an augmentation—despite the change in the rules, these augs remain very expensive in terms of Essence and Nuyen (in Cyber-/Bioware) or Power Points (for Adepts).

The Archetypes have overused initiative augs, with half of them having one, even when the assets spend on those augs would be much better spent elsewhere.

If you look at the NPCs section of the book, you don’t see any initiative augs until Professional Tier 4 and above. My advice is only to consider an initiative aug if your primary role in the group is combat. Even then, I wouldn’t say that wired reflexes or a synaptic booster are a necessary piece of kit.

The Aptitude Quality

The Aptitude Quality, for 12 Karma, lets you start with a skill at Rating 7 (rather than the usual max of 6) and level it up to 10 (instead of 9). This is not necessarily a Quality every player should take for their character, but it does have the potential to save you a lot of Karma (if your GM doesn’t have a problem with this, if you are not committing the sin of overspecialization, and if your end character is adaptable enough to survive long enough that it matters).

It would cost you 35 Karma to raise a skill from 6 to 7. You’ll pay 12 Karma for the Quality, but this still nets you 23 Karma in the long run (not accounting for paying the skill point).

Where this really makes a difference is that you can then have other skills at Rating 6, rather than only being able to have one at Rating 6 and the rest at 5. This opens up a lot (a lot!) of additional potential Karma.

To make real use of this Quality, though, I think you need to take Priority A in skills. If that doesn’t mesh with your character idea, look for more suitable Qualities.

In the next post, look for my advice on specific types of characters.

FFF’s Guide to 6th Edition Shadowrun Characters, Part II: Roles

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Roles
Few, if any, shadowrunner teams, have enough members (remember, the more members a team runs, the more conspicuous they are, and the capture of one may lead to the discovery of the rest) to dedicate a member to each role below.

Combat
‘Runners must always be prepared for a fight—the nature of the work and the non-permissive environments in which it takes place means that, even for those runs where violence is not an intended goal, any number of unfortunate events can spiral into chaos and bloodshed at a moment’s notice. While every ‘runner is expected to be able to carry his weight in a fight, every team needs at least one person dedicated to bringing the pain in the most direct way possible.

Trolls and Orks often gravitate to these roles, where their natural toughness and strength makes them terrifying combatants. Combat specialists from all metatypes are found however, with Elves often focusing on speed and grace over raw strength, Humans making good all-rounders, and Dwarfs having toughness of their own.

Combat-oriented team members may specialize in particular types of combat, the most common of which are close-combat specialists highly skilled in unarmed and armed hand-to-hand fighting as well as close-range firearms and long-range specialists providing sniper cover for the rest of the team.

The most often thought-of combat specialist is the Street Samurai, followed by the Physical Adept.

Weapons Specialists, who bring a wide-array of knowledge and experience in various forms of violence to create a highly-adaptive approach to combat, focus first on their skills and natural abilities, adding augmentations as they’re able to supplement their arsenal of weapons. Weapons Specialists often have high levels of skill with all firearms, all types of close combat, demolitions and explosives, and in heavy weapons.

Some shamans or mages prefer to focus on a combative role, summoning spirits and casting spells to wreak as much havoc on the enemy as possible. Their exposure to the consequences of Drain can deprive them of the sort of steady reliability or long-term staying power of other combat specialists, but, chummer, can they ever bring the hurt in sudden fits of overwhelming force!

Riggers may also serve in a combat role, directing one or more armed drones in place of meat bodies.

Of course, there are also plenty of combat specialists who defy any easy categorization.

Hacking and Technology

The Sixth World is a place of hyperconnectivity between devices—your refrigerator can order you groceries when supplies run low; your pistol will tell you the temperature of its barrel and the number of rounds remaining in the magazine; the flick of a (virtual) switch may change the color of your clothes (or even your hair!).

No shadowrunner team is complete without a specialist in modern tech, particularly one with the capability to hack in support of the team, whether opening locked doors and disabling security in a target facility or bricking a ganger’s Predator VI before he can open fire with it.

Modern computer systems, particularly those managed and protected by the megacorps, require both expensive equipment and high levels of skill to successfully hack, making this role one of the hardest for other team members to dabble in or cover for. Technomancers, still largely feared by society, also fill this role—their Awakened (or pseudo-Awakened) status means that they also require a large amount of resources devoted to their service in this role.

Magical Support

Threats to shadowrunners are rarely limited to the physical and technological worlds. Both mages and spirits are used to defend corporate assets, and even some street gangs are comprised entirely of wizkids. Gone are the days when junkyard dogs were the fiercest animal you might encounter when breaking and entering; these have been replaced where possible by Awakened alternatives—fire-breathing hellhounds and the like.

With magic, it usually takes fire to fight fire, and a good shadowrunner team needs at least one member well-equipped to deal with other spellslingers, summoned spirits, and all other manner of supernatural threat. Magic-users are “force multipliers” in many ways–there’s a good reason the advice “geek the mage first,” remains relevant.

Further, astral perception and/or projection can provide information about targets and enemies otherwise unavailable to the team.

Full magicians or shamans are typically preferred in this role, but their rarity means that substitutes must sometimes be made. Aspected magic users can address most threats (and often have the ability to cover in other roles), even if they don’t have the breadth of magical approaches of a full mage.

Physical adepts with the Astral Perception ability and other powers that cater to direct combat with spirits and other astral entities may also fulfill this role.

Mundanes with the right knowledge and equipment (which isn’t in the current book) can sometimes serve in this capacity, but the risk here is much higher than it would otherwise be.

Transpo

There’s nothing more embarrassing than finishing a run and having to make your getaway on public transport—nor a more surefire way of getting caught.

Those who most excel in this role are Riggers; if a team doesn’t have a Rigger, this role is typically handled by one or more team-members as a secondary role to their other functions. By their very nature, a team’s Rigger is almost always required to run primary on this role, though the Rigger may also have substantial surveillance or combat duties fulfilled through the use of drones and is likely the team’s resident mechanic.

Face and Acquisitions

The nature of shadowrunning makes anonymity a difficult-to-achieve but highly-desired aspect of the life. Only under rare circumstances does a whole team want to meet a Mr. Johnson; everyone—especially the runners, are better off when the employer doesn’t have much information about those he’s hired.

Additionally, many runners are pretty sorry fraggers when it comes to social situations, and a good working relationship can mean the difference between being hired for multiple jobs or placed on a corporation’s “cleaner’s” list.

Those teams whose idea of professionalism means keeping a body count to a necessary minimum also find it useful to have someone who can finesse through certain situations rather than resorting to violence and direct action.

A team’s “Face” fulfills all of these functions. The Face is only as valuable as his social skills and network of connections, where a competent team member can drastically reduce the difficulty of legwork performed before a run.

Often, a Face also fulfills a role as a covert operator—add the ability to mimic others, blend in, and sneak past security systems and you have a versatile runner able to insinuate herself into situations and locations where she can do the team the most good.

Protection is also a concern for a Face. As the most forward member of the team, the Face is usually the first one to feel the brunt of an ambush or double-cross. Even with a team well-positioned to respond in the event of such a likelihood, a long-lived Face probably has some combat skills or good means of escape for when things don’t go well.

If any position on the team is likely to be relegated as a secondary role to one of the members with no runner having a primary responsibility for the role, it’s likely the Face. Such an approach is one of necessity, however, not one of best practices, because a good Face opens up possibilities, both for employment and for approaches to problems, unavailable to those who only dabble in the role.

Many faces rely on their natural social skills to serve in this function, but there are a number of augmentations highly attractive to those in this role, especially if the ability to disguise appearance when acting as the public representative of the group is highly desired.

Magic-users may sometimes find themselves well-suited to this role, particularly shamans who tend to be naturally charismatic anyway. But an over reliance on magical skills to serve in social functions often means a brute-force approach (using Mind Probe and Control Thoughts spells, for instance) over finesse. Even if successful, such strategies have a habit of making enemies.

Some Physical Adepts find that their magical abilities are especially suited to the role of Face—these often follow the Speaker’s Way.

Surveillance and Investigation

Rarely is something in the Sixth World what it seems, and even if a run isn’t primarily an investigation, it’s likely that some amount of investigation and surveillance will be a necessary part of the legwork for the run proper. Add to that that runners often find themselves in the midst of mysteries and conspiracies that threaten their lives, and it should be clear why a dedicated investigator and/or surveillance specialist is a great boon to a shadowrunner team.

The augmented, with their heightened senses and access to sensory apparatuses unavailable to the unenhanced, often make good investigators—but there is no substitute for tradecraft.

Awakened team members may also make excellent investigators, with magic-users having access to modes of inquiry unavailable to mundanes and physical adepts often possessing super(meta)human senses themselves.

Riggers, while sometimes overlooked, can provide an excellent source of investigation and surveillance, combining the use of drones for physical surveillance with electronics skills that naturally lend to signals intelligence.

Covert Operations and Security

Like combat skills, almost every runner is expected to have some ability to act stealthily. Rare is the run that does not involve tailing someone, infiltrating a secure facility, or otherwise evading detection.

But there is a difference between the person who can occasionally move without being noticed and the person who is well-versed in the fieldcraft of the spy, who knows how to use dead drops and brush passes, how to infiltrate a place without leaving a trace, and who knows what techniques to guard his fellows against.

Like the Face, some teams seem to think of this as a secondary role without any need for a primary member in its place.

The augmented, specifically with those enhancements decreasing visibility and increasing agility and speed, are well suited for such a role, as are Physical Adepts with similar abilities. Some infiltrations may be conducted by a decker or rigger without any team member getting “boots on the ground” in the target location, but modern security countermeasures make such scenarios rare, at least when dealing with governments and corporations of means.

Likewise, just as they can sometimes operate as adequate Faces, magic-users may also provide some options and approaches in such situations that their mundane counterparts are incapable of—particularly if the team member is also skilled in physical techniques of breaking and entering. Given the adaptability of the mystic adept, this may be an especially fitting role for them.

Support

This catch-all term goes to the heart of those seemingly minor but essential tasks for a shadowrunner team—logistics. When possible, a team will use its network of contacts (and its Fixer(s)) to acquire new gear or necessary services that they cannot provide in-house, but the cost of looking outside the team for such assistance should not be underestimated.

When team members have their own networks for acquiring, repairing and modifying their gear, this allows the team to take innovative approaches to their runs, to avoid embarrassing equipment failures, and to maximize their profits.

Often, support tasks are tied to other roles rather than being made a role of its own—the combat specialists are expected to perform weapon maintenance, the rigger is expected to be able to repair vehicle damage, and the decker is expected to be able to modify everyone’s commlinks.

Thinking About Roles When Designing a Character
It is tempting, particularly if you’ve viewed the Archetypes in the book, to highly specialize your character into a particular role. Ignore the book’s Archetypes, both because they’re unreasonably min-maxed and don’t make for well-rounded characters.

The resources you’re given to build a character in Shadowrun are not sufficient to build a runner who’s at the top of his game. Even with the extra 50 Karma mentioned for creating “Prime Runners” (which, honestly, is a joke), you probably won’t be able to build a character who can single-handedly go toe-to-toe with the higher Professional Rating enemies (I’m looking at you, Tiers 6 and above—who knew DocWagon personnel were so hardcore?).

Your character is a runner who’s not been doing this for very long or who’s just entered the shadows. Knowing this, give yourself permission to (a) not stress about making a perfect character and (b) start with an interesting backstory and work forward with two or three roles in mind (preferably prioritized).

Allow yourself to build a character who will grow into his full potential over time, and who isn’t so min-maxed that he’ll actually survive long enough to realize that potential.

Shadowrun is fun when played as a cyberpunk version of D&D, but it reaches its full potential only when it takes into account the drama and grit of social systems that make shadowrunning seem like a better choice among alternatives and accentuates the difficulty of “the life.” The same goes for Shadowrun characters—the more real they feel, the better the idea you have as to how they got to where they are, the more fun they’ll be to play and the better your game will be—your GM will thank you!

Also, it’s nice to have a reason your character isn’t an expert in all forms of combat known to metahumanity from the get-go. Or stealth, or other aspects of breaking the law for a living. Unless your character came from a military background or was raised on the streets, in a gang or “in the life.”

For the next post in this series, with general advice on character builds, click here.

FFF’s Guide to 6th Edition Shadowrun Characters, Part I: Basics

I will be posting a full review of the Shadowrun, Sixth World rules. But, in the meantime, I’m gearing up to run a campaign using the rules, one which will include a number of players new to the setting and system. I’m working on my (extensive) notes to help them muddle through, and thought I’d share them with you as well.

The Very Basics

You are creating a character who has recently become a shadowrunner. A shadowrunner is a professional criminal who engages in illegal acts on behalf of others in exchange for pay. You are hired in part for your skills and in part because you are a deniable asset if something goes sideways.

Many of your jobs will be given by megacorporations or their smaller subsidiaries or competitors—these types of jobs often involve corporate espionage, asset destruction, the extraction of personnel or other dirty work that furthers the employer’s bottom line.

Other jobs may come from non-profit organizations willing to break the law for the greater good, private citizens with the means to hire shadowrunners to further their personal agendas, government entities running off-the-books operations, other members of the shadow community, or criminal organizations looking for specialty skills or to bolster their other assets.

A potential employer of a shadowrunner is euphemistically referred to as a “Mr. Johnson” (female employers use various honorifics, whether Ms., Mrs. or Mr.).

A shadowrunner team typically works with one or more Fixers; these go-betweens set up teams with Johnsons and often run procurement or other support roles for a team. The team’s Face may operate as a Fixer, but it is more common for their to be separation (both for efficiency and for operational security) between a team and its Fixer(s).

The Team
Too many skills and expertises are necessary to a successful shadowrun for a single person to handle most jobs alone. ‘Runners typically operate in close-knit teams, where they can share the responsibilities and cover for one another as necessary.

Bear in mind that you will be a team player, so create a character who can be loyal at least to those who have his back.

Good shadowrunner teams strike a balance between each member having a strong expertise and some secondary skills to fill additional roles in the case of a split group, injury to other team members, or other circumstances likely to occur once a perfect plan meets reality.

A Little Terminology

Augmented: A person who has cyberware, bioware, nanoware or some other technological device (usually many) installed in his or her body.

Awakened: When referring to people, this usually means a person with magical ability, whether a mage, a shaman, a physical adept or a mystic adept.

Decker: A hacker, so-called because of the cyberdeck used in hacking.

Mystic Adept: A magic-user who has some of the abilities of a shaman/mage and some of the abilities of a physical adept and, as a consequence of this split, matches neither group in full potency.

Physical Adept: A magic-user who, rather than summoning spirits and casting spells, channels magic (usually passively, but sometimes actively) to improve their physical, mental and social abilities.

Rigger: A user of an augmentation called a “control rig” that allows the user to “jump in” to a vehicle in virtual reality, physically experiencing the operation and function of the vehicle and operating it at the speed of thought. Any properly-equipped vehicle or drone may be jumped into.

Street Samurai: the highly-augmented warrior who adheres to the ancient code of Bushido, slightly modified, of course, for the streets and shadows. Poseurs abound, and true Street Sams are actually rather rare, whatever the trids and games seem to think.

For the next post in the series, with advice on team roles, click here.

Types of Evil (or at Least Antagonists)

This post could just about as easily be a theological one, but since I’ve come to these ideas in working on Avar Narn, I figured they’re better suited to being addressed to the writers out there–anyone who wants to extrapolate into the realms of spirituality and morality is welcome of course.

As an opening, let me first say that it is difficult to write an “evil” character, whether major antagonist or supporting character. It’s difficult because few things in the world are black and white, so a character that isn’t nuanced in his/her morality isn’t believable in stories that intend to maintain verisimilitude. On an obviously allegorical, mythological or moralistic tale, there’s a lot more leeway for capital “E” evil characters. But that has its own bag of tropes and expectations tht I’m not going to address here.

Instead, I’m going to try to put together a few general categories of character types we might describe as “evil.” I think we (myself included) are quick to use terms like “bad guys” when we mean “antagonist” in the more literary criticism sense of the term. That’s probably something we should all be careful of. That said, on to some gross oversimplification that I hope will nevertheless prove useful:

(1) Capital “E” Evil
This is the character who just wants to watch the world burn, who enjoys inflicting suffering for suffering’s sake, who exists to malign and misuse everything around him for the sake of just that.

As such, this should also be the rarest kind of evil in fiction, becuase it’s the hardest kind to get right. I think that there are two subtypes to be thought of here.

The first is cosmic evil–that kind of supernatural evil that is unknowable in its reasoning or motivation. Think Lovecraftian horror. We sidestep the major problem here by positing that we just can’t understand this evil. It just is. Particularly in fantasy, we can often get away with this, but it requires special suspension of disbelief or extra worldbuilding to swing. Even then, we’ve created a de facto villain that is really only interesting in an existential sense.

The second type is the corrupted individual. What we need, I think, to make this work is a believable backstory. Nobody begins that way, so we need an explanation as to what suffering the person has gone through to mold him into this type character.

This runs two ancillary risks, however. The first is that in describing said backstory, we humanize the character to the point that he no longer really fits into the Capital “E” Evil category. The second is that we turn our story into an analysis of the nature of evil. That can be an enthralling type of tale, particularly if the “evil” character is the protaganist of the story.

(2) Mistaken Beliefs
This subgroup belongs to those characters who honestly believe that they are doing the right thing while they commit atrocities the rest of us would find blatantly evil.

There are plenty of real-life examples to draw upon here to make the argument concisely. Take the Islamic State for example. Adherents to this would-be theocracy believe that they are practicing true Islam while murdering the innocent. This is an extreme case that can be attributed to any radical/fundamentalist religious group–Christians who kill doctors who perform abortions, for example. If you truly believe that God (or gods) demanded it and that makes it right, it’s easy to justify your actions.

Next, think of the person gripped by psychosis such that they are driven by an irrational belief that they cannot bring themselves to disavow. This is a particularly moving type of antagonist because they are driven by an affliction and not by their own agency–we can’t actually morally blame those who aren’t in control of themselves. This gives us a good opportunity to explore our “hero’s” approach to evil–is she only interested in ending threats or is she interested in redemption? What does she do when that redemption isn’t something she can achieve.

There are plenty of “lower magnitude” mistaken beliefs that make interesting villains. Les Miserables’ Javier is an excellent example–a man so overcommitted to his idea of “justice” that he cannot allow himself any mercy. This type of extremism in belief is all around us–just listen to how some people think we should fight the “War on Terror” or what we should do to criminals.

We can also extend this to what in the law we would consider a “mistake of fact.” When the antagonist believes that the protaganist is a villain who must be stopped, for instance. Yes, the antagonist’s belief is untrue, but if it were true would we think of the antagonist as a “good guy?”

A brief aside here: what if the protaganist is acting immorally? Watching a character spiral out of control is heck of a dramatic ride, and testing a character’s willingness to act as he says he believes is a classic conflict to explore.

Mistaken identity (along with the particular of being falsely accused) is one of the great archetypal plots, one which fits directly into the mistake of fact.

(3) The End Justifies the Means
This is a commonly-used type of antagonist, perhaps because it’s so relatable. The constant moral choice that faces all of us in life is whether we’ll sacrifice our values to get what we’re after. The only difference here is one of scale. For the sake of drama, the means to achieve the end must be dire–the determination of life and death, or the fates of many. For what profiteth it for a man to gain the world but lose his soul?

One of my favorite examples of this type of evil is the Operative from Serenity. The Operative is a man who accepts that he does evil things, but he is sincere in the belief that it will bring about a better galaxy (which perhaps makes him fall under (2) as well). In fact, he views his sins as a form of sacrifice–he does the unspeakable so that others don’t have to. There is a sort of nobility to his principles, even if they are ultimately wrong. And, for those of you who prefer your characters to wear capes rather than swords, Batman isn’t far off here, either. In fact, I’d say that Batman and the Operative have far more in common than we should be comfortable with if we’re going to call one “hero” and the other “villain.”

Speaking of Batman, most vigilantes fit into this category. Because we love it when the bad guys get theirs, even when they get it in a way that requires a sacrifice of our values, this can be a popular protagonist as well–think of the Punisher.

I would wager that most of our favorite anti-heroes fall into this category as well–it’s their beliefs and the willingness to risk for those beliefs that make them heroes, but the way they go about pursuing the fulfillment of those beliefs that adds the “anti-.”

(4) Honor and Identity
This is perhaps a subcategory of “Mistaken Beliefs,” but it’s a significant-enough subtype that it deserves its own treatment.

People do evil things in the name of maintaining honor all the time. As a student of history–and particularly the medieval and Renaissance periods, the first examples that pop into my mind are the duel and the vendetta. I’ve recently read a book called Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli in the Renaissance, which reinforces the connection for me. But Renaissance Italy is not the only honor culture known for the tit-for-tat systemic murder that defines vendetta–the Hatfields and McCoys come to mind in slightly more recent history.

And, of course, we could discuss “honor killings” in certain Middle Eastern or South Asian cultures (though, to be fair, the Napoleonic Code also permitted a husband to kill an unfaithful wife and her lover, and even in American law a murder is often considered manslaughter when a husband kills his spouse after finding her “in flagrante delicto.”)

Honor cultures and actions taken under the justification of defending one’s honor are typically about maintaining a sense of identity–either one of purity or of strength (or perhaps both). The ideology of the honor culture says that if one does not maintain honor, one will be viewed as weak and will be taken advantage of by the rest of the culture.

And defending one’s sense of identity is a strong motivator, one that can create fascinating internal conflict, because it can be the conflict between internal belief and external pressures of society. For instance, “I believe that I should show mercy, but my culture tells me that I am not a man if I do not take vengeance.” Powerful stuff.

Honor, of course, is not the only identity-related factor that can lead a character to become “evil” or antagonistic. The need to belong to something greater than oneself is a fundamental human motivation, on that can lead to similar conflict between the will of the individual and the will of the group. Is there a story about gangs that doesn’t include this plotline? What about cults and religions (which takes us back to (2))?

(5) Cross-Purposes and Limited Resources
I don’t have to explain that characters don’t have to possess malicious intent to be antagonists. The world has a habit of pitting humans against each other by its very nature–or at least tempting us to work against instead of with one another.

The core of successful narrative is conflict, and all it takes is characters who want things that are opposed (or even better, mutually-exclusive) to create such.

This suits certain types of stories especially well–the noir and anything else that might be considered “gritty” immediately come to mind. The story doesn’t need to be one of moralistic pedantry, though one must be careful not to let ambivelence about morality become relativism (at least I’m going to moralize on that point).

The Game of Thrones novels come to mind, as does Abercrombie’s First Law books. The political intrigue inherent to both puts POV characters at odds with one another, certainly giving us occasional “villains,” but not as a central theme of the stories.

But this type of conflict does not just suit the morally-ambiguous; it plays well to analysis of morality. I’m going to turn here to my favorite atheist philosopher (and one of my favorite storytellers), Joss Whedon. He’s been quoted as saying, “If nothing we do matters, the only thing that matters is what we do.” As an existentialist theologian, this freedom to create meaning when meaning is not thrust upon us is a core concept to me (but not one we’ll discuss here). Likewise, when the there’s no clear “good and evil,” we must judge the morality of the characters by the choices that they make. This can, of course, be easily combined with all but (1) above.

The conflict within a character of wanting to do the right thing, but perhaps being unwilling to pay the cost to do so, is a conflict we can all relate to. I’m inclined to argue that there is nothing in the craft of fiction so real as this. If you want your writing to have that air of verisimilitude, readers will suspend disbelief for a lot of things when the characters seem lifelike and complex to them. That’s not an excuse to write fiction that is sloppy except for the characters.

That, I think, is why I’m personally drawn to “gritty” stories. They’re rich with meaning.

(6) Inanimate Evil

I include this mostly as a footnote becuase it needs little explanation. This is the classic “(wo)man versus nature” story, where an uncaring and unresponsive natural force (i.e. the elements) forces a struggle for the protagonist to survive.

Conclusion

This list is, of course, not exhaustive. Each category has subcategories and nuances to be explored (and isn’t that one of the great joys of writing?). More general categories could be appended to this. When I think of them, I’ll post an update. I’m also inclined to write more about creating the types of characters that fit into (5), or at least stories of ambivalent morality–that is, dispassion on the part of the narration about moral judgment, leaving such a task to the reader. For now, this seems sufficient.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review: Your Own Private WestWorld

I ride up to the crest of a hill, my trusty mare stamping at the earth as we come to a stop. Across the valley (modeled after Colorado, it seems), a stagecoach pulls into view, rolling down the deep ruts of a well-traveled road, unaware of the danger that awaits it.

I check my pocket watch. It’s right on time, like my informant at the train station promised. Through binoculars, I can see two men riding atop the wagon, one driver, one riding shotgun. A few riders flank the vehicle, rifles in hand.

Nothing too serious. With the right tool, I’ll make quick work of the guards and the driver. If my lock-breaker won’t do the trick, a well-placed stick of dynamite will open the strongbox that holds my reward. I just need my lever-action rifle to kick things off, the one I’ve customized with dark wood covered in dark leather, black metal accented with gold engraving.

Unfortunately, I have to open up a menu and scroll through more than a dozen longarms to get what I’m looking for. It’s a game, so maybe I could live with that, but I’m tacitly asked by to ignore the massive hammerspace my horse must have in the invisible quantum field that surrounds my saddle. Having to choose what to take with me when I leave camp would have been far more interesting.

That’s been my experience of the game in the (frankly embarrassing) amount of time I’ve spent on it. Things seem great until the game’s systems ruin the immersion with rigid, often-nonsensical responses.

On an HD TV and and Xbox One X, the game is stunningly beautiful–except for the people. Their expressions are just a bit much, their faces waxen and on the wrong side of the uncanny valley. Not too beautiful, but still inhuman.

The physics of the game veers from the believable to the frustratingly sudden. I’ve lost a number of horses (typically after reaching the max level of bonding–and thus unlocks–with them) to having them suddenly run headlong into trains or wagons (after I’ve jumped onto said train or wagon). Likewise, in the midst of thrilling chases, I’ve been launched ragdoll-like, my horse crumpling beneath me on some unseen sharp edge of the terrain.

But it’s not the physics of the game that really destroys the immersive potential. It’s the asininity of subsystems of the game that infuriate. For a game about the last outlaws of the Old West, it makes little sense to include an “Honor” system that rewards not doing many of the game’s draws–robbery, theft, gunfights and bucking the law. What’s worse, the Honor system has nothing to do with getting caught by others. Even without witnesses, you lose Honor for looting a body or taking something that’s not yours. That’s not fun.

This is exacerbated by the fact that “restoring” or improving your Honor to a high level (where there are in-game perks) is tedious and uninteresting. Help people in radiant events while traveling, kindly greet all the people you come across, perform repetitive and dull chores (“move this from here to there” in camp). There’s nothing interesting about being a white-hat in the game except for mechanical benefits. Being a roleplayer first and foremost, I see that as exceptionally bad form in design.

The “law enforcement” system also makes little sense. There is one fun/interesting aspect: witnesses to crimes will try to run away and contact the sheriff or other members of “the Law.” You can chase them down and threaten them to keep them from tattling. Unfortunately, everything’s downhill from there. The witnesses don’t actually have to run to a specific point to summon the Law–once they make it far enough, they simply disappear to be replaced by lawdogs.

The excitement of this is further diminished by a number of other flaws: rob a store and an alert automatically goes up to the law when the robbery begins (unless you’re robbing a business’s secret side business). Wearing a mask only slightly delays identification of you as the perpetrator, even in a place where no one should know your name. Of course, if you can evade fast enough, you can leave the scene of the crime, hide out for a few minutes, and come back like nothing ever happened. Without changing your appearance.

Be identified while committing crimes and a bounty will be placed on your head–this bounty increases for each infraction, but killing an officer of the law only raises it by $20. According to the internet, the 2016 value of that amount is about $2,891.65.

If your bounty gets high enough, bounty hunters will start to seek you out–though they appear randomly and without cause for being able to track you down in the wilderness. Of course, you can avoid this by going to any Post Office and paying off your accumulated bounty. Apparently the Old West works off of the ancient Germanic weregild system rather than 19th century American justice.

This is complicated by the fact that many of the “iconic” outlaw activities of the Old West net very little income compared to bounty you’re likely to generate during the activity. For instance, robbing a train got me about $100 in goods and cash while generating a bounty of $380 for defending myself from the near-instantaneous onslaught of lawmen from their hiding places in the wilderness where they must have been waiting for just such an offense to occur.

Playing the game, I can’t help but compare it to WestWorld. The game seems more like an Old West themepark than any verisimilitudinous experience. Scripted actions, often clearly weighted toward “game balance” rather than any sense of authenticity serves as a constant reminder that the whole thing is a conceit, a game. NPCs are robotic and caught in activity loops, wooden and predictable. Actions have only short-term consequences before everything is reset to its “natural state.”

The story missions are mostly good and the characters within Dutch van der Linde’s gang have at least a modicum of depth–though most of the dialogue is canned and you have very little opportunity to control Arthur Morgan’s treatment of his companions (which, again, makes the Honor system seem arbitrary and ridiculous).

Red Dead Redemption 2 is being hailed as a massive success in open-world gaming, but I just can’t agree. The game doesn’t do anything that Witcher 3 didn’t do better–and more believably. And when a fantasy setting feels more real than a pseudohistorical one, its hard not to think that the creators have strayed pretty far from the goal.

Is the game fun? Yes, yes it is, but only as a game. Does it feel like the systems of Grand Theft Auto have been conveniently ported to the Old West without much scrutiny. Yep. If you’re looking for immersion that gives you an easy time imagining yourself in Arthur Morgan’s shoes, you’ll find ocassionally satisfying bits (particularly while hunting, where animal behaviors are linked to some real-world expectations–at least in terms of diurnal/nocturnal cycles) but you’re ultimately going to be disappointed. I don’t regret picking up the game (even in limited edition at full price) and I have enjoyed the time I’ve spent on it, but I just can’t help but feel that the game could have been much more.

I’ll probably keep playing it for the time being to kill time, but not without the feeling that I could be employing my time to higher and better purpose. If I manage to finish it before Fallout 76 drops, then I’ll finish it. If not, I doubt I ever will. Certainly not in the near future given the games set to release before the end of the year or in 2019.

Quick and Dirty Review: The Witcher RPG

I only found out about a week ago that R. Talsorian Games would be putting out an RPG for The Witcher, so I fortunately only had about that amount of time to wait before sinking my teeth into the new game. This stands in contrast to Netflix’s upcoming Witcher TV show, which seems to be coming to us only at a laborious pace.

Regardless, I’m a big fan of The Witcher books and setting, and I’m a firm believer that The Witcher 3 video game is hands down the best video game made to date. So an official RPG for this world certainly caught by attention. Not only for the setting itself–my own Avar Narn setting is a gritty fantasy world and I’m always looking for innovative design ideas that might influence my own eventual RPG design.

A brief caveat: this game was (as far as I could tell) just released on DriveThruRPG.com last night (at the end of GenCon, where I believe that hardcopies were available). I picked up my PDF copy on DriveThru for $24.95. A hgher price than many RPG PDFs I’ve purchased, but not as high as several others in my collection.

I do have a day job, so this review is based on a quick read of the book. Take that as you will.

R. Talsorian is known for the Cyberpunk RPG, a classic in the development of roleplaying games as a whole, though a game I’ve never played. The rules are derived from that system, though crafted to fit more particularly with the dark fantasy of The Witcher.

I will say this about the rules–they are sensible, and relatively easy to grasp in their various parts, but there is a complexity to them that makes me think, “Ugh. A fight’s going to take forever.” The attacker rolls for damage, the defender rolls to dodge, the difference between the numbers is compared to determine a hit or critical hit. Hit location is rolled. Damage and critical hit results are rolled (criticals make use of charts that vaguely remind me of The Riddle of Steel RPG and its successors). Those things are all great for creating a gritty feel for combat, but there are a number of ways that all that dice rolling for a single action could be made more efficient.

Still, if D&D is your go-to, I don’t think that you’ll find that this game plays slower than that. And, between the two, I’d take this combat system over D&D and its derivatives any day. It may have a lot of rolling, but its somewhat intuitive and at least interesting under its own mechanics. Sorry, I digress.

I will say, though, that tracking weapon endurance points is a bit much. It’s one thing to have weapons break at dramatic moments, or to have a system that encourages players to have their characters maintain their equipment, it’s another to have to knock off a point of reliability every time I use it to block (though there are exceptions that allow for blocking without sacrificing weapon endurance in certain circumstances).

The other gripe I have is not necessarily a gripe with the rules but a potential pitfall for any RPG that does this setting justice–players who have characters who are not witchers or mages may find themselves greatly overshadowed. Careful planning and discussion before a campaign begins may be warranted to ensure that players are all on the same page.

To me, a “regular” guy (to the extent that RPG player characters ever represent average people, even within the game world they occupy) forced to deal with monsters is perhaps more interesting than a witcher who does–Geralt excepted, mostly because I don’t believe it’s his being a mutant monster-killer that makes him most interesting.

The rulebook misleads on this front a little, I’m afraid. While continuously making clear that most monsters take half damage from non-magical or non-silver attacks, it seems implicit within the writing that the designers just don’t believe that non-witchers would ever have access to silver weapons. I just don’t find that plausible.

It should also be noted that the game is licensed from CD Projekt Red, and thus based on the video game Witcher 3 rather than the books directly. There are some optional rules to bring the game more in line with how things work in the books when that divurges from the game.

As for the look of the book: the layout and artwork are exceptional; the end result is surely a thing of beauty. Combined with fairly extensive background information on the world of The Witcher, I think that this book is a must-have even for a fan of the setting who doesn’t have any interest in roleplaying games.

But for those who do, the gamemaster section of the book has some excellent advice for gamerunners. There are plenty of roleplaying game books that are valuable in particular for their advice to the GM (and a growing number of books dedicated solely to that task), but this is a nice additional benefit.

The Witcher RPG releases at an interesting time, I think–the early draft of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition just dropped recently. Both are gritty fantasy settings full up with desperate surivors over heroes, where adventuring is not a glamorous or desireable profession. Both are intricate settings with deep history and a rabid fanbase. Both games have, I think, pretty similar levels of “crunch” to them (though, to be honest, I hate the terms “crunch” and “fluff” attributed to games). In other worlds, they fill the same niche, a more mature-by-design setting for fantasy games compared to D&D and other “epic” fantasy games.

Is the RPG market big enough for them both? On the one hand, I’m not sure that it matters. They’re both out and I wouldn’t expect a whole lot of supplements for The Witcher RPG (though I won’t mind being surprised). If history is any indication, WFRP4 will have more supplements than the biggest guy at the gym. Certainly, there are loads of high-fantasy games and no shortage of designers trying to make it with new ones (or their own particular flavor of OSR games, for that matter).

In some ways, The Witcher RPG reminds me of the Artesia: Adventures in the Known World rulebook, a RPG that uses a pre-existing-ruleset-that-is-fascinating-but-more-complex-than-I-really-want-to-run to bring to life a fantasy setting born out of traditional fiction that I very much love.

Given that, I expect that The Witcher RPG will fill a similar role in my collection–an RPG that is fun to read but that I’ll probably never run.