Monday, July 29, 2013

Setting Accessibility

So, with the release of Shadowrun Returns I gritted my teeth and realized that Jason (who plays Cain in the Hounds), who had said he was going to run Shadowrun last year at GenCon, was never going to get his game off the ground. Frank and I both had usable characters. What was left to do? Salvage one character, at least... and take over the duties of running Shadowrun. Does that make the millionth game that I'm running? Yes, it does. There are now three D&D games (one set in the Lamp Country, a Planescape game, and the Hounds), Gangbusters (haven't played in 2 weeks), and Shadowrun (so far only played with Frank). And this is the first time I've ever run or played Shadowrun even though I was really into it in high school. We never ever played.

Anyway, I'm not telling you this story to explain the crushing burden of gaming duties that keeps me running. I'm telling you about it to talk about setting accessibility. Shadowrun and D&D are closely related games. They play similarly, they have similar goals, and the PCs are similar types of people. In both Shadowrun and D&D the PCs receive missions or quests, attempt to do them in any way they can think of, and then get paid or not. The general thinking outside the box-ness of Shadowrun applies almost all the time in my D&D games. The problem is that when people play D&D with me, they usually listen to exactly what the questgiver says and then try to carry it out in the most straightforward manner.

But in Shadowrun, a game which we have never played, everyone is instantly able to recognize dangerous inside-the-box thinking (storming an Aztechnology compound from the front gate, for example) and try to think around it. Somehow, it's easier for people to understand Shadowrun than it is for them to understand the setting of the 10th Age. And that, I realize now, is completely my fault. I've spent my entire life alienating the setting from people. I've told people for hours that X doesn't work like X because that's something we expect in the modern day. I've made playing the 10th Age into a learning experience... which means that no one is comfortable believing they understand the general layout of the world, or at least it requires many games for them to come to grips with that information.

If I were to say "You have to recover something from the Mistuhama HQ in Seattle," the PCs would instantly have three or four plans. They would probe Mistuhama delicately, thinking of ways to get in. The variety of approaches would be endless. If I were to say a similar thing in D&D—"Go to this ruin and retrieve this thing," the only response would be to walk to the ruin and dive in, slaughtering everything they encountered (if they could handle it) and being slaughtered by anything too dangerous.

Of course, I am exaggerating. My players have attained a level of setting mastery with the 10th Age by now. But they are never completely comfortable with it. It's not like our everyday lives, which is part of the point of why I designed it that way. But now I see the drawback loud and clear: it's hard to know which parts of the setting you can really interact with, and in what ways. Everyone knows that if you want a job in Shadowrun, you see a Fixer. Not everyone knows how to find work in the 10th Age. I think I really might need to write up a Cultural Guide for New Players.


  1. Good idea. Wouldn't it be better to write a Cultural Guide for fantasy worlds in general, and then have short supplemental works (like, say, blog post length) for specific settings? Or is that overthinking it?

    1. A general medieval/fantasy Cultural Guide could probably be PRETTY helpful, both for DMs/worldbuilders and for players.

  2. I'm noticing a few little things about the comparison between Shadowrun and D&D here.

    In the Shadowrun example, you're talking about raiding the maguffin from an active megacorp facility. That facility is going to have numerous guards, well-maintained traps in both tech, matrix, and magical form, and the potential for something almost as bad as death if they're caught: exposure.

    The analog in D&D would not be taking said maguffin from a ruin. It would be taking it from a thriving merchant house, one which has had a good long time to soak in its old money, plenty of guards, and time and resources to dedicate to both mechanical and magical traps. Additionally, being adventurers (or as some games might like to call someone in that profession, "murder-hobos"), how well are they going to be looked upon if their capture on attempted intrusion is made public? How would a party approach that?

    Contrast that with the D&D setup being translated to Shadowrun: The megacorp in ruined form. Crumbling building, no obvious guards (but you know their old projects might be making trouble in there), and no repercussions if some monstrosity inside manages to get the drop on them apart from death. Would a team of armed-to-the-teeth shadowrunners pussy-foot around whatever entrance they're provided?

    It's not that the Shadowrun players approach the setting differently from the D&D players. It's that the situations themselves are different.

    And I've been getting a little experience with my own take on the radically different setting that could use a cultural guide. The rather far-future trans-cyber-mashup I'm running has quite a few unfamiliar points to it. I've been writing up a cultural guide in small snippets, describing Forceball, printed food, printed buildings, public restrooms which usually contain changing rooms and clothes printers and pay toilets that actually pay you, Communities that take themselves more than a little too seriously, AI-driven living rooms on wheels, and a netrunning system that differentiates between augmented reality (the "shallows") and full-immersion sensory virtual reality (the "deep").

    1. You're right. Those are good points about the comparison I made there. Perhaps the problem is that dungeon-crawling is straightforward and encourages players to think in a linear fashion so that when they DO wind up taking a job that requires out of the box thinking (steal an item from a noble's house, assassinate the king, etc.) they've been trained to think in terms of "break down the doors and kill everything in sight."

      Either way, jumping into the world of Shadowrun seems infinitely easier with infinitely less training than wondering where you buy food, or who you talk to learn things is in D&D.

  3. Shadowrun inherently features multiple classes, tech, and capabilities that facilitate, encourage, or demand clandestine action. The entire Netrunner/Hacker/Whatever-they-call-it-now is the primary example, but stealth entry and black-op are key to the genre...

    D&D and most fantasy cognates discourage (explicitly or through group consensus) stealth actions, as it deflates the men of iron and their heroic conquest, and what's the point of being a wizard of you can't blow stuff up?

    I am cut from a supple cloth, black as night, still as death. I am the rogue that make every good man fear the silent shadows.