Shadowrun is a great role-playing game with a long history. The first edition of the game was published in 1989. It has carried a story of a dystopian world for 24 years now. It is set in (now alternate history) and in future Earth where nation states are all but powerless and corporations run the world. The player characters are the renegades, the outcasts of this world, running clandestine operations in the shadows.
Along with the core rules and supplemental books, the game studios making Shadowrun over the years have published ready made campaigns and adventures. Shadowrun Missions (SRM) are a series of such adventures.
The official missions page describes missions as “… the official dynamic Sixth World campaign setting sponsored by Catalyst Game Labs. In SRM, players create a character and participate in sanctioned events throughout the world. This gives players the unique opportunity to play a Shadowrun character of their own design with different people and different perspectives, and affect the storyline of the campaign.”
This year I ran the the Shadowrun Missions Season Four to a small home group of mine. So it’s a good time to write what I thought about them. For many sessions I had one player, some sessions had two and one had a third guest players. I was first hesitant to run to so few but it worked out just fine. I learned that even with one player you can have a really great gaming experience. It’s different but not bad.
I ran the final adventure for the Buried Undeground plot line this summer but I have yet to run couple of the Artifact Rush missions. However even the ones I have not ran, I have read quite thoroughly.
The Premise and Structure of the Missions
I won’t make any spoilers or at least any huge ones, just in case someone playing or some one interested of playing these missions is reading this review.
The Season Four caries two plot lines across the thirteen Missions adventures. The first plot line is called the “Burried Underground” and the second is known as the “Artifact Rush” plot line. Both plot lines take place in the dystopian Seattle of 2074.
The first plot line, Burried Underground, is a story about the struggles of an ostracized society of orks, trolls and dwarves that live in a cavernous underground tunnel system known as Ork Underground. The habitants have been shunned a long time by the city’s administration. However, moods are changing amongst the city residents and there are demands that the Ork Underground should be properly recognized as part of the city and the people living there should be able to enjoy the same rights as people living on the topside. The players are hired by different factions to either promote or hinder the goals of the people of Ork Underground. The type of runs are varied. There are infiltration, extractions, B&E’s and all the other classical run types of Shadowrun.
The second plot line, Artifact Rush, is more loose story and less dramatic storyline. Seattle is seeing an influx of magical artifacts. These artifacts are rare, expensive and hold old arcane secrets. And so it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are many factions who would like to get their hands on them. I got a kind of a Indiana Jones wibe when I first read the missions material and I don’t consider that a bad thing at all.
The Season Four kicks off with “Back In Business SMR 04-00″ adventure. The first mission is a special mission in a sense that it starts both the Burried Underground and the Artifact Rush plot lines. The other missions usually moves on only a one plot line at the time. This means that if you don’t like the other plot line or would like to run it to a different group of players, you could do that with out the story suffering.
The missions are self-contained and designed to be ran in a single session of four hours. By self-containing I mean, that one run is completed during that session and you don’t have to have any knowledge of the prior missions. This makes it possible to players skipping or the GM leaving out a mission or two and still be able to enjoy the story once they come to the game table again.
The mission adventures themselves where divided into scenes. Scene is a familiar concept from movies and tv-shows. This same concept has been adopted by several tabletop roleplaying games. I have personally written games using scenes for years now. The basic idea of a scene in a tabletop roleplaying game is to introduce an event. This event is a catalyst that forces the players to react. After this kickstart, the players direct their characters in a way they think their characters would react.
The writing was in general very good and the stories flowed quite nicely. I found couple of logical gaps in some adventures but they were a rarity. The language was good, no spelling errors and it was faithful to the game using the slang of the game.
The Buried Underground felt much more emotionally compelling than the Artifact Rush and I could see this from my players as well. After all the player characters live in Seattle, they were both metahumans (elf and an ork), so they cared what was happening. They also felt they had a change to affect what was going on.
The Artifact Rush was well written and had some room for comedy, unlike the more serious Buried Underground plot line. One such comical moment happened when my players encountered a Gloaming Owl during their mission just outside Seattle. For those that are not familiar with Shadowrun’s critters, a Gloaming Owl is of course a large owl with some paranormal abilities. It is able to arouse primal fear in humans and blind them temporarily. They also have the ability to move in complete silence. So, basically not the kind of owl you’d like to get too close to. Unless you enjoy screaming in fear while being totally blinded and pecked by a huge bird. I’m sure that’s a thing too.
Since role-playing games and stories designed for the roleplaying games need to be flexible and accommodate player’s choice, scenes that tries to force players hand to do something to make the scene work are always bad. There was far less off this that I feared initially. I did run into one right in the first mission, when the players were introduces to a new character. This introduction was made quite forcefully and I did get some feedback of this from one of my players. If you have played it or are going to play it you will probably know what I’m referring to. Not a huge thing but it might irritate some players.
Most of the time the scenes however offered just the kickstart needed for the players to react. Many scenes did direct this reaction by just presenting the catalyst of the scene in a certain way but did not force the players hand to do anything specific. I like this, since it gives the perfect balance of direction and freedom. The players don’t feel totally lost and clueless about the direction of the story but they are still in control of the direction.
Missions adventures are not free form play however. There is a clear story ark and the missions expect to players to take part in it to make the story work. I would not call it railroading or forcing the players to make “the right choices”, but it’s certainly not “do what your character would normally do and I throw in some complications” type of a game.
The Missions Season Four was published as PDF’s and they cost couple of euros/dollars each from DriveThruRPG or BattleCorp’s BattleShop. I felt the price was where it should be so that I could just buy them without thinking too much about it. The layout of the documents were clear, all of the stats for the opposition and critters were provided. The documents included an embedded table-of-contents which helped me a lot. I mostly used my iPad or my notebook computer to follow the scenes in the game sessions and I had to often jump-around the document so the ToC was invaluable.
One of my favorite things about the documents themselves is the high quality artwork. It was custom made for the missions which is a big thing. The artwork has been since reused in other publications. The budgets of RPG’s are not that big, so artwork of this quality is not that common.
The best thing of the Missions Season Four adventures was their consistent quality. Even the ones I discuss in the following “The Bad” sections were not catastrophically bad.
The stories were engaging. Scenes were usually very well structured, paced and logical. The feeling of railroading even though there were a quite linear plots was kept at minimum, at least from GM’s point of view.
The material required only the core rulebook, so it did not try to sell me additional material which was appreciated even though I do tend to get the supplemental material. It also contained all the stats and other data to run the adventure. The content was presented well and the material had some great artwork. Artist using handle raben-ass is responsible for many of the great illustrations, for instance the cover Back in Business.
The self-contained, modular structure was also very good. People have varying schedules. Work, studies and other responsibilities take most of people’s time. Many RPG players would like to continue with their hobby, but long campaigns and game-sessions take time. It helps that you can pop-in to a game, play the session and then come back again when you can. It also helps the GM who is eager to run the next great adventure to his or her group. If one player can’t come or suddenly drops out for any reason the campaign is not doomed.
The Missions Season Four material is well enough written that I would encourage to get your hands on one or two adventures and read them even if you are not going to run them. They might give ideas or at very least be entertaining by themselves.
I have nothing bad to say about the technical quality (structure, layout, artwork, included mission data stats) of the material. It was superb. I also thought the underlying plot lines were good and intriguing. But it wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows in some other areas.
There were some adventures, like Rally Cry that were little light on the playable content side and Romero and Juliette that was bit unconventional shadowrun adventure and contained campy humor that I wasn’t able to convey really effectively to my player. Romero and Juliette also contained, what I think are, logical story issues. There were scenes that would happen only if the players made some creative leaps. It’s fine if some scenes doesn’t get played but I felt these scenes were critical to the game.
I would not skip Rally Cry, but I would urge any GM who plans to run the adventure to prepare well for this one. Some adventures almost run themselves but this requires more GM attention. I’m not going to point out the specific issues because usually issues are GM and group specific. I just want to advice to read the adventure several time and think where the stumbling blocks are for your group if there are any. For my group this particular mission was bit on the light side and there wasn’t much to play.
So nothing really horribly bad. Let’s call these more like issues that are fixable by the game master. As a GM I would rather not have to fix these sort of issues when I buy a readymade adventure. Just, remember that you don’t have to run all of the adventures if you think it won’t work.
Shadowrun Missons Season Four reintroduced Shadowrun to me. I had fond memories of being a player in Shadowrun Third Edition games and the readymade adventures helped me a lot. In addition of learning fourth edition rules I would have had to write the adventures too. This might have been too much.
It was actually because of the Missions, I took out my copy of Shadowrun and started reading the rules. So if you are in a point, where you are interested of running Shadowrun but feel the task overwhelming then the Missions is a good place to start. However I would recommending picking up the just released Fifth Edition of Shadowrun and it’s first Mission Season Five adventure.
I attempted to be critical and balanced in this review but it’s always hard when you don’t have really bad things to say about the thing you are reviewing. It makes me always hesitate but in this case I feel confident. Shadowrun Missions Season Four was a pleasure to run.
So grab a pound of six-siders and go play some Shadowrun.