Thursday, December 16, 2010

Spontaneous Shadowruns

Back when I was putting together the FTD version of Shadowrun, I put forth a method of creating missions on the fly. This method borrowed heavily from Wilderness of Mirrors, a spy game by John Wick. I've both played Mirrors as written and used its mission generation method in Shadowrun, and in both cases it's worked out well. But there's one thing that didn't quite make the transition: the double-cross.

Now don't get me wrong, there's most definitely an intrigue mechanic in Mirrors, but it doesn't create the same kind of backstabbing that's so prevalent in Shadowrun. Mirrors is all about not being able to trust your fellow agents. Shadowrun is all about not being able to trust anybody except your fellow runners. The shadowrun universe doesn't count on your fellow players putting a slug in your back, but it most certainly does encourage the GM to stuff the world with sleazy Johnsons who refuse to deal straight with you.

The way this usually manifests is the mid-run twist. Something happens after you're in the thick of things that changes the whole scenario, and you've got to adjust on the fly, and maybe extract some vengeance in the process. Here are some examples I've run across, kept vague so as to keep the spoilers to a minimum:

  • The team is hired to kidnap someone. Later, the target's kidnapped again, and the heat all comes down on the runners. 
  • The team extracts someone from a high security area. Only after they have him do they learn his family is under guard in another location, and will be executed in short order unless he returns, or they're extracted as well.
  • The team is hired for an extraction, but it turns out that the entire thing is a publicity stunt so the Johnson can sell a client on better security. That upped security was not part of the plan, and they're looking to silence the intruders.
  • The team extracts a low level employee who is the unknowing recipient of experimental cyberware, complete with tracking chip. The security response is far out of proportion with what was expected, and giving him back isn't a simple fix.
  • Solving a murder case leads the team to a secret corp bioweapon, the key to which is embedded in the missing corpse. Of course, they don't find out about that until they've already handled the body and it's mysterious implant.
When I went over all the upsets that occurred in the scenarios I've run, I found that while a large number of them did in fact deal with the Johnson screwing over the party, that wasn't the defining element of them. It was a manifestation of it, for sure, but there were other possibilities.

I've taken to calling this element "the twist," and it amounts to this: runners almost never wind up doing the job they were hired to do. This might be because of deception. It might be because of misinformation. Regardless,  the twist changes their mission objective and gives them something else they need to do. This second thing might be for pay, or it might be for something less tangible, like vengeance, survival, or even simply moral compulsion (as rare as that seems to be in Shadowrun).

The problem I kept running into is that when using the Mirrors method of creating a scenario, everything's in the players' hands. You get to muck with it a little bit once underway, but really it's the players who do most the work. And if they're putting together the mission parameters and providing you the opposition, how does a twist work? At its most extreme, players in a Mirrors game even define the objective (I've done that a couple times, and it's surprisingly effective). It's pretty hard to create a twist if you don't even know what the purpose of the mission is.

The solution I came to is to break mission creation into two parts: the job they're hired to do and the actual job they need to complete. Use the Mirrors method for that first part completely unaltered. If you want to define the objective, knock yourself out. If you're comfortable giving it to the players, that works fine too. Play it out until the players have hit a good stopping point. This might be when they achieve their initial objective, or when they come to a particularly dramatic moment.

At that point, break. Everyone goes head down on their notes for a specific period of time. Could be 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or you could even break for dinner and think it over while you eat. During that time, everyone mulls over a possible twist to throw the mission as it stands into disarray. In effect, you're sharing your "muck it up" power with the players this one time. Anyone can suggest a twist. The person you're looking for isn't dead, but is a slave held by the Yakuza. The datafile is actually a budding AI that's going to have its code dissected. There's another team that's been hired to do the same job, and it's now a shooting war to determine who gets paid. Run wild.

The GM ultimately gets say over what the twist is, but once it's established you can either run the remainder of the scenario off the cuff, or you can have another planning session, done exactly like the prior one.

Incidentally, if you still want to keep the shocker element to the twist reveal, have all the players work on their ideas alone (no collusion), and submit them to you via secret ballot. You can then read through them all, pick the one you like (or maybe even combine a couple), and implement them when the time is right. In fact, if you do it secret ballot style, you can put twist planning right after the mission planning, and then introduce it when you feel it has the most impact.

There's one other element to this, and that's the reward. There should be a reward for getting screwed on a routine basis, and there most certainly should be a reward for screwing yourself. Trust me, if players aren't rewarded for it they become a cynical bunch indeed. However, that reward differs depending on if the twist comes from the GM or the players. I'm an ever bigger believer in the idea of player involvement in story creation, and I'll talk about that more in a later post, but because I want to encourage the players to generate the stories about their characters, I'm inclined to give a bigger reward for twists they create than ones I hand to them.

What's the reward? Well, that depends. If you've not noticed yet, I haven't mentioned a specific system outside of Wilderness of Mirrors, and that was to cite where the methodology of player-generated missions discussed here came from. This post isn't tagged with Shadowitz or FTD. You can use this method with any mechanical system you like, whether you run the game with one of my systems, and of the official games published by FASA or Catalyst, FATE, Sorcerer, Feng Shui, or anything else you like. So the specific mechanical benefits really depend based on your system of choice. This would be a poor post without some recommendations, however.

For GM twists, I'd give a bonus resource. Shadowrun 4e has a pool of Edge points. Wilderness of Mirrors has a control pool. FATE has fate points. Give them edge, control, fate, or whatever else the game's got. Almost everything has a mechanic that gives players an expendable resource. If it doesn't, give it to them anyway. This could be bonus dice or bonus points (the former more applicable to die pool systems, while the latter's more suited to single die systems, but of course each system needs to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis). This gives the players a little extra oomph. It's a nice thing to have, but it's not extraordinary.

For player twists, you can give a similar bonus, though it should be greater, since they did more work and are more involved in the game because of it. However, I think that something mechanically different might be better. Consider giving a pool to the whole party. You might call it a "screw pool." Drop a number of points into this pool equal to how badly the twist fubars the mission, and the PCs in particular.

Anyone in the party can spend a point from the screw pool, as long as what they're doing is directly related to the mission and getting out of whatever terrible situation got dumped on them. So using it to track down the dirty Johnson is cool. Using it to seduce a pretty face is not. No, I don't care how stressed out your character is and how a little relief will allow him to pursue his other goals more effectively (yes, I've had this particular discussion).

What can this pool do? Off the top of my head, I have a few ideas:

  • Lower the difficulty on a check by one level
  • Increase the level of success by one (assuming the check already succeeded)
  • Grant an automatic critical/max damage (assuming the attack landed)
  • Give limited narrative control for one outcome (or more if your game already grants this to players)
Obviously it's all very rough yet, but this moves mission planning more toward an at the table part of the game thing, and away from homework for the GM that's going to get scattered to the winds anyway, and it does so in a way that allows you to incorporate THE fundamental aspect of shadowrun gaming: getting screwed.

You thought I was going to say guns, weren't you?


  1. Good to see this. Starting a new Shadowrun game soonish. Will need to brush off my Shadowrun GMing skills so every little bit helps.

  2. Glad to see some of the material getting some use. Please let me know how it goes once you're underway.