Reconsidering Shadowrun

20Feb14

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Full disclosure: I’m an off-again, on-again Shadowrun fan. I’ve owned the core books for every earlier edition of the Shadowrun tabletop role-playing game, up to and including 4th Edition. (I don’t own 5th Edition yet.) I never played the video games for the Sega Genesis or the Super Nintendo, but I did read several of the novels, including “Never Deal with a Dragon” by Robert N. Charrette, which left a favorable impression on my young mind. I’m reasonably familiar with the lore, which is why it was so surprising to me to revisit the setting after a number of years and discover that I’d completely underestimated the dramatic potential of the franchise.

Originally, I was quick to dismiss Shadowrun as something rather silly: a mash-up of Tolkien-esque fantasy elements with cyberpunk science fiction. In the Sixth Age world of Shadowrun, magic is just as real as advanced technology. It’s possible to be a street shaman slinging mana-bolts at your enemies, or a troll mercenary decked out with the latest cybernetic implants, or an elf hacker that breaks into heavily encrypted corporate data-stores with the aid of a neural interface “datajack” and the hottest Mitsuhama cyberdeck.

Wizards with machine guns, what could be cooler than that? Right? Right?

Eh, maybe not…

But recently, I watched a Let’s Play of the PC game Shadowrun Returns, and it forced me to radically re-evaluate how I thought about the setting.

What was it that prompted this epiphany, chummer? In a word: race.

Shadowrun_Suspects_Wallpaper_by_KlausScherwinski

Like it or not, there’s a lot of troubling racial imagery in Western fantasy, where elves are often portrayed as luminous and semi-divine and almost invariably white-skinned, dwarves as portrayed as clannish and genetically greedy, and orks and other goblinoid races are depicted as mindless, marauding savages – often with slanted eyes, sloping brows, and dark skin. There’s a lot of unexamined baggage there, baggage that goes unchecked in numerous fantasy role-playing games that draw inspiration from Tolkien and his imitators.

Not so in Shadowrun. In Shadowrun, race is right there in the foreground. Humans discriminate against meta-humans. Meta-humans discriminate against other meta-humans. The closer a given race is to the human social norm, the better treated they generally are, with the elves being the least oppressed due to their general grace and beauty and the trolls – defined by their intimidating size and monstrous appearances – at the bottom of pecking order.

What makes this element of Shadowrun so brilliant is that it allows GMs and players to explore issues of race, prejudice, privilege, and discrimination in a “safe” setting, without necessarily tweaking the squeamishness of players who might harbor unexamined racial prejudices in real life. A person who might clam up at the thought of engaging in a difficult conversation about race as it pertains to the real world might have no problem exploring those same issues through a thick layer of metaphor in game.

This is not to say that Shadowrun handles these issues perfectly. Far from it. Even though the game takes steps to include greater representation for Native American characters than most other fantasy roleplaying games, for example, there are still issues of tokenism and cultural appropriation. From its cyberpunk roots, Shadowrun also absorbs some amount of the fetishization of Japanese culture. These quibbles aside, though, the grounding of racial issues in the text of the setting allows for a deeper, richer, more relevant roleplaying experience than I initially deemed possible for a setting where a character can crash their katana-wielding ork on a remote-controlled motorbike off the side of a skyscraper in an attempt to punch a dragon in the face.

I misjudged you, Shadowrun. You’re deeper than I thought, and I was too quick to dismiss you, and for that, I apologize.

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