The Tabletop Sessions of ‘Shadowrun Returns’

Shadowrun Returns makes allowances for the video game medium, but it knows that it is a tabletop game at heart.

Over the holiday break, after getting a number of year end obligation out of the way and spending way too much money on Steam sale gifts, I started to get into my gaming backlog. One of the games that I finally got around to playing was Shadowrun Returns. I didn’t know much about the Shadowrun universe or the game itself. Last year when it was originally Kickstarted, I thought about donating but eventually decided to keep my investment to — at the time — two games. Ironic that it came out long before either of the others have seen the light of day.

I knew the basic set up and lore of the universe. In the cyberpunk future, some sort of magical calamity intrudes on the real world and mutates humans into elves, orcs, dwarfs etc. and introduces magic into the world alongside cybertech. That’s pretty much it. I knew nothing about the actual system of the tabletop role-playing system and only briefly tried out the Super Nintendo game on an emulator. All I knew about the game itself was its lukewarm reception at launch. And since I was mining for Steam Trading Cards for the Steam Sale, why not play it a little? Several hours later, I realized I should probably go to bed.

Over the next few weeks, I would boot the game up and play a few more hours of the campaign. The game is by no means perfect, but it is utterly engrossing. Even after all these months, the atrocious save system has not been patched. The game auto saves at the beginning of a scene and you have to play it to completion before it will save again. The writing is pretty okay. It’s nothing special, but it does what any good pulp writing should do. It allows you to believe that these characters are people in their fictional world. And the world itself is a wonder. Who knew a dystopia — scratch that, a world has to be aiming for a vision of utopia to be a dystopia — a high tech future urban environment could be colorful… in a video game.

As much as Dragon Age: Origins billed itself as a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate (one of my all time favorites) and as good as that game was, I think this might actually be a better spiritual successor. Most of the interface is comparable, but Shadowrun Returns doesn’t get bogged down in minutiae and large menus like Dragon Age: Origins does, which for the record did not exist in Baldur’s Gate. But most of all, the game feels like a tabletop RPG.

I can understand how people looking at it for what they understand to be a video game feel and find it lacking, but I don’t think it should be judged on those terms. It’s an RPG with an extra emphasis on the feel of a good role-playing session. I don’t have any people around me that I can play D&D or other tabletop games with, so a video game that can lend that feel is more than welcome. It’s why I like Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! on iOS.

The game starts with your character — in my case, a female Elven Street Samurai with a tendency towards being responsible — hiding out and completely broke. Then you get a message that an old colleague and friend has died, and as per his will, if you capture his killer and bring him/her/them to justice dead or alive, you will be paid a fortune that will set you up for years if not for the rest of your life. Great hook. Let’s get started. As the story progresses and you advance your skills and become a better shadowrunner, you find that each leg of the adventure opens new levels of depth to the story of your friend’s death and that you’ve stumbled upon something much bigger.

The game isn’t an open world or even a series of large areas connected by a map. The maps are self contained places. They are effectively scenes from a play or movie. Each have their own objective that progresses the main plot. In between encounters, you’ll go back to a bar in the lower quarter to stock up on supplies, to upgrade equipment, and to plan your next move. It has its slow moments between those of action and danger. After ten or so hours, I realized what all this amounted to. This was a tabletop campaign made with the computer acting as the game master.

With so many games trying to be movies or emulating the standards set by other games throughout the history of video games, it’s surprising to see one influenced by paper and pen games. The structure is different. You aren’t a player at a keyboard doing whatever you want to do. You are an actor in a cyberpunk play with some real liberty in how you express your character. Honestly, this set up must be every railroading GM’s dream: “You mean the player can’t go off the rails and ruin my perfectly planned story?” No, no they cannot.

That’s probably the biggest difference in feel between Baldur’s Gate and Shadowrun Returns — a GM philosophy. Baldur’s Gate has a goal but is more open about how to explore its world, and you could spend dozens, if not hundreds of hours, trekking through its wilderness stumbling across monsters and side areas. Shadowrun: Returns is more focused on its story. Yet, at the same time. the game offers the freedom to define who you are within those narrow parameters.

Dragon Age: Origins gets caught up in too many video game conventions as it attempts to present its world. It is much more interested in the nebulous concept of immersion, as far it can be immersive, and Bioware’s own patented style of presentation. A lot of the mechanics look the same, but Dragon Age wants you to believe this is a real world, whereas Shadowrun Returns and Baldur’s Gate present systems that allow players to have adventures. The designers are your game master, and this is the campaign you signed up to play.

Another great little note is that your party is never the same. Sometime there are characters that will join your cause because they have some stake in it. Most of the time, however, you have pay for freelance shadowrunners to join you on your mission. You’re presented their abilities, their equipment, and a few words that sum up who they are. That’s it. These are not characters in your story. They have their own lives elsewhere when not working with you. Even those individuals that are more fully fleshed out characters drift in and out of your view. They have other things to focus on.

Another thing that annoyed me at first (but I later learned to appreciate) is that you can be locked out of certain choices because of your build. Some dialogue options to get a better outcome are linked to whether or not you have a certain etiquette, which are essentially passive skills that represent your ability to fit in in certain circles. In one mission, I was locked out of some extra information because I did not have a Decking skill level of 6. Decking is essentially hacking, and being a Street Samurai, I left that sort of thing to others.

When you look at the game as a string of tabletop role-playing sessions instead of as a single continuous video game narrative a lot of the problems others have had with it seem to fade away. Each scene is essentially analogous to a gaming session. Maybe two or three scenes. Not being able to save in the middle makes sense in that context. The game makes allowances for the video game medium, but it knows that it is a tabletop game at heart. And each scene leaves off with enough new intrigue and new threads to keep your players coming back like any good GM knows to do.

What’s great is that once this campaign is over I can check out what others have made and try out a new game master with a new campaign. The tools to do so come with the game. There’s got to be a user creation community around it with some quality adventures by now.