Friday, March 29, 2024

Shadowrun: Street Level Play

Shadowrun forces you to make hard choices before you even begin play. Are you a citizen? Do you have a fake ID card? A real ID card? Can you be tracked? Who do you know? What is your lifestyle? Who are your contacts? Do you have insurance or licenses? How much debt do you want to be in for that flashy lifestyle?

Money is important.

The hustle is what you do to survive.

Do you stay off the radar? How do you deal with sudden notoriety?

How does your life change?

It perfectly encapsulates surviving in today's gig and influencer economy in a world that hates who you are, wants you homeless, and crushes you under the boot of authoritarianism and mee-too-ism any time you begin to find a winning schtick and angle for keeping your head above water. The suits will crush you with the state's authority from above, and your peers will eat you from below by copying your thing and trying to muscle in on you.

And those you wronged, or their friends, will still be after you.

Again, I know SR 6 has SEVERE problems with the rules, but I like the character creation and the trade-offs. Whatever system I play this with, the setting will be classic. The more I think about it, the more Year Zero engine could fix most of the problems here.

In contrast, Starfinder inherits that "D&D social immunity clause" that  PCs seem to have. The game fears to "come at" the PCs this way since that may trigger somebody. Even the starships in Starfinder are "free," and their upgrades are subsidized by the state or the faction you work for in an adventure path. Money only exists in Starfinder to buy personal armor and weapon upgrades. If there are starship running costs, upgrade costs, and cargo tables - I can't find them. The game's starship, trading, economy, and money system have always been my biggest disappointments.

The game gives you boxes of "stuff," but after a while it begins to feel like an overpacked closet. There is tons of junk I never use, and little of it inspires me. Most of it—hundreds of weapons on leveled lists, dozens of aliens, lists of powers—feels like "option filler."

Money feels both scarce and worthless in Starfinder. You only find it to level up personal weapons and gear. I had a group of PCs who owned a starship with only 1,000cr in their pockets. They looked at me and asked, " Can't we run some cargo, passengers, or something?"

I'm like, "Nothing in the rules. Sorry. The Socialist government of Pact Worlds disallows private enterprise. Ship upgrades are given by the state. You need to kill space goblins to find money."

The middle fingers around the table went up, and we all laughed.

Starfinder excludes a lot of the sci-fi genre tropes. I get why they did it, to push "space dungeon crawling" more than any other genre aspect. There is no need to go dungeon crawling if you can haul cargo, score a lucky load, and upgrade all your weapons to level 20 in one great run. Even if you level-limit guns and armor, you will be sitting on 30 million credits in the bank, waiting to buy gear, buying it all, and storing it in your weapons locker.

Starfinder is a fun game but far closer to a video game than many know.

If you want to do "space truckers" games, get yourself Cepheus Deluxe Enhanced Edition (get the B&W version of Deluxe EE), and ignore every other sci-fi game. This game has a chapter - plus examples - of cargo trading, encounters, ship design, and everything to make your space trucker lifestyle go perfectly without fudging anything.

Can I do crazy aliens in Cepheus? Yes, nothing stops me. Can I do lots of weapons? I can, but who needs them? More options to the point of page after page of lists are meaningless chaff and cause choice paralysis.

Magic? A book covers that in a 2d6 framework with Swords of Cepheus. I have options here, in a game that is simpler and has campaign support in the areas I need it. There are dungeons and adventures here too.

With Starfinder, cargo runs are like, "You are on a cargo run when suddenly a dungeon happens!"

"Okay, we got done the dungeon. Do we get paid?"

"No, the faction you are working for says thank you, and they upgrade your ship for free."

"! Cash in hand! I need a laser rifle upgrade!"

"Oh? Money? You are in the starport when space goblins attack!"

With Cepheus Deluxe, you break out the calculator and do percentage math, then worry if your 700 tons of computer parts will make it through pirate-infested space or if you will blow more money on repairs than your load was worth. Yes, it is a math game, but your characters stand to lose big if those go into your cargo bay and fry computers like Bitcoin miners powered by lasers.

Then again, business is a math game. Figure this as "life training."

I like sci-fi games with a solid cash-money game, and Shadowrun's setting has one. In fact, the GM knows each character's monthly burn, so judging rewards is easy. While weapons don't "level up"—the good stuff is often expensive—buying influence and keeping the heat off can drain a wallet fast.

Shadowrun and Cepheus - money matters. You spend it to buy, sell, hustle, pay people off, make improvements, reward contacts, grease palms, buy specialty gear for special missions, and blow on lifestyle costs. If you are not spending money constantly in sci-fi, you are not playing sci-fi.

In Starfinder, I feel money is "gear upgrade XP." I spend it immediately to increase weapon damage dice or armor, and then I care not to even pay attention to it. It is both strangely too important and completely forgettable at the same time. I don't need it for a ship or place to stay; no ship upgrades or fuel costs - just gear. We played through the Starfinder Beginner Box, had a starship at the end, and needed more money. The characters felt they should "go back and loot everything to sell" or "they missed their chance to take everything not bolted down."

It felt like they needed to be pack-rat Skyrim characters, taking every bit of armor and weapons from enemies and selling it wholesale by the cart load back in town. And then making multiple trips.

I can have a million credits in Cepheus, but I still need more for my ship. I will need even more to make great cargo runs, and that money goes back into more giant starships and escorts, along with paying crew.

I can have a million newyen in Shadowrun and cause a lot of trouble, or live the high life for a few weekends, or spend it on one car.

In Starfinder, a million credits can be spent maxing out weapons and armor and then feel strangely useless. Could I spend it on the above things? I could rule it, but the game's focus is different. Starfinder doesn't even encourage you to gain wealth and status. It is like 5E, where the designers made a conscious decision to deemphasize wealth and focus the game purely on personal power as the metric of success.

Socialist game design theory has replaced a few roleplaying games, including New School and OSR. Games where money does not matter, and the focus is almost entirely on "my personal power" - that can strangely never be taken away once accumulated, give people this false sense of empowerment. Worse, it acts as an opiate for not improving their real-world situation. Some games stick to the capitalist ideal, and in Shadowrun's case, it is more used as an enemy and simulates a capitalist nightmare - but the capital system is still needed to create the dystopia.

And this gets repeated in the media: my power, having power, getting power, getting power, power, power. Power. That childish notion of "muh powahs" is almost a joke at this point, and I get the feeling any game or movie telling you "this is about power" is lying to you and telling you that you have none, and why try?

When they tell you one thing, believe the opposite.

And all of today's superhero movies and role-playing games are about gaining power that cannot be removed or lost. It gets silly, childish, and stupid at a point. In life, there is an end - no more power. There are no immortals here. And beware of "opiate fantasy" removing you from the real world.

Fantasy is good, but too much is a bad thing.

You cannot remove capitalism from Shadowrun and make it a "5E game" where "my powers are all that's important to me" since that would lose the entire point of the setting. Taking capitalism out of Shadowrun would be like taking Cthulhu out of Call of Cthulhu.

Ask yourself this? Can I lose it all in a game? Not just death, but most all of my power? I expect skills, ability scores, and knowledge of magic to stick around. If you have money, do you always need more? If I lose all my wealth and influence, the crash and burn, will my personal power eliminate the pain?

In 5E, if my 10th-level thief is locked away for 10 years, on his second day of freedom, he will instantly return to where he was regarding money, gear, and power. This is true in some OSR games, too, like DCC.

In Shadowrun or Cepheus - I can't say that.

You can lose it all.

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