Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Mr. Black’s Guide for New Shadowrun Game Masters – Part 1, Start it Fast!

While experienced GM’s and players may gain some insights from this series, the articles all assume that both the GM and the players will be new to not only the Shadowrun rules, but also the Shadowrun milieu. Mr. Black assumes you will be using the current 5th Edition rulebook. These articles also assume the game will take place in Seattle, in or about 2075. This series may be useful for those running and playing Missions, but they are written with the long immersive campaign in mind. Thus they will veer from certain guidelines in the Big Rule Book. Feel free to use any and all of the advice presented, or to ignore it either partially or completely. Mr. Black will not be coming to your house and extracting/assassinating anyone. Well, not outside of the gaming Table and pre-Imperial San Francisco anyways. And while Mr. Black is open to constructive criticism and maintaining an open dialogue with anyone having questions, doubts or concerns (please use the comment section below), he is not here to argue his opinions, nor the validity of his bizarre and arcane use of Capitalization or of his fondness for the Oxford comma. Nor does he care to get into word fights about the rules. He prefers to use them as presented, even if they seem not to make sense. That way at least everyone at the Table on the same page so to speak.

1: Start it Fast!

            You want the first session to start fast. The very first session is not a time to be coy, or spend a lot of time having characters chatting with NPC’s. It should be short, sharp, and fast. Ideally it should only last 1 session, 2 at most. You want to get in, get out, and leave your players victorious and hungry for more. Think of a favorite video game, a good one but with long annoying cut scenes. The screen shows your character running around, talking with people and doing exposition. You wait and wait to actual do something. You just want to try out the controls, to move, run and jump. You want to shoot something, hit something, just to see what it is like. You want to do something, anything. That is what the first session should be. Action, not cut scenes. Doing something, not waiting for the action to start. So skip the exposition and get your Crew moving.

It is not just you who wants to get moving. Your players will have spent a lot of time creating their characters. They have loaded their characters with enough guns, gear, spells, spirits, decking tricks and drones to challenge a Sherpa’s encumbrance. Your players will be dieing to try all that stuff out. They will want to stress test their characters and kick some hoop. Their character’s trigger fingers will be itching to see how much they can kill/destroy and how much damage they can take/evade and still keep going. You should give them the chance to do it. Do it now, before they start trying to shoot anything that moves and get into trouble. Remember, idle dice hands are the Devil’s own TPK tools. I don’t know about you, but if I have an Ingram Smartgun full of APDS ammo, I am going to want to make sure my Smartlink™ works by shooting the drek out of something. Maybe even my teammates. And that can lead to Run-ending, Character-ending distractions.

Now some of you may be thinking, “What about the Legwork?” I say forget about the Legwork on the first run. While Legwork is extremely important to Shadowrunning, you want to ease your players into it. It involves a lot of planning and thinking and talking with NPC’s, all things you want to avoid the first night. You want things to go boom, not go on and on. You also want every player to participate. Sometimes the Face character can get carried away, and 3 hours of wonderful improvisational theatre follows, with the GM and the Face entertaining everyone. Or sending the rest of the Party on a Trideo break. And then the session ends. There will be time for the Face later. He will, in fact, be negotiating with Mr. Johnson and the Fixer briefly. And investigative types may want to spend all session checking everything out. Their desire to know all, or their paranoia to prevent all, is commendable. But not in the first session. We need action, not 4 hours of reconnaissance and blueprint pulling. Give the Party and Crew sizzle, not fizzle. Keeping them focused will do this.

The key way to keep them focused is to structure the mission to have a very short time window. The crew needs to go somewhere now, and make something happen as soon as they get there. Have their Fixer call them and send them to the Meet site in an hour. Mr. Johnson wants them to leave right now and go get the MacGuffin. And take it someplace. Oh, and they need to grab it and get it to that place in 2 hours. Additionally, make the run simple to start, and simple to finish. You can set up that long incredibly awesome story arc later. Like in session 2 or 3. And don’t give them time-wasting outs. Their contacts? All busy. The Crew wants to buy some more gear? The Fixer will have it later, not now. Forgot their assault rifle? It is in the Van, of course, under the ammo bag. Get them moving and don’t let them stray.

Now that they have got to the Run part of the session, keep them on task and eliminate distractions. There is no need for police traffic stops, random go-gang drive-by attacks, or other shenanigans. Get the Crew “stuck in”, as our British cousins like to say. Show the players the path to the MacGuffin, show them the adversaries protecting the MacGuffin, and allow their characters to eliminate those adversaries and go get that MacGuffin. There should be some opposition of course, but this is not the time for vagaries or equivocating. Again, everyone at the table is new to Shadowrunâ, maybe even new to role-playing games. And you the GM may be one of those new people. Please no hellish puzzles, Holmesian murder mysteries or other nonsense. There is plenty of time for all of that later. Guide them through as much as you can without railroading them.

The opposition for this first run should be light. As in pushover light. You want 2 things here. Thing One, you want the characters to win. So set the opposition to roll 4-6 dice at a time, total. They may be lowly gangbangers, rent-a-cops, or low-end mobsters. Don’t make them tough; make them fragile and incompetent. Don’t worry about them, their buddies can get revenge later. And it is easy to learn the rules when you’re not afraid for your characters life. So Thing Two, you want the players (and you too!) to learn the basics of the rules. So let the characters shoot things, punch things, drive things, dodge things, spell things, and hack things. Get them used to figuring out dice pools. Remind them how glitches happen. Remind them to use Edge. And get them to use it. Just make sure their Edge returns in time for the next session, and that they know that.

Make sure they finish the Run. Fudge it a bit if you have to, but finish the Run. The last bad guy still standing? Have him fail that Defense test by just enough to drop. Those rent-a-guards pouring in fire upon the Crew? They miss. That last bullet that hits the Street Sammie? It does just enough damage to keep him on his feet, before he staggers into the Van and collapses. Failure on the first Run can destroy the Party. So do just enough Game Master Hand-Waving to get the Party and the Crew to the goal line. But no more than that. While finishing the first Run successfully is extremely important, player agency is just as important. Players always need to know that their decisions matter (more on that in a future post.) But for now, session one, get them through.
When they finish (and they will finish, see above), make the Swap simple. Mr. Johnson thanks them, hands the Crew the money, and off he goes. The Crew makes it home and everyone wins! The characters all have some more Rep, more money, and more Karma. And the players have more experience playing the game, and now know (sort of) what to expect. And so do you. And now you can up the ante, load up on all the NPC’s, lay in your story arcs, introduce your Big Bads, set in motion the repercussions of Mr. Johnson gaining that MacGuffin, and immerse your players and characters into the Sixth World. And have a great time jointly experiencing the immense fun that is playing Shadowrun.

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