“What’s most important to me is that it’s about the present. It’s not really about an imagined future. It’s a way of trying to come to terms with the awe and terror inspired in me by the world in which we live.”
— William Gibson
“I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.”
— Ray Bradbury
“What’s wrong with the modern times is that the future isn’t what it used to be.”
— Paul Valery
NOTE: This article was written in 2016, when I was heavily involved in a role-playing show on Twitch called Corporate SINs.
I love Shadowrun for a lot of reasons. There’s room for pink-mohawked ork razorgirls, gritty noir anti-heroes, crazy spirits who don’t understand our world, and giant Bladerunner-esque corporations. We play with a lot of this for entertainment on Shadowrun: Corporate SINs, our Wednesday 6pm show on HyperRPG.
In the middle of all that craziness, though, there’s also a lot of room for one of the best things Sci-Fi has to offer: the ability to look at the present without getting mired in the complexities and politics that don’t let us see our present-day forest for the trees.
I hope that #CorpSINs succeeds primarily as entertainment, but that there’s enough to satisfy fans of both parts. I play Cromwell, who’s definitely in the Pink Mohawk category a lot of the time: A Troll who pretends to be British, styles himself as a Butler, and uses magic to augment his street brawling abilities. Cromwell has good instinct but low logic: he isn’t the brightest runner the 6th World has offered up, but he does take himself, his world, and his friends seriously. I try to see things from his perspective, even when that point-of-view leads him into big trouble. As with all our characters, I hope the comedy normally comes not out of trying too hard to be funny, but out of Cromwell trying his hardest with what the Great Bear gave him.
For those viewers who are curious, here’s a bit more about the particular time and place that MMFEC inhabits in Seattle, and why a lot of internal conflict within the group reflects the greater conflict that surrounds them.
The Seattle Metroplex is a giant city-state that’s nominally part of what remains of the United States and Canada, but is an island surrounded by the Native American Nations. At the top level, it’s an giant success: an international hub, with representatives from all the major corporations. At the bottom level, it’s a giant failure: it’s poorest and most disenfranchised citizens are barely holding it together after years of war, riots, (un)natural disasters, AI villains, drug wars, and the loss of individual rights to the rights of corporations.
Characters such as Cromwell and Mordecai, who spend most their time on the street, or Fang, who’s SIN marks her as a criminal, exist primarily at that lowest level. If there is a street war targeting metahumans or magic users, it’s very hard to escape it. If characters at this level can rely on their government to protect them, they can probably get by. When they can’t, they must hide, fend/fight for themselves, or band together into gangs or other organizations. Characters such as Elsie or Ma1nfram3 (assuming they are who they appear to be), who exist at a slightly higher economic level and can pass for human can depend a little more on the community infrastructure around them, and can be a bit more selective in choosing which battles to fight.
The bigotry of the 6th world has moved on from things as “simple” as skin color, gender, and sexual orientation because the introduction of magic provided all new sources for human anxiety, fear and hate to latch onto. Troll and Orks look like monsters out of 5th world children’s stories and fables, while technology and magic are difficult to regulate and give seemingly random individuals unbelievable sources of power. And all too like our world, those who seek political power have found plenty of ways to latch their star to the never-to-be-underestimated capacity of humans to fear and hate that which is different.
Specifically, Kenneth Brackhaven, current governor of Seattle, has made a political career by tapping into those forces of fear in people: fears that children in public schools will have gigantic troll classmates who tower over them, that the orks of the underground will take all the jobs while filling the streets with drugs and crime, that elves are secretly manipulating everyone and infiltrating the upper levels of governments and corporations. He publicly proclaims tolerance, but at the same time, fired his entire police force (Lonestar) and brought in a new police force (Knight Errant, a division of Ares Corporation) who now owes him big time for the contract. Not surprisingly, the new police force routinely turns a blind eye to violence against metahumans, while protecting the interests of human voters at the bottom and powerful organizations who fund him a the top.
Enter into this characters such as Cromwell, who has good instincts but not much logic. He knows humans see him as a bull in a china shop where ever he goes, and he knows that most people are going to take the side of the china. He knows that he can’t rely on the police, who are as likely to assume he’s the criminal as, say, a young human troll killer. And his years on Yomi Island taught him how much he can trust society’s judgement. He can’t hide: he’s a troll who lives on the street, and he has bad experiences we haven’t yet gotten into with gangs and organized crime. So in the end of the day, Cromwell doesn’t believe he has any choice but to fight as hard as he can to protect the things he cares about until he is invariably killed in a war that he can’t escape from. He is going to invariably come into conflict with characters who believe in trying to work with the system (Fang) or avoid the fight altogether (Ma1nfram3 and Mordecai, potentially: we don’t yet know what lies behind these character’s motivations). He’s going to be frustrated that they can’t see that he doesn’t have the choices they do to avoid the fight, and they’re going to be frustrated that Cromwell can’t see that there might be a better way if he had more faith or patience. Not to mention that he’s threatening their own places in the system & sometimes playing into the hands of his enemies. And then there’s Elsie, who Cromwell cares deeply about, who forces Cromwell not to rush to his own death in that war: not because he’s afraid of dying, but because she reminds him that it’s about more than just his own life: he needs to stay alive long enough know that she’s safe from [REDACTED].
I (Tony) am not much like Cromwell at all. I’m not an idealist, but I do believe in patience, diplomacy. I believe, perhaps out of privilege, that the system contains corruption and systemic unfairness, but not that the whole system is fundamentally corrupt. But playing Cromwell helps me see the situations that would make me feel differently, and if there is a better reason to role play than that, I don’t know what they are.