Most people credit The Matrix with popularizing the idea of cyberspace, and it's an easy mistake to make. Comparatively few people are familiar with Snowcrash, or Neuromancer, or any of the early cyberpunk novels that shaped the genre.
Even fewer are familiar with my favorite pen & paper roleplaying game of all time, Shadowrun. It spawned over 30 novels, several video games, and has clearly inspired Netflix's recent TV movie Bright.
The idea behind Shadowrun was both simple, and elegant. All the way back in 1989 it predicted the modern internet, and the rise of corporations. Instead of Google you have Renraku, and in place of Apple you've got Ares.
There's a twist, though.
In Shadowrun's timeline magic returned to the world in 2012. About 10% of the population go through a process called goblinization, and are turned into orcs, trolls, elves, and dwarves. Imagine waking up one day and now you're an orc.
Dragons emerge from their millennia long slumber, and in Shadowrun one of those dragons runs for and successfully wins the presidency. Another is the CEO of one of the most powerful corporations in the world. One is even a talk show host.
The game included all of the best elements of fantasy, but layered over a familiar, understandable world. Somehow, it took technology, magic, and a criminal underground and welded it together into a seamless whole.
You play a Shadowrunner. You have no SIN (system identification number), which means you're off the grid, chummer. You get by with fake identities, and you run the shadows to make a living. That might mean breaking into a local corporation to boost their BTL supply, or it might mean geeking a mage who's been troubling the wrong people.
Looming over it all is the idea that something bad is coming. Something world ending. The game spun this mythos out for years, and every source book gave another tantalizing piece of the Lovecraftian puzzle.
Shadowrun wasn't the only strong roleplaying game in the 90s. D&D 2nd edition was going strong with Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance. White Wolf captured the goth element with Vampire the Masquerade, and Werewolf the Apocalypse, and Mage the Awakening. But none of those games flowed like Shadowrun.
In Shadowrun you could play a decker, and battle black ICE inside of the digital corridors of the matrix as you pilfer secrets, disable cameras, and protect your chummers' data. You could be a rigger, and assault your enemy with an army of drones.
I always play mages, who are grossly overpowered. A mage can heal, dominate someone's mind, use amazing illusions, and a whole bunch of other fun tricks. But you can be killed by a single bullet, because Shadowrun is lethal, and everyone knows to geek the mage first.
Worse, the astral plane is populated with spirits...and worse things. And they love the taste of mage.
The novels for the game are far, far better than they have any right to be. Tom Dowd's Burning bright changed my view of fantasy and SF forever. I was blown away by the twist, which broke the rules on a fundamental level, much like Martin has done with A Song of Ice & Fire.
Nor was it the only great novel. Nigel Findley's 2XS is another amazing book. It starts out as a standard hard boiled detective mystery, but quickly goes down a very deep, very dark, very chittery rabbit hole. It scared me while also filling me with a dark sort of wonder.
All this lore kept building toward a creshendo. There is something in the dark. Something hungry. They are called horrors, and when the magic level is high enough they will return to slaughter us all.
This firmly linked Shadowrun with FASA's fantasy game, Earthdawn. While the publishers never came out and said they were set in the same world they kept dropping easter eggs, and eventually the evidence was overwhelming. It made reading the novels, and the RPG books, an absolute blast. The world was a living breathing thing.
I'll never forget when President Dunkelzhan (the aforementioned dragon who ran for office) is assassinated. FASA spent two years and about a dozen novels answering the question, and eager teenage me rushed down to the gaming shop the second new books were released.
Today Shadowrun is in its 5th edition, but the RPG is alive and well. The timeline has advanced to 2075, and they've reshaped the world a bit to account for things that the original didn't. Back in 1989 wireless networks didn't exist. Neither did Uber. The current version rectifies that, while still feeling like the wonderfully diverse world I'd loved as a kid.
If you haven't played Shadowrun, either the latest Steam games, or the RPG itself, then I highly recommend checking it out. The world is unique, and amazing. And, if you like novels, wow are you in for a treat. Almost all the books are good, and some are downright great.
Have you played Shadowrun? Or read the novels? Tell me about your first experience in the comments below!
Chris Fox is the author of The Magitech Chronicles, The Void Wraith Saga, and many other fantasy and science fiction novels. You can find download free stories, artwork, and other goodies at Chrisfoxwrites.com