Shadowrun – Playing with Pixels

   Here we have something from Editorial0, who would like to see a new Shadowrun video game, and likes to write things like that up as proposals. Sadly, his formatting will not translate properly to the blog, ergo I’ve done a bit of formatting and fixed five or six typos. Without further preamble, here we have the


RPG Game Design Document


   This document is meant to showcase design ideas and the Shadowrun game, and how they can work together.

   Shadowrun is a classic pen-and-paper RPG game, specializing in cyberware, computer hacking, and espionage involving megacorporations who act as corrupt quasi-governments amid the decay of society. Despite this, it’s not known for exceptionally grim or dour character. It ranges from anarchic fun to cautious strategic planning to real heroic stories.

   Shadowrun also had a more unusual aspect than its mix of character and setting. Unlike almost every other cyberpunk game, Shadowrun mixed in fantasy elements. Magic, dragons, and elves played as much a role in defining the world as guns and computers. Magic is also fairly powerful – a starting character can toss fireballs, just as he or she might toss grenades.

   Despite this strong mix, Shadowrun has been held back after a strong run in the 1990’s, with divided ownership. It has not has a video game RPGH in years, despite having a record of success and a good background to work with.

   The perfect opportunity exists to build a new Shadowrun game using modern technology. Computers can now do justice to the vibrant, complex world of Shadowrun. Furthermore, modern computer games can do it big. As games like FUEL and The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion demonstrate, games can now feature huge and complex environments with plenty to explore and accomplish.

   The time is now. Shadowrun can tale advantage of existing genres and ready-built audiences to stage a comeback. No other game can offer the amazing varieties of gameplay. No other game mixes the modern, the retro, the futuristic, and the fantastic. Take advantage of it!

High Concept

   Shadowrun will take place in both 3rd-person and 1st-person perspective, allowing the player to choose the most convenient or personally-liked form of exploration and combat. During the game, the player will explore large, open-world content comprising dozens of unique neighborhoods in twelve themed areas.

   The entire world becomes available shortly after starting a new game, but the game is self-balancing. Some areas may be too dangerous for starting characters. The player may choose to advance in whatever area he or she sees fit, granting great control over gameplay and difficulty.

   Although a major quest-line acts as the centerpiece of the game, the overall style of the game remains player-directed content. The player can take the missions he or she likes, even down to making friends and allies of various game factions. These factions include gangs, syndicates, and corporations. Players can even functionally create missions for themselves, such as raiding rivals to please friends and then fencing the loot. Characters will earn experience to build their characters during this or pre-set missions.

   Players may use experience to build up a variety of bonuses for the character. Nearly everything and anything the player can do is affected by a skill and/or attribute, from buying equipment to shooting a gun to casting a spell.

   And the game will feature a wide variety of powers and gear. Characters can carry everything from automated medical kits to advanced firearms to advanced computers to crack enemy data systems. Furthermore, characters can customize clothing to their tastes, and can wear whatever they choose. Armor will not affect a character’s appearance except for certain high-end armors more akin to “walking tank” than bullet proof vest.

   Of course, the gear and armor the character uses will directly impact how NPC’s react. Wear heavy military armor and carry a cannon down a commercial street, and civilians will run away and call the police. Visit the high-end retailers, however, and they will react pleasantly. Since “legwork” is a major element of the game, this is important.

   Legwork is a term derived from detectives – walking around and gathering information. Shadowrun takes this concept to new heights in gaming. Characters can visit contacts or hunt up leads to find a wide array of useful information, though it will usually cost money. Maps, alternate entry points, likely enemy numbers and equipment, codes to access systems – all of this can be had for the right price from the right contact. This once again lets players develop their own difficulty. This also gives players strong incentive to develop and use social skills, since these may be necessary to gain contacts in new areas.

   As mentioned, each area has its own character, including the following zones:

  • Downtown Seattle – High-tech commercial offices
  • Tacoma – Medium industrial and commercial
  • Bellevue – High-end entertainment
  • Renton – Small offices and residences
  • Everett – Sea port and smaller towns
  • Snohomish – Farms and agricultural combines
  • Fort Lewis – Military base and zoo
  • Redmond – Crime-ruled urban hell
  • Puyallup – Half slum, half eerily beautiful wasteland
  • Salish-Sidhe – Wilderness with small towns

   Each area, moreover, has two or three residences the player can buy and sell. Each residence can be used to store gear (gear is shared between areas). It is possible for NPC’s to attack the apartment of the gear stored inside. (The player can always get it back, but may wish to invest in an improved security system in the future!)

   Although driving will not be available in the basic game, the character can use or call taxis to ferry him or her about. (This element could be explored and added in expansions or sequels.)

   But the key core elements of gameplay are Shadowruns: criminal missions for profit. Each mission may require different things, from kidnapping to extortion to blackmail, to perennial favorite theft. Although the basic mission structure doesn’t vary hugely, the location, enemies, and challenges do. Although missions are mostly randomized, different mission-givers tend to offer certain types and work for certain employers.

   The character is paid in cold cash, but also gains experience and possibly favor with a faction. Special rewards might be offered for unique, pre-generated missions (which appear at certain points to develop a faction further or gain allies. All main-quest missions are unique.

   Not only are most missions randomly generated, but most buildings are randomly generated, at least past the first floor or lobby area. This enables the creation of large, intricate worlds procedurally generated without the necessity of specifying every object. Likewise, the character can interface with computers to get data or get around certain challenges, such as locked doors or hidden information.

   The player need not go it alone, however. Several NPC’s can assist and lend their guns and skills to the player’s cause. The player character effectively has access to their abilities and skills while they follow him or her, although they act independently in combat. That is, if the character needs to hack a computer, an NPC with better skills would automatically act instead. 


   Shadowrun is essentially an open-world game, but the player is presented with a major central mystery, which is a good source of missions and rewards. This plot should certainly engross the player, but is also available as needed. The player need not follow up on the main questline until he or she desires. Furthermore, it will self-regulate, as certain missions within it do not activate until the player becomes strong enough to handle the challenges.

   The game begins with the player character being abducted, beaten, and seemingly left for dead. However, a mysterious magician hauls character to his hovel and quickly heals the limited damage. The character soon finds that not only was he or she attacked, but all accounts are drained and the character’s very legal identity erased. With no choice but to turn to crime, the character must find a new life on the shady side of the street.

   Unraveling this mystery will require numerous missions, finally discovering not only who destroyed your life (and why), but also uncovering a terrible threat to the city. Final victory involves several related missions to defeat a villainous trio of greedy corporate executives, corrupt government operatives, and terrorist madmen. The final battle pits the main character against a similar enemy, so that whatever the player chooses to specialize in, the enemy does also.

   The end of that quest need not end the fun, as is common in open-world games. The player can continue with his or her character and go on to explore the world more.


   Shadowrun will use a versatile third-person / first-person variable interface for maximum playability. This allows players to use whatever view is most pleasing to them or convenient to their circumstances. First person, for example, is particularly suited to run-n-gun gameplay, while many players choose 3rd-person perspective for exploration.

   A major source of difference also lies in the use of computer versus console controls. In order to maximize the user of both, this game will incorporate a menu-selection system that can be equally used by either controller or mouse with only small tweaks. Console users will flick left or right to change sections, and equip items by scrolling up or down through lists and pressing a button. Mouse users can more easily change between menus.

   A character’s equipment capacity will be fairly low, and simply grabbing every odd item is not terribly useful. Therefore, there will be fewer issues with oversize menus and too much information. To further ease its use, the menus will instantly open a comparison to current equipment to display the difference.

   Equipping characters will be handled through the use of a paper-doll system, so that the player sees the differences immediately.

Equipment and Visual References

   Many games now display strong visual reference for a character’s equipment. Shadowrun will not focus on this. That is, we assume a character’s armor is usually semi-hidden under clothing and does not display, while many weapons are hidden or relatively small, such as concealed weaponry or small firearms in general. Instead, Shadowrun will cater to the player’s sense of style by allowing extensive visual customization. A character’s clothing is separate from armor and usually covers it.

   Exceptions include heavy armors, such as military or security armor. These not only visually identify the character, but trigger a fear reaction in the AI – wearing it in public is a serious crime. Likewise, a character’s weapon can significantly affect interactions.

   Players can retain a second set of clothing and switch between the two. As mentioned, carrying capacity is finite. This option is for players who wish to spend that capacity mixing subtlety and raw power.

Role-Playing and AI

   As a strong role-playing game, Shadowrun contains many customization options. Amost all of these affect how the character intereacts with the game world. In essence, the character is also playing a role, though of course the player is in control of both levels. This means that a pacifist character might choose clothing and gear which mark him or her as a violent killer, and use that to proceed effectively.

   Every piece of clothing carries attributes, which affect AI. In short, these are as follows:

  • Fear – Fear makes AI more nervous and makes the use of intimidation easier. NPC’s are more likely to run away. At high levels, pedestrians may call the police on sight. It isn’t a good idea to carry a missile launcher and military armor down Main Street! This may make combat easier, because enemies will run more easily.
  • Cool – Cool is a general social enhancer. Everyone will like you more for it. It is very non-specific. A few characters don’t like Cool, so it has a negative effect on them.
  • Professional – Professional appeals to many fewer people than Cool, but much more strongly. Not incidentally, these people may also have more power to help the player. Most stores and the better classes of criminals and contacts like Professional.
  • Poor – Poor clothes act as a negative trait for some zones, where the area has a lot of wealthy people. They have a positive trait in poor zones, where the character “fits in”.
  • Rich – Rich clothes act as the reverse of Poor image. Some zones do not respond to either trait.

   Every AI will essentially use the same routines and code, but different priorities decide their actions. Priorities are decided by thresholds, where certain reactions trigger at certain thresholds of value. A character with a high fear threshold will not blink if an armored titan bearing a Vulcan cannon walks down the street.

   Unlike most role-playing games, the amount of a character’s skill and bonuses determine what the character can convince them of. That is, having high social abilities and good circumstances get better results, even from the same dialogue options. Bargaining, for instance, does not simply pass/fail: it has dynamic results based on player success.

Role Playing and Protagonist

   The character’s actions also affect how other’s opinions. Doing evil deeds and murdering grants as much advancement potential as helping people and showing mercy. However, it does give Bad Karma.

   Karma is the Shadowrun term for experience points. Players will use this pool in order to raise attributes, skills, spells.

   The video game Shadowrun adds Bad Karma to the mix. Completing missions earns you Karma. If the protagonist character acts cruelly, however, he or she gains Bad Karma instead. This is used exactly like normal Karma, but also increases a permanent meter behind the scenes. This affects a character’s reputation, and as the character increase Bad Karma past pre-specified levels, he or she will gain increasingly nasty reputation. This is somewhat similar to the Fear attribute. However, some nasty types will appreciate the character’s disposition. This reputation can never be erased once earned.

   Shadowrun does not generally judge people’s conduct. Killing is not considered outright monstrous in self-defense (it’s a brutal world out there), but too much killing may change that Karma into Bad Karma – security guards are people, too.

   However, this doesn’t work one-way. Characters can change Karma into Good Karma through acting well. Enemies will frequently be wounded and in need of medical attention. Just as killing them grants Bad Karma, offering aid changes Karma into Good Karma. This works very similar to Bad Karma, but helps with nicer, kinder individuals.

   Dialogue is the larger and more important area. Dialogue in Shadowrun offers new options and seeks to take gaming interaction to the next level. Dialogue interactions with NPC characters offer several ways of interacting, not merely selecting from the standard one nice, one nasty, and one boring responses.

   Players will choose from at least three options in nearly any dialogue tree, a standard Shadowrun will live up to. However, other choices exist. In the dialogue system, it is also possible to simply choose to whip out a gun and start killing. Or you can opt to simply leave in mid-dialogue (rudeness makes some people unhappy if you come back).

   But the player can also use a classic keyword system. Dialogue won’t be sufficient to hand out all the information the player might want. Each character will have a list of keywords, which they can use to gather information. To avoid overly-demanding or erratic voicework, only keywords about which an NPC has any information will be available. Keywords are usually gained from skills, so that characters with high skills in certain areas can gain access to relevant gear, information, or services related to those skills. Of course, other contacts and stores are always available. Furthermore, characters must actively search out those new options using their keywords, and skilled players might locate them without the keywords.

   In short, keywords are a self-balancing gameplay element introduced to let players control their own progress through the game. 


   During the game, the character will encounter a number of potential allies, each with personal skills and styles. At the start they will only hire themselves out for pay and for a certain period of time, although they won’t abandon you during a mission. Each ally has individual quests and will join permanently for free once that’s taken care of to their satisfaction. Allies further act as contacts and may let you know about where to buy equipment or find information.


  • “But I don’t wanna take a bath!”
  • Gene is a young and inexperienced street shaman – an urban-bred spellcaster with a powerful totemic mentor. Gene follows the Rat, a survivor if ever there was one. Even without an education, Gene can be a powerful ally, as he learns many spells for secrecy and misdirection. Gene is the first character most players will likely meet, and the easiest to recruit permanently.


  • “This aincha daddy’s party, boy, so get a bigger gun next time.”
  • A crude, loud, thuggish troll of man, Jaws likes to carry big guns and lay down a suppressing fire pattern on anything which threatens him. Or annoys him. Or exists. Alright, so he likes guns? Can you blame him, when Shadowrun offers so many examples of brutal firepower with enhanced cybernetic targeting and precision design? Despite his apparent lack of subtlety, he’s a keen observer and can use the Investigate skill effectively. Upfront doesn’t mean stupid, after all.


  • “Bad news is the alarm just went off. Good news is I redirected it to the toaster. Anyone for a hot bagel?”
  • Everybody needs a hobby, and Jem’s hobby is taking things apart and putting them back together. She’s a master of repair and deals with alarms and security systems with gusto. Although she affects a certain naivety, Jem is no stranger to danger. She uses automatic rifles effectively even without monstrous levels of cybernetics.


  • “Do we have time for tea before robbing the vault?”
  • Millions is an older, experienced wizard with a streak of adventure. With a thick British accent and equally-thick glasses, he retains a powerful streak of adventurism and love of excitement from his youth. Millions has done everything under the sun from ramjet racing to big-game hunting, and usually has a long-winded story of derring-do and death-defying stunts to prove it.


  • “… and Cagnazzo and Barbaricia and Mad Rubicante!”
  • In a world of brain-scrambling drugs, cybernetics overloads, potentially fatal computer feedback, and 24/7 media saturation, you find some people have “issues.” Rubicante makes those people look normal. Convinced he and his crew are demons dwelling in the Eighth Circle of Hell, he takes odd jobs to shoot people while preaching his insane babblings to his much-feared gang. Surprisingly knowledgeable about the human body, he’s also unusually good and patching up the wounds of his friends.


  • “Guard to vault room ETA 24 seconds. Request orders. Confirmed, moving to silence threat.”
  • Shade has several cybernetic systems devoted to stealth, and prefers the quiet approach to crime. Using several detection systems and improved sight, Shade can locate guard patrols and stay out of their way or take them down with lethal or non-lethal force. This character mostly uses melee weapons like swords while acting like a Hollywood movie ninja. Of course, no ninja would ever let someone see his face!

Contacts and Rep

   Contacts are a character’s business assistants in crime, and sometimes even friends. Characters can never have too many contacts… until they run out of fame. The player-character can only have so many contacts, and this is capped by the Reputation score. The more fame he or she acquires during play, the more contacts available.

   Contacts help the character and player out in a wide array of services. They may sell equipment or magic spell or computer programs, offer discounts for stores, transport the character around, offer training in skills, buy information, sell information such as maps, help the character get into secure locations, sell fake identity cards, get the character out of trouble with the police, stop the police from reinforcing corporate security, make local thugs and criminals respect the player, and much more.

   Obviously, no one contact offers all of that. Contacts normally offer only three services.


   Shadowrun uses a wide array of skills to cover every possible situation. Each skill has its own special uses and grants certain keywords.

  • Combat
    • Pistols: Controls the use of one-handed firearms.
    • Rifles: Controls the use of two-handed firearms.
    • Gunnery: Controls the use of oversize weapons such as machine guns.
    • Melee: Controls both unarmed and armed melee combat.
    • Demolitions: Controls the use of explosives and grenades.
  • Technical
    • Electronics: Controls the use of electronics (including opening maglocks) and repair.
    • Biotech: Controls the effectiveness of healing and information about opponents.
    • Computer: Controls hacking into computers.
    • Investigation*: Controls the visibility of useful items (they gain a glowing aura) and hidden clues.
  • Social
    • Street*: Controls dealings with low-class people, squatters, and ordinary criminals.
    • Professional*: Controls dealings with government, police, and elite criminals
    • Corporate*: Controls dealings with businessmen and women.
    • Leadership: Controls the willingness of party members to act and grants bonuses. (Player-only)
    • Bargain*: Controls character’s earnings every time he or she earns money.
  • Magical
    • Sorcery: Controls the effectiveness of spellcasting.
    • Conjuring: Controls the power of conjured creatures and their duration.

* – Indicates skills used most commonly in conversation.


   Magic is an integral part of the Shadowrun universe. Spellcasters, though uncommon, can become important figures in science, business, and government. And they’re very handy in committing crimes. While magic has its limitations, it remains a very considerable gameplay element that every player will want to use. Even if the player character does not wield magic, some allies can.

   The primary balancing factor for magic is that any points spent on magic are not spent on attributes, skills, or other bonuses. Thus, magic-using characters must spend their points wisely and well, and choose from a large array of effects.

   In general, magic has equivalents to guns and grenades, as well as enchanted melee weapons. While it can’t completely substitute for social skills, the right spells will make any social encounter vastly easier. Spells can protect characters or make them stealthier. Of course, characters have limits on how many spells they can maintain, because each one makes all actions more difficult.

Sample Adventure

   In order to really deliver a feel for how Shadowrun is played, we close by presenting a sample adventure, mixing all the elements we’ve described, and how they fit together to deliver a compelling game experience.

   Needing some money, the shadowrunner known as “Neon” finds her currently-favored employer, a colorless and seemingly unimportant middle manager. Gliding into the backroom at a family restaurant, they discuss a job quickly. The balding, buttoned-down businessman offers a few types of jobs. Our heroine decides on a theft job. She’ll have to enter a corporate facility and steal a small prototype.

   Neon chooses this job based on her own abilities. Charismatic and magically-skilled, she has a number of stealth options. After all, she doesn’t even need to carry a gun! Neon takes the job, and her natural talents lead to being offered more pay.

   Neon takes to the streets, and makes some phone calls to her contacts. She arranges to purchase a corporate ID for the facility, which costs her a painful portion of her profit from the job. Still, the ability to walk right into the front door is worth it.

   Neon calls up her associates, and asks for Shade to come help her. Neon takes a cab to her apartment, changing into an official business suit. With these bonuses, she casts a spell to make herself even more Sociable, and heads for the corporate offices.

   Neon and Shade stroll right into the corporate building by the front door. Neon has stacked so many bonuses that she handily persuades the guards she belongs there. In fact, she even cons them into giving her information, and knows where to look into the building. Neon’s act is so convincing that the guards simply ignore Shade’s presence. Had Neon brought along the cigar-chomping brute Jaws instead, she might not have been so lucky.

   The pair head towards their target, although it takes a little exploration to find the right direction. Getting worried that she might be running out of time (those corporate guards might eventually realize something is wrong), she has Shade hack into a computer in a dark corner. Office computers don’t have good access, so Shade must risk going deeper into the system.

   After poking around the office Matrix for a few minutes, Shade finds the information he needs. Shade grabs a building map, and for good measure opens a security door. Logging off, the pair has definitely increased their risk. Building security will soon notice the inexpert hacking. Neon decides to move fast and blasts a guard with a Stun spell, hides the sleeping man, and takes his security card.

 With the security door down and a card in hand, they get to the prototype lab in mere moments. Inside the lab, Neon waits out of sight while Shade sneaks around. The prototype is easily taken because the few lab workers aren’t prepared or alarmed. Unfortunately, taking the device finally triggers an alert as security puts 2 and 2 together.

   The guards only know the general location of Neon and Shade, and they don’t intend to stay still. Neon leads the way with a stunning spell ready, and asks Shade to ready a shockprod. They smack a few guards before they can raise an alarm, but the security team relocates them every time they do.

   Feeling overwhelmed, Neon checks her map one more time, and looks for exits. She finds a couple, and guesses that the service doors would be less guarded. She takes time to become invisible, and she and Shade sneak down into the basement. Once there, they have to evade only a few guards, and open the doors.

   Uh-oh! The pair took too long and now might have the police to deal with. With cops on the outside and guards on the inside, they choose to hold back. Neon spotted another exit nearby. There’s a service tunnel that leads out to a loading dock. Fortunately, the worst is already behind them. The two slip off into the night – and they’ve got a delivery to make.