Sometimes it’s hard to believe I’ve been playing video games for over 30 years. I’ve experienced many amazing adventures and RPGs in this time, and these have allowed me to develop a strong appreciation for interesting narratives and well-thought-out characters.
It may therefore seem a little strange that I’d never tried a tabletop RPG before this year. Perhaps this was mainly to do with having only limited exposure to them; although I’ve known several bloggers who play for a while now, my real-life friends have always focused on video games. There’s also the fact that somewhere along the way I’d made the assumption it was just a group of people telling each other fantasy stories. My interest had never been piqued enough to cause me to find out more as writing fiction was something I’d never been good at.
This changed when Kevin from The Mental Attic began looking for players for a new game to be streamed on his Twitch channel, The Lawful Geek. I didn’t immediately say no when he got in touch last summer to ask if I’d be interested in joining in, but I must admit that I didn’t jump straight in with both feet. After telling him both myself and my other-half would help out by taking part if he couldn’t find enough players to make up the numbers, we found ourselves trying to create our own characters towards the end of 2019.
The game itself was the sixth edition of Shadowrun. Instead of being the completely fantasy-orientated tabletop RPG I had in my head when I thought about the genre, this is more science-fiction focused even though it still contains magical elements and dragons. It takes place several decades ahead in a future London where megacorporations control the lives of employees and others, cyberware is common, users interact with a worldwide computer network via neural interface, and dirty-work is contracted out to shadowrunners.
If it hadn’t been for Kevin’s patience and guidance, Pete and I simply wouldn’t have made it through the character creation part. It was a horrible process and one which we almost backed out of several times. Not only did we have to come up with believable backstories, something I struggled with thanks to my lack of skill with fiction, there were so many other things to think about and choices to make. The Shadowrun Sixth World Core Rulebook does an absolutely terrible job of explaining some of these – more about that later.
We made it through though and both came out on the other side with characters we were happy with. Pete went with Grifter, a 36-year old Australian who has turned into a wetworks specialist after growing up in an unhappy orphanage. My own character was kissingthepixel, or KTP for short, a young woman who has worked on her hacking skills since losing her parents in a car-crash as a child. What she didn’t realise at the start was that she was actually a technomancer: someone who has the ability to connect to the computer network with their mind.
Both of us felt incredibly apprehensive before going into our first session. We didn’t really know what it was going to be like or what would be expected of us and were still bruised after the painful character creation. The game was going to be streamed on Twitch so any mistakes we made would be broadcast to an audience. And on top of all that, we were going to meet the other players – people we’d never spoken to before and who had years of experience with tabletop games. What if we didn’t get along?
We had nothing to worry about though and we’ve found ourselves in a great group. Kat, also known as ClericofKord online, is a wonderful actor and I admire the way she’s able to bring her street shaman Neko to life along with her many personas. Ozzy always seem to have the best luck of with the dice and his infiltrator Sleek is the guy we send in to get the lowdown on a location before busting in. They’ve both been extremely patient with us and we can’t thank them enough for all their help with getting to grips with the game.
I mentioned acting there, and this is the thing Pete and I were most worried about when starting Shadowrun. We might mess around on the Later Levels’ Twitch channel but we’re in no way performers; would we have to pretend to be our characters and talk as though we were in their bodies? The group reassured us when they told us there was no right way to play. Over the past several months, we’ve found ourselves doing what most feels comfortable given the situation: sometimes saying ‘my character would do this’, sometimes speaking as them.
It’s hard to recap our story so far because so much has happened since the first session in April. Our team of shadowrunners were thrown together thanks to a job from a man known only as Blondie, who isn’t on any records and doesn’t actually exist. He’s now slowly taking over the city and intent on killing us, although we still have no idea what his ultimate goal is. Thankfully we have a benefactor named Malcolm on our side who has come to our aid more than once; but he recently disappeared, and information we’ve uncovered implies he may not be as legit as he first seemed. I think the only thing we’re certain of is that we can truly trust no-one.
Later Levels (@LaterLevels) June 12, 2020
As mentioned earlier in this post, the Core Rulebook isn’t great. It does a good job of portraying this future world and the conflicts between the groups which exist in it but that’s where my positive comments end. Information about a specific subject is frequently split across far too many sections so you find yourself jumping between pages all the time. Certain paragraphs also directly contradict each other so you’re never sure you’re playing correctly – something which is surely a massive flaw a rulebook. It’s definitely not for beginners.
Because of this our group has taken a more laidback approach and we’re finding our way as we go. Kevin frequently asks for feedback and if one of the rules doesn’t make sense or feels too restrictive, we all agree to a change and continue playing the game our own way. Working like this has totally transformed a badly-written manual and terrible character creation process, from a daunting obstacle to new players into an experience we now look forward to every fortnight.
I think the thing which has surprised Pete and I the most is how a tabletop RPG can be just as exciting as a video game. There have been some moments during our sessions so far that have genuinely shocked us, whether that’s down to a plot-twist thrown in by Kevin or surprise at how one of the player characters have reacted to a situation. Even when our own characters aren’t actively taking part in a scene, we’ll be there in the game listening because we want to know what happens next.
Does this mean I’ll now be seeking out other tabletop games? To be honest, I’m doubtful. I think we’ve been very lucky to find ourselves with a gamemaster who’s so willing to guide new players and a group who are an awful lot of fun to hang out with, and I’m not sure all experiences would be like that. Video games will always be my focus but I can’t deny that I’m enjoying Shadowrun right now. I want to find out where our story takes us next – and whether we’ll finally be able to give Blondie the beating he deserves.