The first time I picked up and read through Shadowrun, I remember thinking that it was a game where anything and everything could happen. After all, what other game system allowed you to be an elven mage who also owned a local computer repair shop and was skilled in tossing fireballs, riding high-tech motorcycles, and using combat shotguns? It's all there in Shadowrun: magic, high technology, cyberpunk, fantasy races, adventure, corporate espionage, dystopian themes, and much, much more.

What I found to be really interesting about the game was that it handled the issues of racism, prejudice, and oppression in really direct ways and also encouraged players to take on the roles of social rebels fighting against the monolithic power of a world dominated by corporate greed and evil.

See, in the Shadowrun universe, genetic mutation and magic have transformed once "normal" human beings into Elves, Trolls, Dwarves, and Orks. The response to these transformations from the rest of humanity ranged from awed worship and fear to outright hatred, violence, and systemized genocide. Racism and bias are a regular part of the game, coming from all directions: Elves are cultural elitists who don't hide the fact that they view every other race as crude and devolved; Orks and Trolls (being big and ugly) got treated the worse by humans and so they're usually very hostile, angry, and insular; Dwarves get sick of being stereotyped as just short humans good at building and fixing things.

There's plenty of conflict between the races to provide a rich setting for dealing with those topics among your players; there's even more conflict between the wealthy and powerful and the rest of the world. In Shadowrun, corporations have become governments unto themselves, complete with entire cities, military forces, and even their own currency in some cases. Of course, power corrupts, and the corporations in Shadowrun are all powerful: they control vast sections of the world, rape and pillage the land and people, and wage secret wars against anyone who stands in their way. Into this dystopia comes the Shadowrunners: rebels, malcontents, outcasts, hackers, social deviants, and criminals who are typically pitted against the schemes of the corporate masters and their minions.

Shadowrun is a great game to use if you want to explore themes around social class, racial conflict, prejudice, systemic inequality, and the power of a small group of determined, deeply flawed individuals to change the world for the better.

The main drawback to Shadowrun is that it's a complicated system to learn. It only uses 6-sided dice but there are so many things going on in the game that it can get overwhelming. For example, players can hack computers, explore an entire virtual reality world called The Matrix, cast spells, adventure through astral space, put their consciousness into machines to control them, and a dozen other things. Each of these awesome experiences has its own rules and permutations, which can be daunting for a new Game Master.

Why it's Awesome
  • Great for exploring issues of race and social class.
  • There are a ton of free books, resources, and adventures online.
  • Encourages players to be social advocates (i.e.: Shadowrunners).
  • A large number of exciting options for characters beyond the normal fighter, wizard, ranger, etc.
  • Includes a highly-detailed, alternate history for the Shadowrun world.
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