Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler


Hoy, chummer! Here's the legworkon the setting behind FASA's new future-fantasy card game,a Sixth World of megacorps, magic, munitions, and the Matrix

SHADOWRUN: The World Behind the Cards

by Allen Varney

[Published in Gamer Fall 1997. Copyright ©1997 Tuff Stuff Publications. Posted by permission.]

Is that a wizard carrying a submachine gun? Hey, that tattooed hacker with the cyberdeck has pointed ears! Look at the Native American shaman with a thermographic eye, firing a stun pistol at a troll in a business suit! What is this place?

It's Seattle in 2058, setting of FASA Corporation's Shadowrun. Originally a best-selling roleplaying game, now a collectible card game, Shadowrun presents one of the best and most distinctive backgrounds in the gaming field. Enter its world of magic and cyberpunk science fiction, where toxic elementals haunt waste dumps, vampirism is a virus, and dragons run corporations.

Enter the Sixth World.


In 1987 Chicago-based FASA commissioned Paul Hume and Bob Charrette, designers of the Bushido and Aftermath RPGs, to create a new cyberpunk RPG. Dark near-future games of high-tech lowlifes represented a growing category, soon to become downright crowded. FASA pondered ways to distinguish its game from the rest. At a 1991 convention Charrette recalled bemusement at the publisher's solution: "They called us and said, 'We want you to add magic.' We said, 'Ummm, oooooo-kay.'"

But how? Together with FASA's Jordan Weisman, L. Ross Babcock, Sam Lewis, and Tom Dowd, the designers drew their ingenious rationale from, of all sources, Mayan religion.

The Mayan prophetic books Chilam Balam ("Secrets of the Soothsayers," 17th and 18th centuries) and the 16th-century Popol Vuh describe a succession of four worlds that preceded our own universe. Each ended in a flood or cataclysm, as will our own in the near future. Adapting this scheme, Shadowrun postulates that Earth's magical energy level rises and falls in a 6,000-year cycle. In its history, magic returned in the "Awakening" of the year 2011, signaling a new Sixth World.

The Mayans proved only half right, for no calamity destroyed the Earth. However, some human mothers began bearing "metahuman" elf and dwarf children, and in 2021 ten percent of the world's population suddenly transformed into trolls and orks (note the "k"). America broke apart as newly resurgent Native American shamans used a magical "Ghost Dance" to end white dominance. In 2058, North America's patchwork includes the United Canadian-American States (UCAS), the Confederated American States, eight tribal North American Nations, Quebec, Aztlan (Mexico), and the enigmatic elven kingdom of Tir Tairngire ("land of promise"). Political associations called policlubs promote anti-metahuman animosity and terrorism. Maybe the Mayan calamity is just happening in slow motion!

Ancient magic has returned, but society has reacted to it in completely modern ways. Universities offer courses in magic, and "wage mages" work for colossal megacorporations. Bio-labs develop sophisticated defenses to prevent astral spying; poachers stalk weird Awakened animals in the world's wild places; Human-Metahuman Vampiric Virus turns people into bloodsuckers. Lofwyr, a dragon, runs the behemoth Saeder-Krupp Corporation. Deckers surfing the cyberspace Matrix are starting to encounter mysterious otaku, shamans of virtual reality.

The Sixth World is obviously a happening place.


In over two dozen Shadowrun supplements and as many novels and adventures, the happening place continues to happen -- but to whom?

In the RPG, players become shadowrunners, freelance covert operatives. Taking jobs from a parade of anonymous "Mr. Johnsons," they do dirty work for megacorporations, the gigantic extra-territorial companies that run the world. Runners steal industrial secrets, guard property, extract desirable employees from rival companies, expose secret conspiracies, and occasionally save the world.

They have their work cut out for them. Published scenarios have sent shadowrunners against Yakuza super-assassins, cybered-up gangs, demonic ancient artifacts, and amoral rock music producers. The inventive adventure Harlequin introduced immortal elves with mysterious agendas; weird astral journeys in the sequel, Harlequin's Back, explicitly connected the Sixth World to the prehistoric Fourth, setting of FASA's companion RPG Earthdawn. In Universal Brotherhood the runners uncovered sinister inhumans behind a Scientology-like self-help program; in Double Exposure runners blew the whistle on the Brotherhood; and in Bug City the UCAS military shut down the Brotherhood by quarantining downtown Chicago, then nuking it! (Ground zero: FASA's own street address.)

This past year brought one of Shadowrun's finest hours, the 2057 UCAS presidential election. Five candidates ran, and in the adventures Super Tuesday and Shadows of the Underworld they all offered underhanded jobs to shadowrunners. SR players voted "absentee ballots" for their favorite candidate, and FASA announced the winner in August 1996, at GenCon in Milwaukee. To no one's surprise, the dragon Dunkelzahn won by a landslide -- but it surprised everyone when, in the very moment of the dragon's victory, FASA announced his assassination.

"It was so unexpected," says SR line developer Mike Mulvihill, who masterminded the election adventures. "We made it feel like an actual press event. I had people calling my hotel room at 1 or 2 in the morning, asking if it was true. I'm amazed at how well it turned out." Equally amazing was the follow-up sourcebook, Portfolio of a Dragon, in which Dunkelzahn's will (reproduced in full) offers players a rich legacy of mysteries and adventure hooks. ("To the first party to determine what lies behind the door of room 5B78 of the Aztechnology Pyramid in Tenochtitlan, I leave 5 million nuyen or medical care for the remainder of their natural life, whichever seems most appropriate.")

Dunkelzahn's assassination marked a turning point not only for the game's setting, but for Mulvihill personally. He had taken over the SR line just 10 months before, after founding editor Tom Dowd's move to a new sister company, FASA Interactive. In seven years Dowd had brought SR to the heights of commercial and artistic success. Mulvihill, who was 32 at the time, says, "I was really scared. Shadowrun was where it was because of Tom Dowd. Everyone knew him; nobody knew me."

But after a "groundswell" of positive response to the Dunkelzahn storyline, Mulvihill has continued SR's tradition of excellence while putting his own stamp on the line. His Shadowrun Companion and terrific adventures like Missions explore new facets of the Sixth World by casting players in new roles: medics, Special Forces troops, and even (horrors!) police.


"Shadowrun: The Trading Card Game," designed by FASA's Mike Nielsen, offers the newest angle on the Sixth World.

Why did FASA do a card game now, years after the boom has come and gone? "We oerate on a 'reverse pyramid' theme," says Mulvihill. In any new medium, "We test the water with Battletech, a successful property. When something is successful, we say, 'Hey, let's do it for Shadowrun.' The 'Battletech' card game came out [from Wizards of the Coast], and it was a success. So....

"We ran into a couple of dead ends over the years," he continues. Also, "When the card game was happening, we were forming another company, FASA Interactive, and it was a bad time for us to try it; we lost our main designer and many artists. Once that settled down, we looked around and said 'What now?' And 'Shadowrun' was there."

In the card game, each of two to four players assembles a team of shadowrunners like combat mage Dr. Apocalypse, "wiz kid decker" Static, and the street shaman Gutter Rat. Each runner has skills like Demolition, Gunnery, Social, and Sorcery. Pay "nuyen" to equip your team with weapons (Stun Gloves, Uzi III), defenses (Heavy Armor), spells (Hellblast, Invisibility), locations (Hermetic Library), contacts (Elven Hitman, Talismonger), vehicles, drones, spirits, and Matrix programs. Then send them after Objectives (Kamikaze Run, Critter Hunt, Tiki Head Enigma), which are played by all players to a central play area. If your team meets the Objective's requirements, you score its Reputation points. Your runners can intercept and battle opposing teams as they try for Objectives. The first player to reach a pre-set Reputation total (60-100 points) wins.

Flavor comes from the challenge cards. You play challenges (Retinal Scanner, Astral Sentry, Flock of Geese) face-down on any Objective to obstruct opposing runners. When a team attempts an Objective, reveal each challenge in sequence; the team can "sleaze" (discard) a challenge if they have the right skills, or fight it. Fighting sounds the alarm, which prevents sleazing of subsequent challenges. After each challenge, the team may proceed or retreat.

Though "Shadowrun" uses game mechanics familiar to players of "Magic," "Netrunner," and "Shadowfist," it successfully captures the unique Sixth World flavor. "I'm really pleasantly surprised," says Mulvihill. "That you actually have shadowrunners and go on shadowruns is the essence of Shadowrun. We understand how each medium has its own parameters, and that a card game can't use the same mechanics as an RPG. [But] I maintain that if you play a really good, successful [session of the] card game, you can use the sequence of its challenge cards to design a roleplaying adventure."


The card game "has sold real well for us," Mulvihill says. "We're happy!" A second printing, due out as you read this, swaps out 39 cards (mostly commons and uncommons) with new replacements and changes art on 12 more. [1999 UPDATE: The "Second Running" printing never happened.]

The first "Shadowrun" expansion, the 150-card "Underworld," may also be out now. Based on the RPG's Underworld Sourcebook, Cyber-Pirates, and other recent supplements, "Underworld" introduces affiliation-based runners like gang members and Lone Star cops. Objectives have different characteristics for different affiliations. Mob Hit, for instance, means one thing to mob runners but something else to gang members. [1999 UPDATE: "Underworld" appeared in 1998.]

The Sixth World is still finding new media. Late in 1998 FASA Interactive plans to release a Shadowrun computer roleplaying game, with a storyline by Mulvihill and FASA president Jordan Weisman. [1999 UPDATE: Never happened.]

The RPG, meanwhile, barrels along. It has sold well over 100,000 copies and been translated into seven languages. Next year brings an extended "Blood in the Boardroom" storyline of corporate intrigue, culminating this August in Shadowrun's third edition. "We're not doing a massive overhaul," Mulvihill promises. "Core game mechanics will remain. We redefine some things, in most cases involving the magic system. What we're really looking at is improving the presentation." This is a promising pronouncement for a game that, in its first two editions, set industry benchmarks in art and graphics. [1999 UPDATE: Third Edition appeared in August 1998, to excellent reviews.]

Since roleplaying's earliest days, gamers have invented crossover adventures that sent fantasy wizards and warriors into space, or superheroes back to the Old West. FASA's Sixth World caters to that perennial impulse. That it achieves such a high level of style and creativity makes Shadowrun one of the authentic treasures of roleplaying -- and now, of card games as well.

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Copyright ©1997 Tuff Stuff Publications.