Monday, December 5, 2016

Shadowrun: Anarchy Freelancers Interview

Hey all, this took a little while to put together, but I have an interview with three of the freelancers from Shadowrun: Anarchy! Russell "Rusty" Zimmerman, O.C. Presley ("Opti"), and Patrick Goodman all took some time with me, which is super great. I wanted to learn a little more about the work that they did to put together the game, so I bugged them off and on for a while to get some fun stuff for you all to read! Enjoy!


Tell me a little about you and your background, and your work on the project. What has your experience with games and design been thus far, and how did you end up working on Shadowrun: Anarchy? Within the project, what parts of the game did you work on - mechanics, flavor, etc.?

Patrick: I was born and raised in Texas. I've been gaming since I was fourteen, so 36 years and change now. Been playing Shadowrun since 1989, been writing for SR since 1999.

I wound up working on SR:Anarchy because, at about the time the very first noises of a rules-lighter version of SR was being talked about in the upper-management discussions at CGL, I was thinking, "I really wish we had a version of SR I could play with my kids." They'd flipped through some of my SR books and kinda liked some of what they saw, but the rules were too much and the presentation really wasn't kid-friendly.

So I talked with a few of the other freelancers, and we put together a pitch for a product we called Shadowrun Jr. Stripped Down, bare-basics rules, a kid's view of the setting. Quick character generation, fast task resolution, and a path to grow into the bigger version of the game if they were interested.

When I sent the project presentation to Jason Hardy, the line developer, he wrote back and said, "You know, Loren Coleman wants to do a rules-light version of Shadowrun, This might be a good companion for that. How'd you like to be involved?" And I said, "I'm in."

Still want to do Junior one of these days, but Anarchy is a much easier, much more kid-friendly engine, so I'm not in as quite a big a hurry as I was.

[on what he worked on]
Flavor, mostly. Jason and Philip Lee did the rules drafts, but I did a lot of kibitzing on the side, along with Rusty and Opti. Rules would show up, we'd all say, "This doesn't work" or "This rocks on toast" and helped push things so that they felt like Shadowrun within the new rules. I wrote two or three of the Contract Briefs, and ten of the sample characters (Bit-Bucket, Daktari, Fourth, Hawk, Raider, Razzle Dazzle, Strider, Thunder, Vector, and Wheezer). And now I'm working on the errata to fix the boo-boos.

Rusty: I'm Russell Zimmerman, and the short-form of my background is that I've been a Shadowrun freelancer since Attitude and Way of the Adept. Lately I've been leaning over to the fiction side of the fence, with stuff like Neat and Shaken (and that ongoing novel trilogy), and those recent anthologies.

On Anarchy, most of what we freelancers tackled were the sample characters and the scenarios/plot-hooks, officially, but we were also full of suggestions and comments when it came to stuff like chargen, partially because we also ran some playtests, but also specifically as a result of us, uh, genning all those chars (thirty of the buggers!). So officially we weren't assigned any rules, but there are lots of little and not-so-little changes that were made because of us, which is always cool.

Personally, I tackled 10 of the pre-genned characters*, and 11 of the included scenarios**. I'm also the guy who handled the intro fic for the book, Synchronicity (which features several of those pre-gens). Oh! Plus I added the Cinematic Initiative option, which is how my buddies and I handle init in narrative games, so I was glad to see it added as an optional system here. I guess that counts as a contribution.

*(Coydog, Gentry, Hardpoint, Ms. Myth, Sledge, Kix, Ninetails, Shades, Tommy Q, and Wagon)

**(Food Fight, Snatch and Grab, Nerps Run, Data/Steel, Puyallup Problems, Urban Brawl, Assassin's Greed, Cleaning House, Street Sweeper, Triad Take-Out, and Trucking With The Fae)

Opti: My writing name is O.C. Presley, and I live with my wife and 2 kids in Fort Worth, TX. Most of my work history previous has been in education and public speaking. My relevant background is that I started a Shadowrun podcast a few years ago called the Neo-Anarchist Podcast. It is an in-character telling of SR history, and I play the narrator, Opti.

I began writing for Shadowrun earlier this year, and my first published work was the Redmond Barrens chapter of the Seattle Sprawl box set, but I just had a short story published in the Shadowrun: Drawing Destiny Anthology. Anarchy marks the first time I have had any meaningful input on a game's design, although my input was much more on the balance and fluff side than the core mechanics. Although I do have the honor of being the one to name it "Anarchy." :)

I ended up working on Anarchy largely thanks to Patrick Goodman. He and I had been talking for some time about a kid-friendly version of Shadowrun, and our original pitch was for something along those lines. But as it turns out, Anarchy was already in the works, and Patrick let Jason Hardy, our line developer, know I was interested, and I got added onto the group.

Within Anarchy, along with Rusty and Patrick, I was responsible for about a third of the characters and a little over a third of the Mission Briefs. We all sort of chipped in on the other stuff, too, but only in a voluntary way. I think we all wanted Anarchy to be its best, so ideas were flowing around all the time. To Jason's credit, a lot of our ideas were given consideration even though they were in areas we were not technically working on.

What kind of challenges did you encounter building a game to work alongside the core 5th edition material? How did you figure out what to change, and what to keep?

Patrick: The big trick, to me, was making sure that the experience felt like Shadowrun even though the system was clearly something completely different. That took some doing, especially since that's so subjective. One person's "feels like Shadowrun" can be very different from another person's.

There's a lot of guesswork and trial-and-error involved, especially in the beginning stages. Once you get the foundation working the way you think is right, the rest is just honing things to make sure they're all in line with one another. You hit on something, and you try it out, and you get some other people to try it out, and see what happens.

Rusty: We wanted to walk the tightrope between streamlining/efficiency and Shadowrun/familiarity. That meant keeping the core mechanic of skill plus attribute, for instance, but narrowing down the number of attributes to try and make things simpler. Likewise, we leveraged SR5's "Skill Groups" pretty hard as a way of slimming down the skill list while keeping some familiar Shadowrun sentiments in place.

I, personally, think we could have folded Plot Points into Edge as another way of simplifying gameplay while retaining a familiar name for something, but the third part of our tricksy-like-hobbitses balancing act was also that we were making a Cue System game, so that meant keeping some of those touchstones, that core narrative-game-engine that CGL has had such great prior success with, with Plot Points, cues, dispositions, and those type of things. So it wasn't just a balancing act between trying to keep the Shadowrun feel while creating a narrative game, it was trying to do so while creating a Cue narrative game, rather than building something brand new from the ground up.

Opti: Well, much of that was out of my hands. However, when brainstorming early on, we all decided that it should feel like Shadowrun, and yet be easy to wrap your head around. One of the easiest ways to do that was to keep the D6 "hits" system in place for rolls. Also, no matter what Anarchy became, we knew it had to reflect the lore in the same way that the SR5 system did, just with different mechanics. 

When creating content for the game, what did you use as guidance - previous Shadowrun fiction, reflections on current events, inspirations for mechanics from other games, and/or other sources?

Patrick: My biggest guide was, "What's gone before? How do I make sure that this reflects this new ruleset we're making, but also reflects the very rich and expansive game world we've been developing for the past 27 years?"

So, very much, previous SR fiction, including my own. Two of the pregen characters I submitted, Thunder and Wheezer, were from a story I did called "Thunderstruck." I conferred with Rusty Zimmerman when I was working on Strider's background, and she developed into a courier for his characters Jimmy Kincaid and Ms. Myth.

I think we all looked at current events as we worked, which I think really shows up in the diversity of the characters. That was one of Opti's biggest pushes, and I think it reflects well on the game. We've got gender parity, metaracial parity, different ethnicities, and different sexual orientations.

And I'm way off on a tangent and a whole other discussion, so I'll stop at "previous fiction" and "current events."

Rusty: For me, I'd call it a 70/30 split between existing Shadowrun lore (which is something that's always at the forefront of my decision-making process, respect for the existing material), and inspiration from game experiences (either with SR, or with narrative games). Shadowrun's a game that's just madly in love with crunch, and many Shadowrun fans are, too. Selling a narrative, rules-light (or rather, rules-medium, I'd say) game to those types of fans, you've got to really knock it out of the ballpark, and you've got to really sell them on it. Hopefully we did that, and folks are already having a good time with it, just in these last few weeks.

I tend to leave my current-events-reflections for longer pieces where I have a little more room to stretch out and make my own statement, like in some fiction or a stand-alone product (like some of the politicians in the Land of Promise e-book about Tir Tairngire); I can "fly under the radar" a little more in solo work, but also it feels like fans maybe accept a little more real-world stuff seeping into a book specifically about politics, or more intensely personal stuff like a novel, than they accept it in a rulebook. There's more room to write about serious real-world stuff in projects where I'm not worrying about making sure 10 pre-genned characters are following the rules (while we're constantly changing the rules). Mostly, my adventure hooks in here reference existing SR stuff -- contacts these canon characters have had since the Beginner Box, characters from novels, that sort of thing -- instead of real-life issues.

All that said, I did do most of my Anarchy work while traveling cross-country to take care of my mother during a sudden hospital stay. Her ICU nurse--in Corvalis Oregon, aka Tir Tairngire--was a great gal named Birdsong, who I totally stole for a friendly NPC. That Oregon trip totally got mined for one of my scenarios, so I did sneak in SOME real-life inspiration, I guess.

Opti: This one is huge for me. As a long time SR fan, I can't help but use all of the existing lore as backdrop for new characters and adventures. The lore is, from my perspective, the strongest thing about Shadowrun. And yet, on the other hand, cyberpunk for me is best when it addresses, to varying degrees of directness, the culture we find ourselves in. And of course to fill in the spaces between, there isn't any off-limits inspiration. Often, good writers are just people who can recycle some version the same stories that have been told for thousands of years. 

Why use the Cue system? What made it "Shadowrun"?

Patrick: Well, we had this ENnie-award-nominated, simple, narrative game system sitting around...seemed a shame to let it go to waste.

And what made it "Shadowrun" was a great deal of work. It had to be modified quite a bit from its origins in Cosmic Patrol and later implementation in Vanguard Universe.

Rusty: It wasn't particularly Shadowrun to begin with, and we made some pretty big changes to make it Shadowrunnier (tm), but the "why" for using it was pretty simple; it's already CGL's, it's already an award-winning system, and it's already well-received by fans for simpler, narrative, gameplay. So we already had this basic code or basic game engine, why not use it (but tweak it to make it suit us better), why would you want to start from the ground up, instead? The decision came from well above our pay-grade, but using Cue as a core system, starting with it and building from there, isn't something I minded at all.

Opti: The decision to use the Cue system was another decision above my pay grade. Catalyst had found success in using the Cue system for other narrative games like Cosmic Patrol and Valiant, so when deciding to convert SR to a narrative mechanic, the Cue system was likely too inviting to pass up compared to creating an entirely new system. Having said that, the Cue system in Anarchy is a much different thing than either the Cosmic Patrol or Valiant version. It may be helpful to think of Cosmic Patrol as Cue 1.0, Valiant as Cue 1.5, and Anarchy as Cue 2.0. Or something.

How did you maintain the feeling and application of the different metahumans while using the streamlined system?

Patrick: Again, a lot of work, though most of it was relatively simple. There was a lot of discussion about how to make sure trolls felt trolly and elves felt elfy.

Rusty: Quite a lot of that comes down to the basic keywords associated with a character, not just the modified attributes that come into it directly or mechanically. Just like in a regular Shadowrun game, there's more to being an elf than having a few stat modifiers, right? More to being an ork or a troll or a dwarf than the above average Strength or Body, isn't there? There's the role-playing opportunities, the various attitudes you'll get from different factions in the setting, the background differences between a Tir-born elf and a Puyallup-brat, or a Tir-born human versus a round-eared Barrens-brat, for that matter, right? So yeah, a lot of it comes down to that metaracial tag right there at the top of the archetype or the character sheet; the weight that those three little letters 'e-l-f' have comes down to the stories being told, the flavor of the campaign, and all that -- to me, at least -- much more than it's based on the spare attribute point or two you might have.

Opti: We argued about it a lot. We went around and around internally about how to get this right, and to Jason Hardy's credit, he listened a lot to Patrick, Rusty, and myself. We wanted it to be just right, and so we tested out many many different ways to represent the differences between the metas. In the end, I think we did ok, but as always, Trolls were the biggest pain.

Tell me a little about one of your favorite characters, locations, or elements of the game and why it is important to you as a creator.

Patrick: My favorite part of the game is the system itself. It's quick and pretty clean, and dirt-simple to learn and to teach. My two oldest kids have been interested in SR for a while, but we've never been able to play because of the complexity and the adult language. Anarchy, though, is a Shadowrun that I can play with my children. We made a conscious effort to tone the language back, and as has been noted, the rules are short, quick, and easy.

Rusty: The easy answer for me is always Tir Tairngire, because it encapsulates -- elves in Shadowrun, in totality, encapsulate -- so much of what makes this fantasy-cyberpunk hybrid setting so...Shadowrun. On the one hand you've got narrative room for all this really unrealistic, highly stylized, fantasy stuff, with Princes and Paladins, fancy pseudo-plate-mail armor, swords and magic, this flowery neo-Celtic elven language, and these fantastic names right out of a fantasy novel. Right? You can stop there if you want, just scratch the surface, and play a character, perfectly in keeping with the setting, that drinks that Kool-Aid and buys into all that bullshit, and lives a perfectly happy life (by Shadowrun standards), and is basically, y'know, Straight Outta Westeros. It all fits the setting just fine, fits the canon just fine, and it's a valid character, if you want to lean on that fantasy side. 

 But then if you dig a little deeper, you get the, I dunno, the chocolate core beneath the candy shell, or whatever, with this dystopic cyberpunk layer just beneath that top layer. And you can play an elf from a ghetto, for pete's sake, how perfect is that? Or a human who's well aware that the Tir's Disney FantasyLand veneer is such bullshit, or an elf who bought into it all until they got some terrible order to mistreat an ork or a human, and they have this heel-face turn when they give up on that fascist -- because it really is a flavor of fascism, no bones about it -- Tir crap and realize how silly ducal ranks and royal blood and stuff are, in real life. Or you can ignore all of it, and just be some dude who happens to be an elf, some grease-under-his-nails mechanic or a burger-flipping high school kid who just happens to have great skin, pointy ears, and night-vision, who doesn't buy into any of it, and doesn't see what the big deal is, and maybe has this kind of super-metaracial-privilege working for him and doesn't even think about it.

Elves in Shadowrun, and kind of their uber-personification with the Tirs, holds so much good and bad and in-between and real-life to me, man, I totally dig 'em. They can show you everything that's great about the setting, and everything that's terrible about the setting, and everything in between, sometimes even all in just one character.

Opti: In general, my favorite aspect of Shadowrun is the anarchist flavor to it. The idea that the powers that be in society are so corrupt that rebellion against them or flagrant breaking of their laws is actually good? That appeals to me. As a result, I wrote in a number of anarchist characters, and brought back the anarchist group Black Star in one of the adventures at the end. As I said earlier, this is one of those areas in which Shadowrun goes beyond simple escapism and offers a chance to explore being an outcast for standing against the corrupt system that "normal" people don't see as corrupt.

As far as locations, beyond Seattle, I am really getting into thinking about the Confederated American States. For a long time, they have gotten a bad rep as racist, backwards people, and I think that is a little unfair to half of the US. I had some CAS stuff that didn't make it into the final product, but I'd like to see the CAS come into focus sooner or later.

As far as characters, I've always loved shamans, the Unseelie Court, and Harlequin. So far, I've only been able to write one of those, but we'll see how things go once I get some more stuff under my belt. Jason keeps a pretty tight lid on Harly, lol.

What do you think, going forward, are the important things from Anarchy that you want to see grow, develop, and expand?

Patrick: I think the thing that stands out to me is that you can have adventures in the Sixth World without having to have a degree in advanced math to understand the rules. You can have fun without wasting most of the night trying to figure out the rules. I'd love to see that go on, and attract more people to the game.

Rusty: If I had my druthers, like five years from now or whatever when 6th edition gets worked on, if it was DruthersRun and it was all exactly what some freelancer named Russell wanted? One thing I'd absolutely love to keep from Anarchy would be some of the simplification. The abbreviated line of attributes, the streamlined list of broader skills. The simplicity of it, of just changing those options away from being so nit-picky and specialized. Getting away from this huge list of skills like SR5 has, where even just the list of skill groups is like a whole page, and where we've got a nitty-gritty specific skill for being this one type of mechanic, and one skill for jumping versus another skill for landing, and on and on and on. I'm becoming something of a minimalist in my grouchy almost-forty years, where I hate it any time a game system's skill list gets longer, gets more specific, ever. Ever. I adore it when "I want to be the fighty guy" means picking like two or three skills, and being able to handle your job, instead of having to pick out five or six, and then also get two or three "every criminal needs these" skills, and then having to dive into gear and start off with all this must-have stuff, and on and on and on. If half of making your character is already handled by the core mechanic's traps and must-have items, why not avoid and ignore all that, officially start everyone off with that stuff, and call it a day? Why complicate it, and leave all these pitfalls for new players?

So, yeah. I'm a total advocate of the simpler skills, the broader skills, this sort of...broad competence that basically every Anarchy character kind of ends up with. I dig it. Make it faster and easier to just jump in and start telling stories and slinging dice, and I'm a happy dude.

Opti: Well, a lot of that depends on how Anarchy is received. As of now, we are thinking Anarchy will be a one-off, and its system is so flexible that any sourcebook from SR past or present will be able to function as an Anarchy sourcebook as well. Having said that, if people begin demanding further Anarchy products, letting Jason Hardy at Catalyst know your feelings is the quickest way to make that happen!


Wow, thank you so much to Patrick, Opti, and Rusty so much for the interview! Special kudos to Rusty for helping me coordinate with all of these busy schedules. It was really awesome to hear more about the project and what Anarchy means to the team and Shadowrun in general. I hope everyone enjoyed reading! I, for one, am REALLY hoping for more Shadowrun material, especially for a narrative based game like Anarchy! Speaking of which, here's the DriveThruRPG link!

This post was supported by the community on Tell your friends!

To leave some cash in the tip jar, go to

If you'd like to be interviewed for Thoughty, or have a project featured, email

No comments:

Post a Comment