Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Directing Anarchy: Guest Post by Paul Stefko

Hi all! Paul Stefko (Patreon) from Nothing Ventured Games is a good friend of mine, a fantastic designer, and a fellow blogger! He also is a bangin' GM and ran Shadowrun: Anarchy for +John W. Sheldon and me a little while ago. I had a great time! Since I don't typically run games, and Paul knows a lot about being a GM and how GM mechanics worked, I asked him to do a brief guest blog. I hope you enjoy it!


This pic is so wonderfully Paul, I can't even.

I picked up the Prototype edition of Shadowrun Anarchy on the last day of Gen Con 2016. I was intrigued by the idea of a slimmed down, narrative-focused take on the Shadowrun setting. And the price was certainly right at $5. (In fact, it was the last $5 of my discretionary "ooh, shiny" money.)

I had chosen to pass on Shadowrun 5th Edition because it wasn't really different enough from the 4th Edition I had already invested a lot in. Anarchy certainly was different, but not so much that it felt like a complete disconnect from Shadowrun's past. It had familiar features like dice pools, Edge, and karma, and of course all the orcs and trolls and magic of the Sixth World.

But at its core, Shadowrun Anarchy is still an implementation of Catalyst's Cue system, which is far more narrative than the stalwartly traditional mainline Shadowrun. What would it be like at the table? The Cue system features round-robin narration, a currency of plot points to let players shift outcomes in their favor, and a pared down adventure set-up called Contract Briefs.

I got a chance to put Anarchy through its paces late last year. I met with a couple friends, and over Chinese food, we made their characters and played through a complete adventure — the Street Sweeper brief from the Anarchy rulebook — in about three and a half hours. I certainly couldn't complain about speed!

The session was fun, and the rules acquitted themselves well enough, but there were a few places where I felt the system rub up against its own rough edges. By default, Anarchy plays out as a series of "narrations" — each player has a chance to describe how the scene progresses until their character performs some action that requires a roll. All the GM does is set the scene's initial conditions and play NPCs (including rolling for them in opposition to the player's action, when appropriate).

This style of narration requires the players to be both comfortable with and adept at framing their own scenes and setting themselves up for interesting opposition. My players were fairly comfortable with this paradigm, but I still noted they were not really pushing the scenes very far or very hard. At the time, I chalked this up to being unfamiliar with the mechanics beyond just the narration system, but I think now that I was relying too much on the back-and-forth of a traditional GM role. They were asking questions and looking to me for the answers rather than just declaring what happened next, and I was too quick to jump in with additional scene details.

This is probably going to be the biggest source of friction for most gamers, as the rest of Anarchy is actually a pretty standard set of action resolution rules. Once you get to a point in the scene where the outcome of an interesting action is in doubt, the way you roll the dice and count successes is going to feel familiar to most gamers. But getting to that point is the more interesting and less obvious part, and unfortunately, even the full Anarchy rules don't give a lot of advice on how to manage your narrations.

Still, I had a lot of fun running, the players had fun playing, and we decided to give it another try. The second session went just as well, but again, I felt like I was running it too "trad" precisely because the rules didn't provide enough direction to run it any other way. When I get Anarchy back to the table again, I definitely plan to push harder in the direction of player narration, encouraging the players to drive the scenes ahead even farther before with get down to resolving an action.

I think the key to Anarchy is in its name: it wants a little less authority and a little more freedom to push boundaries. I'm looking forward to finding out what that feels like.

Thanks so much Paul for sharing your thoughts and experiences with Shadowrun: Anarchy as a GM! Check out Paul's blog and Patreon for games, design talk, and more!

Patreon proceeds for this post will be distributed to Paul for his contribution to the blog. Thanks for your support!

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