The next few posts on Surprise Threat will be a sort of primer on how to start playing Shadowrun: Anarchy. The shared-storytelling, rules-light system can be awkward to grasp when transitioning from a crunch-heavy system like Shadowrun 5e and it can be even more bewildering when starting from the ground up.
We are going to build this primer by expanding our scope from the smallest unit of storytelling to the largest – from Narrations to Scenes to Contract Briefs to Campaign Arcs. There are untold ways to build these storytelling units within a roleplaying game and no one way is right, as long as it works for your table. But, as with everything on this site, these are how they work best for me and they might help some players and GMs get past some initial hurdles and get on their way to crafting cool, memorable stories.
Let’s start with The Narration.
THE SET UP
To start your Narrations, you are going to want a few more things:
Lots of Dice: Not as many as in SR5, but about 18 or so should be enough.
Glitch Dice: Each player will need a die of a different size or color to represent the Glitch Die, rolled when using the Live Dangerously Plot Point.
Plot Point Tokens: You should have about 5 Plot Point tokens per player and at least 5 more set aside for the GM. Plot Points should be spent liberally and granted liberally so they are changing hands constantly. Poker chips and any abundant game pieces work nicely. I use the nuyen tokens from the Shadowrun: Encounters game.
Narration or Initiative Trackers: Because initiative can shift with Shake it up Plot Points and actions can be taken out of order with A Dish Best Served Cold (Get Revenge) attacks, if you do not keep track of whose Narration it is and who has already narrated this Turn, it can get confusing. Some sort of tracker can help. I use colored index cards that players flip when they narrate.
Role-playing Notes for Tags, Cues, Dispositions: Players should have these before you get started with the first session. The game is far more fulfilling with them than without. They can always change later as the character evolves but don’t leave them blank. See here for why.
Narrations are the building blocks of the Scene. There are three distinct types of Narrations within a Scene: The First GM Narration, the Player Narrations, and then the Subsequent GM Narrations. Each type needs to address a different set of narrative conditions, so we will handle each a little differently.
FIRST GM NARRATION
The first Narration of the Scene is arguably the most important. It is the player’s introduction to the Scene and possibly the whole Contract Brief. This is the first opportunity for the GM to establish the foundation on which the players will build the story. You should consider doing the following:
Establish the Setting: Scenes happen in a place. The first Narration of the Scene needs to firmly establish the place in which your players are acting. Is it interior or exterior? Light or dark? Open or cramped? Can you name it? Is it the “Boston NeoNET Tower 4” or the “Redmond Barrens Stuffer Shack 221”? Though you are creating this story together, if you start your players in a nebulous cloud of possibilities, your players will have nothing to work with. They could flounder or meander without guidance so establish the basics here.
Also, with the abstract range and movement system that Anarchy uses, it becomes even more important for the players to understand their surroundings. They need to grasp their surroundings so that they can adjust them in ways that make sense. Here is a previous post about mapping without maps.
Establish the Conflict: If you have ever had a GM force players to roleplay eating breakfast or roleplay lounging around the hideout before your Fixer calls, you know that a Scene without Conflict can be tedious. Even if the players do not immediately know what the Conflict of the Scene is, there should be Conflict, and it should be firmly established, to you as the GM. Conflict could be physical, mental, social, moral or any other type.
I subscribe to the philosophy that the Conflict is NOT the NPC; the Conflict is the REASON the NPC cannot let the players complete their Objective. So, the Conflict is NOT the Corporate Security. The Conflict is that the Corporate Security gets paid to stop intruders from entering the building. This distinction allows for more methods (Vectors) for the players to accomplish their objectives.
Sure, if the CorpSec is dead, he cannot keep doing his job. But also, if the CorpSec thinks he is about to be dead (Intimidation), he might not be getting paid enough to keep doing his job. If the CorpSec gets another source of income (Negotiation), he might be willing to overlook intruders and risk his job. If the CorpSec doesn’t notice an intruder (Stealth), he can’t properly do his job. If the CorpSec doesn’t recognize the players as intruders (Con/Disguise), then he might think that he is doing his job. Clearly establishing the Conflict is going to be important for later.
Describe Three Things: Get the players into a cinematic mindset by describing three things in a Scene. Any three things. Pick three things that are either vital, interesting, or obvious and describe them in a sentence or two. They could be NPCs, objects, a sensation, or simply the ambiance of the Setting.
Try not to exceed three. Studies show that a sequence of three points of information takes up about as much brain power as an infinite sequence. So, once you have described three things to the players, anything else just gets muddied together and the players will likely remember only the first and last things you described.
After the GM sets the Scene in motion with their first Narration, the players then take turns with their own Narrations, each one building on the last. Every player will have different motivations and different levels of comfort with this part. Some players will be comfortable with elaboration and evocative descriptions and some will not. That is ok. Remember that if players get stuck, they have their Tags, Cues, and Dispositions to help. I find that the most satisfying Narrations, ones that contribute best to the story and are easiest to work with, answer the following questions:
What are You Doing? Most Narrations will allow a player character to make one Movement and one Attack Action (or its equivalent). Not every action or Test is an Attack Action, however. Other Tests might accompany or precede the Attack Action, depending on what you want to accomplish and how. If you want to sneak up and stab a guy, there might be a Stealth Test along with the Close Combat Test.
What are You Thinking? Let the other players or at least the GM into your inner dialogue. Stating your intentions and motivations is a good way to bond with your character, a good way to demonstrate Cues and Dispositions, and a good way to stop misunderstandings before they occur. If you say, “I want to sneak into the room around the corner because I want to tend to my gunshot wound,” the GM can make sure that you understand that around the corner are those three hellhounds you saw earlier. Maybe pick a different room…
What is Happening Around You? Depending on how much freedom the group wants to give and how much control the GM wants to release, you should be able to narrate the actions of others around you to a degree. It could make sense for you to narrate your whole team sneaking through the hallway together rather than each player going down the hallway one at a time, in their own Narrations. If you say, “I sneak to the door while the guard is distracted,” it could make sense to detail what is distracting him. The GM will let you know if spending a Plot Point would be appropriate.
SUBSEQUENT GM NARRATIONS
After the players have had their Narrations, play goes back around to the GM. You may have interrupted players with Plot Points like Shake it up, Take the Hit, A Dish Best Served Cold (Get Revenge), or Surprise Threat! but the Narration should always come back the GM before any player narrates again. You need to redress the Scene and make adjustments to the pacing or the structure of the overall narrative.
Re-establish the Setting: Make sure that all the players know what is going on and what has happened by re-establishing the Setting. Everyone needs to be on the same page and this is your chance to clarify. Has the whole Scene moved? Have new actors been introduced? Has the mood of the Scene shifted dramatically? Have Objectives been achieved? Are they still possible to achieve?
It is also a good time to make sure that the numbers/crunch have not overshadowed the story/fiction. Describe three more things to keep the cinematic mindset up.
Re-evaluate the Conflict: After your players have had their Narrations, the status of the Conflict may have changed. Before you decide what the actions of the NPCs are, take a moment to consider if the Conflict has been resolved, subverted, or has evolved. It might be time to start moving toward the end of the Scene or to introduce more Conflict or a different type of Conflict. Maybe it should move from Physical Conflict to Moral Conflict (the players beat the guard down; do they kill him?) or from Mental Conflict to Social Conflict (the NPCs have exposed the truth; can they be convinced to look the other way?).
Having established the Conflict in the First GM Narration is key to re-evaluating the Conflict. Continually re-evaluating the Conflict is key to having exciting Scenes that are realistic, dynamic, and meaningful.
Run the actions of the NPCs: Only after you have re-established the Setting and re-evaluated the Conflict, should you take control of the NPCs and resolve their actions. It might be time for them to escalate the Conflict, change their tactics, take drastic measures, or even capitulate. When you understand that the Conflict is not the NPCs themselves, it is their REASONS, you can make realistic and dynamic decisions on what they will do next.
Here is also your chance to narrate with inclusivity. If a player has not done anything exciting in a while, do something exciting to them. You may think that you are doing the face or decker a favor by not threatening them, but in fact, you might be ignoring them, or worse – boring them. Fill their lives with excitement, just like you would the street samurai. We will talk more about Spotlight Time when we talk about Scenes.
So, there you have it. Three short steps to take with three different types of Narrations. Not every Narration is going to address every step. Obviously, not all Narrations have to be structured like this, but it can help to have a structure, at least until you get into a flow of your own.
Not every Narration has to be introspective or thoughtfully measured. Narrations will often become faster, shorter, and more reactive as the pace of the Scene ramps up toward the climax. But it is a good idea to take a step back every so often and consider the Narrations to make sure that they are weaving the sort of story that you want to weave.
The Narration | The Scene | The Contract Brief | The Campaign Arc