[Cyberpunk/Shadowrun] Standard story format?

edited March 2009 in Story Games
What is the standard story format for a cyberpunk or shadowrun game? This is my guess:

Job leads to Betrayal leads to Chase/Conflict leads to Regrouping/Outfitting leads to Big Battle with True Enemy

Am I close? What kind of scene flow have you seen in your games? I've only played Shadowrun, and then only for two games.


  • That's the so-cliche-its-a-running-gag way of running Shadowrun.

    I used to play Cyberpunk alot and we never had games that intentionally worked like that. Cyberpunk tried to ground itself alot more in the "serious" rather than the "silly".

    The two mini campaigns I remember most in CP2020 were:
    1) a Max Headroomish hack where they players were reporters for a network uncovering high level political corruption. They did in the end discover that the idealist up an comer reformer sold out and alls they accomplished was swapping one crook for another, but there wasn't any direct life threatening betrayal.

    2) a spin on the REO Meatwagon gag where the players were ambulance drivers alternating between a) answering rescue calls, b) answering someone who snapped their gold card and needed an immediate extraction (no matter the danger) and c) cruising for body parts to sell to the body bank. That one was mostly episodic with the driver being "what crazy effed up situation would they find themselves in this week...and would they score enough to repair the van". The body bank guy routinely screwed them, but that was more the same way that the pawn shop guy screws you vs. a typical Shadowrun Mr. Johnson.
  • Yeah...one thing that always baffled me about RPG cyberpunk was how little it corresponded to the source material. Even as a callow youth I knew "New Rose Hotel" wasn't about biotechnology...
  • There are three crime story stories:

    1) I'm a low-life nobody, and I want to become a high-life somebody (Goodfellas)
    2) I'm in and I want out (Layer Cake)
    3) I'm out and for whatever reason I have to go back in (Blade Runner)

    Cyberpunk usually keys into the third type but all three are applicable.
  • Ralph, cool - I'm glad I'm not imagining the whole thing. I like your #2 bit.

    Jared - very helpful breakdown. That's a great way of defining it for me.
  • The betrayal isn't always mandatory. As a matter of fact, if you use it every time, it loses its bite. I tend to run several missions in a row straight. The Johnson isn't telling them everything, and he'll cheat them if he can, but there's no betrayal or double-cross waiting in the wings. I'll even set it up so it LOOKS like there's a betrayal, but it never manifests.

    Then BOOM, in comes the betrayal, after they've begun to let their guard down. Sometimes, it's Company Men coming in to silence the 'runners. Sometimes, it's a bomb waiting at their squat. Maybe Lonestar shows up to the meeting instead of the Johnson.

    As for denoument.. Here's the thing, chummer.. There isn't always a True Enemy. Mostly, it's just business. Sometimes, good business involves establishing reliable special resources. Other times, you've got to cash those SRs in. It's not like they're people.

    I'm also quite fond of the "I'm so sorry I got you involved in this, but I didn't know what else to do!" storyline.

    Someone's in trouble, and they hire the runners to get them out of trouble, usually under false pretenses. In this case, the person with the job is scared and in danger. Maybe their family is being threatened. Maybe they happened across some secret the Corp. will kill to keep. About half the time, they've bought into the trid thinking that Shadowrunners are do-gooders, sticking it to the man in defense of the little guy, other times, they're just desperate and don't know where else to turn. In this, usually the story is way, way bigger than anyone knows, and once the 'runners are in, they can't get out 'cept in a pine box, or by seeing it through to the end.
  • I remember listening to Mike Pondsmith saying that almost every adventure submissionhe got followed that formula of run, betrayal, re-equip, big battle, so yes, I'll agree that was it.

    Think about it, though. A huge portion of how rpgs present cyberpunk is based on Case from Gibson's Neuromancer. Even rockerboys in cyberpunk rpgs behave more like Case than, say, someone from Cadigan's Little Heroes. Bits from other books appear here and there, but a huge amount of the genre remains largely unexplored in rpgs. So yes, you've got the formula if you want to run the classic cyberpunk rpgs, but there's the other 95% of the genre awaiting, should you be willing to adapt the games to handle it.
  • I would say stick to the heist formula: the meet, the deal, the upfront payment, the scoping, the planning/assembling the team, the shopping, the practice run, the nervous day-before, wheels-up time, the heist, the extraction, the after-heist meet, the remaining payoff, getting home safe.

    Now, the heist is typically where things go toes-up if they are gonna, but any of the steps could throw a rattle in the spokes. Lets look at Firefly examples : Bad dealers (the Pilot ep), the missing secret of why the deal goes down (Trash), you put your rep up and now you don't want the job (The Train Job), Betrayal on the Inside (Ariel), etc. Sometimes is plays straight, with some operational hassles (Jaynestown).

    Any heist movie or plot will work out. It would be a nice aside to see if you could run Ocean's Eleven for a cyberpunk crew, for example.
  • For what it's worth, I ran Shadowrun steadily for about four years without a single betrayal. Seriously.

  • When I used to run Shadowrun, back in the day, there was one time when a Johnson betrayed the PCs. I think it was part of a published scenario, though I can't remember which one.

    The things the PCs did to that guy and everyone he loved and everyone he owed money to made Keyser Söze look like a punk. The idea that after that anyone would betray the PCs without a nuclear bomb strapped to them seemed... well, it would rather strain credulity.

    Anyway, the thing about Shadowrun and Cyberpunk, IME, is that they aren't the same game. Shadowrun always ran best when it was 80's future D&D -- with corporate strongholds, urban sprawls, and gang holdouts replacing dungeons, and the Johnson replacing the guy you meet in a bar. It was very mission oriented, very much based on having various choke points, location based events, and interesting tactical situations just like in a good game of D&D. Cyberpunk, otoh, was more like an early story game for my group. It ran best when it was about the goals and motivations of the PCs as semi-time losers trying to either get out or make it big (as the Sorenson points out) and the personal shit they and other semi-time losers put each other through. Fights and tactical action were rare, sporadic, and likely to end with PC death when they happened -- so everyone played it cautious and tended more towards murders and beatings than fights.

    So, a typical Shadowrun adventure would probably look like this:

    Johnson (or more personal contact) hires characters to do a run.

    Characters scope the place out. 1 of 3 things happens:

    1) They realize to get into this place they have to get into another place first. Examples: They have to break into another facility to get the passcodes to the main one, or they have to do a matrix run to get fake IDs, or they have to kidnap an execs child to force him to open the door.

    2) They realize someone they know and/or care about and/or hate like hell works or is involved with the place they're breaking into and that it could compromise either them or the run. So they have to do something else in order to take care of that.

    3) They get caught scoping the place and have a running escape fight, which leads to complications as they now have to break into a place while being hunted by people from the place.

    We'd then deal with the resolution of whichever of those happened (sometimes multiples, natch). There would be infiltration missions, defense missions, gear acquisition missions, and dealing with contacts who have sticky personal agendas missions. Usually it would include at least one big gun battle, astral run, or matrix mission.

    After that there would be the big dungeon run, which would be a strike against a heavily armed, heavily secured, and intelligently operating stronghold of one type or another. Here is where the maps, the miniguns, and the full on dungeon delve experience would happen, with massive blow out fights and spectacular events either of carnage, duplicity, amazing escapes, or clever plans.

    For a basic mission things would end there. For a more complicated mission there would either be 1) retaliation from the corp, 2) another thing they had to get because only part of the target was available for the first run, 3) a chase as someone tried to get the dingus away from the characters or as the characters made their frantic escape with the dingus, or 4) some personally sticky thing as it turns out the PCs didn't insulate their connections as well as they thought they did.

    Anyway, those would all often involve a return to the "scope and 3 things happen" phase, with a new dungeon or mode of adventure to be had. So if we'd already had a matrix run, now it was time for an infiltration or an astral run. Repeat until all the characters have done their niche protected thing and their resources have been taxed.

    If this looks like a D&D module, well... I told you so.

    Cyberpunk, otoh, didn't have anything like so formalized a game structure. A typical session would involve something like a difficult relationship from the past manifesting in the ongoing situation, tough choices, some brutal violence upon an unsuspecting victim, some wheeling and dealing, and whoever the PCs had pissed on recently unraveling plots to piss on the PCs. Its the kind of play that these days get the kids all excited about, say, PTA.
  • Thanks, Brand, that really helped, too. I see now that my big problem is not realizing the distinction immediately. While Shadowrun is about shadowrunning, cyberpunk for me is about redefining humanity and such. Now I see why the two don't mesh very well.
  • The Shadowrun team is contacted by a Johnson, friend, contact, or stranger.

    They meet at the team's hangout, in a remote location, in the Matrix, in the Astral, or in crowded location.

    The team is offered money, revenge, favors, power, gear, or the chance to pay a debt.

    The job requires investigation, theft, blackmail, distraction, counterfeit, protection, extraction, security, destruction, assassination, enforcement, retrieval, transport or smuggling.

    The job is located in the runner's city, another city, another country, wilderness, desert, underwater, space, Astral or Matrix.

    The team performs legwork, talks to contacts, does research, acquires special gear or hires freelance help.

    Complications arise, the job details are different than told, unexpected security, contact double crosses you, an enemy interferes, you are competing with another team to complete the job, you are on a suicide mission, your job is meant as a distraction while another team completes the real job, you are setup as a scapegoat, your contact disappears, dies or is kidnapped.

    After the job, your contact adequately rewards you, underpays you, gives you a bonus, recommends you to others, tries to negotiation the fee down, tries to eliminate the team, hands the team over to the authorities or their enemies.

    Were there any loose ends? Evidence left behind? Was anyone's unwanted attention drawn? Were new allies or enemies made? How has the team's reputation changed?
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