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The greatest game

Originally published at Cogs & Neurons. You can comment here or there.

I wasn’t very successful with girls as a teenager…  Sorry, what I meant to say was that I played roleplaying games a lot as a teenager.

I obviously dabbled a little bit with AD&D, because you sort of have to.  It is the nerd’s gateway drug.  But my real poison of choice was Shadowrun.  Magic and cybernetics in 2020 Seattle.  It was perfect for a bunch of William Gibson obsessed teens living in rural England.  Trust me on this.

Roleplaying is a great collaborative storytelling medium.  I GM’d a lot, and that’s where I really got my first taste of being a storyteller.  We didn’t use officially published games a lot.  Mostly because they cost money.  And then, later on, as I got better as a GM, because it allowed me to craft stories specifically to the group of characters I was playing with.

However, from time to time, we did splurge on an official adventure.  But now, more than ten years later, only one really lives on in my memory.

Despite the cover art, this is a work of staggering genius

The set up for the adventure was pretty simple – the adventurers travel from Seattle to Denver and kidnap a kid to use as leverage in a corporate war.  Pretty standard for a Shadowrun game.  But from there the game starts to differentiate itself.

For starters it offered the players unprecedented freedom in how to carry out the kidnapping.  There were no forced situations.  There was just information.  Reams and reams of it.  Whatever the players wanted to know to help them plan things out, I could find it in the book.  I’ve never seen anything else like it.  It was like the games we wrote ourselves, fast, loose, adaptable.

So that was great, but the real difference came after the kidnapping.  That’s when the players settled in, hunkered down, and prepared for the inevitable firefight that concluded EVERY,  SINGLE Shadowrun game ever.  In fact almost every roleplaying game ever.  That’s how they end, dammit.  In combat.

Except Divided Assets didn’t end that way.  There was the constant slow burn of waiting for it to happen.  But all that happened was that the players had to interact with this kid they had kidnapped.  On and on.  And at first it was weird and a little annoying.  And then the kid became a character, a person.  He, through this forced interaction, became someone they cared about.

And then the players are told to get rid of him.

The kid isn’t needed any more.  The corporate war has moved on and past this point.  Nobody wants this kid.  So what do the players do?

And that’s it.  That’s the end of the module.  It doesn’t end in a hail of bullets and spells.  It ends with a choice.  And, most importantly, a moral choice.  And that’s why it stands out so clearly in my memory. The players were genuinely conflicted over what to do.

And I think there’s a lesson in there about what’s really powerful in fiction and narratives.  I love action scenes as much as the next man.  Possibly more.  Possibly slightly too much.  (I’ve seen Death Race 2, and I didn’t entirely loathe it).  But those scenes are never going to be the most powerful, the most moving.  If readers are invested in a character, then the moment of moral choice is going to be the most powerful.  The most memorable.

They always are for me.