Shadowrun: Damage Control (Boardroom Backstabs)
Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs
Cost: $14.99 ($8.00 PDF)
Release Date: 03/24/2012
Get It Here: DriveThruRPG.com
I’m a pretty big fan of the current incarnation of Shadowrun. I find the writing to be well done and entertaining. I like that the public adventures are often outside the box. I love everything about Shadowrun Missions. I like the art and the overall direction the Sixth World is going. Hell, Shadowrun won our 2011 RPG System of the Year award because Catalyst Games Labs had really outdone itself. Unfortunately, sometimes they put out sometimes I just don’t enjoy. Conspiracy Theories was one of those, as it was written as if whoever picked it up knew everything there was to know about every last detail about the campaign setting and the history of the Sixth World. It was wonderful if you’ve been playing Shadowrun since the FASA days but was over the heads of anyone else. Then there’s something like Damage Control, which is the first in CGL’s new “Boardroom Backstab” line of adventures. This particular adventure also suffered from the huge faux pas of players needing to know almost every metaplot detail that CGL has put out over the past few years to make the adventure even remotely interesting to players, but it suffered from many other problems, from typographical to storytelling. Let’s just say that if I’m reading a Shadowrun adventure and I come across two misspellings of the word “shadowrunners” as “sahdowrunners,” I’m going to have to assume that the adventure as a whole was treated as a throwaway and/or some half assed drek by the publisher. After all, you’re not going to see White Wolf misspell “Masquerade” as “maskerade” or the phrase “Dungoens & Dragons” in a TSR/WotC product…
Messing up a variant of the very title of the system isn’t the only error in Damage Control. The entire piece honestly reads like an editor didn’t even look at it. There are misspellings throughout the piece and at other times, a word (or words) from a phrase or sentence is either missing or…something. When this is the second sentence of the actual adventure content (“In her speech, Hestaby took a step in her speech appalled many parties.”), and it just snowballs from there, you have to wonder how this made it past editing. Catalyst Game Labs is usually very good about catching these things, but lately, the editing team has really been off its game. Maybe they’re putting out too much too quickly and overtaxing their staff.
Of course, bad editing alone doesn’t make an adventure bad. The Twilight Horizon had more than its share of typos and I still loved that adventure collection. Here everything just…I don’t know. It just didn’t hold up under scrutiny and honestly, it felt like a fan published piece rather than the polished professional products (how’s that for alliteration?) that CGL usually puts out. So let’s break down exactly what’s wrong with the adventure and once we’re done with all that, we’ll look at what’s right.
First off the plot itself. The PCs will be engaging in six scenes, five of which are in Dubai. This is all well and good, but the plot revolves completely around the dragon Hestaby’s attack on the mega-corporation Saeder-Krupp, destroying one of their biggest locations. This in turn came about after Hestaby’s speech at the UN which was followed by a close ally being assassinated shortly thereafter. Now Saeder-Krupp is trying to pick up the pieces of its operations, maintain its status as the largest corporation in the world, and fend off rivals who want to pick its operations apart and gain some new clients (and thus income) from the fallout. Now this is all well and good if you’ve read, say, Conspiracy Theories, State of the Art 2073, and a few other books that shed light not only on recent meta-plot developments but also Saeder-Krupp and Dubai in general. Unfortunately, that is only a fraction of the audience Shadowrun has. Not everyone has a large disposable income or gets free copies of every game out there. For those people that can only purchase a few supplements, core rulebooks or whatever a year, they’re going to be more than a little lost in regards to the entire crux of this adventure. The key to a good adventure is to remember that it may very well be someone’s first purchase after the core rulebook. It needs to be accessible to newcomers or casual fans alike, but Damage Control is pretty much written with the assumption that everyone who picks it up not only owns everything CGL has put out, but knows all the general plot points of each piece. As such, this becomes a piece with an exceptionally small audience. When you have to spend between twenty-six and thirty-eight dollars and then read supplemental material to even begin to make an adventure relatable to a group, it’s neither well thought out or well designed. Three paragraphs of “background” really isn’t enough for an adventure that is this steeped in meta-plot background and dragon politics.
Then there are the scenes. Out of the six, the first five are, well…extremely generic. I get that the Boardroom Backstabs are meant to be a bit old school and I appreciate that. The problem is that each of those scenes just feel like they could be in any other adventure. They don’t feel actually connected to each other save for a paragraph of dialogue between each one that basically consists of “Good Job. Take a break. Your break is over. Here is your new assignment.” Because of that, the missions feel oddly disjointed and it’s really up to the GM to hold everything together with a lot of padding that’s not actually in the adventure itself. The first five scenes are your general ones: interview with a very discerning Johnson (done that, been there), research gathering from two locations, research gathering from some more locations, wetworks, and finally sabotage. These are all well and good adventure bits and honestly, they are timeless Shadowrun plot points. My issue is that nothing really stands out about any of them. A couple of them are even pulled directly from previous adventures I’ve reviewed in the past year, just with names and locations changed. Take this for example: You’ll be trying to track down some info and you have a choice of four contacts. Two will aid you and two will hinder you. This is not only the exact same plot point from a recently published adventure set in Bogata, but it’s the same situation with the same number of contacts and the same percentage trying to screw you. Hell, even the screw job attempts are very similar. The more you use a trope, the more it needs to feel different from previous attempts. Otherwise players get wise and potentially bored or uninterested. Here it really feels like the situation was dropped from one warm sweaty humid place into a warm sweaty arid place. I’m not down with that.
Then there’s the sixth scene which is the boiling point on the biggest problem I had with this adventure. Throughout Damage Control, it really reads and feels like “DM vs Players,” which is perhaps the biggest faux pas a published adventure can make. With my playtesting group over Skype, we were all incredulous at how the adventure felt like, “KILL YOUR PLAYERS DEAD!” It’s one generic situation after another with ever increasing bounties on the PCs from multiple sources. By the time you hit scene six there is no logistical way that your team of PCs doesn’t constantly have hits on them – especially for the money involved. This completely takes away from the actual fun of an RPG and has players micromanaging every little detail due to, not paranoia, but an expectation that people really are out to get them. Scene Six makes it all the worse when your characters are basically in a Sixth World equivalent of the “Kobiyashi Maru.” I’m not a Star Trek fan by any means, but this is an apt description because it’s not only a lose-lose situation, but one where your characters are pretty much guaranteed to die horribly. You know those video game RPG battles that are set up where your character has to lose to move the story on? Well, it’s like that, except there is no moving the story on. Your characters die. The whole plot of the sixth scene is so badly done, that it again reaffirms my belief that no one looked at or edited this adventure. For those that want full disclosure – the next paragraph is 100% spoiler.
In scene six you are lied to by your Johnson and you extract two terrorists for him. Unfortunately this extraction pisses off a great dragon to the point where it puts out A MILLION DOLLAR NUYEN BOUNTY on the player’s heads. How insane is that? A million nuyen from a great dragon basically ensures everyone in the Sixth World will be gunning for you constantly and perpetually. You are now stuck in a scenario where you and the players are waiting for the characters to die horribly. Hell, one of my players even pointed out that if a PC is amoral enough, they’d plug their own teammates for a bounty that size, get massive surgery, and then say, “The last one got away.” If you refuse to do the scene, you basically piss off a different great dragon. The game also strongly suggests that after you complete the adventure, the employer should betray the players to protect themselves from a potential info leak. Sigh. Either do one or the other – not both. That’s just insane. Again, the only way out after scene six is for your characters to die. It’s just a matter of when, how, and by whom. This whole scene is just so terribly done in every way possible that it is all but impossible for players or the DM running it to have fun with it. Again, I don’t see how this thing made it through editorial or quality control, as it’s one of those adventure that will just piss off everyone that plays or runs it. I guess if you’re sick of your group and want to kill them, this is an excellent adventure for doing so. Everyone else though…should stay far away from it.
So after all that, what does Damage Control do right? Well, it’s laid out nicely. Things are organized rather well and the adventure does give ideas for making the adventure easier or harder based on the PC’s involved. It has a nice appendix for NPC stats at the end of each scene and a really well done two page section on Dubai to help a GM flesh out where the adventure takes place. The adventure also gives some nice tips for turning Damage Control into a full campaign, along with some added side stories to pad things out. That’s a really great idea. Unfortunately, it’s wasted on this particular adventure. Finally, the adventure realizes that a lot of gamers (and thus their PCs) will be uncomfortable or flat out refuse to do scene four. As such, they give alternatives to the assignment as well as the option of skipping over it. I really like that as it shows that they are keeping all potential players in mind. It’s the only instance of Damage Control doing this, but it’s very much appreciated.
All in all, Damage Control isn’t a total waste and I can see how a very small portion of players could feasibly enjoy this, but most people are just going to be pissed playing through this thing and, worse, potentially get pissed at the person running the show. Damage Control is just poorly edited, poorly thought out, and poorly written. It really shouldn’t have been released for sale without some balancing, story tweaking and a lot of editing. It’s not the worst tabletop product I’ve reviewed, nor even the worst I’ve reviewed in 2012 so far. It is, however, the absolute worst Shadowrun product I’ve read/played through in a very long time. I realize this review will probably come too late for the people who need it most, but remember, just because you buy something doesn’t mean you have to actually play through it. Besides, if you already bought it, there’s some interesting metaplot bits. It’s just they come at the expense of your PCs’ lives. Well, as much of a life as a piece of paper can have anyway.