Shadowrun: Storm Front
Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs
Page Count: 202
Cost: $34.99 ($25.00 PDF)
Release Date: 03/13/2013
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com
Storm Front isn’t your usual Shadowrun tome of this size. Of the 202 pages (which include the covers, 188 are pure metaplot fiction. The rest is either some light bits or plot hooks to use in your campaign, ads, or character stats. Now I realize that most people would balk at paying between twenty five and thirty-five dollars for a paperback, as they usually run under ten dollars. So it’s understandable that many would take one look at the price tag on this book and balk. I don’t blame them in the slightest. This is an exceptionally expensive piece of fiction and to be honest, after reading the thing twice, I’m still not sure if it’s worth it or not. Oh sure, Storm Front ends a lot of Fourth Edition plotlines and set ups the frame work for Shadowrun, Fifth Edition which will be released later this year, but Storm Front is just so all over the place I constantly have conflicting feelings about this book as both a critic and a fan of the Sixth World. In my opinion the book has some truly terrible editorial direction going on that is all too reminiscent of late 90s WCW. Sometimes the writing saves the said editorial mandate while when paired with bad writing well, it just make you feel like 5e is going to be as ill-written and received as 3e. On the reverse side there are some great editorial decisions made all the more awesome by the writing which has me pumped for Fifth Edition, and some decisions I liked tempered by poor writing. Like I said, Storm Front is all over the place in terms of writing and quality and honestly, it’s made me go from super excited for Fifth Edition to cautiously optimistic about what’s coming and that’s probably not a good thing that a single release could dampen my enthusiasm. So this review will be looking at each section and my thoughts on each. This review is also extremely spoiler heavy, because there is no way to review this release without spoilers. So if you don’t want things spoiled, I can sum up Storm Front as a book that goes from one extreme to the other quality-wise but that the good outweighs the bad and that’s what counts.
Before we begin though, there are two big reasons NOT to buy this book. The first is if you don’t care about the metaplot and just want mechanics. If you’re into that category or are just plain set on sticking with say, the 2050s, this book is going to be of absolutely no use or value to you. The other is if you are new to Shadowrun or someone interested in returning to the game after leaving for a while (like those that didn’t care for 4E/20AE) and were considering picking up Fifth Edition. Storm Front makes absolutely no attempt to be newcomer friendly and if I gave this to someone new to the game or even a casual fan, they would be completely lost, finding much of the text to be incomprehensible gibberish. Storm Front is written pretty much ONLY for people who have purchased everything put out for Shadowrun in the last few years and know every small detail about the metaplot. I’ve been noticing that the releases for Shadowrun have been getting more and more insular, as if the books are being written more for the people writing the game than people interested in playing the game and it’s definitely becoming more of a product where you pretty much have to pick up every release that comes out lest you be lost on some metaplot point, thus effectively barring newcomers from understanding or caring about the game. This worries me because right now Shadowrun is going down the same path that killed White Wolf’s original World of Darkness where say Third Edition Vampire: The Masquerade books were written in such a way that they assumed you owned and have read every book for the game that came before it. The parallels between what White Wolf did and what CGL is doing are pretty apparent and it has me worried. Thankfully, CGL can turn this around with the release of Fifth Edition but honestly, I don’t know if they will, or even want to. Here’s hoping Fifth Edition is FAR more newcomer friendly than the last two+ years of 4E release have been.
So the first big plot point to be wrapped up is the Aztech/Amazonia war. The bad news is that this section is terrible on pretty much every level possible. Bad writing, bad editorial direction, bad everything. The fact this section starts off the book will have some put down the PDF or physical copy in their hands without reading the rest because it really is that bad. The good news is, the book only goes up in quality from here and that FINALLY, the whole Bogata conflict is over. From WAR! on, the entire Bogata conflict was something a lot of fans complained about and yet Catalyst Game Labs refused to drop it. It was a definite disconnect between the people putting out the game and the people playing it. So thankfully, the conflict has ended. In truth though, it hasn’t REALLY ended; just shifted a little, which means valuable pages and adventures in collections will still be devoted to this whole affair instead of content Shadowrun gamers actually WANT.
Here’s the thing. The Bogata conflict was as close to black and white as it gets in the Sixth World. Amazonia = good. Aztlan = EEEEVIL. We’re talking Monsanto paired with human sacrifice and Captain Power style villains running the show EVIL. Now while the metaplot for these bits were generally in favor of Amazonia winning, the bulk of adventures that took place in the region had players working for Amazonia. So in either case, you would assume that the conflict would end with Amazonia winning. Because after all, doing it the other way is another way of saying, “Hey players, all your work was for nothing. HA HA HA!” It would basically be akin to again, the last few adventures White Wolf put out for the Original World of Darkness where the players were secondary to the metaplot and were more along for the ride than doing anything of note. To this day, White Wolf is still criticized for doing this and one would think every other gaming company out there would learn from that, right?
Well, not here. Aztlan not only wins, but they win HUGE. Worst of all the way they win is the sloppiest I’ve seen Shadowrun get in a long time via a magical previously unrevealed MacGuffin. Aztlan also just doesn’t win the war, but they gain huge public sympathy and damn near kill Sirrug, a great dragon to boot. Not a single thing in this section sits well with me, either as a fan of the Sixth World or as a professional critic. It’s pretty bad in all respects. I get that Aztechnology has been and always will be one of the biggest forces of pure unadulterated evil in the Sixth World, going back to the FASA days. I’m fine with that. What I’m not fine with is a) that they won because it totally dilutes the majority of adventures put out for this region, b) it puts weaponry powerful enough to take down Great Dragons in the hands of Megacorps. There’s Power Creep and then there is this something that simply can’t be rebottled. It’s a horrible idea no matter how you look at it because it’s simply too powerful, and c) Good needs to win at least ONCE in a while in the Sixth World, which I haven’t seen happen in a long time under the reigns of CGL. Pretty much everything just has the world getting worse with bad somehow squeaking a win over good. Sure Shadowrun is a dark game but holy crap it’s NOT Warhammer 40,000. As well, Aztlan needed to lose here, especially with the huge gains they make in another part of the book. A loss here wouldn’t have made them any less powerful and certainly less of a threat to the Sixth World in general. What CGL COULD HAVE DONE was let Amazonia win as a thank you to the players that actually cared about the Bogata conflict and shown that their participating in the adventures had some noticeable effect on the world at large. Instead though, CGL has gone the route of a swerve in the face of good writing for the sake of a swerve. Again, that late 90s WCW effect. Basically Aztlan is pretty much nWo-ish right now in that the bad guys not only don’t ever really lose (save for very small battles), and then they dominate via MacGuffins and strange plot twists to the point where it’s not fun or interesting to read about them anymore (The fact this causes me to lose my suspension of disbelief in a game with Sasquatch deckers and Insect Spirits tells you how bad this is) anymore. Eventually people stopped watching WCW in droves because of the now dominance and again, Shadowrun is following another set of parallels that ended in the demise on a long running popular product. Red flags ahoy kids. 0 for 1.
The next big plot point in Storm Front is the end of the Dragon Civil War. This is one section where good writing saved some poorly thought out editorial direction. I mean, the Dragon Civil War has been going on since a little over a year in terms of real time, and about that in-game time. Even the big book for dragon wackiness, The Clutch of Dragons just came out in August 2012! As well, these are creatures who spend years or even decades and centuries to take specific actions, so for the dragon war to come to an end so quickly just doesn’t feel right or realistic considering how it was built up and it just doesn’t jibe with the characterization and/or continuity of these beings since Shadowrun first came to be. Such a wasted opportunity here to put out a some adventures (maybe even a collection) and more. The fact the whole Bogata thing got years (and still is carrying on somewhat) and the Dragon Civil War got a fraction of that time has me wondering what the heck is going on behind the scenes there at CGL.
The good news is that even though I have a minor quibble about the editorial direction here, the writing of this section is top notch. You get multiple reports on what exactly happened when the forces of Lowfyr and Alamais finally do battle. There is a lot of dragon death in this one, almost to the point where it’s overkill and you have to wonder how many are actually left in the Sixth World after this, but the battle descriptions are top notch and you’ll glued to the edge of your PDF here. You’ll get to here from those that were on both sides on the conflict and the sheer level of carnage that ensued. When all is said and done, there is one less Great Dragon in the world, and it should be fairly obvious which one went down for the count.
Besides a recap on the big bad brawl, you are also given a bit of insight as to what happened at the Great Dragon conclave that followed shortly thereafter. HUGE changes have occurred here including a new Loremaster, and the fates of both Sirrug and Hestaby are revealed. The Sirrug reveal is massively anti-climatic on its own, but doubly so considering what happened to him against Aztlan. It’s very much a wimpy cop out, but at least an adventure or two can be had out of trying to find him. Hestaby’s fate I have mixed emotions about. While well written, it’s hard to believe that such a fate could actually occur considering she’s up there with Lowfy and the Sea Dragon as the big three Great Dragon you probably least want to mess with, not to mention she’s arguably the best spellcaster (although Lung may disagree) in her race. I’m having a hard time seeing the punishment stick or last and it’s a shame the section didn’t do more to expand on what Hestaby will do now that she has literally lost everything. Of course, that’s probably being saved for Fifth Edition. So minor quibbles here, but I found the writing to be excellent and where the whole Bogata resolution had me rolling my eyes, the Dragon Civil War fallout has me excitedly anticipating what is next. 1 for 2.
Section Three is the beginning of the end for Seattle Mayor Kenneth Brackhaven. This is a section that I think is pretty much excellent in all respects save for the fact it’s odd they are doing this right after his successful re-election. I liked that implication that Brackhaven is suffering from the same issue that is plaguing poor Fastjack (more on that later) and it had me wondering what the two could have in common (it’s alluded too later in the book). Seattle has always been THE location of locations for Shadowrun and with Brackhaven apparently going Call of Cthulhu levels of crazy and his government falling apart at the seams, there is a plethora of great ideas that DMs and the writers at CGL can throw out with barely even thinking about it. A lot of dirt is exposed here and Seattle appears to be the center for a lot of activity in Fifth Edition. I also loved that they gave you a list of adventures from the Shadowrun Missions line that directly affected this eventual fallout, which means if you’re late to the party, you can grab all the pertinent adventures (reasonably priced at $3.95 a pop) and do a campaign with your gaming pals. The storyline might even work better now with Storm Front and the full season of adventures released as you aren’t in the dark as to how things will eventually turn out.
One of the other fun things about this fallout is that you can conceivably run a campaign around this entire plot bit without having any Shadowrunners in your party. Maybe your players are all Lone Star employees hoping to get that security contract back now that we know WHY they lost it. Perhaps the team are all FBI agents working to bring Brackhaven down. Hell, they could even be government employees working for Brackhaven caught up in this whole affair. There are so many options here and I love it. 2 for 3.
Section four is all about Denver and like Bogata, I think this fell apart horribly due to editorial direction. I’m not sure if I feel the writing just made things worse or if it salvaged the ideas here at best they can. The end result is just a hodge podge of crap though. I mean, it started off fine with the idea of Ghostwalker becoming more and more tyrannical and metahumanity becoming second class citizens compared to free spirits. This is all good, but it quickly falls apart . Whether it’s the idea of watching Harlequin Vs. Ghostwalker in a battle that belongs more in Dungeons & Dragons thanShadowrun, the fact Aztechnology gains a massive foothold in a city they were once all but barred from, or the fact the entire section felt like CGL was backpeddaling back to the status quo of First and Second Edition Shadowrun left me really disappointed in what I read here. Again we have the whole “push Aztechnology like it was the nWo” bit going on, which is annoying. If they got this, they definitely needed to lose in Bogata. To have both is just bad planning unless of course, they really ARE trying to return Denver to the FASA days, which is just not a good idea. I mean I love Second Edition. It’s my favorite version of Shadowrun, but if I want to play in the Denver from the FASA era I’d use those rules. No one wants to see things go back to the way they were twenty years ago. If you’re going to change things, leave them changed instead of going from one extreme to the other.
The Aztlan power grab isn’t my only issue. The Harlequin Vs. Ghostwalker battle was so laughably bad in concept and execution, you have to wonder who vetted it. It gets even worse when you realize that the entire level of anarchy and disarray Denver is thrown into is caused by Puck of all characters. Not only does it become completely unrealistic that Puck isn’t immediately killed horribly by several Jackpointers, but if you recall, CGL recently published a canon adventure where Puck can easily die if the players don’t do things in an exact manner. So if Puck died in your game, how do you resolve this metaplot without him unless you want to cheapen the adventure your players ran through? Again this is one of those White Wolf OWoD parallels where it became about hamfisting a story on players first, and the actual playing of the game second. I don’t think this is intentional, as I think they (writers and editors) either forgot about this adventure or they just assumed most people wouldn’t actually play it. Either way, it’s another big red flag. Anyway, if Puck isn’t horribly and brutally eviscerated by the time 5e comes out, I will be extremely disappointed because there’s simply no way he isn’t Public Enemy #1 with most of JackPoint. Of course, you do finish the section going, “Well shit, maybe Clockwork is right to think the way he does about Technomancers some of the time” and that’s well…unnerving. Just another truly bad section. 2 for 4.
Section five is all about Ares. Now, much like the entire Bogata conflict, the whole “Ares Excalibur is a crappy weapon” went on for far too long and most people either didn’t care or outright thought it was stupid. However, unlike the Bogata conflict, this part of Storm Front makes lemonade out of lemons unlike the first section of the book which took lemons and somehow made rancid feces out of them. A lot of this section hints at what is to come with Ares and Insect Spirits and also continues the groundwork set in the adventure Sacrificial Limb. You really do need to have read/played Sacrificial Limb to see where CGL is taking Ares. However, since the next season of Shadowrun Missions is set in Bug City, you can probably hold off on the spoilers in the aforementioned adventure and experience it for yourself that way. Sure the majority of this section is a recap of the stupid things Ares did and the canon experiences of several adventures related to the Excalibur that were published in some adventure collections, but it’s all secondary compared to the foreshadowing this section contained. 3 for 5.
Section six is the fallout from the recent Tir Tairngire election. I’m sad to see High Prince Larry go as he was a fun and interesting character, but since Shadowrun moves more or less in real time, it had to happen eventually. I do think the new High Prince is a bit of a dull choice that makes the Tir a less interesting place, but it’s also a choice that makes the most sense logistics-wise. The way the Tir elections are held, this is exactly as I would have expected things to go down. Which is neither bad nor good; it simply is. I can’t deny that I was hoping for Rex to somehow win, but if they actually pulled the trigger on that, I’d have been shocked and wondering how they would be able to justify it story-wise, even it would have made for a ton of potential story hooks and adventures. Also nice to see the return of ol’ Grimmy the Grimoire! The Tir section is well written and hopefully the shakeup here means we’ll see a sequel to the Elven Blood adventure collection. About the only negative thing I can say about this section, is it nullifies a lot of The Land of Promise, which just came out what, seven months ago? Still, the five pages here are more cohesive and better written than a lot of Storm Front. Sometimes less is more. 4 for 6.
Section seven is about a decker (possibly also a technomancer) named Dodger and his efforts to help shore up the new Matrix that will be debuting in Fifth Edition. It’s an interesting read, but the use of this depends on exactly what the new Matrix will look like in 5e, both style and mechanics-wise. I will say I’m excited to have Deckers back as it is such an iconic aspect of Shadowrun and taking it out (along with horribly crippling Riggers) are my two biggest issues with 4e. It’s a short but fun read that explains just how de la Mar got one of the best in Cyberspace to help make the new Matrix such a tough place to be. 5 for 7.
Section eight is entitled “Sleeping with the Enemy.” The first half is JackPoint poster Hannibelle talking about changes in Ghoul culture – all of which are decidedly for the worse. All of the Infected (Vampires, Ghouls, etc) seem to have gained a heightened sensitivity to sunlight. Hannibelle also points out that ghouls are having to digest far more human flesh than they used to and it’s becoming far easier to devolve into the feral state. It’s a really interesting read and although I’m not sure where CGL is taking HMHVV in Fifth Edition, it has me intrigued.
The other aspect about this section is that they are FINALLY doing something with the plot threads from Another Rainy Night which originally came out in February of 2012. This thing had so much potential and the fact ARN’s threads and hooks were sat on for over a year is a bit frustrating for those that really enjoyed that short story, but now it appears CGL is going to run with them again. Finally, a long time closet vampire is revealed for his true nature in this section and the ramifications of that are sure to be felt in a small way in Fifth Edition. Again, this is another really well done section and it’s a shame the pieces that feel like throw-aways in this collection of metaplot wrap-ups are so much better done than the large pieces taking center stage. 6 for 8.
Section Nine is another short one, but unfortunately the streak of quality ends here as this write-up on the Japanese corporations is pretty much terrible in all respects. Look, I know that sometimes some weird thing gets by the editors that just happens to be an instant obvious bit to me simply because of my life. Like when Dirty Tricks had a thing about Jesse Ventura in it and I just happened to be an ex staffer for the guy so I could pick it up. Well this is similar except instead of being a minor error, the entire section is a bit well…I wouldn’t say racist by any means so PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don’t take it as that as that’s an insult to whoever wrote this bit, but it does read like whoever wrote this knows absolutely nothing about Japanese culture, politics, or history save from what they’ve seen in badly dubbed movies from the 70s, and maybe some anime. As a guy who reads, writes, and speaks Japanese, has worked for two different major corporations over there, was Professor freakin’ Oak for six years, and who recently decided to not take a job with NHK World (Japan’s equivalent of CNN) as a program monitor and quality control manager, this whole section had me shaking my head going,” NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!” I’m baffled by whoever thought this sounded remotely like Japanese culture in terms of work, life, and family and doubly surprised this made it through editorial, but it’s like every bad erroneous exaggerated half truth about their culture was rolled up into a ball and given a cyberpunk twist. I showed it to two people I know who worked on the Sega-CD version of Shadowrun (Don’t worry, it’s only in Japanese and you probably haven’t played it. That said, an English translation is underway so you may eventually get to play it without the translation guide I wrote for it in the mid 90s -SURPRISE!) and they both had the same reaction to the perception of Japanese culture as portrayed in this section. That is confusion, annoyance and a bit of disgust. Seriously CGL, next time you want to touch on the Japanese side of things, I will volunteer to do the dramaturgy or even writing of it for FREE if it means preventing something like this. You know how some French gamers were none too happy about the stuff that came out for their home country? This is up there.
Anyway, rant over. Basically this section is an attempt to undo some of the changes made to the Japanese corporations over the past few years. Again, it feels like back-peddling to how things were in first and second edition Shadowrun, but I can understand the logic behind this reversion. Businesses ebb and grow and the potential for some really interesting stories to be told was here, but instead it kind of went with, “All the Japanese companies team up against the West like they formed Devestator.” You get a bit of information on what Renraku, MCT and Shiawase are all up to and how they plan to return to prominence, on their own and as a collective. This is one of those times where the editorial direction to revitalize the Japanese side or Shadowrun other than the Yakuza is a smart choice, but truly bad writing flubbed it up. 6 for 9.
The tenth and final section is an odd one and I can’t really review it properly. That’s because so much of what is going on is purposely left nebulous and won’t be revealed until Fifth Edition. It’s a teaser of sorts of things to come and it’s exceptionally well written. I will admit that I’m going to miss Fastjack and at times I thought CGL was going to pull a large enough swerve that 5e’s metaplot bits would take place on Shadowsea, but it appears JackPoint is here to stay. What matters is the grid is locked down, we have what is very similar to the Matrix of old aesthetically speaking and the new trio of Bull (Yay!), Glitch (Sure, why not) and Slamm-O! (ugh…) are running things for the JackPointers. I’m very happy with the new Matrix and the return of Decks, especially since it’s done in a way that is purposely retro and yet makes total sense. I was always a bit skeptical that the Matrix would be entirely wireless as it has been currently, as I couldn’t see the MegaCorps being down with that. What we have now makes a lot more sense Sixth World-wise.
One thing I’m interested to see is if the files FastJack was keeping on Riser and Plan 9 are legit or just erroneous beliefs on his part. My hope is that the file on Riser is true as it would make for some excellent stories if your gaming troupe interacts with the characters from the Shadowrun books. On the flip side, I hope the one on Plan 9 is an absolute red herring based on FastJack’s growing…let’s call it a mental disorder for now. Even Plan9 should have moments of lucidity or he wouldn’t be one of the best in his business. That too will make for some fun stories and even the occasional bit of comic relief. After all, the man’s too damn paranoid to be struck by the same thing FastJack and Riser were nailed with. In my head, I can even see an entire novella based on Plan 9 trying to figure out if he’s still him. 7 out of 10.
So Storm Front ends with a 70% quality rating. As I said, the book really is all over the place quality-wise, but the good does outweigh the bad here. I will admit though, the parts that are bad are SO BAD that it has me worried for some things to come, but at the end of the day I know I’m going to still be tuning in to see what all Catalyst Game Labs has planned for the Sixth World. Obviously though, I’m just one guy, so you line up ten Shadowrun fans that have been there since First Edition, and you’re probably going to get ten slightly (or even wildly different) takes on what they liked, hated and were indifferent to in Storm Front. If you’re new or a casual reader of Shadowrun, this book really is not for you and you’ll be lost more often than not, but if you’ve been here for all of 4E/20AE, you might want to get this for closure’s sake if nothing else.