Shadowrun: Stolen Souls
Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs
Cost: $24.99 (PDF)/$44.99 (Physical)
Page Count: 202
Release Date: 05/14/2014
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com
Throughout Shadowrun, Fourth Edition, we saw hints and teases that something wasn’t right with FastJack, and perhaps a few other major players in the Sixth World, but it wasn’t until Storm Front where we got some definite confirmation as to what was going on. Apparently FastJack, Riser, Plan 9, Miles Lanier and several other metaplot characters picked up a disease that was somewhat reminiscent of developing Dissociative Identity Disorder. Except that this second personality appeared to be a second individual inhabiting the same body and slowly taking it over. Stranger yet, it wasn’t a disease as we know it, but something that appears to have been transmitted via technological means. Since then, Riser and Fastjack have all but disappeared, while Plan 9… seems to have his/her/whatever’s act together due to the rampant paranoia it has always lived with. Still, this vague threat of body snatching remained even more in the shadows than most runners. Characters and players alike were in the dark as to what was going on – until now.
Stolen Souls is our first real look at not only Cognitive Fragmentation Disorder (CFD for short), but also our first real major plot line for Shadowrun, Fifth Edition. Although I liked the idea, I’m torn on the follow-through. You get roughly ninety-five pages of Jackpoint metaplot fiction on CFD, its possible origins and the many failed attempts to cure it. What, you thought they could fill two hundred pages on a single topic like this? Not hardly. The rest of the pages are on two very different topics. The first is a very nice look at Manhattan and some attempts to tie it into CFD by the very random decision of having a ton of CFD research occurring on the island, which makes absolutely no sense in or out of game because obviously you’d want to have an easily spread, incurable disease concentrated in the most densely populated area in North America. That makes SO MUCH SENSE! I loved the write-up of Manhattan proper, although this piece would have been better two Shadowrun Missions seasons ago, when the focus there was on New York. What’s here is really well written, except for the bad attempts to tie CFD research into Manhattan, because it is flimsy and nonsensical. Otherwise, the Manhattan piece is fantastic. It’s got a great travel guide, all sorts of extremely useful sidebars and it’s one of the better city guides CGL has put out for a location. Now, it could have been better with some maps or if the CFD bit had been excised. Manhattan’s guide would have stood out more (and possibly sold better) had it been a supplement on its own. I’d have rather seen this space go to the Sioux Nation, which would have fit in a lot better with the previous CFD information (no spoilers as to why) and so things would have flowed better thematically instead of feeling like you had three very different supplements crammed into one sourcebook. So, mostly positive thoughts to the forty pages given to Manhattan, and if you’ve ever wanted to run a Shadowrun campaign there, this section alone might be worth the large price tag associated with this. Although it is a hard sell if all you want are forty of the two hundred pages in this collection.
The third section (I know we haven’t covered the first, bear with me) is roughly fifty pages on how to extract someone, be they willing or unwilling. This is divided into two chapters, “Stealing Living Goods” and “The Extractor’s Toolkit.” Now, both sections are really well written, but again, they have next to nothing to do with CFD, and thus they would have been better off as their own supplement instead of creating a patchwork sourcebook like this. Long time veterans of Shadowrun probably won’t find this section very useful at all, but only because they’ve been doing runs so long, all of this is old hat to them. Still, it’s very well written, and even if you “know it all” already, it’s a fun read for the fiction and Jackpoint commentary. Who knows – you might also learn something after all!
Where the extractor bits are really useful are for people new to Shadowrun. Fifth Edition is less than a year old after all, and in theory, it plus the video game that was released in 2013 SHOULD have brought in a lot of new players or returned some out of touch veterans back to the fold. It is for these gamers that the third part of Stolen Souls is written, and it’s something they definitely should read. It’s a great way to learn HOW to do various types of extraction runs, and you even get specific looks at poisons, chemicals, powers, spells and techniques that will help an extraction go a lot smoother than just busting into a joint and shooting anything that moves. Again, these two chapters on extraction are wonderful, and I’d highly recommend them to anyone new to Shadowrun. Again, if the price for this piece wasn’t so high, I’d say newcomers almost NEED this. So once more, we see that Stolen Souls would have been better off as a set of three smaller supplements rather than one large disconnected sourcebook. I honestly think CGL would have made more money going this route, and Shadowrun fans would be a lot happier, as they could have picked one or more that the needed/wanted instead of being saddled with three very different pieces merged into one expensive book.
So now let’s go back to CFD. You’re probably wondering why I covered the other two parts of the book first, rather than the beginning part, which also happens to be the title attraction. Well, the previous two bits are shorter and thus easier to talk about. The commentary is also mostly positive, and I’d rather begin a review on a high note. Which obviously means I’m not quite happy with the CFD section. There are a lot of reasons for this. The first is that CFD is pushed too hard, too fast. From the writing, you know that the disease is unstoppable, incurable and will plow through its victim like Goldberg in an old episode of Monday Nitro. There is no hope. Also, it’s spreading incredibly quickly, no one knows how, and there are huge infirmaries filled with nothing but CFD sufferers. From the text, it’s easy to assume that the disease is so big, like one out of ten or a hundred people has it and it’s only going to get worse. Yet SOMEHOW, the governments and megacorps are hiding it from the general population. The writing, while excellent in style and tone, just isn’t believable. CFD is like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the superflu, Ebola, HIV and the Black Plague rolled up into one massive pandemic. The problem is you can’t actually hide a pandemic. CGL wants to have it both ways – a crazy unstoppable disease plowing through metahumanity, yet the general populace is woefully ignorant of it. It just doesn’t work the way it is written. It’s totally unbelievable, and when this is the thing that, after five editions of playing Shadowrun, breaks my suspension of disbelief, you know something is wrong here.
Now, the idea of CFD is solid, and the original build up to Stolen Souls was really well done, but this was a cluster of immense proportions. If you’re going to devote a hundred or so pages to the idea and then tell GMs “Oh, there is no canon known cure yet, so don’t infect PCs with it unless they specifically ask for it,” you know the idea has not been thought out in terms of actually PLAYING through this sub-plot. This is a regular problem with Shadowrun, and aside from the heavy mechanics, this focus on writing the metaplot over people actually playing the game really is the system’s big Achilles Heel. I don’t think anything showcases this underlying issue with Shadowrun more than the CFD section of Stolen Souls. This could have been done so much better in a myriad of different ways. They should have kept the build slow and subtle. A slow burn on the rise of CFD throughout many sourcebooks, with little hints both in metaplot and mechanics on how to deal with it. Then they should have done the massive sourcebook on it, but also provided GM only information on possible cures and/or fixes. By not providing this information right away, CGL has committed multiple grievous errors. The first is that they are fleecing gamers, who will now have to purchase one or more books to get the canon cure. That is not going to set well with a large percentage of Shadowrun players. They’re going to look at this as bait and switch, more or less. The second is that some GM is going to ignore the books strongly worded advice about not infecting players with CFD and thus screw over a character because they will play it to the letter that THERE IS NO CURE and cite all the possible examples in the book and how they have failed. CGL has forgotten that there are a lot of BAD GMs out there that view a game as Players Vs GM (as some players do) and/or that a game is something to win. By not providing a back door out of CFD immediately, there will be some games torn apart and some players left with a bad taste in their mouth regarding Shadowrun – perhaps bad enough that they stop playing altogether. Finally, very few gamers are going to even want to touch the concept of CFD and put it into their game since Stolen Souls offers a comprehensive but ultimately incomplete look at the disease. A decent amount of Shadowrun gamers follow the metaplot extensively and tailor their games around it. As such, they won’t want to touch CFD until it is fully fleshed out and defined, because otherwise their group will come up with a solution that doesn’t fit canon and OH NO! More than any other system I have ever encountered, Shadowrun gamers seem afraid to go off the beaten path and not follow the canon metaplot provided. Not this isn’t all Shadowrun gamers. It’s just there is a noticeably higher proportion here than with other systems I talk to people about or play. This is mainly because Shadowrun puts the metaplot over playing the actual game and regularly drives this perception home with nearly every release done for it in the past few years. Sticking to the metaplot isn’t bad, but when you know your players are wont to do that, you can’t just trail off and go “Nanite Boogeymen are going to get you. Pay $25-45 now and more down the road if you want closure!” as this is absolutely the wrong way to do things if you want to keep fans of your product happy. Still, there has never been a better impetus for homebrewing your Shadowrun world than CFD as it is presented here.
What changes needed to be made with the disease? Well, a lot. It shouldn’t be able to pretty much do anything and infect this many people so quickly. The disease should take longer than 30-60 days to fully subdue the original personality of the meatbag it now inhabits. The disease shouldn’t infect some people other than the “undead” of the Sixth World. It would have been nice if it only infected those with Cyberware, making it a better disease metaphor. Sure, you don’t get the enhancements, but you don’t risk CFD. The fact that the disease can infect mages and especially physical adepts (and then use those powers after it has taken control of the body) just makes it too insanely powerful for most people to even think about using. It definitely should be a far slower burn, with less people infected than the text indicates. As I’ve said, you can hide a disease when it first occurs – you can’t hide a freaking pandemic. As the CFD bits go on, the disease goes from a fun concept to creep players out into something that feels like something a bunch of gamers came up with when high or drunk. “Dude, you know what would be cool? If there was X that did Y and Z.” Concepts like blinder, balance and how the end product might actually effect things rather than sound cool are definitely missing here. It would be one thing if this was a brief, cheap supplement that merely highlighted a growing problem starting to reveal itself in the Sixth World. It’s another thing entirely to throw all this at an audience at once without any true insights, ways to really use the concept in an actual game or some sort of end game resolution.
So how could this be salvaged? Well, I’m not sure. Unless you pick up Shadowrun releases just to read rather than implement, the only way to do so is to utterly ignore CFD until CGL has completed the storyline and then go from there. However, this is some pretty pricey fiction if you go that route, and as we’ve seen with things like the Vampire subplots, they can drag out for years without being touched again. Is there another way to CFD could have been tackled in a way that Shadowrun fans of all walks could have used and even enjoyed this information? There certainly is, although I’m not sure if it can work now. That would be to go the artifact collection route. Remember a few years ago when Shadowrun had a series of interconnected adventures about collected ancient magical artifacts and then followed it up with Artifacts Unbound? That’s what they should have done here. With each adventure, the CFD outbreak would grow noticeably worse. Leaving players hanging regarding a cure would have been more acceptable (and perhaps even fun) as readers and players alike would know resolution was coming quickly and that they could actually take active part in the storyline if they chose. Hell, players could even get infected with CFD and not feel like they have been screwed without a lifeline. They would know a fix would be coming in a soon to be published sequel. GMs could actually USE CFD in their campaign without players worrying about contracting it, or conversely, going “Meh. I know I’m NOT going to get this because I’ve read Stolen Souls.” What we have now is a juggernaut of a disease that takes only a month or two to wipe out a person, and that you can only interact with it in your game via NPCs, thus making the PCs little more than window dressing to the entire concept. What we could have had was a whole host of ways to integrate CFD into a subplot or even focal point of a campaign, while still being an entertaining metaplot read. CGL could have printed money hand over fist and reception would have been a lot kinder than what Stolen Souls is getting. This was a great idea, badly damaged by poor execution and follow through, and it will be interesting to see how/if CGL can salvage this or if we have another Amazonia/Aztlan War dud on our hands. Of course, all that said, Artifacts Unbound dropped the ball in some ways too, which leads me to believe that perhaps we have a larger problem at CGL – where ideas are thrown out and partially developed, but no one thinks out a conclusive ending or solution at the very beginning (which can evolve organically over writing and releases) and thus things fall apart big time at the end like this. This no real canon solution or explanation with CGL products would be fine if, like other games that did this, the metaplot wasn’t pushed as hard or as if it was the crown jewel of the system. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case here. So either Shadowrun has to start coming up with decent (or better) endings to their pretty awesome beginnings, or they need to really loosen the grip the metaplot has on the game. It’s one or the other people.
So yeah, instead of pushing CFD slowly in an entertaining fashion that any fan could enjoy on some level, we’ve been given a massive tome that is naught but Jackpoint metafiction, which reinforces the idea that Shadowrun is to be read and not played, and I can’t think of a bigger disservice done to gamers than what we’ve been given here. This is all the more unfortunate considering how good the Manhattan and Extraction bits were. As good as they were though, the execution of CFD just kind of ruins the overall quality of Stolen Souls; perhaps more so when you remember that this was the marquee of the piece. Am I pretty unhappy with the CFD section? Yes and no. The writing is top notch, and I enjoyed it as a fiction piece, but as a player the believability, brief mechanics, development of the idea and the corner CHL has backed themselves (and players) into is total crap. Can the idea of CFD be fixed and perhaps even made enjoyable as a playable component of Shadowrun after Stolen Souls? I’d like to think to so, but I think this was absolutely the wrong way to showcase CFD as well as write about it.
I do want to say that the CFD bit is not ALL horrible. The writing is pretty good, as if the author(s) is making the best of a bad situation left for them to clean up, and if this was straight up Shadowrun fiction like Another Rainy Night or Neat, I’d have been much happier. Novellas don’t change the face of a game I’m playing after all. I really liked how comprehensive things would start out, such as all the tests for cures, Clockwork’s attempt to find Patient Zero and Butch’s commentary on the disease. But then a pattern of dropping the ball begins to emerge. No cure even begins to appear to work. It just kills the victim dead. No patient zero is found. No conclusive leads to any Megacorp is given (However the GM only text at the back of the book names the two corps the canon metaplot will be leaning towards, which is a rather bizarre aside to give after all this page count devoted to a lack of credible findings) and so on. Again, there are so many ways this could have been done better, with plot threads dropped or some quality foreshadowing provided. We didn’t get that though. Instead, we got a concept pushed down our throats so far, that it is impossible to swallow.
Overall, Stolen Souls gets a thumbs in the middle. There are two great sections and one really poorly done one. It sucks that all three are thrown together into one big hodge podge of a book with a pretty high price tag instead of being released as three separate supplements that would have found a larger (and more receptive) audience overall. I can’t really recommend this as a whole, and I can’t think of an aspect of Shadowrun I’ve been this disappointed by, save for bits of Storm Front. I’m really hoping CGL can surprise me, turn the CFD concept around and save it, because right now it’s basically radioactive in a way the majority of Sixth World gamers won’t want to put it into their game until it’s been thoroughly cleaned up. At least the Manhattan and extraction bits are really well done. It’s just too bad they are lumped together with the CFD bit.