Shadowrun: Columbian Subterfuge
Publisher: Catalyst Games Labs
Release Date: 12/02/2011
Page Count: 55
Cost: $14.00 ($8.00 at DrivethruRPG.com)
Get It Here: DrivethruRPG.com
If there is one thing Shadowrun has been doing better than any other tabletop franchise this year – it’s been putting out high quality and affordable adventures. I’ve been blown away by everyone I’ve picked up this year, whether it be one of the Shadowrun Missions or something like New Dawn, which is part of an overall arc. In all honesty right now, the top two contenders for the best solo adventure of 2011 are either Anarchy Subsidized or 99 Bottles – both of which are, GASP AND SHOCK, published Shadowrun adventures. So of course when a review copy of their latest product, Columbian Subterfuge came my way, there was no way I was going to say no to this.
Columbian Subterfuge is a mostly direct sequel to Anarchy Subsidized as it is the third in the Horizon adventure series. The Horizon adventures have been of particular interest to me, as Horizon seems to be the most benevolent corporation in the Sixth World, actively looking at environmental and human welfare issues instead of “How much money can we get out of THIS scheme?” Oh don’t get me wrong, like all corporations, even ones in today’s world, profit is the be all and end all for Horizon, but compared to organizations like Aztechnology, who gleefully send out toxic shamans to pollute things as they suffered a serious mental breakdown during a Captain Planet marathon, Horizon is the closest thing to a light in the darkness the Sixth World has in the corporate world.
Columbian Subterfuge takes place in well, Columbia, which is one of the things I love about published Shadowrun adventures. Seattle might be the default location for a Shadowrun game, but the adventures this year have taken us everywhere from Neo-Tokyo to Karavan and back. This time around we’re heading to Amazonia. Yes, I know I said Columbia earlier and that said country is in the name of the adventure, but both are in fact correct. In the Sixth World, Columbia is part of Amazonia. Well, most of what we know as Columbia is anyway. The rest of Columbia is part of Aztlan, which is an entire country controlled by Aztechnology (which is a real company that specializes in laser and space technology. . Something tells me I don’t want to go to THEIR corporate retreat…).
You’ll be spending almost all of Columbian Subterfuge in and around the area of Bogata helping Horizon in the Amazonia/Aztlan war that is raging on the border of both companies. Why is Horizon involving itself in this war? Three reasons. The first is that Amazonia paid them. The second is Horizon actually cares about the rainforest where Aztlan wants to corrupt and destroy it. The third is it gives us the first direct power play by the most evil corporation in the Sixth World and the most benevolent. In regards to the third point though, Columbian Subterfuge will show first hand that even though Horizon is the closest thing to good in the corporate world, they have no problem with the ends justifying the means. By the end of Columbian Subterfuge players will have to decide if Horizon’s actions mean they are just another corporation, or if they are simply more Punisher than Batman.
Columbian Subterfuge is fifty-five pages long and takes place over seven scenes, which you will more than likely have to play in several sessions with your gaming troupe. In game time, this adventure takes place over the course of a week. Compare that to the previous Horizon based adventure, Anarchy Subsidized which had the same amount of scenes, but was spread out over a year of in-game time. So although both adventures involve Horizon as the one paying your runners’ bills, the two adventures are as different from each other as night and day. This means that if you’re playing the Horizon adventures as a campaign, you have a really nice range of missions, goals and locations.
The most striking aspect of Columbian Subterfuge is that your runners aren’t just doing a run of the mill mission. Instead they are actively being put in a war zone. This is an all out fight between Aztlan and Amazonia and even if your team of Shadowrunners have been in some pretty big fights (say, the end of New Dawn) they still might not be prepared for how brutal and intense a war can be. It’s not just the players that might be a little thrown off by the war setting though. If you’re the one running Columbia Subterfuge, you might want to buy or borrow a copy of WAR!, Although WAR! wasn’t necessarily well received when it first came out, it’s a really big help for this adventure. Half of WAR! talks mechanics like land mines, military gear and the like but the other half…is all about the Aztlan/Amazonia war, specifically in the Bogata region. As such, WAR! is great for further fleshing out this adventure, but if the $18 price tag or the bad reviews for the book are keeping you away from it – don’t worry, as you don’t need WAR! to have a good time with Columbian Subterfuge. It’s merely useful for filling in the blanks.
As for the adventure itself in terms of mechanics, it’s very well done. Although I wouldn’t recommend this as the first adventure someone ever plays in Shadowrun it’s exceptionally well done. Each scene is crafted in such a way that a Storyteller/GamesMaster/DM/whatever can run them regardless of skill level. Are you new to running Shadowrun? Then just follow the adventure exactly as written, right down to bits of dialogue and description you can provide to your players. Are you a seasoned vet of the Sixth World? Then the adventure gives you lots of ideas for tailoring the adventure to the skill sets of the characters as well as ways to increase or decrease the difficulty of each scene. For me, the hallmark of a quality adventure is one that can be shifted for players of all skill levels and characters regardless of power. It should be about the story first and the stats seconds. Shadowrun published adventures excel at this and although I wouldn’t throw four characters with who have never had a mission in their lives into this adventures, it IS something I could give to said characters when they’ve had either a little more experience or have become insanely powerful vets who spent 50 Karma on the Street Legends status.
I also loved how balanced this is in terms of character skills. Any character build is useful here. Have a decker? They are going to see a nice amount of action here. Street Samurai? Ditto? Physical Adepts? Awesome. Balls to the walls Hellblast obsessed mage? Just try not to burn down the bloody forest. Honestly, the most useful character at times just might be a Rigger. You have plenty of chances to play with tanks, helicopters and militarized humvees, amongst other vehicles so if you have that Rigger who always feels a bit useless in all those stealth and hacking based adventures, get ready to see them shine here. What can I say, my second ever Shadowrun character was a Troll Rigger so I have a soft spot for them. Hey, it was Second Edition and I was 13.
My favorite part of the adventure is the multi branching mission in the scene “At the Abyss.” Here you’ll be trying to get information on a secret Aztechnology POW camp. In order to do that you’ll have to perform a mission for one of five potential allies. Not only do the missions vary a bit, but two of them are red herrings given out by less than trustworthy characters. Time is a HUGE factor in Columbian Subterfuge so it’s nice to see the potential to go off rails addressed as well as the ability for a portion of this adventure to play out differently each time. In this respect, Columbian Subterfuge has a bit of a Western video game RPG feel to it, something I greatly appreciated.
The only real problem I can see with this adventure isn’t the adventure itself, but how the players react to the climax. Shadowrun is a pretty dark game and it’s rare that there are moments of actual warm fuzzies in the game. I’ve always found it hard for people to adjust to Shadowrun if they’ve primarily spent their time roleplaying lawful or neutral good characters in D&D. Those players keep looking for good or doing the right thing in a system that is often more about “the lesser of two evils” – even more so than some Call of Cthulhu or World of Darkness games. Horizon was the failsafe for some DMs to help these gamers acclimate to Shadowrun. With Columbian Subterfuge, that might be blown out of the water. Some gamers might react to Horizon’s actions in the game with outright horror and disgust. God knows some characters will too. If you have players or characters that need to believe there are still shades of black and white in the Sixth World, this adventure won’t leave them happy – that’s all I’m going to say about that.
There is at least one bit in this adventure that will be hard for some gamers to play through, depending on how graphically they are depicted or how much violence they can stomach. After all, I can blow mutants away all day in Fallout, but viewing real life footage of war plagued regions or Holocaust victims makes be both sad and sick. I’m not by any means saying that a GM should downplay the atrocities committed by Horizon, Aztlan or Amazonia in this adventure – just to make sure you know how much your players can handle and still have fun before you go into graphic details about torture victims or mass graves. Columbian Subterfuge is less about the usual fantastical battles full of spirits, awakened demihumans and cyber implants and more about the realistic savagery of war, so if your players are empathetic or tend to bond with NPCs…this might not be the adventure for them. Now on the other hand, if you really want to make an emotional or dramatic impact on your players instead of something that is pure run and gun, this is definitely for you.
All in all, I loved Columbian Subterfuge. It’s not the best adventure CGL has put out this year, but it’s still a damn good one. You have a unique location, a very outside the box story hook, an adventure that will challenge characters of most power levels, and best of all, something that will last your troupe several sessions – all for under ten bucks (if you go PDF that is. Come on people – save a tree. You’re working for Amazonia and Horizon after all…). I’ve very intrigued to see where Catalyst Games Labs goes with Horizon after this. Are we going to learn that they have a dark side that makes Aztechnology look like kitten huggers or is this simply enforcing the reality that like in Ravenloft, everything is tinged with darkness in the Sixth World? If you’ve enjoyed the previous Horizon adventures, Columbian Subterfuge is definitely something to pick up. If you haven’t picked up the others yet, I’d advise getting A Fistful of Credsticks or Anarchy Subsidzed first, as CS won’t have as much of an emotional impact if this is a player’s first encounter with Horizon. Even then, it’s still a great adventure at a price point that is almost begging for you to pick it up if you’re a fan of Shadowrun.