Reading the core book I realized how different Shadowrun is from my usual game of Dungeons & Dragons. We usually play the good guys saving a village from a tribe of goblins. Most of the time we play the heroes and when we don't, we end up doing it anyway. My players want to play Shadowrun because it sounds different and they play guys for hire ready to take any job for the right money.

How do I convey the tone of Shadowrun to the players? How can I describe mundane stuff to make them understand we are in a dystopian world? How can I convey that megacorporations are everywhere?

I want to show them this stuff, not simply tell it to them. Assume we are completely unfamiliar with Shadowrun and the genre of cyberpunk. We play in 2070 if it's relevant.


5 Answers 5


A few thoughts:

  • For most folks lower on the pecking order, especially in the 'Plex, everything is ersatz. A burger isn't beef, it's soy. Your coffee is soy. You don't want to know how that beer was made. Fruit? What's that? The shirt you bought a year ago is already tattered, because it was made to only last a year. Something hand-made of wood is a rarity, an exotic item.
  • There is no privacy, at least not as we know it. You can be monitored by technology or by magic, but either way, you have to work hard if you want to cover your tracks and surprise your opposition.
  • Information is ubiquitous. You can grab information without even thinking. The trick is that you still have to sift through it and make subjective assessments of what you're receiving. There's useless information, misinformation, and every once in a while, useful, accurate, up to date information. In most fantasy settings, particularly D&D, there is often a "truth" that can be found. In Shadowrun a single truth is difficult if not impossible to find.
  • Play up the privatization of virtually everything. The megacorps have become so powerful in part because they now do so much of what government used to do. The PCs don't see a garbage hauler, they see an Aztechnology garbage hauler.
  • There is always subterfuge. Nothing is ever what it seems on the surface. Wait, didn't Shiawase have the contract for this part of the 'Plex? I wonder if that's related to the assassination of that Shiawase VP last month?
  • Not all jobs are just for the money, and even the most jaded 'Runners follow their hearts. Sprinkle in some backstory during character creation. A player character may have a particular hatred of a corp, for example: That Saeder-Krupp factory explosion killed my brother. The monsters who run that corp deserve slow death!
  • The world is complex and interconnected. Alliances between entities large and small (gangs, governments, powerful beings, megacorps) are constantly forming, shifting, and being broken. Your enemy's enemy may be your friend now, but tomorrow he may be gunning for you. Yesterday's information may not help you today.
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is excellent, and aside from the reference to magic, describes most cyberpunk settings very well. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 3, 2012 at 16:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ErikSchmidt Excellent indeed, and useful. I'm not entirely sure about the very first point, though. Why is everything made of soy? Why not lab-grown meat? Why not real meat imported from the revived areas of the world? (Or am I "misremembering" the changes that hit the Earth, because of which quite large areas have been magically rejuvenated? Am I mixing things up with Earthdawn? Possibly. Correct me if I'm wrong, please.) The rest of the answer is really useful, a definite +1, nonetheless. \$\endgroup\$
    – OpaCitiZen
    Commented Aug 28, 2013 at 7:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @OpaCitiZen The bit about most things being ersatz (an inferior substitute for the real thing) at the lower end of the pecking order is a stock element of cyberpunk fiction, reinforcing the notion that the "haves" get all the good stuff and the "have nots" get the dregs. Soy has such a great "this is not the real thing!" ring to it because so many faux meat products are made from it, but the ersatz product could be made in some other fashion. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 28, 2013 at 18:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ErikSchmidt Thanks for the quick reply! Yep, I mostly see and understand the role and importance of ersatz products in cyberpunk literature. I just thought that 1) Shadowrun is not our classic run-of-the-mill cyberpunk because of all the magic and magically rejuvenated nature in the setting, 2) soy has a nice "cheap" ring to it indeed, yet nowadays "lab grown" and "cultured" (as in "cultured beef") seems... more... likely? :) \$\endgroup\$
    – OpaCitiZen
    Commented Aug 29, 2013 at 12:19

For background material, everybody so far has had good ideas about films to watch (Blade Runner & Ghost in the Shell particularly). I'd add The Matrix, only because you've already seen it.

But Cyberpunk was born in the written word. Early William Gibson is probably the definitive thing to read, particularly:


Short stories are very good for RP source material because they're short & digestible, and also provide good frameworks for adventures.

More extensive list:


Ambiance is a big deal for a setting or genre of roleplaying. Music may help. Personally I recommend moody, downtempo techno. Hilariously I can't link to more than two things because my reputation is too low. Instead of whipping out my VR mirrorshades and hacking this page with my arm-mounted cyberdeck, I'll just tell you to point your browser at di.fm and look at the chillout, ambient, and space music channels.

Good luck. Cyberpunk has been a favorite of mine for a long, long time. Neat to see it getting some love in 2012, when it's mostly become a reality.


Visuals are very important. Watch Blade Runner, Ghost In The Shell, and Hardware. All have very different but very cyberpunk settings. You should find DVDs of those without any problems and with a few pizza it makes a great pre-session evening. So, now the players should know how the world looks like.

Start with small scale adventures: an escort of daughter of $MegaCorpExec going to a club and the kidnap attempt, a simple infiltration of a eco-terrorist group, or brokering a peace between two warring gangs. But make sure that each of these have a twist: the daughter is a spoiled brat, the eco-terrorists are fighting hazardous waste disposal, and the two gangs join force to expend their drug selling bushiness.

As they go higher and higher, make sure everything they do has an (bad?) impact on somebody innocent. They bring $MegaCorpExec down over corruption, now thousands of people are jobless, gangs thrive, violence is up, racism ("those dirty corrupt uncaring elves!") seems to be the answer to everyone's problems. Every deal they make has a price. Every mission brings them closer to being jaded uncaring monsters. Ever power they amass comes at a price, mostly paid by others.

If you look into the Abyss, the Abyss looks back into you.

PS: There are only so many times you can get a bad deal from a dragon before you consider joining The Great Hunter ... What could go right?


As with Sardathrion's answer, I definitely think there should be a movie night to get your people in the right mindset. But if what you normally do is a medieval setting, here's the skinny: You're still in that medieval setting for the most part. The races are there, the magic is there, the tricked out powers are there. The primary exception is the technology. Where Shadowrun really gets complicated is the layered realities. If you don't have any Riggers/Hackers/Technomancers then the digital world isn't much of a problem. If you don't have any actual sorcerers or magic dedicated folk, you don't have to worry too much about the astral realm and both places can be "behind the scenes" and not need as much study for a new GM.

Bladerunner is a must. You combine that movie with the technology we already have today and most of the world unfolds for you. Johnny Mnemonic certainly won't be a bad choice either.

  • \$\begingroup\$ @CatLord While this answer does point out some of the important differences between Shadowrun and D&D, it seems not to go to deeply into tone, which is what the question was about. Could you possibly clarify it? \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 2:26

Play in an abandoned warehouse with a single lightbulb hanging over a card table. The cover on the light keeps it from reaching your face. Have the players arrive one by one. In front of them, a manilla folder. A brief bio, and list of equipment.

Be terse. Talk in a low gravely tone. Grimace like it's a birth defect. Keep a short glass of whiskey nearby. Let the smoke of a cigar drift to the ceiling. Wear a fedora and a holster, the kind with the straps over the shoulder, you know the one.

If they start to chat, tell them to "can it". When everyone has arrived: "Alright, gentlemen, I've gathered you here for a job. One I don't want to hear about afterwards. [plot]."

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    \$\begingroup\$ It sounds like it might be effective at implying tone, strictly speaking, but it might interfere with other aspects of running an RPG, like discussing rules clarifications, what to order on the pizza, working plumbing for bathroom breaks, anti-squatter police raids, and dealing with the serial killer neighbours when the game gets noisy. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 11, 2012 at 0:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Aww come on, nothing conveys the tone of shadowrun like anti-squatter police raids! \$\endgroup\$
    – Philip
    Commented Oct 11, 2012 at 15:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ I did say it would convey tone. No problems with it on that count. :) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 11, 2012 at 15:39

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