Too Long; Didn’t Read: Shadowrun Racism, CORPSins, and Good Reason To Roleplay

“What’s most important to me is that it’s about the present. It’s not really about an imagined future. It’s a way of trying to come to terms with the awe and terror inspired in me by the world in which we live.”
— William Gibson

“I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.”
— Ray Bradbury

“What’s wrong with the modern times is that the future isn’t what it used to be.”
— Paul Valery

I love Shadowrun for a lot of reasons. There’s room for pink-mohawked ork razorgirls, gritty noir anti-heroes, crazy spirits who don’t understand our world, and giant Bladerunner-esque corporations.  We play with a lot of this for entertainment on Shadowrun: Corporate SINs, our Wednesday 6pm show on HyperRPG.

In the middle of all that craziness, though, there’s also a lot of room for one of the best things Sci-Fi has to offer: the ability to look at the present without getting mired in the complexities and politics that don’t let us see our present-day forest for the trees.

I hope that #CorpSINs succeeds primarily as entertainment, but that there’s enough to satisfy fans of both parts. I play Cromwell, who’s definitely in the Pink Mohawk category a lot of the time: A Troll who pretends to be British, styles himself as a Butler, and uses magic to augment his street brawling abilities. Cromwell has good instinct but low logic: he isn’t the brightest runner the 6th World has offered up, but he does take himself, his world, and his friends seriously. I try to see things from his perspective, even when that point-of-view leads him into big trouble. As with all our characters, I hope the comedy normally comes not out of trying too hard to be funny, but out of Cromwell trying his hardest with what the Great Bear gave him.

For those viewers who are curious, here’s a bit more about the particular time and place that MMFEC inhabits in Seattle, and why a lot of internal conflict within the group reflects the greater conflict that surrounds them.

The Seattle Metroplex is a giant city-state that’s nominally part of what remains of the United States and Canada, but is an island surrounded by the Native American Nations. At the top level, it’s an giant success: an international hub, with representatives from all the major corporations. At the bottom level, it’s a giant failure: it’s poorest and most disenfranchised citizens are barely holding it together after years of war, riots, (un)natural disasters, AI villains, drug wars, and the loss of individual rights to the rights of corporations.

Characters such as Cromwell and Mordecai, who spend most their time on the street, or Fang, who’s SIN marks her as a criminal, exist primarily at that lowest level. If there is a street war targeting metahumans or magic users, it’s very hard to escape it. If characters at this level can rely on their government to protect them, they can probably get by. When they can’t, they must hide, fend/fight for themselves, or band together into gangs or other organizations. Characters such as Elsie or Ma1nfram3 (assuming they are who they appear to be), who exist at a slightly higher economic level and can pass for human can depend a little more on the community infrastructure around them, and can be a bit more selective in choosing which battles to fight.

The bigotry of the 6th world has moved on from things as “simple” as skin color, gender, and sexual orientation because the introduction of magic provided all new sources for human anxiety, fear and hate to latch onto. Troll and Orks look like monsters out of 5th world children’s stories and fables, while technology and magic are difficult to regulate and give seemingly random individuals unbelievable sources of power. And all too like our world, those who seek political power have found plenty of ways to latch their star to the never-to-be-underestimated capacity of humans to fear and hate that which is different.

Specifically, Kenneth Brackhaven, current governor of Seattle, has made a political career by tapping into those forces of fear in people: fears that children in public schools will have gigantic troll classmates who tower over them, that the orks of the underground will take all the jobs while filling the streets with drugs and crime, that elves are secretly manipulating everyone and infiltrating the upper levels of governments and corporations. He publicly proclaims tolerance, but at the same time, fired his entire police force (Lonestar) and brought in a new police force (Knight Errant, a division of Ares Corporation) who now owes him big time for the contract. Not surprisingly, the new police force routinely turns a blind eye to violence against metahumans, while protecting the interests of human voters at the bottom and powerful organizations who fund him a the top.

Enter into this characters such as Cromwell, who has good instincts but not much logic. He knows humans see him as a bull in a china shop where ever he goes, and he knows that most people are going to take the side of the china. He knows that he can’t rely on the police, who are as likely to assume he’s the criminal as, say, a young human troll killer. And his years on Yomi Island taught him how much he can trust society’s judgement. He can’t hide: he’s a troll who lives on the street, and he has bad experiences we haven’t yet gotten into with gangs and organized crime. So in the end of the day, Cromwell doesn’t believe he has any choice but to fight as hard as he can to protect the things he cares about until he is invariably killed in a war that he can’t escape from. He is going to invariably come into conflict with characters who believe in trying to work with the system (Fang) or avoid the fight altogether (Ma1nfram3 and Mordecai, potentially: we don’t yet know what lies behind these character’s motivations). He’s going to be frustrated that they can’t see that he doesn’t have the choices they do to avoid the fight, and they’re going to be frustrated that Cromwell can’t see that there might be a better way if he had more faith or patience. Not to mention that he’s threatening their own places in the system & sometimes playing into the hands of his enemies. And then there’s Elsie, who Cromwell cares deeply about, who forces Cromwell not to rush to his own death in that war: not because he’s afraid of dying, but because she reminds him that it’s about more than just his own life: he needs to stay alive long enough know that she’s safe from [REDACTED].

I (Tony) am not much like Cromwell at all. I’m not an idealist, but I do believe in patience, diplomacy. I believe, perhaps out of privilege, that the system contains corruption and systemic unfairness, but not that the whole system is fundamentally corrupt. But playing Cromwell helps me see the situations that would make me feel differently, and if there is a better reason to role play than that, I don’t know what they are.

UPDATE: FORT LEWIS STANDOFF RESOLVED; BARNABY THE BEAR STILL AT LARGE

FORT LEWIS (Horizon News) — The tense standoff at Fort Lewis Zoological Gardens has come to an end, after a foggy night filled with explosions, mayhem and escaping animals. Salish-Shidhe ground troops completed their withdrawal this morning, while UCAS troops struggled to recapture a number of paranormal animals who escaped into the wild through large, mysterious holes in the facility’s walls that appeared during what was an abnormally foggy night.

Notably, Barnaby, the bear who triggered the protests, has not been located. Head researcher, Dr. Anderol Gleeson, was caught on trid in a heated exchange with Bear Doctor Society Protester Dr. Brenda Treesplitter, most of which is unsuitable for publishing. “Where the **** is the ****ing bear, you ****ing hippy!?! Do you know how much ****ing money Ares poured into that thing!?!” Gleeson was eventually sedated and carried off by UCAS HTR operatives, and an Ares spokesperson called the doctors comments, “unfortunate and misinformed. Ares respects all life. The bear was obviously not modified in anyway, but may still be dangerous–anyone with information on the bear’s whereabouts should contact Ares representatives immediately.”

Bear Doctor Society protesters appeared surprisingly calm, providing medical aid to several researchers who had been knocked unconscious during the as-of-yet unexplained events. “Our spirits are currently working to drive these animals south,” said Dr. Treesplitter. ” We have people across the border who can help reintegrate them into Salish-Shidhe lands.”

The researchers, themselves, appeared to have no memory of what happened. “We were locked inside and then… I don’t know, it’s like a dream I can’t quite remember. I think someone threw an awakened walrus at me! The next thing I remember, this Bear Shaman was muttering something over my head, and I now I feel better. I think I’m going to need a new job, though.”

Salish-Shidhe representatives expressed anger over the incident. “We’re still not clear on who breached the facility last night,” explained Elder Jim Whitewing. The Bear Doctors have given us their word that they were not involved, beyond the cleanup this morning. Whoever is responsible for this took a number of reckless, and frankly, stupid risks. That said, the most foolish risk was the UCAS’s failure to live up to its agreements concerning the treatment of these animals. Perhaps the generals of UCAS should look to the volcano to the east more often, and remember the consequences of their past choices.”

The public section of Fort Lewis Zoological Gardens will remain closed for several weeks while damage is assessed, doors and walls are repaired, and the remaining animals are corralled. This is the second time explosives have been detonated in a research facility in the last month, after the Red Blossom Clinic sustained damage in what Shiawase claims was a hate crime against disabled elves. Barnaby the Bear remains at large and officials from both nations have promised to return him to the facility when found.

UPDATE: SEVERAL EXPLOSIONS HEARD WITHIN FORT LEWIS ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS

FORT LEWIS (Horizon News) — A series of explosions, followed by sounds of growls, shrieks and howls have sounded from within Fort Lewis Zoological Garden Research Facility, late this evening.  This, after an intense three-week standoff over the fate of a donated bear named “Barnaby”. The UCAS Army, Salish-Shidhe ground troops, and Bear Doctor Protesters all appear to be caught off guard, with each group preventing the others from entering the building.

“Frankly, we have no idea what’s going on in there: the fraggin’ protesters forced us to evacuate the facility of most personnel,” claimed on-site UCAS commander Rick Naskin. “I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Salish-Shidhe council for failing to control these so called ‘Bear Doctors’. As soon as the politicians get their fraggin’ heads out of their collective asses and give us permission, we’ll clear up whatever the problem is.”

Salish-Shidhe ground forces were equally flustered. “Our presence here are centered solely around ensuring a peaceful resolution to the ongoing tension.” claimed Council Elder Jim Whitewing. “If the Bear Doctors have taken illegal action, they will have to answer to the governments of both nations, but until that is proven, we will consider any violent act the UCAS takes against the shaman to be an act of war!”

The Bear Doctors, who have chained themselves together around the main and back entrances to the facility, claim to have no knowledge of what has caused the explosions. “We are healers, doctors and religious leaders,” explained Dr. Brenda Treesplitter. “While we stand by our protest, and we have resolved to take no action. Our primary concern is that Barnaby, and the other animals within the facility, are not injured by whatever in the Great Bear’s name is going on in there! The mana barrier that protected the facility is down, and we’re working on getting a spirit in there who can tell us more.”

Local peer-to-peer networks are buzzing about a trid-cast that was posted this afternoon from local trid-caster Buggs Fink. In the video, footage shows his unauthorized drones being shot down by UCAS snipers. In the background, he claims his enhanced filters show several grainy images of a “large gargoyle-looking creature, wearing a three-piece suit and some kind of hat, climbing the walls of the facility at incredible speed”. Horizon News considers this information highly speculative and unreliable, and recommends Mr. Fink leave the reporting to the professionals.

We will have more on this story as it develops. (UPDATE: Situation Resolved, Barnaby Still At Large)

TENSE FT LEWIS STANDOFF OVER CAPTIVE BEAR ENTERS SECOND WEEK

FORT LEWIS, UCAS — A tense three-way standoff entered its second week on Tuesday, as protesters affiliated with the Seattle Bear Doctors Society refused to leave prohibited space just outside the Fort Lewis Zoological Gardens research center. Security forces from both the UCAS Pacific Army Command and the Salish-Shidhe Council have mobilized outside the Center, which operates as both a public zoo and research center for paranormal and augmented animals.

At issue is a large adult American Black Bear, known to visitors as Barnaby. The bear was donated to the center by the Bear Doctors in 2075 after the bear swam to Council Island and became habituated to human food. “We clearly stipulated that Barnaby would be left to live as naturally as possible in the Fort Lewis facility.” said Bear Doctor Spokesperson Dr. Brenda Treesplitter. “We should have known better than to trust the UCAS’s offer to provide a home for this wayward bear. When we received reports that Barnaby had undergone cybernetic augmentation, we knew we had to take action!”

The Bear Doctors, a Council Island based group of shamanistic healers, is popular among the Amerindian population of the Seattle Metroplex for it’s free clinics. It has, nonetheless, drawn harsh criticism from the Salish-Shidhe council. “While we appreciate the Bear Doctors’ concern, and everything they have done for this community, we are concerned that their rash actions will undermine Council/UCAS relations, and we insist they stand down immediately!”

UCAS Pacific Command Press Secretary Brock Hamilton made himself available for comments on Monday morning: “We have talked with the Ares contractors who run the facilities, and they have assured us that any work done on animals in the facility is humane and improve the quality of life of the animal. These allegations are the typical lies we’ve come to expect from eco-terrorist groups. If the Salish-Shidhe Council will not clear their people from the prohibited space outside the Fort Lewis Zoo, our Soldiers will remove them with extreme prejudice.”

Salish-Shidhe Council Ambassador Margaret Lone Feather urged calm in a rare joint press release with Governor Kenneth Brackhaven. “We are well aware of the situation at hand, and while we respect the Bear Doctor Society for their healing skills, we fear they may have let their tempers override better judgement. We encourage everyone, regardless of their nation, to avoid the area and leave it to our security forces to negotiate a peace. We value our relationship with Seattle and the UCAS, and believe that to jeopardize it over something as insignificant as a single bear would be incredibly unwise.”

“Stupid, even,” added Governor Brackenhaven. “Fortunately, the facility is in lockdown and the protesters have been unable to breach the hardened doors and magical barriers.”

UPDATE: Several Explosions Have Been Reported Inside The Facility

Shadowrun: Corporate SINs Recap for May 11th, 2016

A quick recap, from Cromwell’s point-of-view, before the Shadowrun: Corporate SINs episode tonight at 6pm, on HyperRPG’s Twitch Channel!

Cromwell longed to punch his way through the wall, climb down the hospital’s walls, and flee into the dusk. He had to remind himself that he tried hiding before, and discovered that if loneliness didn’t find him, trouble always did. Remind himself that there was no safety out there, not if he didn’t complete the job. Not for him, and not for Elsie, the wayward teenage that he had promised the Great Bear to protect with his life.

The last job had not gone well. The loss of MMFEC’s mark, Josephine Dzhugashvili, to a team of elite runners had hit everyone hard. Cromwell could see it in the way Mordecai muttered to himself in dark corners. In the way Fang kept rechecking her implanted gun, just in case. In the way Elsie would start to speak and then suddenly fall silent, staring out windows or down at the ground. Even the speed at which Ma1nfram3 agreed to be put under, as bait, seemed incongruous to the Elven Decker’s carefully guarded nature.

But now there was a job to do. Evo’s Ms. O’Johnson had been clear about the terms: 5,000 nuyen, each, to locate a particular Shiawase facility, engaging in illicit research on “volunteers”. The group was to discover the location of the facility and provide video documentation of the location where the research was being performed. A bonus of 3,000 nuyen would be provided if the exact nature of the research could be determined, an extra 2,000 nuyen for freeing five “volunteers”, and 500 more for each extra.

Ma1nfram3 had obtained a low quality security card for Elsie, removed any trace of her actually identity, and put herself in the less-than-gentle care of the Red Blossom clinic, the rest of the group had descended upon the clinic: located on the seventh floor of a hospital, in the shadow of the Aztechnology Pyramid. The plan had been to send Elsie in to wake Ma1nfram3 up. And while she had talked her way past the hospital’s general security, her disguise had not been enough to get her into the restricted area of the Red Blossom clinic. And so, Mordecai, Fang and Cromwell had joined her. Breaking through the security door, Cromwell had carefully fired a narcojet-injected arrow into the one visible security guard… who, remarkably, managed to stay on his feet. And that was where Plan A had turned into the entire group fighting guards, drones, gas grenade, and incredibly, two plant monsters from another plane of existence!

At some point in the fray, Elsie had gone down. Cromwell remembered hearing the sound of The Great Bear roaring in his head, in a hail of grenades, fists, exploding drones, and vines. And then, an odd silence. Wounded and barely standing, the group had revived the unconscious Elsie and found difficulty in waking Ma1nfram3. Cromwell felt a little guilty about the empty spots on his grenade belt–until he remembered that the guards who had taken the brunt of the blasts had stood by while Shiawase experimented upon the innocent. Besides, Cromwell had more to worry about than whether the guards would survive their injuries.

If the guard’s cries hadn’t called down a High Threat Response team, the grenades certainly had, and the team had but scant moments before a force they would have no chance to defeat would arrive…

 

Performances: 2/25-2/28

Lots of performances this weekend!
Thursday, 8:30pm: Performing in Improv Anonymous’s Blank Slate, where the audience creates an entire play: Tickets and Info
Friday: 6:00pm – Late (and other pop-ins this weekend): Online with HyperRPG’s 48-hour Charity Drive: Check out the Twitch Channel
Saturday, 10:30pm: Playing on a new team in Unexpected Productions’ Seattle Theatresports:Theatresports Tickets and Info
Sunday, 8:30pm: Playing a small, informal open improv show at Unexpected Productions: Tickets at the door at the Market Theater (1428 Post Alley, behind the gumwall)

The Force Awakens Filmography (No Major Spoilers)

There is a lot to talk about, regarding The Force Awakens, but without giving away any more plot than the trailer, I can discuss how much better the filmographic focus and restraint are than in the Prequels.

I watched both Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith immediately after The Force Awakens. RotJ stands up, but RotS is pretty awful in comparison, simply at a visual level.

It’s clear, in the Prequels, that Lucas and Company wanted to show us a “newer” universe, in which the Galactic Republic was at its height. Everything is clean and polished (which, unfortunately, translates to “without texture”). Along with that, Lucas shows us EVERYTHING. Everything is in focus. Every shot is full of a million “cool” things. There are so many cool things that it’s impossible to focus on any one thing: and so everything becomes mundane.

Screen Captures from the trailer for The Force Awakens

Screen Captures from the trailer for The Force Awakens (Click to Enlarge)

In the originals, and in The Force Awakens, focus is incredible narrow. Both physical focus and narrative focus. Backgrounds are blurry and recede, with just enough detail to show me that SOMETHING is there, but not so much detail that I can make much of it out. Which lets me fill in all that great detail with my imagination.

Screen Captures from the trailer for Revenge of the Sith

Screen Captures from the trailer for Revenge of the Sith (Click to Enlarge)

In contrast, either the foreground or some isolated area of the screen is almost always full of textured detail. The most “prequel” looking texture is probably a distinctive chrome uniform worn by one of the characters, and even that is kept dark enough and sometimes smudged enough so that it feels more “real”. My eyes always know where to land. I can track action and I’m not distracted by background characters, but I still know that they’re present.

I am attached two sets of screen captures, all from the trailers for either The Force Awakens or Revenge of the Sith. I didn’t have to be too selective: its very obvious.

Blurring your focus leaves a lot to the imagination.  The monster in the dark that you never quite see is far more frightening.  The hinted-at backstory is far more interesting than the full history.  What works visually, also works for the narrative.  Rather than talking about this new movie’s plot, we can use Tolkien as an example: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings’s Middle Earth feels like an old world, with hidden stories around every corner, precisely because Tolkien tells his stories from a very narrative point-of-view: we get hints of legends and characters with rich backstories we never do more than touch on.

Great Star Wars stories do the same: they give us just enough.  Think of Mon Mothma’s line in RotJ: “Many Bothans died to bring us this information. (long, sad pause)”.  I love that line!  Who were the Bothans?  What happened?  Don’t tell me, just let me ask the question!  Boba Fett was a lot cooler when we didn’t know who the hell he was, or where he got that sweet Mandalorian armor.

All this is to say: I loved The Force Awakens.  I will probably avoid all of Disney’s attempts to fill in that interesting, blurry background with comics, novels, and merchandise, because the vague ideas in my head are a lot more epic before they’re narrowed down on film.

Longterm Improv Investments

There’s nothing more I love about Seattle than seeing August Wilson at the Seattle Rep, and so I was excited to attend The Piano Lesson today. Every time I see a good show there, I’m reminded that there’s so much potential for theater that we improvisers lose when we stop growing as collaborative story tellers.

I’m in a lot of strong shows and I have the blessing to work with tons of great improvisers. That said, I’ve been in few shows, including successful ones, over the last couple of years where most investment in storytelling and stakes was immediately spent for a few laughs or to fill space when a performer wasn’t sure how to further invest in the story. I’ve seen a lot of performers advance straight through the most dramatically interesting parts of stories because we didn’t trust the moment. And I’ve seen a lot of disdain (or at least lack of appreciation) for performers who play the quiet roles, the slow stakes-building roles, the roles that simmer for a long time before they burst into flame.  And so, as successful as these shows have been, it’s hard to see the potential for how much greater they could be.

August Wilson’s a great storyteller, so I don’t want to set too high a bar, but a lot of what happens in great plays could be achieved by a group of truly collaborative improvisers. The majority of the cast of characters in The Piano Lesson is in place to heighten everything around the central conflict, as embodied by just two characters. And all those support character actors are great! The best acting in today’s show came from those roles. Many of them spent large portions of the play offstage, or sitting at a table, reacting quietly and giving focus to the rest of the scene.  When they did have focus, they were engaging and entertaining, but rather than heightening their own character’s story, they used those moments to reinforce the weight of the conflict, before handing all that investment right back to the main drama of the show.  In the end, the weight all falls onto the two descendants who have come to own the piano and must decide what to do with it, so that at the end, the piano (and therefore the outcome of the show) has a full two hours of invested weight.

The best metaphor I can come up with is that every story has a piggy bank. Any time we expand long enough in an engaging way and the audience gives us their attention, we take that gold, and we have the option to spend it immediately for a laugh, or we can add that gold to that bank. When we have enough gold in the bank, the audience starts leaning in more.  They give us more gold.  Over the course of the story, you start spending some of that gold you’ve invested in the bank: characters have minor epiphanies, there are funny moments that arise out the story, etc.  The gold left in the bank earns interest.  You can measure how much you’ve invested by how much the audience cares about the outcome of the story.  And at the end of the story, if we nail the ending, we hand that gold back to the audience.

Great. There are a lot of performers out there who have learned the audience likes it when you give them money. New improvisers learn to earn gold and hand it right back to the audience, and they enjoy the reaction they give.  New improvisers who are greedy might learn to earn some quick gold at another performer’s expense and throw it right back to the audience by bluntly commenting or playing a character who doesn’t give a crap: both guaranteed ways to get a laugh and usually let the air out of the scene . Experienced improvisers might invest in expanding on a relationship in an engaging way and add gold to the bank. The best performers are engaging enough to save gold and also give some back to the audience as they do so. But experienced improvisers who are greedy start taking it on themselves to listen well enough to be able to take gold from the bank and spend it ahead of time, before the whole cast has time to grow that gold.  Thus arises that performer who gets feedback from audience, students, and even other improvisers, but who collaborators don’t really enjoy playing with.  The Janitor who already sang a song about advice, who suddenly jumps in front of the two lovers with another funny song, interrupting the big kiss the audience was waiting for. From that greedy performer’s point-of-view, the money in the bank is there for the taking, and the other performers just aren’t quick or bold enough to reach into the bank and take it.  From the other performer’s points-of-view, they were trusting the other improvisers to allow the story to reach the point where the time was right.

Now, it’s true that there are also performers who are green enough, or haven’t learned the confidence, or aren’t listening well enough to take gold from the bank when it’s time to do so.  But I think a lot of greedy, experienced improvisers assume that of their fellow players far too often, and start to believe their role is to spend the money on their fellow performer’s behalf. Eventually, performers who invest become disillusioned, and so they either join the greedier performers in spending the gold sooner, or they move on to other things.  I believe this is the reason I rarely see groups of more than a couple of improvisers really transcend this pattern and learn to invest as a group, and only then, silently as a group, allow the appropriate characters to spend the majority of that invested gold.

I think improv directors and groups can spend a lot more time exploring and investing in these dynamics simply by paying attention to it, and letting it be part of notes and direction. Players who invest but don’t get a big laugh need to be appreciated and supported for what they do. Most of us were drawn to performing, at some level, by a desire for appreciation: the “funny” improvisers get theirs from the audience on stage. The performers doing the work behind the scenes need to receive their share off stage.

Little Red Riding Hood as told by Improv

Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived in a place. She lived with her mother, who had a funny voice and stirred a pot a lot. One day, her mother told her to be careful in the woods, because if she strayed from a path, a wolf might eat her. Before Red could reply, a wolf burst through the door. He strutted about, waving his funny tail, and telling everyone he was hungry. Suddenly, a woodsman burst in and chopped the wolf in the belly. Grandmother came jumping out of the wolf’s belly, and danced around joyfully. Little Red Riding Hood struggled to get downstage to say something witty but the lights came down and they lived happily ever after.