Firstly, I'm going to try and keep the spoilers to a minimum, but as I went on with this, I found it simply wasn't possible to give a fair review without some. So this review is really for GMs only. I should also say that it is based only on the PDF version, though the presentation and construction of the book looked fine when I thumbed through it in my local shop.
The first thing to make clear is exactly what Emergence is and is not. Frequently good books, films, meals etc. are disliked because they aren't what we were expecting. So in a way, this review covers two things. What Emergence tries to do and how well it achieves that aim. Both are important.
The thing that Emergence is definitely not
, is an adventure. This is vital to get across because many people assumed that it was going to be. You don't get maps. You don't get statistics, results of legwork rolls, proposed rewards. You don't even get character descriptions
. It's not written at that level at all. Anyone who purchases Emergence expecting to be able to "run" it, will be very
disappointed. There's a lot of work needed to turn this into something playable. What it does have are run outlines. If you've read the expanded run ideas in the back of Runner Havens, or in the Contacts and Adventures booklet that came with the Shadowrun screen, you'll have a very good idea of what Emergence contains in this regard. I'll return to these adventure frameworks later, but I thought it was best to begin with making this clear.
These run ideas comprise a minority part of the 120 page book, however. The majority of the book is taken up with in-character dialogue in the form of online messaging, aka Shadowtalk. I'll come back to that later, as well.
Before we get into the details of the book, it's best to address what will be the biggest factor in whether or not Emergence works for you - Technomancers. It's been repeatedly stated by the developers on forums such as Dumpshock, that this book is useful whether or not you have technomancers in your party and that it's good for all character types. This is something that I think is disingenuous and, quite honestly, not true.
This book puts the spotlight on technomancers and never takes it off. Now it's true that other character types can be involved. Mages, adepts and samurai can participate in rescuing technomancers from those who persecute them, they can help protect technomancers as they come out to the public, they can help technomancers come to terms with their new abilities, they can help technomancers do all sorts of things. But I think you can see where I'm going with this: if Emergence were the X-men, then the technomancers are the mutants and everyone else is Bobby's parents.
As with most things, if it's what you want, then it's not a problem, but at least for me, it's an inescapable flaw. I don't have any technomancers amongst my players. That makes the players inevitably on the thematic outside of the whole campaign arc. But if I did have a technomancer in my party, I think the situation would be actually worse. Consider the following:
- The majority of the campaign arc revolves around the prejudice and hatred of technomancers. We're talking sizable bounties on these people, vivisection by corporations, public lynchings. That puts any technomancer player into a pre-defined role already. No other archetype has such in-built social roles and pre-defining the social role that a player will take in the game based on what is essentially a character class is not not not a good thing. If a player is running a technomancer they are fugitives and hated and feared by society. This is non-negotiable. Emergence cannot support a different take on this.
- Worse than pre-defined roles, however is the emphasis on that player. If you have a technomancer in the party, that player now has the whole focus of the campaign arc on them. So who plays the technomancer in your group? The annoying player that keeps wandering off to play X-box or the super-role-player who would love playing a poor persecuted technomancer? Think carefully on this. It's not that the player will necessarily be the one to solve every adventure and save every day, but they will be the one that the whole theme of the campaign is built around. Do you want a spotlight on that particular player all the time? The other players may resent the technomancer being the hook or key for every adventure.
- Equally bad is if they try to ignore the emphasis placed on the technomancer player. In that case, the GM will be forced into the position of bringing down the heavy hammer or letting Emergence drift into the background, undermining the believability of the Emergence campaign arc. This is different to the sometime problem where players want to go in a different direction to the adventure. In this case, I consider the players to be well justified in wanting to go in a different direction. If I ran this campaign for my group, I would be lucky to get to the fourth adventure before they were throwing dice at me and threatening to lynch technomancers themselves. "GM's Girlfriend" syndrome is a bad thing and it would be hard to avoid here. We should also bear in mind that Shadowrunning teams are commonly played as professional teams held together by mutual self-interest. With Emergence, having a technomancer in the party is suddenly equivalent to tying a brick around your neck or mooning the Great Dragon Lofwyr. A lot of teams run through the events in Emergence would naturally fall apart without metagame motivation, and that is also a bad thing.
- Player reliability could be another issue if you have a technomancer in your party. If a player can't make a game normally, or drops out for a while, or retires a character to create another, you can usually work around that. But any technomancer is inevitably going to take centre stage if you run through the events in Emergence and that makes the game rather too dependent on a particular player.
- Finally (at last), your technomancer has probably already been playing for a while, given the late *ahem* emergence of Emergence, and although there have been minuscule foreshadowing and hints that technomancers are considered new and strange if you read forums like Dumpshock, they weren't very heavy and your player has probably been openly a technomancer all along. It's going to be confusing when suddenly he's a strange new phenomenon, hated and feared for his freaky powers. You can play it as attitudes changing, but quite honestly, your players are going to wonder why if people weren't freaked out or astonished before, it should suddenly cause such terror to people now.
And that last point brings us on to the whole lynching theme of the book. Emergence is about prejudice and hatred and fear of the technomancers. This is integral to Emergence. The question in many GMs minds will be 'why?' In some ways, Technomancers are more powerful than hackers mechanically. But they're not an order of magnitude above them. There are balancing limits to the archetype. There have to be, because it's a game. So the same counter-measures that are used against Hackers are in the main, as effective (or ineffective) against technomancers. And a radio-brain is no better mechanically than an implanted commlink. The GM and players will be forgiven for wondering where all this terror and awe comes from. Of course, there are plenty of real world examples of baseless prejudice. Indeed, explicit references are made in the book to "yellow stars" and "final solutions."
Now the designers have made several statements about why there is such hysteria and loathing but it seems forced to me. This is a world that has seen magic and metahumans and dragons and plagues and vampirism and much, much more. Honestly, someone coming on TV and saying "I can communicate directly with a computer without using a commlink" doesn't seem a big deal. Especially when super Hackers with built in commlinks are already a feature of the world and everyone who is anyone can do the same with a trode headband. And as a GM or a player, we also know
that it isn't a big deal. We can't relate to the hysterical prejudiced people of Shadowrun except to think that they're idiots. And I can't run a game where most of the NPCs are idiots.
The issue of plausibility has been raised by many people on the Dumpshock forum and the designers have been quick to leap in and defend the book, explaining why the events fall this way. They've met with middling success at this. And none of us have a miniature game designer sitting on our player's shoulders supporting us during play to help allay player's doubts. I think the very fact that the game designers have had to be so vociferously justifying the events in Emergence is in itself a inditement. One of the things emphasised by the designers is that the hatred is media fuelled by corporations who want to get their hands on technomancers. That makes zero sense. There's no real test for identifying a technomancer, short of a massively
successful assensing roll by a magician. If a technomancer wants to remain hidden they, wait for it, don't tell anyone! Really! It is incredibly difficult to track down technomancers. And the megacorps decide to get their hands on these people by having them publically lynched? Wouldn't it cost massively less and be infinitely more productive to say "Come in for some tests and we'll give you 100,000 nuyen." I find it hard to believe that lots of co-operative and helpful technomancers wouldn't be enormously more useful than a handful of dissected bodies. And if a dissection really is necessary (hard to see why in a world where brain-machine interfaces require routine brain surgery anyway), then it's got to be easier to cover up the odd incident than it is to orchestrate a world wide media campaign.
And that brings us on to the only real spoiler in this review. There is a way to make the events in Emergence a bit more believable, though it's not an approach that Emergence takes. Emergence reintroduces AI's to the Shadowrun setting. These are not the apocalyptic AI's of previous editions, like Deus, which are explicitly stated to be dead in the GM's information section. AI's are now akin to free spirits. You could support some of the prejudice against Technomancers if you explicitly tied them to AI's, making technomancers "possessed" in some sense. This doesn't resolve problems with play balance and technomancer spot-lighting, but it's my recommendation to GM's wishing to run through Emergence. However, it requires going against the timeline in Emergence where AI's are a big reveal about half-way through the book. And there are several places where it explicitly makes clear that AIs are a "myth" that the public does not generally consider and which remain a myth even after the technomancer hysteria begins to hit.
I should also be clear at this point that Emergence contains zero rules on how AI's work. Really zero. Do not buy this book in the expectation that it will help run AIs in your Shadowrun game. It wont.
Returning to the adventure frameworks themselves, as I said at the beginning, there is a lot of work to be done with them to turn them into adventures proper. But what of the actual frameworks themselves? Any good? Passable, but very few of them have anything in the way of sophistication. A typical example would be protect the technomancer for the night (pg. 47 for those who want to see what I mean). It's very by the numbers, very sparse and is significant only by virtue that the person they are protecting is a technomancer and that the enemy want him because of this. In fact, just before this adventure framework, is a line that is very telling and sums up a major underlying problem with the adventure frameworks:
“The following adventure frameworks can be used by the
gamemaster to link his players to the events of Emergence. “
The events of Emergence are world-spanning and as inevitable as continental drift (as written, anyway). What the adventure frameworks offer, is the potential for players to get caught up in them and play spin off runs from these events. They are not critical to how things go overall. No doubt this is intentional to keep the metaplot going, but is it a good intention? It's going to depend on how each individual GM feels. It's a valid way of lending some over-arching significance to individual runs, but it also runs the counter risk of making the players feel that they aren't a significant part of events, just a sideshow. GMs should consider carefully the overall tone of their adventure and if, like me, you like making your players more the heroes of events, you'll need to do some tuning to give them more significant roles. Some of them do have the shine of inspiration on them. There's one that I really like the idea of enormously but I don't want to spoil. It starts on page 107 for those that want to look. I'll be fleshing that one out and using it.
Some of the run ideas are quite frankly awful. There's one in which the players have to race to stop Humanis members from letting off a weapon in a metahuman area of town. It's moronic because the Humanis members have the capacity to do an equal amount of damage at any point before this weapon appears in their midst. The world of Shadowrun is not exactly a world in which it is hard to get hold of explosives or other weapons. The weapon Humanis gets hold of provides nothing extra in the area of damage potential and certainly nothing extra in terms of getting away with the massacre (less, given the uniqueness). It also reduces Humanis once more to a plausibility-stretching caricatures.
Speaking of caricatures, I'd better mention the viewpoint characters through out the book. We have a racist character whose role is to be put down by the smarter and cooler characters. At the end of the book, this character does something to heavily underline that he's a bad guy. Am I asking for a message of racist hate in a role-playing book? No, of course not. I just think it does a disservice to us to outline racism in such a strawman way.
Now I've talked a lot about what the book doesn't have. I think I'd better mention something it does.
(AND IF YOU'RE JUST SKIMMING THROUGH THIS REVIEW – THIS IS THE PART TO STOP AND READ!)
Emergence contains Shadowtalk. Lots of it. No really - lots of it. The first eight pages of the book are nothing but forum posts from Shadowrunners. Then you get six pages of game information (mainly adventure ideas) and then another nineteen pages of shadowtalk. The pattern lasts for most of the book and Emergence is 120 pages long! Now the Shadowtalk includes a few uploaded file snippets boosted from people's commlinks or ripped from corporate labs that could be sneaked into an adventure as fluff. But essentially you get Shadowtalk.
What does a GM do with it all? Well I assume that the intention is that it has to make its way to the players somehow. You can't have half the book as just GM-only hints (and it is only hints, so it isn't really directed at GMs who need more than hints to run the world). So how do you convey all this to the players? Most of the Shadowtalk is ongoing commentary on world events, so it can kind of be integrated into the runs, I guess. But it will be odd to have information fed to the players from characters they have no contact with. The players as chat room lurkers? Sounds dull to me. Most players will immediately start replying and then the GM suddenly finds themselves playing an extra load of NPCs in an online dialogue and will also find that he's imported them (and jackpoint) into his game on an ongoing basis even after Emergence is done. The GM can just not use it, but that brings us back to large swathes of the book just not reaching the players. Much of the Shadowtalk is an ongoing discussion that runs through the whole of the book making it difficult to pass on only parts of it to the players. If the intention is that the players should just be passed all of it to read, then they're being relegated to listeners of a story instead of players and that's very bad, imo. They could read it all after the end of the campaign if the GM wished, but it would be a dull way to wind up a game and it doesn't read very well as a story either, unless you're already passionately interested in minutiae and Shadowrun in-jokes.
I'm afraid that this has been a very negative review. It's a shame, because I think Shadowrun 4th Edition is fantastic and the quality of Street Magic and Augmented as supplements was through the roof. So I want to finish by focusing on the positives. Firstly, the PDF is £9.00. That's a couple of pizzas. If you think anything in Emergence will be useful, or even if you'll just enjoy reading it, I'd say get it (and have a salad ;) ). Also, the editing and general polish is up to the standard of 4th edition so far. It's all very swish and neat and clear. Some of the artwork is genuinely lovely (particularly whoever did the full-page piece on page 7). The minor art pieces are sparse, but also mostly quite nice. Also the chapter-heading bits of fiction are very good, especially the opening piece. It's hard to get a reaction from less than a side of A4 but they're well done with these. The first and last ones have a real punch. The closing piece actually achieves what I would call poignancy.
I guess the summary is that I don't like what it is at all, but it's okay at doing what it sets out to do. Short of reducing my game to Forum Lurkers: The RPG
, most of this book will be useless to anyone as an actual game aid. The run ideas are nothing special and there's certainly nothing in there of immediate practical use to a GM in a hurry. For a GM seeking a campaign framework that the players can't mess up by failing to do something, Emergence could be used.
But I'm sorry, I just hate this product. I've tried to cover all my reasons for why I don't like it so that other people can decide if those reasons might not apply to them, But personally, I feel out and out betrayed by Emergence because everything else that has been produced for Shadowrun 4th Edition, has been excellent imo. I would buy it anyway, because I buy anything Shadowrun related. But this is useless as a game aid and dull as fiction. It's a misconceived product which, despite being edited and presented perfectly well, seems to have had little thought as to whether it produces a good game.
It makes me wonder if the developers even actually play anymore.