In the past decade, many Shadowrun books have followed a similar development path—as the line developer, I put together an idea, pitch it to management, then hire writers to flesh out the outline. It’s a process that works, but it’s not the only process that works, and it can be fun to experiment with new ways of doing things to see what happens.
Cutting Black started when Shadowrun writer RJ Thomas approached me with an idea to do a book about Detroit. The pitch had some intriguing elements, but it came in a tricky area—we don’t do too many print books focused on one city (besides Seattle), so the idea was going to have trouble finding a niche. It could be an e-book, but if we wanted to make a print book, it had to offer something more. RJ and I talked about some of our favorite Shadowrun plotlines—the Universal Brotherhood, Renraku Arcology, Bug City, and such—and what made them special. Could we do something with this Detroit plotline that made raised it to a high level? That was the tough question, and we kept trying to answer it over the course of conversations and e-mails.
While we were making progress on that front, Shadowrun, Sixth World was moving forward, to the point where I needed to plan the books that would follow the core book’s release. Catalyst’s owner, Loren Coleman, encouraged me to make a plot book that would follow the core book and provide memorable events that would stick with players. Could we make the Detroit plot fit the bill? I scheduled some meetings at Gen Con 2018 to try to figure it out.
For me, Gen Con 2018 will be remembered as the Con of Excellent Meetings. All Gen Cons have meetings (I understand some people there also play games. That’s foreign to me). Not all meetings are equal—some meet their purpose, some spin their wheels, some trudge to weird and uncertain conclusions. In 2018, one meeting after another exceeded my expectations, and I came out excited to work on the plans we made. One of these meetings was with RJ, and the conversation steered us to some really exciting elements for the plot line. I took those to Loren, and he said: Give me more. So we threw a few more ingredients into the stew that was on its way to becoming Cutting Black.
I don’t want to give away all the plots and twists and turns we ended up putting in that book, so I’ll focus on one. We knew the plot needed chaos, a sense of things spiraling out of control, and the horror that comes with the familiar being made alien and unfamiliar. We wanted to take some sense of safety from players while letting them still use the skills and tools they have built up.
What if we did something as simple as taking away electricity?
In the real world, looting hit the city of Caracas this year in the fifth day of a blackout. In New York in 1977, looting started within hours of the power going out. The removal of this simple thing can tear the fabric of society. Knowing that, we wondered what would happen if power went out in cyberpunk cities that are even more power dependent than our day? What if the blackout came with strange events such as wandering creatures and dark spirits? Would that deepen the terror?
This blackout concept — and the circumstances surrounding it—became a key part of Cutting Black (and a prime inspiration for its title), and I was so interested in exploring the concept that I pitched an accompanying campaign book called 30 Nights to plunge players into the middle of a massive blackout. This book focuses on one city (Toronto) going through a month-long blackout, giving players mini-adventures for each night. The plot strands and characters of the nights intertwine, giving gamemasters a chance to weave a rich story and build tension as the nights go along.
There’s an important hitch to this plot we needed to deal with. Some Shadowrun characters, namely deckers and riggers, depend on electricity to do their jobs. What could they accomplish in a blacked-out city? That question led to the development of new concepts and fun ways to engage characters, including strange vans broadcasting Matrix signals in the middle of blacked-out neighborhoods and impromptu networks of technomancers springing up to facilitate wireless communication. Everyone has something to do in the blackout—they just have to be creative in figuring out how to do it.
There was one more puzzle piece to throw in, but not one that would finish the puzzle. At least, not right away. The idea was to see how the plotline could set up plotlines to come. Cutting Black has resolutions, but it also has secrets, mysteries that are not solved by the end (much like Universal Brotherhood, one of the classic sourcebooks we kept thinking about). These elements will have continuing repercussions as future books come along.
All this plot planning comes with two elements: First, is the storyline cool? Second, does it give players something interesting to do? A compelling storyline that leaves the players watching it unfold from the sidelines is not what we’re looking for. When chaos erupts, the players have to be in the middle of it—ideally, with a chance to do something about it. Maybe they’ll make things better, maybe they’ll make them worse, but either way, they should play a role in uncovering secrets, figuring out who learns about them, and determining how those secrets will play out. They may not change the entire world—in Shadowrun, the runners are far from the most powerful people in the world, so they can’t always shape it—but they can make some small changes that might make the world a little more bearable, or that might lay the foundation for something bigger.
Some of the fun is figuring out just where this will go. We know the immediate next steps, including the next plot book, which will be called Slip Streams and will pick up directly on one of Cutting Black’s big mysteries. Other elements remain hazy but figuring out the endgame is part of the fun in pursuing the story.
In the end, I come back to the common thread we saw in role-playing sessions we liked, of Shadowrun or any other game: adventures where we are pushed to the limit and have to figure out some way to survive, or maybe even win. We hope Cutting Black and 30 Nights provide several crises that force players to think hard about how their characters will survive and push back the darkness of the Sixth World, even if only a little.
Jason M. Hardy is the Shadowrun line developer for Catalyst Game Labs and oversaw the development of both the fifth and sixth editions of the game.