WTF, D&D: The Art and Style of Shadowrun First Edition (1989)

The year is 2050. William Gibson is rolling over in his grave. It is the dark cyberpunk future. Dragons, elves, orcs, and other fantasy creatures have appeared on the earth and changed it forever. Corporations rule the cities and there are deckers using the Matrix to hack some credsticks, chummer. Also, for some reason, Native Americans have taken over half the United States. Welcome to Shadowrun. Published by FASA in 1989, Shadowrun was a runaway success and for several years was one of the most popular tabletop games. Multiple editions since the first have struggled to revive Shadowrun, which has seen more success lately in a series of computer RPGs from indie developer Harebrained Schemes.

Steve: Shadowrun was my jam.

Zack: Shadowrun was always a distant second to R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk 2020 in my mind. The Shadowrun books were nicer, the writing was fine, but I didn’t ask for Tolkien in my Gibson. Conceptually it didn’t thrill me. But boy did some of my friends like it.

Steve: Being honest here, dude, you sound kind of like a stick in the mud. Shadowrun was a blast. Who didn’t want to be an orc street samurai fighting ghouls in Chi-Town with his mono-katana??

Zack: The important thing is that both games had the foresight to replace bards with 80s glam guitar rockers.

Steve: Speaking of style, dude, let’s start on this art. The classic cover of the first edition Shadowrun book. Easily as iconic as some of the old Dungeons & Dragons book covers.


Zack: Does it beat the big-titty slave girls and the tentacle monster on the cover of Rifts?

Steve: Oh, that’s a tough one. I guess Rifts gets the edge in terms of babeness for having a trio of hot babes, but the Shadowrunner girl with her Daisy Dukes is still rocking my world. I mean look at that bod!

Zack: There’s so much going on here. You’ve got the elf plugging his head into a Star Trek computer which is on the street for some reason, you’ve got a Street Samurai going Uzis akimbo on some orcs who look super pissed off their car got booted, and then you’ve got the cultural appropriation hottie in the middle. She is the centerpiece, torn between the worlds of shotgun and of magic, of Native American and being from Sweden, and of wearing a shirt or just saying fuck it and wearing a bikini even though you are in Seattle.

Steve: Don’t forget that logo, bro. That’s maybe the best RPG logo ever made. It tells the story of what you are getting and sets up that tone like, yeah, here’s a creepy skull and also some circuitry and then the cool font is like Native Americans.

Zack: The Coast Salish have a hundred words for serif.

Steve: And you are all “cyberpunk is better bla bla bla” when who is going to want to be a “cyberpunk” when they could be a “shadowrunner”?

Steve: Cyberpunk is like some teenager who gets run out of the library for being in a sex chatroom on the library computer. A shadowrunner is doing parkour through a subway or something.

Zack: Admittedly, one sounds like they have somewhere to be and the other one sounds very prone to loitering. Perhaps on a cyberlawn or with their cyberboards outside the cyberpostoffice.

Steve: Also one gets to have a cool neon adventure with laser beams and energy swords when they hack a computer. The other one watches a loading bar for hackertools.exe.

Zack: But they both look good doing it.


Steve: “The cube rolls initiative!”

Zack: Everybody is always silver in the Matrix. That art is black and white and I can still tell the guy is supposed to be silver.

Steve: My view of the outer plane of Mechanus in D&D was always heavily influenced by Matrix artwork from Shadowrun books. How can you not see it as the realm of the Modrons?

Zack: It was the late 80s and early 90s, man. The Soviet Union was collapsing and America was looking for a new enemy to fear. We tried out cubes and pyramids for a while before we moved on to terrorists.

Steve: The art in this book is a little bit schizophrenic. It had that iconically Shadowrun artist who always drew people in huge-shouldered suits.

Zack: Yeah, we’ll get to the clothes more in a little bit.

Steve: And then the other two dominant artists in the book were Timothy Bradstreet, who is this extremely realistic artist who most people probably know from the Vampire books, and then Earl Geier who did artwork that defined early editions of Call of Cthulhu. Those two artists could not be more different.


Zack: Yeah, Bradstreet does crisp artwork using lots of shadows to define realistic figures. Geier draws everyone with a round body and a moon face. He upped his game for some of the work in this book, like that piece up there, but it’s still bad.

Steve: No! No way, it’s not bad! It’s good. It’s just different, man. I’m just saying it’s a weird choice to pick those two artists as some of your main dudes defining your book’s style.

Zack: Alright, since we are talking about the art defining the style of Shadowrun, let me give you another comparison. The art in the book bounces around a lot between this dark future vibe obviously influenced by Blade Runner and then this goofy ass elves and orcs doing things cartoon vibe straight out of a D&D sourcebook.

Zack: So you get a big, quarter page, full width piece of artwork like this…


Zack: And then ten pages later you get a quarter page, full width piece like this…


Steve: Both of them are awesome. One is a straight rip off of Blade Runner, in a good way, and the other one is a cyber elf looking at a Magic Eye painting to download data into his chips, chummer.

Zack: That’s what Shadowrun is all about. Once you see the boat, you know the secret of the insect spirits the evil troll shamans are trying to summon for a giant corporation run by a dragon.

Steve: If I know one thing about Shadowrun, it’s that the troll shamans cannot be stereotyped as evil. If anyone is likely to be evil, it’s the humans.

Zack: It’s the corporations.

Steve: Good point. In the late 80s and early 90s tabletop games weren’t a gateway for satan worship, they were a gateway for communism.

Zack: Maybe, but it wasn’t state communism. It was more a Robin Hood like redistribution of wealth where you blackmail an orc who works for a giant corporation into giving you a ton of money to buy more robot arms and guns.

Steve: Thus enriching the giant corporation that makes the robot arms and guns.

Zack: Capitalism has always been ten steps ahead of communism.

Steve: Something’s gotta change, chummer.


Zack: Some shit has clearly changed.

Steve: It turns out all the Native Americans needed to take back their land was dragons.

Zack: The idea is that technology gave the white man the edge over native people, right? So what if native mysticism was as strong or stronger than the white man’s technology?

Zack: I’ll answer that for you: the result is that you get one of those “future America” maps that Russian “political scholars” come out with every time there is a contentious election or an unpopular president in the USA. The ones where they fantasize about America Balkanizing and becoming weak. Only it’s all about Native Americans.

Steve: If Trump gets elected there are going to be so many of those maps.

Zack: Just imagine what happens the day after he’s elected, when he reveals that he’s a dragon.

Steve: Let’s talk about the archetypes. They’re like Shadowrun’s classes and some of them are doozies.

Zack: You’ve got the Riggers (drone operators) and the Deckers (hackers) and then you’ve got weirdly specific stuff like this…


Steve: I feel like her magic is probably bracelet based.

Zack: In addition to giving you templates for your characters, conceptually and with stats, the archetypes in Shadowrun also gave you another glimpse into the street fashion. Here you see carnival gypsy meets Power Rangers villainess.

Steve: Nothing in terms of style is possibly going to top the Former Company Man.


Steve: He is a man made out of drapes.

Zack: It’s like if you put M.C. Hammer pants on a Petri dish overnight and came back to the lab and this was overflowing out of the dish.

Steve: His shoes even have folds.

Zack: I’m trying to figure out what’s going on with his shirt under his vest and I think he might be wearing a series of green bibs.

Steve: Maybe all this stuff was tight as hell but then he retired and just, boom, lets himself go. Curtains just falling off his shoulders. Three belts to hold his vest shut.

Zack: At least he’s trying to burn some calories with those futuristic kettlebells.


Zack: Is this one cultural appropriation?

Steve: I don’t know what elf culture is really like. I would have thought more woodland and less Siouxsie Sioux by way of a RadioShack.

Zack: I guess credit to Shadowrun for making Native American culture front and center and the main part of the discussion, but also, there’s an element of draping everything in feathers and beads that seems a little off.

Steve: You’re no fun, dude! The Washington Trollskins are named that out of tradition. Telling them to change their name is taking away our culture!

Steve: I mean, look, you can be a tribesmen…


Zack: Nobody, ever, never played a tribesman. Not even real Native American tribal participants played this archetype. There are a hundred pages of robot arms and smart gun links to stick into your head. You can put metal chest plates under your skin and jack into a computer to have Lawnmower Man sex.

Steve: And some people want to talk to a ghost eagle. Deal with it.

Steve: If the archetypes are like the template for style in Shadowrun you get another good look with the Contacts section, which was always totally my favorite. It’s like picking your friends out of a catalog or something.

Zack: That sounds like a Twilight Zone episode, Twelve Roebuck Lane, where a guy fed up with his wife and children gets a catalog and can order a new family. He picks one out and calls a number. He comes home from work and they’re just in his life the old ones were, except they’re his perfect fantasy. No idea what happened to his old family. And then at the end of the episode the new wife gets a phone call and the family grabs the husband. He gets lobotomized and sent to someone else’s house and you see a kid has ordered a whole new family from the catalog.

Steve: I think I saw that one.

Zack: That would be fucking weird because I just made it up.

Steve: Not cool! Let’s look at the style of the Contacts in Shadowrun.


Zack: In the future, pants are going to be worn REALLY high.

Steve: It looks like a couch is giving birth to a man wearing a Polo shirt.


Steve: Yeah, no big deal, the mechanic who works on my car looks like the babe Bon Jovi falls in love with in one of his videos.

Zack: Bon Jovi videos definitely needed more orcs and trolls.

Steve: You know, we didn’t really bring it up, but one of the weirdest parts of Shadowrun’s fantasy element is that they introduce a species of dwarfs. But we already have dwarfs. They’re an actual thing.

Zack: We also have elves as you would know if you had seen pictures of Tilda Swinton.

Steve: Now there’s a woman for a Bon Jovi video.


Steve: Do you think they’re trying to draw some sort of parallel between the Humanis Policlub and something in the real world?

Zack: I don’t know, the group that wears hoods and hates elves and orcs might be referencing something, but I can’t figure it out.


Steve: How would you describe the fashion we’ve seen so far? I’m thinking, like, the costume designer for Dick Tracy called Kevin Smith for a meeting on fitting.

Zack: It’s 2050. Sinbad became a huge entrepreneur and owns Joseph A. Bank.

Steve: Instead of owning casinos, the Native Americans designed and sold all the NASCAR merch.

Zack: 4 Non Blondes got drunk on box wine and had a henna party in a loft. Weeks later they came out with elf ears.


Zack: I feel like Cyberpunk 2020 went retro with its style, looking to early the 1980s and Shadowrun went futuristic and looked to the late 1980s and early 1990s. You can be the judge of the results.


Steve: Stop right there. Do you know how orc you were going back there?

Zack: I’m groaning, Steve.

Steve: Driving while troll. The police never pass up a chance to hassle a metahuman.

Zack: The statistics show that elves don’t cause crime in their neighborhoods, but orcs do. Why is that? Find out in my article on the Daily Caller.

Steve: Neither Cyberpunk nor Shadowrun predicted the dark future of annoying thinkpieces we would be facing.


Zack: You can tell this is the most annoying dude in the world to have a conversation with.

Steve: He has a lapel totem.

Zack: He’s probably white and claims he’s 1/16th orc or something. Talks endlessly about some festival he went to 20 years ago where he got high and did it with a chupacabra. Does Shadowrun have chupacabras?

Steve: Nope. But I’m 99% sure Rifts has them.

Zack: Score another one for Rifts.


Steve: I feel like we’re just getting started on this stuff, dude.

Zack: The Shadowrun well is deep.

Steve: I think we should revisit this again. Maybe do one of the location books to see what Shadowrun predicts for a city or a country or whatever.

Zack: Sounds good, but let’s end it with this quote form William Gibson. The father of cyberpunk and one of the great influencers of the Internet age.

No relationship. No permission. Nothing. Nary a word exchanged, ever.

Except that the admixture of cyberspace and, spare me, *elves*, has always been more than I could bear to think about.

I’ve just been ignoring it for years, and hope to continue to.

Steve: That doesn’t really sound like a good review.

Zack: No. He posted that on his website in 2003. It occurs to me he probably doesn’t care for Cyberpunk 2020 either since that one just rips him off wholesale and doesn’t even add in the elves.

Steve: See, I knew you would come around to the side of good. Shadowrun forever.