Shadowrun Returns: capturing the tabletop vibe

Monday, 13th May 2013 08:07 GMT By Dave Cook

Shadowrun Returns takes the turn-based RPG template back to its hardcore roots. VG247′s Dave Cook speaks with Harebrained Schemes founder Jordan Weisman to learn more.

Shadowrun Returns

Developed by Harebrained Schemes, Shadowrun Returns will launch on PC and Mac worldwide later this year.

The game was funded on Kickstarter in April last year, making $1,836,447 of its $400,000 goal.

Harebrained Schemes released a 19-minute video of alpha gameplay footage, showing off the game’s combat, conversations and exploration. Check it out here.

Steam pre-orders for Shadowrun Returns have begun. Check out what you can get by ordering here.

The RPG landscape has changed drastically in recent years. On one hand the popularity of Skyrim has flagged up the genre to new players, while seasoned gamers have had a new wave of hardcore experiences to look forward to thanks to recent crowd-funding efforts.

Kickstarter has helped many pet-projects become a reality, and it is fast becoming the domain of RPGs, with Wasteland 2, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Project Eternity, Divinity: Original Sin and of course, Shadowrun Returns all enjoying great funding success over the past 14 months.

It’s clear from the money raised that there is still a thirst for challenging, classic RPG experiences out there, and this is the reason Shadowrun Returns met its goal. People want a game like this to exist.

Developer Harebrained Schemes isn’t deviating from the ingredients that made both the pen and paper RPG and the 1993 SNES adaptation so endearing, but it is adding many new elements on top.

This was made clear by the complexity of the team’s recent 19-minute gameplay demo, and even at a glance it was obvious that the game won’t pander to the uninitiated. It’s going to be a deep, complex experience from start to finish.

To get a better handle on what Shadowrun Returns feels like to play, the intricacies of combat, and to discuss the changing face of RPGs today, I spoke with studio founder and creator of the original Shadowrun Jordan Weisman.

“The plot is based on secrets and mysteries, so it’s hard to talk too much about it without giving away something,” he began. “You’ve been hired by a woman to find out who killed her brother and ‘deal’ with them. Along the way, you’ll have to navigate corrupt cops, mega-corporations, body part peddlers, and ancient … OK that’s enough.”

The game’s futuristic Seattle of 2054 is going to be teeming with plot strands, dangers lurking in every alley and an assortment of enemies waiting to be engaged in combat. There will be much to consider, but Weisman stressed the game still won’t hold your hand. This is meant to be a tough experience for dedicated players.

“Call it respect for the audience or call it old-school gamer mentality but we’re honestly not hand-holding people through a bunch of training on the mechanics,” he said. “Once upon a time, there was fun in exploring and experimenting. We hope to give players enough info to get them rolling and understanding the basics.”

Watching the team’s alpha gameplay demo made it clear that combat will take an open-ended approach. There is great scope to adapt to threats the way you feel is best. Do you take a frontal assault approach and stick your team to cover, or do you try hacking and using alternate routes to gain the upper hand?

The possibilities are vast, and Weisman explained that by combining skills and character types you can really hit your enemies hard, “Our mindset is that you don’t need to balance your team’s skills but there are certainly benefits in doing so. For example, a Street Samurai might have a decent chance of hitting an enemy but if the enemy were slowed by a spell, he would be at a greater advantage.

“Then a Decker might be able to hack the building’s defences and take control of their weapon turrets allowing a Rigger to manoeuvre his drone into an alcove to retrieve a lab specimen while taking minimal damage.”

While the gameplay mechanics are complex, Weisman’s team wanted to ensure there was a strong ‘around the table’ vibe flowing throughout Shadowrun Returns, as a way of capturing the pen and paper vibe of tabletop role-playing. I asked him if it was a tricky aesthetic to capture in a game setting.

“As for the ‘around the table vibe’ that we’ve talked about – that’s something we’ve played with and yes, it’s tricky,” he confirmed. “For awhile, we toyed with the voice of the Game Master talking directly to you and telling you to do a skill check. We also thought about showing dice rolls.

“Ultimately, we decided that it would be interesting but not necessarily compelling or immersive. However, when we release our editor, player-GMs can try this type of experiment out for themselves. Who knows, they may hit on the right way to do it.”

The editor in question is the Shadowrun Returns mission tool that will let players act as GM during their own custom missions, complete with a vast library of assets created by Wesiman’s team, and the tools necessary to create deep campaigns where almost anything goes. “The tool is extremely deep and powerful and we’re not ‘dumbing it down’ for release to the public,” Weisman continued.

“It is the exact same tool we use to create our Seattle and Berlin stories. The tool runs on Macs and PCs and allows players to become game masters and create their own stories in the Shadowrun universe. Our art team has created a wide range of exterior and interior building blocks from which GMs can create an amazing array of environments to set their stories within.

“GMs can then place NPC characters into these environments controlling them and the overall gameplay via an expansive trigger system which doesn’t require any scripting knowledge yet provides amazing power to the designer. Interactive objects, decking, and conversations all use the same trigger system, so these non-combat options can truly be ‘game-changing’ in scope.”

While it sounds like a powerful tool, it’s clear that crafting core scenarios and battles that wrap around environmental features like traps, alternate routes, hacking points and secondary objectives isn’t that simple, and Weisman was more than happy to shed light on how the team approached the challenge.

“Yes, we spent a lot of time creating the mechanics for each character archetype and abilities to develop a system to build on – and one that player-GMs could use to create interesting tactical scenarios.

“We approached the design of the story and individual runs the way we used to approach our tabletop gaming sessions by asking, What is the player trying to do here? How will players learn the info they need to learn? What obstacles/resistance/puzzles would be fun here?

“Yes, it’s tricky and it’s challenging, and it’s different from how a lot of computer role-playing games approach development. But from the beginning, we weren’t trying to create a standard CRPG with the look and feel of Shadowrun. We were trying to make a tactical-RPG that felt like the Shadowrun tabletop game, influenced by the SNES and SEGA games”.

Once again, the idea of an open editor with vast possibilities is one that might not have made it into the final code, had Shadowrun Returns been made under the wing of a large publisher. I can’t think of many console or big studio games – LittleBigPlanet and Minecraft Xbox 360 aside – that allow for such a great deal of freedom.

That said, Weisman did tell me that he feels the big format holders are taking the right steps in embracing the indie mind-set, and the openness it brings, “I think you’re seeing a shift towards supporting indies and there is still much to be done. You would have to be blind to miss the impact that indies are having on game development,” he stressed.

“If the platform holders’ goal is to strengthen the gaming ecosystem in order to benefit from it, they need to find way to embrace, encourage, and learn from independent developers who don’t feel constrained by the standard rules of engagement.”

I then asked if we could ever expect to see Shadowrun Returns on PS4, given Sony’s aggressive approach to scooping up indie developers with its open approach. He simply replied, “It would take a change in our licensing agreement with Microsoft,” suggesting the brand is – in some way – still tied up with Microsoft after FASA’s Shadowrun FPS release in 2007.

It’s through the Shadowrun Returns editor that Weisman hopes to keep the franchise alive and well long after the game launches worldwide later this year. I closed our chat by asking him to reflect on why the brand has endured since the first edition of the tabletop game launched in 1989.

“Shadowrun is alive and well after 24 years because of the fans and players who have kept it going,” he replied, “and I fully expect our players to design stories and gameplay in the Shadowrun Returns engine that blows us away – and hopefully keep the universe going for more decades to come”.

We’ll have more on Shadowrun Returns in the run up to launch. In the meantime, are you pumped for the game? Did you back the Kickstarter? Let us know below.



  1. hives

    Oh, I’m so waiting for this game… I didn’t know much about this universe, but hell, fireballs and machine guns? I’m in.

    And also it’s the start of great come back of oldschool cRPGs <3

    #1 2 years ago
  2. GwynbleiddiuM

    I couldn’t have asked for a better way to start this day. Thanks a lot Dave.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. TheWulf

    And they’re going with the oldschool version of Shadowrun too, wherein deckers are called deckers and not hackers. The attempt to ‘modernise’ Shadowrun was fairly terrible, to be honest. I’m glad they’re pretending that doesn’t exist.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. Rockin a Jack D

    One of my most anticipated games for 2013. June 26th can’t come quick enough.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. Digital Bamboo

    Game looks like a dream come true.

    Most painful part: “I then asked if we could ever expect to see Shadowrun Returns on PS4…He simply replied, “It would take a change in our licensing agreement with Microsoft”

    Guess I’ll have to get a PC.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. Samoan Spider

    I must’ve been under a rock to have missed this little gem. Very much looking forward to it after reading this though.

    #6 2 years ago
  7. GwynbleiddiuM

    @5 Forgive me asking, what other platforms you have? consoles aside obviously. I ask because I think it’s coming to Android and iOS devices as well as Linux, also it’s not a demanding game so you can basically run it on low-end PCs

    #7 2 years ago
  8. Erthazus

    After playing System Shock 2.0 again, I want to say how mainstream POS gaming industry is right now

    Can’t wait for Shadowrun Returns.

    #8 2 years ago
  9. orakaa

    @5: same here…

    I really wish this would come to PS3/PS4.
    Playing on my PC is not really pleasant. I work on my PC at home, and when I want to take a break, I go on the couch and play on my console (and it’s absolutely out of question that I buy the next Xbox… after my original Xbox died and my 360 also died with a RROD, I decided not to buy a console from Microsoft ever again).

    If I buy a tablet, I’ll take Shadowrun for it.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. The_Red

    Sadly, I have to agree with you here. Dito for playing Thief 1 & 2 (How on earth hasn’t a single stealth game tried their formula?).

    #10 2 years ago
  11. Erthazus

    @10, because it is too hard for CoD addicts.
    Look at stealth genre right now. It’s stale and full of “Stealth-ACTION” POS.

    Stealth genre games is an extinction. With games like Shadowrun I hope we will get decent games.

    #11 2 years ago
  12. Digital Bamboo

    @7 No trouble at all. Apart from consoles, I have a laptop that has been overheating and shutting down lately if I so much as watch a Youtube video, so I think even the least demanding of games may make it explode.

    My wife has a work-issued iPad, but she will have to return it when she changes jobs in the near future.

    Good to know that this will run on a low-end PC, because that’s likely what I’ll be getting.

    #12 2 years ago
  13. The_Red

    Yeah, the stealth genre is pretty much dead. As much as I tried to play DE Human Revolution via stealth, it just didn’t feel right. Now I did enjoy that game immensely (At least, some earlier parts of it) but yeah, we either end up with bare bones, super easy stealth or simply “action stealth” which in reality is shooting action with a paint stealth.

    But my god, Shadowrun Returns does look good. I wasn’t too happy with Wasteland 2 footage but SR is almost there. Now, let’s hope Prj Eternity lives up to its promises as well.

    #13 2 years ago
  14. daveyd

    I’m very excited for this game. The alpha gameplay video looked very promising.

    #14 2 years ago
  15. Feydakin

    I am a Kickstarter backer! So looking forward to getting my hands on Shadowrun Returns and especially the editing tools. The old school SR GM in me is drooling at the prospects.

    #15 2 years ago
  16. zanmato337

    @9: You will be out of luck until you get a tablet then; Shadowrun’s gaming rights are owned by Microsoft, giving a Sony platform the old snowball in hell’s chance of getting it.

    Kickstarter backer, been a fan of Shadowrun since the early 90s, looking forward for June to finally be here :D

    #16 2 years ago
  17. Powers209

    I backed Shadowrun Returns. I have been a collector of the Paper and pencil for years. I even played the SNES and loved the game. I have always been a shadowrun fan and love where the game has been able to build up to over the years. Sure the Microsoft FPS was complete crap and I have raged over it. And yes I bought that game. It was the lowest I’ve ever been when it comes to shadowrun. (HOW do you make a game that bad?)

    I don’t think a game like Shadowrun Returns would or could have been make in house at Microsoft but the game needed to be made. If just to show the suits, that giving fans most of what they want, and not pandering to the lowest common… you can and will make money, while making great game content for the old fans, while making new fans.

    The 26th can’t get here fast enough. And I can’t wait for Gen Con 2013 and the Hack-o-thon. I’m looking forward to testing my GM skills with the Shadowrun Returns game editor.

    #17 2 years ago

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