Waypoint 101 — Shadowrun: Dragonfall


Re: all the debate about Dragons and AIs being ireedeemably dangerous because “they could kill anyone at any time”… well, I have some bad news for you about humans.


The AI in this case isn’t really comparable because it literally has the power to kill from anywhere in the world at any time as long as some sort of internet connected electronic is around. Like, it could cause the apocalypse if it wanted very, very quickly.


Are we downplaying the other side here? Dragons are, to us, a force that has created this pivotal moment that we continue to live in the long shadow of. To the one dragon that was involved, it kinda just started out as waking up a bit groggy and wondering what all this mess was. Yes, eventually Feuerschwinge was captured after untold carnage so they’re not unbeatable but if dragons decided the Earth would suit them more with a non-humanoid species in charge, it would probably quite quickly become a planet without many if any humans left. The AI is dangerous but not some unlike-anything-else new scale of dangerous (at least that’s how I read it).


One major difference: The dragons clearly do not want the end of the world. But the AI? It’s a fickle child with sociopathic tendencies and the power of a god. Wild guess what that will eventually lead to.


Well, it’s stuck in the Matrix, so it’s a bit less likely to be able to bring about the end of metahumanity. (edit: it’s also not at all clear how “rapidly” it can kill even deckers - we know that at least one decker escaped from it whilst it was distracted killing Clockwork - and we really don’t have a well defined set of limits on how rapidly it can “move” through the Matrix, partly because the Matrix is a sort of magical-internet with only a vague connection to the actual physical limits of a computer network.)

(But, yes, I agree with @doctorcat, to some extent, as should be obvious from my responses to @shawne - humans are plenty dangerous as it is, as your own shadowrunning team amply demonstrate throughout their careers. (And if the Bloodlines project got disseminated, or just gets completed by Aztechnology again, mages would be able to kill anyone from anywhere, with a bit of prep work.) They’re not quite as good at mass destruction as dragons - but they’re definitely more effective than APEX, already.)


That right there is the thing though – a parallel is drawn, I think pretty explicitly, between dragons, APEX, and the corporations. The game makes clear that all of these things are fundamentally inhuman and existentially threatening (in their lack of morality, their most basic needs and wants, their capacity for world-scale violence and oppression, and their near-but-not-quite-immortality). This parallel is, I think, one of the most interesting things the game does.


But they don’t with the dragons. That’s the entire point of the ending where you let Firewing go. She ended up being insanely human, motivated by love, grief, and trauma.


I mean, I don’t think that is in any sort of conflict with that reading. She’s just one dragon out of many and her circumstances are extremely unusual to say the least. It’s just a complication, not a contradiction. After all, corporations are run by people, even if they aren’t themselves human.


But, like, corporations are a human creation. Firewing is a force of nature - literally. The comparison doesn’t really work because they represent completely different concepts.


This is an interesting difference of interpretation in metaphysics. Dragons are clearly deeply magical beings… but so are, say, elves and dwarves and the rest of metahumanity. There are immortal elves who’ve survived since the last age of magic, after all. Arguing that Firewing is a force of nature in a special sense which makes her “metaphysically better” than metahumans, or their creations, feels like some kind of metaphysical vitalism.


I mean, things don’t need to be literally identical to have a parallel drawn between then by a writer or reader? The comparison is not “these things are exactly the same” but rather “these things are similar in some key ways that allow for interesting thematic work to be done”.


So, the thing I guess I wanted to close my thoughts on was how Dragonfall presents choices.

[Spoilers for the whole game throughout the post.]

There’s a line that really sticks out to me, in “APEX Rising”. I question APEX on its free will, on whether or not it has freedom of choice. It says, “Free will I have in spades. Power to use it? Not so much.” Because this feeling of have free will but not being able to make the choices you want to make kept coming up throughout Dragonfall.

I wrote earlier about my feelings on the mission “Trial Run”. I was really struck by ending I got. I trashed the run by killing an absolute scumbag named James. Jana, a young electrician in over her head, tells me I ruined her life, and she’s kind of right.I felt like, despite everything I had tried to do, I still came out on the losing side. I made all the choices I thought were right, and it wasn’t enough. I had the overwhelming feeling of: “Oh, you’re not a hero. You can’t fix everything.”

I’ve been realizing this feeling of futility is a pretty major theme in cyberpunk fiction (I’m kind of new to the genre frankly) but what interests me is how Dragonfall’s choices that you have the opportunity to make drive this feeling of futility home. Specifically, I found that my agency in the matters, regardless of the choices I made, did little to make the world a better place. When facing the massive mechanisms of capitalism and other systems of oppression, what we do often doesn’t do a damn thing. And that’s soul-crushing. And Dragonfall also conveys this not only by constricting the outcomes, but also constricting the options. In “Trial Run”, I wanted to find the right thing to say to Jana, but the option wasn’t there. In “Feuerstelle”, you can spare the cultists or save the innocent park ranger , but you can’t do both. In “MKVI”, you can put the orc out of its misery, or free it, but either way, the orc dies. And if not, you send that poor soul to be abused further by some corporation. Maybe some of this is just the nature of the medium, and maybe some of these things are foresights (the inability to use party Etiquettes definitely feels like an oversight), but it definitely drives home that feeling. Save an innocent man from death? Save a park ranger? Save a woman from killer drones? None of these things change much. So much of what happens in the game is out of your control. The terrible reign of those in power dwarfs what little you can change.

Even the final choices of the game give you little to change. Whether you free the Fire Wing or not, work with Lofwyr or not, little changes. A few snippets of the final screen change around. The march of history continues down its path. The one significant choice that you do get, which isn’t even really offered to you. If you choose to work with Vauclair and kill all your friends, you find that you’ve ushered in the eventual death of humanity. Some choice. No matter how many times you play that first mission, you can’t save Monika. She’ll always die. There’s nothing you can do. You are powerless. You can’t do anything.

But… you know what? Fuck that. Fuck that. You know what I can do? I can save innocent peoples lives anyway. I can help a charity build itself up to help those in need. I can help a young woman get off her addiction. I can take down a Satanic murder cult with Glory. I can help Blitz with his lost love. I can help Eiger get revenge. I can help Dietrich get his nephew out of a human supremacist group. I can free a goddamned dragon from its shackles. I can change something. I can’t change everything, far from it, but I can change something. Sure, I can’t save the world, sure. But the choices I make, the impact I have on my community, on those close to me, on the people I love, those are worth just as much whatever the dragons do in their high towers. They mean so much more to me. Dragonfall has contextualized my actions; my choices change virtually nothing in the grand scheme of things. But they change enough to mean something to me.

I’ve finished my final mission. I step out of Altug’s cafe, and my PDA rings. It’s APEX, and it isn’t happy. I’ve freed the Firewing, and it wanted control of it. “I’m not scared of you, APEX.” It’s face contorts, mimicking the last moments of Monika’s life. “You really should be.” The truth is? I am. But that doesn’t mean I care. The choice I made may have killed me, but it was my choice for a reason. It was the choice I believed in. I used my agency to give Firewing hers. And I’ll accept the consequences of that choice. I slide my PDA back in my pocket and head to a mysterious meeting on a subway. A “stranger” talks to me, and offers me a job. It’s not just any job. It’s an opportunity to work with Lofwyr, one of the most beings on Earth. There’s no doubt I’d make a pretty penny, and gain a lot of power in the process. But I turn him down. He doesn’t need me, and I don’t need him. And you know what? I’m sick of deals with dragons. I don’t need to be a hero. I don’t need to change the world. Everything I need and everyone I care about is in the Kreuzbasar. It’s all in grasp. That’s where I can make meaningful changes. That’s where my choices matter.


This is super interesting, and it also makes me think harder about the choice you make there with Dietrich. At the time I told him to consider the Dragon any threat to the Kreuzbasar, and Dragonslayer was happy with that. But now that I think harder about it, esp. remembering the context of Lofyr, I realize that this desire to save the KB could make Dietrich more willing to compromise. What if the biggest threat to the lives in the KB ends up being their own willingness to fight agaisnt S-K et al? I love Dietrich, so I’m happy to imagine that he goes down swinging in that fight instead of being an accomplice to the death of the Flux, but somehow I also like the idea of a version of him focusing on S-K directly and escaping to fight another day. (Also, the potentail of choosing S-K for his enemy and then TAKING the Lofwyr offer at the end… choice drama, there.


That’s a fascinating idea, and it reminded me of an interesting talk that came up earlier in posts by @ncortes, @doctorcat and some other folks, about the way the game proposes this contrast between the hard-to-influence big picture stuff and the personable and actually helpable Kreuzbazar. It seems like it’s a sort of balancing act: how much are you willing to act in the larger world if your community is in shambles and possibly going to take the fall for it?

And, on the other side, how much are you willing to wreck shit outside your community if it’s for its good? Checking out the Shadowrun wiki later, I learned that if you do two of the three objectives the Black Lodge guy sends your way during missions, he sends the Kreuzbazar a pretty hefty care package after the attack to help you folks rebuild. Is that a deal your characters are willing to take, furthering this creep’s pretty terrible goals to give your own folks a materially better existence, a better path to rebuilding? That’s not exactly an angle the game outright shows you, but there’s a lot of tiny choices like those that I found really interesting to consider.


Just spooled up a new run.

My GOD!!! some of the mechanics are frustrating! Does this cover let me see/not see half the map? Does this wall count as cover, or not? When I’m about to breech a door, why the hell can I not position my squad appropriately?

BUT! Having my dwarven adept run around beating the crap out of nazis whilst Eiger blows their heads off from across the map is also pretty damn satisfying.


This popped into my head while listening to the 101 discussing the criticisms of Berlin’s “anarchist utopia”: Valve is the Flux State


Some of this is sort-of bandaided in Hong Kong (which lets you toggle between “realtime” mode [where your team aren’t individually controllable] and “turnbased” mode [where they are] at will), but the cover mechanics remain… frustrating.


So, like, just going to mention here as a quick content warning – this post deals extensively with silly videogamey depictions of drug abuse. I’m here to talk about a ridiculous character build not make anyone uncomfortable.

I find most of my really memorable HB Shadowrun characters start from a mechanical place rather than me sitting down beforehand and coming up with a detailed backstory. I decided, on my second (and first complete) playthrough of Dragonfall that I was going to be a pure face, with a gun on the side. So I rolled up an elf, named her “Moongull” for some inexplicable reason, gave her some points in handgun, and maxed her charisma, including picking up a bunch of good charisma boosting items. I picked Corporate as one of my starting etiquettes, because it’s dead useful, as well as Security and Academic. The best thing about Trial Run is actually that there is a boutique on the first floor where, if you have enough money, you can buy a designer anti-ballistic business suit that looks cool and boosts your charisma.

Eventually, because this is a simple character without a lot of buttons to press in combat, I start experimenting with “combat stims.” Jazz, I realise, boosts my accuracy by a lot at the cost of some defense. Meanwhile, bliss, a different drug, boosts defence. And these effects stack. The bliss completely cancels out the downside of the jazz, and using these does not count as a full action. The limiter is, of course, that these are single use items, and while Bliss is dead easy to buy, jazz is available only in limited supplies.

Then, amazingly, I found a jazz injecting cyberarm schematic, had that installed. And later a bliss injecting cyberarm. These items have a long cooldown between injections, but they can both be popped at once for a big buff to accuracy at no cost, and they never run out. I threw in an adrenaline pump – the one you can get for your main character is not as good as Glory’s, as it does come with a small hit to defence as well… but at this point, adding an additional action point on top of a massive accuracy bonus is worth that. Meanwhile, by this point my character had gotten amazing gun tricks with handguns that just let her fire at multiple targets for days. At the beginning of a fight, I’d go from 0 to just unloading an entire gun magazine, nearly, with pinpoint accuracy and shockingly high damage. We’re talking shooting four or five different people in one round. I started carrying a second handgun just to for more options, and to avoid reload times, as my primary weapon was a high powered revolver. In combat I began to imagine her as a sort of dual pistol wielding gunslinger.

The story this ended up telling is of someone who is this out of place, smooth-talking corporate type – probably an ex wage slave with a background in sales who Monika picked up in Seattle after a deal went very wrong – who functions in combat like a stereotypical 80s businessman who swears he just needs to do one more line of coke to seal this deal. It also paints a great picture where she can essentially talk her way past everything – I did the entire Aztechnology run without having to go loud until the very last minute, pretty great if surreal feeling. When push comes to shove, though she’s still a shadowrunner and the facade will drop in order for her to just unleash a horrifying amount of violence faster than anyone has time to respond. Even though I was focusing on making a face, I still had enough points and options to make her surprisingly effective and a lot of fun to play. Easily my second favourite character I’ve rolled up in any of these games.


Did anyone else love the story but bounce off the game mechanically? I liked the idea of a game where resources are scarce and choices matter, but it doesn’t mesh well with my ideas of what an RPG should be. I played the second mission and chose combat options, and then reloaded the first mission (because of infrequent saves) so I could choose non-combat options and gain some small amount of resources that felt necessary in this hardscrabble world.

Another issue is that the game is visually too dark for me to enjoy. I get wanting to use light/shadow thematically but I cranked up my system brightness and game brightness and I still can’t see anything a lot of the time, it’s frustrating and makes the game way more obtuse than it needs to be.

I feel like there’s also a degree of punishing players for choosing specific species/classes, with a focus on charisma for non-combat options (which seem to lead to more resources) which shuts out species/classes who rely less on charisma. Basically it feels like the writing/worldbuilding are amazing, but the mechanics hinder that vision in ways that make the game really hard for me to get into.


Charisma caps at 6 for trolls, which is actually enough to get the maximum amount of etiquette. I could be wrong, but I also feel like there’s never a charisma check higher than 6. You can functionally play an ork or troll face without getting dinged much for it – on normal at least you can get away with dumping some points there even when it’s not a primary combat stat. On the other hand, you’re right about the stat caps hurting your ability to go for certain classes and builds with certain characters.

I actually enjoy the gameplay quite a bit, generally, but I’ve been playing turn-based tactics games for a long time.