Something like 13-15 years ago I tried to run a Shadowrun game. Since my previous Shadowrun campaigns tended toward gritty street-level affairs, I thought I’d mix things up by trying to go “epic.” I’d been itching to use the Bug City adventure/sourcebook for some time and used it as the basis for the campaign. The player characters would be hired by a corporation to break into Bug City and retrieve valuable data from the server. There was also a list of secondary goals they could accomplish for an extra bonus but the data was the primary mission; without it, the corporation would suffer extensive losses (if not go bankrupt outright) and not be able to pay the characters if they failed. It was going to be like a big heist movie, where all the specialist characters came together to pull off feats that none of them could accomplish on their own — with a lot of giant insect monsters. They were meant to be one of the best in their particular business. Elite. Maybe not the best in the world, but certainly one of the top two available in the North American continent.
Since this was a new campaign and I wanted the players to sense the grand scale I was going for, everybody got to make tougher-than-normal starting characters. Basically, I adjusted the values for each priority upward by a few points (increasing resources by 25% in the process) and let everyone have one skill at 8 (or 2 skills at 7). To top it off, everyone got either 25 or 30 experience points so mages could start out as initiates if they wanted to (they did). If having higher numbers to play around with didn’t make them feel like big shots, the equivalent experience of 5-6 missions got the point across. “I’ve already maxed out this skill and I can raise it again with XP?” — was something frequently uttered. “Yes” was always the answer, “although you’ll get more mileage from the points by bumping up weaker skills”.
On the other hand, most of the guys had never played Shadowrun before so, while they knew they were getting a good deal… they didn’t realize quite how good. They were also somehow convinced that I was somehow working against them as the game master. They acted as if all my suggestions were tricks, designed to make them have sucky characters (despite all the aforementioned bonuses. It made no sense). My number one piece of advice: Everyone should put points into the Athletics skill and everyone should have at least two points in some sort of vehicular skill. In Shadowrun, Athletics is more versatile than the climbing/swimmin combo it is in most games; instead it’s a catch-all of just about everything physical you might do — such as running, jumping, or lifting things (in addition to climbing and swimming) — things expert criminals do ALL the time. Suggesting a vehicle skill (Car or Bike) was my attempt to sustain a sense of realism. It just seemed ludicrous to me that the top assassins (or cat burglars, or mercenaries) can. shoot wings off flies but need to take a taxi to get to the mission.
“Yeah, yeah yeah,” they said. “I’m not falling for your tricks.”
Since this was a large party of 7-8 guys I didn’t want to waste everyone’s time by inspecting everyone’s character sheet. Instead I ran a quick scenario where they got to engage in mock combat with some non-player characters. This g-bave everyone a chance to see how the system played out and a chance to move points around if they decided they didn’t like how they’d built their guy. Nobody moved anything. I’d planned on a prolonged scene, allowing the player characters a chance to go on mini “training missions” in an X-men style “Danger Room” but I could tell that folks were growing bored with fake make-believe combat. They wanted real make-believe combat. So I started the adventure.
Some background on Bug City: An enormous hive of evil insect spirits was discovered in Chicago. After repeated failed attempts to eliminate the threat, the army decided that containment was the best they could do. Accordingly, they blew up a ring around the city center two blocks deep and bulldozed the rubble into a makeshift wall. This, they reinforced with barbed wire, guard towers, and armed patrols with orders to shoot anything they see move. In addition, drones and astral magicians patrolled the skies overhead.
Just getting into Bug City is a mission in and of itself.
On the other hand, the player characters were supposed to be elite and they were told all of this in advance, so they could tailor their characters to the adventure. Everybody made their Stealth rolls to avoid the patrols. The techie made his Electronics roll to mask them from the drones. The mage kept a lookout for astrally projecting wizards and elementals. It was all going so well.
And then they got to the rubble.
“O.K. everybody, everyone needs to roll Athletics (8) to climb the rubble. You’ll need to accumulate 3 successes in 2 rolls at most. Otherwise, you’ll only be halfway over before the spotlights swing back to your position.” I said.
Nobody had put ANY points into Athletics except for the guy playing the physical adept A type of mage who channels their power into physical enhancements instead of casting spells. — who had automatic successes in Athletics (in second edition this was a thing; a cool idea but game unbalancing if you had more than one per skill – which is what everybody did). In Shadowrun, if you don’t have a skill, you can default to an attribute with a +4 penalty, allowing anyone to attempt anything at any time — they’d just have a very low chance of success. In this particular case, a challenging Athletics (8) roll became an extremely hard Body (12) roll. Needing to get 3 successes made it practically impossible. Other than the physical adept, only one other character made the climb (an ork who’d maxed out Body).
I was faced with a dilemma. Do I let the players duke it out with the army and fight their way inside, knowing that the half who survived would be deprived of essential resources? Do I end the campaign on only the third session (1 to make characters, 1 to train, and the official start)?
In the end, it came down to the physical adept. Automatic successes meant that he automatically could climb the rubble regardless of how burdened he was (I said it was unbalanced) so he ended up carrying the party over the rubble one by one. Because the gap in the searchlight pattern only happened every 45 minutes, it took about nine hours (in-game time) to clear the first obstacle. (The adept would scale the wall to get outside, wait 45 minutes, throw a guy over his shoulders and clamber over the wall again only to wait 45 more minutes to climb out again.)
Moral of the story: When your game master says “take a skill” you should damn well take the skill.