10 Apr 2014

By the Numbers Chapter 1 - Commentary

Welcome to the new serial.  If this is your first time reading a serial of mine, I do commentaries on the chapters.  Best thing to do is read the chapter first before continuing.

If you read my previous serial, Lethal Ladies, you'll probably have noticed a few things already.  First, the writing has improved.  By the Numbers was written during NaNoWriMo 2010, four years after Lethal Ladies.  Writing became far easier over those four years in between and I may have found my voice.  Second, I have proper chapters, with chapter titles.  The titles are mainly to boost word count, but were added after the main thrust of the chapter was figured out.

By the Numbers is set in the Shadowrun setting.  The idea I had was that if I could clean up the writing, give it a bit of polish, I might submit it to Catalyst Game Labs.  The submission never happened.  However, if it feels like I assume the reader is aware of the setting, it's because I assumed the reader would be aware of the setting.  The intended audience was people already aware of Shadowrun and its attendant tropes and quirks.  The commentaries will point out the setting detail that gets assumed along the way.

The title was a working one, something so that I could name the file and the novel on the NaNo site and really doesn't fit well.  For now, By the Numbers is what I call it.

Chapter 1 starts in the middle of a run.  I wanted to introduce the characters and show what they were capable of before hitting the main plot.  A simple break and enter to steal a Macguffin was perfect.  Each member of my cast would get a chance to show off in turn, with a hand-off from one character to the next.  Beginning the chain is Numbers.  The idea behind her character was that she was a hacker with social engineering skills.  If she could get someone to grant her the access she needed, she wouldn't have to hack her way through firewalls.  As such, Numbers spends a lot of time in plain sight.  To help keep herself from being identified, Numbers has had some surgery done, specifically, fibre optic hair replacement and cybernetic breast implants, both found in Augmentation.  If security is looking for a leggy blonde with a large rack, they're going to ignore the woman with the mousy brown hair and flat chest.  Numbers also has a commlink, a cross between a smartphone and a computer*, implanted in her head to go with the visible commlink on her wrist.  Note that the concept of the commlink predates Google Glass.

Baba Ganoush is a fixer, someone who knows people who know people.  The main role of a fixer in the RPG is to provide jobs to the PCs.  It's like working at a temp agency, but no one knows the real names and the jobs are illegal.  In 2070, someone who wants to hire a shadowrunner will get in touch with a fixer, who then arranges the meet.  This is what Ganoush is doing, arranging a meet for a Mr. Johnson, which is the generic name for any corporate type hiring runners.  Ganoush's name was inspired by MXC: Most Extreme Elinimation Challenge; a running gag involved the Babaganoush family appearing in almost every episode.

Numbers hands off the Macguffin to Charles.  Charles is the first element that really says that the story is part of Shadowrun.  He's a troll, a subspecies of human that can be recognized by the growth of hardened skin and averaging far heavier and taller than the average person.  Charles is large, even for a troll.  His role on the team is to be the wall of muscle that everyone else hides behind.  Charles has muscle augmentation to boost his already formidable strength to help be the meat shield.  His handoff comes early, but he still gets to demonstrate what he can do.  Charles covers Treehugger's escape and takes out one of the opposition.

The insult Charles' opponent uses, trog, is short for troglodyte.  The process of becoming a troll or ork in the setting is officially known as the Unexplained Genetic Expression, aka UGE, but is called goblinization by the general public.  The common term came about because of what happened during the UGE process; limbs grow, teeth lengthen, if a troll, the skin hardens.  UGE is rare in 2070, but can still occur.  However, if you want to insult an ork or troll, trog is a good stand-by.  Racism still exists in Shadowrun's 2070.

With Treehugger, unlike Numbers and Charles above where I created the character sheets from scratch, I used the existing Smuggler archetype from the Shadowrun 4th edition core rules.  Numbers was inspired by reading over some of the cyberware in Augmentation.  Charles was always meant to be the wall of muscle bodyguard type, which didn't quite exist in the archetypes.  Treehugger, though, was inspired partially by the character in the rules.  One of her drawbacks, Elf Poser, was intriguing.  Getting that point across, though, without outright saying, "Hey, she's an Elf Poser, readers!" meant a bit of work.  Showing off her ears was the first, with her musing about her inner elf.  At the same time, Treehugger is a rigger, a getaway driver who becomes one with her car.  The drive through downtown Seattle let me show how a rigger works, or at least my version.  Treehugger becomes her Westwind, its sensors becoming her eyes, ears, and nerves.

The Westwind 3000 appears in the core rules; it's the sports car of 2070, occupying the same niche as Lamborghinis and Ferraris today.  The MCT Rotodrone is also from the core rules; it's a drone sold by Mitsuhama Computer Technologies that normally comes unarmed but can have light weapons, like submachineguns, added.  The drone has no hope of keeping up with the Westwind, but its use in an ambush can't be ignored.  Grid Guide is a computer controlled system that allows for more efficient traffic flow, keeping cars at an optimal pace and distance and letting the drivers sit back.  Once again, Grid Guide appeared in Shadowrun long before Google's self-driving car.

The last hand-off changes the point-of-view on purpose.  Unlike the previous three scenes, the last member of the team isn't visible at the beginning.  Oswald is a mage, and the best way to show that he has the spell Physical Invisibility is to not see him.  The appearance also let me show that Oswald has a flair for dramatics.  To show that he's not a one-trick pony, he fires off a combat spell at one of Treehugger's pursuers.  Oswald is based on the Detective Mage archetype in the core rules, though with the spell list changed for my purposes.

The one last dangling element, the briefcase.  If Oswald had it all the time, then why show the hand-offs, beyond to show the team's capabilities?  To show that the team is more on the ball than their employer expected.  With one briefcase being used as a decoy, Oswald had no problems getting to the meet to make the delivery.

One thing that I wanted to do with the story was to make sure that whatever happened in it was also possible with the game mechanics.  My feeling about RPG tie-in novels is that they should reflect game play.  I made sure I had character sheets for each of my main characters, whether I used an existing archetype from the core Shadowrun rules or created from scratch.  Gear and cybernetics will be found in the rules and supplements.  If anyone wants to me to post a character sheet, let me know.

If you're looking for something with a similar feel, I recommend the anime Black Lagoon.  Although it doesn't have magic or the cybernetics, it does focus on a team of expendable assets for hire and their contacts.  Balalaika makes for a great model to base a fixer NPC on.

Tomorrow, meet the new Mr. Johnson, same as the old.
Also tomorrow, over at Psycho Drive-in, The Mechanic.
Saturday, over at MuseHack, Muppets Most Wanted.
Coming soon, more Project Natasha.

* Basically, a powerful smartphone now.

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