Shadowrun Brainscan, cover

Brainscan- A Shadowrun Campaign Review

Name: Brainscan
Type: Campaign book
Publisher: FASA Corporation
System: Shadowrun 3rd Edition
Setting: Shadowrun
Format- Softcover book
Size: 27.7cm x 21.3xm x 1.2cm
Pages: 152
Price:  OUT OF PRINT ($22.00, approx £15.00)
Rating: 4.0 Stars (4.0 / 5)

Shadowrun Brainscan, cover

Brainscan is a campaign supplement for the Shadowrun 3rd edition roleplaying game. It is made up from a series of 5 linked adventures with scripted interludes in between, that combine to tell the story of the Renraku Arcology Shutdown that took place between late December 2059 and May 2061, within the Shadowrun universe. The book was written by a team of authors (I’ll specify who as we go along) and published by FASA Corporation in 2000.

Right, before I go any further, a couple of warnings. First, this review contains SPOILERS,  LOTS OF SPOILERS. Second, this article is long, really long. I have tried to cut it down but ultimately it’s the equivalent of reviewing 5 separate adventures and to cover it fully takes quite a lot of space. I could have split this into 2 or more articles but I felt it worked better as a single whole. 

Background

The background to the campaign is substantial and the plot has been building for quite some time with its origins stemming back to the original Secrets of Power trilogy of novels published during the 1st edition of the game. Briefly put, Renraku, a large Multi-National Megacorporation, have been engaged in trying to develop a fully working artificial intelligence and succeeded in doing so until it was set free by ace decker Dodger during the events of the Secrets of Power Trilogy. Not willing to give up on their research Renraku re-purposed the code used to make the AI into the basis for the computer program that would run their crowning achievement, the Renraku  Arcology in Seattle.

The Renraku Arcology

The Renraku  Arcology was a marvel of technology, over 300 storeys high and with a base that covered fully 10 square city blocks, it was designed to be self-sufficient and house over a quarter of a million people. Inside were shops, restaurants, golf courses, swimming pools, offices, research labs, you name it. The Arcology towered over the Seattle Skyline, a huge dominant black pyramid that was so big that it had to have special windows built so as to route sunlight to the parts of the city that would now be in the perpetual twilight of the Arcology’s shadow. All of this was run by the SCIRE (Self-Contained Industrial-Residential Environment, also Latin for to know ) program, which was developed using re-purposed code from the escaped AI.

On December 19th 2059 something went wrong and the SCIRE became fully self-aware and concluded that it could improve upon humanity, if only it could escape from the self-contained Host of the Arcology matrix. In this moment the AI Deus was born, God Machine to many of the burgeoning Otaku, and master of one of the most advanced buildings in the world. On that fateful December evening shots rang out from the automated defences within the Arcology and the doors and windows locked, sealing of a quarter of a million residents and workers inside. Almost immediately the Renraku Security services and the UCAS National Guard tried to storm the building but to no avail, the defences pushed them back and any progress was slow, with many losing their lives to advance just a few more feet into the building.

This standoff lasted for almost 18 months with floors being taken slowly and opposition strong. A few survivors were rescued but those who went into the building discovered that for every 1 healthy person rescued another 100 were dead or changed by Deus in his quest to improve upon the human condition. It didn’t take long for Deus, with all the knowledge of the Arcology at his disposal, to develop horrific new Drones with revolutionary designs, bio-weapons, nano-technology and a host of other technological advancements that Humanity was unable to crack. Additionally Deus experimented on and altered the inhabitants of the Arcology, grafting cyber and bio-ware into them and using psychotropic drugs to alter their perception, turning them into fiercely loyal and extremely deadly soldiers named Banded.

It is against this background that the players become embroiled in the ongoing events of the Arcology, first as unknowing collaborators and later as staunch enemies of Deus.

The Adventures

Adventure 1, Light Meets Night by Brian Schoner, is fairly straight forward and has the unwitting runners hired by Deus, via a Johnson who is one of the Banded ‘liberated’ by the UCAS National Guard. The goal for the runners is to plant a virus into a Power Grid Substation in order to cause a blackout. This part of the run is straight forward, all the leg work is done for them, and should be a milk run for all but the greenest of runners.

Adventure 1 rolls into a second stage as the runners are offered further pay in exchange for picking up the slack from a failed team who were undertaking a linked run. This takes the party to Council Island and involves more stealth than the first half of the run, despite the tight timescale that the runners are given (which is about 6 hours at the most).  Despite the tight timescales even the second half of the run shouldn’t be too tough for a competent group and so the runner should succeed to see a payday with minimum fuss.

Interlude 1, Aftershocks by Brian Schoner, covers the fallout from the runs, with the whole of the Seattle Metroplex plunged into a blackout that will take some districts months to overcome. There are a series of short encounters included to demonstrate the chaos and anarchy caused by the blackout and highlight how much the world of 2060 relies on constant, uninterrupted power. GridGuide goes down causing innumerable crashes, the monorail stops between stations and threatens to fall from its tracks and numerous gangs and nefarious types take to the streets to take advantage of some good old fashioned rioting and looting.

Adventure 2, Breakthrough by Brain Schoner and Davidson Cole, is a little step up in difficulty but should still be a cakewalk for any talented runner team. In revolves around Deus again hiring the PC’s indirectly (and it is really important that the players have no clue who is actually hiring them and so Deus and his agents go to great lengths to build a convincing web of lies), again on short notice, this time to head into the middle of a gang fight and retrieve a briefcase full of experimental tech.

The tech is basically a portable MRI/ECG/X-Ray Machine in one and has the added, albeit unknown, ability to identify Banded when they are scanned. Deus doesn’t want this reaching the market, not yet, and so wants to remove it from play, which is where the runners come in. Through Stealth, Intimidation, Diplomacy or Strength the runners need to sneak into a multi-storey car park that has been besieged by the Red Hot Nukes who are trying to wipe out their rivals, a bunch of Rusted Stilettos, who are hiding inside.

Things get more complex when the runners reach their target only to find that it has already been stolen by a local Shaman and therefore they need to find him to get it back. The Shaman bargains with them, ideally fooling them into thinking that they have bought the scanner when in fact he’s only sold them the case, before making his getaway and leaving the runners to explain to their Fixer why they couldn’t get the job done.

Interlude 2, Did you Forget Something? by Davidson Cole, has the Shaman tracking down a runner and offering to sell them the scanner for real, as he’s bored of it and has no idea what it is. Hopefully the runners buy it and hopefully they don’t sell it on for a tidy profit like mine did, they’ll need that later.

Adventure 3, My Name is Legion by Stephen Kenson, steps up the difficulty again and sends the runners international by flying them to New Orleans. Deus has arranged for a matrix researcher to be extracted from a Cross Applied Technologies Boat since her area of study is something he is greatly interested in, networked deckers. Unfortunately for the runners, the target has contracted multiple personalities as a result of an accident during an earlier phase of her research.

Unfortunately for the runners this one isn’t as neat as the previous runs because their contact in New Orleans has been murdered before they arrive they need to do all the legwork themselves. To make matters worse the target isn’t aware of her extraction arrangements because it was one of her other personalities that made the agreement.

Exploring the city is interesting and my group really made the most of it before descending, en-mass onto the targets boat as it was moored in the bay. This is a brutal combat segment (unless they get really clever to avoid detection) in a small, enclosed, space and so there is a good chance that runners might end up seriously hurt here as the Cross Applied Technologies security guards do not mess around. Ultimately the goal is to extract the doctor (multiple personalities and all) and likely her Grandmother (even more complications) and get them safe and sound to Seattle, which is significantly easier than it sounds.

Interlude 3, Revelations by Stephen Kenson, finally introduces the party to Overwatch, a group of Otaku and elite deckers directly opposed to Deus. This group includes famed deckers Dodger (of Secrets of Power trilogy fame) and Ronin (from the novel Technobabel). This is a critical part of the campaign because it is basically the big reveal of what has been going on and makes the runners choose whether they will fight for what is right.

Adventure 4, Outside Influence by Jason Levine and Robert Boyle, sees the party raiding a UCAS convoy, in the middle of the day, on a motorway, Heat style. Their goal is to break into the back of an APC and kidnap half a dozen or so children who have recently rescued from the Arcology. Overwatch believe one of these children is a spy and wants to interrogate/test them for Deus’s influence (remember that handy scanner for earlier, NOW is when it’s useful).

This is a significantly tougher run than before because of the short timescale, the daylight and the opposition. UCAS Military might not have the military might of Ares Macrotechnology but they are still the armed and equipped military of a global power and that’s nothing to be sniffed at. Add to this the fact that there is a limited amount of time to get into the van and no time to procure new supplies pre-run and this is the kind of run that can really inspire out of the box thinking, or result in a TPK.

It is while they are delivering the children back to Overwatch that the players are contacted by the Johnson from the initial runs and asked to, no questions asked, destroy a target building that is believed to house HMHVV infected creatures. This building just so happens to turn out to be the Overwatch safe house and so finally forces the players to pick a side. Smart players will try to force a payday from the Johnson by helping Overwatch escape and then blowing up the building but the Johnson is wise to this and leaves a waiting party at the runners safe house (if he could find this out) or brings a group of Banded along to the payoff meeting.

The Banded that attack the party at this point are very tough and skilled and this can easily lead to the TPK is it’s misjudged (My party almost got wiped out a number of times). This should leave little doubt in the player’s minds that working with Overwatch to take down Deus is not only in their own interests but in the interests of every sentient organic being on the planet (and in orbit, on the moon and on Mars).

Finally, after taking down the Johnson the party follow the trail of breadcrumbs from him back to his base of operations, where they facedown the former director of the Arcology, now a powerful Banded and discover something extraordinary, the location of Inazo Aneki, former CEO of Renraku.

Interlude 4, The Return of the Father by David Hyatt and Robert Boyle is a big one, the runners once again become international agents as they fly to Hong Kong to extract Aneki,  from his Red Samurai guards. It is believed that the kill codes for Deus are contained within the fractured mind of the former CEO and so he is an integral part of the final plan to confront Deus and end his menace for good. However the runners aren’t the only people interested in acquiring Aneki, Deus also wants to get his digital hands on his erstwhile father.

This is predominately a combat encounter and a very tough one at that. Both the Red Samurai and the Banded sent to recover Aneki are elite level security personal and will fight to the death for their cause. Knowing who they are going to extract prudent parties will prepare appropriately.

Adventure 5, Runners Ex Machina by David Hyatt and Robert Boyle, is the big blow-off. The party enter the Renraku Arcology, along with members of Overwatch and Aneki with the goal of meeting up with the resistance members inside, infiltrating Deus’s mainframe and jacking Aneki in so he can deliver the kill codes.

The adventure is written very very loosely at this point, just a start, then the meet up with the resistance and a couple of encounters inside and so it’s up to the GM to make it as easy or hard on the runners as they see fit, although I tend to err towards the latter option because the Red Samurai and UCAS National Guard couldn’t managed to crack this place so it should be very tough.

The finale is scripted pretty well, it involves the party potentially a splitting in two and engaging in a two pronged assault in order to get Aneki into the mainframe core. You don’t actually have split your party, especially if you don’t have a decker in your group, so you can make it a little easier on yourself. One team heads to the environmental control section to scrub the atmosphere on the mainframe level (that floor having been flooded with a variety of lethal toxins and gasses by Deus to prevent exactly this kind of incursion) while the other assaults the mainframe. The party are likely to be in the former group unless they are predominately deckers.

There is a nice double-cross that’s isn’t too obvious before the final, climactic, series of events. The double-cross leaves all of the party, across both groups, jacked in and trapped in Deus’s own Ultraviolet host with anyone, even magicians, being forcibly implanted with a datajack if they don’t already have one (harsh but this is the epic conclusion to a world shaking campaign). The host takes the form of medieval Japan albeit with a Grendel like monster that swallows Ronin and Aneki in a scripted piece of boxed text right at the start of the section.

The party needs to work it’s way through a series of fantastical and nightmarish locations, avoiding being eaten by everything from warring Oni to insane humans jacked in and trapped in the bodies of Morlocks. It takes some ingenuity from the party to make it through and survive but no green runner would have made it this far so the players should be relied upon for some out of the box thinking.

The final showdown with Deus is with him, a veritable warband of loyal Otaku and his right hand servant Pax. The party need to stand their ground long enough for Dodger to get a friend into the system and for Aneki to get to Deus and activate the kill codes to crash the system. This will lead to Deus’s program being deconstructed and housed, separately, in a series of memory cores that the remaining Renraku researchers in the building just so happen to get their hands on before the runners wake up.

This encounter can seem a little anti-climactic if you aren’t careful, Dodger’s friend (the AI Megaera) is powerful and the section has a lot of boxed text type sections highlighting the actions of Megaera and later Aneki. While it is Aneki that has to execute the final kill codes you should make sure that the party are responsible for making that happen, make them shine here and just use Megaera to stave off the worst of Deus’s attacks.

After this it’s all down to the runners to escape, by whatever means they can. This is all down to how long you, as the GM, want to string it out but I just went with a frantic push to the roof with a running gun battle as they stole a VTOL and escaped.

Needless to say, this campaign carries a significant amount of Karma for completing it, with each run having separate rewards and the final climax having a sizeable bonus for success.

Cast of Shadows

Other than the adventures the book has a large chapter devoted to the various major and minor NPC’s in the campaign, covering everyone from Dodger and Ronin down to the various Mr Johnson’s and Renraku personnel that might show up.  It also has a section devoted specifically to the various types of Banded and the cyber/bio-ware packages that each type has implanted as standard plus a section on the Drones that Deus has created.

These sections on enemies are vital for an GM that plans on making the runners work to reach the resistance. The Drones are unlike anything the runners will have faced before and the Banded pose unique challenges depending on which types you use. Much of this information is updated/reprinted from the Renraku Arcology Shutdown sourcebook and it’s very useful to have it here since that book can be hard to find and expensive when you do find it.

Conclusions

Overall I think this is a solid campaign. I ran it for a party new to Shadowrun, in dispersed with a sprinkling of other runs and plots, but keeping it very much as the ‘core’ plot of the campaign. They ran into some challenges, mostly trying to break into the Arcology and sneak past the UCAS National Guard. The Drones proved to be a problem for them as well, especially the Bee’s loaded with cutter nanites but once they started to think of inventive ways to use the limited gear at their disposal then they started making great progress.

Many pre-written campaigns from this era, across all RPG’s suffer from similar problems, in that they tend to not be as tightly written and rely very much on GM interpretation or players taking very specific actions but this isn’t the case here. For the most part the individual adventures are well written and hold together nicely on their own and as part of the overarching plot. The final part is by far the loosest and that can be forgiven simply because there are hundreds of ways the players could approach the Arcology and it would be impossible to try and predict them.

If you are a fan of the Shadowrun timeline, especially the parts that avoid the Immortal Elves, then this is a significant milestone in the timeline for you. It runs as well as anything does in 3rd edition and would probably transfer, with some shoehorning, into 4th or 5th edition fairly well. The Arcology plotline was one of the key events that first caught my imagination in Shadowrun and I’m happy to say that it doesn’t disappoint. The only criticisms I have really are that it gets extremely lethal in the later stages,if you play Deus and the Banded as intelligent enemies and that the first couple of adventures don’t link obviously enough with the overarching plot, at least from the point of view of the players, even once Overwatch exposes them to the truth.

If you plan on running the campaign I’d suggest a couple of things-

Renraku Arcology Shutdown, cover
First, try to get hold of the Renraku Arcology Shutdown, both in print and PDF. It has some excellent sections that work perfectly as player hand-outs throughout the campaign (or during other adventures, as your timeline dictates). The Renraku Arcology Shutdown also just provides a wealth of extra information for you, as the GM, to use to better get to grips with the plot and it, helpfully, details what every floor of the Arcology is used for.

Second, be prepared to adapt the adventures, especially the later ones. The first couple are reasonably tight but as the campaign progresses and more factors come into play there is a high chance that Deus and his agents will adapt their plans according to how things have unfolded. This is especially true in the last 2 adventures which involve the runners trying to out think their Johnson (and vice versa) and the Arcology infiltration proper.

Shadowrun has a number of grand epic campaign arcs that tie in with the overall metaplot of the world and I’ve read or played all of them at some time or another. Campaigns like Harlequin and Harlequins Back tend to be very railroady and just pull runners along for the ride rather than making the story about them and their actions. Others, like Wake of the Comet are just a group of loosely affiliated adventures around a timeline event and from 4th ed onwards the sourcebooks, such as Emergence, Ghost Cartels or Artefacts Unbound tend to be a series of plot hooks instead of scripted campaigns.

Brainscan isn’t like any of these. It is firmly rooted in the cyberpunk heritage of the setting. Aside from justifiably expecting the GM to put in a lot of work to make the final act memorable, it does a fine job of making the runners the center of the story while still letting the right events unfold at the right time to develop the metaplot.

To me, Brainscan is one of the better Shadowrun campaigns. It’s by no means perfect but it does enough things right and provides enough assistance that the GM and players alike can get comfortable with the story. In addition, assuming that the runners actually succeed, Brainscan makes the party feel like they have actually made a difference (and they genuinely really have) and in the cold dystopian Shadowrun future, making a difference is the holy grail.

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