The following are simply my thoughts on running a shadowrun game; they may or may not work for you. Always remember to play to your strengths as a game master and deviate or ignore my advice when it suits you. While these tips have worked for me in the past, they may not work for you or your group.
Shadowrun is Fantasy Cyberpunk
The one thing that sets Shadowrun apart from other cyberpunk games is that it incorporates a lot of fantasy into the world. Shadowrun is filled with shamans, mages, elves, dwarves, trolls, and even dragons. Don’t forget to include these fantastic elements in your game where appropriate – they will lend a lot of flavor and interest to your game.
Use the metahuman races, mages, and other fantastical creatures and threats when appropriate to the situation. This is the one thing that really makes Shadowrun unique from other cyberpunk games and it should be used when possible and appropriate. But remember that these fantastic things reside alongside technology, not separate from it.
Shadowrun is a Caper Game at Heart
A caper game is simply a game focused around a group of thieves or criminals who commit illegal acts, using cons or theft, for their own ends. Remembering this can give you a great many ideas for runs and help to focus a game around a particular type of caper. Generally a shadowrun team will develop a type of caper or run that they excel at performing, so if this happens it’s likely that they’ll be hired by Johnson’s who want them for this type of job.
Being a caper game at heart, its easy to find inspiration for runs. Simply think about what the Johnson and his corporation wants and then set up a few obstacles to obtaining that object or person. For example, if Ares wants the plans for a new laser pistol from their competitor, you have the caper: steal the plans. Now you just need to figure out who has it now, what protection that object has, and a few ways for the team to find out what these protections might be. Don’t worry about providing the team a way to get around them: most players are more than creative enough to figure this out and all you have to do is react.
Simply put, figure out what their employer wants, figure out who has the object of desire currently, and then place protection and obstacles to obtaining that object. Almost all runs boil down to either stealing something, kidnapping someone (for good or ill), or killing someone who knows too much (or not enough).
Technology is Ubiquitous
Being set in 2070, Shadowrun is filled with all sorts of technology, which you shouldn’t forget about for a moment. This doesn’t just mean high tech digital security and hacking. It also means that the store you walk into has an Augmented Reality display for everyone, that everyone and their dog has a commlink, and that very little is done on paper these days.
When the characters walk down the street be sure to describe what they see in Augmented Reality. Also remember that this Augmented Reality doesn’t have to conform to real world physics or ideals, either. Many businesses will use AR to really spruce up a plain building, creating objects that fly out at you, that flash, and that try to spam your Commlink.
Also remember that nearly everything is wireless now, even down to cyberlimbs and simple objects. Information is never more than a thought and an eye blink away, and you have to be very careful to make sure that someone else isn’t stealing your data. Corporations know this, too, and will often protect sensitive data behind shielded walls or even servers that can only be accessed manually (which makes a good goal for a team – get to the secured server undetected).
Combat is Brutish, Deadly, and Short
Smart shadowrunners know that running away is the smart thing to do. Shadowrun combat is often fairly deadly and most threats are entirely capable of taking down entire runner teams in just a few short rounds. Add to this that most healing isn’t nearly as instant as in most games and you have a recipe for dead runners.
By no means should you avoid adding in combat encounters, but generally the focus of a shadowrun game is not getting into a fight in the first place. It’s also important to remember that most opposition are just working for a paycheck, so when things go south they aren’t afraid to retreat and try again later (if at all).
Mostly I like to use combat to add some excitement to a run, not as a the main event. If the characters are clever enough to avoid combat, by no means force it on them. If they successfully sneak around roll with it and don’t just make up “random encounters” for them to fight.
Megacorps are Businesses: Threat Them as Such
Megacorps are businesses first and foremost, and as any business they are ultimately concerned only with the bottom line. They hire shadowrunners to do dirty work that they don’t want to be caught doing themselves. Be this sabotaging a competitors operations, stealing secret plans for a new product, or even forcefully “hiring” a rival worker, they do what it takes to make money.
This also means that they prefer to distance themselves from shadowrunners as much as possible: this is where the Johnson comes in. He’s a middle man between the runners and the corp, and most often they don’t know everything about the run. In fact, shadowrunners rarely have the whole story about why they’re doing something. Most good teams try to check this out ahead of time, but when they don’t bad things can happen.
Just remember that the folks hiring the runners are more concerned about making money than anything else. But they also want to do things quietly – runners who make a habit of doing things loudly and without much finesse often don’t get hired for anything other than brutal sabotage. If the runners keep doing things sloppy and carelessly then jobs just might dry up.
Avoid Over-Use of Screw Jobs
Shadowrun has a reputation as a game that encourages a “screw job,” where the runners are generally treated like dirt and betrayed by their employers at the first opportunity. This is neither fun for the players or all that realistic. Most Johnsons and Corporations want to groom a decent working relationship with runners and so try to avoid screwing them over all the time. Else the word gets around and pretty soon they can’t get any but the most desperate of shadowrunners to work for them.
So only use a screw job when it really is in the best interest of the corp to do so. And even then, try to set it up so that the runners will either die or have no way to trace back the screw job to its source. At the same time, make sure that the players have some way to figure this out ahead of time: if they do their homework.
Sources of Inspiration
Finally, there’s nothing like stealing ideas from other sources when running a game. The RPG.net forums actual play section has several very good actual play reports from good GMs. Lost Demiurge ran a brilliant game entitled the Sorrow of Elves that you can find here: http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?t=319569. I helped to start a 101 Instant Scenarios thread that can be found here: http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?t=321504.
Further inspiration can be found from various caper movies (Oceans 11+ and others) and the film Smoking Aces is a brilliant movie that shows just how badly a run can go. Finally, the new TNT show Leverage is more or less Shadowun – Magic: the Television Series. If you want to run a game about a bunch of hooders then this show is tailor made for inspiration, both for players and GMs.