Thursday, September 27, 2012

Mohawks and Mirrorshades

Most RPGs have a “default” style of play that they promote and are designed to accommodate. For example, early editions of Dungeons and Dragons were heavily oriented around the concept that the player characters would be exploring dungeons and looking for treasure. Naturally, these days most players understand that Dungeons and Dragons campaigns can vary wildly from one extreme (pure dungeon-crawling) to the other (pure roleplaying) with plenty of room in between.

I’ll make a bold statement: nearly any RPG can support very different styles of play. This is a lesson I learned over time, but one of the best examples of this idea comes from the classic cyberpunk RPG, Shadowrun.

Larry Elmore captures Shadowrun like no one else.

On the surface, Shadowrun is all about playing as skilled operatives/criminals that exist outside the system. These “shadowrunners” are hired by megacorporations to strike at their rivals because they are deniable assets. The setting is a future where man, magic, and machine all exist side-by-side, and style generally triumphs over substance.

I spent over two years playing Shadowun online (as mentioned before in another blog post), and I discovered that for that particular RPG there are two very recognized and distinct styles of play; Mohawks and Mirrorshades.


The first style embraces the whole concept of “style over substance,” and the name itself is a reference to one of the more recognizable features of much of the early Shadowrun art featuring characters with hair styles into outrageous mohawks. Typically, the Mohawk style of play is characterized by over-the-top, cinematic action. The idea of “anything goes” and using some of the more unusual character options (such as playing a vampire, ghoul, sasquatch, AI or Free Spirit) are often associated with Mohawk style. Mohawk puts the “punk” in cyperpunk, and often the outcome of any given situation can be quite bleak.

Check out that mohawk!

One of my early characters for Shadowrun was definitely made for the Mohawk style. X’ian was actually based on an anime character and had a career as a professional athlete (Urban Brawl) before becoming a shadowrunner. Visually and vocally distinctive, “subtle” was really not part of X’ian’s dictionary. She was a lot of fun to play because of how unusual she was, but I did encounter a lot of issues with integrating with other players and staff in the online game who were more interested in a different style of play.

A very memorable incident with X’ian illustrated both sides of these different Shadowrunning approaches. The situation was this: a child had been kidnapped from a rich corporate family, and was being held for ransom. The family had made it known that there would be a large reward for the safe return of their child. X’ian had happened upon some clues about the kidnapping, including an odor trace for her cybernetic olfactory booster, and followed it to a deserted warehouse surrounded by an empty fenced parking lot.

“Aha!” I thought. “This is clearly where the kidnappers are lairing while negotiating for the ransom…” And what, you may ask, did X’ian do then? Did she gather her shadowrunner friends and make a plan to infiltrate the building and rescue the hostage? No. She walked right in through the front door.

She was promptly shot nearly to death by a sentry gun set up inside the warehouse. I think the GM was being fairly generous, in fact.

So lesson learned, right? Not quite. X’ian rounded up the usual suspects (her fellow shadowrunners on her team) and made back for the warehouse lickety-split. This time, she figured, they had a car. Said car crashed through the front gates of the fence and drove right up to the front door. X’ian and crew went full frontal assault on the warehouse, guns-a-blazin’.

This car is way cooler than the one X'ian had.

It didn’t work out so well. In the end, the ninja physical adept had to carry everyone’s bleeding, unconscious bodies back to the car. A pair of white phosphorous grenades had immolated the warehouse, consuming both kidnappers and kidnapped.

This time, I learned a valuable lesson. And I’m proud to say my Shadowrun characters have never advocated using the front door ever again.

To be honest, it was actually quite an eye-opener to find out that bombastic, cinematic action wasn’t going to work with all GM’s. It was time for me to think about adjusting, to consider trying out a more subtle and (dare I say) professional character.


In contrast, the Mirrorshades style of play is oriented around professionalism, preparation, and planning. Mirrorshades games focus on doing things “smart” and “subtle.” Mirrorshades games are often more realistic and tend to be quite challenging intellectually (often ending up trying out to outguess the GM!).

This is Mirrorshades style.

Much later in my online Shadowrunning, I created a mercenary named Reason. Reason was one of the most “professional” characters I’d ever made up to that point, although I hadn’t built him so much with that objective in mind. However, that’s how he developed during play, and I actually observed other players that I considered good at that style of play and learned from watching them. Possibly because of this approach (and no doubt helped by my growing experience with the game), Reason was—by far—my most successful Shadowrun character. He ended his career with over 200 karma (Shadowrun’s “experience points”) and actually achieved his long-term goal of retirement after a massive one-million-nuyen job.

Reason and his team (called “Black Omen”) approached every job with a mindset of accomplishing it as efficiently as possible. We researched our targets thoroughly, created detailed plans, and prepared ourselves as much as possible. I developed a leadership style for Reason that took into account the fact that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” So, Reason would get together with his team and make a plan, but he would keep it simple and make sure everyone knew the core goals of the mission. That way, when things went to crap (as they always did), the runners all could react on their own initiative to accomplish the mission. (Oh yes, and I never used the front door!)

I actually had a more “Mohawk” style GM complain that my team was not as much fun to run games for, because Black Omen worked too much like Seal Team Six and had not enough “style” for his preferences. In a way, it was quite a compliment! On the other hand, I could sympathize with him; I could tell he was bored with the clinical approach of my team and was craving something “cooler.”

I definitely enjoyed playing Reason with the Mirrorshade style, but I could tell that there was definitely something to be said for a more stylish and cinematic approach.

The Space Between

Sometimes called “Trenchcoat,” there is a style that lies in between of Mohawks and Mirrorshades, a style that combines some representations of both. “Trenchcoat” can mean many things to many people, so rather than attempt to further define such a broad term, I’d like to present another anecdote from my online Shadowrun days as an illustration of one possible meaning.

This story involves my character Alita – street name “Mouse”—a cybernetically-enhanced bounty hunter. Mouse and her partner, Danrath, had been investigating a series of ghoul sightings in a certain area of the city. A bounty had been placed on these ghouls and Mouse was determined to collect.

My inspiration for Mouse.

Mouse and Danrath followed the trail of the ghouls into the local sewer system and bagged a few of their prey along the way. However, it didn’t take long to discover something very unusual down in the sewers – the sound of pounding rock music. Investigating, Mouse and her partner found another set of bounty hunters camped in a side passage, music playing from a portable recorder they had brought with them. Chained to the wall was a beautiful human woman, her skin and hair colored a stark white, her eyes blank and pupiless. The woman was dancing for the two bounty hunters, but she was clearly their captive.

Mouse, naturally, wanted to know what the hell was going on, but her questions only led to the other bounty hunters to attack. Mouse and Danrath defended themselves and wiped out the opposition. Mouse questioned the woman, who claimed her name was “Lady Death” and that she was “Queen of the Ghouls!” Suspecting something was definitely amiss, Mouse slapped the woman with a tranq patch and knocked her out before taking her back to a safe house apartment for further investigation.

Mouse and Danrath debated what to do for some time… after all, there was a chance that something supernatural could be going on, and there were many mysteries in the Sixth World that had yet to be fully understood. It was decided to take “Lady Death” to a local street doc to have her checked out before taking any further action. Surprisingly, the street doc’s report was that “Lady Death” was in fact a normal human with extensive biosculpting. She even had a datajack registered to Aztechnology – a powerful megacorp that, in Shadowrun, has an extremely dark reputation.

When “Lady Death” awoke, Mouse and Danrath attempted to learn more by talking with her, but she refused to believe anything other than the story she had first given when they had met. Frustrated, Mouse jacked the woman into the Matrix and then pulled the plug, inducing dumpshock on her neural system in hopes this could break the programming. The drastic step worked – “Lady Death” was actually a daughter of an Aztechnology executive who had no memory of the last few weeks. She claimed she knew her name and her father’s name and was very grateful to have been rescued from her fate.

Suspicious but unaware of what else to do, Mouse and Danrath took her at her word and escorted the young woman to meet her father inside the Aztechnology corporate building. The handover of the woman was fraught with sinister undertones considering the nature of the corporation, but her father seemed normal enough. He rewarded and thanked us and then we were escorted out of the building.

Mouse and Danrath had many questions after that – was the girl telling the truth? Why had she been put through that bizarre situation? What was the link with the ghouls? Unfortunately, all these questions would never be answered – but even now, thinking back about the situation, I can imagine many intriguing scenarios that would explain just what we had stumbled onto.

Alas, Mouse’s story has a bittersweet ending. She actually ended up arrested by Lone Star and placed into prison. I definitely feel that the GM was attempting to offer me a way to turn that failure an opportunity, but I was too discouraged to consider it.

In conclusion

Universal RPGs like GURPS don’t generally have an issue with a default style of play. Champions also falls into this category, although it drifts close with its heavy focus on superheroes. As stated earlier, D&D is so wildly varied that it is difficult to define a “default” Dungeons & Dragons experience. Rifts, similarly, is very widely varied in the types of campaigns it can support.

Not exactly what I meant, but close.

Games like Traveller and Star Wars, by contrast, both have a generally accepted “typical” style of play (although both can support multiple styles).

However, no matter what your chosen system of RPG may be, it is fairly easy for established groups to fall into a pattern of a specific style of play. There’s nothing really wrong with this – you should definitely game the way that is the most fun for you – but I would like to encourage gamers to consider thinking about the other options that exist.

It can be very refreshing to try out a different approach to RPGs, to get a fresh look at perhaps your style or the styles of others. Game conventions, such as PAX, Genghis Con, or Gen Con, are one of the best ways to try out a new game and a new style. Even at home, consider trying out something new as a one-shot game night, perhaps for a special occasion like Halloween.

Changing things up from time to time can be really good and give you a fresh perspective on not only what you like about RPGs, but also about how they appeal to other folks as well.


  1. Nice writeup, I quite enjoyed reading your examples of various styles of play. Sorry about Mouse though . . .

  2. Nice read. More of CP2020 fan myself, but the play styles do compare nicely. Next time round though, I'm just taking the CP2020 system and playing in a very different world, hopefully shaking off some preconceptions about play style and the genre. If you've read the comic book Transmetropolitan, it's going to be set there. Hopefully going for a political/investigative game, with combat as a last resort.

  3. Your comment about the Mirrorshades style reminded me of a con game I played in once, set in the universe of the Cowboy Bebop anime. The PC's were a cowboy team going after a bounty, who ended up being a crazed pyrokinetic holed up in a factory with her gang and a lot of firepower.

    The players proceeded to discuss (at length) possible assault options, to the point where the game was starting to really drag (admittedly I was participating in the brainstorming as much as everyone else).

    I spied the GM's eyes starting to glaze and had an epiphany. I announced to the group, "Okay, guys, we're going at this the wrong way. We're not a SEAL team, we're the A-Team! Let's just blow some cars up and go in guns blazin'!"

    Sure enough, mayhem ensued; the factory ended up in flames as we dragged our barely-alive bounty out of the wreckage. But we had a ball doing it. Afterwards, the GM thanked me profusely for, in his opinion, saving the game.

    Bottom line, the hardest thing to do sometimes is figure out what style the game is set in, especially when preconceptions and ingrained habits get in the way.