Shotguns & Sorcery is an RPG of fantasy-noir using the Cypher System. This book has been delayed a bunch during its production so it’s not as groundbreaking as when it Kickstarted but now that we’ve got two editions of a generic Cypher System Rulebook it’s worth questioning what S&S offers.
The Elephant In the Room
The project was dramatically delayed in its delivery, to put things mildly. The Kickstarter campaign started in November 2014 with an expected delivery date for the PDF of December 2015. As of May 2015 they were “slightly behind” and by January 2016 the manuscript was done, but not until May 2018 did pdfs go out. The physical copies of the books are still waiting to get to international backers and the stretch goal books are completely M.I.A.
People get very upset at delays with Kickstarter but I tend to take it in stride. I’ve been a part of creative projects and things happen. It’s no big deal usually but… I mean, this is a little extreme. We’ve got a pdf now but I think it’s appropriate to stay that the stakes have been raised and I’m hoping to show off something really exciting for a project that is four years late and counting. On the other hand, the glass-half-full way of seeing this is that projects that are super-late can still pull themselves together and deliver! Well, we’ll take a look at this and see what you get with Shotguns & Sorcery in a vacuum, without this context, but if you aren’t aware of the history then maybe some internet negativity surrounding this setting makes sense now.
The setting for Shotguns & Sorcery is the noir-flavored streets of Dragon City. This is the last bastion of safety in a world overrun by necromantic power, a city of mortal races hiding at the base of a mountain which is home to the Dragon Emperor who keeps the zombies at bay. It’s a huge metropolis surrounded by a thick wall and filled with many different fantasy races living in segregated neighborhoods. The quiet, green streets of Gnometown and the busy halfling homes of the Big Burrow are next to the magical shops of Wizards Way and high above the low streets of Goblintown right next to the walls.
Class tensions are a central part of noir storytelling, as much as crime and flawed heroes, and the very structure of Dragon City underscores that. The powerful people are literally above the less powerful, higher up the slopes of the mountain and away from the wall that separates the city from the dangerous world outside. The fact that this hierarchy falls along racial lines is understandable given the tropes of fantasy settings, but since those tropes are problematic themselves it’s still a problem. I wish there were more integrated parts of the city (the only one is the Village which is mostly human but somewhat mixed) and in my version of Dragon City it will be. As seen with the fae races in Carnival Row, I think these stories are most interesting when expected prejudices are shown and then challenged.
Some interesting fantasy-noir elements to the city include the city Guard being mostly elves and a few dwarves (humans aren’t the default authorities in this setting), concern about dead bodies in the city (they’ll become zombies so you’re required to turn them in), and some fun illegal alchemical drugs to bedevil the lower sections of the city.
Chapter 11 (pun intended?) includes a lot of organizations for use in your Shotguns & Sorcery campaign. They’re all interesting and successfully combine fantasy elements and noir elements, meaning you could fairly easily lift them for an interesting recursion in The Strange or a fantasy-noir setting of your own.
The Imperial Dragon’s Guard is the overbearing police force made of elves and some dwarves, while the human-dominated Auxiliary Guard is the corrupt police force of many noir films. The Academy of Arcane Appreniceship is the one and only magical academy with concentrations similar to schools of magic in D&D (though necromancy is outlawed since it’s the tool of the enemy). The academy is overseen by the Wizards Council which reports directly to the Dragon Emperor itself, so this is your answer to the rich society club in 1950s film noir.
Those hoity-toity elves also have a number of Noble Houses that dominate their politics (and so the politics of Dragon City by default), and the traditionalist dwarves have Stronghold Warbands which are alliances of powerful families. Gnometown Societies are based around shared magical interests and halfling Burrow Clubs are tavern clubs and gaming groups. Humans gravitate towards the Village Guilds which are based on profession, and last of all are the Goblintown Gangs for people who want a group but they don’t want to think about why it formed.
Beyond the Great Circle
Once upon a time, the world of Shotguns & Sorcery was like many other fantasy worlds. There were elven forest kingdoms, underground dwarven strongholds, bucolic halfling farmlands, and so on. Then some jerk necromancer called the Ruler of the Dead started turning everybody into zombies, and I mean everybody. Coast to coast its filled with zombie hordes that throw themselves against the walls of Dragon City and beyond the curtain wall called the Great Circle are lands teeming with undead. Beyond the shores of the lands controlled by the Ruler of the Dead are lands presumably untouched by zombies but its anyone’s guess what state they’re in or how you could get there.
This is a cool idea (though it’s also the story behind The Lost Citadel for D&D 5e) and it’s interesting to think of this sort of danger lurking outside of a city that’s themed with noir and magitech. But there’s a disconnect there that’s hard to fathom. On the one hand you’ve got a city with elven lounge singers, goblinoid street gangs, and tavern societies of halflings in Newsies caps. On the other hand you’ve got a grim wasteland of undead shambling through the broken homes of dead refugees. One or the other would be cool but both together needs some consideration before you can make it work out.
So that’s the setting of Shotguns & Sorcery. Next time I’ll be looking at some of the mechanics of the game and how they relate to other Cypher System products out there. I think the setting is interesting enough but if you’re going to buy this game you want it to include things that you don’t already have. See you in the future!