Shadowrun Cutting Black Sourcebook Review

Hello everyone, Darryl here to talk about a topic I have trouble shutting up about, Shadowrun. Catalyst Game Labs has been nice enough to provide me with review copies in PDF format of their two upcoming sourcebooks for Shadowrun Sixth World Edition, the event book Cutting Black and the adventure 30 Nights (which I'll be taking a look at later). In an additional disclosure, I have personal and professional relationships with several designers on this book and one of them appears as a co-host on my Twitch stream every other Sunday.

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The Shadowrun line has historically done things a little differently when it comes to expanding the core rules. Event books like Cutting Black are presented as in-universe documents like news reports, blog posts, call recording transcripts, and the like posted to the illicit bulletin board system Jackpoint (which replaced Shadowland following Crash 2.0). The denizens of this message board will annotate the document with their own knowledge, thoughts, and random speculation (along with the occasional trolling of one another), which was one of the ways Shadowrun was a bit precognizant of FASA as the sourcebooks have been written this way all the way back to 1st Edition back in 1989, predating the modern social media landscape by at least a couple of decades. It gives the books a verisimilitudinous feel by putting you in the setting and also gives GMs the out of “unreliable narrator” for anything they want to adjust or skip over for their home games. These event books function in much the same way campaign setting books work in other games, acting as a massive collection of plot hooks for gamemasters to expand on. They’re also pretty damn fun to read.

Cutting Black covers the events of July 2080 through March 2081 which radically alter the entire setting of Shadowrun in more than a few major ways. It’s interesting this book came out after 6e released rather than at the tail end of 5e as it’s typical for the “world-shattering” event book to close out an edition to make way for the new one (as previously done with System Failure from 3rd to 4th and Storm Front from 4th to 5th). That said, putting out these major changes at the start of the edition cycle works well for new players coming in, particularly returning players from older editions, as it puts the major changes right up front and in context of the events rather than summarized in a brief timeline in the core rulebook.

So, let’s talk about those changes…well, the entire theme of the book seems to be that the United Canadian American States is fraaaaaaaaged.

So quick history for those who don't know Shadowrun that well. At some point after the Awakening when magic returned to the world, the United States and Canada merged into one nation called the United Canadian American States (UCAS). Also, the states of the Southern United States seceded to create the Confederate American States (CAS). Also also, several indigenous North American tribes rebelled against the United States and formed their own countries out of most of the Western United States, known collectively as the Native American Nations (NAN). The result is a map that looks something like this:

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Without going too much into spoilers just yet...it doesn't look like that by the end of the book.

Before we get into the events, I wanted to talk about what the book covers in terms of locations. Full write-ups are given to the cities of Detroit, St. Louis, and Atlanta with smaller sections on the United Kingdom, Quebec, and the Algonkian-Manitou Council. Detroit in particular is given setting statistics and information from both before and after the events of the book, which is important because the city is completely different following everything that happens.

So here’s your delineation for spoilers as, while I won’t go into too much detail or spoil the biggest twists in the book, I will start talking about what happens in general so this is your final warning if you want to be completely surprised. Because while I am giving away some of the events and this may seem like I'm spoiling a lot, I promise I’m not giving away the biggest twists. Seriously, there’s more than this.

The book starts with Ares Macrotechnology, a megacorporation whose major focus is military and security, attempting to resolve the Insect Spirit problem once and for all in a massive strike called Operation: Latvian Gambit. It failed. It failed so hard. Ares attempted to gather all the insect spirits in the world in Detroit into one huge mega-hive on par if not exceeding with the one in Chicago in 2055 (you know, the one so big they had to drop a nuke on downtown Chicago to get rid of) to wipe them all out. Unsurprisingly, they grossly underestimated their enemy.

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The entire situation was made worse when Ares’s major secret weapon, a new type of manifest insect spirit called “Alphas” as part of their long-running experimentation on the bugs, went rogue almost immediately and attacking anyone and anything near them. The only saving grace is they seem to prefer attacking insect spirits over metahumans, but it’s still supersoldier insect spirits roaming the city with nothing on their agenda but death.

As a small digression, one thing I loved about the writing in this section is the Jackpoint comments. The chapter starts with their point of view of events from the outside, only knowing that Ares had amassed much of their military force in Detroit for an “upgrade” and that communications suddenly went out as the Matrix seemingly shut down. One user tries to say “Well this could be exactly what it seems to be on the surface, a widespread upgrade to their military and just a normal system failure” and pretty much everyone else on Jackpoint going “Oh, my sweet summer child, it’s never what it seems and this always always always ends up being A Thing.” The other in particular is the reaction of Bull, the board’s old-timer, who immediately reacts the same way I would remembering the events of Universal Brotherhood and Bug City by immediately overreacting.

Said overreaction was entirely justified as the fight is even more complicated than Ares vs Bugs vs Alphas as there is also a large number of former Ares soldiers in Detroit who saw this massive clusterfrag coming and defected. They’ve teamed up with shadowrunners, gangers, and civilians calling themselves collectively The Irregulars and have set up shop in Platinum, a former strip club which was owned by a former shadowrunner who made the place like a bunker in case of such an eventuality. And while the Irregulars do their best to protect citizens and reduce the threat of the bugs, they have to do so while also avoiding engagement with Ares soldiers who have been told on the Irregulars are shoot-on-sight.

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One thing that happens during the middle of the disaster is the UCAS government sends about a third of their entire military force to Detroit as an attempt to one-up Ares in the public relations department by marching in to save the city from the “neo-anarchist terrorist group attacking the city” (the cover story provided to the general public). They only make it to western Pennsylvania before disappearing in a giant mysterious fog. This event gets its own chapter but it’s never really expanded upon and, aside from a few very brief speculations as to the cause, it’s never said exactly what happens. This chapter feels very out of place and the only thing I can think of is that it was shoehorned in to set up some future events without actually integrating it properly into the events of the rest of the book.

The other major development coming from Detroit is that, because of Ares’s inability to contain the chaos they caused, the UCAS announces a repeal of the Business Recognition Accords. If your jaw didn’t drop like mine did when I read that, let me explain. The entire setting of Shadowrun is based around the idea of megacorporate extraterritoriality. That means corporations of a specific size are treated as nation-states unto themselves and their corporate property is literally foreign soil. So if you walk into your nearest Stuffer Shack convenience store, you are officially leaving the UCAS and walking onto Aztechnology soil and subject to their laws. The majority of the population are not citizens of a country but citizens of a corporation. The piece of law allowing this (technically a treaty with the Corporate Court) is the Business Recognition Accords. By withdrawing from it, UCAS stated that they no longer recognized the extraterritoriality of any corporation. Wow.

The second disaster comes not long after the BRA repeal when a large flash explodes in the sky of Philadelphia, followed by a city-wide blackout that scrambles every single electronic device. Which sounds like a just a pretty major inconvenience in a heavily technological society...except this is a cyberpunk society so the immediate death toll was in the thousands as people’s cybernetic eyes, arms, legs, spines, and in some cases hearts and lungs suddenly stopped functioning. Then it happened again in Baltimore an hour later. Then in Bangor, Halifax, Newark, Providence, St. John, Bismarck, Lexington, St. Louis, and Toronto. All cities in the United Canadian American States.

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The remainder of the first half of the book is devoted to the fallout of this sort of blackout and how it affects major metropolitan areas along with the politics of the UCAS leadership. It seems that pissing off every single corporation both big and small when said corporations have the power of entire nations means it becomes suddenly difficult to get foreign assistance during a disaster. So any aid even from the United Nations was slow-walked through the bureaucratic and diplomatic processes and the corporations themselves saw no reason to render assistance outside of their own property and people (as if there’s a difference between the two to a megacorp).

These chapters make a point of driving home what sort of living nightmare it is living in a cyberpunk world with no technology. Starvation is rampant for a variety of reasons. First, GridLink is down, which is more than just an AI-assisted GPS but also the way electric cars get power so shipments can’t actually come into the city without taking special precautions to make sure they have the fuel to get out again. Then there’s the pure logistics of a society so dependent on electronics. There may be plenty of non-perishable canned foods on store shelves and in warehouses, but how do you get to the food inside when there are no manual can openers?

To make matters worse, without proper communication or even functional weapons (yes, even guns have electronic firing mechanisms and thus were rendered inoperable), attempts by law enforcement and private security to maintain order in an already chaotic world become impossible as gangs and organized crime start to take over. Some of them are more benevolent than one would expect by aiding their neighborhoods, but others not so much. And if that weren’t bad enough, spirits that thrive on human misery and conflict like wraiths began to work their magic and heighten tensions even further to the point of almost universal violence and mini-riots throughout the affected cities.

And if things couldn’t get any worse for the UCAS, their neighboring countries smelled blood in the water and a few started to take advantage. The independent nation of Quebec attempted to reclaim all of Francophile Canada from the UCAS and were only barely repelled when the Sioux attacked across five different states in the west, claiming much of the Dakotas, Kansas, and other areas. Of course, if it’s not enemies without it’s defectors within as Kentucky announced their secession from the UCAS to join the Confederate American States. The biggest blow, however, may be the declaration of St. Louis and Seattle as free cities with the megacorporations headquartered there and, for Seattle, their powerful neighboring nations. The cherry on top? Ares, who always billed themselves as the All-American Corporation, announced they’re pulling all assets from UCAS and moving their headquarters to Atlanta.

The book ends with the aforementioned descriptions of the key locations as they are now and a bit of shadow speculation as to what caused everything, though no firm answers are provided. The one mystery that isn’t discussed at all in the closing chapters is the fog that ate a third of UCAS’s military and a few cities in western Pennsylvania.

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So time for my opinion of the book. I’d be lying if I said it was the best effort I’ve seen from Catalyst Game Labs. I personally found the media sourcebook No Future much more fun to read. The organization seems to be the biggest issue with the book as it’s trying to serve two masters – being a useful campaign sourcebook for a roleplaying game and being an interesting to read piece of fiction – and not doing well for either.

The book covers two big events that overlap one another slightly in the timeline, as the Blackouts start in the middle of the Detroit Bug plot, and the third overarching story with the downslide of UCAS’s political standing takes place over the course of all of it. However, each section is kept to its own chapters so you get bits and pieces of the story in different areas, like finding out the general overview of what happens to Ares after the end of the Detroit events but not finding out the full story of what happened until the UCAS political chapters, or the results of the UCAS Presidential Election when the last mention of the elections was that they’re being indefinitely postponed due to all the crises going on. This split makes it hard to follow the plot if you’re reading it as fiction as the story constantly spoils itself. This could be excused if it were easier to reference, but the organization doesn’t really help in that regard as several times writing this review, I had to flip all over the place to find information. I spent a few minutes flipping around through what I thought were relevant sections trying to find out what places other than Kentucky seceded to join the CAS as there were other places that jumped to the Confederation, but I eventually had to give up so I could finish the review.

The organizational issues also open up a few plot holes. Like I said before, both Ares and the UCAS government claim that the incident in Detroit is due to “neo-anarchist terrorist attacks” to prevent widespread panic from the public learning of another megahive of insect spirits breaking out. But later on, the President of the UCAS uses the insect spirits in Detroit explicitly as her excuse for some of the actions she takes. So does that mean at some point everyone abandoned the public story? And there was no fallout from the public being so blatantly lied to like that on either side, particularly when the UCAS and Ares were stated multiple times to be in a public relations war with one another over Detroit? And I know I’ve brought it up a few times, but the entire chapter about the damn fog feels just so out of place because no explanation is given or even hinted at and it’s barely mentioned outside its own chapter. For all I know, the fog sent several regiments of the UCAS military with tanks and all into Ravenloft and Strahd’s having a massive “What in the nine hells is that?” moment. All the other major events in the book weave into one another the way a series of major disasters will tend to do, but the fog just isn’t integrated in the same way to the rest of the book.

With all my complaints about the organization, I should note that the same issues have been part of the Shadowrun line since its inception. The issues just seem a bit more pronounced in this book than others because older books from 1st through 3rd Edition tended to be more narrowly focused in their sections, so it seemed to make a bit more sense that a commenter would bring up something you wouldn’t get the full details on until later in the book and it never quite felt as much of a spoiler as it did here. Probably because one of the biggest plot twists in the book is done in such a way, where it’s mentioned at the end of one chapter with next to no fanfare as if everyone already knows what’s going on then is fully explained a good 20-30 pages later in the book.

The organization aside, the sections themselves are very well-written and the plot is full of so many wham moments that you’d think it would end up overwhelming but somehow isn’t. The writers have managed to take a sledgehammer to a major part of the game’s setting and they do so with a sort of glee, but it never feels haphazard or that it wasn’t done with deliberate calculation (with the exception of the fog because I seriously cannot get over how shoehorned that whole bit feels). The events are presented in interesting ways from unique and changing viewpoints that keep the book fresh and fun to read. Well, at least until the last few chapters where it’s just city overviews, but it’s really hard to make “Here’s population density information, a list of airports and hotels, and information about city districts” feel fun to read. No matter how hard you try, it’s always going to come across as one of those Visitor’s Guides you get in the mail from random travel bureaus, even with random shadowrunners giving their two cents.

It’s a good thing that the writing is so strong because this is a must-read sourcebook for Shadowrun players who play in the canon world. If you’re not so worried about the official metaplot you can probably skip it as the only game information is updated stats for insect spirits. However, if you plan to involve the metaplot in your games even a little or even just read any upcoming sourcebooks at any time, you have to read this book because of the massive changes made to the setting. Like I said, it may seem like I spoiled a lot but I didn’t even get near the tip of the iceberg in terms of everything that happens. Don’t blame me if you pick up Firing Squad for the new gun rules when it comes out and are shocked and confused how [Spoiler Redacted] died.

Cutting Black is a 176 pages campaign setting book for Shadowrun Sixth World and is available now on DriveThruRPG in PDF for $22.99 and will be released this month in hardcover for a retail price of $44.99. (Edited to update PDF availability)
 
Last edited:
Darryl Mott

Comments

Derren

Adventurer
By the way, while I do not have the book I read several summaries and the point which sounded the most un-cyberpunk like, the repeal of the accords, is not as setting disruptive as it sounds at first.
 

zhivik

Villager
By the way, while I do not have the book I read several summaries and the point which sounded the most un-cyberpunk like, the repeal of the accords, is not as setting disruptive as it sounds at first.
The Shadowrun universe has always had countries that never recognised the BRAs - the NAN come to mind, as well as Manchuria and Amazonia, among others. As far as the UCAS and the BRAs are concerned, the story is not disruptive to lore at all and is a (relatively) logical reaction to events in the book.

Speaking of the book, it is pretty decent for a plot book, just don't expect any crunch. There are a couple of stats at the end, but it's nothing in comparison to the remaining content. I agree that splitting some of the events into completely separate sections outside the many storyline was not a good decision, as it brings only confusion at first reading.

There are plenty of story hooks, though it does feel a little bit repetitive at some point, particularly with events in Detroit, which resemble a lot the Chicago storyline in previous editions. There is also potentially a new metatype emerging (if you can even call it a metatype), which is not bad on its own, but I get the feeling that a lot of new species have appeared lately and the setting is becoming bloated. I liked how events around Seattle (and by extension, St Louis) were handled, as the emergence of a potentially big player is intriguing. Redrawing some North American borders is also intriguing, though it is not that considerable as it may seem at first (the UCAS is still there at the end, just not quite a super power anymore).

Overall, consider this book as a setup to more storylines in the Shadowrun universe to come. There are plenty of plot hooks that remain unresolved, but I guess it was the intent from the very beginning. I'd compare it to Storm Front and I agree that this book would have made more sense as wrapping up Shadowrun 5h edition, rather than opening 6th edition.
 

Derren

Adventurer
The Shadowrun universe has always had countries that never recognised the BRAs - the NAN come to mind, as well as Manchuria and Amazonia, among others. As far as the UCAS and the BRAs are concerned, the story is not disruptive to lore at all and is a (relatively) logical reaction to events in the book.

Speaking of the book, it is pretty decent for a plot book, just don't expect any crunch. There are a couple of stats at the end, but it's nothing in comparison to the remaining content. I agree that splitting some of the events into completely separate sections outside the many storyline was not a good decision, as it brings only confusion at first reading.

There are plenty of story hooks, though it does feel a little bit repetitive at some point, particularly with events in Detroit, which resemble a lot the Chicago storyline in previous editions. There is also potentially a new metatype emerging (if you can even call it a metatype), which is not bad on its own, but I get the feeling that a lot of new species have appeared lately and the setting is becoming bloated. I liked how events around Seattle (and by extension, St Louis) were handled, as the emergence of a potentially big player is intriguing. Redrawing some North American borders is also intriguing, though it is not that considerable as it may seem at first (the UCAS is still there at the end, just not quite a super power anymore).

Overall, consider this book as a setup to more storylines in the Shadowrun universe to come. There are plenty of plot hooks that remain unresolved, but I guess it was the intent from the very beginning. I'd compare it to Storm Front and I agree that this book would have made more sense as wrapping up Shadowrun 5h edition, rather than opening 6th edition.
As far as I am aware it was supposed to be another Stormfront but got delayed because of reasons.

What other metatype?
 

zhivik

Villager
As far as I am aware it was supposed to be another Stormfront but got delayed because of reasons.

What other metatype?
It is not technically a metatype, and it is a relatively big spoiler, so you've been warned.

Ares has been experimenting with insect spirits, trying to make them receive orders and create super soldiers to fight the rest. As expected, the experiment doesn't go exactly as planned. One of the insect spirit modifications seems to have developed empathy, which is why one of the senior researchers decides voluntarily to merge with it, creating a new type of being, a human/insect spirit hybrid. These are called Betas, as a monicker for being an offshoot from the main project goal.

Unsuccessful experiments who are still capable to fight are called Alphas, but they are too unruly and attack anything in sight, which is why Ares's plan to eradicate insect spirits in Detroit fails spectacularly. At some point, Betas join the local resistance, led by a rogue Ares faction - the original Firewatch, who fought insect spirits in Chicago, and help them eventually defeat both the insect spirit hive and Ares's remaining forces. One of the Betas even appears on Jackpoint, becoming another shadowrunner of sorts.

So to wrap up, not technically a new metatype, but a new critter option regardless, much like CFD.
 

Derren

Adventurer
It is not technically a metatype, and it is a relatively big spoiler, so you've been warned.
I suspected that you meant them but wasn't sure.

But I doubt that they will become a player option (which is what I understand as new metatype), at least not before they bring out playable HMHVV victims and metavariants. Most likely they come even after surged, metasapient and possibly drakes.
 

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