Gen Con Report: Shadowrun and the democratizing of game-stuff

As video games become ever more virtual in their distribution, it’s comforting to see the endurance of tactile accessories on display at Gen Con.

As video games become ever more virtual in their distribution, with their diminishing number of physical boxes becoming ever smaller and lighter, it’s comforting to see the endurance of tactile accessories. But they are less accessible than they once were, increasingly the province of expensive Collector's Editions and convention exclusives.

The marketing of stuff to gamers remains a lucrative enterprise, greatly enhanced by the enforced scarcity of “collector’s items” that once came standard, like maps, books, and even card decks. As gorgeous as these things can be--and Goddess knows my apartment is a veritable museum of geeky collectibles--there is something cynical about the ever more naked commodification of such things, not least because it squanders the potential for such baubles to be integrated into the games themselves as mechanics that bridge the physical and the virtual.

For tabletop gaming the nature of the product has ensured some level of resistance to this trend, something very much on my mind as I pored over Echo Chernik’s gorgeous Sixth World Tarot card deck for Catalyst’s Shadowrun series. More than a pretty deck of cards, they are a game mechanic, a GM tool, and an appendix to the game’s sourcebooks; they were also relatively inexpensive at 25 dollars. 

Though the cards were sold as a GenCon 2016 exclusive, I was given to understand that they would be made more widely available in the near future and that this deck served more as a preview of coming attractions--a more equitable arrangement, surely, for those who couldn’t afford the expense of the convention, which can set one back by over 1,500 dollars.

“LOOK CLOSER!” exhorts the deck’s slightly undersized box. Indeed, there is much to see.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Echo Chernik at her GenCon booth, where she and her husband happily regaled me with tales about the deck’s imagery and secrets. The unrestrained nerdery was refreshing--the sort of guileless enthusiasm for what one does that feels all too rare in these cynical days. In Shadowrun’s universe, the cards are a characteristically fairy-punk craft, which scry through both magic and technology. They purport to show actual canonical events in the world, and real characters who embody the classic symbolism of each Tarot card in their sliver of time. 

Queen of Swords, artwork from Echo Chernick's Shadowrun Tarot deck

Further, Chernik detailed how several cards in the minor arcana are symbolically and narratively linked--one telling the story of a kidnapping, while another overlapping set features a mysterious box that keeps changing hands, for instance. Along the bottom of each card is a tiny screen that features some type of graphic--an oscilloscope’s wave, perhaps, or a seismographic line, or Orcish text, or Morse code, or even a skyline. All little clues to some greater meaning and larger story hidden in the cards, I was told.

It’s staggeringly gorgeous and beguiling; to the point where I was left wondering what all the references to the in-universe Taco Temple chain add up to. Clearly Catalyst had the same idea, selling “Taco Temple” t-shirts at their pavilion. Chernik’s (re)interpretation of Tarot symbolism leaves little to be desired. The way she redesigned the Major Arcana captures the razor sharp, rusted edge of Shadowrun’s world. The Fool is replaced with The Bastard, pushing someone off a ledge instead of leaping from it himself; The Tower depicts lightning striking the Space Needle and setting its saucer alight; Death is replaced by a (slightly oversexed) assassin, with the card designation “404” and so on. Each card also has the benefit of acting as a GM prompt; every single card is choked with enough detail to tell a story--or invite you to conjure your own--without being garish or losing the mystic symbolism that links all Tarot decks together.


What makes things like this truly special is not just their value as a pretty artefact of your geekery, but the way they facilitate gameplay itself. Cards have a long and proud tradition in roleplaying gaming; from West End Games’ attempt to actually create a game of Sabacc in its Star Wars RPG, to the Deck of Many Things in Dungeons and Dragons (which permitted the substitution of Tarot cards), to the gorgeous Harrow deck in Pathfinder, there has always been something to be said for giving players something they can hold from the gameworld that they can then, in turn, do something with. 

Tabletop games have a particularly urgent need for such things, but videogames can make use of them as well, as something more than baubles for collectors with disposable incomes (Dragon Age’s Tarot deck, part of its Inquisitor Edition box, now retails for 150 dollars on eBay by itself). Shadowrun’s deck is integrated into a tranche of new lore: chiefly an alternate setting that expands Elf and faerie lore for the world, beginning with Monica Valentinelli’s The Court of Shadows--her design notes make for interesting reading. In this setting, a parallel faerie world is accessible to Shadowrun players. 

The eponymous court is rife with intrigues and carefully constructed, rigid norms that are at once familiarly aristocratic and otherworldly in their faerie guile. Here, the tarot deck is a scrying artefact that has been scattered throughout the faerie plane. Each card is rare and powerful enough to act as a standard for factions to organize around. Aes Sidhe Banrigh (the Elven Queen, the replacement for the Empress card), is the Queen’s loyalist faction, for example, while The Magician is a faction devoted to research and unlocking the secrets of magic, and so on. The cards form the basis and structure of faerie society, providing something of a road map for players, as well as a blueprint for how their actions might alter it. 

The connection between the book and the cards is analogous to how one might connect a video game and a similar physical item. Though the obvious analogy might be something like, say, Lego Dimensions (which has much to recommend it), there are others like Sensible Object’s forthcoming Beasts of Balance, which mixes beautiful polygonal carvings of animals with an iPad interface. The Jenga-like affair, which I sampled at last year’s IndieCade, provides a tantalizing glimpse of what more tactile videogames might look like. Like Shadowrun’s Tarot deck, the wooden sculptures materialize virtual play. They’re not just cute collectibles that will gather dust on a shelf, but active components of play that are required to have the experience.

Cataloging the seductions of diegetic game objects has, admittedly, been a theme in my work. From instruction manuals through the ages, to Ice Bound and its printed Compendium, if there’s something to be said for physical game objects beyond “this is really cool!” I’ve been trying to say it rather desperately. 

The gating of physical components behind ever rising paywalls is not just undemocratic, but harmful to the development of gaming itself; these optional extras can be the keys to making games that much more magical, opening up new ways to play and think. In my article on instruction manuals, I praised Kikopa Games’ strategy of releasing its adorable Minkomora manual as a free PDF, not only as an act of generosity but as an expression of the game’s values of charity and self-care. To paraphrase the poet Audre Lorde, imagination is not a luxury. 

What we hold in our hands as we play can spark the next great evolution in gaming. Or elsewhere.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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