Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2015/08/24/tabletop-review-shadowrun-wolf-buffalo/
Every runner has an origin story; we just rarely ever hear them. Established characters in the Sixth World canon are generally introduced to us after having been veterans of the shadows for many years. It’s rare a character is seen being exposed to the underbelly of the Oligarchy (or Coporatocracy if you want to be blunt) that controls the planet in the 2070s. Even when you and your chummers make their own PCs for Shadowrun, you rarely act out the origins of a character as you might the embrace of your Vampire: The Masquerade PC. Instead, you just whip up the character and the backstory is either told through sessions via flashbacks, story hooks or general PC conversation. That’s what makes Wolf & Buffalo an interesting piece, as you see a character getting exposed to the harsh reality of life in the shadows with no warning whatsoever and how they react to the insanity of it all. It’s a point of view we rarely get, and so even though much of the perspective is, “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON? SO MANY BULLETS! BODY COUNT HIGH! NOT A GOOD DAY!” it’s nice to see something other than a jaded snark filled reaction to corporate fueled gloom and doom.
Lena is your average young teenage girl in the Sioux Nation. She’s got a dysfunctional family, a government that treats her as a second-class citizen since she’s half Anglo (Remember this is the Sioux Nation. In Shadowrun prejudice runs all ways, be it white, black, troll or ghoul.) and a life she was hoping to improve by joining the SDF (I kept reading it as RDF and I was like, “Veritech rip-offs are in CGL’s OTHER game line.”). Unfortunately the government found a cheap out to excuse her for service, even if they didn’t specifically state her rejection was due to not being pure Native American.
Of course, if Wolf and Buffalo was just about late teen angst and the struggles of growing up half-Lakota, half-white, this would be more a tale for Sherman Alexie or Americo Paredes rather than a writer for Shadowrun. Instead we have to have some sort of Catalyst (no pun intended) that brings Lena into life within the shadows. In this case, it’s a smuggling ring gong wrong, the destruction of her family, attempted rape with a side of murder thrown in and a late awakening to her shamanistic potential. That’s quite a lot to be hit with in a single day – and all before she’s legally old enough to vote, to boot.
The rest of the story basically has Lena blundering around, trying to stay alive as people try to kill her and friends try to help her (and die as a result. Seriously, she’s Clementine from The Walking Dead bad in this regard, but far more likeable). Lena finds herself in over her head with talisman smuggling, “demon” summoning and not one but two totems making their presence (and requests) known to her. The end result is a fast paced story with a higher body count than most full-length Shadowrun novels and a story that shows you just how strange life can be in the Sixth World, not to mention how quickly things can change. One minute you might be the mayor of Seattle, and the next, a highly sophisticated A.I. has taken over your body and you’re dropping your pants in public, defecating on a street performer.
Wolf & Buffalo is a really good story and I enjoyed the chaotic nature of the tale. Sure, the protagonist was in over her head, whined constantly and really only survived because everyone else took a bullet (or ritual knife) for her, but it makes sense. I mean, when you were 17/18, could you process being a channel for ancient spirits to funnel magical energies through while being tasked to recover a sacred artifact to your people and dodge heavy fire? No, you’ll probably piss yourself. So Lena is an extremely believable character. Hell, she’s even likeable in spite of being the type of character who’s usually relegated to the supporting role of a story and who you get really annoyed with – especially when they show up in a summer blockbuster. Thankfully good writing saves the day.
That’s not to say the entire story is without fault. I do feel the climax/ending is very weak. Not only is it very similar to the same ending used in the author’s full length novel Borrowed Time (which is really good and you should purchase it), but it involves not one, but TWO Deus Ex Machinas to get the main character out alive. One alone is acceptable, but weak. TWO, however, did have me roll my eyes and wish for something better. So a great start, but a really weak finish. The end does detract from the overall quality of the story, but it’s still a good read and worth getting if you’re a Shadowrun fan.
Finally, as this is a piece of “Enhanced Fiction,” we get some stat blocks at the end of the book. This is another weak area. I love that the main character got statted and can be used as an NPC in your own adventures. The second character, however, dies in the book, so I don’t see the point of giving them half a page of stats. I’d have given this to one of Lena’s friends that survived (or anyone who survived the story really) as that would be more useful overall. The two stat blocks are the only “crunch” you’ll get in this, so hopefully you’re just looking for a fine short story that allows you to spend some free time in the Sixth World. With a price tag of only three bucks, you’ll certainly get your money’s worth with Wolf & Buffalo.