The Rat’s Nest, November’s Campaign of the Month

Today I’m here talking to GM Pebbles and his co-GM Jennifer about their Shadowrun game The Rat’s Nest. It’s a sprawling, gritty concrete jungle and we’re going to learn all about the game, and the extremely fun and interesting folks behind it. Grab a seat, maybe a snack, and settle in for a long and satisfying interview!

The Rat's Nest


First off, feel free to tell us about the person(s) behind the GM screen.
Where are you from? What do you do both aside from gaming? Wife and kids? Where can we stalk you on the internet, that sort of thing!

Hanno: My name is Hanno Behrens, I’m 49 years old, a computer scientist working as a freelancer in Hamburg, Germany. I live alone with my cat and a girlfriend somewhere in the city. I’ve been roleplaying since the mid 90s, but my first contact was at university, where we used roleplay to simulate attacks on computersystems, which was quite similar to Shadowrun, just without Magic. But with real background. You may say I’m a professional hacker and codebreaker, just that I only practice this as a kind of hobby because the only persons that really need a codebreaker would be people I’d refuse to work for. Well most of the times I kill trojans, clean computers, set up security on systems or design environments, school people how to use computers, learn programming and things like that. I love the idea of free software and media and support it whenever I can.


I don’t have kids but I always wanted to have some. But things went in a different direction in my life. So I make other babies, like this campaign. I contributed some code to the Linux kernel and you may find me as the creator of the NEO keyboard layout, which is a German/European version of the Dvorak layout. But it was aiming much further. You have it already installed if you use any Linux on your computer. It has lot of support here in Germany, I think many more write NEO than Dvorak. Quite successful. So, that’s something I did, maybe the biggest thing. Never got a penny for it. Money is not my strength.


If you want to stalk me, just search my name and you will find the SFD, the Streetfighter Digest, which is a Shadowrun Sourcebook of epic size, a co-op production which was mainly maintained by me, that I was trying to publish a couple of years ago but miserably failed getting any money for it. So I just put it on the net in the end. For free. Many of my ideas and my coworkers found a way into Shadowrun 4, but I/we never got credit for it. That’s the way it goes, but I don’t mind. The important thing is, that it’s out there and people use it.


Ideas have no copyright.


You’ll find my personal homepage at http://pebbles.schattenlauf.de but that thing is outdated and not maintained anymore. Will resurrect it one glorious day. Better luck with finding me on G+ or YouTube. Mostly technical stuff about computers or/and music. I never would use Facebook.  Over my dead corpse.


Jennifer: I’m Jennifer and I also live in Hamburg. I’m a librarian, a childrens’/young adult librarian to be precise, and I’m the go-to person if you want to have some random information thoroughly researched. I have more pets that any sane person should have, from budgies to bearded dragon to assassin bugs. You can stalk me at my blog, Bookscorpion’s Lair

So…tell us about The Rat’s Nest, in a nutshell.

Hanno: It’s ten years ago that I thought up the idea of a low life style Shadowrun campaign. With people actually living on the street and not hovering over it in a GMC Banshee. To get back on the street, to cancel the overpowered normal Shadowrun characters, to get back to being poor and powerless and living on the streets. Being on the same level of the people living around you – with just a little edge.


So the world gets complex and colorful and the squatter from the next building is actually a person and not some nameless page of numbers to shoot at. Starting this I began to do some legwork and recherche about slums in our world. Since the Rat’s Nest was one of the parts of the city that never were part of any campaign I know it was the perfect ground.


And there I started the Shadowrun Sandbox.


I was looking for new players because the groups I was playing in were not able to get the concept. I tried but it failed and I stopped it several times. Then, starting with a young technomancer who was hired from the streets as a squatter for not more than a roof over the head and food to work as a typical guard/grunt I started the campaign.


Starting with one player, I produced around fifty NPC at that time, then there were coming in more players, the group ended when the main players were leaving the city to study somewhere and that was the moment when it really got the big bang and I found my current players.


It was one of those moments you are waiting for your whole life. Ten years of planning and preparation and learning and reading and schooling yourself. Of writing stories and working on your story telling skills and I finally found a group that ran with that idea.


I mean try to get Shadowrun players when you say: “Well, you’re going to play a bunch of street-kids.” Tried it several times on conventions. I ended up as a player instead GM’ing.

What do you enjoy most about Shadowrun, and what version of the system are you currently running and why?

Hanno: I use SR4 because SR3 has some major drawbacks. And was the reason for me to create the SFD. We now slowly adopt to SR5, but many things in the new SR5 just don’t work or just are not acceptable for a low power environment that we play. The trick is to keep everything near together. Keep everything down. Make an average NPC still count something and avoid the power spiral, that just invalidates more and more of the colorful background.


If your character is a vampire-cyber-mage-uberchar with a quadzillion points on every major skill and friends in the highest boards of megacons and millions to spend on gear you just destroy everything in your path. The only thing to do for you is safe the world from invading Cyberninja-Troll armies that come in GMC Banshees with support fire from orbital stations. This is just bullshit. This has nothing to do with Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is Noir and it’s small people on the street trying to make a living.


So get back to basics.


Jennifer: I’ve only ever played SR4 and SR5 and both have their problems. I like SR5 better, as a whole, but house rules are neccessary, especially with a low-powered group like ours. What drew me to Shadowrun was the idea of the Matrix – as a librarian, that kind of information space is endlessly fascinating. If we ever get data jacks for real, sign me up.

What do you enjoy most about modern/sci-fi campaigns?

Hanno: I really like that they are real. Most of the things that we use in the Rat’s Nest campaign actually exist in a scary way already somewhere in the world. We just collected them and put them together in our slum environment. The world touches the people that play in it. Because they find out that things they thought were from my imagination actually happen out there. And this makes you think, when you play it.


It’s always that you try to get a message across with the things you do. With the stories you tell. You try to give people the opportunity to understand, to learn and to feel the things around them.


The genre is just far enough from the real world that we are not fixated on the details but are near enough that we get the link to reality. And we start to think about our world. And how close we live to what our characters actually do in game.


Jennifer: Shadowrun is being overtaken by reality on a pace that’s amazing. Or scary, depending on the details. I enjoy very much that I can read about some new invention or some social or political development, ramp it up to eleven and put it into the campaign. The Wordless Tech blog is a great source of inspiration…as are the news. And then I hope that I will not be right about where it will be going.

How regularly do you play, and where do you play? (If you play online, do
you use any certain tools to accomplish your gaming such as Google
hangouts, roll20, etc.)

Hanno: We play at my place once a week. A session is not longer than four hours, with one or two small breaks to get fresh air. We use the internet with Obsidian Portal, Google Maps for all environment. We try to make it as real as we can. We use Youtube clips or music for some situations. That’s all easy for I am actually playing on my work place, with the rest of the players around, so I can activate things with a button.


Jennifer: We tried for a while to play with Google Hangout, but it just didn’t work out. The problem was that only one or two players would come in via Hangout and the GM and two players were at Hanno’s place. That is much more of a headache that it’s worth. But if you have a group where everybody meets in a video chat, then it’s a great tool.

Who puts all of your wiki together?

Hanno: Jennifer and I. We share the work on it, while I do most of the CSS stuff and technical issues, she at least puts so much work in it as I do. All players work out their character sheets and their informations and they provide pictures and drawings of their characters and adventure logs that they write from their character’s point of view.


Which puts together a really interesting story, with multiple authors. It is fun to do and fun to read.


Jennifer: I’ve written the majority of the Wiki and, I’d say, about two thirds of the logs. I’ve always been the notetaker at any of my campaigns, so writing all that stuff came natural to me. I have a lot of fun doing research to find just the right picture (librarian, remember?) and to write news and rumours.

Where do you draw inspiration from when preparing your game?

Hanno: Reality. You find a slum like the Rat’s Nest at Villa Miseria 13 in Buenos Aires, Argentinia today. You find landfills like those that are the center of income of the Rat’s Nest in Rio de Janeiro. There are films like “Garbage Dreams” and some other that target the issue of people living from recycling. There are incredible slums in Kairo and the Zabaleen, the ‘garbage people’ do pretty much exactly what the Rat’s Nest people do.


There are political developments in our society towards a Cyberpunk environment with the insane copyright laws, with media mega corporations like Sony BGM and others that do exactly the lobbying that will create a world like we have in Shadowrun. Without the magic, okay. But most of the things we play are no fiction anymore. They are a bit exaggerated. But they are real.


The Rat’s Nest campaign is very political. Very very political. I said that as a storyteller you always try to make people understand something. We are on the verge to this world.


And it is a dystopia. Which is something people seem not to understand.


Yeah. I’m political with this. Very. I’m a very enthusiastic humanist and atheist. And to put all the religious and magical stuff in my world is a way I try to make people see what I see. Like in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett.


Jennifer: I have a virtual post-it on my desktop where I jot down ideas and most of them come from stuff I read: from the news, from both fiction and non-fiction books, from sites like Atlas Obscura or Wikipedia (I’m a obsessive reader of Wikipedia, random facts for the win). And then I talk to my partner about it or to anyone who will listen, mostly other roleplayers, until the idea is ready to be put into play. And then the players proceed to do something I haven’t thought of.

How much time do you usually take to prepare for a session?

Hanno: Hahaha. Okay. No comment. You have no idea. And I hope I never will or I’ll wake up screaming. But it’s different. It’s like art. I take in a lot of shit that is happening in the world. And I just transform it into the campaign it’s my way to express my feelings and my thoughts, if you understand what I mean. I won’t say that I “put time” in this, like I don’t put time in music. I just take my fiddle and play when I’m in the mood. It’s something I have to do.


Jennifer: I’m of the school of ‘flying by the seat of my pants’-gamemastering. I put in a lot of time to make NPCs and I will research floor plans and maps so I have stuff to throw at my players, handouts if possible. But preparing the story beyond some basic points? Nah. It will go off the rails anyway and that’s the way I want it to be.

Aside from Shadowrun, I’ve read on your bio that you’ve played in a lot of
other systems (as opposed to GM’ing), what are some others you enjoy?

Hanno: I had really fun in a spinoff of the 7th Sea world, that we transfered into a 1880 settings, victorian a bit steampunk and that. I was playing a young female reporter, which was a very unusual occupation for a woman of her time. Sadly it ended. I play men or women, but I admit I have some tendency to love my female characters a bit more. I like to be the underdog in a way. To be weak and to be forced to be smart.


That’s my mindset. In every (computer) game I play, I chose the underdogs. The small ships, the small whatevers. Small, fast, cunning, misunderstood or in some way deprived. I do have a heart for it.


I started playing roleplay at the university as a kind of computer security simulation. I was in the attacking team. After the first run failed miserably I organized the second which achieved the goal to destroy the complete data of a corporation without using violence or sacrificing anyone of my team.


It was a shock for the defenders. And the professor hm. He kind of enjoyed the outcome. See, I’m a hacker.


Jennifer: I’ve started with Vampire: The Masquerade and I enjoyed that very much, it’s probably the reason why I’m still chosing fluff over crunch every time. The system I’ve played most is probably Call of Cthulhu, with Shadowrun and 7th Sea a close second. Hanno and I played together in Deadlands and Star Wars, too. These days, I’m really into freeform games. Stuff like Fiasco or Dread or Lady Blackbird, but also the very psychological intense games that come from Scandinavia, Jeepform or Nordic Larp.

How do you know your players, how long have you been gaming with them?

Hanno: My new group I know for about two years? I’m really not good with estimating how long I know people. I have problems with social environments. 😀 No, really I do. I just learned some good tricks to get around over time. Mostly through roleplaying. Jennifer I know for quite a time. Ten years? Maybe even longer. She’s some of the most valuable persons that I ever met. Hm. Valuable. I use this word with having nothing better at the moment. I really like her and appreciate the way she’s approaching stuff. She’s able to focus on it. And she’s as creative as knowledgable. Librarian. Yeah.


The rest of the guys are relatively new. But I like this current group a lot. While usual roleplaying groups are just interest groups this is something more. This is personal, I guess.


Jennifer: I did the math the other day and it’s been twelve years. My Vampire group had been dying a slow death and, I can’t remember how, my GM and me got into the very long-running group Hanno was part of. We still play weekly. The current Shadowrun group will have it’s second birthday sometime next summer, I think.

What are your thoughts on the Shadowrun video games (if any)?

Hanno: I have played the Shadowrun Returns campaigns and some of the community content. They are great. Really great. And especially the Dragonfall campaign is doing quite the same sandbox approach that I have in my Rat’s Nest. Just of course not as free as it is possible in a pen and paper game. But the idea is the same and it’s very well coded. The storyline is just amazing and I can absolutly recommend this game. Even if you don’t play it, just to support the people that did it.


Jennifer: I’m not much of a gamer, I don’t have the patience, but what I’ve seen and played of Shadowrun Returns, I like a lot.

How long have you been using Obsidian Portal? What brought you to the site
and what keeps bringing you back?

Hanno: Jennifer brought me there. She’s a hell of an inspiration for me and touches very many new ideas that would be under my radar if she would not be there. I think I’m doing OP now for two years or something? Since September 2012.


The project is great and I could not run my campaign without it. Really. OP is opening a whole new world of possibilities for my style of campaign. We have nearly 200 characters, most of them with well-developed background in the campaign. Can you imagine having a book of 200 characters that you have to search when people meet the character in the game? Impossible. And impossible for my players to remember everyone they once met.


But since every person keeps being in the game until she dies, it’s important to track it. I don’t know if you ever have been in the world of “1632”, which is also a writing collaboration sandbox-style project? Read it. It was quite a fun but I was giving up at some point for my own projects were taking too much of my time to participate there in the depth I wanted.


There’s a whole movement into the sandbox direction. Not just with campaigns like the Rat’s Nest, but with other genre too. Writing, music (there are several collaborative music sites up), and not to mention Google Drive and the possibility to work on a text with a whole community at the same time. That’s mind bending, really.


Jennifer: I read about it on another blog and decided to try it out. I like organizing information and Obsidian Portal is just the right tool for it. I wouldn’t want to keep all of it in my head. I have a couple of other campaigns I manage there (sadly, only one is still active) and I enjoy being able to write my own wiki on a site tailored to roleplaying games. I also enjoy he incredibly helpful community at the Obsidian Portal forums who patiently explained CSS to me, among other things.

Now that the Reforging has been live for a little while now, what are your
favorite parts?

Hanno: I really like the way it was reforged. Except the pages don’t work on my Android tablet. They don’t work on my phone. I’m just lucky to be able to do RP directly at my computer so I can use the pages. And Jennifer is lucky to have a also laptop to work on.


The rest? Totally worth it.


The stuff of Obsidian Portal have done a really good job. And I have the feeling they don’t got the positive feedback that they deserve for this. And I can’t really express how much they have done for my campaign and how important their page is for me.


Jennifer: I quite like the Reforge now, after the initial shock of ‘oh crap, nothing works like it used to!’. Tech support was quick to fix a lot of issues. I like the new search that offers you a dropdown menu and the quicklinks to create new wiki pages, logs ect. There’s a lot of stuff people are asking to be added, like a way to properly search for campaigns, that I want to see and it would be great if we had more communication between the Obsidian Portal team and the community. The site is such a great tool for us and despite all the flak the Reforge got, the community still values it very much I think.

What would you say the single biggest highlight from The Rat’s Nest has
been so far?

Hanno: Ow. That’s quite a question. I personally like the stories about the PI Kowalski, but those stories are NPC only. My little “Noir” story that I put in there because … I could. And I think from the writers view it’s maybe the best story that I put in. But the others have put a lot of very excellent content into the campaign. Fog’s logs are very good, he’s got quite a style.


Highlights. Hm. Let me think. The most recent big bang was the run on the chocolate factory. That was such a big cut in the story and it led to contacts with the Boston mob and the epic roadtrip that we are playing right now, that it’s the most recent highlight.


It’s very complex. Maybe Jennifer knows a better answer to this.


Jennifer: I have two highlights. One: the rat shaman who tried to take over the Rat’s Nest. During that session, I honestly did not except Neil (my main character) to survive and I burned all my Edge to kill that shaman. Worth it. I would have gone out into the garden and screamed at the night sky if Neil had died, but to save the Nest, I would have gone every step of the way to the end.


Two: the Knight Errant razzia – half of the Nest burned down, a ton of NPCs got arrested and we ended up evacuating the Nest for fear of another razzia after some cops got killed (not our fault!!). When we tried to go back, another gang had taken over and we had to fight to retake our home. That was awesome because we had played long enough to come to love the Nest and to realise just how much work Hanno had put into that setting. And then he goes and destroys it all. That takes major guts as a GM and there was absolutely no guarantee we would be able to get the Nest back.

Okay, before we get out of here, give us some of your best GM’ing pearls of

Hanno: No I have no wisdom at all. 😀


But yeah, some things I do. I never put my players into the power spiral. That destroys your game. I talk a player out of something and try to explain why things don’t work out. Even if the rules would allow them. I take the SR universe and modify it. I never stick to the rules like glue. I bend them until they work. I try to give my world stability and credibility. So just because you can do it and it is possible, things don’t happen. There are so many examples for bad GM situations when for example an old woman at the Stuffer Shack is attacking the main adept of the group with her umbrella and suddenly she is an ex olympia master in fencing and she is an adept too and she gives the adept of the group a really rough time.


That’s just bad. It’s declassing the players character and the whole event is destructive. It’s eroding the trust that the players put in you as a GM and the feeling for your world. So be fair. Be neutral. Your job is to make the world function. Your job is not to rescue some NPC just because you like him. Or you have planned something for him. If he dies, use some improvisation. Maybe your lost plot can still be put in the game. Sometimes it’s good that it’s lost because on second though it wasn’t that good at all.


Trust your players. If you do, they trust you. Put love in your world and in your NPC. If they die, don’t be revengeful. But always give something back. Feedback from the world is very important for the players to judge the outcome of their own actions. Never let violence happen without showing the pain and the suffering on the receiving end.


Give your players the chance to empathize with the NPC. Make them human as you can. Know the motivations of you NPC and how far they would go for something. When they just want to survive and back off. If you create a world of clay pigeons a senseless shooting you will get.

Try to talk. A cyberpunk world may be hard, tough, gritty and that. But people are almost never keen on getting shot. Or lose friends. Gritty doesn’t mean that the powervalue of the weapons go up (like in SR5). It means that action has consequences. Bring down the consequences. If the players dodge it, maybe their contacts can’t. The heat gets to someone.


You are a storyteller. Tell a story. Know a story. A story is not a Hollywood flick. You can’t tell a story through describing special effects. That’s not the film. That’s not the story. The story, that’s the human element. That’s the drama. That’s the loss, the gain, the love, the pain, the tragic.


Player characters are on the receiving end of the world. You should give it and take it. But if you take it, offer a new story, a new arc. NEVER ever just destroy something. That’s just frustrating. That’s not your role. You are a storyteller, so tell the story. If you have no story, don’t mess with the things that are.


The things that are are always part of a story. Don’t destroy content without creating new one. Don’t make your world poorer, instead always provide, always enrich it. You may ride your players into a mess. You can destroy everything they have built up. But damn, if you do, you should have a good story for that in the wake of the destruction.


Sometimes I beg my players: please don’t mess this up. Because I can’t safe you from this. Because I’m not keen on doing that to the characters of my players. They know it. But they also know I will, if they botch it really hard. It will be a bad hour for me and for them. But that’s your job as a GM. Be the world. Be not without compromise, without mercy, where mercy is possible. But be consequent. Be your world. Never beg for pardon for doing something. The players know that this is your job as a GM.


No risk no fun. Tell your story.


Jennifer: I’m going to be practical here. Have a list of NPCs names ready and have a list of NPCs even when the characters might not meet them. A good scenario runs on its characters and NPCs with their own life make a good world to play in. Think about what your NPCs do while the Pcs are not around and
stories might write itself.


When you describe a scene, don’t forget about senses other than sight.


If the story goes off the rails, let it. See where it takes you. Improvising is, in my opinion, the most important skill a gamemaster should have.

Thanks for your time!

Hanno: It was fun actually. I talk too much, did I mention that?
Jennifer: Thank you for giving us that opportunity. It made my day when I found out that we are going to be CotM, I walked around with a big stupid grin all day. It’s an honour and I want to give a shoutout and a big thank you to our players who throw themselves into out stories with abandon and make the
campaign what it is.

We were of course very happy to have spoken with Hanno at such length, and also to have put a smile on Jennifer’s face! Just another amazing campaign, another month under our belts. Keep me posted to all of the great campaigns going on by dropping a message into my inbox. Catch you next time, folks!

Award Winning!

Gold ENnie for Best Website 09'-11'

Silver ENnie for Best Website, Best Podcast 2012-2013
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