Wageslavery – an Underappreciated Theme in Shadowrun

Shadowrun Wageslavery - Chipped Workforce

Shadowrun’s futuristic technology includes skillwares, chips with software which grant users access to knowledge and skills they do not innately possess.

Convenient for shadowrunners, yes. For the general populace? Downright dramatic; think about areas like manufacturing, and it becomes apparent that skillwares pose new pressures on the global workforce.

Here’s how I think new levels of civil unrest and social upheaval can create an excellent backdrop for a meaningful Shadowrun campaign.

As I was reading Unwired and taking gamemaster notes, I came upon a section titled “The Chipped Workforce” (p. 193). It’s not long, about a page or so, but in just a few paragraphs the writer outlines concepts that seized me immediately as important, recognizable, and useful. The kind of thing that doesn’t get a lot of space in most role playing books because they’re too busy describing rules and the more fantastic aspects of the setting, yet it acts as a crucial link between the real world of today and the imagined game world where adventures take place.

Instant Knowledge and Skills in Chip Form

You can get details on skillwares and skillsofts in the core books, but the high-level summary is that they temporarily endow the user with additional knowledge and skills. From instant Japanese for that meeting with the Yakuza Oyabun to first aid when patching up your buddy after he “fell down some stairs“.

The effects are temporary, working only with short term memory and forgotten as soon as the chip is removed or shut off. Thus you’re not learning anything when you’re on a chip. You’re also only as good as the skill rating of the chip.

Wage Slave Woes

Megacorporations must have been ecstatic when they realized they could chip their workers, giving them cheap and instant competence in job skill X, and never have to train anyone ever again. Welcome to an almost perfectly interchangeable (meta)human workforce.

Sure, they won’t be as durable or efficient as machines. But they’re easier to adapt and actually pretty cheap when one can be replaced by his neighbor at the first sign of trouble, disloyalty, or any undesirable behavior at all.

Since the megacorps basically demolished labor unions workers have few choices. Because they’re not being trained and can’t learn from performing skills via chip, the concept of upward mobility often does not apply. Nor are they getting the opportunity to build skills and knowledge that would make them attractive to the competition. Chipped workers, aka wage slaves, may as well be bonded to their megacorporate employer.

This adds up to a lot of exploited and oppressed workers, people who, sooner or later, are going to realize what’s happened to them. When that day comes they’ll probably be really pissed off.

The Lure of the Worker’s Plight Theme

Shadowrun is set in something of a dystopian future. Yet with all of the wild and exciting things it contains – magic, metahumans, cyberware, the wireless Matrix, dragons, simsense… the list goes on – it’s sometimes easy to forget that the average person’s life in the Sixth World is not so hot.

Traditionally role playing games feature plenty of escapism. Shadowrun is no exception, playing a shadowrunner often means getting involved with some of those wild and exciting things I mentioned. Yet behind all of that looms a dark, gritty, future dystopia with whole strata of society (some shadowrunners included) living miserable oppressed lives.

Sure, Shadowrun is dark. And gritty. That’s not to say shadowrunners can’t be heroes, and when it comes to motivation some of them may indeed be motivated to do things that could help, directly or indirectly, their struggling fellow [non-] citizens. There’s nothing saying you have to play a character who just shoots people right in the face for money.

In fact this can fit into the escapist fantasy perfectly when shadowrunner characters prevail against the oppressive megacorps, causing ripples and taking liberties the players could never safely undertake in real life.

Or the story might be a noir or otherwise not centered on an escapism-style plot. Either way there is opportunity for the perils of the wage slave to introduce or reinforce a meaningful story.

We all have experience with some boring, low-paying job that probably felt like wageslavery. The megacorporate wage slave is an echo, an all-too-believable caricature, that is recognizable to each of us. Amidst all the fantasy elements the wage slave’s plight reminds us what an average person’s life is like in the 2070s, at the same time as it stands in sharp contrast to the (sometimes) exciting life of someone running the shadows.

Wageslavery as a Backdrop to the Action

I am not suggesting players take on wage slave characters (although some runners have backgrounds as an ex-wage slave or corporate drone), that would probably be a terribly dull game. But the stresses of a chipped workforce are sure to bring about changes that make an excellent backdrop for a Shadowrun game.

As mentioned in Unwired, as the megacorps settle in to exploiting a chipped workforce, shifts in the global marketplace can result in thousands of unskilled workers becoming suddenly unemployed. These people may not be unionized, but many are finding the wireless Matrix a place where they can voice their anger and connect with others facing similar problems.

Maybe workers will organize and attempt peaceful negotiations with their employers. But this is Shadowrun and the Sixth World’s a dark and gritty place, remember? Before it comes to that, chances are good that these oppressed workers will lash out in violent rebellion – like the 9×9 terrorist actions in Hong Kong.

Spotlight on the Shadows

I feel that incorporating this stuff into a Shadowrun game could be pretty powerful. It doesn’t mean that responding to social upheaval has to dominate the players’ agendas; what I have in mind is a little more like taking a page from Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex 2nd Gig. Ghost in the Shell is certainly one of the inspirations for the technology in Shadowrun, and here I’d argue it’s also a great source from which to borrow story ideas.

In the second season of the (excellent) series, Japan is facing mounting pressures from a population of displaced refugees that were allowed into the country during WWIII and the Second Vietnam War. The refugees are settling in and beginning to ask for, or demand, rights, better paying jobs, and so on – while Japan struggles to reconcile these demands against its need for cheap labor during its post-war reconstruction.

Meanwhile the stars of the show, who are members of a secret government counter-terrorism organization (something like a cadre of elite paramilitary shadowrunners), remain the focus. Their missions touch upon the refugee issue, and in some cases they interact with refugees, but the story being told depicts how the major’s small team uses stealth and cunning to outmaneuver their larger, more powerful foes and the effect ripples of their actions have on the drama of social upheaval playing out in the background.

Sounds to me like a natural fit for a Shadowrun game, containing whatever action and intrigue a gamemaster cooks up for the players which can be interpreted in the exploitative megacorporation/oppressed wage slave struggle. If nothing else, this theme is sure to add instantly recognizable elements to the grit of another run through the shadows in the Sixth World.

As always criticism and feedback are welcome, add your thoughts in the comments below!


    Cool ideas in your post. I like.

    In fact, it inspired some ideas for me:

    1. A game where the PCs are wage slaves, and some sort of mix-up happens. One day, they show up for work, and their “Assembly Line Efficiency & Company Loyalty” chip has been replaced with a “Urbo-Anarchist Badassery” chip. Or just a Martial Arts chip. You’re playing ordinary people who suddenly have a single maxed out skill, which was no doubt slipped to them by someone for some reason. Cue the clues, interspersed with Matrixy fight-scenes. You have to break out of work, with company property still in your head, and the pursue the mystery.

    2. A game where you don’t play the meatbag, you play the AI. I’m a super-spy that only exists as a skill chip. Plug me into a person, and I immediately over-ride their personality as well as tacking on a couple of very important skills. If things go south and I need to lay low, I just convince someone else to try this awesome skill chip instead. You’d play the same character, but have new character sheets and background every time you swapped your plugging. There’s some logistics to work out about the couple seconds between unplugging from your current body and getting plugged in to the other, but I’m confident it could be explained in a way that would at least diminish the risks and plot holes. If the persona lingers for a few minutes after the chip is pulled out, for example, or if the last thing you do before unplugging is auto-hypnosis. Every NPC you meet that has a visible chip socket becomes a potential bodysnatching.



    1. I am certainly a fan of low-level characters, and this sounds like an interesting twist. A group of characters might even be given different but complementary skillwares – you can’t confer use of magic, but combat skills, hacking, driving or piloting drones, and so on should be doable.

    I especially like the set up for the characters; one peak is the point for each where he or she learns what new skill they’ve been given in place of their boring corp chip. Perhaps in a surprising way, they’re in a dangerous and stressful situation and intuitively exercise their newfound talent.

    Then of course the question of why they’ve been given these things…

    2. This takes some game concepts a bit far but, assuming you can explain or gloss over some of the details, could probably be pretty cool.

    They do mention in Unwired that, probably because it’s related to short term memory, the skill fades from mind about 30 seconds after removing the chip.

    If you allow some form of control for a brief period while the chip is removed, you’ve got potential for forced possession-by-chip. Ambush a guard and drag him into the janitor’s closet. Yank the chip, cram it into his head, and enjoy your new host.

    You can almost accomplish something a bit like the body jumping in Fallen, depending on how far you’re willing to take it.

    Thanks a lot for the feedback and ideas!


    Also I should admit that I think I was wrong, playing wage slave characters could be rather fun 🙂


    I loved Fallen – and given Shadowrun’s mix of magic and fantasy with the tech, couldn’t you have a demonic or cursed chip? That would be cool.

    (I’ve only played Shadowrun once, so I’m a little iffy on how far the fantasy elements really go.)


    Sorry for the delayed response.

    Shadowrun core books and supplements always leave some mysteries open to GM interpretation, there’s certainly room for something like that if you want it.

    There’s probably several different ways you could explain such a story device too; here’s one method and what you’d need:

    • Characters with skillwires (which most chipped laborers have since they’re required for activesofts); they override neuromuscular signals and could potentially be turned against the owner for puppetry.
    • Activating the skillwires, whether it’s done by hacking a character’s PAN, or “direct” access via a malicious skillsoft the character slots.

    You can decide whether the possession is the work of a powerful hacker/technomancer, either hacking in and issuing commands, or granted access to do so through a connection to their virus-like skillsoft that slipped past most of the character’s defenses when they slotted it.

    Or if you want to go for the fantasy angle make it an AI or free sprite, perhaps one that has a certain connection to the chip… or just to the skillsoft program if you want it to be more mobile.

    Unwired also has rules for networking skillsofts, basically one character borrows chipped skills from another via a wireless connection. Perhaps networking skillsofts or just hacking and transferring the program (with attached malicious entity) could be the way to body-jump, if you want it to be faster and more fluid than getting the host to cram a chip into another’s chipjack.


    […] another Shadowrun post, Scott of Pair o’ Dice Games, wrote about how the introduction of skillsofts in the setting, […]


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