tl;dr: 2050

Shadowrun has been around since 1989 and gone through five editions and dozens of sourcebooks. Players are welcome to read through as much of the source material as they like, which includes none at all. For people who choose none at all, a Haven-raised character is a good option in the campaign, because they have an excellent reason to have been focusing on practical matters inside the Havens rather than the awfulness outside. This is the perspective they would get from being an indifferent student of recent history (and civics) but being interested in how the world works.

How We Got Here

The United States of America was a fairly young nation, founded in 1776, that managed to ride the highs and lows until things went completely off the rails. At their best, they were champions of liberty; at their worst, they embraced slavery by many names and eventually, in the late 1990s, handed all the significant power over to the megacorporations and abandoned the notion that they could regulate them. They did it while they were the world leader, and that kicked off most of the rest of the planet giving too much power to immortal, inhuman entities driven solely by profit. Corporations big enough to qualify for extraterritorial status have their own laws and their own citizenship; if you want to rise in the ranks at one, you have to give up your own citizenship in a nation and your right to vote there. Japan, home to several of the AAA megacorporations, became one of the biggest world powers, driven by the return of State Shinto.

Things got messy in the next decade and change, with rampant resource extraction and releases of toxic waste. A plague called Virally Induced Toxic Allergy Syndrome killed off 25% of the planet’s population in 2010–11, hitting the developing nations hardest. And then, on December 24, 2011, the world changed: magic came back.

The first clue was a bunch of Japanese commuters on a bullet train seeing the great dragon Ryumyo. Lots of human mothers gave birth to baby elves and dwarfs. New species started showing up in the world, often matching old myths and legends, including new kinds of people: centaurs were born to horses, naga to a variety of snake species, and the sasquatches came out of hiding. And people started working magic. They refer to the big event as the Awakening and all the magical creatures and people as Awakened.

The USA had a bad history with the Native Americans, and they were really putting the screws to them by the nineties. A shaman called Daniel Howling Coyote put together something called the Great Ghost Dance, blew up a bunch of volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest in 2016, and started explaining to the USA that the Native Americans wanted their land back. There was a bunch of back-and-forth negotiation; by 2035, North America was a patchwork of a bunch of Native American Nations, plus the United Canadian and American States and the Confederate American States. One of the NAN, Tir Tairngire, is run by elves, and dropped out of the NAN to be on their own; they go in for old-time aristocracy rather than tribes.

Other continents got messed up, too. Aztlán (which used to be México) took over most of Central America, and a trio of great dragons, plus a whole bunch of Awakened forces, took over Brazil and a lot of the rest of South America. A lot of Africa fell apart. China broke up into warring states. Japan managed to survive all of this to become the dominant economic power for the next few decades.

April 30, 2021 was when the magic got strong enough to trigger a whole bunch more latent genes, and about ten percent of the world population suddenly transformed into orks and trolls. Goblinization is painful and traumatic enough for anyone going through it, and it doesn’t help when all your neighbors are freaking out because you’re bulking out and growing fangs and horns. Goblinization was an instant ticket to the underclass for a lot of people who weren’t already there.

All the while, people were learning more about magic. In 2023, they figured out that some folks were channeling magic into their bodies for athletic performance and called them physical adepts. In 2025, they formally recognized magic as an academic practice.

Tech was keeping pace, too. 2025 was also when they had the first cybernetically enhanced NFL players, and 2027 brought the first practical fusion power plants, as well as space stations at the Earth’s Lagrange Points. And on February 8, 2029, a computer virus spread across the Internet and made a mess of everything. The first deckers (who had to be immersed in sensory deprivation tanks) were deployed to fight it, but by the time they finished eradicating the virus, a whole lot of important records were lost and the economy had crashed. They came up with System Identification Numbers as a way to keep track of people, and wrote the laws so that people without a legitimate SIN have no rights.

As people were picking up the pieces from the Crash of ’29, one group of folks decided there had to be a better system than the one that was driving the world to run on debt slavery and buggy software, and they started work on the Haven Project: an effort to develop an ecologically balanced technological society that made it difficult for people to exploit each other. It involved currency ideas from the Middle Ages that would be outlawed if anyone tried to use them in a place where the governments danced to the megacorps’ tune, so they built them in the zero zones where government had given up on providing any services or collecting taxes.

The first functional cyberlimb was produced in 2019; the Euro Wars, from 2031–33, provided the testing ground for combat augmentations.

Before the Awakening, there were lots of folks who needed an excuse to look down on their neighbors, and they were split up on lines like skin color and national descent and religion. Some folks kept that, some transferred it to differences between metahumans, and some came up with ever-more-complicated forms of bigotry. People kept fomenting anti-metahuman prejudice, which came to a head on February 7, 2039: the Night of Rage. There were riots all over the planet. We had a few beta-test Havens online by then, and we took in as many people as we could. Orks and trolls took the brunt of the hatred, and that was when the mainstream Havens made a point of keeping the spotlight on them, to make sure that anyone joining a Haven knew they had to accept all people.

The megacorps aren’t restrained by governments, but they have created a Corporate Court, based in the Zürich-Orbital satellite that also runs the world’s most secure bank, to enforce an armistice and keep open warfare from breaking out. They all do discreet espionage against each other by hiring deniable assets called shadowrunners— people who are willing to risk their lives for a payday, usually SINless folk who can’t ply any other trade that’s nearly as lucrative, or who can’t fit into the world of regular jobs. Shadowrunning work involves kidnapping (called extractions when personnel want to change employers and wouldn’t be allowed to simply quit, hostile extractions when they’re forced to change employers and work in well-compensated de facto slavery), theft (of data and prototypes), assassination, and any other skulduggery the corporate espionage departments can come up with.

How Stuff Works

Metahumans

The human-sized metahumans are the elves and orks; elves are slim and delicate, orks are big and robust. They have magical low-light vision that lets them see well in starlight. Dwarfs and trolls are well outside human size ranges, and they have magical thermographic vision that lets them see infrared light, even ignoring the glowing camera effect that plagues technological infrared sensors. And each main metatype has numerous variations, like the oni among Japanese orks and minotaurs and cyclopes among Greek trolls.

Metahumans often have allergies to something: plastic, silver, ...

With mixed-metatype parents, there are usually fifty-fifty odds that the offspring will take after either parental metatype. Occasionally, metahuman parents will have human children, though with orks and trolls they often goblinize at puberty. No one ever expresses traits from multiple metatypes. From a genetic perspective, metatype genes are dominant alleles (DEOT) relative to baseline humans (h), which lead to freakouts from racist humans who think they’ll go extinct. A heterozygous elf-ork couple (Eh+Oh) with four children could expect to have one Eh elf, an Oh ork (though they might be born human and goblinize at puberty), an hh human, and an EO that could be born as an elf, born as an ork, or born as a human who goblinizes at puberty.

Other kinds of people

Sasquatches got acknowledged as people in 2042. Governments are still debating nagas, even while our talking snake buddies can argue for themselves. Same goes for centaurs, even though some of them attend university. Merrow can use tools and we’re working on learning to talk with them. Shapeshifters are Awakened animals who can transform into humans, and they tend to find humans to be really weird.

There’s an Awakened disease that cropped up in the 2040s called the Human-Metahuman Vampirism Virus (HMHVV) that affects different metatypes in different ways. Humans become vampires, dwarfs become goblins, elves become banshees, orks become wendigo, and trolls become dzoo-noo-qua, and each of those is its own kind of bad news, though some keep it together enough that they can limit the damage, like the Batman of Redmond, a vampire who dresses in a spandex outfit and only preys on people who prey on other people. There’s a different strain that turns anyone into a ghoul: blind in the real world, capable of astral sight, and in need of metahuman flesh to eat. Some ghouls are pretty messed up; others are entirely rational and attempt to be ethical about how they meet their dietary needs. They still live apart, though, because even a scratch from one can pass the infection.

And then there’s dragons. The saying in the shadows is Watch your back. Shoot straight. Conserve ammo. And never, ever cut a deal with a dragon. Dragons come in multiple flavors (western, eastern, feathered serpent, leviathan) and they’re all extremely smart and extremely dangerous; most are spellcasters (wizworms). The biggest and most dangerous are called great dragons, and all of them are big-time magicians. Back in 2020, the rulling Ayatollah in Iran declared a jihad against the Awakened (to try and distract from disastrous polling numbers from his citizens) and the great dragon Aden demolished Tehran on his own, kicking off a backlash all across the Middle East. The great dragon Lofwyr runs the Saeder-Krupp megacorporation and is known for his ruthlessness. On the other hand, the great dragon Dunkelzahn has a semiannual trideo talk show called Wyrm Talk and appears to be extremely affable for a seventy ton blue-and-silver winged lizard.

Magic

There’s a magical side to the world called the astral plane. Some people can see it, some people can leave their bodies to travel in it, and some people (dragons, shapeshifters, sasquatches, nagas) can’t stop seeing it. When a panhuman is looking at you with an unfocused gaze, they’re probably checking out your aura, which can tell them things about your emotional state, your physical health, and whether you have chrome; even the simplest life forms have auras. From the astral, inanimate objects look dull and blurry (though visibly sharper if they are emotionally charged), screens are blank, and even printed books are illegible. Astral beings can manifest as a hazy image that can talk with people, but usually they’re completely invisible. You can learn to recognize the chill when an astral form passes through your aura. The Earth itself has an astral presence that is not quite as solid as a ward; it’s possible to pass through it slowly.

The astral plane has its own weather, which they call a background count, which can interfere with or assist different kinds of magic. Some of it can be temporary, like that created by a musical concert (and there are bands who specialize in that— using acoustic instruments, since synthesizers don’t emit sound in the astral plane). Some can be long-lasting; the sites of concentration camps and nuclear explosions from a century ago still have significant horrible background counts. Toxic waste also creates a background count. Most Havens ban nasty behavior based on it creating objectively observable astral pollution rather than trying to describe the action specifically.

get the details of physical and mana spells right. Can they create and destroy matter (or perhaps pull and push on some other reservoir)? The Wealth power of free spirits suggests that the created valuables are either magically created or transported from a metaplane, so this isn’t like Ars Magica. explain details of tinted windows blocking spells, using fiber optics to get line of sight

Learning to use magic puts your body in a finely tuned state that can get screwed up by major surgery, even drugs, and your magical abilities can take a permanent hit from them, so magical types tend to be pretty wary of regular doctors and are careful about recreational pharmaceuticals. Chrome also takes away some of your magic; even if you aren’t magical, it makes you harder to heal with a spell.

About one person in a hundred has the potential to wield magic in some way. One in ten of those has the talent and discipline to be trained as a full magician, who can cast spells and conjure spirits and enchant items and travel outside their body in the astral plane; the rest tend to become an aspected magician, able to perform only one kind of magic (only spellcasting or conjuring or enchanting, or all three but only related to a single element or their totem’s specialty, or none of these but still capable of astral travel and combat), or an adept who focuses their magic in their body to be a powerful athlete, warrior, artist, sneak, or orator.

There are lots of different magician practices, but they all boil down to whether you approach magic in a rational, rule-based way (Hermetic magic being the most common variety of this) or an intuitive, artistic way (Shamanic magic being the most common variety). The former group get to pick their own ethics and have to do heavy lifting when conjuring spirits; the latter are in touch with a totem spirit (or loa, or idol that manifests as a pagan deity, or even Elvis or Santa Claus; the Judeo-Christian-Islamic occult tradition is very Hermetic, but after a couple of drinks most magicians will allow that the only reason no one claims a Yahweh, Asherah, Christ, Mary, or Allah totem is that anyone who did have one would stay pretty quiet about it because the attention would get in the way of doing what they would consider important). The magician’s worldview is crucial— there’s a whole quasi-Hermetic tradition based around 20th century ideas of what it means to be psychic.

Casting spells requires concentration, so getting in someone’s face is a good way to stop them from casting a spell on you. Sorcery can only affect something to which the caster has a magical link: line of sight, or touch, or a ritual connection like a lock of hair— even spells that affect an entire area won’t touch the parts of that area that are out of the line of sight of the caster. Teleportation, time travel, scrying directly on the future or past, and speeding or slowing the passage of time with magic only happen in fiction. Healing magic can’t bring back someone dead beyond the reach of modern medicine. Sorcery can conjure up simple materials, and even sustain life when without air, water, or food, but it cannot create complex objects. Spells take effect on the plane on which they’re cast: a spell cast on the astral plane won’t affect the physical world, and vice versa.

You usually only see spirits when a magician conjures one up, but there are Free Spirits who can come and go in the world at will, and you can bribe them with your personal mojo/karma, which is apparently a thing that matters a lot in magic. Some are the result of conjured spirits getting loose; others arrive through magical power sites. It’s even possible for people to leave ghosts when they die. Most of them— apparitions— can only scare a mundane person, but there are rare ones— specters— who can materialize and mess with you, but only in their own haunt.

Critters

There are lots of Awakened critters in the world. Most of them stay out of cities, though Devil Rats (hairless, up to a meter in length including the tail, weighing as much as 4kg, and immune to known poisons and pathogens) are a constant problem.

The Havens

When governments and megacorps turn their backs on the people in their own territory because they don’t feel threatened by any voters there and don’t see much profit to be made, they create zero zones where gangs and organized crime syndicates fill the vacuum. Zero zones are full of crumbling buildings occupied by squatters, with infrastructure being either off-the-grid (solar panels, water towers, and septic tanks), illegally tapped from outside the zero zone, or completely absent.

The Havens are a movement to create a civilization in the zero zones; they refer to the outside world as Perdition. They have their own economic system that attempts to avoid the worst excesses of modern capitalism— rentiers, financialization, monopolies and cartels— and encourage charity, but all you really have to remember is that Perdition runs on nuyen (¥) and the Havens run on cred (¤). The technology is designed to work without extensive trade networks, growing food in vats and vertical farms and building things out of ceramics, cellulose, carbon fiber, and conductive graphene, with metal being relatively rare. Everything is created customized, using 3-D printers and other fabricators. Haven resource extraction tends to be from Perdition landfills and junkyards.

While Havens work hard on being self-sufficient when it comes to materials, they are extensively tied together on information networks; no one Haven has enough expertise to keep the civilization going, but all of them together do. This leads to a complete separation of design and fabrication: brands exist, but they exist entirely as information, and it’s up to the choices of the people running the fabbers whether designs get instantiated. Physical trade between Havens— usually handled by a network of riggers called the Unicorn Express— tends to be in people, seeds and cuttings and other propagatable samples from gene labs, handcrafted items, and the telesma that fuel magical work.

Haven technology runs from ten to twenty years behind the outside world; it is all designed with cradle-to-cradle recycling in mind, while Perdition governments no longer even attempt to regulate corporations into that and have to invest in landfills. They have cyberware, but it isn’t cutting-edge, and it is often built using different approaches that require more training to use. They appropriate patents and trade secrets from Perdition when they can. Augmented reality is commonplace, just like in Perdition, but the incentive structure in the Havens discourages spam online just as it discourages the Perdition habit of putting advertising screens on any surface that has a captive audience.

Neither Perdition nor the Havens have general-purpose humanoid robots; Perdition has the chassis for them, but not the smarts, so they tend to be used in roles like warehouse and cargo handling. They do have specialized ones for a variety of household and factory tasks; scarab bots that clean floors are common, as are daddy longlegs gardening bots that pluck weeds as soon as they dare poke a dicotyledon above soil. The Havens have placed particular emphasis on automating toil, and half the work in the vertical farms and vat labs is bot-herding.

Haven clothing tends to be made of natural fibers (cotton, silk, cashmere wool, and even graphene-doped arachni-silk used in body armor) grown from genetically altered plants growing in vertical farms, with occasional vatleather, and tailored to fit the wearer’s exact form; off-the-rack clothing is only created for helping people in emergencies. Perdition clothing has more artificial fibers, illumi strips, lightwire, smartweave fabrics that change their breathability as needed, and polychromic fabrics that can change color scheme on half a minute’s notice. The highest-tech clothing in the Havens uses the same contractile myomer fibers from cyberlimbs to create supportive undergarments that adjust to the wearer’s current activity level.

Perdition society is still based around the nuclear family, with housing design and neighborhood layout all supporting small family groups. The Havens invest heavily in social connection, and encourage the creation of housing for extended families or groups of friends, with modern soundproofing on the bedrooms to support privacy habits learned in nuclear-family societies.

While all but the oldest cities in Perdition tend to be laid out on rigid grids, Havens follow a graceful meander designed by geomancers to moderate the flow of mana. The buildings are either directly printed or assembled from parts that can be custom fabricated for eccentrically shaped structures. In Perdition, they rely on mass-produced identical parts. The contrast leads to visitors comparing Havens to Dr. Seuss illustrations, though that’s a caricature.

Most people in Perdition live where they can afford to live and commute to where they can get a paying job, sometimes more than an hour each way, either on mass transit or in cars. (Though there is a megacorporate trend beginning: arcologies where people who work for the corporation living an elevator ride away from their job and are paid in corporate scrip accepted only at corporate stores. The Renraku Arcology in downtown Seattle is an extreme example that attempts to be self-sufficient; most arcologies don’t even try to grow their own food.) Havens are so small that it’s hard to live a long way from your job, and most commuting is on foot or pedal-powered.

Haven food comes from vertical farms and vats. The produce tends to be a lot better because it’s selected for flavor rather than durability; the milk, eggs and meat all have the same proteins and fats as the factory-farmed stuff in Perdition and taste pretty good, but cooking eggs sunny-side up is tricky when yolk and albumen come in separate cartons, and even the best beef mushroom doesn’t have the consistency of a steak.

Each Haven chooses its own system of government. Fortunately, in Paradise Lake, that system is direct democracy with assignable proxies, so you can hand your vote off to someone you trust and let them represent you so you can go get things done. Whatever the government, Havens try to implement a simple set of principles, starting with minimize coercion and maximize community.

Law enforcement in Perdition is handled by corporations like Lone Star and Knight Errant, and the Havens consider the Perdition justice system to be a joke that is designed to funnel poor people into prison labor. In the Havens, the Rescuers deal with emergencies, the Defenders protect from outside threats, and the Aunties are social superconnectors who work to prevent people from getting into the straits that lead to causing trouble in the first place.

In general, any good available in the modern era, even in working-prototype form, is available in the Havens, or has a functional substitute. Relative prices may vary greatly; silk is almost as cheap as cotton, thanks to gene splicing and vertical farms, and both are much cheaper than synthetic fabrics. The substitute for anything factory-farmed will be very different in nature because factory farming creates astral pollution.

Cutting-edge gear from the Shadowrun sourcebooks may have to be imported from Perdition.