Shadowrun takes place several decades in the future (2050 in the first edition, currently 2080[note 1]). The end of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar ushered in the "Sixth World",[note 2] with once-mythological beings (e.g. dragons) appearing and forms of magic suddenly emerging. Large numbers of humans have "Goblinized" into orks and trolls, while many human children are born as elves, dwarves, and even more exotic creatures. In North America, indigenous peoples discovered that their traditional ceremonies allow them to command powerful spirits, and rituals associated with a new Ghost Dance movement let them take control of much of the western U.S. and Canada, where they formed a federation of Native American Nations. Seattle remains under U.S. control by treaty as a city-state enclave, and most game materials are set there and assume campaigns will use it as their setting.
In parallel with these magical developments, the setting's 21st century features technological and social developments associated with cyberpunk science fiction. Megacorporations control the lives of their employees and command their own armies; the ten largest have , such as currently enjoyed by foreign heads of state. Technological advances make cyberware (mechanical replacement body parts) and bioware (augmented vat-grown body parts implanted in place of natural organs) common. The Computer Crash of 2029 led to the creation of the Matrix, a worldwide computer network that users interact with via direct neural interface. When conflicts arise, corporations, governments, organized crime syndicates, and even wealthy individuals subcontract their dirty work to specialists, who then perform "shadowruns" or missions undertaken by deniable assets without identities or those that wish to remain unknown. The most skilled of these specialists, called shadowrunners, have earned a reputation for getting the job done. They have developed a knack for staying alive, and prospering, in the world of Shadowrun.