Shoot straight, watch your back, conserve ammo and never, ever, cut a deal with a dragon.
Review written by ShadowFighter
With the success of the Kickstarter program for a new video game, as well as a browser-based one on the way, I thought I’d do a review on the current edition of the pen-and-paper RPG that spawned them; Shadowrun.
The game’s in its fourth edition now and the release of the 20th Anniversary Edition of the core rulebook (which is the book this review is focussing on) brought in a few more changes to refine things. Of course, Catalyst Game Labs were courteous enough to release a separate, freely-downloadable PDF that listed the changes from the original 4e book, meaning those who didn’t want to shell out for a new core book for, relatively, few changes didn’t have to.
So, what is Shadowrun? The quickest way to describe it is to take a dystopian, cyberpunk future, like what you’d find in Blade Runner or Deus Ex, and throw in all kinds of fantasy elements; magic, spirits, elves, dwarves, trolls, even dragons. Magic returned to the world in 2012, at the end of the Mayan calender in the latest moment of an eternal cycle. The state of the world totally changed – Japan once more became an Imperial state, the US and Canada have split apart into many different nations (same thing happened to China but on a much larger scale), Ireland is now an elven nation called Tír na nÓg, Tehran got wiped off the map by a dragon after the ruling ayatollah called for a jihad against all Awakened (mages) and Australia’s become an even more lethal place than it already is. At least in the real world we don’t need to worry about constant mana storms covering most of the continent. A dragon was also briefly president of the United Canadian and American States for about ten hours before being killed by a bomb in his limo.
Shadowrunners themselves, what the game assumes you are playing as (though there is plenty of scope for other styles of game), are deniable corporate assets. What that means is, when a corporation wants to make a hit on another one – steal a research project, an employee or maybe just something to drive the rival corp’s stocks down for a potential buy-out at a later date – they hire a team of shadowrunners. The person who does so is referred to as Mr Johnson and, typically, will not be intending on the shadowrunners learning his identity. The ‘deniable’ part about a shadowrunner and a Johnson’s anonymity are so that the hiring corp isn’t linked to the ‘runners’ illegal actions. Not that such accusations would harm one of the megacorps, like Saeder-Krupp or Ares Macrotechnology, but they’d rather avoid the hassle.
Part of why Shadowrun isn’t as well known as some other RPGs is probably because it’s such a strange combination – science-fiction with fantasy – and that combination just rubs people the wrong way or they find it a bit nonsensical. Personally, I find it refreshing – fantasy and sci-fi books, games, films and so on are a dime a dozen, combinations like Shadowrun, that do something new with either genre are a lot rarer. And hell, what was Star Wars if not a sci-fi setting with a few fantasy tropes added?
Another reason may also be from the general tone of a run. Basically, if you turn the place into the set of a Michael Bay film, you’re either acting as a distraction for another team or something’s gone horribly wrong. The corps of Shadowrun are almost nations unto themselves (the really big ones even have extraterritorialty – making their land, legally, a separate country like the grounds of an embassy) and can easily bring in troops and firepower that would make SWAT teams look like rednecks with old shotguns. Not to mention that the more damage a shadowrunner does to a corp, the more resources they’re willing to put towards getting payback. Leave their employees alive and keep the repair bill down and they won’t put in as much effort as if you left the place splattered in blood and corpses and so badly damaged it’ll collapse from a strong sneeze.
A lot of a ‘run’s success is determined in the prep-work and planning the team does beforehand. So typically, a shadowrun is more like Ocean’s Eleven than The Matrix. As one person put it; “A standard mission is 20 minutes of objectives, three days of planning, and 600 seconds of mayhem.”
There are no classes in the game, with character-creation being entirely point-based. However, there are several character types one can fit into.
Faces are the smooth-talkers, they’ll be the ones haggling with the Johnson about the pay, trying to fast-talk some info out of a receptionist at the target location – if it involves charisma or an ability to lie with the best of them, it’s the Face’s job.
Magicians are your magic users and can fill a variety of roles, from using astral projection and watcher spirits to do recon or lookout work, to bringing the heavy weapons in the form of a searing fireball or bolt of lightning. They also have access to healing spells, which will come in handy once the drek hits the fan.
Adepts can generally take on any roll that doesn’t involve hacking or spell-slinging. These guys focus their magic internally, enhancing their body. While most adepts turn out as supernatural fighters or gunslingers, some turn their abilities to smooth-talking. A Face can just as easily be an adept as he could be using cyber or bioware instead.
Hackers should be pretty self-explanatory – if you need a security system disabled, data yanked out of a server or just sending false alarms to distract security, these are the guys to do it. Technically there are two kinds of hackers, conventional hackers who use programs either bought or self-made and various cyberware to help them, and technomancers, mysterious individuals capable of accessing the Matrix purely with their minds. In practice, technomancers are more flexible, able to spontaneously create programs the moment they’re needed, while hackers are more powerful when they know what to expect.
Riggers are similar to hackers and can also be technomancers, but instead of focussing their skills on breaking into secured networks, they concentrate on running vehicles and drones, using a full VR interface to effectively become the vehicle or drone. This interface lets them feel as though the vehicle is their body and can drive far better than someone driving the old-fashioned way.
Street samurai are fighters who have focussed on being the best in a fight. Either with cyberware or bioware (combined with good-old training and experience) a street sam is an absolute nightmare in a fight, either landing perfect shots with smartlink-enhanced firearms or carving through the enemy with melee weapons (which may even be built into their bodies). Needless to say, these guys will want to get friendly with the team’s hacker to make sure the firewall on his ‘ware is as tough as it can be.
That’s not a definitive list of what sort of character you can make in the game, but they are the most common.
The mechanics are somewhat streamlined, at least compared to earlier editions. Every action – from shooting a gun, picking a lock, summoning a spirit or hacking that street samurai’s cyberarm so it starts punching him in the face while spamming his cybereyes with augmented-reality windows saying “Stop hitting yourself!”is all done with the same core mechanic. You take a relevant Attribute, add on the relevant skill, throw in any other modifiers that are pertinent and then roll that many d6s and count how many rolled a 5 or a 6. So let’s say a character wants to fire a pistol; you’d take his Agility, add on his Pistols skill, then add or subtract any other modifiers (low visibility, target in cover, bonuses from sights, etc) and roll that many six-sided dice. If you roll more 5s and 6s than your opponent (who’s going to be rolling his Reaction Attribute) then you hit him. Anyone familiar with White Wolf’s Storyteller system will feel right at home with this.
This change may rub some Shadowrun veterans the wrong way, as in earlier editions hermetic mages and shamans used two different sets of rules for their magic. Now, they both use the same system with only minor mechanical differences. Personally I think they’re making a mountain out of a molehill – with how magic works in the setting no-one knows for certain if all magic comes from the same source or not and the disagreements between mages and shamans still exist. Its now just been made mostly flavour instead of mechanics. What’s more, the new system allows players to make their own magical traditions and the book includes rules for doing so, while the Street Magic supplement added more pre-made traditions to the game.
One other thing with Shadowrun, and one that can cause some ‘splitting-the-party’ problems, is that it effectively occurs over three different worlds. The first is the real world, obviously, while the other two are the Matrix and the Astral.
The Matrix is the system that replaced the internet after a powerful virus crashed the latter and was originally designed as an entirely virtual-reality based system. When that too crashed to stop a rogue AI from becoming a digital god, the Matrix 2.0 was set up instead. The Matrix basically takes the modern-day trend of wireless interconnectivity and smartphones, then injects it with every performance-enhancing drug known to man (and a few that aren’t) – every electronic device, from the aforementioned cyberarm right down to your damn toaster, has a wireless component that connects it to the Matrix. For most people, their interaction with the Matrix is limited mostly to augmented-reality – basically like the heads-up-display in most current video games, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the new Syndicate game are good examples of this – with the odd bit of VR for total immersion games or other entertainment. For hackers, AR is an everyday tool or for quick, on-the-fly hacking that they need to do right now, while VR is where their skills truly shine, no longer slowed down by their meat body.
The Astral is the realm of spirits and a mage projecting themselves into it can let their spirit travel at the speed of thought, while their meat body lies unconscious wherever they left it. In this way, a mage could travel from Seattle to Berlin in the blink of an eye and chat with another mage who just left Shanghai. It can also let them see any magical defences a place has or if there are any spirits lingering around. Even just the state of the astral space in the area can be examined.
Now, while both are nice touches to the setting, they do present a GM with some problems. Namely that, while the hacker is in VR hacking his way through a computer system, it’s pretty much a solo-run for him with the other players left twiddling their thumbs until the hacker’s done. The actual specifics of hacking are also a little more complex than they need to be while Astral combat does not get a whole lot of info in the book. Fortunately, both Astral and cybercombat use the same core mechanics as conventional combat (so security programs can suffer wound penalties to reflect damaged code) so the rest can be fudged by the GM. The book mentions that additional rules for both are in the optional core sourcebooks Street Magic and Unwired (I’ll let you guess which rules are in which book) but this review’s just focussing on the 20th Anniversary core book.
Speaking of those core supplements, the book mentions these now and again as a place to find expanded rules on something or whole new stuff, with sidebars saying what you can find in them. The index in the back doesn’t just limit itself to the core book either, but includes page references to the core book and all of the core supplements; Street Magic, Augmentation, Arsenal, Unwired and Runner’s Companion. These aren’t necessary to play, but all help flesh out both the setting and add to what the players (or GM) can use. The expanded index also helps for anyone who already had the books, too – unless, like me, you have the PDF version of the Anniversary book. I don’t know if it’s just my computer or what, but the index pages always seem to take ages to load for me, making it hard to just flip through and find what I need.
The sections on combat have handy tables listing the various modifiers as well as what both the attacker and defender roll, but these weren’t compiled anywhere as a sort-of quick reference page which is something I would have liked to see. That being said, if you’ve got a physical copy of the book it can be easily fixed with a couple of small post-it notes sticking out of the pages like bookmarks or for PDF owners just a small notepad document with a list of page references.
There’s plenty of setting info in the core book showing how the world ended up the way it is in the game and each chapter is opened with a short story and accompanying artwork. Hell, the artwork as a whole in the book is great, with one or two exceptions (the poses in a piece on the edge of page 157 in the section on melee combat just look ridiculous). The portraits for the Bounty Hunter, Face and Weapons Specialist example characters are particularly well-done (the last one in particular – not often you see and elf girl packing that much firepower and still looking entirely professional), although a couple, like the Occult Investigator, could’ve used a bit more detail on the face.
One word of warning to anyone wanting to run a game of Shadowrun in the future – ban technomancers for at least the first few sessions, possibly longer. Their ability to access the Matrix without any electronics and effectively spin programs on-the-fly isn’t game-breaking, but it is very complex and newer Shadowrun players should either avoid making a technomancer or be willing to do one-on-one sessions so that you and your GM can figure out how they work. They are not for beginners. That being said, the fear and prejudice many people still have against technomancers in the setting (one overblown rumour saying that they can hack into your brain – no truth to it but when the public is scared of something…) can make for an interesting character.
Also, be ready for mages to do a little too well early on; while they may not have access to every spell for the job like wizards in DnD 3.5 did, a mage can throw out some serious mojo if he took a power focus or two during character creation – these can let him maintain a spell almost indefinitely. Also, keep in mind that a mage can only have one unbound spirit summoned at any one time – unbound spirits are the ones quickly summoned up on-the-spot and don’t need a fancy ritual. I read on a forum recently about someone’s first go at the system and the team’s shaman stole the show by throwing out huge numbers of wolf spirits because both he and the GM had forgotten about this limit.
So to finish off – if you want an RPG that’s a bit different to what else is out there with an interesting and engrossing setting, mostly straight-forward mechanics and the chance to do drive-bys with magical fireballs from a car being controlled by a neural link to a dwarf, give Shadowrun a look. You can find free quick-start rules at the link below if you want to try-before-you-buy. You can also find a primer about the pre-4e setting on the Harebrained Schemes website (they’re the ones making Shadowrun Returns). I’ve added a link for that as well.
Main website (with quick-start rules):
Harebrained Scheme’s Shadowrun Primer: