Shadowrun is a science fantasy tabletop role-playing game set in a near-future fictional universe in which cybernetics, magic and fantasycreatures co-exist. It combines genres of cyberpunk, urban fantasy and crime, with occasional elements of conspiracy fiction, horror anddetective fiction. From its inception in 1989, Shadowrun has remained among the most popular role-playing games. It has spawned a vast franchise that includes a series of novels, a collectible card game, two miniature-based tabletop wargames, and multiple video games.
The title is taken from one of the setting’s main premises – that corporate espionage runs rampant in the near-future of the setting. Ashadowrun – a successful data theft or physical break-in at a rival corporation or organization – is one of the main tools employed by both corporate rivals and underworld figures. Deckers (futuristic hackers) who can tap into an immersive, three-dimensional cyberspace guarded by rival deckers and lethal, potentially brain-destroying AI called “Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics” – or “ice” for short – are protected by street fighters and/or mercenaries, often with cyborg implants (called cyberware), magicians, and other exotic figures, on such missions as they seek access, physical or remote, to the power structures of rival groups. Magic has also returned to the world after a series of dystopian plagues; dragons who can take human form have returned as well, and are commonly found in high positions of corporate power.
While I dedicate most of this blog to wargaming, many don’t know I have also been a keen roleplayer for around 25 years. Shadowrun holds a special place in my heart as I have been a fan since first edition. So when Catalyst Games said “Would you like to review Shadowrun 5th Edition” I couldn’t type “yes” fast enough.
Today I am a full-time writer and have read (and wrote) thousands of stories. The short story in the Second Edition, Plus Ça Change, stands out as one of the best short stories I have ever read. In fact, it sits towards the top of my “I wish I wrote that” list.
So I have high hopes for Shadowrun Fifth Edition and I’m a little nervous as I open the pdf and begin reading…
Design and Layout
Opening Shadowrun Fifth Edition, it is clear that presentation and design have come a long way in the time I have been a wargamer. There is colour and graphics to give you a glossy feel, but the book still remains readable and clean.
There are also plenty of red sidebars that contain crucial summaries, as well as concepts and ideas for your own Shadowrun roleplaying games. I thought these stood out nicely and were a really nice touch as they act as an instant reference point on the page.
The fiction sections are black with white text. Reading on a screen made it a bit of an eye strain, even on my 24″ monitor. I also wasn’t so keen on the big headers and footers on each page, especially in their black and red colours. But maybe that’s just me.
Style and Substance
The setting is explained in a unique style that makes you feel like you are getting a history lesson on the streets. This makes the info easier to digest, rather than a dry relating of facts and dates. Very nicely done Catalyst Games!
The easy style of writing, combined with a great layout makes the book feel less like a rule book and more like a fun read. For me, it was a great way to get back in touch with the Sixth World. That’s the first section you get in the rulebook – an introduction into a world where magic has re-awakened and changed the world. For those familiar with the Shadowrun story, there is nothing new here, but it still makes for a fun read.
Unfortunately the opening story (the one I was so looking forward to) was a let down. Rather than bore you with a literary criticism, let’s just say it doesn’t hold a torch to the story in the second edition of Shadowrun. I mention it because story is a critical component of roleplaying games – after all, you create one as you play. Perhaps most importantly, stories that portray the setting also build the game’s motif and show you how to set the tone for your own roleplaying games.
Fortunately, there are other great stories in this book, such as The Battle Fought. And that redeemed it for me. I would have just liked to see them at the front of the Shadowrun rulebook.
Shadowrun has a unique setting that has magic return to the world, allowing the game to blend high-tech and fantasy in a seamless manner. This is Matrix meets Lord of the Rings and the rationales behind everything that happens are solid.
This blend of magic and technology, of fantasy races and urban sprawl, give the game a special flavour that makes roleplaying in this world so enjoyable. Most importantly, because everything is believable, Shadowrun provides a coherent game world in which to set your games.
Of course, there is also enough open-endedness to bring in your own elements. The fantastic side of the setting gives your imagination complete freedom, while the fact that it is based in the modern world (it is set in 2075) offers you familiar concepts on which to hang your stories.
So what is the system like? How do you create characters and interact with the world to build your own stories?
The rule system itself is actually quite simple. There are a variety of tests that characters can undergo, and these use different formulas. However, they are very well explained and there are some really slick concepts, such as buying hits and success limits.
Simplicity is especially important as it allows the game to move along quickly, removing the need to roll dice for small tasks, or refer to the rulebook every time a character wants to tie his shoe laces. That keeps the story going, and that is what encourages good roleplaying.
Character creation is points driven and there are quite a few attributes for your character (12 in total). There are also a huge number of skills and qualities (think: advantages and disadvantages) giving you plenty of options to customize your character and make him or her stand out in a crowd. Don’t worry if all of this sounds like a lot of choices, there are examples to walk you through the whole process and offer guidance as you go through character creation.
Of course, you also get to choose one of the five different races (Human, Ork, Elf, Dwarf, or Troll) to further differentiate yourself from other “runners”.
Magical characters are really nicely done, with plenty of choices. You can be a mage, an adept (think Bruce Lee hopped up on Chi), a mystic adept (part mage and part adept), an aspected mage (a mage with limited powers) or even a technomancer (able to magically affect the technology of 2075). I really like the addition of the technomancer and shows how the setting melds technology and magic together.
Interestingly, the rulebook allows you to set different campaign levels, allowing you to play standard, high-level or low-level games as you choose.
Combat is suitably detailed, as you would expect it to be in a high-octane action game. While there seems to be a lot of rules there, you won’t use many of them, and you’ll soon get used to the ones your characters use consistently.
There are plenty of weapons, gadgets and gizmos to keep your character busy. The combat system does emphasize speed – so he (or she) who goes first generally has the advantage. Bear that in mind when creating your characters as you might want to invest in some wired reflexes.
Of course, where would Shadowrun be without the Matrix, and there is a whole chapter dedicated to explaining the Matrix and rules for interacting with it. Cyberdecks, personas and even intrusion counter-measures are all laid out for you – whether you are a decker or a technomancer.
The Matrix rules have been given something of a tweak with the latest edition, streamlining them and making them more in-line with the easy flow fifth edition goes for. Don’t panic, they are not huge changes and have been addressed with playability in mind. Don’t forget, it’s you game, so you can pick and choose just what you want to include.
The more I read about technomancers the more I like them and the way they have become a natural outgrowth of the setting. Their power over the matrix and technology is offset by the fact that they must often conceal their powers. Perhaps most importantly, they allow those characters that focus on the Matrix to have a far more active role in the stories being told.
Riggers and mages have not been forgotten and each has their own section to deal with their part of the Shadowrun world – and how they interact with it. Riggers have plenty of listings of drones and vehicles, while mages have a large variety of spells and skills. Both characters are well looked after in the rules and are given plenty of opportunities to be the star of the show when their skills are needed.
Magic has also had some changes made to it. There were some previous imbalances with stun spells that have been addressed, spell damage has been refined and bound spirits can no longer be used as edge pools.
The gamemaster has the un-enviable task of holding everything together, of weaving his story and that of the players together in to a cohesive whole. It is nice to see that Shadowrun Fifth Edition has dedicated an entire chapter to helping gamemasters tell good stories.
The world of Shadowrun is full of violence and prejudices – not unlike our own world – and this is addressed, helping GMs to discuss with the players the tone of the campaign before it starts. Also, this chapter helps you to ensure everyone is included in the story, as well as how to write better plots and adventures to entertain your players.
Of course, the GM section fleshes out the world, adding information on security, SINs, building layouts – all kinds of useful stuff. This is a really great chapter that will help immensely when you are building your stories and game world.
Gamemasters will also like the detailed section on Non-Player Characters and the templates that can be used when you inevitably need some supporting cast on the fly. Contacts are also explained to help you out when your characters go digging for information while on a shadowrun.
And, because the world of 2075 is Awakened, there is also plenty of information on critters – those beasties from myth and lore that have come back to walk on the Earth and plague shadowrunners. Whether you are running from a hell hound or a battling a basilisk, this section has all you need to know.
Finally, there is a large section on gear and equipment. It covers everything from pistols to pump-action shotguns, motorbikes to microphones. Whether you are looking for new reflexes or an armoured jacket this section will give you the stats you need.
Finally, with 489 pages to flip through, GMs will also need a handy reference and there is a solid index at the back of the book.
TheWargamingAddict’s Ratings of Shadowrun 5th Edition Roleplaying Game
Substance: 8/10 – It is a big, chunky rule book, with lots of options and background information.
Innovation: 7 /10 – It builds on what has come before, but it does it well (and there are some nice unique touches).
Ease of Learning: 9/10 – Huge amounts of examples that make following it null persp.
Storytelling: 9/10 – Massively rich background that will have you weaving tales in no time.
Presentation: 7/10 – Nice colours and layout, but some sections can be hard on the eyes.
Fun: 9/10 – LOTR meets Matrix meets James Bond meets Rambo. Any more fun and it would be illegal.
Total: 8.2/10 – If you enjoy roleplaying games, Shadowrun Fifth Edition should be on your shelf (or on your gaming table).
What Do Our Ratings Mean
1/10 – The game is horrendous. Avoid as if it was a mutating chaos spawn that was hungry.
2/10 – The game has more flaws than a rabidly psychotic ogre. With three eyes and no nose. And bad breath.
3/10 – Great if your idea of fun is to undergo Chinese water torture.
4/10 – It jumps, it leaps, it stretches…and it still can’t achieve mediocrity.
5/10 – Meh. Yes, that’s it. Meh.
6/10 – Needs work in these areas. It could be better. Like a barbarian princess that is not wearing a chain-mail bikini.
7/10 – Good. Not great, but good. Like getting a cup of hot chocolate without a sprinkling of marshmallows.
8/10 – Pretty darn good. Makes you want to dance. Don’t sing though. Just dance.
9/10 – Awesomesauce. On tap. With sprinkles. And a cherry.
10/10 – The Holy Grail of wargames. Bow now before this game and offer up your lives in service to its rules.