Shadowrun is a gritty game based in a cyberpunk future where magic returned out of nowhere and dragons now own megacorporations.
The core book is almost 500 pages long and goes through great lengths to cover as much as it can. The table of contents alone is 5 pages so it’s recommended that you only read what you need unless you’re interested in GMing or have extra free time. Most of the book’s opening is introducing you to the world. It has the definition of the word Shadowrun and after the credits it has common slang that a character might use. It then gives a 10 page short story to more thoroughly introduce you to the concepts and the world in effect. Afterwards it describes the basic themes of the world: Greed, Magic, and Megacorporations. It continues describing the world, the current state of things and how it all happened for 24 pages before finally addressing the game itself and the players’ roles.
This is where the basic mechanics are discussed. The game uses a large amount of six-sided dice. Your skills will usually be represented as single numbers like 3 and 4 which represent how many d6 you roll. Once rolled you count how many 5’s and 6’s you got and that is the amount of successes you gained. As for the dreaded natural 1’s, they are called glitches and are calculated based on how many of them are present in the roll, similar to the successes. A Glitch occurs when more than half the dice you rolled come up 1 and a Critical Glitch occurs when more than half the dice rolled are 1’s and there are no successes at all. Critical glitches are described as the ones that “could put characters’ lives at risk.” This method is how nearly all checks within the game are made, whether it be crafting a spell, hacking a computer, or firing a gun. The complexity for this system comes from how dice pools are determined. The book has equations to determine the difficulty of a test and how many dice a character rolls for them, especially with extended tests.
After this it gets to the different playable races. These include a classical fantasy lineup of humans, orks, elves, dwarves, and trolls. Every character has a collection of attributes separated into physical and mental. The physical attributes include Body, Agility, Reaction, and Strength while the mental attributes include Willpower, Logic, Intuition, and Charisma. There is a third set of attributes called special attributes that includes the odd outliers like Essence, Edge, Magic, and Resonance. The two most unique ones are Essence, which helps to determine how many cybernetics your body can handle, and edge which is a sort of limited luck pool. Edge characters are one of the most interesting ones to play as the attribute works in a way that allows a player to do a variety of things like combine its rating to whatever roll they’re making. So a roll with only 3 dice can be boosted to 8 if you have an edge of 5. This can only be done as many times in a day or session as you have edge. So an edge of 5 lets you add 5 to any roll 5 times a day. But it also makes it so that any 6’s rolled when this is used are counted towards your successes and then rerolled to gain more potential successes. Edge can also be used after a bad roll to reroll it, though without the bonuses, negate a glitch or reduce a critical glitch to a normal one and in extreme cases you can burn an edge point. When you burn an edge point you permanently lower your edge by 1 to do something incredible, such as survive a fatal bullet to the head. Edge is one of the most interesting and fun aspects of Shadowrun and its variety of uses make it endlessly enjoyable.
After describing these mechanics the book then has another short story to break up the section. When the story is finished you finally, get to the chapter for character creation. Unlike most games there are no classes in this game. Instead you may simply spend build points to buy whatever skills and qualities you want your character to have. The game does offer some archetypes to help with choice but there is no real restriction to how your character develops. The game gives you 3 different sample characters at each stage of their development for you to learn from and it’s good that they do it because the character creation is extremely number-crunchy. From determining starting equipment and money to build points, qualities, attributes, skills, and spells/adept powers. The qualities are a really fun way to make your character more in depth. You can spend build points on positive qualities that have a wide variety but you can also take negative qualities to gain back some build points that can be spent elsewhere. This encourages the player to make complex characters with flaws that make them more interesting.
After the process is fully described there are a number of completed example archetypes and then the book begins discussing skills. One thing that is quickly learned for Shadowrun is that if there’s something a player wants to do Shadowrun already has a full chart of rules for it. It includes rules for most things that can happen including the rules and required rolls for treading water. Between this section and the next chapter covering combat is another short story. These are commonplace in Shadowrun books and you will often find them separating the chapters with stories. Like many other RPGs Shadowrun gives the players a limited set of actions represented as one complex action or two simple actions.
Combat is for the most part straightforward so long as you don’t have hackers fighting. Hackers have matrix turns with their own initiative and actions. It can quickly become confusing if the team is split between those two types. Damage is fairly straightforward with characters having a stun and damage track. If stun is maxed the character is unconscious and if damage is maxed then they’re dead. However, even the more simple combat aspects are made more difficult by Shadowruns gritty realism. Guns, for example, must deal with glare, visibility, wind, recoil, range, progressive recoil, and other potential modifiers like firing from cover while using an imaging device. While the basic rules of combat are simple the additional rules for every type of weapon can quickly become overwhelming. Thankfully the book is absolutely filled with examples illustrating nearly every rule it introduces. This is a saving grace for any new player or even veteran player.
The next chapter covers the internet, called the matrix in the game, and details hacking and the programs involved. To get the players started there are two full pages of vocabulary, over 60 words, for the matrix. The chapter explains the matrix, how it works, and how characters can use it before talking about the actual actions a hacker can take. It also talks about technomancers which are some of the hardest characters to play as they are effectively mages of the internet. They can hack and manipulate data without the normally required gear. The chapter covers cyber combat, the required programs, and all the equipment also needed.
The 7th chapter covers a type of character called a rigger. A rigger is a person who can use technology to place their consciousness inside a vehicle or drone and control them with their consciousness, instead of a normal controller and computer. The chapter explains riggers, how they operate, the vessels they use, and the rules of the game concerning them. It covers drone combat and the hacking of drones. It’s a shorter chapter than some of the others but leads into one of the most intense chapters of the book.
The 8th chapter covers Magic and all of its uses within the game. It describes the basic system of magic including the spells and their crippling drain system. Unlike in many games magic comes at a great cost in this world. When someone casts a spell they get to choose how powerful it will be but they have to resist more backlash damage, or drain, the stronger the spell. Using a ball of lightning to blow up a large boat can have leave the caster suffering organ failure if they’re not careful. How a character resists drain is based on how they approach magic The book gives the two most common traditions and then breaks down how casting a spell works. There are a lot of spells in the book to work with that give an amazing variety of approaches to any situation. It also gives the rules for countering any spell and casting a spell as a group in a ritual. Then it moves into summoning and spirits which is a complex section that covers quite a bit before leading into the basics for enchanting. Enchanting basically allows someone to store a spell to use for later for no cost or have something sustain a spell for a longer period of time. Like a ring that constantly gives the wearer a barrier. All of this, however, is only the first half of magic because in Shadowrun magic comes in two major varieties. Spellcasters can summon and throw lightning bolts. Adepts, however, are much more interesting. They can only channel magic through themselves in a way that enhances their own abilities. This is where you can get characters that can feel like they’ve come from a shonen anime. People that leap across rooftops with ease, punch a hole through a wall with a flaming fist, and even jedi-like precognition and bullet dodging are the forte of these magic users. There are also mystic adpets who must split their magic rating between spellcasting and adept powers. This gives you the most options but also makes it difficult to be amazing at either. After going over the types of spirits and artifacts the book finally moves to the next chapter.
The next chapter addresses the GM and begins telling them how to run the game. Most of what is included in this chapter is similar to what is in most GM sections of any game book. It covers assembling a party, handling people at the game table, and how to make an interesting campaign for the players. It does also include some tables to help generate random missions, a welcome change to most games which rely on the community for that. One particular amusing part is the chart that covers the central focus of the mission that is literally called the Macguffins Table. It also covers NPCs and gives a random chart to assist in making one on the spot. The chapter gives basic rules to help the GM through the most common scenarios they might encounter, as well as some basic traps and security loadouts to be used in a multitude of scenarios. There are a few generic maps as well for things like a bar, club, and research station for the GM to use. The game also includes the monthly upkeep for the players to maintain their preferred style of living. Do they live in a basic apartment with Wal-Mart food? 2,000 Nuyen (The in-game currency) a month. Do they have a mansion with nice food and butlers? 100,000 Nuyen a month. A useful tool to keep the players hungry for jobs without needing to get too number crunchy. Of course the chapter also includes the rewards, both in experience and in cash.
Chapter 10 goes more in-depth regarding NPCs and groups. It gives the basic stats for common NPC archetypes the players may encounter such as thugs and mechanics. It also has the stats and rules for creatures, whom have their own powers. Afterwards it covers common drugs and their uses in the game, including the rules for addictions. It’s a straightforward chapter followed by a similarly straightforward chapter that covers gear and the rules for buying and selling. It covers the black market and fences, hiding gear, encumberance, and all the weapons and random tools you could need. This is the chapter that carries the pistols, cybernetics, and vehicles that are available in the basic game. It’s a large chapter filled with a wide variety of toys for any Shadowrun party. Fittingly it is also the last chapter in the book before the index.
The index alone is 5 pages long and is followed by a large collection of tables covering everything in the book from combat turns to job rewards. The table from earlier that allowed the user to roll a random mission for the team is given its own proper page to fully craft any mission on the fly. The book then ends with a copy of the basic character sheet that all players need.
Shadowrun is a fun game with an amazing world. However, that world is mired in complex rules that are often times hidden within pages of lore. While this is more well organized and easier to grasp than the previous 4th edition was it is still a very difficult game, even for some veterans. If you feel like it is worth trying or that it has an interesting cyberpunk world, which it absolutely does, I recommend playing another game like the Star Wars RPG first to ease yourself into the basic flow and function of an RPG. Shadowrun has a robust world with a level of gritty realism to its gameplay that makes even high level characters nervous whenever someone points a gun at them. The atmosphere and attention to detail are superb but often times a game can be slowed to a crawl as groups comb over the rules. Often times a GM will end up house ruling some things to make it easier with one even asking the group to please not play technomancers because of their complexity. But once you have some experience and your GM is ready to tear their hair out I wholeheartedly recommend Shadowrun to any group with a love of tolkein fantasy and the Bladerunner movies. If you’re ready to work for the Mega-Corps as a deniable asset then you can buy Shadowrun 5th Edition here.
Thank you all so much for reading and if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for what I should review next please leave them in the comments below or email me with the subject “Beginner RPG”. Thank you so much for your time and support.