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AICN Tabletop Special! Abstruse Reviews SHADOWRUN 5th Edition!

Hello gamers, Abstruse here with a very special edition of AICN Tabletop. SHADOWRUN was my first roleplaying game. I was 12 years old when the second edition of the game came out and, since I wasn’t allowed to play D&D because it was evil, I played Shadowrun. I read and re-read and re-re-re-re-re-re-read my SHADOWRUN 2nd Edition core rulebook until it literally fell apart at the bindings. So I bought another copy. And did the same to it. And my first 3rd Edition book as well. If they hadn’t switched to PDF releases, by SHADOWRUN 4Th EDITION Limited Edition Hardback would be in the same shape. I did a tally about a year ago and I own 2/3 of all the SHADOWRUN books ever printed – both game books and novels.
So you now have some idea exactly how excited I was to get to review SHADOWRUN 5TH EDITION, and an idea of exactly how high my standards are.
If you’re not familiar with SHADOWRUN, here’s the ultra-condensed Cliff’s Notes. It’s 2075. Corporations have the same rights as nation-states and control everything. The internet is history, replaced with the Matrix, which is a global wireless network you control directly with your mind. Oh, and back in 2011, magic returned to the world and brought with it dwarves, trolls, elves, and orks amongst others. The players are members of a mercenary urban black-ops team of shadowrunners who are hired to perform various criminal actions and corporate espionage.
SHADOWRUN’s entire concept was built on cyberpunk + urban fantasy = awesome, and it still holds true to this day. Shadowrun was one of the first roleplaying games to have a game world that advanced its timeline over the years in real-time. The game got the most mainstream attention from a pair of video games released in the 90s for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. The popularity of these games caused the Kickstarter for the SHADOWRUN RETURNS video game to go through the roof. But all this time, the tabletop roleplaying game that started it all kept chugging along, culminating in the release of newest edition of the game.
The book itself is organized like the previous editions, which means it could’ve been done a lot better. It’s massive, over 489 pages for the PDF version. While this is a lot, many of the chapters feel crammed due to the ground the book has to cover. There are plenty of examples to help you understand the concepts of the rules, but there should’ve been more of them and they should’ve been fleshed out more, especially for the Matrix, Magic, and Rigging chapters.
Even still, there’s a lot of wasted space in the book. The first 44 pages of the book are solely setting up the world, describing the setting and timeline. While there has to be something there for new players, it feels like too much. The tone is off to me too, trying to split the difference between the in-world tone of most of the sourcebooks and the omniscient narrative of a normal game book. It’s jarring to read the matter-of-fact history of a country then have someone talk directly at you, especially when there’s cursing involved (yes, there’s no more “drek” or “frag”). There’s also EIGHT short stories scattered through the book, some of them good, some of them...not bad per se, but not that great either. Those pages could’ve been spent more wisely by more thoroughly explaining some of the game’s more complex concepts and rules mechanics.
Physically, the book looks gorgeous. It’s full-color, but it’s far more readable than the 4th Edition and 4e 20th Anniversary edition here. The layout is red and black (my favorite colors), but that’s only on the trim. The text itself is black on a very light gray. The art looks amazing, only about half of it being recycled from previous sourcebooks. It really sets the tone and doesn’t get in the way of the rules.
Enough about the layout, let’s get to the rules. The best way I can describe this edition of SHADOWRUN is to imagine stripping SHADOWRUN 4th Edition clean to the bone and rebuilding it all over again. The core mechanic of the game is the same – To do something, you roll a number of six-sided dice, usually Attribute + Skill. Anything that comes up a 5 or a 6 is a “hit”. You either have to get as many hits as the Threshold for the test, or you have to get more hits than your opponent in the test does. 
There’s one big change, though, and that’s Limits. It doesn’t matter how many dice you throw on a test or how many hits you get, the most hits you can use on any given test is equal to your Limit. Sometimes this is based on your attributes, others it’s your equipment. 
This one very simple mechanic RADICALLY changes how a lot of the game works for the better. In previous editions of Shadowrun, the goal in making a character was to roll enough dice that you cause the neighbors to wonder if there’s an earthquake. All the gear, powers, spells, etc. in the game were designed to either give you more dice to roll or prevent you from losing dice to penalties. A lot of equipment in the game was redundant because of that – Do I buy this thing that gives me +2 dice to attack, or do I buy this thing that gives me +2 dice to attack? Adding the Limit mechanic not only curtails a lot of the “rolling thunder” dice rolling (but it’s still there...this IS Shadowrun after all), but it gives gear something else to do. Of those same two pieces of gear before, one might still give you +2 dice, but the other might give you +2 to your Limit and allowing you to use more of your successes. You’ll still probably want both eventually, but choosing between the two is now an important decision rather than a coin toss.
The core idea behind this book seems to be “use what works from any edition and make it better”. Nothing exemplifies that design goal more than character generation. Priority character generation is back, and they’ve made it work. In previous editions, Priority characters tended to look very similar to one another since you’d usually pick the same priorities for whatever role you filled. When they made Build Points the default character creation method in 4A, this problem was solved at the expense of another one – building characters took FOREVER because you would nitpick and fiddle over every last point, trying to squeeze out as much as you could. And the mixmaxers had a field day.
SR5’s version gives you the speed of Priority Assignment, but leaves a lot of room for flexibility. They got rid of the “dead choices” for mundane humans by tying your Race selection to your Special Attributes (Edge, Magic, and Resonance). The same goes for different levels of Magic and Skills. On top of that, you also get 25 Karma to spend (Karma works like XP in Shadowrun, except you spend it to gain attributes/skills/magic powers rather than level up). You can further customize your character with Positive and Negative Qualities. Positive Qualities give you some sort of bonus, but cost you Karma. Negative Qualities are negative character traits (like drug addition, a code of honor that restricts what you can do in combat, or a biological system sensitive to cybernetic implants) that give you more Karma to spend.
The balance seems to work, as my first character took me only an hour to make and my second about 45 minutes. Considering I typically spend 30-45 minutes creating a character in 3rd Edition (the version of the game I know like the back of my hand AND have a very powerful character generator to use), this is a major improvement on previous editions. HeroLabs has an amazing Shadowrun character generator that will be updated to the SR5 rules, but there’s no firm date on when that will happen. I’m betting that if you had that and a passing familiarity with the system, character generation could be cut down to 30 minutes or less using the program. A massive achievement when compared to previous editions.
The edition of the book I was given to review is the same edition that will go live on July 11 and is currently at the printers for release in August. That being the case, I confirmed with him two misprints in the current edition of the game. The first is that the Dwarves do not have their racial Thermographic Vision as they did in every other edition. Also, Dwarves and Trolls have to pay increased costs for their lifestyles and gear due to their size differences. There’s currently conflicting information on the book as to how much that increase is. A table on one page says as 20% increase for Dwarves and a 100% increase for Trolls, while the text in another paragraph a few pages away says it’s 10% and 50% respectively.
I have confirmed with Shadowrun Line Developer Jason Hardy that these misprints will be addressed in an official errata coming soon. Dwarves DO still get Thermographic Vision as a character trait, and the cost increases for both gear and lifestyles for Dwarves is 10% and for Trolls is 50%. These will be corrected in later printings of the game and the PDF will be updated when the errata is complete. Considering the first printing 4th Edition errata is somewhere in the 20 page range, I think they did pretty damn well.
The biggest change to the major character archetypes is the decker (the book still calls them “hackers” as in 4e, but damn it, they’ll ALWAYS be deckers to me!). The Matrix has been a sticking point for a lot of Shadowrun players since the game’s launch. In my experience, probably half to two-thirds of all the groups I’ve ever talked to either gloss over the Matrix in their games or, at best, use an NPC decker to play Basil Exposition for anything from the Matrix. I understand why people feel the Matrix rules in previous editions have been “too complicated” to learn. Well, they never were that complicated, they were just so far removed from the rules for everything else that they felt like a different game. While each edition has gotten better at making the Matrix rules more accessible, players still have this knee-jerk anti-decker reaction.
Well the idea that decking rules are too complicated to learn should go away with this edition, but many people are going to have a completely different problem with the new rules.
The rules for the Matrix have been VASTLY streamlined. It doesn’t appear that way on your first read-through because the layout of the chapter is horrible for learning the rules. You get introduced to mechanics at the start of the chapter that aren’t covered in-depth until the end of the chapter. It’s a complete mess. 
For trying to LEARN the rules. But for REFERENCING the rules when you’re in the middle of a game and need to look something up, the chapter is laid out exactly as it needs to be.
I could write an entire article for the Matrix rules (frankly, I could write an entire article for ANY chapter in this book, but I’m a bit obsessed). But I’m just going to focus on the two biggest changes to the Matrix rules in this edition – How decks work in general, and Bricking.
There is a difference between a commlink and a deck. Everyone has a commlink. They’re basically smartphones on crack, and manage your character’s entire life via Google Glasses but imprinted directly on your retina. Commlinks have a device rating (like pretty much all other gear does in the game) as well as two attributes: Data Processing and Firewall. They’re exactly what they sound like, Data Processing being an equivalent for the modern RAM/CPU speed, and Firewall being your protection against spam, malicious software, and deckers.
Speaking of “deckers”, what makes a commlink a “deck” is the addition of hardware that gives the commlink two extra attributes, Sleaze and Attack. These are the two illegal actions on the Matrix which only deckers can perform. Sleazing involves hiding your illicit actions from the various security protocols in place, allow you to subtly obtain your goals without being noticed (hopefully). Attack is...HULK SMASH STUPID COPY PROTECTION RARRR!! This is actually a lot more advanced than it sounds. For the last two and a half editions of Shadowrun, Matrix actions have ALWAYS been about stealth. In this edition, the stealthy approach has its pros and cons right up against the “monkey smash” style.
But the biggest advance in the Matrix rules is the modularity, even in the core rules. You can swap between the “sneaky and silent” modes and the “HULK SMASH!” modes of hacking. Just swap around your deck’s attributes as a Free Action on your turn. This opens up decking to a whole new level of customization based on character personality as well as tactical decisions. Do you want to be aggressive, defensive, stealthy, or efficient? I’m sure if I played with the system more, I’d find one style has a mechanical advantage over the other, but the fact that the other options are even viable says a lot to the amount of time and effort CGL put into updating the Matrix rules.
The second issue is Bricking. Oh dear fucking lord, the flamewars have already started on the concept of Bricking. Everything can potentially be wireless-enabled. Turning the wireless on with various pieces of gear (from your cyberware to your smartlinked gun to your fucking UNDERWEAR) gives you some sort of extra bonus. You have to weigh that potential bonus the wireless gives you versus the potential that an enemy hacker can turn your prize gun into a paperweight. In some cases, the advantage just isn’t there. In others (and usually in the more critical systems), it might just be worth it.
The best example of this are smartlinks, a piece of cyberware that links with a sensor inside your gun. Wherever your gun is pointed, a reticle shows up in your vision that tells you where the bullet will end up. Alone, it increases your Accuracy Limit on the gun you use by +2. If you enable wireless, then you open yourself up to your gun being destroyed by an enemy hacker, but you also get +2 dice pool to all attacks made with the gun. It’s really a toss-up as to which is better.
But don’t think hackers have it easy in SR5. Decking is DANGEROUS now. If you try to hack something and it gets more successes on the test than you do, every success the device got more than you did does damage to your deck. And ALL Matrix damage is physical damage to the hardware now. On top of that, if you’re using a hot sim (which pretty much every decker is going to do), all damage you yourself take in the Matrix is also PHYSICAL damage rather than STUN as in previous editions. And yes, this includes dumpshock.
This is a great addition to the game to me. Before, hackers were the nerds who solved all your tech problems but hid in the back when the firefight started. Now hackers can cause serious damage to enemies in the middle of combat, but at the cost of potentially losing their hundred thousand nuyen hardware (if not their higher brain functions. It’s a great compromise to bring hackers into the action without letting them off easy from the consequences.
Magic has always been a big part of Shadowrun since it’s half of the setting (urban fantasy + cyberpunk). And magic users also got a nice little power boost in this edition, both adepts and magic users.
Adepts have always had an odd balance built into their characters. Instead of packing their bodies with technology, they use their inner magic to turn them into combat beasts (think the monks from wuxia films). They usually aren’t as effective in combat at character generation as street samurai, but their balance comes through longevity of the build. A street samurai is usually as good as it’s going to get because there’s only so much chrome you can cram into your body thanks to the limit of your Essence. Adepts, on the other hand, improve their powers through Karma, so they can keep upgrading their abilities so long as they can manage to stay alive (which is more difficult since they’re not as fast, strong, or bulletproof as their chromed counterparts). This gap has been lowered as the costs for various adept powers have dropped drastically, in many cases half of what they were in previous editions. That means your adept is going to be almost as effective as your friend’s street samurai right out of the gate.
Straight spellcasters are also getting a power boost. Mentor Spirits (powerful totemic spirits who guide and influence your magic) have been overhauled to give bonus dice to a skill or two on top of the additional boost to magic (magic users get a dice pool bonus to a school of spells or a spirit type, while adepts get a free power). Also, your priority choice when choosing your magic talent includes skill points for your magical skills. These work together to solve a major problem in creating magic users from previous editions because you were severely starved for skill points.
In addition, those magicians who can cast spells get a major tactical boost in Reckless Casting, a new action. In Shadowrun, you get either two Simple actions or one Complex action per turn in combat, and spellcasting has always been a Complex action. With Reckless Casting, you can cast a spell as a Simple action at the cost of adding to the drain you have to resist. This really opens up what a magic user can do in combat as they don’t have to sacrifice firing their gun in order to cast a defensive spell, or trying to decide which of two spells to cast on your turn (though they gets very difficult as the drain magnifies).
I haven’t talked much about combat because it hasn’t really changed all that much from 4e. One thing I have to point out is that combat in Shadowrun is DEADLY. Damage values on guns have gone up, while armor and health for characters have stayed more or less the same. To make matters even worse, APDS (armor piercing rounds) have had their availability reduced so you can now get them at character generation. This means that not only are you more likely to get hit by an attack, but you’re also going to take more damage. This is balanced slightly by the Accuracy Limit on hits so you can’t stage damage up as quickly, but it doesn’t balance it by much.
My expectations for this game were very high, and they were met...for the most part at least. The changes in this edition make sense and, while I don’t agree with all of them, a lot of it is nitpicky bullshit (why couldn’t they have kept calling it the “Chunky Salsa Rule” officially?). This edition looks and feels more like the Shadowrun I grew up with than 4th Edition ever did, and aside from the introduction chapter, I love the tone of the writing. The rules themselves are flexible enough to allow many different styles of play, from high-powered Prime Runner to street-level gangers. And with a few modifications, you can even use the rules to run games in different eras of SHADOWRUN (strip out Bricking, restrict gear purchases, and tinker just a bit with the magical traditions and you’ve pretty much got a set of rules that work for 2050s era play).  There are a few missteps here and there, but none of them ruin the book or break this edition of the game.
I think Catalyst Game Labs did an amazing job putting together the new edition. With a good QuickStart module (available soon for free in PDF format), new players shouldn’t have too much difficulty learning the rules of the game. The fiction does a great job of setting the tone and the world and, while I didn’t like the setting background chapters, they are much better written from a new player standpoint than previous editions.
Keep in mind that there will be more “core” books coming over the next year or so, with optional rules for magic, matrix, gear, and more character options.
You can pre-order the print edition at your local gaming store for when it comes out in August, or you can order the PDF on July 11th (you can check out the five previews at this link now, or wait until July 11th to order the PDF).
And as always, you can follow me on Twitter at @Abstruse, or drop me an email at
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