This is a little off my normal schedule, but I received an early copy of Shadowrun 5e to review, and it made sense to get the review out before the game is generally available later this week. As the title indicates, this is a high-level review from reading only; I hope to do an in-depth playtest review when time and player availability allows.
The last copy of Shadowrun I’ve owned and played was second edition (with a light skim of fourth edition for a game that didn’t happen), so I may give praise or blame for certain rules features that may have been introduced in previous editions. But that seems fair: praise for keeping a good mechanic into the new edition and blame for not removing a bad one. I’m pretty well-versed in the background for the game, via various friends that are mega-fans, so I feel like I have a pretty good idea of the world the rules are trying to model.
In general, this review will probably serve more of a purpose of “if I haven’t really gotten into Shadowrun before, is this a good edition to jump on?” than “is this edition an improvement over previous editions that I have loved?” (I suspect the people that are likely to ask the second question are going to buy the new edition no matter what I say).
On reading through the book, I had a number of consistent impressions:
- This is a really, really complicated system with lots of fiddly subsystems.
- It’s probably not nearly as complicated as 2e.
- Nearly every system is accompanied by an excellent example of play sidebar that immediately clarifies anything that was confusing about the mechanic.
- Mechanics are repurposed whenever possible, and even very different mechanics are defined and presented in consistent ways. This means that the many disparate subsystems, while daunting on a first read through, are probably something you’ll be able to remember easily after a few sessions.
This book is almost all crunch, with huge systems for combat, hacking, driving, magic, gear, and all kinds of other things. It’s nearly 500 pages of these in fairly dense text. And yet, though I’d expect to grumble and have to look up and reread sections the first few times they came up, I don’t doubt that I’d be able to find the right mechanics and apply them consistently and fully at the table as a GM. That’s a pretty big win, just for a start.
Shadowrun 5e uses a dice pool system:
- Add Attribute + Skill + other Modifiers.
- Roll that many d6s.
- Count dice that show 5 or 6 as successes (“hits”).
- Compare total hits to a difficulty (“threshold”); if you exceed the threshold, margin of success (“net hits”) usually means enhanced success in some way.
Obviously, this is very similar to the dice system in the most recent World of Darkness games, only using d6s instead of d10s. Unlike nWoD, you only reroll 6s for extra successes in certain occasions, but the smaller dice range should make the success probabilities pretty similar at 33% per die. In general, it seems that you’ll probably roll somewhat more dice than you would in WoD, with players potentially getting up to the 20s of dice totals with really high attributes, skills, and modifiers and likely starting new characters around 12 dice for their focus capabilities. Fortunately, d6s in large numbers are more easily available and useful than d10s, and they’re less likely to go flying off the table in a big double-handful of dice rolling.
While sometimes rolls are against a fixed difficulty list that suggests that focused characters are very likely to succeed at most tasks, it seems like rolls are more often intended to be contests where both actor and defender roll a large pool of dice and compare hits. I’m not sure I’m totally happy with this system, since it seems like it’ll make many things very swingy (with random rolling on both sides of the action) and slower than they’d need to be (with two players having to total successes). It does make it possible to make difficulties more granular (each die is on average a third of a threshold) and gives defenders more opportunity to use tactics, but I suspect you could just divide the defender’s total by 3 to get a fixed difficulty that’s very similar to rolled results with less swing and time at the table.
One thing the game introduced that I’m really not fond of is the idea of glitches: if you roll more 1s than half your total dice pool, you glitch (and critical glitch if you have no hits). The main thing that bugs me about them is that, due to requiring more than half your dice to be 1s, the probabilities are very odd: if you add a die to an even die pool, you more than double your chance to glitch (e.g., it’s easier to roll three 1s on five dice than on four). Statistically, the chance to get a glitch is almost nonexistent if you’re rolling anything close to a competent die pool, so except for annoying bad-dice-luck events they’ll really only mess up your low-pool desperate rolls (which are more likely to get no hits and be critical glitches). They’d be easy enough to just pull out if you don’t, like me, think a fumble mechanic adds much to the game, but they’re used pretty consistently for various systems and it’s unclear how much of a balancing mechanic they’re meant to be. At the end of the day, it’s probably a fine mechanic if you feel like adding a chance to screw up due to dice luck adds to the game’s grittiness, though I wish they’d smoothed the chance of it so adding a die to an even pool didn’t increase your risk of glitch.
An interesting key mechanic used throughout the systems is the idea of a Limit; if you get more hits than your Limit for a roll, you lose the excess. For many rolls, the Limit is a derived physical, social, or mental trait; if you make a character that’s uber-specialized, your limit for those specialized rolls might be lower than if you’d raised your attributes more consistently. For combat rolls, the Limit is usually based on the Accuracy of your gear; highly expensive, aspirational gear is much less useful to you before you have high enough traits that you’re bumping against the Accuracy of cheaper gear. For magic, the Limit is usually a risk-vs.-reward tradeoff; you decide up front that you’re going to risk higher drain or other penalties by setting a high Limit, rather than risking that you’ll lose hits to a low one. This idea should allow characters to grow more naturally in power over time than is typical for a skill-based game (usually you can shoot to the top of a single skill and begin to threaten the biggest problems of the setting).
Character creation has returned to a priority system (which had disappeared in 4e) where you have to rank your race, magic capabilities, attributes, skills, and resources rather than going middle of the road on all of them or dumping a couple and being excellent at a couple. Unlike the priority system I’m familiar with from 2e, races and magic are more finely grained so it’s no longer “if they’re not your highest priority make them your lowest priority.” Specifically, even a human gets some bonus points for raising race above the minimum priority and there are a bunch of gradations of magic such that you have some minor magical talents unless you put magic as your absolutely last priority. In general, the priority system should encourage players to make somewhat less min-maxed characters than a completely point buy version would.
One thing that the system does feature is the current level conundrum: you spend points out of your priorities to raise things on a one-for-one basis in character creation, but then raising things with experience (“karma”) costs more for higher level traits after character creation. You’re really incentivized to raise all the attributes that matter up to their racial max and all the skills you want to excel at up to the level six chargen maximum. Given that you already spend karma rather than freebie points to finish your character, and chargen is already pretty complicated and involved, they could have made the whole character creation process use karma if they wanted to make higher traits cost more. Conversely, since the game features a detailed training system that already requires time investment so you can’t just rocket up skill ranks, they could have made karma costs not inflate based on trait level. With the system that exists, I foresee experienced players make a lot of idiot savant characters with as many important things as possible maxed out rather than with a more even spread of starting traits.
Like the general systems, combat in 5e has a lot of the elements of previous editions but streamlines them a great deal. They’re still deep and complicated, but less daunting that previous editions. The high points are:
- Initiative is rolled every turn, and for every 10 points of your total you get an extra action. Interestingly, defensive actions and other interruptions eat into your total initiative, and having the extra actions are meaningful but not completely overpowering. One of the cool things about this kind of initiative is that you can do things that take an action and last for one combat round that still benefit you, because you rolled high enough to go again this round.
- Damage divides between Stun and Physical based on weapon type. The way this interacts with armor is actually really interesting: you have to roll your armor to reduce incoming damage, but if its base rating was higher than the damage, the deadly physical damage gets reduced to much less terrifying stun; one of the more elegant ways of modeling bullets and blades getting blunted but still bruising that I’ve seen in a game engine.
- There are lots and lots of situational modifiers and deep subsystems. For example, to make cyberware that augments your aim in various ways, there need to be lots of different penalties possible for aiming that those cyberware upgrades can reduce. These are generally well-thought-out and used consistently, but you’ll still probably be flipping around in the combat section for your first several fights to make sure you’ve captured all the necessary modifiers.
On the whole, combat seems like it’ll run pretty slow at the table until you really internalize the modifiers that apply to you most often. However, the game is also fairly lethal and features characters that would prefer to get in and get out without having to fight, so the slow combat might work fine for a few small encounters per session before the run and then the big “drek hits the fan” setpiece battle that finishes it off.
One of the rolls specifically called out for a group of ‘runners is a social primary character, the Face, so the rules need to support that guy not feeling like he wasted his build. The game has foregone trying to build an elaborate social combat system, and instead created several specific niches for social skills:
- Social skills are integral to negotiating higher pay (and cash rewards for gear upgrades are major portion of character advancement).
- High social skills are necessary to do social scouting: a high-social character will be able to con his way into a location to get intel and possibly even provide another way to break and enter for the group.
- The Leadership social skill allows the Face to give out combat buffs to the party.
In general, the Face will probably have as much to do as any of the other specialized group roles, all while following a traditional “we roleplay a conversation and roll dice once” method of table interaction rather than a more social combat-style blow by blow.
And, as a bonus, the social skills aren’t locked into the traditional lie/persuade/intimidate model.
There are two flavors of hacker now: the traditional decker who uses a hacking deck and programs to defeat security, and a more Neo-style mage that can access wifi with his mind. Both look very different on initial inspection, but thankfully use a consistent set of traits for most actions affecting computers (though each has a variety of add-on options in the form of programs or technomantic abilities).
The majority of hacking is done via standardized actions using the consistent four traits. Access to these actions is purchased in a pretty straightforward manner, which is very nice since my last experience was needing to have real life desktop software to manage all the purchases deckers had to make in second edition.
Apparently in 4e there was a big push to move most hacking to an augmented reality space so the party hacker wouldn’t disappear into a mainframe to have a solo session with the GM every game. 5e has re-instituted the importance of virtual reality and getting your hacker deep into a building so he can connect directly to the device with the paydata on it, which seems liable to recreate the problem of the rest of the players sitting around while the hacker does his thing. I suspect that this is less of a problem than it was in earlier editions for a few reasons:
- The hacking systems are pretty straightforward, so the hacker’s spotlight time ought to be only a few minutes once you’ve got them down.
- Hackers can still do a decent amount of stuff wirelessly and in real time, so they can attempt to hack enemy equipment and drones in combat.
- Many of the party roles get things that demand a solo scene, so you should be able to give spotlight time to the other players equal to what the hacker gets.
I never really got the point of the Rigger in earlier editions: he’s a guy that controls his car with his mind. This edition does a few things to make the Rigger cool:
- The car chase rules are some of the best I’ve seen, and the party’s Rigger is going to be the best at doing car chases.
- Small flying drones are easily available, so your Rigger has something to do in combat and a reason to go into the building rather than staying with the car (since wireless control degrades over distance).
- In general, Rigging uses a lot of the hacking rules, so Riggers have a lot of interesting things to do in conflict with rival hackers and Riggers.
I’m still not totally sold on the Rigger’s appeal over other roles in the game, but, then, I never play the engineer in Team Fortress either. People love that guy, so I can see why people might love the Rigger and all his wonderful robot toys.
I didn’t make it all the way through the magic chapter at more than a skim, but, like most of the other systems, magic seems like a cleaned up version of earlier editions. Spells seem much more straightforward to purchase and use than previous editions, and they’re arranged into groups that have consistent overall mechanics (e.g., all the combat spells figure their damage in a consistent, scaling way). Physical adepts are still awesome.
I came to the realization while reading this edition that Shadowrun really is conceptually what you’d get if you took most of the tropes of classic D&D and created a sci-fi setting to support them. It’s a game about mostly amoral oddballs that pit their skills and magic against a dungeon to come away with treasure. There’s lots of room to grow in power, and having more money means that you can get better and better toys to improve your ability to then go get even more treasure.
And 5e does a really great job with all of that: the rules reward deep player investigation with unfolding power and options, there are lots of mechanically interesting and varied things to pit your ‘runners against, and there’s a potentially endless use for more money to buy shinier and shinier gear. It’s the kind of thing that you could play for a long time as a regular game without getting bored. I’m looking forward to giving it a real playtest, even though my own tastes tend to run to more lightweight engines like Technoir for my dystopian sci-fi, and I think anyone that’s interested in the genre and would find fun in a crunchy, mechanically deep system might find a lot to love about Shadowrun 5e.