Shadowrun 5th edition – Core Rulebook

Gear up, chummer. Make sure your guns are loaded and your hacker programs are in working order, because it’s time to run. Welcome to the Sixth World!

Publisher:Catalyst Game Labs
Authors/Artists:Peter M. Andrew, Jr, Lars Blumenstein, Ghislain Bonnotte, Jennifer Brozek
Genre:Cyberpunk, Fantasy, Sci-fi
Type of game:Role-playing game

Concepts: Shadowrun is one of the classic tabletop RPGs, and certainly one of the biggest in the cyberpunk genre. Over several decades, it has grown both in the number of editions that have been published and scale of the setting itself, which makes it fairly intimidating to get into. With hundreds of books including novels, multiple video games and several different starter boxes, it’s a challenge to know where to begin. Let’s try to break it down for those who are new to it.

The core of Shadowrun has one foot firmly in the cyberpunk genre, and the other squarely in fantasy. Set in a not-too-distant future in which vast mega-corporations hold more power than most nations, you play as Shadow Runners – cybernetically augmented hackers who make a living taking missions for the highest bidder, anything from stealing data to covert espionage. Now imagine that you are playing as an elf, and your employer is the leader of a gang of orcs, or that the runner who has your back is hurling fireballs at corporate security while you try to hack through a firewall in order to steal fifty thousand nuyen from a dragon. That’s Shadowrun, and that’s why it’s awesome.

Writing: The fifth edition rulebook has a considerable task ahead of itself. It has a whole wealth of information to put across – but needs to do so in an accessible and user-friendly manner. Thankfully the writing is, generally, more than up to this task. The writers maintain a conversational, humorous tone throughout the book, explaining the rules in a manner that incorporates both examples and witty commentary. The book additionally includes many, many short pieces of fiction which is all of a high quality and thoroughly evocative of the game’s high-octane atmosphere.

Even so, the fifth edition rulebook of Shadowrun is a wordy tome. With a very high word count, it can sometimes be challenging to easily locate just the information that you need and you will sometimes wish for greater brevity. In addition there are several instances where the text instructs you to incorrect pages for clarifications, or use different names for terms than those used through the rest of the tome. None of this is enough to make the writing seem poor, though, and the book remains a good read.

Mechanics: Shadowrun utilizes a dice pool system, the core of which was innovative at the time of inception and has since become common across much of the industry. Because of that, much of this will be familiar to many gamers worldwide. Players take a number of six-sided dice equal to their character’s attribute (Strength, Dexterity etc) plus the relevant skill they are using (Firearms, Athletics etc) and create a pool of dice based on that number. The total number of dice is then modified, with dice subtracted (in the case of situational penalties) or added (in the case of situational benefits) such as enhanced weapon gear, armour, attempting to run down a hallway while under heavy enemy fire, and so on. The player then rolls those dice, and hopes to get as many sixes and few ones as possible!

This mechanic is both flexible and simple, and applies evenly no matter if you are manoeuvring a drone at high speeds, channelling arcane energy or fusing your brain into the mind of a rogue AI. However, this gives rise to one of the game’s largest flaws. Over the years that Shadowrun has existed, more and more aspects of the game have been invented and become a part of the system. From technomancers to augmented reality, the game has a lot of nuts and bolts attached to it. Make no mistake, this gives the players a wealth of options for what they can do and tactics that they can employ. But all of those options are held in place to a core system that was clearly not designed for them and is, frankly, starting to show its age.

Design: Shadowrun’s core design philosophy is one of small, minute details. Every bullet costs, every second counts, every decision has a price. GMs are encouraged to keep record of these details, because it emphasises the feel of the setting. Shadowrun wants to be a game in which players will spend a hefty amount of nuyen for a frag grenade, but be hesitant to waste it needlessly. This works well, but as mentioned previously it feels slightly archaic in how it is implemented. New games like Red Markets are able to capture the atmosphere of struggling for economic survival without the minutia of extensive bookkeeping.

At its core, Shadowrun is a game that wants to do a lot, and feels as though it has streamlined significantly from previous editions, but still suffers heavily from feature bloat and just seems to challenge the players with too many fiddly bits for them to keep track. Few modern games, for instance, still incorporate rules for soaking damage – much less rules that require the players and GM to check both armour rating and a weapon’s armour piercing ratings, or struggle to remember how many more actions the decker can take on each initiative pass before the end of the turn. Perhaps the complicated nature of points like these is part of why Shadowrun Anarchy has garnered as much praise as it has.

Playability: With all of that said, let’s be entirely blunt here – Shadowrun is still a very fun game to play! Whilst the actual in-game mission-to-mission gameplay tends towards the heavily tactical and strongly emphasises run-and-gun styles of play, the core of the game rests firmly in its unique setting and atmosphere. As you play through a campaign, you build up an entire network of NPCs – contacts, fixers, rivals and everybody in between. It isn’t long before you find yourself immersed in a vast, breathing world.

Combat, as slow and cumbersome as it can be at times, always feels impactful and meaningful. Plugging into the matrix feels as though you are entering a dangerous new world, full of deadly firewalls. Once you have built a character – which is, it must be said, a slow task and one best accomplished with builder programs like Chummer – you are left with a persona that feels intricate and fleshed out with their own unique history. Despite all its flaws, it is easy to see why Shadowrun continues to stand the test of time!

Conclusion: I only wish that I could praise Shadowrun higher. It struggles under the weight of an old system, one that doesn’t feel as if it were designed to handle the concepts and actions. I rate Shadowrun extremely well as a setting, as a universe and as an experience. Each book comes with a wealth of fiction, almost all of which is fantastic. Playing the game is very often a sheer joy.

Yet at the same time, I find myself hoping that sixth edition truly is the magical number for this game – one that is set in the Sixth World, after all. I hope that we will see the game’s underlying system pulled apart and rebuilt from scratch, with parts that no longer work replaced with systems that are built to mirror the action that transpires. I basically grew up with dice pool mechanic games like this, and even I will admit that a single combat round that requires rolling handfuls of dice up to three times per attack is, simply, only fun in short bursts. We’re running on an old OS, Shadowrun, and what you need and deserve is something next-gen! Even despite that, if you get the chance to play Shadowrun, jump at the chance – it’s a wonderful experience and definitely worth your nuyen chummer!

Concepts:18/20
Writing:18/20
Mechanics:14/20
Design:16/20
Playability:19/20
FINAL SCORE:85%

FINAL THOUGHTS: For a faster, smoother run through the shadows, be ready to play hard with Shadowrun: Anarchy instead. But if you want the classic game of cyberpunk action with a jolt of magic, this is your rulebook!

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