Disclaimer: This review may be most useful to people who have played the game before. I tried to make it more n00b friendly, so hopefully it is. This is only a review of the book, not actual play.
It’s the Year of Shadowrun!
I’m a big fan of Shadowrun, a cyberpunk fantasy RPG set in the near future (~2060). I came into the game late – I never played the first two editions, and haven’t played 4th in spite of owning the book. I started playing with 3rd edition and I’m still pretty faithful to it.
I love the rich worldbuilding and the bits of crunchy character building that the point-buy system allows. It’s a future that’s beautiful enough and terrible enough that I love playing in the broken mess with all of the superheroics that shadowrunners execute. There are metatypes – orcs, trolls, dwarfs, and elves – as well as normal humans. There is magic in the world and it manifests in quite a few ways – magicians being one, but my favorite is adepts. Adepts are like normal metatypes except they’re way more awesome. They get powers that are based in magic but those abilities are inherent and don’t use spells. I could play an adept every day and never get bored.
When I found out there was going to be a new edition, I was psyched. Maybe this edition would come with more tasty goodness in the setting, and I was hoping I’d get grabbed by the rules more than I did with my brief look into fourth ed.
Catalyst Labs released the first copies of Shadowrun 5th Edition into the wild at Origins 2013, with limited special edition copies. I had contacted Catalyst in advance, hoping to get a review copy for this review, but unfortunately, it never went anywhere and I, dedicated fangirl, shelled out the cash for my beautiful book (and a set of Shadowrun dice, because yes, thank you. They roll fantastically).
A brief diversion on the art:
On first look, the Shadowrun book has beautiful art and a great layout. With close to 40% visible women in the art, I was excited with the potential. However, like some of my fellow Gaming as Women ladies have stated, the art wasn’t as positively representative as it could have been. A couple of the women were in awkward poses, and most of all some still were significantly less dressed than the men (Take the woman on page 138, who is basically just wearing a bra under her trenchcoat). Overall, though, I liked the quality of the art – I just hold Shadowrun books to high standards, and I think that’s not unreasonable since they’re often close to the mark. That said, there were two images I personally really liked – The troll with the Troll Kama Sutra on page 100, and the orc woman reclining in her office chair (p.341). I also really enjoyed the archetypes – knocked out of the park. Gimme more badasses.
On a few sections, you have to flip back and forth to read tables that are referenced (like the Knowledge Category Examples table, that’s two pages back from when it’s referenced). That’s a little frustrating, and something that I think could have been easily avoided. Also, the way that the tables are laid out with the banded rows and no markings on the columns, it makes it hard to read some tables (like the Priority table, which really confused me at first!).
I was disappointed to see that in the races section, dwarfs are described as “hard-working” as a category – at least they appear to be the only race that is stuck with a broad generalization.
It’s not stated in the skills section which skill is used for dodging, something noted by Sean Holland over at Sea of Stars. For your reference, it’s gymnastics.
Meat & Potatoes:
The priority system is back and ready to roll. The metatypes are a little cheaper than before, which is cool. Basically the priority system works by having players choose, from highest to lowest, their priority in what they want for their characters, whether it’s metatype, magic, resources, skills, or attributes, and then the players choose from a table (confusing to me, originally, because of the formatting) to assign their points.Somehow they made the priority system more complex than it needs to be, by adding in more choices inside the priorities you select, and while part of me is like yeah! choices! another part of me is like, dude, you’re killin’ me here. It’s kind of confusing and seems like mixed results.
The priority system is pretty standard fare, and all of the typical character types are there, including adepts (woo!) and technomancers. The character build section is huge, because builds even with priority system are multifaceted. I was excited to see that “Qualities” (what I knew as Edges and Flaws from 3e) are still a thing, because I feel like they give a lot of flavor to the characters and make it a little more exciting when people have bonuses that tie into some part of their personality or history.
I miss the point-buy system, where you could spend points from an overall pool in whatever way you wanted. I may be the only one, but man, I loved being able to buy things bit by bit. The priority system is a little more restrictive, since you can only place one thing at each priority level. I’m hoping someone either builds a hack or that Catalyst makes me happier and puts out rules for point-buy.
The rules are pretty basic – 5s and 6s are successes (“hits”) and you add them up to meet thresholds. It’s still got little bits and bobs to play with to customize your character down to their taste in sim sense, which is my kind of thing, but might not be fun for everyone.
One thing that confused me (because frankly, it’s not clearly explained when it’s first mentioned) is the use of limits for constraining how many “hits” a player can actually apply to their total number of success for purposes of staging damage or achieving the number of successes for a roll. Objectively it makes sense and keeps things balanced, but it makes me long for 3e’s application of as-many-hits-as-possible. Roll ALL the successes!
Contacts have a point system based on the loyalty rating and connection rating, which adds more math but makes their usefulness more concrete. This might have been a thing in 4e, but it doesn’t work quite the same as 3e. I think I like it.
Shadowrun 3e had rules for magic and hacking, and so does this edition. The magic rules are still pretty simple and easy to grok. In Shadowrun 3e, the hacking/decking rules were slow and clunky and kept people from having decking run in line with other actions in combat turns because of how long it took. In Shadowrun 5e, they look more streamlined and will hopefully work out well.
I liked the Final Calculations Table on p. 101 – it’s a good reference. Having references for calculations of core stats is really important for players like me, who have trouble remembering even basic stuff. It’s taken me years to remember the basic rules to 3e and to other games like D&D 3.5 (my originally chosen poison), and stuff like this makes the pickup quicker and less troublesome.
The fiction is good – each story gives a glimpse into the flavor of the sixth world. It made me excited to play and was well-worth the read. I won’t spoil any of it here, but I will recommend that you take the time to delve in, especially if you’re new to the system and world.
Now, the masterpiece of this whole book is the GM section. This is one of the best GM sections I’ve read. It’s got random tables, references, and suggestions for setting up a great game. I personally was a big fan of the “Group Rules and Boundaries” section, but I also really enjoyed the random run tables and all of the NPC prep info. There’s so much content and it’s put across in a clean way. Probably the best written part of the book.
Overall, I was really happy with the book. I can’t wait to play and hopefully eventually run a session or two of my own. With the great GM section, I think I have a good place to start!