Saturday, July 6, 2013

Review: Shadowrun 5th Edition (Part I)

(Update: The PDF of the game is now out. You can grab it over at DriveThruRPG.com. Highly recommended.)

Shadowrun 5th edition, a new edition of the classic RPG. If you're a frequent reader you'll know it's one of my favourite settings and I'm a massive collector. Catalyst were kind enough to give me an advance copy of the PDF so I could review it for you all. So here we are.

It's a sizable review, for a sizable book, so I've split this review into two separate posts. This is part 1 and will concern itself with the first half or so of the book.

(Caveat: While I've been collecting and reading Shadowrun since it was first published and own almost everything in print, I have never run 4th edition. I also never finished reading the entirety of the 4th edition line despite owning them all. Therefore any rule comparisons to 4th and 20th Anniversary editions may be shaky. I've read the rules, but not run them.)

First off it's a big PDF. The copy I have is 489 pages and weighs in at 42.8mb. I've definitely seen larger filesize core rulebooks (Legend of the Five Rings I'm looking in your direction.) However for all it's size this PDF is well designed. It has bookmarks and the pages are very responsive, even on my tablet. Which is great as this is a full colour book.

The artwork in the book is mostly new. I noticed some reuse (the header art from the Combat chapter for instance is from the cover of Feral Cities, and a full page shot in the Matrix chapter is the cover of the fourth edition Matrix supplement. The art is mainly full colour though there are a few black and white line drawings through in for variety.

From a layout perspective the book is definitely more Shadowrun 20th Anniversary Edition than the relatively plain Shadowrun 4. It is mostly a two column style with consistent looking red bold for major headers and black bold in a smaller font for sub-headers. There is additionally white text on red sidebars and callout boxes. Tabular data is presented cleanly in grey boxes with yellow headers and white text with the rows consistently identified with alternating grey shades just like many spreadsheets. The predominant colour scheme is red, black and white, and it works. I like the layout, it's clean and the text doesn't bleed into the background at any point I noticed.
Layout example with subheaders, callout boxes, tables and example styles (note this is an abnormally busy page)
The same background image seems to be used for each white background page, seems to be a cityscape shot of Seattle, and the image is subtle and never interferes with the text. It's mainly there to provide some texture to the pages and works well as a backdrop.

The material of the book is split into 11 numbered sections, most preceded by a 4 page short story.
  1. Life in the Sixth World
  2. Shadowrun Concepts
  3. Creating a Shadowrunner
  4. Skills
  5. Combat
  6. The Matrix
  7. Riggers
  8. Magic
  9. Gamemaster Advice
  10. Helps and Hindrances
  11. Streetgear

1- Life in the Sixth World

The first chapter gives an overview of the Shadowrun world as told by a fellow running set in the present. It covers the Shadowrun world in incredibly broad strokes covering topics such as Where to Run (incredibly brief overview of the entire geopolitical world), day to day life of a runner, analysis of a run, details on money, brief talk on the Matrix and the like. The section is well written but, it has to be said, it feels very short and lacking in any depth.

Surprisingly to me, doesn't include any real history. No mention of the Great Ghost Dance, Lone Eagle Incident or the like. It gives brief mention to UGE, date of the Awakening and mentions Dunklezhan was elected president, and then assassinated, but it fails to give real context to these items. I understand that the Shadowrun history has gotten very complex but the exclusion of any real discussion on the Native American uprising resulting in the NAN I'd imagine would leave a new player or GM scratching their head trying to figure how the world works. It's mentioned that Seattle is on its own in a sea of NAN, but no talk as to why.

What material is there however is well written. It's not dry and is presented in a pretty good, and sometimes amusing, manner. I guess it's a very brief overview and the setting would be explored more in later books, but it feels that this could have been meatier. However the game is likely being aimed at people who have more than a passing familiarity with the setting so for a rulebook it's not a great loss, though a couple pages of timeline would have been useful even if they weren't expanded upon.

2. Shadowrun Concepts

This is the section that gives an overview of the core dice mechanics and introduces you to the character attributes. It isn't a full exploration of the rules, you won't find any details on combat in here, just a concise description of the core mechanic.

And that core mechanic has changed a little from the 4th and 20th Anniversary editions. It's still a D6 system with 5 or 6s counted as hits. It's still a threshold based system with X successes needed. Glitches seem to be the same as 4th edition from what I can recall, or at least not changed significantly.

What has changed and is new if the concept of Limits. A limit is basically a rule that prevents someone from having too many successes in circumstances where something may limit them. For instance if you're firing a gun you will be limited to the number of successes (hits) you can have based on the accuracy of the weapon you're using. If your cheap gun only has an accuracy of 4, even if you're the best shot in the world you cannot under normal circumstances get more than 4 hits on a shot due to the equipment bring you down.

There are ways around these Limits using edge, buying better equipment etc but they do add a limiting factor into the mechanic, possibly to avoid the ridiculous successes that are possible when dice pools get large. They're what stops a weakling elf from benchpressing a Mitsubishi Jackrabbit just because he rolled well.

As mentioned the limits can be imposed by the equipment you're using, or in the case of a basic skill test, by your Physical, Mental or Social limit scores. These scores aren't really handled in this chapter but are calculated based on your stats and other factors (such as essence being a factor in the social limit score.)

I can understand that some may not like this new mechanic, and I'm sure it would be easy to ignore, but I quite like it. It adds more differences to equipment and characters.

They also introduce the concept of a standardized notation for tests that I can't help but be reminded of the Universal Task Profile from Megatraveller when I look at it. A sample of the general skill based success test given in the section to spot a detail is;

PERCEPTION + INTUITION [MENTAL] (2) TEST

How this breaks down is the Skill + Attribute being used, followed by the Limit (in this case your Mental limit score) then the number of hits required to pass. The final TEST indicates that this is a straight forward success test and not an opposed test which would look like;

SNEAKING + AGILITY [PHYSICAL] OPPOSED TEST

If they keep to this standard it will make published adventures and the like easy to determine the tests required (not that it was every really that difficult.)

The extended tests follow a similar format and the rules for these seem simple and elegant. The mechanic behind this doesn't seem to have changed from 20th Anniversary other than to add the Limit into the equation.

Teamwork tests again are similar to SR20A but the successfully helping player also raised the new Limit score by 1 in addition to the extra die they provide.

Edge makes a return as well with very similar rules. Again it seems possible for a high Edge character to dominate, especially on the Push the Edge use. This allows them to add their Edge rating into the dice pool, initiate the Rule of Six (which allows each 6 to generate an extra die roll) and ignore all limits. However while it's powerful I suppose a GM could be more discerning on when they allow such a player to regain Edge to prevent them dominating. I'd have to see how it plays out on the table.

Generally speaking I like the base rules presented here. The changes from SR20A and 4th are really around the Limits which again some people will love or hate.

3. Creating a Shadowrunner

First off Priority Purchase is back!!!! Yay. 

So in Shadowrun 4 and SR20A character generation was a points based system, well now it's gone back to the priority system we all know and love where you assign one of five slots to Race, Attributes, Skills, Magic/Technomancer ability and Resources. I'm going to reproduce the table here because this conversation will be easier (I hope Catalyst don't mind.) It's the same as that in Preview #3. Forgive the size and that it breaks my formatting but it's more important that you see it all.


So for priority generation for those who don't know, you allocate a single priority level to each of the five purchases. Some explanation is needed here as it differs from the previous versions in a couple of respects.

The number by the Metatype is the number of points you initially have to spend on Special Attributes. Special Attributes are Magic, Resonance and Edge. These points can only be spent on Magic or Resonance if you pick a priority for Magic or Resonance that grants you that in the first place. This actually leads to an interesting situation whereby if someone choose A as priority for a human and didn't want to be a Magician or Technomancer then they end up with more Special Attribute points than they can possibly spend on Edge alone. Edge (basically your luck skill) starts at 2 for humans and can go to 7 (8 with a quality picked later.) This means you can only use 6. Obviously you wouldn't pick that, but you can get into a strange situation if you're not careful.

The rest is relatively straightforward if you have any experience of Shadowrun. Attributes are how many points you get to spend on attributes, Skills are how many you get to spend on Skills with the number after the / indicating how many you get to spend on Skill Groups. It's not entirely clear from the text if the number to be spent on Skill Groups comes out of the former number or not, however the character generation examples clear this up.

Resources are the amount of nuyen (the cash in Shadowrun) you character gets to buy gear with before the game starts.

Magic or Resonance is where you pick if you are going to be a Technomancer (someone who can access the Matrix without any gear just the power of his/her mind) or some flavour of magic user. This splits down into full magician, mystic adept (someone who can cast spells and use magic to enhance their natural abilities), Adept (someone who uses magic to solely enhance their abilities) or Aspected Magician (a magic user who can only use one type of spell from Sorcery, Conjuration or Enchanting.) It's too complex to go into all the magic rules here, but this priority selection allows you to customize how powerful you wish your character to be in their area.

So the character generation chapter takes you the whole way through the generation process one step at a time in a relatively logical manner. Having a quick play through it myself I will say that because of the stepped approach, and the return to the priority system, character generation is much more rapid than in 4 or SR20A.  It's also much more focused. It's easy to pick qualities from the list in the chapter, determine your stats and follow the examples.

Ah the examples. During the character generation chapter you are guided through on each step the character generation of not one but three different characters. A Technomancer, a Street Samurai and a Mystic Adept. Every single step of the process ends with these three characters going through it and showing the results. This makes it much easier to follow than previous character gen examples in almost any game. They even show you the character sheets filled out at the end.

The unfortunate thing about the chapter however is there are a few mistakes in the tables and examples. Dwarves have lost thermgraphic vision, some of the examples are missing items either from the text or the resulting tables and the increase in lifestyle and equipment costs for a troll changes between 50 & 100% throughout the chapter. I've picked up from other forums that they are aware of these issues and a day 1 release errata PDF will be available to cover these issues. I'd imagine this PDF will be updated for the core book at some point in the near future.

The chapter ends with 16 sample characters that you could just pick from if you liked. These consist of the usual range of Shadowrun archtypes; Street Samurai, Covert Ops Specialist, Occult Investigator, Street Shaman, Combat Mage, Brawling Adept, Weapons Specialist, Face, Tank, Decker, Technomancer, Gunslinger Adept, Drone Rigger, Smuggler, Sprawl Ganger and Bounty Hunter. I must say though, I miss the Burnt Out Mage from previous editions.

All in all it's one of the best character generation chapters I've come across in a while in any RPG. There's nothing strange or particularly new in it from previous core rulebooks that I noticed, some qualities have changed (qualities are advantages and disadvantages you can pick) and I do like that having a valid SIN (System Identification Number) is actually considered a negative quality due to the tracking that comes with it.

4. Skills

The skills chapter is all about, well, skills. As expected it's mainly a list of all the official skills in the game, what they're used for and more information on each one. It goes into more detail on Skill Groups, using specializations in skills and the substitution system for if you don't have a particular skill you need. 

It details uses of certain skills, how to incorporate their use into games and introduces specific rules attached to some skills like Stealth, Swimming, Tracking, Survival, Social Influence skills etc. Also includes more details on languages

There's not much point going into much detail on this chapter, you know what to expect. Useful and highly referencable chapter, but not exactly the world's most exciting prose. It does the job though and the text is clear and not confusing. 

5. Combat

At first glance the combat system doesn't seem to have changed a huge deal. Combat still starts with a roll of initiative and characters acting in initiative order. At the end of the phase 10 is taken off all the Initiative scores and those with +ve scores left get to go again. Rinse and repeat.

Actions in combat are split into Free, Simple and Complex actions with a character getting a free and either two simple or one complex action in each initiative pass. Nothing new to see here.

Attacks consist of a roll to hit, a roll to avoid and then a roll for resisting the damage, just like SR20A. I wonder if there is any way to houserule that down to two rolls, one on each side as it feels like one roll too much to me. However this is the way it was previously and it seems to have worked out so I'll defer to those who've managed to play with the 4th and SR20A rulesets. 

Other than the occasional modifier change and the introduction of limits not a huge amount has been altered as far as the general flow of combat goes. There are obviously some changes though.

For burst fire instead of adding 2 damage to the damage dealt bursts reduce the defender's pool by 2 dice to avoid the attack.

Recoil has been to have more options and a greater range of progressive recoil through multiple shots. Recoil  continues to build action phase after action phase, turn to turn, until the character stops firing the weapon for a phase to bring it back under control (note this is for an individual action phase of the character, not a combat turn.)

Related to the recoil, semi-automatic weapons can only fire once in an action phase. In SR20A they could be fired twice, one for each possible simple action. As a result though SA weapons don't build recoil over time.

Grenade scatter has been made more granular with much less chance of them coming back towards the thrower. Previously if you missed there was a 50% chance it would come back in the thrower's general direction as it was a simple scatter based on a single die. Now it is a 2D6 roll with only a 1 in 6 chance of it coming back (2, 3, 11 or 12 on the roll) and the possibility of it now going sideways instead of past (4 & 10.)

Also speaking of grenades the "chunky salsa" effect, a grenade going off in tight confines, appears to have been increased considerably. This is due to the fact that grenade damage has been dialled up in general considerably. In SR20A a Frag grenade did 12P damage, in 5th it's 18P.

Onto armour, most of the rules are the same as previously but the big big change is gone are the differences between Ballistic and Impact armour. Now it's just a single armour rating. All previous versions of Shadowrun have featured this distinction but now they've simplified it down. Make of it what you will, but it can serve to make the system slightly simpler (though only slightly.)

If someone shoots at you you have two choices. You choose to just take it and get a Reaction + Intuition roll to try and avoid it (unless you couldn't see it coming) or you can take the option of taking a Full Defense. Full Defense however has changed considerably from SR20A rules.

In SR20A Full Defense was a complex action you could take if you were expecting to get shot at, and that was your action. In SR5 it's more reactionary. You can choose Full Defense at any point in the round as long as you still have an action to come. Under Full Defense you roll Reaction + Intuition + Willpower as your defense roll (bonus of Willpower.) You also get the Willpower bonus for the rest of the round. The cost, you immediately lose 10 points off your initiative. The effect of this is you don't always have to anticipate the need for a Full Defense, but you'll forgo some of your later actions as a result of the reduced initiative.

Some more options have been added for Called Shots and as a Called Shot you can now
  • Knock an object out of someone's hands
  • Perform a dirty trick combat manoeuvre
  • Make a harder knock (turning a stun damage into a physical damage)
  • Perform a melee knock down
  • Trick shot (shoot a cigarette out of their mouth for instance) to increase intimidation checks afterwards
  • Split damage between damage tracks (physical and stun,) only for physical attacks
  • Shake the opponent by shooting past the ear, shoot by their foot etc
  • Aim for the vitals to increase damage
One big change in the combat chapter however is examples. Yes there were examples in previous editions, but not to the extent that there is in SR5. In fact for the entire book their use of examples is fabulous. Almost every significant rule in the combat chapter either has its own example or is involved in one of the examples. I cannot stress enough how much of an improvement these are. While much of the actual rules text in the combat chapter is copy and paste from SR20A with some alterations, the examples are where you're happy they spent the extra effort in clarification.

Overall I like how combat is structured and it seems that after a few tries it should flow relatively smoothly. If you've played SR4 and SR20A it seems it will run more or less the same, just a few minor tweaks. Are they good tweaks? My instinct says yes, but as always not everyone will agree on that one.

So that ends part I of my 5th edition review. Come back for Part II shortly.

EDIT: Part II can be found here.

(Update: The PDF of the game is now out. You can grab it over at DriveThruRPG.com. Highly recommended.)

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