Monday, 30 December 2013

Review - Shadowrun 5th Edition

Shadowrun 5th Edition

Published by Catalyst Game Labs

I’ve not played Shadowrun since it’s 1st Edition release way back in 1989. We got a lot out of that game; we were all D&D and Warhammer Fantasy fans and we were also big fans of Blade Runner and Akira, so to have the two genres mixed up in some crazy cyberpunk setting was a great idea for gamers such as ourselves.

Saying that, I never really got on with Shadowrun 1st Edition as a GM. It felt like two games in one, one for the action monkeys like myself and one for the tech-savvy Deckers. Many were the times when my Street Samurai had to sit back and pick at his fingernails while the GM took a Decker into the net. We got some great games out of it and ran afoul of more than one troll bouncer - and I remember breaking a cardinal rule and being double-crossed by a dragon and vaporised - but quite simply the system and certain aspects of the setting didn’t do it for me.

The Shadowrun universe, I felt, was an acquired taste. After the initial excitement of being able to game in such a world the mixing of the two genres started to grate as we had two fans of two different types of creative fiction bouncing off one another; the cyberpunk fans who wanted to blast through the neon rain-soaked streets on their Yamaha Rapiers, and the fantasy fans who wanted to cast spells and do the suburban equivalent of a dungeon bash, as best they could in the concrete forest of Seattle, and basically do the things they used to do in the high fantasy games we played. It was two genres and two different approaches to the game, and the fact that the rules pretty much divided players up as they did their own thing didn’t help. I know that game situations such as this are mostly group specific and can’t be pinned on a facet of the actual game, but I can only go from personal experience.

Because of this I completely skipped the following three editions. Sadly, this also means that I can’t tell you how this new edition compares to all the other editions, so I’ll just have to try and explain to you what this game did for me. I always intended to return to this game some day so now seems as good a time as any; but will Shadowrun 5th Edition still have those aspects of 1st Edition I didn’t like?


The hardback 480-page full colour book is certainly an impressive thing to behold. The action-filled cover and excellent interior art really captures the atmosphere that Shadowrun wants to evoke; a dark, violent, magic-filled cyberpunk world of secrets and danger. There are some excellent fold-out pages of cityscapes, certain characters and the previous edition covers including the original Elmore cover for 1st Edition that I recognised immediately. The print is clear and mostly black on white, and it’s all glossy pages throughout. The artwork is of a very high standard and there are some well-written short stories that help to build the background and style of the setting. At the back of the book, along with the detailed index, is a character sheet and the primary charts and tables you’ll need to run a game, which is always a good thing. There’s also a code to use should you wish to play Shadowrun Online; using it will get you an exclusive in-game item, namely a Hammerli 620 handgun, and there’ll be other freebies with other Shadowrun 5th Edition products as they come out. That’s a nice touch.

Upon opening the book one of the first things that struck me was the contents; there are five pages of them and they’re very detailed. At first there’s a sense of overwhelming complication; there’s a lot going on in this book and the contents page is a bit of a shock, even to a seasoned gamer like myself. Once you realise that the contents pages detail every facet of the game then you also realise that it also acts like an index; everything is pretty easy to find just by skimming the contents. The fact that there’s a detailed index at the back of the book means that it’s pretty easy and quick to find what you need when you need it, even in the middle of the action. With a book as large and detailed as this, that’s a bonus.

The book has the usual structure of a gaming core rulebook; it introduces you to the world, takes you through character creation, skill use and combat, and then takes you through the unique aspects of Shadowrun; The Matrix, Magic and all that entails. There’s a decent GM advice section with plenty of details on NPCs and campaigns, and then the book rounds out with the details, such as equipment, toxins, drugs, magical gear and critters. There’s an excellent ‘Random Run’ generator where you roll some D6s on five different tables to generate a meet location, an employer, a job type, the macguffin you’re running for and a plot twist. It’s only a couple of pages in the entire book but it it’s great for one-shot runs to fill in the gaps between adventures or campaigns.

Before you get to the meat of the game the book begins with some pretty good and atmospheric fiction and plenty of information on the Sixth World, the world as it is in 2075, what being a Shadowrunner is, the kind of problems you might come up against and then some details about life in the cyber/magic future. There’s around thirty-five pages of this background material and it not only updates current Shadowrun players on the world it also works as an excellent introduction for new runners who may have picked up the game for the first time.

The system is quick and simple, and it’s a lot better than I remember from the First Edition; the D6 is the die of choice in this game and you roll them to try to score as many fives or sixes as possible. Each success results in a ‘hit’, and you have to beat a target threshold. Getting over the threshold is a success. I was never a huge fan of the original rules but these, while familiar, are also quite different and play very well.

The character creation is very detailed but once you get through an initial first character build it’s actually very easy. It takes you through it step by step, it’s very clear and well laid out and everything is explained in detail with plenty of very handy and well-written examples, and there are some archetypes included so that you can check out how a character is laid out or just grab one for a quick character.

Magic and Decking feels much more involved with the game and play much smoother. If played right there’s no more sitting around waiting on other players to roll their dice and then waiting for results and any applicable narrative. The game flows much better and there are some great examples explaining how make it work so that the gunbunny of the group doesn’t feel too left out when the tech-heads or the spellslingers are rolling, or vice versa. It no longer feels like there are two different games going on, but this depends on the nature of the adventure the GM has set up. If there is some serious decking going on then some players may still feel a little sidelined.


As a product, Shadowrun 5th Edition is a slick and very impressive book. The dark hues help to enhance the atmosphere, the art is never dull or lacking in flavour – in fact, some of it is pretty impressive – and the layout is clear and incredibly well presented. It’s a large tome, that’s for sure, but don’t let the thickness and page count put you off. The game itself is comprehensive, not complicated, and it’s a case of the product being filled with plenty of options and detail that you can slowly incorporate into your games, using more and more of it over time.

This size and detail may make this book a little less new player friendly; people new to the tabletop RPG hobby may be turned off by the sheer size of the book, along with the amount of information and detail in there. Seasoned gamers, however, will have no problem with this. In fact, they’ll no doubt relish the detail.

The rules are nice and easy to use and along with the magic and decking systems the core skill system is pretty quick and easy once you get used to it. Some groups may find that previous edition players will recognise the system straight away. Group coherency is certainly improved so there should always be something for someone to do even while someone is diving into the Matrix, should the GM handle it right.

Speaking of the GM, there’s an excellent GM’s advice chapter that really helps with the setting. It’s a good read for general GM tips but it really helps with running a Shadowrun campaign and GMs new to the Shadowrun universe will find it very helpful.

Has it changed my opinion of what I saw as the divisive nature of the original game? Absolutely. Not only has the game system improved and enables the group to be much more involved no matter what is going on, the setting has been refined so that it no longer feels like two settings being forced together, like a fantasy and cyberpunk version of the same game system was written and then mixed up in an attempt to draw in both fans of the genres, offering much for like-minded gamers but little for different fans of the different genres.

If you want to drop the magical part of Shadowrun and run it as a normal cyberpunk-themed game then there’s no problem at all with that. The system works just as well as a generic cyberpunk game so it can be used for any kind of setting you want; just dump the fantasy aspects.

Shadowrun 5th Edition is an excellent, well-presented book that will no doubt please those who already game in the Sixth World as well as impress newcomers to this rich and detailed setting.


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