One Hour Library Review: Shadowrun Fifth Edition

In our One Hour Reviews, we set a clock for sixty minutes and analyze the book. When time is up, we stop. The goal is to try and look over as much of the book as possible, without getting bogged down in any one section. Similar to how you might leaf through a book in the store, with some specific granularity, but mainly to focus on gaining a high level understanding of everything the RPG has to offer. Set the clock and let’s go!

Out of the big-name, long-running roleplaying games, Shadowrun has had an impressive and persistent run considering the many different banners it’s been published under. It started in 1989 (not as far back as Dungeons & Dragons but farther than Vampire: The Masquerade or Rifts) under the FASA Corporation. It was sold in 2001 to WizKids which was then bought by Topps which then licensed the rights to the RPG to Catalyst Game Labs, the current producers.

Recently, the latest edition of the game – Fifth Edition – was published and I quickly bought myself a copy to see what new mechanics they had, what strangeness of the digital and Astral realms awaited, and what craziness was in store for the Sixth World. Considering the tumult of Shadowrun‘s history, you might expect and even forgive a little choppiness in the book. To my delight, the book is anything but choppy and has some great changes. Check out what I found during my first hour with the new book.

First thing to note here is that the Table of Contents is five pages long. Four columns on each. Because the book itself is almost five hundred pages long. This game isn’t kidding around.

Shadowrun has always been a game where PCs play a tiny part. There is a rich setting to play in with wars, elections, corporate takeovers, rebel attacks, medical breakthroughs, and more happen at the same time as whatever petty crime you’re up to. Even when characters are involved in the Big Picture, it’s usually as clandestine mercenaries or unwitting pawns and they rarely make it onto the global stage.

By definition, shadowrunning is operating below the surface and on behalf of an employer who can’t go through normal channels. In this new edition, I want to see this flavor continued and improved upon. I’d also like it to be accessible for new players and easy for experienced players to switch over. I’ll freely admit that I have next to no idea what changes Catalyst Labs had in mind for Fifth Edition but if it’s even on par with Fourth, I’m in.

Section 01: Life in the Sixth World

The first real section of the book (besides the “What’s a roleplaying game?” and “What’s this book?” sections a seasoned roleplayer skips) is about what you need to know about the world of Shadowrun and your place in it. They break the setting up into thematic sections: Magic, Megacorps, Cyberware, and Shadowrunning. Each deals with a little bit of history and a little bit of facts of life for players to familiarize themselves with. This is a small change from previous editions but the first section I expect in a Shadowrun core book is a history of the world to the start of the campaign. It’s almost a tradition, but it’s also a big part of getting up to speed since Shadowrun has enough setting history and evolution over the course of the product line to give the Forgotten Realms a run for their money.

The trick is, I never could get through the whole history at once. I think I eventually read through that whole section in the first edition I tried (Third) but sort of skimmed after that and could never find what I wanted to when I wanted. This book does a good job of alleviating that weight of text that someone has to wade through to get started, but hopefully there’s a way for GMs and players to still access that long timeline of cyberpunk craziness.

After the foundational sections, there are sections for geographic areas to acquaint folks with the rather different geopolitical world of Shadowrun. There are brief descriptions of North America, Central America, South America, Asia, Europe, Africa, and Australia and Oceania. This is followed by “A Day in Your Life” which lets you know a few important details of running the shadows including People You Know, the Meet, What You Might Be Doing, and the Opposition.

Again, other Shadowrun core books are a little less straightforward on this stuff. They detail megacorps, Lone Star, and street gangs but they don’t specifically say “this is who you’ll fight.” I think there is both something gained (an easier access for new players) and something lost (the omnipresent, in-character feel of the game) with this approach. But overall I like it.

After these great little bios for players and GMs on the power groups of Shadowrun, there are sections on what society is like (in Seattle and North America generally, of course). Short sections on money, the Matrix, sex, transportation, and other things you might be interested can introduce new players and having them blocked out thematically like this means referencing will be easy. There’s even a sidebar with stores organized by merchandise so you can easily adapt to the setting! Really helpful, and this whole section only takes up twenty-three pages so it’s pretty digestible.

Section 02: Shadowrun Concepts

Alright, here’s the crunch. The first bit seems just the same as Fourth Edition: hits, thresholds, glitches, success tests, opposed tests, extended tests, teamwork… Familiar stuff if you’ve played the last edition but there are a few new items. Characters now have limits which prevent their dice pools from getting out of control, derived from their attributes (we’re promised an explanation later).

They come in three flavors (Physical, Mental, and Social) and they limit the number of hits from a test you can actually use. I love this because it’s a whole new dimension of the test than modifying the dice pool or raising the threshold. Conceivably, a GM who doesn’t want to give you a modifier or change the threshold on you can adjust your limit instead, and in fact gear items have their own limits that apparently come into play.

Combat rounds… yadda, yadda… snazzy new graphics… Attributes are all the same… Man, even the Edge uses are the same. There’s a nice sidebar about “alternate rules” you can use, but generally it’s rewritten rules from Fourth. All in all this chapter falls under the category of “Necessary But Nothing New”… Which is alright, since I liked the last edition but why are we having a Fifth Edition then?

Section 03: Creating a Shadowrunner

This section is probably the first one new players will really pour over so it better be good. The first thing that catches my eye is this awesome sidebar with “Common Character Types.” It’s not especially clear that these are just for guidance but it helps new players (even those coming from another system) to know what a crew needs (Face, Spellcaster, Decker, Street Samurai) and what the options are (“I like spellcaster… oh, and there’s different kinds of magic!”). All important stuff to get up front.

Here’s the first “alternate rule” sidebar, which lets you know how to adjust things for different levels of play. If you want to have total newbs adjust for Street Level play, and if you want grizzled veterans adjust for Prime Runner play. Each changes the values of different aspects of character creation as well as giving more or less karma for customization.

Ah, metatype. Now we’re going. Let’s get the Fourth Edition book out for some side-by-side… Oh alright. Well the first thing is that I should take back my “why a new edition?” comment from earlier. Character creation in Fifth Edition has gone back to the Priorities system of Third instead of the build points of Fourth. That’s core enough to require a new system.

In the olden days you had A through E to assign to various parts of your character build so that Prioritizing your metatype directly and overtly limited your starting cash (for example). I liked the switch to point-buy in Fourth because it meant you could fine-tune a little more, but in Fifth it looks like a bit of a hybrid system. In Third Edition you had to put Priority C into metatype if you wanted an elf, and you couldn’t put A there just like you couldn’t put anything lower than B into magic. A little limiting and it meant that a lot of characters’ Priorities ended up the same.

In Fifth Edition you can be an elf with a range of Priority values with an adjustment to the points you put into your Special attributes (Edge, Magic, Resonance, and Essence). Your elf character can sink A through D into metatype, but the D-version of an elf has no points to boost Specials while the A-elf has eight. Similarly, you can have some magical ability with Priorities A through D but if you are really serious about it you’ll still want a high Priority.

The metatype Attribute Table is exactly the same, although there are Lifestyle cost adjustments for trolls and dwarves, then we get a nice breakdown sidebar of all the types of magic users. The next part of character creation, as in Fourth Edition, is buying Qualities. This is done with karma points, the experience system for the game, although starting characters get a handful to customize. Including this really makes it a hybrid system of Third and Fourth, taking the best of both editions.

I’m going to skip over these quickly since I’ve only got twenty minutes left, but I will note that the first few Qualities examined seem the same as in Fourth Edition so it shouldn’t be hard to import your favorite once you convert BP to karma.

Skills! Sticking with the side-by-side approach, you can see that things have changed a lot here. There are still Skill Groups and Specialties but the groups have all be standardized in number (three in each… well except for Engineering which has four) and the skills themselves have been pared down. Infiltration and Shadowing are combined into Sneaking, for instance, and Data Search has been folded into Software. Knowledge skills are still the same (Academic, Interest, Professional, and Street), which I like, and neither the Spellcasting nor the Tasking skills have been changed.

We also get the calculations for limits in the Final Touches section. They’re really just a weighted average of each category of attribute (Physical, Social, and Mental) where one attribute (Strength, Logic, and Charisma, respectively) are added twice before dividing by three. Makes sense, and it’s a way for characters to up their limits in a category without having “Increase Limit” be another tax for spending karma points (just increase the weighted attribute instead).

The chapter ends with a bunch of sample characters, but also with the character sheets of all three example characters from the creation process, which I think is a nice touch.

Section 04: Skills

I already talked about skills above so I’m going to flip quickly through here and just talk about how the chapter’s organized. Plenty of reference tables (probably reused from the GM screen) and lists of languages, knowledge fields, etc. for people to use. Also lingos (specialized subsets of a language), which I’ve always loved. Looks good.

Section 05: Combat

Alright, I also don’t have time to go in-depth into these rules so I’m not going to try. I’ll just skim and see what jumps out. This chapter mentions Interrupt Actions (like in Fourth) but they are specific examples and they affect your Initiative score instead of requiring you to sacrifice an action. Definite improvement. Under Vehicle Combat they have Chase Actions and suggestions for what passengers can do… This already has me thinking of a mad rush through the streets of Seattle.

Section 06: The Matrix

This section looks similar to the Matrix in Fourth Edition, which makes sense as the setting hasn’t moved forward at all. One thing that does receive a lot of attention (and that I don’t remember at all from the last edition) is grids, which amounts to the wireless network you’re on. I’m guessing this means that Matrix combat has an added wrinkle of needing to be on the same grid to attack someone (maybe making it harder to shut down another person’s ‘ware or gear), but it may just be further color about the wireless world. Even if it’s only around to provide the acronym GOD (Grid Overwatch Division) for a particular grid’s admin security, I’m fine with this change.

Section 07: Riggers

Riggers, the mental commanders of armies of robots, are a ton of fun. I like that they have their own section here as it makes them a more fleshed-out option for players. Even if it is rather short…

Section 08: Magic

Obviously an important part of the setting, but magic is also the one that most people coming from Dungeons & Dragons or World of Darkness (hell, even Star Wars) will understand most. There are spirits that you summon and use, or mystical energies you channel into your body, and then blast your enemies to pieces.

One nice sidebar right off the bat is a listing of corporate magic stores, which makes spellcasters seem less removed from the rest of the setting. All of the mechanics seem to be the same, including power points and their costs.

And the Rest…

Well, I’m out of time, but the final sections of the book are Gamemaster Advice, Helps and Hinderances (NPCs, critters, and chemicals), and Street Gear). At the very back of the book, just before the Index, are a few things that are a lot more interesting than I expected. The Random Run Generator actually could be a good start to a campaign (roll for Meeting Place, Job Type, MacGuffin, etc) to start a first game with folks (or come up with something on the fly).

There are two urban panoramas (Berlin and Tenochtitlan), which could help you get to a new locale, and then a nostalgia-filled collection of cover images from all the different editions of Shadowrun. It should seem manipulative (“We are carrying the torch forward!”) but it’s actually nice to see those familiar troll-with-SMG pictures.

My desire for an easy-to-access Shadowrun edition was definitely met… in fact being familiar with the Fourth Edition rules, I don’t think I have to learn very much at all. The biggest changes are to character creation, but those are improvements from previous editions so there’s nothing untried.

Something that is a little disappointing is that the setting hasn’t advanced much. People might not have liked it, but I’m interested in what happens to all the Sixth World politics and schemes! I guess that’s what campaigns are for, and it also means that all my Fourth Edition sourcebooks are still directly useful.

In general, I think this is a great buy for people who want to get into Shadowrun, and if you want to buy some Fourth Edition materials I think those can help you as well. If you’re already a fan and already have a Fourth Edition library, know that this book is good and definitely a credit to the gameline as well as being well priced at $20 for the pdf. You can also get most of the changes from the Conversion Guide and Preview Omnibus if you want to keep playing the previous edition but use the new products. Personally, though, I say embrace the future.