Shadowrun 5th Edition Core Rules Review [Review PDF Copy, obtained on the 24th of June, 2013]
by Matthäus Cebulla
Welcome, dear reader, to a review that was somewhat of a small odyssey for me. This is not just a simple, “read and rate” review. I took care to focus on three distinct areas of the game.
1) Beginner Friendliness
2) Digital Compatibility
3) And, of course, the game and book itself.
Before starting with any of this, let me bring out my own experiences and biases. It is only fair that you know from what background my own perception will come from.
Even though I did not start with 1st Edition, Shadowrun was the first RPG I played, slightly over twenty years ago. 2nd Edition, yes. Even though it was called “2.01D”, as it was the German version. But, still. I stuck with it, through all that which came after. I even managed to acquire a copy of 1st Edition to round out my collection.
Settings-wise, I don’t think I ever left something I call the “Era of Findley”. I stopped caring about the setting developments about when “Year of the Comet” hit the shelves. 4th Edition put me even further away from it all. While I really loved the rules, the setting just left me cold.
This is what my background looks like. Keep this in mind and decide for yourself how to weigh it against all that which will come after. If you want to skip the longer parts, use your browser’s search function to look for “[Conclusion]”. This will be featured four times in this review. Once here, and then after the end of each section.
Let’s submerge ourselves then.
1. Beginner Friendliness
My methodology here was to put the game to the test with parts of my current Shadowrun group. One player who is utterly new to RPGs, and one player who is new to Shadowrun. I let them create PCs on their own and then played a short scene, after a quick rules run-down. During the creation process, I was there to ask some questions, but didn’t interfere in the process in any way.
There were two players tested. S and M. S is an utter RPG newbie. She hasn’t played a game before, and Shadowrun is pretty much her introduction. She does have a SR2 PC, but its creation was distinctly “hand-held”. She chose to create a Technomancer.
M is a Shadowrun newcomer but RPG veteran. He chose to create a Fence.
As outlining the whole process would be a small publication in itself, I will present the collected comments during all this.
Both players enjoyed the fact that the traditional “History” section is now a “This is the world of…” section. While I, as a veteran, missed the caustic treatment of Shadowrun’s history by Captain Chaos, I also have to agree that this is a good thing. It helps new players to the setting, or the edition, to jump right into the thick of it. And while it makes for a great bit of back-story, S (who I kind of indoctrinated with SR lore last year) remarked that a run-down of the current state of affairs was of more use to her in creating a character than a breakdown of the socio-political consequences of the Shiawase Decision. She was also (most likely correctly) quick to point out that most Shadowrunners would not be history majors.
Both players then proceeded to the “Concepts” chapter and were delighted to see that it actually offered just enough of a breakdown to let them think a bit about the mechanical side of it all.
During the character creation proper, it was again S who helpfully pointed out that both the examples as well as the reminders were very helpful in keeping her straight and making sure that she did not lose herself in all the details. Both she and M were happy with the layout of the book in general and the character creation process in particular.
S did have a problem/point of critique though, which I think will apply to all “special attribute” character types (Technomancers, Magicians, Adepts): Choosing their complex forms/powers/spells does take one out of the general flow of character creation and leads to someone having to familiarize themselves with some involved material on-the-fly. For this, she commented, it would be handy having someone there who could quickly sketch out all the extra-rules and help with the decision process of what to get.
Playing through the short scenes (letting the Technomancer hack a fortified office and letting the Face play through a negotiation, an intimidation and a seduction) showed that both players managed to make good choices with the instructions, reminders and pointers given by the book.
Shadowrun 5th might still be a typically crunchy and, to some, imposing RPG (it IS Shadowrun, still), but it made sure to be as friendly to people entering the sixth world as it could be. There are still newbie pitfalls (especially when it comes to the more rules-involved character types.), but they are not insurmountable if one takes the time to read not just through the first three chapters, but also the basics of the hacking and magic chapters. This might not come as a great surprise to anybody, but I think it’s poignant that even with this caveat, a total RPG newbie was able to create playable, working characters.
If your players are into the idea of playing a game of Shadowrun, you WILL be able to just give them the book and let them take it from there, with only minimal assistance from you.
Definitely a very positive mark.
2. Digital Compatibility
This is not Nova Praxis Augmented Edition. It’s not anywhere near the Nova Praxis Augmented Edition. It still is the almost literal translation of a US Letter format, print book into PDF.
But in this, it’s a good translation. Clocking a measly 43MB while being 489 pages in size, there are no grounds for complaint there. This includes some quite nice, four-page-spread, high definition, “posters”. It also includes sharp, easy to read layout with an easily readable and good looking semi-serif font.
Using a (now rather old) iPad2 and GoodReader, it was nothing but swift and flashy. Using an Acer Iconia A210 and ezPDF it was slower, but still serviceable.
The bookmarks are exceptionally well done. There are no ifs or buts. If you want to find something, you will find it via the bookmarks.
Something I really appreciated was the hyperlinked TOC. I would have been even happier if the Index was similarly connected. Although I suppose that that might have led to some significant size increase, as the index is very well done and very extensive, without feeling bloated. It actually is a great help.
While it might be just a tad faster, it is a very digital friendly PDF.
If you own a semi-modern tablet, it will be a smooth experience.
3. Shadowrun 5th Edition – The RPG
Here comes the hard part. Reviewing the fifth edition of one of my most beloved RPGs, after having had a clear and open distaste for its direction during the last edition. As I mentioned in the preface, I will try to keep it as objective as possible, but I cannot promise any subjective pieces sneaking in. For that case, I have laid out my experiences and biases earlier. So, please keep them in mind.
Let me start with the things one can be most objective about: The layout and organization. They are both excellent. It is hard for me to write this, but it is true. The book is clean, clear and sharp. The text is always legible, the font is easy on the eyes and the sidebars/text boxes are distinct and topical.
The TOS and the index are near-perfect. It should not be a surprise, but after some recent experiences with other RPGs, it still is. Both sections are useful and, most importantly, usable.
There is just nothing wrong with either of them.
When it comes to organization, I touched on something that I liked in the first section of the review: The book really is organized in a very logical manner which is also quite play-inductive. I also really liked that Riggers got their own, fully fledged-out chapter this time around, giving them a prominent spot besides Hackers, Spellcasters and Adepts.
As of now, the TOC have been posted as preview material by CGL (http://www.shadowruntabletop.com/2013/07/final-shadowrun-fifth-edition-pdf-preview-reviews/), so you can take a look and see how well it works for you.
Taking a step back from layout and organization let me tell you about the art. I love the art. I really do. Whoever was the art director for this book (Brent Evans, for the curious.) deserves high praise. There is a ton of really wonderful new artwork, as well as a smattering of some old pieces. And the pieces that we know from 1st and 2nd edition have now been used to great effect. Not only do they bring a short glimpse into the game’s past, they also simply fit where they are.
Another art-related point is something that is dear to my heart. Most of the people I game with are women. My sister is a gamer, my girlfriend is a gamer and many of my closest friends (all female) are gamers. So, you can imagine that I took a hard look at the content of the art. And what I saw was a surprise. A good one.
The SR5th artwork can call itself “inclusive” with all honours. Not only are the women depicted clothed and posed in sensible (yet cool and setting-fitting) ways, they are also very much VISIBLE. I admit that Shadowrun never was that much of a problem in that regard, but SR5th really manages to hit the right spot.
And while there are some “sexy” pieces there, they are neither the majority, nor stereotypical, nor are they depicting only females. Or only Homo Sapiens Sapiens, for that matter. There is one really striking piece of a bare-chested, sexy, male, Troll gang-member, for example, which was really refreshing.
And, yes. I took the time to show the art in the book to a few female friends, just to double check myself. They confirmed my initial impression. Which made me really glad. It’s still refreshing to be able to show an RPG core-book to a female friend and be sure that she will see a good selection of cool, hard, capable female “character role models” in there.
Now comes the part which I’ve been dreading. Going for the rules. The hardest part to review well.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: I really like them.
There are some things I still dislike, yes. I’m still not a fan of how wireless is handled, especially when it comes to WiFi benefits of cyberware. But, basically, this is the only thing I don’t like.
SR5th introduces the new concept of “limits”, and while this has already drawn the ire of some people, I can’t say that I don’t find it intriguing. It offers a great way to show how augmentations (By the way: Calling cyberware and bioware “Augmentations” seems to be a really well though-off nod towards Deus Ex, which I approve of. While I’ll still call them ‘Ware in my games, I feel that this will help players new to Shadowrun get the picture quicker.) actually augment a character besides giving some rules-exception or some extra dice. Inserting the right piece of ‘ware into your PC and suddenly being able to use a higher limit gives it a real oomph. Even in higher-powered games.
The new edition also goes back to the priority system in character creation, but gives it a twist. Putting a higher priority into race now actually makes sense, even when you’re Human, as the Race column now also offers “Special Attribute Points” which can be spent on Edge and Magic or Resonance. Which nicely leads to another change: Neither Magic nor Resonance start at six now. You can actually play a weaker magical/technomantic character who then builds up his potential up to the limit, before going with initiation/submersion.
Sideline: Character Generation Power Level alternatives are there right from the start, helping GMs who want to play a lower or higher powered campaign. There are also other “optional rules” boxes strewn through the book, which help out GMs tailoring the game to their group’s tastes.
Going with this, Edge got a few new areas to be used with. While I understand why some people might (and do) dislike it, I have to again state that I really like it. It helps push the kind of game I want and like to run, where the protagonists get some unexpected boost from time to time.
Then comes the part that always stuck out with Shadowrun: How well do the rules for the different sub-mechanics interact? How well can you combine a Face, a Shaman, a Decker (They are Deckers again! There are also Decks again!) and a Rigger into a single group and run it at the same time?
After having tried it out with three archetypical scenarios (1. Subtle Insertion 2. Combat 3. Data Steal While Combat Is Running Around It), I am glad to say that you can do it really well this time around.
The rules for the different sub-mechanics are well designed and work really smooth. There is even a really long an in-depth example in the book how a Rigger and a Decker go at each other with some hacking and some drone action and some pure social stuff going on at the very same time. There are still the occasional speed glitches when someone does something purely out-of-body, like going full-VR or entering an Astral Realm, but even then the way they re-worked the rules means that you do not have two or three separate games going on at once.
My pet bug-bear always has been the Matrix side of things. And I am very happy with how it turned out to work and even feel. It’s not tied to any Real World technical background, which is a blessing. The distinction between AR and VR is explained well and in a concise manner. The main hacking rules were sitting clear in my mind after a single read-through. (The same for the Rigging rules, really.)
There is also still a “tinkering” element with Deckers, but it is not to the detriment of one being fun to play. As one example, each of the stock decks comes with an attribute spread that the Decker can re-distribute on the fly, while also changing his program load-out to match any given situation.
The way programs are now handled, as a modifier to the deck’s capabilities and the Decker’s actions, sits really well with me. Riggers can now also use some of those Matrix Programs, but with their own twist on them.
Both Deckers and Riggers use the same AR and VR “worlds” for their concentration. Both can interact, but both are still distinct from each other in a meaningful way.
And while it might be a point against the system for some, the current Matrix rules let me blast the Hackers (1995 movie) Soundtrack and actually feel like I am Hacking The Gibson. And for me, this is a very good thing indeed.
In basic terms, the same can be said about magicians and adepts of all stripes. The rules for spellcasting, counter-magic, conjuring, enchanting and alchemy (My, I really do love alchemy! It was an unexpected addition and it offers for new possibilities of one-use, player-created “artefacts”.) are all clear and easy to follow, with a multitude of great examples to them.
Sideline: I will not repeat it again, but I want to make it clear: The examples in this book are exceptional. Not only are they all really well designed and clearly written, illustrating the rules they are a companion to, they are also a wonderful non-fluff way of setting setting-tropes and expectations. They are almost all humorous while being informative, they offer a varied cast of characters and a glimpse at the street-side of the sixth world. Really well done.
The rules for Technomancers as well as the Astral Realms are somewhat more involved, but not by much. Even though “my newbie” created a Technomancer, I would still suggest that they are saved for a second campaign by novice players and/or GMs.
If I am not mistaken, that leaves two chapters to be reviewed. Gamemaster Advice and Helps And Hindrances. AKA: Behind the Shadows and Critters And NPCs.
If I may, I will start with the Critter/NPC chapter.
I miss the illustrations to each critter type, to be honest. While I never used them as much as other GMs, I always found that their illustrations offered a valued point of setting-feel information. Especially for the various Dragons. But, that is a very minor critique. The powers are all there and their usage is well explained.
The NPC part meets with more enthusiastic approval. It offers both rules and advice for Contacts as well as adversial NPCs of both lower and higher threat levels. And it does so really well.
The re-working of the Connection rating to reach from 1 to 12 made for a smoother curve between “Squatter” and “AAA CEO”. It’s a small change, but it’s well appreciated.
This chapter, along with the GM Advice chapter, shows a reason why almost 500 pages are a good thing in SR5th’s case: It’s chock full of good GM help that, in earlier SR editions, was relegated to the “companion” sourcebook.
The rules for using Contacts to their fullest are a great read and give both players and GMs a nice reminder of why they always were an integral part of Shadowrun’s character generation. Their importance and usefulness is clearly defined. Helping groups new to SR to appreciate them, and reminding veteran GMs to not water them down.
I have been mentioning the “GM Advice” [X] a good few times by now, so let me finally to the GM advice section.
It is one of the single best GM Advice chapters/sections in any core rulebook I have ever read. It is not just the typical “Be fair” or “You might want to be prepared” drivel you read so often, but actual help and guidelines tailored to Shadowrun and the campaigns you might be expected to have in the Sixth World. (Yes, short blurbs for fan-favourites like DocWagon and Ganger campaigns are included.)
There is also some really well written advice on pacing and motivation and scene-work. There even is a small and short “Random Run Generator”, which (while being bare boned) actually creates the skeleton for some archetypical runs a group might face.
Also, there even is an example in the GM Advice chapter. It is very meta from my point of view, but it illustrates something I really want (and already have been) praise the book for: It actually is strongly helping you to understand and internalize all its rules and concepts and ideas as well as possible. And it does so in a well-written and well-thought-of manner. And it is not just useful for rookies. As I have mentioned, I have been with Shadowrun for about twenty years now, and I still found it helpful in a non-condescending manner.
The high page count has been used to create something that I gladly see as the current edition of Shadowrun. It has made this book a clear written, beautifully laid-out, lavishly illustrated and well designed entry into the Shadowrun universe.
It managed to keep all the things Shadowrun fans love about the game, while also streamlining many aspects of it, and making it highly accessible to new players and new GMs.
There are still some things I personally did not like in it. The way WiFi and Cyberware/Equipment is handled, for example. While I understand that the designers had to deal with the things SR4th handed them, I still don’t like it. I like it more than in SR4th, but I still don’t really like it. It feels too forced. Not like any sort of natural evolution. It doesn’t help that, basically, 2075 cybeware does the very same things, in the very same ways, as 2054 cyberware.
The limits actually help a bit here, as they give augmentations something else to boost metahumans in.
But there never is the perfect system. At least I never found one to date.
I even have to wonder what will await us in the inevitable “Companion” Sourcebook, as quite a few of the traditional additions from earlier editions of those books are already in the core book.
And I also have to wonder how they plan to make the boxed set even more newbie friendly. I might purchase it just to quench my curiosity.
Passed with full marks. I was a sceptic after SR4th, but I’m back into the fold now.
Shadowrun 5th reads well, plays well and looks excellent.
If you have even a slight interest in Shadowrun, I will not hesitate to tell you that this is the perfect edition for someone new to jump in with.