Shadowrun Newbie GM Guide

So, you just purchased your first Shadowrun corebook.
You started flipping through it, and you want to get your group together to give it a shot.

And chances are good, that you might be a bit overwhelmed, even if you are hyped to run the game.
Why not turn back on that a bit, then?

Let me give you a few pointers towards setting up your first Shadowrun game and going from there.

Take note: This is all this is! A set of pointers for a tight, fun first experience. This is not a “How to set up your epic cyberpunk campaign?” post. The advice and hints presented here are meant to get you and your friends started with Shadowrun, having fun in your first few sessions and giving you a steady base on which you can then build up your future games. As such, I will try to keep my biases to myself as best as I can and not push you towards my personally preferred style of Shadowrun.

This is not a “follow these steps and never stray” checklist.
This is a “think about those and re-think them later after you get some personal experience” guide.

Let’s start, then.


1st Point of Advice – Decide on what you want to focus on.

This is the most basic piece of advice to give, and it applies to pretty much every game out there. But while some games offer a very streamlined approach for a newbie GM (The old ‘meet in a tavern and get hired’ stereotype, for example.), others offer more freedoms right from the start.

And while Shadowrun is not as hard to pin down as, say, Transhuman Space, it does have its share of turns and dials you can manipulate to get wildly different experiences.

  • In which city will you set your game?
  • What power level do you want to start with?
  • Will the PCs work mainly for megacorps, criminal organizations, smaller-scale corps, neighborhoods, mysterious patrons or something else entirely?
  • What composition will your team consist of?
  • How far do you want to go on the “Magic and Machine” axis?
  • All of those will change your game up in very striking ways. Take these two examples:

    The traditional “Mixed group of runners operating out of Seattle, doing jobs for everyone, brushing up against both Magic and High Tech regularly” setup.
    And a decidedly non-traditional “A team of riggers and street sams operating in the Rhine-Ruhr Megaplex, working exclusively for mid-tier corps, never really brushing up against magic” setup.

    Think about this. Think about what kind of game you feel comfortable running. This will, in turn, give you a better focus for the rest of your game prep. If you, for example, know that you don’t have any Mages/Deckers/Riggers in your group and that your PCs won’t encounter the Yakuza and Mafia at first… Well, that’s several sections of the book you don’t have to tackle yet. And if you know that you’ll have a social character, two combat characters and a tech-focused character, that’s another good set of information, telling you which part of the books to give more attention to.

    Also, and this is something I’ll never stop stressing for ANY game: Involve your players in this! It’s okay for you as the GM to have a general direction in which to take things. But if you want your players to have fun, ask them about what they’d like to do/experience/play as well. If their ideas sound cool and/or workable to you, include them. And if they express interest into something you can’t/won’t/don’t want to accommodate in your first game, tell them so. Not in a hostile or aggressive manner, of course. Just calmly explain why can’t do that yet. And, yes, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I’ll be able to digest the rules for X until our first game.” is a valid reason.

    One special “ruling” I include in pretty much all the games I run, no matter the rules-set or setting, is this: “After we all have enough experience with the game, setting and rules, all of you will be able to re-work your PCs. Either optimizing them or changing them completely. No XP will be lost. Nobody will be penalized.”

    This makes people more comfortable playing PCs they might not be 100% on-board with, as they know that if they really dislike it, they’ll be able to change it later.

    But involving your future players into your prep is an amazing way to get both more involved players AND a good set of pointers about where to focus your efforts. It might even change your original plans, for the better.


    2nd Point of Advice – Communal Character Creation.

    Before you sit down with all your players to create the PCs, you should make sure that you, as GM, are familiar and comfortable with the character creation rules. Create a few characters by yourself in preparation. Get a feeling for the set-up and flow and organization of the process. Be ready to answer questions. And use sticky-notes to mark the important areas in the rule book. This prep is essential. It will make character generation go by much quicker and smoother. This will help build confidence and ‘hype’ for the coming game.

    There are few things worse for a new game with new players than a slow, arduous, bumpy character generation session. It makes the game’s rules look more complicated than they are, and it lowers confidence in the GM. It might put people off from the game in subtle, minor ways.

    But it can be avoided easily. So do avoid it.

    And, yes: Communal Character Creation. Sit down all your player and create characters together. Let them bounce off ideas with each other, let them ask questions about the setting and the game. If you talked with them about the structure/content/ideas for the coming first game, this is also a good venue to let all of them know about the thoughts you had since then, and give feedback on those.

    Also, trust me in this: Sometimes players will ask questions whose answers will help even those who didn’t think to ask that particular question.

    This session can also be used to introduce the PCs to each other, to sort out how they met and how they feel towards each other. It can also be used to lay the groundwork for the first “real” session.


    3rd Point of Advice – It’s Okay To Say No. It’s Also Okay To Let Players Read Rules.

    If you don’t think that you can get your head around a particular set of sub-rules (Rigging, Magic, Decking), it’s okay to tell your players to please not play such characters for the very first time.

    It’s a much better idea to get comfortable with the basic rules of the game before branching out and diving into the more complicated sub-systems.

    And if, after a few sessions, a player wants to play a Decker or Shaman or Rigger or Mage… Let them read the rules. Let them help you with this task. Make them the initial “table expert” for their particular specialty. They should know everything about their particular specialty, from character-centric rules to GM-centric rules. So that you can rely on them to support you whenever you engage their set of special skills. (You have to trust your players here, as well. If they’re in for a fun game, they won’t hold information away from you to make things easier for them. Don’t second guess whatever they tell you. And if they ever make a honest mistake, don’t be an ass about it. Everybody makes mistakes from time to time.)

    Whatever you do: Keep to the core rules for your first few forays into Magic, Decking and Rigging!
    You can get the sourcebooks and put everything in them to use later.

    If a player wants to introduce advanced rules from a sourcebook before you are ready, gently tell them “Not yet, please wait until we’re all more secure and comfortable with the rules.”

    You do not need to start with every option, every supplement and every advanced rule. And if you have a more experience player in your group, lasso them in to help you, but make sure that they don’t push you towards taking on more than you can handle. There’s no shame in taking things slowly and deliberately. And it always makes for better games.


    4th Point of Advice – A Basic First Session is Best.

    This one comes from personal experiences: For your very first session, make a very simple, A->B->C kind of run.

    Something REALLY simple, like: “Break and enter into this warehouse, get/steal this item, bring it to me without being followed.”

    Make sure that the Johnson is just a random shmuck, someone not in the employ of a major or mid-tier organization of any kind.
    Make sure that whoever is guarding the item your PCs are to liberate is also of no consequence. Random, low-level gangers without connections and influence.
    Make sure that the place said item is found is in a shitty area where police response is unlikely and/or really damn slow and unenthusiastic.
    Basically, make sure that even if your players let it all go to shit, that it doesn’t make them immediate targets of a AAA corp and a powerful street gang or criminal organization.

    This can be fun, but it’s the kind of fun for experienced players who know what they’re getting into, and an experienced GM who knows how to weave a net of background politics and consequences that are fun to live through and untie during play.

    Through the character creation session, you should know what PCs you’re designing the run and session for. You know their capabilities, their skills and qualities and gear. Create everything around that. If there are no mages, don’t throw in magical defenses. If there are no deckers, don’t throw in data they can only get through decking. If there are no riggers, don’t put the item behind security only a rigger could defeat/disable/counter. (There’s a strain of sadistic GMs out there who, for some reason, do shit like this. Don’t be like them. This only makes people unlikely to ever want to play Shadowrun again.)

    Give each PC a scene when they are invited to talk to the Johnson by a fixer or friend or fellow PC. Let them describe how and when they are spending their time when they’re called. Let them describe their PC in looks and characterization.

    Then spend some time on describing their travels to the meeting place. In those descriptions, focus on the mood, theme and feel you want to convey. Describe what makes your chosen city memorable. You don’t have to be all poetic and super-talkative here. Just point out the things that are important for the kind of game you want to run.

    Neon lights, rain-slick streets, cracked facades on buildings in run-down areas, heavily armored corp-cops patrolling the streets and ignoring obvious crimes, desperate gangers trying to protect people on the streets they live in, high-fashion shoppers mingling with rent-a-cops and wageslaves on the streets of a downtown recreational center, BTL-junkies chipped-in and lying in their own vomit with insipid grins on their dead faces.

    Try to have an image of your city and your 6th world in mind. Have it as light or dark as you want it. Decide how public magic is in everyday life. And be ready to let your players experience it through their characters.

    Then make the meet with the Johnson memorable as well. Decide on how comfortable their Johnson is with all that. Perhaps they slip up and mention their real name. Perhaps they’re ice-cold and almost bored. Think about what they let be known up-front and what they only remember to tell after being asked and what they can’t know (It’s unlikely for the Johnson to know if a herd of devil rats made their home in a nearby sewer, for example). Let them talk to the Johnson a bit. Let them negotiate a bit. This should be the first time for skill use. (Negotiation, on-the-fly research, judging the Johnson’s character…)

    After that, let your players prepare. This means, that you should have several things prepared and read to go: The location of the run with interior and exterior plans. Stat profiles for any guards and critters likely to be found there. If you allowed deckers, you should have the layout and stats for the matrix defenses of the location ready. You should have a few NPCs on hand that can be asked for information about the area and/or specific location. Even a few pieces of hidden/secret info the players can suss out via research and tenacity. Perhaps even a small side-job in the area, if you feel comfortable enough with such a thing. (“You’re going to the docks, near Warehouse 13? While you’re there, could you smash the windows of Warehouse 14? I’ll make it worth your while. … Danger? No, no. Don’t worry! It should be abandoned right now.”) – And as you know which skills your PCs have access to, you should tailor the research portion to those skills.

    The run itself should be a straightforward, tutorial-like affair: Throw in some skill-use (sneaking, defeating security systems, bullshitting their way past a guard or passing-by potential witness). Throw in some combat (guards, critters, automated defenses). Throw in some dynamic roleplaying and thinking-on-their-feet situations (inter-party dialogue about a surprise, witnessing something else going down, having to quickly adapt a plan because a piece of info was out-of-date).

    When they get the gizmo, let them drop it off, congratulate them via the Johnson and let them feel good about a job well done.

    Hand out cash and Karma, roll credits.

    And then IMMEDIATELY ask your players about what they liked and what they disliked. Relax, get comfortable and talk about the session. Take notes about what your players will tell you. Take notes of your own thoughts. Take their comments seriously, don’t be defensive and don’t take negative feedback personally. Ask, and take the answers seriously and take notes. You will get some of the best feedback for further session this way. You might even get some surprisingly cool ideas for plot-hooks this way.

    And no matter how basic the first run is, you will be surprised at the hilarious errors of judgment, plans going wrong and players picking up sub-plots where you’d never expect them. Roll with all of those. These are the things that will cause the best “Back then, in a game…” stories, down the line.


    5th Point of Advice – Pay Decently.

    As a Shadowrun GM who read the core book of any edition you will quickly realize that the advice given for how much to pay your runners is… Lacking, frankly. Sadly.

    Apart from very specific jobs done for specific reasons (revenge, charity, favours…), every job taken should pay enough to cover all and any expenses AND a sum of money per PC that is enough to advance the State Of The Art factor of your group to a level you’re comfortable with.

    Tuning the paygrade is one of the major ways in which you, as GM, can pace the campaign’s progress tech- and gear-wise.

    Again, this is something that seems obvious, but it’s something that’s too easily forgotten or put aside.

    I like to pay out in such a way that, after expenses, the PCs can either all afford a nifty item that’s important to their individual role. That way they can decide to either get an immediate, small upgrade to some part of their gear or to save up and wait a run or two more to get a juicier upgrade.

    For me, that’s often to the tune of [5000¥+run expenses+1 month of medium lifestyle upkeep+some randomization]/Runner. This is because most of my players tend to take medium lifestyle as their default. And yes, that means that the person who lives on High or Luxurious… They have to scrounge and penny-pinch and take side-jobs and loans and push for a more frequent rate of taking runs to afford more than smaller upgrades. If more than half of my players were to change to High lifestyle, I’d up the default paygrade. This would simulate the nebulous “rising in the ranks” for a team of Shadowrunners. It makes sense that after some time they would mostly accept higher-paying runs only.

    But this is something that you will have to feel out for yourself and your group. Just make sure that the first job they take and accomplish allows them to pay next month’s rent and afford something nice. Otherwise… What’s the point for them to continue? (Both as players and PCs.)

    Something similar is true for Karma as well, but it’s much easier to find a comfortable rate there. Simply decide what level of skill you’d like your players to be able to regularly rise and hand out Karma accordingly. Here, I’m fond of giving a base amount that would allow each player to raise two Level 3 Skills to Level 4 per session, with some added variance for specific events in-game. This lets them advance quickly enough for my taste. You might like a slower or even faster rate. And that’s fine. As always: Talk to your players what kind of speed they prefer.

    And if your opinions differ wildly, it’s time to sit down and suss things out with them, openly and honestly.


    6th Point of Advice – Ignore Things You Might Have Picked Up On The Net.

    Especially one thing: “The PCs will always be betrayed by their employers.”
    This one bit is often repeated again and again all across the internet and even outside of it when people discuss Shadowrun.

    And you are to flat out ignore it and not act on it and not let it influence your games in any fashion.

    The whole “Every Johnson is a dick who screws over the runners” thing is a stylistic device that has been blown out of proportion over the last three decades. It’s a meme, basically. A bad meme that needs to disappear because it’s hurting Shadowrun as a game.

    Yes, it is a dark, semi-dystopian, cyberpunk setting. And in those settings, betrayal and backstabbing does happen. Should happen, even.

    But NOT every time. Not even the majority of the time.
    It should come as surprise and perhaps even as a shock to the players.
    It should come with a narrative reason behind it, come from a motivation that can be understood, when uncovered. (There are few things worse than an NPC screwing over the players for no reason but “The GM thought it would be ‘fun’.”)

    You don’t have to screw over the PCs at every turn. There’s no better way to kill of a Shadowrun campaign, actually. Players feeling like shit because no matter what they do, they’ll get backstabbed is a recipe for players who want to drop the game.

    The same goes for other things you might have picked up that have to do with Immortal Elves, Dragons, Conspiracies and the feasibility of Shadwrunner Culture.

    Ignore all of that, and make sure to start the game with nothing but your own ideas (and of course those of your players). With time and experience, you will pick up other sourcebooks, perhaps even read some of the older releases. Perhaps even the novels. And from there, you will be able to pick and choose whatever you, as a group, want to include in your own games.

    Don’t ever feel forced to play in a way that is propagated online. Be it here on RPGnet, the official SR forums, dumpshock, reddit or wherever else.

    If you want to play a high-action game in which “all guns blazing” tends to work surprisingly well? Go for it!
    If you want to play a game of sneaking, planning and stake-outs in which shots are fired only when things already went bad? Go for it!
    If you want to play a trippy campaign of astral travel and deep-matrix operations? Go for it!

    It doesn’t matter what people on the internet think about what your’re playing. As long as you’re having fun, you’re golden. There’s no “one true way” of Shadowrun.

    Pink Mohawks, Black Suits, Mirrorshades… Mix and match and do whatever you and your players have fun with.

    This seems obvious, yes.
    But it can’t be overstated.
    The only thing that matters is your game, your table, your players, your fun.

    If you, as a new Shadowrun GM, should have questions, DO ask them online.
    But even as a newbie, you should feel more than free to disregard any answer that reeks like nothing but: “You should do it this way, because this is how I think it should be.”


    Some resources and media for a budding Shadowrun GM

    Here are some novels, music and game resources for you to take a look at and help you with your games.

      Sheets and Game Aids:

    Wordman Sheets for 2nd, 3rd and 4th Edition
    Wordman Sheets for 5th Edition
    Shadowrun 5th edition character generator
    Make Your Own 5th Ed Sheet (Takes some work, but is an incredibly powerful tool.)
    5th Edition Cheat Sheets
    5th Edition Hayek Cheat/Summary Sheets:
    GM Screen
    Skills & Qualities
    Combat
    Gear
    Magic
    Matrix
    Rigger

      Novels:

    2050s Shadowrun: Secrets of Power, novel trilogy by Robert N. Charette
    2070s Shadowrun: Shaken, novel by Russell Zimmerman

    Both of these are excellent and well worth a read. And they’ll guide you into the world of Shadowrun, both in its classic and its modern incarnation.

      Music:

    Scandroid by Scandroid
    Selection One by mitch murder
    VA​-​11 HALL​-​A EX – Bonus Tracks Collection
    Tokyo Run by woob
    Overrun_exe by woob
    Neotokyo NSF by Ed Harrison
    DarkScapes Volume One by Circuit Scream
    Cyberpunk 2017, a free album by ASURV & ALOEPOLE

    And my own Shadowrun 2050s Spotify Playlist