My first memories of Shadowrun involve standing in a local bookstore mesmerized by the cover art on the first edition rulebook. My twelve year old brain was captivated by the images of a cybered elf decker, an Amerind duel-wielding Uzis and, to be fair, the female mage sporting a pump-action shotgun, duster, daisy dukes and bikini top was riveting.
The 1990s were a Shadowrun golden age for me as second and third edition games were a staple with my various role-playing groups. I spent uncounted hours playing the Sega Genesis game that released in 1995. I voraciously devoured the Shadowrun novels and the collectible card game beguiled me in 1997. However in early 2001 FASA, the original developer, went out of business. The property transferred to WizKids who then licensed the RPG rights to FanPro. The turbulence continued as Topps acquired WizKids in 2003 and although FanPro initially retained the RPG rights they struggled to produce new content after debuting the fourth edition rulebook in 2005. Finally, in 2007, Topps announced that the Shadowrun RPG rights were being transferred to a newly created company named Catalyst Game Labs.
Long story short, during all these ups and downs I lost interest in the property. Their line of novels that I loved so much came to an end in 2001. The Shadowrun Duels game from WizKids was atrocious. Despite its title the Shadowrun video game released in 2007 on Xbox and PC had nothing to do with Shadowrun. I would occassionally dust off my third edition books but my passion for the game continued to wane until Kickstarter reminded why I fell in love the first time.
The recent success of the Shadowrun Online Kickstarter and the Shadowrun Returns Kickstarter brought the property back into prominence. Shadowrun was suddenly a common topic of conversation again and I started to get the itch to return to the Sixth World.
My first step was to read through the Fourth Edition 20th Anniversary Rulebook. Initially released by Catalyst Game Labs in 2009 the first thing I noticed was how beautiful this book is. The art spread throughout its 378 pages is evocative with a style well suited to the atmosphere of the fourth edition world. The layout is excellent and adds to the reading experience. At the start of each section there is short fiction which will turn some people off. They read the books for the rules, not the fluff and find it distracting. I am not one of those people. I find that the fiction helps submerge me in the mood of the Sixth World and gets me excited to start rolling some dice.
Fourth edition advances the timeline of the setting to the year 2072. Great disasters and great advances have taken place and the stage is now set for another generation of runners to walk the shadows. I particularly love the introduction of the Wireless Matrix and Augmented Reality. It’s a natural progression and gives the world of 2072 a very different feel from any prior edition.
In terms of game mechanics fourth edition has made significant changes but I’m only going to touch on a few specifics in this post. First, let’s look at the core dice mechanic. You still create your base dice pool by combining an attribute + a skill. However, unlike in third edition where modifiers adjust the target number, in fourth edition a roll of 5 or 6 is always a success and modifiers typically add or subtract dice from your pool. This means that on any given roll, on average, a third of your dice pool will be successes. I have mixed feelings about this mechanic as the statistical impact of adding dice to your pool is much less significant then adjusting the target number and increases outcome variability.
One change that I don’t have any reservation about is the addition of Edge. It is a new attribute that represents that special something that helps shadowrunners spit in the eye of authority on a regular basis and survive (it essentially replaces your Karma Pool). Edge can be spent during the game to allow re-rolls, add extra dice to your pool, allow your 6’s to explode, attempt an impossible task, improve you initiative or invoke a Dead Man’s Trigger (remember the end of The Professional?).
I appreciate that character creation has moved away from the priority system of previous editions and gone to a point buy method. I find it provides a lot more flexibility in designing multi-faceted characters. In fact, many of the changes throughout the book that I enjoy increase the viability of a well-rounded character versus the clichéd hyper-specialized archetypes.
Impressed (mostly) by the fourth edition rules I decided that was time to get in a game and see how it plays. With my regular group currently crippled by real world commitments I ventured out onto the Internet in search of a game. I was happily surprised to discover that there was a local Catalyst Agent running regular games of Shadowrun Mission at Valhalla’s Gate, my friendly local game store. Shadowrun Missions is Catalyst’s persistent campaign (split into Seasons) where you can carry your character between games at conventions, stores and home. Thanks to our Catalyst Agent and a great group of players I have had a great time playing through the first two missions of the current Season. In play I found the rule set to be smoother with less of the awkwardness that third edition had.
I was impressed enough that I went looking to expand my collection beyond the core rulebook and I dived into the wide range of supplements and adventures Catalyst has produced. Here is my short list of “required reading”;
Runner’s Companion: This book is useful for all player characters and should probably be the first one you pick up after the core rulebook. It introduces new playable metavariants, advanced contact rules, new qualities, and advanced lifestyle rules.
Augmentation: The go to book if you want to play a street samurai or any other heavily cybered character. It provides additional cyberware options, introduces biotech, genetech and nanotech rules.
Street Magic: I you are planning on playing a mage, shaman or adept this book is a must buy. It contains rules for new magic traditions, initiation, metamagic, adept powers and even more spells.
Arsenal: You could play entire Shadowrun campaigns using only the base weapons and gear presented in the core rulebook but really, where’s the fun in that? Continuing the guilty pleasure that began in 1989 with the Street Samurai Catalog, Arsenal gives you an entire book of weapons and gear to kit out your character.
Finally, as I was glancing through Catalyst’s upcoming releases I noticed Shadowrun: 2050 with this blurb,
“Chrome eyes. Computer called ‘decks.’ Big cyberlimbs and bigger guns. It’s Shadowrun in the year it all started. Take a step back to Shadowrun’s roots with Shadowrun: 2050, a book that combines Twentieth Anniversary Edition rules – the smoothest, most accessible rule set Shadowrun has ever had – with the setting that first made the Sixth World a legend.”
My inner 12-year old is doing back flips of joy.