We’re going to need more dice where we’re going.
Genre: Tabletop RPG
Developer: FASA Corporation
Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs
Release date: 1998
Shadowrun is a classic RPG series that saw its first release back in 1989, and which has been going strong ever since, with the latest edition, the 6th one, being released in 2019. This is a review for the third edition of the game, an edition that’s long out of print, but which is still sold at DrivethruRPG, and which is still, by some, considered the best edition of Shadowrun to date.
Gibson-esque cyberpunk, kitchen sink fantasy ala D&D, new age mysticism, an 80’s pop culture understanding of native American shamanism, a veneration of feudal Japanese culture and pop culture view of voodoo, what do you get if you just throw all of this into a blender? A real mess of disparate ideas, that should not work together, and of course also Shadowrun. Shadowrun has a setting that contains a bit of everything, and the first edition sometimes felt like a bunch of friends had written a setting together where they just threw in anything they thought was cool (this is not too dissimilar to the first edition of Warhammer 40,000). By the 3rd edition the setting has become a bit more cohesive and some of the goofiest elements have been toned down. As has the aggressively late 80’s fashion sense.
It’s the distant year of 2060, and megacorporations are the real powers in the world (it’s such a different reality from our own, eh?). Their wealth and influence means that their only real enemies are each other, with the common people and the governments of the world living in their shadows. It’s a world of great inequality, where if you were born into power stay in power, and everyone else will have to trudge along at the bottom.
But being at the bottom does not mean that you live a life without opportunities. Many people have found a lucrative alternative profession: Shadowrunning. For the megacorporations, or anyone with a bit of money to spend, Shadowrunners are a great asset, as they can perform the kind of tasks that anyone in a position of power can’t without drawing attention to themselves. Shadowrunners are basically mercenaries, living in the seedy underbellies of the cities, taking on the kind of jobs that no upstanding citizen would want to risk doing. Be it industrial espionage, sabotage, kidnapping or any other task of that nature. And a skilled shadowrunner can make a lot of Nuyen (¥) doing other people’s dirtywork. But it’s a risky job, and if something goes wrong no employer is going to admit to having hired a group of Shadowrunners (or deniable assets, as they prefer to call them). Heck, most groups of runners won’t even know who the person hiring them really is, or who they represent.
The world of Shadowrun is not like ours. Starting in April of 2021 something weird happened. A full 10% of the world’s population suddenly, and without warning, started changing, growing in size, growing tusks and becoming larger and more muscular. This event, known as the Goblinization, spread fear and confusion across the world, and was the birth of what would be known as orcs and trolls. It was not the first time creatures of myth had appeared though, nearly 10 years prior the first dragon had awoken in Germany, and instead of burning down sleepy and idyllic villages, it decided to enter the corporate world. Violence against those deemed “too different” were on the rise during this period, because if there’s anything people are good at, it’s hating those who don’t look and talk just like them.
Over time more and more weird things kept happening. Magic made a return to the world, with some people capable of bending reality through their will alone. Those attuned to nature also learnt how to speak with the spirits and even summon them and weird and terrifying creatures started lurking in the shadows, rats grew to monstrous sizes in the sewers, and even vampires were reportedly preying on those who ventured too close to their lairs.
Not all changes were of a mystical nature though, and technology advanced at a rapid rate during these years. Those not lucky enough to be gifted with a magical inclination could, in exchange for a few ¥ of course, greatly enhance their bodies with cybernetics. The internet as we know it also changed drastically and you no longer had to use clumsy computer terminals to access it, instead you could just plug your mind directly into it, and move at the speed of thoughts through a vast alternative reality (old fashioned computers still exist though, not everyone can afford the necessary implants, and sometimes typing on a keyboard is still the most efficient way of doing things).
Country borders in 2060 don’t look the same as they do today. Thanks to wars, famine, corporate meddling and supernatural forces many of the major nations, be it the US, Germany or China have fractured or had their borders redrawn. North America for an example now has the nations of California Free State, Tir Tirangire, Sioux Nation, Pueblo Corporate Council, Confederate American States, The United Canadian and American States (U.C.A.S), the Salish-Shidhe council, Tsimashian Nation, Athabaskan Council, Algonkian-Minitou Council, Qubec and Trans-Polar Aleut. Seattle, an exclave of U.C.A.S is treated as the default setting in the book, but it’s possible to play in any of these nations, or elsewhere in the world, even if some places are more fleshed out than others.
The setting in Shadowrun is a bit of a mess, but somehow the pieces fit together far better than they have any right to do, and instead of just feeling like a hodgepodge of disparate ideas (which it is!), the authors have done a remarkably good job at making the setting feel coherent and interesting. That’s not to say that it’s flawless, and some of its portrayal of different cultures are, shall we say “of its time”. It does not feel malicious though, just slightly uneducated and naive.
Shadowrun has always had a reputation of being a rules heavy game, that requires some time and effort to actually get into. That’s an earned reputation, though the core mechanics of Shadowrun 3rd edition are not that hard to wrap your head around, it’s all the auxiliary mechanics that make Shadowrun so heavy.
Shadowrun uses a dice pool system with target numbers. When performing a check you roll a number of dice equal to the relevant skill or stat, and your meant to roll equal to or over a target number. If you’re say trying to smooth talk someone and have an etiquette skill of three, and the person is a bit reluctant to listen to you, you might need to roll three dice against a target number of five. Any die that comes up a five or higher is a success. Target numbers are often modified by things. A base number for a normal task is four, and in the example above the reluctance would make the number go up to five. Target numbers can go higher than six, and if they do you simply re-roll any die that comes up a six and add the two results together. This can be done multiple times. This results in the slightly weird situation that a target number of six is the same as a target number of seven. In case of opposed rolls the person with the most successes is the winner. If for an example someone is trying to shoot at someone else who’s ducking behind cover, you would roll for the person shooting, and the person ducking, and you would subtract the number of successes the person ducking got from the number the person shooting got. The two can have vastly different target numbers, if the shooter is say 1km away (using a rifle) and is shooting in foggy conditions while on the roof of a building housing a loud troll trash metal band concert that would be a target number of 9 for the range +4 for the fog, and then an additional +1 for the distracting loud music for a total of 14, while the person being targeted would just have a target number of 4 (as long as they’re aware of the fact that they’re getting shot at and actively try to avoid getting hit).
Being a Shadowrunner is a dangerous profession, and chances are that any runner group will sooner or later find themselves in combat. The basics of combat are straight forward enough, but they can end up getting pretty complex once you introduce more non-standard items. The first thing you’ll do in any combat round is to roll for initiative. This is done at the start of every round, and not just at the start of combat. When rolling for initiative you take a characters reaction value (average (rounded down) of their intelligence and quickness) and add 1D6 to the value. That is for an unaugmented character, someone who’s been augmented, either through magical means or cyberware can get both a higher base reaction value and more dice to roll. Someone with “Wired reflexes 2” (cyberware) for an example would get +4 to their reaction value and roll two extra dice. Once everyone knows their initiative you play through a round of combat, letting everyone act once. After this you subtract 10 from everyone’s initiative score, and anyone who still has initiative over gets to act again. Repeat until no-one has initiative over 0.
Once it’s a character’s turn they may make a number of actions. They can make a free action, and then either two simple actions, or one complex action. They are also allowed one move action. Free actions are quick and simple actions, like speaking a word or two, dropping an object, or activating cyberware. Simple actions are a bit more involved, but still don’t take a lot of time, like inserting a new clip, shooting or picking up an object. Complex actions are more involved, like casting a spell, or firing a weapon in full auto. Different actions can influence the target number of later actions, the recoil from firing a weapon will for an example make further shots harder to make.
Weapons will have a damage code with a number and a letter, like say 9S. Damage comes in a few levels, Light, Moderate, Serious and Deadly, and the S would indicate that the damage is “serious”. This in turn reflects how much damage the weapon will deal upon hitting its target. Damage is represented by a series of boxes that are ticked on the character sheet. The number before the damage value represents the target number to lower the damage. When you’re hit you roll a number of dice equal to your “body” score and for every two successes you lower the damage characteristic by one step. The target number is the number on the weapon minus any armour, so if you have say four points of armour the target number would be 9-4 =5. If you roll two successes you would bump the damage down to a moderate wound. Sadly for the target of an attack every two successes on the to hit roll increases the damage by one step.
All of this sounds like it should make combat quite time consuming, with the somewhat convoluted initiative system, the number of actions you can take in a round and the number of rolls needed to determine damage, but thanks to how deadly Shadowrun is combat rarely lasts very long, particularly when targets are unarmored. In Shadowrun someone is usually taken out in about 2 hits, at most three. This is in stark contrast to say Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition where many characters and creatures can take a downright ungodly amount of damage. In Shadowrun wounded characters also receive pretty harsh penalties to their rolls, depending on how wounded they are. As a result if things are starting to look grim you’re encouraged to try to run rather than just stay and trade blows. All of this adds up to a system that really rewards whoever can go first, so any cyberware or powers that improve your initiative is really powerful. What can slow down combat are any special properties that some types of attacks have. Explosives for an example are straight forward enough in the open, but if their within range of a wall or other solid object, the explosive force can “bounce” off the wall and hit someone else in the blast radius again, that is if it’s not strong enough to break the wall. In a confined space grenades are extremely deadly, as the explosion can bounce multiple times. Shotguns also have special rules as they fire their projectiles in a narrow cone, with influences both damage and hit chance, and the user can set the spread before firing. Those are just two examples, there are a few more special cases, and while none of them are overly complex on their own, they start piling one rules that don’t see a lot of regular use, which in turn means that there’s just more to keep in mind while playing.
Magic is handled in an interesting way in Shadowrun. Instead of having a set number of specific spells a mage can use per day like the Vancian magic in D&D, or a limited mana pool like in most computer games, mages can cast the spells they know freely, but the stronger the spell they’re casting the more it will drain them, and they need to roll to resist this drain. Drain causes stun damage, which is not lethal, but will exhaust a character, making them worse at everything they do until they have had a chance to rest, and it can even make them faint. This makes over-using magic or using magic too early risky, as a tired mage is a poor mage. Mages do come in a few different flavours, with the two main ones being Hermetic Magic, which is the more “typical” magic, and which has to be studied to be understood, and shamanism, which is derived from a link to nature spirits. Some magicians are only able to access part of their traditions powers, while others, full magicians, are able to access all of it. Though something that pretty much all magicians have in common is that using their powers is draining. Shamans have their totem animals which they gain power from, though the link to their spirit means that when they’re doing something that is not in the nature of their spirit they suffer. A raven shaman for an example feels at home under the open sky, and gains an advantage there, but when they’re indoors they suffer a penalty. A rat shaman on the other hand will gain a bonus to detect illusion and work with spirits that belong in the city, but suffer a penalty whenever they try to use combat spells. Shamanistic spirits, as well as elementals, can also be summoned into the corporeal world.
Magic have a second important ability, and that’s the ability to enter the astral plane. This is a reality that exists alongside ours, and in order to move through it the spirit of a mage needs to leave their body. Someone in the “real” world, who has no magical inclination, can’t perceive what’s going on in the astral plane, but someone in the astral plane can see what happens in the real world. Spirits and those attuned to magic can perceive it though, and it’s even possible for the spirit of a mage to engage with the spirit of another magically inclined creature in combat while in the astral plane.
What would cyberpunk be without hacking? Hackers in the Shadowrun world are called Deckers, and it’s they who will make sure that a team of Shadowrunners are able to get past security unnoticed, steal the data from the mainframe and disrupt the communication of any security forces that are called in. The rules for deckers and the matrix are actually relatively complex and try to simulate a somewhat believable computer system (well, it would have been believable in the 80’s and early 90’s). A decker won’t just sit in front of a computer terminal and type in their commands, they’ll, through the use of a datajack, plug themselves directly into the matrix. In the matrix things are given physical representations, based on the hosts preferences, one place might look like a feudal Japanese castle, another like a set on Star Trek. There’s really no limit to what these places can look like, though for ease of use they’re almost always given some form that a person can relate to and understand.
Anyone can log into the matrix, if they have a datajack, but a decker can, with the help of a cyberdeck, cause some havoc. This is the tool they use to get through security, and which they’ll load any useful programs onto that they can then use when doing their job. The quality of the cyberdeck will determine the capabilities of the decker while in the matrix, how much data they can gather, how many programs they can load, how good they are at avoiding security and so on.
Security is something any decker needs to worry about, and the nature of it will vary depending on where they’re trying to get in. Usually a place wont’ be on high alert, but if a decker (or someone who came before them…) tripped an alarm then the place will soon be swarming with IC (security systems), particularly if the decker was going for a so called “red host” (a high security host that’s probably storing some really valuable data). ICs can be of different kinds, and the most common ones, white IC, will try to eject the decker from the server and corrupt any data they recovered. Worse yet are grey IC who will go after the cyberdeck, and try to fry its components. In truly high security systems a decker might run into the dread lethal black IC, who will try to fry the brain of the decker. These won’t be found in most systems, but anyone foolish enough to try and get classified data from a high security server run by one of the megacorporations might well run into these buggers.
The Matrix is one of the more problematic sections of Shadowrun, when it comes to actually running the game. The issue with having a decker in the party that goes into the matrix is that that player is now effectively hogging the spotlight from all the other players. As actions in the Matrix are so much faster than actions in the real world a decker can do a lot in a very short timespan, and that in turn makes it even harder to run deckers alongside other characters. This is made even worse by the fact that the rules for running the matrix are pretty complex and not all that intuitive, so there’s likely going to be a lot of flipping through the book, at least the first couple of times, which would slow down the game even further.
Shadowrun has a pretty unique way of making characters. Instead of rolling for stats, or having a lifepath system, or doing regular point allocation you have priorities, going from A to E. You allocate magical capabilities, race, stats, skills and resources to these priorities, one for each, with the higher priorities giving more of what you allocate there. Allocating skills to A gives 50 skill points, allocating them to E gives 27. Race can only be between E and C, with an allocation to E letting you play as a human, D letting you play as a dwarf or an orc, and C letting you play as an elf or a troll. Humans are kind of at a disadvantage when it comes to bonuses, hence why they’re the “cheapest”. Magic can only be A, B or the lowest available one, which is normally E, unless a character is a human, in which case it’s D.
Once everything has been allocated, stats and skills are assigned, with the caps depending on what race someone is playing. A troll can be a lot stronger than a human, so thus they can get a far higher strength value. Skills are assigned after stats, and each skill has an associated stat. Raising a skill above the associated stat becomes more expensive. All of this is pretty straight forward. For stats you have Body, Quickness, Strength, Charisma, Intelligence and Willpower, and a human maxes out at 6 in all of them. When it comes to skills there’s an eclectic mix of useful and not so useful ones. Pistols, Etiquette and Stealth all have pretty obvious and common usecases. But then there are skills like “sailboat” and “submarine” that just bloats the skill list with skills that won’t see any real use in most games.
Beyond the normal skills there are also knowledge skills. These are things that the character has learnt at some point either due to academic studies or just personal interest. Knowledge about music genres, or biology would fall under knowledge skills, and players can (with the GM’s approval) come up with new ones. Why not have a troll who’s fascinated by 70’s sci-fi and classical opera and know everything about it? A character start with five times their intelligence points to put into knowledge skills
There are a few things that are derived from the base stats. Reaction was mentioned earlier, but characters also get dice pools that they can use when appropriate, and which re-fills regularly. The dice pools are combat, spell, hacking, control and astral combat. Dice from these pools can be used for most tests in their appropriate field. The combat dice can for an example be used to improve your hit chance, but they can also be used to help prevent damage or dodge out of the way. The number of dice in the combat pool is equal to Intelligence + quickness + willpower, divided by two (and rounded down). The other pools work similarly, though might have slightly different stats associated with them.
Resources are used to buy starting equipment and anything else a character might need, like an apartment. While there are no strict rules for it, a few things, like military grade weapons, should probably be considered “with the GM’s permission”. Cyberware is also bought with these starting resources. Each piece of cyberware has an “essence” cost. Essence starts at 6, and just gives down the more cyberware someone gets, but it is never allowed to go under 0. A characters “magic” stat is also equal to their essence stat, rounded down, so mages and shamans generally want to avoid cyberware, as it prevents them from being as efficient at using magic.
A character assigning magic to priority A is considered a “full magician” and has access to everything their chosen role has to offer, though they still need to decide if they’re a hermetic mage or a shaman. A character that assigns it to priority B is an aspect magician or an adept. Aspect magicians are just able to use parts of what their magical tradition has to offer, while an adept is able to improve themselves through magical means.
Characters are not just created and left at that. After going out on missions they’ll earn “karma”, which is this games counterpart to experience points. Karma can then be used to improve stats and skills, and it can also be use as an emergency dice pool. If things are going really badly a character can choose to spend some of their karma in order to roll more dice, and thus hopefully save themselves or their buddies.
Layout, Art and Quality
While the physical book is no longer in print, second hand copies of Shadowrun 3rd edition are still pretty easy to come by, as the game sold well. There are two versions of it, one by FASA and another by Fanpro, though beyond some different branding and a different number on the spine, they are more or less identical, beyond possibly a few corrections done between print runs. They’re glued softcover books and most of the pages are black and white, though there are two sections with large full colour art pages, one showing example characters, and the other just showing pictures of things going on in the world, that are meant to act as inspiration. The print quality is good in both versions, but the actual quality of the book leaves a bit to be desired, and the pages will start to fall out pretty quickly. This is not an issue of the glue just going bad over time, as it happened even while these books were still in print.
The layout in the books is logical, but very dense. Each page houses a lot of text and because of this actually finding what you’re looking for can at times be tough. Luckily the index at the back of the book is extensive and covers most of what you need, and the page references are correct (something that is not a given in an RPG book).
As for the art, it’s made by several different artists, and that is clearly noticeable. None of the art is bad, and there’s in fact some good pieces in here made by recognizable artists who have done a lot of work in the tabletop gaming space, though the artists sometimes have styles that don’t mesh. There could also have been a bit more art in the book to break up the big blocks of text.
Shadowrun 3rd edition is the RPG that I’ve got the most experience with game mastering over the years. Though as much as I enjoy Shadowrun, it’s not a perfect game, and my groups have over time added a lot of house rules and outright banned certain part of the game, just to make it run more smoothly. Most notably we don’t do the matrix, because as cool as it is, it means that one player will hog the spotlight for some time, while the others just have to sit by and twiddle their thumbs. We also tend to ignore quite a few things in combat and with spellcasting. Oh, and vehicles have some special rules of their own as well that we’ve streamlined.
Basically Shadowrun is a good game, if you bring an axe to the system and chop off any bits that you don’t like. That’s maybe not the highest praise you can give to an RPG, but the game can be fun to play and run smoothly. What really elevates Shadowrun though is its setting, which should be a hot mess, but somehow it not only works, but it works really well. The fantasy elements don’t feel out of place and are integrated remarkably well into the cyberpunk setting.
It’s also worth noting that Shadowrun 3rd edition is compatible with everything released for 1st and 2nd edition, though as the timeline has advanced between these games it might be weird to introduce some of the adventures and storylines found in older editions into 3rd edition. Still, as long as the players are not really invested in the Shadowrun setting it’s not too hard to run most older adventures.
Playing Shadowrun today feels a little bit clunky, as it has so many different systems that don’t necessarily work the same way, something that modern RPGs generally try to avoid. Still, it’s far from unplayable, and as long as everyone are willing to sit down and learn the part of the rules that are relevant to their characters it can be a really enjoyable game. If it’s the best Shadowrun edition or not is a debate I’m not going to get into though (in large because I have not played all later editions of Shadowrun). Just beware that due to the questionable quality of the book itself many second hand copies are in a pretty rough state, and there’s no print on demand option on DrivethruRPG.