Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Shadowrun 5th Edition Review

Having read through SR5 and having played all previous editions I thought I would jot down a review of the game from an old geezer’s perspective. This, by and far has been one of my favorite games of all time and perhaps the most persistently played game in my RPG career. I have a true fondness for this game both thematically and mechanically, but I have to admit that I have had some issues with some of the changes Catalyst has made in order to streamline the game with some notable pleasant surprises arising from the same design goal.

For those of you who may not know much about Shadowrun and the Shadowrun universe, here is a brief rundown chummer. The first thing you need to know is that corporations “extraterritoriality” was established some time ago.  That means that megacorps are treated as their own sovereign country in most respects and abide by their own laws. There is a corporate court and some oversight, but for the most part corps adhere to their own laws and practices while more traditional governments simply administer things that the corps don’t really care to deal with.

The Matrix is now the pervasive all-encompassing method of data exchange that exists as a virtual reality world of icons and glowing floating ziggurats in a massive black digital landscape. People can “jack in” to the Matrix, basically putting their meat brains straight into this digital world or you can hop in with VR gloves and trodes, but the true hot shots go in Hot VR.

Of course this makes for a perfect Cyberpunk style setting right? Here is the twist. In 2011 the Awakening happened. The general theory is that magic comes into the world in epochs. That is that there are times when magic is virtually nonexistent and other times when it comes back along with a whole bunch of paranormal critters including Dragons, Dwarves, Elves, Orcs, Cockatrices and spirits. Well in 2011 a dragon popped out of Mt. Fuji in Japan and pretty much blew everyone’s minds. Humans began to “goblinzie” into Elves and Dwarves along with Trolls and Orcs. People started to be able to use actual magic and the whole world changed.  Pretty fragging crazy drek right?

Players play the roles of the titular Shadowrunner. These men and women are shadow soldiers or deniable assets that the megacorps use to run their secret wars within the shadows of the world. Spell slinging Mages, cybered up Street Samurai, vehicle and drone controlling Riggers, magically enhanced martial powerhouses called Physical Adepts, traditional Matrix Hackers or any combination thereof are hired in secret to do shadow ops for the rich and powerful. It’s a strange mix of Tolkien and Gibson that makes up one of the most unique and engaging game settings of all time.

Now let’s move on to the review.

The layout of this over 400 page tome was pretty damn fine. I had some issues with running down some rules that are cited but not completely explained without going through the sidebars. The sidebars are key to getting everything down, so don’t skip them. They are crucial. The index is well assembled and quite thorough. This game has a lot of tables and they did a pretty good job of assembling them in an appendix, but I am looking forward to some kind of screen. The art is fantastic as per usual, but the fiction was a little lackluster in my opinion. Mind you that’s just my opinion.

Character creation goes back to a new version of the priorities system some veterans might recognize. Stats, Skills, Metatype (orc, elf, human etc.), Magic and resources are listed. You apply a priority A-E to each category.  The closer to A the more your character has access to within that category. So if you want a character with a lot of skills you would put skills as your A priority. If you want to buy a lot of gear you would put Resources as your A priority and so on.

I always loved the priority system. It made for balanced characters and far less math than the point buy system which dominated previous editions. There were some good spreadsheet programs that made it a little easier, but I never really enjoyed making a character with the point buy system. The up side to the point buy is that you could scale the power level up and down, but 5th gives some options for making a Prime Runner by adjusting the resources priority a bit. The character gen system does give the player a pool of Karma to play with so that characters get that little finishing touch that makes them unique as well. Upping that Karma pool would also aid in making a Prime Runner and restricting it will also render more street level characters.

The main difference in this edition is that along with the Metatype priority the player gets a pool of points to spend freely on Edge, Magic and Resonance as well as giving the player access to all or a few of the Metatypes available. Nice touch that. Every priority has something important to offer so making a character has to be honed on concept or simply an exercise in compromise.

This is totally my opinion but based on the way the mechanics work in SR5 I find that giving Attributes a low priority can severely limit the characters ability to function. The reason for this is a new element called Limits ironically enough.

Limits provide a ceiling on the amount of Hits a character can get with certain actions. There are Physical, Mental and Social limits and all skills fall under one of these umbrellas. Therefore, even if you have a super wiz Agility and low Reaction and Body scores you can be severely hindered by your Limit since all these stats make up your Limit for combat skills. This is actually a pretty good way to stay on top of min/maxing and forces players to make more well-rounded and balanced characters.

I remember making a character back in the Combat Pool days (sorry no more Combat Pool just like 4th). I would labor to make sure that my stats didn’t limit my Combat Pool too much since it commanded the ebb and flow of combat. Now you have three stat balances to manage and sinking some stats can really mess you up. Especially if you want to sink Charisma and have a lot of Cyberware since Charisma and Essence make up the formula for Social caps. You better have a good face in your team chummer because Shooty McChopnkill will probably blow the whole deal with Mr. Johnson since he/she is capped at two hits for any social skill like Negotiation and Etiquette even if he/she has a skill of 13 (the absolute max cap now). If you spend an Edge of course Limits go away to make sure that you aren’t completely jacked all the time. These are not the only Limits in the game though.

Gear can provide Limits as well. Your Cyberdeck or your Pistol also impose Limits. For example a pistol might have an Accuracy of 4 which means that you are capped at 4 Hits while firing that weapon. Thus all weapons have a finite amount of damage they can do outside of Edge expenditure. That’s kind of a nag for me since one of the things I loved about Shadowrun is that someone with a lot of skill can outright kill somebody with a knife. Not so much anymore. SR at one point had one of the most elegant and easy to use damage systems ever created. Power Level, Lethality and Staging were a set of simple stats that comprised damage, stopping power and armor penetration in a one roll no fuss manner. I really miss that a lot, but I digress. Otherwise there is only one more real significant change to combat in 5th and that’s Interrupt Actions.

Initiative runs on the familiar highest roll goes first with the lowest going last. Then subtract 10 from that score and go for a second pass until everyone is at 0. Interrupt actions work defensively. You can subtract 5 or 10 points from your initiative to take defensive actions, spending your initiative points as a form of currency, 5 points to evade a single attack or 10 points to go on full defense for the turn. This gives you bonus dice on your defense rolls (everything is an opposed roll). This looks very interesting and quite tactical. I can’t wait to try it out.

As a side note about initiative, you can spend an Edge to bring yourself up to the top of the initiative order, which seems like a cheap way to get multiple passes when you need them. All you have to do is have one runner with a hot drek initiative score and a bunch of unaltered chummers with a lot of Edge. I might be reading this wrong, but that’s what it looked like to me. Edge seems to be super powerful to me and a “Better Lucky than Good” character can go a long way in one session.

Magic works very similarly to 4th edition with very little variance other than the basic mechanical changes listed above. Magic in 4th was pretty simple, compared to past editions and I don’t blame them for not fixing what isn’t broken.

Hacking on the other hand wooooo. They did a number on this and it’s one of the things that has me smiling ear to ear on 5th. Cyberdecks are back. They are now the hotshot illegal Commlinks that Hacker (now Deckers again) use to ply their trade. These devices now have stats which work as Limits. Attack, Sleaze, Data Processing and Firewall are now the basic Cyberdecks stats. Commlinks have the Data Processing and Firewall stats but not Attack and Sleaze which govern most of the “illicit” actions a Decker can do. Each machine has an Array which represents four priorities of activity on the ‘Deck. High end machines will have a 9/8/7/6 Array. It’s up to the Decker to assign one of those values to each of the ‘Decks four stats. These then become the Limits on programs and activities launched under that statistic. You can shift these numbers around on the fly as well when the situation changes.

There is a simple method for tracking how much attention you have attracted while you are running in the Matrix as well based on the Hits rolled against you on opposed rolls with a finite threshold you can reach before attracting the attention of the demiGODs (Grid Overwatch Division). Very streamlined and with the addition of AR make running alongside Deckers extremely easy. Programs and actions are easy to comprehend. Skills and Hardware are key for Decking since most of your Limits come from your gear and not your stats. This is great for players that want to play a character that is mostly cerebral and bookwormish. Not quite the case for the Technomancer.

The Technomancer rules work well alongside the regular Hacking rules with clear delineations between Resonance actions and Matrix actions. This new “class” for lack of a better word is a great mix between Magic and Decking as far as mechanics and the rules seemed pretty simple to comprehend. I have to say I have never played one, but it piqued my interest on my read through of 5th.

The last thing I want to comment on is the Random Run Generator. This is a one sheet set of random events that can make a Run on the fly. It’s very simple and rudimentary, but when used by a GM with a good imagination it can be all you need to sit down and run a game in minutes. Quite a neat little add-on that I thought was worth a mention.

Overall, this is a very good edition of a venerable game. The only complaints I really have are probably due to the nostalgic memories of an old man. For a game that is over 25 years old it really holds its own against anything on the market today. It may be a little rules heavy for some, but I find the complexity fluid and constructive for the setting and narrative.