Shadowrun 5th Edition – A Chapter by Chapter Review
So, after getting my hands on my PDF copy of the new Shadowrun 5th Edition Core Book, I’ve been eagerly reading my way through the book to see what this latest Edition has to offer. I am very pleased to say that it offers quite a lot to the fans of the setting and corrects a couple of things I was finding with the already-impressive Fourth Edition that were bothering me.
Art and Layout
I’m no artist, so I’m hardly one to critique the talents of the artists involved, but I can honestly say the artwork in SR5 is some of the best to date. Some of the older pieces they’ve recycled are not my favourites, but the new colour artwork is gritty and emotional and really captures the original feel of the game I fell in love with. The book is well laid out (the tables in the Street gear section are often in odd places, due to the sheer volume of items) and while there are a few typos along the way, there are far worse culprits for that in Catalyst’s past that I can overlook a couple of proofreading mistakes. The material is in a logical progression and the full colour book shows great production value.
Crunch vs Fluff
This was one of the places I felt strangely letdown by the latest Edition. The rules are solid and concise and not too divergent from the previous Edition. But the lack of flavour text struck me as odd after 15 years as a GM. The lack of conversation interjecting the rules and the gloss-over on the history struck me as unusual, as all previous Editions gave a full rundown on the alternate history of the setting, but if you haven’t read Storm Front, or the pre-published adventures from 4th, there wasn’t much explanation of the metaplot of the past Edition (nothing about tempo, little about the Amazonian/Aztec conflict, or the fallout amongst the dragons). I would have liked to see a better recap here. Although there is an inherent sense of humour through the rules (which does help), the banter between runners over gear, ideology and ego is missed.
Life in the Sixth World
This chapter is a breakdown of the core concepts of Shadowrun: Magic, Matrix and Megacorps. It gives a breakdown of the power players and what sets each one apart from the other. There isn’t as much depth here as I would like, but I’m a very detail oriented person and I have several Editions worth of old sourcebooks to fall back on. As a new GM though, I think I would have preferred a greater view into the core of each of the Big Ten and the events that shaped those companies, as well as a greater profile of the major nations of the world.
For those who are familiar with SR4, there aren’t a lot of major changes in the overall mechanics of the game. All tests are still based on Attribute and Skill and modifiers change the number of dice in your pool, rather than a target number. However, the biggest change comes in the form of limits. There are three new calculated “attributes” for your Physical, Mental and Social Limits. These are based on your attributes and serve as your maximum for tests tied to that limit. With Skills now ranging from 1-12, you can amass some staggering dice pools, but if your attributes are too low, you won’t be able to keep enough successes to really shine. I like this limitation, as it is possible with enough specializations, implants and gear modifications to get some ridiculous dice pools in SR4 and a good roll will take down a dragon with a light pistol. Limits help keep some of that astounding luck in check. There are changes within Initiative, Magic and Matrix as well, but I will touch on those later.
Creating a Shadowrunner
In previous Editions, I was not a fan of the Priority system for character building. I found it too limited and made some characters very difficult (try to make a troll mage in SR3 using priority build without being broke, for example). However, I must say, I really like the character creation system in SR5. It uses the priority build method, but allows some flexibility in each category (You don’t have to choose race as Priority A to play a troll, for example… Both A or B will suit). By having certain categories fall into a range of priorities, you can better tailor your power level. With the Karma pool for final customization, you can adjust for that category that fell just a little under where you wanted. It’s flexible, but doesn’t allow for the insane builds you can muster in SR4’s point buy system. With Contacts and Skills increasing in spread (from 1-6 to 1-12), it keeps runners from starting the game with CEOs as contacts, or being a world class marksman from day one, which I am pleased to see. I plan on playing around within this chapter extensively…
Not many changes here, save for what has already been mentioned (doubling the range of skill levels). A few skills have been re-labeled, a few have been elaborated on and a few new ones have been introduced. I’m quite happy with the skill sets and I’m glad to see them remain familiar.
Combat has changed (for the better, in my opinion) in the way the Initiative system operates. Gone is the Initiative Pass system and now everything is tracked by Initiative Score. What used to be Initiative 8 with 2 Initiative Passes is now 8 + 2D6. Each round uses 10 points from your score, but the other actions you take in defense can also deplete your score tally. Do you conserve your points to have a second action, or burn the points to hit the deck? It injects tactical decisions into each combat and makes you think whether or not you want to risk crossing that open space or keep your head down.
With the new limits, there is a certain amount of calculated gains. Edge has a few new uses that allows you to ignore limits for a single roll, which can make for some dramatic moments, which I think will make for a more interesting game overall. Armor has been simplified (single rating, rather than ballistic vs impact) and weapons now have an Accuracy rating, that serves as a secondary limit (you’re only as good as your gear). While tracking the flow of Initiative may be a little trickier, I feel the fluid environment of a battlefield will be better reflected with the new system.
The Matrix is where the largest changes have occurred in the transition from the last Edition. Mechanically, all tests are handled the same as always (Att+Skill) [Limit], but the overall feel of the matrix has more in common with SR3 than SR4. The corporations all got together and agreed “Hackers are bad, mmmkay?” and founded the Grid Overwatch Division (GOD… no delusions of grandeur here…) Now every action you take in the Matrix brings the reach of GOD ever-closer to you (and you don’t want that). You’re on borrowed time the moment you do anything illegal, so need to ensure that you have a game plan when you jack in.
You can no longer make any character into a hacker with a decent enough commlink. With GOD’s new security systems, a basic commlink can’t even breach simple security. You need a cyberdeck, as in the days of old and the old term “decker” has had an overdue dusting off. Decks are more dynamic than in the old ACIFS days, but the ratings of your deck serve as your limits within the Matrix, so you need good hardware, good skills and your Logic factors more into Matrix based tests than it did in SR4. While the re-introduction of the cyberdeck adds a layer of complication to the Matrix that wasn’t present in SR4, but it makes the matrix a very dangerous place and provides the possibility for better tension in game. Deckers are once again a specialist and the feel is SR3, but the control of the game flow is SR4. The best of both worlds, in my opinion.
No longer just a subsection of the Wireless Chapter, Riggers have seen them get a chapter of their own. Similar to the Matrix, the riggers have gone a little retro, going back to something akin to SR3 in terms of their connectivity with their rides. A Control Rig is indispensable and if you plan on commanding squads of drones (isn’t that why you play a rigger?), you will need to buy a Rigger Control Centre to keep everything running smoothly. With the new Matrix infrastructure, it is much harder for the runners to break into a spider’s web and make off with every drone in the place, as vehicle ownership can only be modified with a Hardware check (which means taking this traceable piece back to a quiet place where you can do your handiwork and hope the owner doesn’t find you first). Makes drones something the runners won’t necessarily instantly monetize on sight…
Magic is what distinguishes Shadowrun from other cyberpunk style games and compared to SR4, it works very similarly. There are some changes worth noting. Ritual Spellcasting has become more accessible, as rituals can be performed solo and some rituals can be performed quickly. The variety of rituals is refreshing. Conjuring is vastly unchanged from the previous version, with one major exception: spirits have lost immunity to normal weapons, which makes them much easier to kill*. The big addition to magic is a third skill group called Enchanting. It includes three skills: Alchemy, Artificing and Disenchanting. These govern the creation and destruction of magical goods and reagents. This governs building foci, destroying foci and creating Alchemical Goods that work like magical devices and trinkets. It’s a flavourful addition that I am a definite fan off that works similar to the Anchoring Metamagic did in previous versions. Drain codes have been adjusted to make mana-based combat spells more in line with other spells. While I will miss the additional traditions and adept powers from Street Magic, the changes are good enough that I can easily bide my time until the next magic supplement is ready.
* since writing the review, I have realized (and been notified) that spirits do still have Immunity to Normal Weapons, it just listed as a separate ability, but as part of their Materialization power (which means projecting mages who materialize also have the same benefit). It’s what I get for reviewing the book so quickly, I guess…
This chapter has some pretty good suggestions for people who have never designed or run a game before. There is no wrong or right way to make a run, but there is some solid guidelines here and can serve as a decent foundation for finding your own style. The run hook generator is very simplistic, but could work in a pinch. The assorted security measures and SOP that security might take with a team if inbound Shadowrunners will help GMs keep their players on their toes. The importance of having a SIN in society is laid out well and I was happy to see the costs of Fake IDs go up, as they shouldn’t be tossed around indiscriminately. I was also pleasantly surprised to see guidelines for run payouts in net worth and Karma. Establishing a baseline pay grade has been an item that seems to have varied from Edition to Edition, but seeing a calculation method here works for me.
Helps and Hindrances
This is very similar to the Friends and Foes Chapter of SR4. Grunts haven’t changed and some baseline NPCs look on par with their SR4 equivalents. Contacts have changed slightly, for the better. Connection Ratings now span 1-12, but Loyalty remains from 1-6. It gives greater breadth in the Contact’s ability to make connections and the mechanic they’ve used for both the Contact’s availability and the costs of their services seems more fluid now. The mechanic for favours with Contacts should open up many more job opportunities for the runners, when their corporate buddy calls in that favour you owe him for allowing you access to that research lab last week…
The critter section is roughly the same as in SR4. The rules for diseases and toxins work well, though the mechanic for addiction has changed. Each drug has its own addiction level (not all drugs are created equal) and getting hooked (or weened off) could be a genuine struggle for the runner. A welcome flavour piece for those habitual Kamikaze users…
The gear listing is about on par with SR4, with a few new entries and weapons gleaned from later supplements like Gun Heaven. The big change one will see here is the fear factor… all the damage codes have gone up. Health has not. So, be warned that the gutter punk with the crappy pistol can still kill you quite handily. Armor ratings are higher as well, but dodging/parrying/blocking are all subject to your physical limits, so more dice may not save you. If you were an “Arsenal” addict, as my players were, you may feel restricted by the gear listing, but the changes to the equipment (Accuracy values, wireless functionality, etc) means that there are enough new features that old equipment has some neat tricks now.
As a whole, I love the new Edition. I would have liked to see more fluff to the book, but the mechanical revisions are almost an exact answer to what was bothering me with 4th Edition. The new Matrix will have a bit of a learning curve, but I enjoy the challenge. Definitely a 9/10. Great job, Catalyst!
I welcome questions, opinions etc. Anyone else read the new Edition?