Review: Shadowrun 4.0

Copyright Robert J Defendi © 2005

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"Finally, Shadowrun advocates don't have to be Shadowrun apologists."

Let's talk about Shadowrun. An old FASA game, Shadowrun for years languished in that terrible state that can consume a game when a fantastic world is saddled with a horrid rule system. An amazing and vibrant setting, Shadowrun had a rule's system so pathetic that after two or more years of playing it, I had never even learned how to handle damage. This is not the first game that I didn't try to learn while playing. The is the first game where I succeeded in remaining ignorant. I had my rules lawyer friend to give me character development ideas and I knew how to spend karma. The Game was so obfuscated under its own byzantine system of exceptions that no amount of time playing was able to batter its way through my rules-ambivalence. That was version one or two. I never played three.

For those that don't know, Shadowrun is a magical cyberpunk game set in a future where magic has returned to earth and Japanese corporations threaten to consume American life (which is on the ropes anyway because the country has fractured). Most games take place in the line's signature city of Seattle and it hinges around the Shadowrun. In a typical Shadowrun, a nameless corporate suit, called Mr. Johnson as a matter of tradition and convenience, hires the Shadowrunners to do some deed. A Shadowrun is any illegal or quasi-legal activity, most typically some form of corporate espionage, theft, sabotage or kidnapping. Come on, Chummer. You know you want play.

So how's version four?

Well, let's start by saying that from what I understand, Fanpro, the holder of the current license, took a wise approach to releasing this product. They released the eBook version of the game on August 31st, and by the 1st of September, their first errata list was available online. They revised the game and released it nine days later after getting initial feedback from their fanbase. Only then did they release the print version. While this isn't enough to get a full playtest out of their customers, it is enough to make sure that the print book had been thoroughly combed for inconsistencies and unclear test. So, did this trick give them the product they wanted?

Well, let's take a walk through the book, shall we?

After a piece of opening fiction and your standard "What is a Roleplaying Game" fare, the book moves on to immediately play to its strength: the Setting. It starts with a history chapter, which advances the Shadowrun timeline to the year 2070. In this section they manage to incorporate modern real world tech into the world that the game previously missed (wireless, anyone?) and advance the world to a slightly newer age. Forgive me if I don't know how far this leapt beyond third edition, but it's a fine and necessary section. Next comes the obligatory section on the world in general, after which a new player should have some idea what's going on in this awakened setting.

Next you'll see the game concepts. Here is where the system takes a leap beyond what I've played in the past. All fives and sixes are "hits" now instead of basing all target numbers on enemy stats. You roll a skill check by adding your stat and skill together and rolling that many d6. The more "hits" the better the result. For instance, if you have a three reaction and a three dodge and you try to dodge an attack, you roll six dice and you will probably score two "hits." These would be subtracted from the enemy attack to determine if they landed theirs. "Hits" also add to damage, and once the damage is figured out, the character rolls his dice to soak. It's very simple, isn't burdened with the exceptions of previous version. Most of all, it's intuitive. If you've read half the rules of the game, you could fake the other half. Elegant.

Next the game walks you through creating a Shadowrunner. This is a straightforward process and it has decent safeties installed to make certain that characters aren't too min-maxed. Still, most characters will be min-maxed, because it is foolish not to. A linear system is used to create characters, where raising a stat from four to five typically costs as much as raising from one to two. Since during play one has to deal with diminishing returns, the game begs you to min-max. Of course, many games do.

After character creation, the game presents some sample characters and skills. The is a handy section, especially for players of previous versions thinking in an "old mode." Deckers are gone and now are just called hackers. There are technomages, who build personas as agents in the net, but a hacker is all a team needs. Better yet, the hacking system is now a straightforward skill system, which means that every time you plan a run, you don't have to run a solo adventure of the decker, alone in the net, running a massive scenario. Since this fragmented every game I've ever played with a decker, I applaud the change. Give me a few rolls and move on.

Next the game explores combat. Combat in the new system is simple, fast and easy. Unlike other versions, it's actually possible to kill anyone with any weapon (you might have to spend an edge, sort of a luck stat, to get the exploding dice necessary if you don't have the base damage or skill). Damage is easy and straightforward (I've played in two combats now and, alas, I already understand it). The game has a few innovations, as well. It uses a pass system to deal with multiple attacks, where everyone goes once, then everyone with actions left go again, and then again, and so on until no one has actions left. This isn't the first game to use such a system, but it is the first game I've personally seen that had one that didn't completely break the movement system. If you are going to attack an enemy and you have three attacks and they have only one, you still move in step together through the initiative phases despite the discrepancy in number of action. Initiative is easy. Attacks and damage are easy. None of it makes me stare and shake my head at poor design. In other words, a world above previous versions.

Next is the Awakened World section, where you can play a mage or a shaman or an adept (a sort of magically-enhanced warrior) or a mystic adept (which is a mage/adept). I have no complaints about the magic system, other than to say many people are going to wait for future supplements for Fanpro to reintroduce new version of the magical specialties they want. I suppose that is unavoidable.

Then the Wireless Word, a section on the net. I've already expressed my opinions on what they've done with hacking, so I'll move on.

Running the Shadows, the section on GMing. Let me take a moment to point out the one thing that is still pretty broken about this game . . . spending karma. In former versions of Shadowrun, stats did not help skills and I think they haven't fully shaken that mentality. A trait costs 3x its target to raise, an active skill 2x and a knowledge skill 1x. Now, in a system when one trait can give you a bonus to a dozen different skills, charging only 50% more than a skill just doesn't make any sense. Why would anyone ever raise a skill before their stats top out? The other big problem here is that the cost is based on the end total, not the number of times you've raised the trait. For instance, if you make a troll character and only put one in strength, you will have a five due to the race's bonuses. If you have a human with the same stat, you've put five points into strength and your maximum is six. But it costs the same amount of points to raise both characters, despite the fact that this is the simplest effort for a troll and the supreme culmination of human ability for his counterpart. You might have to make house rules for both of these sections. Otherwise, all trolls will be completely min-maxed and all other characters will spend all their karma on traits.

Then there is a friends and foes section dealing with NPCs and monsters and the like. Finally, the section on street gear. Tech is a little more advanced in this version (due to the advancing of the timeline and therefore the state of the art) and the rules are different enough that all the old books are now likely useless where rules are concerned. The main problem I have here is a certain incompleteness. For instance, if you want to buy drugs, you won't find prices in the new book. On the forums, people say they are using their third edition books for the missing prices, but for new players, it's on-the-fly pricing or nothing.

The main problems with this game are spending karma and a lack of compatibility with the massive tonnage of books that some players already have. The first they could have avoided, but the second was probably a lost cause. Old versions of the game labored under ridiculously badly-designed rule systems and I think it's unlikely they could fix this without losing that backward compatibility.

So, in conclusion, this new edition is what people like me have been waiting on for years. My most anti-Shadowrun friend is playing the new version with glee. Finally, Shadowrun advocates don't have to be Shadowrun apologists. If the rules have held you back from buying the game in the past, get it. If you're a longstanding player, I'd still recommend it, but know it will render most of the rules in your existing Shadowrun library obsolete.