Friday, October 2, 2015


For those of you that don't know, I currently play in a Shadowrun campaign run by Lance every other Monday night (usually). Shadowrun is a cyberpunk RPG set in 2070. I am a big fan of the cyberpunk genre. When I say cyberpunk, I mean the actual meaning of the word. Characters that are typically working in the shadows or outside the bounds of normal society struggling against a dystopian government or mainstream culture and featuring things like cybernetics and hacking. In the case of Shadowrun, you're shadowrunners, mercenaries with no identities doing espionage for or against the big corporations that refuse to become wageslaves. Shadowrun is special because it injects fantasy into this genre. So you have megacorps being owned by dragons and a crew of shadowrunners composed of magic wielding elves, chromed out trolls, physical adept (magic using monk types) dwarves, as well as hackers and drone users of various races, and so on. It kind of seems a little kitchen sink-like, but it works.

Shadowrun has been around for a while. The first edition came out in 1989. Lance and I and our group play the 5th Edition of the game that came out in 2013. There have been several video games as well. The current crop (Shadowrun Returns, Dragonfall, and Hong Kong are quite good. There's also Boston Lockdown, but I can't speak to its quality. So it's not DnD with a pedigree going back to the seventies, but it has been around a while. I've gotten my hands on copies of previous editions, but only for the purposes of the lore, so in this post if I refer to mechanics I am speaking only of the 5th Edition of the game.

The game is a skill based classless system similar to GURPS in that you invest far more time in character creation than you do in leveling and your increase in abilities is rather slow and it is skill based and classless and has positive and negative qualities you can add to your character for a points cost. The main mechanic is rolling d6s attempting to achieve a certain number of hits to be considered a success (opening a lock) or meeting or exceeding an opposed roll's number of hits (attacking an enemy and comparing your roll with their defense roll). Hits are a result of 5 or 6 on the d6s. The number of d6s you roll is determined by your skill level, relevant attribute, and gear or qualities you may have that augment it. Your characters and some gear (mainly weapons) also have inherent limits to them. When attacking, your number of hits can't exceed a weapon's accuracy. Certain skills and such can't exceed your physical limit (a calculation based on your physical attributes), mental limit (based on mental attributes), or your social limit (your social attributes). Your attributes are Agility, Body, Strength, Logic, Intuition, Reaction, Willpower, Charisma, Magic, Essence, Edge, and Initiative.

The first thing I want to say is that I have been enjoying playing it with Lance and his associates. Good people and Lance is a good GM. The second thing I want to say is that this system is one of the clunkiest most unnecessarily over complicated rulesets I have encountered in my primarily d20 system focused gaming history. This, coupled with the third thing I want to say, makes it a very frustrating game to play. Oh. The third thing. The rulebooks are some of the most poorly designed I have every fucking encountered in terms of layout, rules clarity, and the separation of background material and rules.

I'm not going to speak about my dislikes of the system, as they could just as easily be my personal likes and dislikes and my d20 system Stockholming coming to the fore, but I would like to talk about a few things I like about the system.

The first is the concept of Essence is it relates to social interaction and cybernetics. Essence is part of the calculation of your social limit. Did I say that already? It tends to stay at 6 or go down and it represents your metahumanity. It's also tied to your Magic attribute, if you have one. One of the primary things that decreases essence is chrome, cyberware. There are high quality versions of cyberware that reduce it less, and there is bioware as well which tends to reduce essence by a smaller amount than its cybernetic equivalent but tends to be vastly more fucking expensive. The gist of this mechanic is that when you replace your skeleton with titanium bones or implant kevlar into your skin or replace your fingernails with razors blades, you lose something of yourself, something hard to define. Something just begins to seem off and inhuman about you and others react to this offness. Thus the impact of Essence on your social limit. If it wasn't obvious, a really shitty social limit is going to prevent you from being an effective talky character. If you can only get one or two hits tops due to your social limit, it doesn't really matter how many handfuls of d6s you are tossing onto the table. 

This makes a lot of sense to me. If your bones are titanium, you're going to move and carry your weight differently. You're not going to react to physical pressures on your body in the same way. You won't be easily shoved and surfaces are going to respond differently to your weight on them than they would flesh and blood bodies. If your eyes are implants, you're not going to need to blink to keep them moist or squint in the sun. If your skin is made of kevlar, it's not going to itch or cause you to slap at mosquitoes and bugs on it. A completely cybernetic limb isn't going to twitch or shift to find a comfortable position because it's asleep and you won't crack your knuckles as a nervous tic. As you pile on the chrome, the comforting little tics and idiosyncrasies of flesh and blood that we rarely notice are going to fade away and since we rarely notice them consciously, we'll just have an indefinable sense of something being off. You might say that having kevlar skin or metal limbs is fairly obvious, but in a cyberpunk setting the chrome itself is not unnatural or weird. It's no different than wearing glasses or walking with a cane would be in our society. Maybe I'm over analyzing it or attributing more to the mechanic of Essence and social limit than the designers were, but it makes a lot of sense to me and it's kind of an elegant way of showing what replacing your flesh with chrome does to you.

The second thing I like is the damage tracks. There are two, physical and stun. Physical is lethal physical damage based on your Body attribute and stun is nonlethal and mental damage based on your Willpower attribute. Shadowrun recognizes that there is a sort of mental hit point value for your character. Both damage tracks have negative effects they inflict on your character as they decrease as well. Which is a big beef I have about DnD. There's no difference in the effectiveness of a character with 1 hit point and one with 100. Shadowrun also doesn't go for overblown hit point sacks. My character, Marius the Elf Street Samurai, only has like nine boxes on his physical damage track. Damage is figured out by the damage value of a weapon and the target making a roll of their Body + their armor's rating. That's a slight simplification, but the gist is that if your weapon's damage exceeds the target's roll, you start marking off boxes.

The third thing I like is the concept of racial minimums and maximums for attributes. This is something I liked about 2nd Edition AD&D as well. The attribute range for humans is 1 to 6. During character creation you start at the minimum for your races and use your attribute points to increase from the minimum. Elves are faster and prettier than humans so that have a range of 2 to 7 for their agility and 3 to 8 for their Charisma. Trolls and orks are big and tough so their racial minimums and maximums are higher for Strength and Body than a human's. This doesn't mean all orks and trolls are tougher and stronger than all humans. But the troll that is a street samurai using melee weapons is probably going to be stronger and tougher than the human or elf street samurai that uses melee weapons. This makes sense. Orks and trolls are big, they can physically support more muscle mass and whatnot than a human or elf can. Elves are slender and graceful, their bodies are naturally able to achieve more agility than a humans, the same way cats are naturally more agile than a cow or dog. Halfling characters in DnD could have a Strength far surpassing that of the average human, even just at character creation, even though they are skinny and half as tall as the average human.

Next up on my list is how Shadowrun does initiative. Just like DnD, initiative is a measure of turn order in combat. It's your Intuition + Reaction +1d6. There are things that can increase your bonus dice and whatnot. The first thing I like is that initiative is based on a physical attribute (your reaction speeds) and a mental attribute (your awareness of your surroundings). I find it odd that Reaction is not folded into Agility like it is in other games, but whatever. So I think it's really neat that the majority of your initiative in Shadowrun is static with only a minor amount of variation. It makes sense, people who react quickly and pay attention to their surroundings and are experienced with seeing when people are ready to kill would statistically, probably maybe, be quicker to react and be ready than people who are not those things. Anyway. So one interesting thing Shadowrun does with initiative is that everyone takes their turn, then they subtract 10 (I think) from their initiative and anyone with an initiative above 0 gets to go again. So instead of gaining additional attacks because class feature or attack bonus, you gain additional attacks and actions for being super fast and stuff. I dig it. Additionally, there are some forms of attack and defense and some special actions you can take that cost you initiative. It's kinda neat. I like it. It makes combat a little bit more fluid and interactive and that sort of thing. 

So. Last thing, the priority system. Originally I found this system incredibly confusing and clunky, but it's actually kind of neat. There are five priorities: A, B, C, D, and E. During character creation you choose your metahuman type (race), magic (which determines your magician type and spells and magic skills), skills, attributes, and resources (cash). You choose things by assigning them a priority. So if you want to have a lot of cash, you assign your resources priority 4 (400,000 nuyen). I tend to like Elf characters because I am partial to brutally quick little characters. Elves are only an option if you choose metatype priority as A, B, C, or D. Elves at priority A are noted as Elf (8), elves at priority D are Elf (0). The number after the parentheses are points you can use to increase your Edge (which is basically luck), Magic, or Resonance. So you can choose a "weaker" race, but augment it with other features. Anyway. It's an interesting system that's less complicated than completely constructing characters from scratch via points values, but is much more reasonable than just mandating all races and classes are equal in power. 

So yeah, there's some stuff I like about Shadowrun and stuff. 

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