Originally published at http://screenmonkey.blog.com/2014/01/15/review-shadowrun-5th-edition/
Shadowrun was my first cyberpunk game I ever heard of. Before that, I didn't even know the genre existed. It was in Second edition when I first heard about it, and I have been following every edition since then. So it's no surprise that as soon as I heard that they were making a new edition I was hooked.
This review is of the PDF version mainly, although I have not yet found any discrepancies with the my physical copy.
The PDF clocks in at 489 pages, including a 5 pages table of contents, 6 page index, covers, art pages and some consolidated tables and character sheet at the end for another 14 pages, and 3 pages of adds for tie in video games. This leaves a total of 461 pages of content. Bookmarks are well done and pretty complete, and the ToC is hyper-linked to every subheading I tried.
The artwork ranges from decent to good, with a few full page pieces and quite a number of half page pieces as well. The art rarely detracts from the book other than in a few places where it doesn't reflect what is written on the page (Two notable exceptions are the Combat Mage Archetype, where the picture is of a troll but the metatype says human, And the splash art for the Rigger fiction, which shows an Ork driving and the rigger in the passenger seat).
Speaking of the fiction, there's some at the start of every chapter. These are short pieces that highlight what the section is about, and are pretty well written. They evoke the setting as much as the individual sections, and will hopefully get any prospective GM thinking about situations to put their players in.
The game system itself is well explained, with good examples in sidebars. You do have to hunt around for some things that could have been better organized though. Limits and drain resistance tests are two of the things that should have been better organized, as the only place I've found where the calculations for them are not where you'd expect them to be. The limit calculation is at the end of character creation when filling in the last little fiddly bits, and the drain resistance stats are sidebars in the magic section, where traditions are explained. Not deal breakers, but both could have also been explained in the appropriate sections of the text for redundancy without hurting the overall document.
The section on the state of the world at the beginning of the book is relatively short, only 23 pages. But it covers a wide variety of topics and gives the broad strokes of the world without spending a lot of time on it. It's missing a lot of the history that came through in previous editions, but I can forgive that as it was more concerned with explaining the way the world is in 2070 rather than how it got that way. It covers the major players in the corporate world, goes over extraterritoriality (one of the cornerstones of the game world), and the day to day life of the average person.
Character creation has brought back the priority system, with the give and take that it entails. You can still min-max to a degree, but characters seem to be a bit more balanced overall. It introduces a couple of wrinkles from the old version by adding in 'special attribute points' under the metatype heading. These points are spent on things like magic, resonance and edge. the higher up the priority is, the more points you have to spend.
Magic, the matrix and riggers get their own chapter, although riggers seems to be a bit short as it mostly works off the same rules as the matrix, and really only the differences are highlighted in that chapter. Magic got a big boost in this edition, separating out alchemy, spell casting, summoning and rituals all as distinct ways of doing things. I particulary like how rituals are completely distinct from spell casting, and not just a way to cast spells without a visual link like in previous editions. The rituals actually feel like rituals that might take hours to perform. It still allows you to cast those combat spells at a distance, but it also allows for healing and protective circles that last for hours or days without the need to be sustained, and a couple of other neat affects like summoning watchers and homunculus that don't really fit in the regular summoning rules. Alchemy allows you to put a spell into a physical form to be used later, and allows you to prepare ahead of time spells that you want to be able to cast and allowing you to resist drain before going on a run. Adepts are back and receive a decent treatment, but really don't seem to change all that much between editions. Which is a shame, because I'd really like them to get a fuller look than they have in the past. Theoretically they should be able to excel at anything, and the idea of the adept decker just makes me smile, even if he does give up a bit of his magic to get the datajacks.
Combat has changed a bit from 4th edition, with characters getting an action at their initiative on the first pass, then subtracting 10 from the initiative and everyone who still has a positive initiative getting a second/third/etc action. They've added in some changes that can affect your initiative as well. Whenever a character elects to dodge, block or parry they subtract 5 from their initiative but get to roll more dice for defense, for that one action only. You can also reduce init by 10 to add your willpower to your defense rolls for the rest of the combat turn (especially good idea for squishy mages and deckers with decent willpower).
The matrix section brings back the Deckers and decks. Commlinks are now useful, but unable to perform illegal actions like decks can. Netcops have also gotten worse, and every decker and knows that it's just a matter of time before they stomp on you. Luckily, they are more like a fire and forget missile, and once they've bounced you from the matrix they don't bother following up other than forwarding your location to whoever you were trying to hack at the time. This works by giving you an overwatch score that starts as soon as you do something illegal, even if the target didn't notice it. It also goes up over time, and once it hits a certain level they drop the hammer. They hit your deck, possibly frying it, and dump you from the matrix. There's no roll to resist this, it just happens. Technomancers can get this especially bad, as instead of frying their deck they get knocked out or killed by the feedback.
In all, I have to say that I like the new edition of Shadowrun a lot. I'm a not a complete fanboy, and there are parts that irk me, but It's a solid new edition and the publisher seems to be committed to the line and releasing new material.
Pros: Good looking book, solid mechanics and fiction gives a good feel for the universe
Cons: Some organizational issues, history is missing some key points of cannon from previous editions.