Ah, Shadowrun. So where does one begin?
In 1986, I was given the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set (BECMI). In 1990, I encountered the Shadowrun RPG. When you "live and breathe" Dungeons and Dragons, being presented a whole different game that anything else (Shadowrun), it tends to break what you think about games. I was rigidly thinking about classes at the time, but Shadowrun was(n't) the first Skill Based System I encountered. It was the first RPG that didn't advertise that it's different than D&D. Well, of course it was blatantly different -- Urban Fantasy mixed with Cyberpunk -- but what set it apart is the aspect of this review.
-- THE THEMES OF SHADOWRUN --
Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Rolemaster, and Palladium -- basically any game that has an alignment mechanic -- is a game of High Fantasy or Morality. The games are set up to be clear cut. Good guys always wear white hats, and bad guys always wear black. In D&D, bad guys tie young maidens to train tracks and good guys always rescue them in the nick of time. You can always tell the White Knight is on the side of Righteousness, and you can always tell that the Black Knight is the side of Wickedness. In D&D, and the games that profess to be better than D&D, everything is black and white, everything is clear cut.
In Shadowrun, you can't tell the white hats from the black because your character is a Shadowrunner. A career criminal that puts fear into the hearts of good company men and women everywhere. You don't live in regular society, you lurk in the shadows, interacting with society when its demanded. And playing a criminal, or a Shadowrunner, you live in a world where not everything is cut black and white. There are no White Knights, and there are no men in Black. Everything is morally gray in a World of low magic, high technology, and low life scum. What counts when you go on a Shadowrun mission is your own wits and your own truth.
-- Basic Conventions --
Shadowrun's basic system depends on cubes, or craps dice, in order to work. When you roll dice in the system, you roll the d6s against a target number, and the number of dice you roll is your attribute rating plus skill rating. It's that simple. It's not about rolling an icosahedron to get a result. It's about rolling your d6s. For Shadowrun 4th Edition, plan on using up to twelve cubes. In 5th Edition, this can get up to twenty-four cubes.
-- Creating Your Character ---
You create a character in 4th Edition by getting 400 build points (the equivalent of using GURPS Character Points) and deciding on a metahuman species. This can be humans, elves, dwarves, orcs (or orks, which the spelling can be orksome), and trolls. Another supplement upgrades the choices to Metahuman Variants, Changlings (of which you can play a "furry"), drakes, vampires, shape changers, nagas, spirits, and Artificial Intelligences.
After that, you purchase qualities -- good or bad -- and then you purchase your attributes. Then you decide the skills. Skills are divided up into active skills, knowledge skills, and language skills. Active skills are what your character can do. Knowledge skills are what your character knows, they also represent hobbies. And language skills are what your character can speak.
After you have your skills figured out, you use the rest of your build points to figure out your resources. Alternatively, of course, you can pick an "archetype." The Archetypes are sample characters to show you what is possible they include:
- A Bounty Hunter
- Combat Mage
- Covert Ops Specialist
- Drone Rigger
- Gunslinger (which is an adept)
- Occult Investigator
- Radical Eco-Shaman
- Sprawl Ganger
- Street Samurai
- Street Shaman
- Weapon Specialist
After that, a chapter on how the skill system works, then the combat system. Then, as Shadowrun is a game that mixes the Cyberpunk genre with Urban Fantasy (As William Gibson has so pointedly put it: "Except that the admixture of cyberspace and, spare me, elves, has always been more than I could bear to think about.") there are like four subsystems you have to be aware of that makes the game work. The first is combat, which is already covered somewhat. Combat, and Combat Gear is expanded upon in Arsenal.
The second is Magic. The rules on Magic, in the chapter called the Awakened World, has set the notion that Shadowrun is a low magic world. There isn't many spells, and they are, in particular, flavorless and generic but they get the job done. Aside from that, most of the chapter is spent on the culture of the Awakened World and how that world is represented by the rule system. Magic is expanded upon in Street Magic.
The third is the Virtual World of the Matrix. In the 2070s, the world has become truly wireless, for Shadowrun to keep up with the wireless technology that we see around us: iPads, iPhones, and iPods are just examples. People depend on Commlinks (and in 5th edition, the newest generation of Cyberdecks) to interact with the Matrix. Here, a little bit on the subculture of the Matrix is revealed, and how players can interact with the matrix as hackers and technomancers. The last are beings able to interact with the Matrix through the powers of their own minds -- although they give up the ability to be magicians because of it. As for programs, Hackers still run programs on the Matrix, as for technomancers -- they use complex forms and sprites to interact with the Matrix. The World of the Matrix is expanded upon in Unwired.
The last subsystem is the Rigging subsystem. In Shadowrun, you require a vehicle control rig in order to control vehicles and drones. If you are a technomancer, you need an echo or two to immerse yourself into the vehicle system. There isn't really a Rigger book for SR4A.
Finally, the Gamemaster is given clues on how to run the system. As characters complete missions (adventures), they are awarded kharma. They then can use karma to improve their characters.
The last bit is on enemies. It's an Awakened World, and a small bestiary containing dragons, vampires, and spirits are presented. Also a number of other beasts are presented -- but a full selection is available in Running Wild, Parabiology, Parabotany, and Parabiology 2.
After that, a whole chapter is presented for Gear, including Cybertechnology and Biotechnology. All of this is expanded on in the books Augmentation, Arsenal, and Attitude. Vehicles and guns are expanded upon in Gun Haven, Used Car Lot, and This Old Drone.
-- Conclusion --
This is a game, in my opinion, that should be given to fans of D&D or the d20 System. Shadowrun is a way to ease them into a Cyberpunk future without throwing away some of the conventions that they are used to. Elves, dwarves, orcs, dragons, creatures from our myths and legends -- they are all in there. The game never has been marketed as better than D&D, just different.
Through the game, you are playing a criminal. Orks aren't bad, trolls aren't evil, and elves can work along side them with dwarves. Although you do get the "We elves are better than everyone else, and we make sure everyone knows it!" attitude, its not among the majority of all elves. And although Or'zet allows for Ork Rap, not every Ork is keen on creating their own nation. But it's that these attitudes exist that helps keep the game interesting.