Thursday Review: Shadowrun Fifth Edition

Today I’m starting a new weekly article, the Thursday Review. It’s a weekly thing where I’ll review something new, old, or plain interesting in terms of gaming. And today I’m starting off with the fresh-off-the-press Shadowrun Fifth Edition. It’s a great installment in the venerable Shadowrun series of tabletop games, and has a lot of new content and features that make it one of the best places to start in the wonderful world of runners and corporate infighting.

Shadowrun 5th Edition is cyberpunk. Real cyberpunk. Not 4th Edition’s pseudo-cyberpunk where they tried to go as dark as they could but forgot the core of the genre. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, where do I start? I’m not going to introduce Shadowrun-its spin offs and massive market mean that almost everyone has heard of it.

I think I’m justified in saying that 5th Edition is what 4th Edition should have done; there are several changes that set it apart from prior editions, but the rules are much superior in general; consolidating armor to a single value, the newly simplified hacking rules, and an improved character creation using a priority system allows for easier entry to the game without really costing anything as far as the games go. Adding in examples is a great idea; not only do the well-written blurbs give an additional sense of immersion, but they immediately clarify some of the potentially iffy rules.

Setting-wise, there’s more strife, more authoritarianism, less of 4th Edition’s shiny future offset by everyone going psychotic at the mention of technomancers or people of a different race or social status. It’s just a whole lot better; there’s still the unhappy stuff in there, but it’s toned down, and now the world has gotten, in a sense scarier for runners again; GOD watches the Matrix, which is now secured so that the squishy decker/technomancer has to go into the facility with the rest of the team.

Game-wise, the move to the priority system seems to be a stepping stone toward more balanced characters; when I was reading this morning I made a Mystic Adept with some pretty impressive damage resistance for only having 2 Body and casting and combat skills to match, but I need to double-check that I followed the rules and the character is still limited by realistic boundaries, unlike some of the really broken 4th Edition characters that one could build with 400 BP and an unwary GM. At least at the start of the game, this should make things more balanced and fun for everyone; the Limits system also does a fair deal to prevent some of the worst min-maxing that was detrimental to 4th Edition at times.

In addition to the priority system, there’s a general simplification of the rules-in a good way. Hacking now works like any other skill, with its Limit being your deck’s hardware ratings, which can now be swapped on the fly so that you can decide what you want to have high at certain times and low at others-very interesting, and something that makes having a good deck less important than having a good strategy (a good deck, of course, still helps, and bringing an Excalibur to a MCD-1 fight gives you a distinct advantage). The new matrix rules go along with the streamlined rules of 5th Edition, and in my opinion they’re a ready change. Programs function more as gear does, and as someone who’s a computer power user I can say that it’s a lot more realistic in terms of certain things-the new deck attributes are more based on where processing power is distributed, with the number of programs that can run being separate; something which makes them a lot better really quickly. Technomancers are more balanced now; they don’t get to flip their mental attributes around to alter their limits, but they still have an edge due to Resonance; they also are subject to Noise issues like other wireless hacking, and they don’t get the new benefits provided by programs (which are essentially boosts rather than the necessities to do certain things).

So let’s break down Shadowrun from a game perspective. I’ve been slightly unhappy with some of the recent Catalyst Shadowrun products’ quality; they had typos and generally below what I expected. I’m assuming that they were pumping a lot of the editing and art into Fifth Edition. It’s not perfect in every way, and I noticed a couple small issues with typos and one place where they had a split side-bar and edited one half and left a tense error in the other, but it looks pretty good for the most part.

The typesetting and graphics are top-notch; the art’s good, as is to be expected from such a high-budget project, and the typesetting brings back everything that I loved from Eclipse Phase, albeit in a less experimental and slightly less beautiful (but more functional) way. As I said before, Fifth Edition is a reexamination of the setting, and it feels like cyberpunk even in the way the layouts and backgrounds work.

The fiction included in the game is good; not exactly going to win any stellar prizes, but it sets the tone well and introduces each chapter, setting the mood and specifying the topic well. Likewise, the inclusion of examples means that the game is much more clear than Fourth Edition, and while it clocks in at a massive 480 pages, it’s not a terribly difficult read; it is set up more for reference than for the first-time reader, but for someone transitioning from Fourth Edition it’s not terribly difficult, and with the examples provided it’s not too dense for a first-time player.

The game’s content is pretty good; there’s some strong language and violence throughout, as one expects from a cyberpunk game, but it’s less meaninglessly dark than Fourth Edition was; it contains a lot of fluff, more at a shallow level meant to introduce people to the game than at a terribly deep level, but it works and covers the broad spectrum of what people have to know to understand Shadowrun. As normal, there’s a sizable amount of spells and gear, so people wanting the shopping experience can still get it-gear actually feels different in a way that Fourth Edition doesn’t always deliver-for instance, the heavy pistols each have their own feel based on their accuracy and damage, as well as armor piercing, something that was lacking a little in earlier editions; the biggest weapon may not be the most accurate, but the most accurate weapon may not pack as much punch, leading to tradeoffs. It’s a very interesting system, and one which I look forward to in play.

For $20, Shadowrun Fifth Edition delivers. If you buy one game this year, it could very well be the only one you need. You can get the core rulebook from DriveThruRPG here, or the quick start guide from the Shadowrun homepage here.

I also made a form-fillable version of the character sheet, which can be found here.

Disclosure: I’m a featured reviewer on DriveThruRPG, and if you click the link to DriveThruRPG and purchase the game I get a fraction of the purchase.

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