Firstly, I want to thank the chap who got me this massive book. I hate it, and that’s wonderful. It’s filled me with such joy to go through and puzzle out why some of these rules are even in the book, and it’s going to provide me with hours and hours of confused fun yet. So, thanks, Matt.
Now – Shadowrun is a fucking joke, and here’s why.
For those who don’t know, Shadowrun is a combination of two great 80’s roleplaying tastes that taste great together – High Fantasy and Cyberpunk. So you’ve got near-future chipheads and goons struggling to survive in a world of chrome and neon and double-crosses whilst also, crucially, being trolls and elves and casting magic spells.
Now, these days we’re in something of a movement towards lighter games. We don’t need massive blocks of stats and numbers to help us define a game world; we need brisk, crisp rules that power reward behaviour and power stories. There’s still a market for your Travellers and your Dark Heresies, of course, for hardbacked tomes that have rules for every eventuality and worldbuilding that covers every base. There’s a thrill to pitting yourself against a ruleset and trying to wring the most effective characters out of it. But, for the most part, they’re dinosaurs.
Shadowrun is a dinosaur. It is a Frankenstein’s Monster of a game, a cobbled-together list of in-jokes and leftover rules.
I’m not against complexity in games, but I am against it when it’s the first thing that players come across. In all of these examples, I want you to remember that this is the core book – the book should allow a gamesmaster to run a game with no extra written materials. This is not the advanced, all-singing-all-dancing-hundreds-of-rules-for-a-specialised-class splatbook. Take a look at this sample starting character:
You probably won’t be able to read all that, and that’s fine. This is a Rigger, one of the six basic roles you can take on in a Shadowrun team – they’re in charge of piloting vehicles from unmanned drones to tricked-out battletanks. As a starting player, here, you’re expected to look over the list of potential vehicles and pick out twelve of them.
That’s too much to take in as a new player. If you’ve been playing Shadowrun for the last ten or twenty years, it’s fine. But if you’re just coming to the world now, that’s so much choice as to make informed decisions almost impossible.
That level of granularity – although it’s so granular it’s now unpleasant to experience, so perhaps grittiness is a better word, in as much as the bottom of a cup of coffee is gritty – is present in every level of the game. I can’t imagine what they cut from it, because it seems like everything is here.
I hate three kinds of rules: redundant rules, rules that require maths, and rules that directly counteract against the story. Shadowrun is made up of all three. For the first example, here’s a paragraph that offers full rules for treading water:
Not swimming: TREADING WATER. Now, this isn’t a game about pirates. Or fishing. Or, you know, swimming. It’s a game where you are thrown onto the mean streets of Neo Tokyo (or Neo Wherever) and fight to survive against almost impossible odds through canny use of tactics. 7th Sea has fewer rules than this for treading water, and large sections of that game are expressly designed to take place on board ship.
Once a game does something like this, it’s hard to take it seriously. You have to read it with an eye for which rules you’re going to use and which ones you’re going to cut out, and that’s not a good rules-set. This is like when Vampire: The Masquerade decided that skills such as Flying and Lip-Reading were as mechanically important as skills like Persuasion and Streetwise in their urban game of dark horror. What else is useless? Where do I draw the line? Can these rules survive intact if I ignore bits of them? Will I still be playing the game as the designers intended?
(And while we’re at it, I’m fully aware that the important bit isn’t the rules, it’s that we all have fun, and we can ignore rules if they don’t fit. It’s just that it’s a fucking shoddy excuse for writing bad rules, is all. If I wanted to ignore rules I could just tell a story with my friends and leave the dice at home; a game should fit together beautifully and each rule should act in service of all the others, not function as some dirty little grab-bag of ideas. Especially if it’s in hardback.
In fact, no, you’re getting a rant. You’re getting a full rant. This isn’t some backwater unplaytested clusterfuck of a thing. This isn’t some sideshow attraction like FATAL, or a product that is essentially satire akin to Hackmaster. This is the fifth fucking edition of a wildly popular title. This game has been in circulation longer than a lot of my readers have been alive.
This isn’t some PDF we’ve found on the arse-end of the internet. This is a product, a piece of game-design, and it deserves to be viewed under a critical lens. If I didn’t like one character in a film, could I mute all their dialogue and still experience the film as intended? Probably not! And yet we still see these massive, bloated games where every rule is inherently optional. It’s bad design. Don’t give me things I can cut away and not detract from the experience. If I can remove a rule from the game and not change much, that’s something you should have done yourselves.)
Next up: maths. Maths are the bane of pacing. I can dig that Shadowrun is explicitly designed as a sort of puzzlebox. Your team of cyber-badasses is given a difficult mission to undertake, and through clever application of their talents, equipment and capabilities they can overcome the difficulties posed to them and get paid. Mechanically, it’s not that different from a classic dungeoncrawl.
However, these are the rules for working out whether explosion damage is reflected off walls:
There is no way you can do this without scratch paper, and these are rules for explosions. This isn’t character gen, or background creation, or even an ongoing skill challenge. No, these are rules which the GM is supposed to look up every time someone throws a grenade near a surface. Not only do they have to work out if the wall is destroyed or not, but if it remains intact, they then have to calculate how many times each target is hit by the blastwave as it rebounds within the space.
This is a terrible idea. You take the excitement of an explosion and render it down into a series of calculations. Similarly, here is a section of the rules which covers firing a weapon on full auto:
These rules actively slow down something which should be too-fast and brutal, which is holding down the trigger on your gun and firing off as many rounds as you can at something in a desperate attempt to kill it before it kills you. These are rules in which you divide a thing by three and then start adding numbers to it before you subtract additional numbers which gives you a running total that you subtract from an entirely different set of numbers.
(Also, it makes you roll Initiative every single round, and to hell with that.)
Now let’s look at the rules for running:
In this game, running is a penalty. If you want to move faster than your base allowance of movement, everything else – aside from defending – becomes harder to do. That’s realistic, and that’s fine, but hear me out a second: this game has rules for Grunts.
Grunts are Mooks, or Cannon Fodder, or – for the want of a better word – Monsters, in D&D terms. They are faceless hordes whose only purpose is to die at your hand, or drive you away from your objective. They go down much, much more easily than named characters.
This a world set up in which the player characters are badass from the word go: the only thing that can pose a threat to them in their normal locales is other Prime Runners or being vastly outnumbered by level-appropriate Grunts. In that world, doesn’t it seem odd to penalise the players based on how many metres of movement they can perform in a turn? How is that fun? How is that illustrative? How is that better than abstracting movement into adjectives that describe relative positions, which is all we really care about anyway?
I can’t find the bits where it says that Shadowrun is a miniatures combat game; there are some maps presented with the book, but they’re too small to be of any real use. The only way I can see the mechanics of Shadowrun being used rules as written is on a map with scale miniatures and a fucking calculator, and that’s not one inherently supported by this book. This ain’t no D&D 4e.
DEAD MAN’S TRIGGER
I think the following example of Dead Man’s Trigger sums up most of what’s wrong with the Shadowrun rules as they stand. Dead Man’s Trigger is one of the multiple ways you can spend Edge, which is a store of what are essentially Drama or Fate points. It lets you, upon being reduced to zero hit points, take one last action before passing out. Neat, right? Except…
Except that there is a three-step checklist to see whether they can do it. Step two isn’t bad – you need to spend Edge to activate it, that’s fine – but step one stops you from doing it if you’ve already acted too much this turn. Step three makes you perform a toughness check to see if you stay on your feet – and this happens after you spend the point of Edge, so you might well lose it even if you don’t succeed.
“Hey,” says Shadowrun, “here’s a cool thing to do!” You smile and nod enthusiastically. “Do you want to do it?” You say you do, and you’re about to do it when Shadowrun interrupts: “Well FUCK YOU, buddy, you’d better fill out these forms first and then flip a coin, and if it comes up tails then SO HELP YOU GOD.”
WALL OF DATA
There is so much here that is hard to grasp, and grasping the fundamentals of Shadowrun is very much the core idea of the game; you are to become ever-more-proficient freelance criminals, masters of your world, getting the most of the opportunities handed to you. Imagine sitting down as a new player seeing this massive wall of data, as a new GM trying to work out how to make a puzzle that’s a challenge to a group who might well be working in three worlds – physical, digital, and astral – all at once.
Imagine the first combat where the GM has to not only remember that those rules for sustained fire and reflecting explosions exist, but then calculate and enforce their effect on the players.
This is not a core book, because this is not everything you need to play Shadowrun. Everything you need to play Shadowrun is multiple years experience of playing Shadowrun.