Monday, July 8, 2013

Shadowrun 5e Review

Full Disclosure: I’ve been a fan of Shadowrun since 2nd Edition. It wasn’t my first RPG, but it was the first where I fell in love with the setting and all the cool stuff you could do. This is a review of a pre-release PDF of the 5th edition rules. The PDF was given to me by Catalyst games in exchange for doing the review. They have placed no restrictions on me and have not asked to see the review before it gets posted. In their words, they “want the product to stand on its own.”

I’m assuming readers are familiar with at least Shadowrun 4th Edition. If you aren’t, feel free to ask me some questions, or seek out some 4th edition reviews.  I’ll be dividing the review into four sections: Initial Impression, Primary Review, Actual Play, and Conclusions. If you want the TL;DR version, skip to Conclusions.

Initial Impressions

After getting the PDF and giggling like a schoolgirl on crack that I got a copy before most other people, I immediately opened it up and did that “new game book flip-through” thing that gets gamers in trouble. Oops. At least I had the sense to write most of my thoughts down. If you’re new to Shadowrun, most of this won’t make any sense to you; you'll get more out of the Primary Review, below. Beware stream of consciousness nonsense and mind the fanboyism:

  • This book is big... Like nearly 500 pages.
  • Hey! The Shadowrun definition is back! … Crap, they goofed on it. Says WorldWide WorldWatch instead of WorldWide WordWatch. This doesn’t bode well. I hope this gets fixed before print, otherwise that’ll be very embarrassing.
  • The background on the short story pieces makes them hard to read on my monitor.
  • No “And so it came to pass?” — Hrm.
  • Cool, we’re back to the fake swearing!
  • Priorities are back for Character Generation! *Does happy dance while co-workers weren’t looking*
  • Woah...what are these Limit things?
  • Initiative is back to the 3rd Edition version. Hrm..
  • Decks are back!
  • Awesome, Riggers get more than a paragraph of explanation this time around.
  • Adepts get actual benefits from Mentor Spirits!
  • Random run generator!
  • Base reward table... This would have been useful about 18 years ago.
  • Equipment actually states what wireless functions do.
  • Looks like we don’t need every player to be a mini-hacker with their commlinks anymore.
  • Ooh, all the previous cover art. And some cityscapes.


...You know, after reading that, I’m a bit concerned for my own mental state.

Primary Review
As noted in Initial Impressions, the book is big. Adobe says 489 pages, but that includes covers and what looks like pull-out art at the back.Rulebooks of this size can be a bit intimidating, especially for new players. The layout is very good, not too much or too little whitespace, and the tables are generally easy to read. After my initial joy of seeing the original “Shadowrun, noun” definition, I had a vague feeling of unease that I misread something. The second glance confirmed that I did read “WorldWatch” instead of “WordWatch,” so I yanked out my 2e book and checked. It’s supposed to be “WordWatch.” This seemed to bode poorly as they have the style down and went retro with the quote, but got it wrong.

We Start off with short story that’s supposed to give us some insight into the world. These stories appear between distinct sections, so there’s a fair number of them. Unfortunately, white text on a black background with rendered grey noise is nigh-unreadable on my monitor. It should be fairly readable in print, assuming they don’t go for the super-glossy paper you can’t read without polarized lenses and specialty lighting. While Shadowrun normally has higher than average quality fiction, I find the number of stories rather annoying. You only ever read them once, and they take up 34 pages of space that could put to better use.

After the first story, we have the introduction, including the “Shadow Slang” glossary. Older players may be pleased to know that the oldschool terms like “Drek,” “Frag,” and “Geek” are back. I personally believe that this slang adds a lot to the feel of the game, something that Fourth Edition's use of real slang lost. It didn’t feel like a fantasy anymore, and we still used the old slang in our games anyway.

There’s another story, and then we get “Life in the Sixth World.” In Previous Editions, we had “And so it came to pass,” normally an important NPC lecturing us on history from the mid-90s to the "present". The lack of this is both the best and worst thing about the intro chapter. “And so it came to pass” was often a massive overload for new players, with too much worldbuilding and no useful expectation-setting. This chapter does a really good job for new players, and makes things clear in ways no previous edition ever did. The big downside, though, is that Shadowrun was created in the 90’s with all of the bombast and crazy that existed in gaming then, and then we’ve had 20 years of metaplot and changes to the feel. Additionally, like many near-future settings, events that were a long way away are now in the past. This leaves some parts of the setting rather difficult to comprehend without a full rundown on the entire geopolitical situation from the beginning. I’m not sure how to fix this, short of re-doing the whole metaplot and timing. Life in the Sixth World does about as good of job as you can expect in a game with this much history. The sections on a day in your life and what you might be doing are particularly excellent, and the sidebars very informative.

We then move straight into “Shadowrun Concepts,” which presents the basics of the rules. These are mostly the same as 4th Edition: roll #d6 equal to stat+skill, every 5 or 6 is a success. The big change is Limits, which set the maximum number of successes you can get on a roll, and are based either on a derived value or your equipment. I wasn’t very sure about limits and resolved to test in play, which is why I did the playtest, below. Additionally, Edge has been tweaked a bit to play with Limits and allow players to do more than just react with it. This seems to be a very good thing.

Character creation is next, and we’ve gone back to the “priority” system from older editions, rather than the point-buy from more recent versions. The priority system was always faster, but it felt very limiting for some players. The new priority system allows for more flexibility in where you place things. A player who puts his race at C gets more points to spend on Edge and other special attributes than a player who chooses E. This results in characters who actually have Edge, which always ended up as a dump stat when we played 4th Edition (although some people apparently did the exact opposite, and this should also prevent that). At the end of character creation, players also get a pool of Karma to add Qualities and tweak things a bit. Characters end up feeling more competent than previous editions, but also less overburdened with useless things. There are options to make more or less powerful characters.

Archetypes (pre-made characters) have generally needed a lot of errata in previous editions, and I cannot confirm or deny this is the case now. I can say that the only two things that stood out is the art for the Human Combat Mage depicts a Troll, while the Troll Smuggler has a layout hiccup where his Gear section is repeated in an odd place. Skills follow archetypes and are presented fairly similarly to 4th Edition. This is the area where the new layout really starts to shine. I’m not exactly sure how much has changed from 4e here, but the layout and wording here made reading this section more pleasant than most skill sections in RPGs.

Combat is apparently a whole new section, because we have another of those short stories right before it. Again, it works pretty similarly to 4th Ed, but there are a few changes. Firstly, Initiative is back to how 3rd Edition handled things: rolling a set number of dice, totalling them and adding them to your Initiative value. Highest goes first, once everyone has gone, everyone subtracts 10, if you still have a value above zero, you get to go again. This is a welcome return. Set initiative passes like in 4th meant low initiative characters only ever went once. If you had one pass, you predictably spent most of every round twiddling with your phone. Now, you’d need to actively try to make it impossible to have a chance at going twice; irregular engagement is better than none. Edge can also be spent to roll maximum dice on the initiative roll. You can take certain actions which cost some initiative, such as full defense, which can throw a bit of a wrench in things, but seems well planned.

Another change is that they’ve removed the Ballistic/Impact split in Armor, leaving a single value. Armor ratings also help defend against things that they didn't before, like electricity or cold. Systems and actions have been cleaned up a bit and it looks to be much tighter and easier to run than in previous editions. Vehicle combat is given its own little subsection and is also much cleaned up. It feels much less “tacked on” than in 4th.

Matrix and hacking rules appear after (you guessed it) another short story. This section gives a good overview of what the Matrix is, jargon used, and then gives us basic Matrix actions non-hackers use, before going into the in-depth Matrix rules. Unlike in 4th Edition, non-hackers do not need to know a whole ton about Matrix stuff just to have a comm-link. Comm-links have a single rating, while Decks (and Technomancers' brains) get more details because they’ve been built to hack things. This is awesome. The rules are otherwise tightened up from 4th Edition and seemed much easier for my old Grognard brain to handle. We then have another short story! But this I minded less because afterward there was a section on Riggers (people who control vehicles with Direct Neural Interface). This is a big, big deal. In 4th Edition, Riggers were relegated to a few teeny notes at the end of the Hacking section, and were basically a subtype of "hacker". Here, it’s only eight pages, but with the Vehicular Combat rules being presented in the Combat Section, that’s all you need. It’s clean, fits with the rest of the rules much better, and makes sense.

Magic is up next after (okay, I’ll stop with the short story notes now, I promise).  As usual, we are given Shamanic and Hermetic traditions, spirit rules, spells, etc. The big things are that Spells have been rebalanced so the Drain Values (damage taken from casting) are more consistent based on effect, and things flow very well. There’s also some rules for reckless Spellcasting, which look nifty... And dangerous! Adepts (those who channel power into their body, rather than into spells) actually get benefits from Mentor Spirits, and the spirit rules seem much better presented. We also have Metamagic rules, which look much cleaner, although in nearly 20 years of playing, I’ve never met a player who used them for more than two adventures before the character got Geeked.

Gamemaster advice is up next, and it’s mostly standard stuff found in many games. there are a few things that stand out, though. The bit about Group Rules and Boundaries is excellent and more groups really should follow the example set by the advice here. Designing a run is covered, and has some random tables to help spice things up, including meet locations, employers, job types, MacGuffins and twists. There’s even looks and personality tables for the major NPCs. Common security events are listed along with a few drop-in locations. Finally, we have Lifestyle and Monetary/ Karma rewards. Why Lifestyle is always in the GM section when Players actually need to know it, I don’t know, but it’s bugged me since I started playing Shadowrun. The reward rules, however are nicely presented and give good advice on when and how much to reward for both money and Karma. The table for monetary rewards, in particular, is of great help as it gives Gamemasters a framework from which to build, taking into account opposition special events, and whether or not the run is distasteful or leaves the characters with good feelings.

Helps and Hindrances is next. Grunts are listed first, but unfortunately, the examples of sample grunts leave a bit to be desired. There’s only one example for each professional rating, and while it’s not horribly difficult to come up with new ones or modify, it would be really nice to be able to grab some examples quick when the players do something wholly unexpected or the run goes pear-shaped. Contacts are up next in the chapter and are nicely presented. From an expanded influence table to decent sample contacts, this feels more solid than the grunts section. Critters are presented after contacts and there’s a good list of them and their powers, which will let you tweak things easily. Most runs I’ve played through don’t use many critters, which makes the underwhelming grunts section more perplexing. The critters chapter is kind of traditional, but shouldn't the word-count be spent on the things that get used? Toxins and drugs round out the chapter. The rules for using (and becoming addicted/overcoming addiction) are easy to digest and unlike 4th (assuming I’m remembering right), it’s much easier to find out costs and availability on the drugs.

And then we’re onto Street Gear, because “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping!” Or they would, but instead we have the lame “Nothing to fear if you’ve got the gear,” as the pull quote. Doesn’t have the same ring to it. Any piece of gear with wireless functionality now explicitly lists what that functionality can do, and rules for going wired or simply without connection whatsoever are included. Gear descriptions are generally good and there’s a feeling that the right gear makes the job easier without it being only about what you can afford. Weapon Accuracy is the Limit for attacks, but there are a number of ways to upgrade the Accuracy of your weapons.  There’s generally fewer questions of “what does that do,” or “okay, where do I find that” in the gear lists than previously.

Rounding out the book, we have an Index, which I didn’t use because I am working from a searchable PDF, tables for quick reference, a character sheet, some art, and two adverts for Shadowrun online and Shadowrun Returns.

Overall, the book seems fairly solidly laid out and tested. I will say the art didn’t really grab me. With the exception of the older art presented at the end of the book, everything was functional, but nothing really special jumped out. I think I liked the few gear illos they presented more than the bulk of what was in the book.

Actual Play

Just because something looks good or odd or broken doesn’t mean it actually is in play. So I got as many of my old Shadowrun buddies together as I could for a quick adventure and test. Most of the guys were back in Saskatchewan, so the adventure was over Google Hangouts.

After looking at Chargen, I decided quickly that we’d use Archetypes because while the Priority System is straightforward, my players would still need their own book, and that was not possible. Players had decided on the Gunslinger Adept, the Face, the Covert ops Specialist, the Smuggler and a Combat Mage. The basic run was simple: Mothers of Metahumans wanted the group (all metahumans except the Combat Mage) to get evidence that a local senate member was paying off Alamos 20k to start some race riots just before the election. The pay would be a goodly sum of Nuyen...and cookies. I used the random run generator for the basics, and was actually a bit disappointed in the lack of variety available. Most of the tables are 1-6, and only one is a 2d6 table. While all of the items make sense, it’s very shallow (only the barest info is able to be rolled). This ends up not helping a lot, because the whole point of random tables is for when you’re stuck with only the basic info, or want something different. They’re supposed to pique your interest and get the imagination going, but these don’t. In particular, the “twists” could be much better. Every single “twist” is something nearly every group I’ve run with or for plans for... which means they’re not twists.

To prep, I went over the Combat and Magic rules again, as that seemed to be the areas the players would need the most. I also printed out the tables in the back of the book so I had them for quick reference. Unfortunately, I had to reschedule the game and the Combat Mage was unable to make it. This pushed a lot more work onto the smuggler and I had not covered the Rigging/Vehicle rules quite well enough. But you know what? It didn’t matter. With all the subsystems working far more alike, I was able to learn on the fly and make judgement calls where needed.

Gameplay was fast and unobtrusive. Limits did not prove to be the problem I thought they would be. Higher Edge totals and Limits actually made players spend Edge in appropriate situations. In fact, the only major issues seem to be the ones that plague almost all modern games. Namely, rules buried deep in paragraphs, things in tables that aren’t explained on the table themselves, and the lack of usable tables in the quick reference. The last one is big. We have the rewards table in the quick reference and the random run generator, even though you’ll only use either one once an adventure. Meanwhile special actions and reactions are only listed long-form, requiring much flipping back and forth. We have a large table of all the weapon ranges... But the grunts have their weapons' ranges listed and you’ll write that down for your PCs or custom NPCs. Once you’ve played for a while, it won’t be as bad, but why can’t designers put info you need to reference quickly in the quick reference? This slowed down combat, as did the actions for firing modes being listed separately from the effects of said firing modes.

Afterward, I asked players to give me their thoughts on the rules changes and they were near universally positive for the items we tried. One or two were hesitant about the Priority System returning for character creation, but they thought the tweaks for Magic and Matrix sounded good, and were eager to try them next time.

Conclusions

Below is what I loved, liked, and disliked about the new edition:

Loved


  • Rules are much more solid and easy to run now.
  • Actual wireless rules for Equipment.
  • The return of the 3rd Edition Initiative system.
  • Magic rules look and feel much cleaner. Adepts get benefits from Mentor Spirits.


Liked


  • Intro section looks wonderful for new or returning players.
  • Layout improves readability.
  • Old-style slang is back.
  • Knowledge skills look to be less sprawling and actually more useful.
  • Limits and Edge tweaks.
  • Rigger rules make sense and are actually pretty easy to use.
  • Gamemaster advice and help is actually helpful, even to old-timers.
  • Equipment feels less fiddly (this might change with expansions).


Disliked


  • That typo on page 1, seriously.
  • The art is mostly bland
  • Too much space spent on stories.
  • Quick reference tables that aren’t things you need to reference quickly.
  • Rules buried in paragraphs, particularly when there’s a summary table. Put the rule/notes in the table!
  • Random tables for GM help aren’t actually very helpful.
  • Why doesn’t the character sheet have a section for vehicles?.



Overall, Shadowrun 5th Edition has taken a solid foundation that had many oddities or fuzzy areas and turned it into a solid game. By embracing older editions, they’ve made things feel more like Shadowrun for older players and have managed to create a good jumping-on point for new players. It’s a very, very solid game and plays well. If you liked Shadowrun before, or are simply wanting to try it out, get this game.