Once More Into the Shadows: Shadowrun 5th Edition Review (Part 1)
Several months ago, I wrote a post about the “Year of Shadowrun”—a year of new releases and developments related to everyone’s favorite mash-up of cyberpunk, heist movies, and D&D inspired high fantasy tropes. Of all the new releases coming down the pike, there was one I awaited more fervently than the rest. The one that takes us back to where it all began—the 5th edition of the classic tabletop game. At long last it hath arrived: Shadowrun 5th Edition is upon us, and this is (part one of) my review.
First, let me caveat that I’m reviewing an electronic copy of the game. I typically buy both paper and PDF copies of core rulebooks of games that I actually play, but the print edition remains unavailable (and I believe, as of yet unprinted, besides the limited run of special Origins paperback editions). I’ll give an assessment of the print editions quality (feel, binding, etc.) in a later post. Also, this is a review of the book, not an actual play review—we don’t start playing 5th edition for a few weeks yet.
So, lets get down to brass tacks. Shadowrun 5th edition is a 488 page monster (including the front and back covers) that lays down all the rules you need to run in the shadows of the late 2070’s. Historically, each edition of Shadowrun has been met with a time lapse that calibrates the setting to the relative passage of time since the game’s launch in 1989. It’s been nearly 25 years since the release of the first edition, which was set in the Seattle of the year 2050, so 5th edition kicks off in the year 2075. However, this time there was no need for recalibration—there was no lapse of licenses, no Chapter 11’s, no changing of hands—5th edition’s 2075 starts right where 4th edition’s left off, at the close of 2074.
Fourth edition ended with unprecedented upheavals—the Dragon War left one great dragon dead and another in exile, a megacorp—one of the Big Ten, no less—stands on the brink of collapse, rotting from the inside out, and the Matrix’s most informative band of ne’er-do-wells, the ever informative denizens of Jackpoint, received a shakeup in leadership and in it’s revolving cast of characters and contributors. With all of this tumult in the recent past, I found it interesting and rather bold that 5th edition omits the highly structured history lesson that has been a staple of editions past, recounting the setting’s deep history (at least back to the latter part of the 20th century). Given the free Shadowrun Primer released earlier in year as part of the YoSR promotion, it’s not as though that background information isn’t readily available, but the result is that the book dives right into the rules, underscoring the urgency of getting heroes into play to confront the challenges facing the Sixth World.
So, what’s changed in this edition? Loads. The mantra of this edition is “Everything Has A Price,” and they’re not kidding. The return of 3rd edition’s Priority System, where players allocate ever-decreasing values to facets of their character, means that every character begins and ends with tradeoffs. Practically every facet of the game has seen some amount of rebalancing, from weapon statistics, to the damage and drain codes of spells, to the cost of cyberware. The result is that players have to be much more selective about how they allocate their resources, and thoughtful about how they conceptualize and grow their character. At face value, I also think these changes will serve to bring down the overall power creep that 4th edition saw, as the cheapness of bleeding edge equipment and excruciatingly powerful magic combined with a too-easily min-maxed Build Point system, meant that even brand new characters were potentially monsters if engineered by a savvy player.
Mechanically, this may be the most sound edition of Shadowrun yet. Certainly, many rules have been simplified over 4th edition, and troublesome rules have been rewritten with much greater clarity (spell casting and spirit summoning have received a lot attention, and both are much simpler this time around). Additionally, the Matrix rules have been reworked for much greater simplicity, and to further 4th edition’s goal of getting the party hacker more richly involved in the physical doings of the group. Enabling wireless technologies, such as Matrix connected cyberware, to be hacked, means that the group’s technomancer or decker (yup, they’re back, as are cyberdecks) can serve as both cyber-protection/overwatch in combat, and have a whole new way to screw the opposition. Frankly, anything that enhances the usefulness of hackers is a bona fide Good Thing.
Mechanically, the system remains similar to 4th edition (although 4th edition characters may need to be modified slightly—an easy enough task with the convenient character conversion guide on hand). That said, as I stated above, much of 4th edition’s rule glut has been streamlined or simplified, laid out, or just plain explained better, reducing a lot of the pain new groups have in grokking the game. I’d go so far as to say that 4th and 5th edition are compatible, meaning that you could use material published for 4th edition with very little tweaking (or vice versa). Really, the need to convert at all stems from just two additions to the game: expanded skill ranges and the addition of Limits.
Expanded skill ranges are just that: Skills now go to 12, meaning that characters have much more room to grow vertically, not just horizontally. This is a cut and dry good thing.
Limits are an interesting addition, in that they are caps on how many successes a roll can incur. The basic Limits (physical, mental, and social) are defined by a character’s attributes, while equipment is limited by device rating, and weapons by their accuracy attribute. I’m on the fence about limits, personally, but only because I haven’t seen them in action. That said, I think they’re amazing in theory—Limits create a new metagame (managing average successes to not exceed Limits), and encourage diversity in character development, rather than min/maxing or hyper-specializing for ridiculous dice pools. This is just another way of bringing 4th ed’s sky high power ceiling down to earth. and I’m all for it.
Stay tuned on Friday when I break down the good, the bad, and the ugly of Shadowrun 5th edition.