Once More into the Shadows… Again: Shadowrun 5th Edition Review (Part 2)
In our last installment, I described several laudable features of 5th edition—elements that distinguish this edition from the previous. In this post, I want to look at the good, the bad, the ugly, and the controversial of this new edition.
We’ll start with the good.
1) First of all, 5th edition’s rendition of the core rules is much better. Profoundly better, I’d say, than fourth edition. Part of it is overall organizational improvements, part of it is simply better deployment of the English language, but the results are noticeable. I can finally cast a spell without double-checking myself, for instance. The rules have changed marginally, but the language and layout has changed considerably.
2) Excellent examples—except where they are bug ridden, or were not internally revised as rules changed pre release (we’ll talk about this below in “the bad”). That said, the examples are generally cogent, and clarify the rules effectively.
3) The book is gorgeous and well laid out. The art is fresh but evocative of classic Shadowrun. The fiction is decent. Frankly, the current crop of freelancers is at the top of their game, and they are dedicated and knowledgable. I feel like the tone of Shadowrun has grown with me: when I was a kid, it felt a bit four color, and now it’s grown up and become a bit grayer and a bit grittier.
4) Streamlined Matrix rules and cool things for Hackers to do that are useful, like, all the time. I can’t underscore this enough. Computer maestros are such an integral part of cyberpunk fiction, but their execution in games so often totally fails. This is may be the ‘rightest’ a game has ever gotten it.
5) From a personal perspective: I can finally make a physical adept that is competitive with a cybered up Street Sam, without taking bioware and compromising on my concept. This is both an artifact of ‘ware costs changing, and tweaks to chargen, but I love that “pure” adepts are viable again.
6) Shadowrun 3rd edition’s initiative system has returned, and it is a welcome homecoming, indeed! Characters no longer have a fixed number of “passes” (actions). Instead, it’s based on a roll and varies with your fortune. Additionally, various combat actions (like defensive measures), take a toll on your initiative, creating an action economy that is more dynamic than “I attack twice.”
7) Toned down power scale. Everyone got a much-needed “nerf” this go round. ‘Ware costs went up, spell damage came down. This edition feels a lot less like “Magic-run” than fourth did, that’s for sure (and as a player who veers towards sorcerous concepts, even I think that is a good thing). I think you can tell that changes are effective when nobody is happy—it only takes a quick scan of the boards to see people complaining about how their favorite archetype has suffered cruelly. Clearly, the writers did their jobs well.
Those are my big goods. There are loads more, but I think the above encapsulate my best sentiments. Now, lets take a look at the bads…
1) Tons of typos, minor errors, bugs, holdovers or copypasta from earlier drafts that made it to print. Consider my above praise for the comprehensive examples throughout the book—that praise is tempered by the fact that so many of them contain misleading or incorrect information. For instance, the Adept characters presented in the archetypes section contain iterations of adept powers reflecting multiple levels of investment, but that are presented in the rules as single purchase powers. In a book like this, attention to detail is important, and someone(s) dropped the ball. When it comes to core rulebooks, I typically buy a PDF and a paper copy for convenient referencing (and because I like having things on the bookshelf). I just cancelled my paper preorder because the PDF is so rife with fiddly problems,. Frankly, I’ll wait for a reprint that incorporates the errata, even if that means I’m holding out for a 30th Anniversary edition. Frankly, CGL should be a little ashamed.
2) Agility and Logic are still god stats. This is one rulesy area I feel was strongly overlooked. Agility and Logic are more important than ever, and one needs only scan the skill list to see the problem. My personal solution to this will be to take a long hard look, and see what I can shift around for greater balance between the stats. I’ll probably start by moving the piloting skills out of Agility and into Reflexes for instance…
3) Combat is still, like, four rolls deep. You roll to attack, roll to defend, roll for damage, and roll for resistance. That is at least two rolls too many, probably three. So many rolls slows down the pace of combat, and turns things from cinematic to deadly dull. My personal solution is to add in passive defense targets and armor values. I hope to see how this works out in actual play soon.
Now for the ugly.
1) Frankly, I’m just gonna keep ranting about how many damned typos and errors are scattered throughout this book. It’s an interesting consequence of Kickstarter that I now feel… almost entitled to a review copy or early access pre-publication, to ensure that these kinds of problems don’t go to press. It’s remarkable that the “little guys”—the indie publishers—understand that quality and accuracy are so critical, while the biggies, like CGL and Fantasy Flight Games, can let a flagship book go to print with errors so problematic that its clear some of the editorial effort was being phoned in. Actually, FFG is somewhat better in this regard. At least they’ve done public betas for their last few major releases to catch some of the crap. I hope CGL turns their practices around.
Finally, lets take a look at some of the controversies arising in 5th edition’s wake.
1) Remember up above, when I mentioned that raising ‘ware prices was a good thing? Yeah, not everyone agrees with that. As with all changes, this one heralds the death knell of all character types reliant on ‘ware, etc., etc. It’s not that bad people, and its good for the game! Deal with it!
2) Another super controversial addition (or refocusing, as it was present in 4th), is the hackability of wireless gear and ‘ware. Proponents of this controversy say that this is another way that street samurai and their ilk have been cut off at the knees. Personally, I think it’s easy enough to say, “my gear is set in offline mode,” and anything that gives Hackers something meaningful to do in combat is a godsend.
3) The final controversy of note is the apparent rise of the uber-mensch, otherwise known as the mystic adept. Rules-as-written have turned mystic adepts into ultra-mega badasses with all of the benefits of magedom and adeptness for the low price of, well, practically nothing (this is one of those bugs I was talking about). Now, a patch is circulating the forums that raises the mystic’s adept power point cost by a few karma, and that is a start. My personal fix is to use the higher cost AND return the mystic adept to it’s 2nd edition roots by stipulating that it functions as an aspected mage (a caster whose access to mystical skills is limited to one category, not all), rather than a full on spell-tosser. This simple fix makes mystic adepts the flexible, bag-of-tricks types they’re supposed to be, without also making them demigods.
With that, our review of Shadowrun 5th edition nears its close. It’s an impressive game with some notable flaws. At this point, I’d say that it’s worth every penny in a digital format that is likely to be updated in time, but I want to echo my earlier reluctance to invest in an indelible physical copy until they’ve righted their ship. That said, it’s a gorgeous and provocative edition of a classic game that is sure to delight new and old fans alike.