|RPG published by
Catalyst Game Labs
|Rule System||Custom d6 Based
(Roll over Dice Pool)
|First Publication||1989 (1st edition)
1992 (2nd edition)
1998 (3rd edition)
2005 (4th edition)
2009 (20th anniv. ed.)
2013 (5th edition)
Shadowrun can best be described as Cyberpunk meets High Fantasy. Or what would happen if William Gibson and Anne McCaffrey had a love child. But being mindful of the fact that William Gibson hates Shadowrun for all the fantasy elements.
It's set in a dystopian near future where megacorporations have taken over as the superpowers of a world whose political boundaries are shaken and fragmented. Players play Shadowrunners, the criminal elite: expert thieves, saboteurs and assassins, who sell their skills to whatever megacorps or police bid the highest. Dragons and Magic play just as big a part of life as computers and guns. In fact, they often overlap.
The game is set in a world that is awesome to play in and fail to live in. The history of Shadowrun begins with, of all things, a truckers' strike in New York. The strike lasted for about three months, causing massive hunger not just in NYC itself but across the whole state. New Yorkers being New Yorkers, this resulted in massive rioting. One particularly inspired group of rioters attacked a truck belonging to Seretech Corporation, believing that it was full of food. Predictably, it was actually full of infectious medical waste, and the corporate security assigned to the truck ended up gunning down 200-something civilians to save Staten Island from getting plagued. The United States Supreme Court vindicates the actions of the Seretech employees, choosing to concentrate on the whole, "saved thousands of lives," part rather than the, "ended hundreds," one. This combined with an attack on a Shiawase Corporation-owned nuclear power plant set the stage for Corporate Extraterritoriality, a principle which essentially turned corporations into their own nations and corporate land into foreign embassies. This is why Ares Macrotechnology can tie you up in the basement and forget you exist without inviting the wrath of your government.
A few years go by, and a whole bunch of awful shit happens; Israel nukes Libya, New York gets fucked over by an earthquake, and Japan gets into a war with Korea. This last one is important, because Korea decides those Japanese sons of a bitches are going down, and launches a fuckload of nukes at them. However, the missiles never reach their targets. Japan then overruns Korea and creates the Japanese Imperial State. Meanwhile, the US is telling the Native Americans to bite the pillow and drilling for oil on their reservations. Naturally there's some resistance, so the US deals with it in their usual calm, reasonable way; by packing all the protesting Natives off to concentration camps. During this time, some terrorists from the Sovereign American Indian Movement take over a US nuclear silo and launch a single Lone Eagle ICBM towards Russia. As with the Korean ICBMs, the Lone Eagle is never heard from again.
Things are then quiet for roughly ten minutes before a disease called VITAS takes the top quarter off of the Earth's population. While everyone's still reeling from losing one out of every four people they ever knew, the craziest shit on record happens. People start giving birth to Tolkein-style Elves and Dwarves. With all the shit going on in the world, nobody wants to hear about your pointy-eared baby, and the backlash is substantial. Finally, on December 24th, 2011, it all goes to hell in a handbasket. Dragons are recorded flying over Japan, ley lines in the British Isles start flickering on, and an activist named Daniel Howling Coyote leads a now apparently bulletproof group of Native Americans right out the front gate of one of the concentration camps and into a sandstorm. The last age has ended, and Earth has officially entered the cycle of existence the Mayans called the Sixth world. Magic is back.
The final phase of the Great Shitstorm is set in motion, and lines are being redrawn all over the map. First Daniel Howling Coyote reappears and declares that the whole west half of the continent of North America is now a coalition of countries called the Native American Nations. The US is all set to slap them down hard, but Daniel and a few of his closest friends perform the soon-to-be-infamous ritual known as the Great Ghost Dance. It's at this point that people start to really accept that magic is now a thing; because rather than do nothing like every other ritual dance ever recorded by modern man, the GGD blows the tops off of volcanoes all over the US. Shortly afterwards, ten percent of teenagers in the world suddenly turn into orks and trolls in a process called Goblinization. If you thought pretty little elf babys made people mad, this shit caused some blown gaskets. Subsequent race riots cost a lot of very confused teenagers their lives.
Fast forward a bit: the internet is destroyed by a super-virus, and a bunch of cyber-commandos kill it in virtual reality combat. In true computer fashion, their VR tech goes from room-sized to book-sized within ten years. The VR Matrix replaces the Internet. The southern United States split off into the Confederate American States. California threatens to join them, so the US says fuck you and kicks them out. The remaining norther states then bro it up with the remains of Canada, forming the United Canadian American States. Two elf nations form in North America and Ireland, a ghoul nation forms in Africa, and a nation of weird beasties forms in the Amazon. Mexico renames itself to Aztlan and starts dabbling in blood magic. A dragon is elected president of the UCAS and is then assassinated at his inaugural ball. National governments lose more and more of their power in the face of corporate influence until the Corporate Court replaces the United Nations as the great global political alliance. People are identified in corporate and national databases by their System Identification Numbers, but an increasingly large number of the poor lack a SIN, and the basic rights that come with it. People are increasingly born with an inherent gift for manipulating mana, and magic becomes as much a part of everyday life as electricity.
That's the history of Shadowrun up to the start of First Edition, from the in-game years of 1999 to 2057. Take a second to process all of that crazy shit. You may be wondering where the players fit into all this madness. Well, ever since that truckers' strike in 1999 an underclass of criminals has slowly been gaining influence and importance. Often SINless, they are untraceable ghosts in the machinery of the world, simultaneously free and enslaved. They are deniable assets used by corporations, nations, and even wealthy private citizens to snipe at each other without sparking off fueds or wars. They steal, they hack databases, they weave magical illusions, and often they kill. They are called Shadowrunners, and your character is one of them.
Since then, even more crazy shit has happened. The Matrix was destroyed in a fight between another super-virus and a mad AI, and replaced with a wireless version; corporations have risen and fallen in their dozens; Haley's comet flew by and fucked with magic something fierce; and people have started being born not with magical talent, but with biological wi-fi hardwired into their brains. And through it all, Shadowrunners have not only held onto their power, but have achieved a sort of collective celebrity, becoming permanently ingrained on global culture.
Talk about job security, eh?
Contrary to the convention of most RPGs, Shadowrun doesn't have a class system. Characters are basically the sum of their skills. People use a priority system or a point build system (depending on edition and sourcebooks in play) to create their characters, assigning values to racial features, magic ability, and statistic values. All functions in Shadowrun are based on a related skill or stat rating, or a combination thereof. To resolve issues, people roll a number of dice equal to their rating, and resolve successes based on that.
Despite the system being classless, there are still system-enforced broad archetypes. The way they are enforced is by making the players choose whether their character will be Awakened (or Emerged) or implanted with useful implants. This is governed using a special attribute, Essence, representing the holistic integrity of a character. Any implantation reduces said integrity, and lowers Magic for mages and adepts or Resonance for technomancers.
Typical character roles
Runner teams, as any teams build up of professionals, tend to have their members highly specialized. Roles are varied and often combined, but generally most teams have characters with these roles:
Muscle - either heavily cybered street samurai (often just called "sammy") or Awakened adepts, whose unusual physical abilities depend on the magic they channel through their bodies and their self-belief. Muscle deals with direct physical threats, and are expected to be capable of dealing and soaking massive amounts of damage, coupled with high Initiative Passes count, allowing them to act more frequently in the real world than their opposition. It is also a good idea for Muscle to have some infiltration skills to cover up Shadows and at least marginal intimidation skills. Despite the popular Hollywood image, making samurai and adepts into actual sword-wielding melee warriors is only encouraged if you want to see your character dead.
Shadow - physical infiltration specialists. Those are usually either special adept builds or non-Awakened characters using specialized implants. Naturally, Shadows are expected to be as unnoticeable and observant as possible, making implants and powers that allow them to hide from sight or perceive in unusual diapasons highly popular. Shadows should also be capable of full-on breaking and entering, requiring some hardware skills and specialized gear.
Face - the social player of the party. The Face is the one who deals with the employers, gets the gear needed for the job, has all the right contacts and the cunning plans to come ahead of the opposition. Many Faces are also the ones to hire the hideouts for the team; and some of them make excellent impersonators, using magic or specialized implants to assume disguises. While Face is a relatively straightforward role mechanically, it is frequently the most intellectually tasking and roleplaying-heavy, since it often falls on the Face to arrange the team's planning.
Mage - the astral cover. Mages are all Awakened, but still come in different traditions and specializations. While some rely on direct-effect spells which allow them to whip out bagfuls of damage dice, fly, dodge bullets and more, others count on summoned spirits to do the job for them, without risking direct opposition or at least having some heavy support at hand. Mages' ability to astrally project makes them valuable assets for scouting, especially long-distance one. Given enough time and resources, they can get almost everyone in the world with ritual spellcasting, and naturally, Mages are also the only magical healers a shadowrunner team can hope to get. There's also absolutely no defense against a Mage except another Mage, so the runners depend on their mage's counterspelling abilities and guard spirits heavily.
Hacker/Decker - the Matrix specialist. Hackers are either un-Emerged boys with a head full of ware and a commlink the cost of a house or Emerged technomancers, using their mage-like skills and powers to conquer the Matrix with program and sprite (which is essentially the Matrix analogue of a spirit). A shadowrunning team depends on the Hacker to find the info Face's contacts can't or won't provide, break into opposition's hosts to fiddle with security systems, intercept their data exchange or do the rest of other things a hacker can be doing with a computer. Most hackers are known to be couch potatoes, but between wireless networks and wireless-inhibiting building walls, they have a good reason to have some actual infiltration skills. Hackers also frequently moonlight as Riggers.
Rigger - the drone specialist and usually the driver for the party. Riggers are mostly the ones to pimp out rides for shady shadowrunning biz, and their swarms of drones can rival Muscle and Shadows at their jobs. While rigging presupposes spending a lot of your time "jumped in", wearing your drones or vehicles as your own skin, many Riggers also double as hackers. High logic needed for hacking and rigging also makes Hackers and Riggers the most likely candidate for the first aid doc for the team.
Released in 1989. The introduction to the world of 2050. The game's basic mechanics are introduced, the tone is set, and along with it come a ton of sourcebooks.
Released in 1992. The year is 2053 now, updates some equipment for the players, tweaks a couple of rules, removed some unbalanced spells and equipment. Basically a refined 1E Shadowrun.
Released in 1998. The year is 2063 and more new goodies are available. Magic and Matrix rules were altered in this version, but all sourcebooks from all editions still work with no serious hassles.
Released in 2005. The year is 2071. The system has seen a major rehaul, as fourth editions tend to bring.
A lot of mechanics have been simplified, starting right from the dicerolling: rolling a dice pool with variable target numbers and Rule of Six always in order, hoping to get at least one roll over the target number, has been replaced by rolling a pool of dice with the target number preset, and then counting successes - dice with numbers rolled over said target number. Rule of Six is only used for rare special cases, and lets a player reroll the dice with numbers rolled below the target number.
The new system is disputed to be more restrictive in the resolution of conflicts and character options. The new rule system also naturally renders most of the crunch from older edition books obsolete; the fluff contained in them, however, is still fully adhered to.
Also, the Matrix rules have undergone a complete overhaul (justified in the fluff as a shift to wireless following a network crash just after the 3e splatbook "System Failure") to hypothetically allow hackers to do their thing without leaving the rest of the party inactive. Still, hackers prefer to break into systems out of the heat of combat if at all possible, so, while the issue has been made less severe, it is still present.
The most discussed difference from the previous editions is, surprisingly, the change of street jargon. While justified by almost ten in-game years passing since the third edition, a good deal of old-time players still believe that replacing "deckers" with "hackers", "cyberdecks" with "commlinks", "chummer" with "omae" or "otaku" with "technomancer" is too severe a change.
20th Anniversary Edition
An update for the 4th edition, it's a basically a re-release of the core rulebook in full color with all the errata applied, new (and good) artwork and more structured layout. It is still fully compatible with SR4E, and the errata for the original release of the core rulebook can still be found on the Catalyst site.
Released in late summer of 2013 to coincide with the release of a new video game adaption.
Five video games exist for Shadowrun, four of which are available in America, and three of which are good.
The first came out in 1993 for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and shamelessly rips off chunks of William S. Gibson's "Neuromancer" (right down to the name of protagonist Jake Armitage) as the player deals with the fallout of a run gone horribly wrong. While enjoyable for casualfags, more serious fans of the franchise have denounced Shadowrun SNES for playing loose with magic, cyberware, and the fact that having a bunch of the latter is supposed to do serious shit to your expertise in the former.
The second was released in 1994 for the Sega Genesis, and is widely held as a worthy use of the license. In this particular game, protagonist Joshua must piece together the puzzle behind his brother Michael's death on a run into Native American-held territory, making a name for himself in the shadowrunning biz along the way. Fans cite the expanded tactical opportunities (read: being able to move around and dodge bullets in doing so) and immersive Matrix depiction (real-time combat against unique IC types and messing with a variety of system nodes) as this game's greatest advantages over its SNES counterpart.
The third game is the Japanese-only one, made in 1996 for the Sega CD and set in Japan rather than Seattle. It plays more like a text adventure (i.e. Sega CD smash hit Snatcher) and its rare action sequences suffer for it.
The fourth video game adaptation of Shadowrun came in 2007 for XBox 360 and Microsoft Vista. While being designed for Vista should be fail in itself, Microsoft went to great lengths to fuck with the storyline in order to make a dime-a-dozen FPS out of the license - so much that the Sixth World Wiki claims it "may be more accurately described as a game loosely based on Shadowrun." Since Catalyst holds a decent bit of clout with the Sixth World Wiki and other parts of Dumpshock, it can safely be assumed that Microsoft's treatment of the Shadowrun franchise has been officially disavowed.
Which is good, because in April 2012, Hairbrained Schemes LLC (operated by Jordan Weissman of Battletech fame) in conjunction with Smith & Tinker procured the rights to Shadowrun and made a new 2050's based game available on several platforms. Under the "Shadowrun Returns" project title, these guys raised a $1.5 million Kickstarter payout to make "an old-school Shadowrun" vidyagame happen. They also threw things at the Executive Producer form the 2007 game as he held up a cardboard sign that said "SORRY!" Features mechanics obviously ripped from XCOM: Enemy Unknown, some of the best cyberpunk genre writing in the market & plenty of railroading. Two official campaigns have been released so far; the original Dead Man's Switch, and the superior Dragonfall expansion. Both are pretty good, considering they're like ten bucks on Steam. In addition a host of half decent player made short "campaigns" have been made using the level editor. They are all free to play as long as you own the original game but only a handful are worth the effort.