Shadowrunning Isn’t What It Used To Be

One Gamer Reviews the SHADOWRUN SIXTH WORLD BEGINNER BOX

I received this boxed game as a gift back in September, and I just finished reading it now about a month later. I have some very strong opinions about this product. I want to be fair and go into adequate detail, but not everyone will all of that. Here is the summary: I don’t like it. Although parts are nice ideas in a lovely package, the overall lack of care in both design and execution is unacceptable.

To put this into context, I should briefly explain from where I’m coming. I have long reaching experience with the Shadowrun series, but I don’t consider myself an old school player. My first exposure was 2nd edition Shadowrun many years back which I only vaguely remember, but I did build a character. Even back then, SR was a mechanically odd game. Characters were defined as much by their equipment as their stats. Just a few years ago, my regular gaming group got into 5th edition SR, and I joined for a medium-length campaign playing briefly an orc smuggler and then an elven lady-technomancer. In the lore, the setting had advanced to about the Year 2070, and a few world events had changed between editions. The most notable in-game change was that the Matrix (meaning the internet) had become wireless and omni-present, thus solving the problem of the Decker remaining behind during missions because he was more useful hacking from his desk than being present with the rest of the runners. One rule mechanic with which I became very familiar was Edge, an attribute which represented the character’s luck. It’s a little redundant to have both a luck stat and dice in the same game, but I’m generally in favor of mechanics that give players a degree of control over the narrative.

I hated this edition. The complexity was needlessly over-the-top. We’re talking about a game which inspired fifteen to twenty minute long YouTube videos on explaining how grenades work in the rules. Some gamers like rules crunch in their roleplay, and I respect that, but the designers darn well could have regulated the sharp learning curve by presenting these rules in a clear and accessible way. Instead, the layout of 5th edition just made a bad situation worse. I tried to build a Rigger (a pilot) which should be a simple character concept, but figuring out what gear I needed to rig involved me piecing together bits of info from three different chapters spread out randomly through the book. Also, the chapter titles were in-character jargon and completely unhelpful as they appeared in the index. Overall, that book is the most hostile to new players as anything we’ve seen since Rolemaster way way way back in the mid-1980s.

I eventually came to the conclusion that 5th edition was created for players who had been around and actively playing SR for several editions and already knew how everything worked.

Meanwhile, I love the setting. It’s a techno-dystopia of economic struggle borrowing heavily from fantasy tropes for cultural touchstones. Everything about the lore is compelling, and there’s a lot of it. The deep lore runs not only through modules and editions but through novels and video games also. I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface of it all. Also, we get to play bag guys by default. Every Shadowrunner is an outlaw and mercenary, usually also a robber, con artist, and assassin as is required. No alignment arguments ever erupt over the table. A couple of years back, I tried converting Shadowrun to the much more streamlined and elegant system, D6 Space by West End Games. That experiment failed, but it’s a story for another time.

Last year, I bought a copy of Shadowrun Anarchy. What the franchise really needed was a streamlined version of SR 5th edition. What it got was instead was Anarchy. Now SR Anarchy is a much simplier, easier to learn game with a complexity level roughly akin to AD&D, but it’s a very different style of game. It’s narrative-focused. It’s player-empowering in the newer style. In fact, it’s so player-empowering that a player can control all the NPCs of the game when it’s his turn. A lot of gamers are just not comfortable with that dynamic, especially in a setting where they are unfamiliar. Anarchy is actually one of my favorite games in retrospect, and it’s too bad that it didn’t get more attention before a newer edition was developed.

That brings up to the 6th edition which actually called Shadowrun Sixth World. That’s a lore reference, and it makes sense if you know the history of the Shadowrun world. At a glance, 6th World looks a lot like 5th edition to me. The character sheets have all of the same familiar jargon like Edge, Essence, and Metatype. The only change I initially discovered was that contacts (the NPCs to whom the PC visits for favors) used to have stats representing power and loyalty, but now they’re just names. Okay, maybe a little streamlining has occurred. Then I looked under the hood and saw more differences which were not immediately apparent. I’ve only got a partial list of rules in this box, but it does look like a few parts of the game got streamlined with a proper rules-pruning.

Where excessive rules bloat was cut out, it got replaced with rules that are weird. I don’t mean they are bad rules. I mean they are just strange and leave me wondering why anyone wanted these things as parts of the game.

My favorite example of DISTRIBUTE EDGE phase of combat. Remember that Edge represented luck in both 5th and Anarchy versions of the game.

Edge points could be used to do things like trigger rerolls of the dice or manipulate the outcomes of those roles. I think that in 5th, players had like seven options of how to use Edge. That was a little too much for my taste and lead to some redundancy. In 6th World, players have 11 ways use Edge Points, and they get very redundant. This really could have done in four: A. Add a die to your dice pool before the roll. B. Reroll a single die after the roll. C. Heal a damage box. D. Create a Glitch which is a narrative effect subject to the GM’s discretion. Assign a value to each and done. I digress; I was talking about the Distribute Edge phase.

Combat begins by determining initiative. Even victims of sneak attacks and snoozing guards must roll initiative. The rule book specified that twice. Then the players gather their dice pools, but they don’t roll the dice yet.

The next step called Distributing Edge involving looking at the attack rating of the weapon used by the attacker. This is a single-digit number that changes with range so some guns will have say a 5 at medium range and a 4 at short range. Melee weapons have only melee range, and most guns have no long range. So I guess it’s just impossible to hit a target at long range with a revolver, regardless of skill. The bullet just disappears or something. Seriously, this formula requires an integer, so when the weapon just has a blank in that spot, I don’t know if I’m supposed to count that as a zero or if the weapon is physically incapable of inflicting damage.

When I’ve found my attack rating, I then compare this number to the target’s defense rating. These abbreviated rules do not specify how to calculate a defense rating. It has something to do with armor, but I suspect that dexterity and enhanced reflexes are also factors. So, I’m comparing a weapon stat to a character stat. Unusual design choice but okay—

I’m looking for a difference of four points between the two stats. If either one has a stat signficantly higher than the other, that combatant gains an extra point of Edge. A point is also awarded by the GM to the combatant who has a tactical advantage like darkness and a pair of nightvision goggles. These extra edge points exist only for this one conflict, be that a social negotiation or a blood knife fight. These bonus points get added to the PC’s Edge stat on the character sheet to create a fresh new Edge Pool containing both permanent edge and temporary Edge. Sometimes gear will also grant a point of Edge.

Then the players decide if they want to spend any of that edge and finally roll their dice.

Why is a character’s luck determined by the range of the weapon she is holding? Maybe Edge no longer represents luck, but then I don’t know what it does represent, and these rules don’t say. This is what I meant by weird rules. I personally have been unable to figure out what the intention was behind this design choice. I have no idea what the designers were trying to accomplish by injecting this extra phase of combat. Sidenote: Those designers have their names buried near the back of the Quick Start Rules book at the bottom of a page, and there are nine of them.

Speaking of the game designers, I’m going to look at the physical product now. I’ll be honest – this product is beautiful. It all carries the Catalyst Game Labs logo, and that in turn seems to be a branch of Topps. Inside are eight booklets, a large full color map, a deck of 55 cards, and 12 SR-themed dice. All of the artwork is high-contrast with bright diffused colors.

The box is covered in high contrast artwork with a glossy finish. If you think the box is impressively large for a module, it is. Most of it is empty space.

The dice are nice. They are at six-siders of cast black plastic. They’re at least the same size as Yatzee dice.

The cards are nifty. They have no place in the game mechanics, however. This isn’t a hybrid system like Deadlands where you will be dealt cards with random values on them. These cards are just convenient cheat sheets with small amounts of info on them. Here is a card about a specific weapon, the Ares Predator pistol. It has the stats and a one-line description. I would have preferred that these descriptions were more descriptive since that’s one of the things fans have always liked about the SR franchise. Other cards describe other pieces of gear, spells, or NPCs who appear in this module. I suspect that the only reason cards were included in this box set was a directive given by some boss at Topps. I’d rather have them than not though.

The map is big and beautiful. On one side, it has a slightly detailed floorplan of a warehouse facility and a convenient store called the Stuffer Shack. Both are locations featured in the module adventure. The other side has at the bottom a map of the Seattle region broken into its various neighborhoods as of 2080. The top is a street map of downtown Seattle with 92 specific locations listed in the legend. Here is also where I first began to see the flagrant problems. I’ll point out two of them which represent the two types of carelessness which went into this product.

First are the errors of engineered carelessness. As beautiful as that street map is with its dark buildings and glowing orange streets, it’s completely unused in the adventure module. That adventure module is set entirely in the Tacoma neighborhood, not downtown Seattle. The various locations referenced and described in the adventure don’t appear anywhere on this street map.

Then there are the errors of careless execution. The largest structure on that street map is a four-corner pyramid near the northern side. It’s identity is clearly the Renraku Corporate Pyramid. That specific building is even referenced in the description of the Renraku megacorp: “You Know Them For: That big flat-topped pyramid downtown that sends a chill through your heart every time you see it. Also, computers.” According to the map’s legend, that building is Location #2, a nightclub named Alabaster Maiden. The Renaku Pyramid is not listed in the legend. There is an Aztechnology Pyramid listed as Structure #3. I check the map, and no spot on the map is marked with the number 3.

This is what drives me nuts about this product. It’s full of editing errors. I don’t just mean typos that make the inner grammar nazi in my want to invade Poland. I also mean stuff that affects actual gameplay like the pyramid thing mentioned above. And they are on nearly every frickin page in this product, sometimes three or four errors on the same page! It isn’t unplayable as a game, but its darn close.

Next, we have the Read This First handout. It look looks great, but it’s really just a breakdown of what’s included in the box. On the back is an advert for the core rule book.

The second publication is a four-page pamplet entitled AN INSTANT GUIDE OT THE SIXTH WORLD. In runner narrates what the Sixth World setting is about. He explains what a showrunner does and the morality behind it. It’s nice, but I’ve already read this. This is copy-pasted almost word for word out of the 5th edition rulebook. On the third page, we get an abbreviated timeline of history from the year 2000 through 2079. I think that 5th edition left off at 2075 and Anarchy took place simultaneously, so we’ve advanced five years in-game since the previous edition. On the back page is a detailed list of the ten major mega-corporations of 2080.

Here we seem to find the only and only significant lore change in the previous five years, a single megacorp (NeoNet) fell apart in scandal and got replaced in the Big Ten by an up-and-coming company (Spinrad Global). Compared to that, the upgrade of the Maxtrix that happened going into 5th edition seems huge.

The next publication is thick enough that I’ll call it a book, QUICK START RULES. Credit where it is due to Bejamin Giletti. There are lots of great illustrations in here, but few of them have anything to do with the text on the page. It seems that Catalyst just had all this random great artwork to use somehow and shoved them in wherever.

It took me a long time to get through this book. That’s not because it was difficult read or because the rules were horrible. They are weird and I don’t like many of the game design choices made, but it was the editing errors that made me put the book down several times and walk away.

The rules are divided into a few major sections. We’ve got the guiding dice mechanic clearly explained very early. Personally, I don’t care for the success-counting mechanic that’s found in SR and World of Darkness games, but I can live with it. Then, we have explanations of the character sheets. The special Rules section is all about Edge and the many different ways a player can burn through it. The Combat Section is well explained enough, but I already hit on one of the awkward aspects of the game, distributing edge. Matrix rules (hacking computers & robots) are here, and thankfully they are more elegant and less time consuming than the previous version in 5th. Thank Dunkkelzahn we no longer have to keep rolling until we score multiple tags to unlock a door. I mean it’s still adequately crunchy and strategic enough to please all but the most demanding dice horder. Maybe somebody was paying attention to what Anarchy got right after all. There is a separate section on Rigging (driving my mental command) which I only skimmed because there is no rigger character in the boxed set. Sidenote: Drones are super fast and deadly in this edition. Magic looks to have gotten a similar overhaul. Lastly, we have four pages of reference charts and tables.

The four penultimate publications are character dossiers. That seems in this case to be a fancy term for character sheet. Each is an eight page booklet (including a full page character portrait) which is supposed to be handed to a new player. It includes everything the player needs for this pregenerated character. I do mean everything, so the info on the equipment cards is sort of redundant. The exception is the combat mage whose spell descriptions are located on her cards. Each booklet has two pages of character sheet, one page of profile explaining her background and roleplaying tips, three pages of an example run, and the back page is a collection of frequently used tables.

The example runs are interesting. It’s actually the same sample mission but viewed from the perspective of the four different PCs. It includes a nice explanation of the how the events of the story get resolved in rule mechanics. In the example run, a fixer named Ms Myth (who was a playable PC back in the Anarchy book) sends the runners to steal specific data files from inside a corporate office. The runners are actually these four PCs plus a Rigger who does not appear as a playable character because – I dunno. This feature is by far the most useful part to a new gamer.

Frostburn is a female orc combat mage. Her qualities include Built Tough and Socially Awkward, but there’s no description of these qualities anywhere in this box, so a player won’t know what to do with them. She’s got a nice, well-rounded collection of nine known spells. Being that her only weapons are a baton and a hold-out pistol, she clearly relies heavily on those spells.

Yu is an elf covert ops specialist/face. Yu sees the most action in the sample run. During that run, he uses a baton which doesn’t appear on his character sheet; it was on Frostburn’s sheet. His Qualities are Catlike and Double-Jointed but again unexplained what I’m supposed to do with that. He’s the only runner with a fake SIN which if you’ve ever played any version of SR even as a video game you know is crazy. Although the team’s fixer doesn’t appear in anybody’s contact list, Yu does have a contact named Mia who fits the same description. I suspect that the character’s name was changed at some point during production and one name or the other is an overlooked legacy of an earlier edit.

Zipfile is a dwarf decker. As a refugee immigrant from South America, she has the most interesting background.

Rude is a Troll Street Samurai and the only flagrantly combat-oriented character in the group. He’s got two sets of contacts, one is his profile and a different set on his character sheet. The set on the character sheet is the same as Yu’s list, so I think that was an accidental copy and paste.

So no human option, no technomancer, and no rigger. Eh, this is supposed to be a sample product of the full game, so I can live with it. I do suspect that the frequently mentioned rigger NPC was supposed to be a fifth pregen but got cut somehow.

I really am skipping over other errors like blanks on the character sheet where a stat should be or how Rude has multiple skills in a weapon type that he doesn’t own. If it seems like I’m nitpicking, I’m only partially doing that. All and all, these look like four solid characters.

Lastly, we’ve got the adventure of the boxed set, BATTLE ROYALE ADVENTURE is a book of maybe twenty pages. It details are an introductory adventure in which the PCs stumble upon an attempted kidnapping and get the option of facing off against four street gangs. Action begins in a Stuffer Shack, a scene which includes optional random tables for spilled and exploded food items. This game seems in concept like it would be fun, and I’d like to try running it sometime, but I have a lot of problems with how it was presented here. Spoilers will be given in the remainder of this review.

There is absolutely no reason why all of this had to take place in Tacoma. It very easily could have happened in Downtown and therefore used the huge honkin map.

Here’s the background which the players may or may not ever learn. A diplomat from Washington D.C. has flown into Seattle for a secret meeting with the mayor. Some anarchist deckers have detoured her limo into a warehouse facility and alerted a local go gang (in this case, elf bikers) of her location. Just as the anarchists predicted, the gangers are trying to abduct the diplomat and maybe ransom her. Their appearance, however, triggers a response from three other gangs who were nearby resulting in a standoff and potential street brawl. That fourth gang is actually a pack of mutated trolls and orcs from the nearby barrens in a place called Glowtown, and they’ve been sent by a dragon because hell ya. The PCs just happened to be shopping across the street when this all develops. The game assumes that they fight through the gangs, sneak past the gangs, or sweet talk/intimidate their way through. Regardless of the method used, they face four short bouts of confrontation on their way to the meeting of the gang leaders inside the warehouse. This scenario leaves room for all four pregens to do what they do best.

Right off the bat, my biggest problem with the whole adventure rears its head. These PCs have no clear motivation to get involved. This is a classic problem in gaming which SR cleverly solved by introducing a type of NPC called a Fixer. In the sample run, a Fixer hired them for the job. The entire point of the Fixer in the game is to present a potential adventure hook to the runners and specify their reward for doing the job. The Battle Royale Adventure throws that wisdom out of the window and leaves the GM in an awkward situation – immediately at the start of the game.

These runners were just buying snacks for crying out loud. Then an army of gangers fills the street ouside. So? Why would they get involved and start a fight where they are outnumbered at least 20:1? They lack both an emotional attachment to the event and any clear financial motivation. I mean, there’s the whole damsel in distress angle, but the runners don’t even know about her. Unless one of the runners specifically looks out the front door, makes a Perception skill roll, and scores at least two successes, the PCs don’t even know that there is a limo. If that roll isn’t made, the adventure doesn’t begin!

The game designers are clearly cognizant of the problem. They actually address that the players may not feel motivated. Then, the game provides character-specific motivations to get them moving, but these motives are very weak. For example, Zipline may want to get involved because she is mischievous. That’s it.

In a section entitled (I swear) PLAYER INDICISION & INACTION, it’s written “…Or the GM can remind the players that they are fraggin shadowrunners with all that goes with it, such as firepower and magic to name a few.” That’s not a motive, dummy!

“If all else fails, the GM can remind the players if they don’t do something, the game is basically over. Sad but true…” Well yeah, you set it up that way, ya wageslave goblin!

I strongly suspect that as often as not, this game will get be run and the GM will be placed in this exact awkward situation of basically telling the players in an completely meta-game way that they need to take the plot hook or the adventure doesn’t begin.

The NPCs are a mixed lot. The diplomat character, Erika Hoffman, is bland. Even by the standards of damsels in distress, she never actually does anything. The four gang leaders are much more interesting, and I’d like to know more about them.

The action is a little redundant. One set of dwarf gangers is in your way. Then a set of orc gangers is in your way. Then it’s elves. Then it’s trolls on Harleys. I mean, the PCs could try mixing it up. They could try muscling through one group, fast-talking the next, and bruising the third, but I think it much more likely that they will stick with whatever method works first, right?

If they manage to get away with the hostage, a large combat drone will emerge from the bus from Glowtown and attack everyone. That dragon does not tolerate failure and preprogrammed the drone to take lethal action should his gang fail him. The tank-looking thing on the front cover of the box is that drone, and it’s the only threat in the adventure which stands a significant chance of killing any of the PCs.

If they escape that, well, the game is over when the last bullet is fired. No reward is specified. The diplomat doesn’t call anybody nor say thank you. Although the story is structured in 3 scenes, there is no third act.

The book ends with a six page description of Seattle and some of its landmarks.

Overall, I didn’t have high expectations for this product, and it still managed to disappoint me. I’ve seen tons of indy game designers who put forth more polished and professional products than this hot mess. Is it worth retail price? Oh heaven no, not by a long shot. Is it worthless garbage? Not entirely. I like the cards. I like the dice. I like most of the art. I sort of still like the mislabeled map. I am strongly thinking about retooling that Battle Royale adventure and running it with the Anarchy rules.

On the Zaboem scale of one million monkey pounding randomly on keyboards, it would take 200,000 monkeys to produce this product.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *