The run went south five minutes ago when one of the security spirits caught wind of the new guy. Now, you’re barricaded in the server room, the mage is trying hold his guts in over in the corner, and the decker is trying to crack a hole in the mainframe so you can steal the schematics you came for and get the hell out. The rent-a-thugs from Lone Star are just outside the door, bellowing to surrender or yadda yadda yadda lethal force blah blah blah.
Your totem spirit, Wolf, is getting real antsy all of a sudden. He’s whispering in your ear that you need to HURT the scum that wounded your fellow runner, to PROVE that you’re stronger than them, and it’s getting harder and harder to tell him to back down. You’re not sure how much longer that barricade is gonna hold. Maybe he’s right.
What will you do?
Shadowrun, published by Catalyst Labs, is a game about larceny, arcanery, and stickin’ it to The Man. Its decidedly unusual setting and heist-movie cool set it apart from the pack when it first appeared, and it’s stayed on as one of the most popular cyberpunk systems out there.
Welcome to the Sixth World
The world of Shadowrun is a lot like ours, save for one massive difference: in the year 2011, magic suddenly reappeared. Elves and dwarves (and later trolls and orcs) started being born to human parents, and arcane disaster after arcane disaster ravaged the globe. Many governments collapsed, unable to cope with the demands of the new world, and with their fall came the rise of the megacorps: massive corporations who answer only to their impossibly wealthy shareholders.
Enter the shadowrunners: elite crews halfway between criminal syndicates and black-ops teams who “solve” the “problems” of the megacorps. This can be as simple as swiping a blueprint from an outdated R&D lab or as complicated as “disappearing” a scientist that’s threatened to leak corporate secrets to a competitor. It’s dangerous, often morally ambiguous work, but it’s infinitely preferrable to being a (literal) corporate slave or another just another statistic in the city-spanning gang wars.
Geek the Mage First
Shadowrun is a classless system, but most Shadowrunners fall into a few different categories. Street samurai, for instance, rely on both their natural combat abilities and their cutting-edge cybernetics, while physical adepts combine magic and muscle to become an unstoppable force. Shamans commune with and command ancient spirits and hermetic mages manipulate arcane power through precise formulae, while deckers, technomancers and riggers manipulate technology to perplex (and perforate) their foes.
Regardless of whether you’re a charismatic Face or a dexterous Gunslinger Adept, all characters use a core set of nine attributes: Body, Agility, Reaction, Strength, Willpower, Logic, Intuition, Charisma, and Essence. These stats, in addition to a suite of skills selected during character creation which range from Pistols to Persuasion, combine to form the Dice Pools that each player rolls during the course of the game.
Watch Your Back, Shoot Straight, Conserve Your Ammo
Conflicts in Shadowrun are resolved using d6es — lots and lots of d6es. Tasks are defined by the threshhold that the GM sets for each task, which determines the number of successful rolls that players must make to overcome the task.
Whenever a player wishes to use a skill to resolve a conflict, they roll a number of six-sided dice equal to the relevant skill’s rank, plus the skill’s associated attribute and any modifiers, then count the number of fives and sixes rolled. If this number is equal to or greater than the threshhold set by the GM, then the task is a success — but if more than half the dice rolled are ones, then a Glitch occurs, and something unexpected and unpleasant occurs in addition to the normal effects of the roll.
To combat the chances of failure, players get access to skill-specific dice pools that allow them to add a limited number of bonus dice to their rolls, as well as a Karma pool that allows them to re-roll a certain number of failed dice per task. Of course, both of these are quite limited and “refresh” rarely enough to make their use a matter of serious consideration.
Everything Has a Price
At the end of the day, Shadowrun offers some seriously heavy crunch with a fascinating and seemingly contradictory setting. If you’ve ever wanted to play as an orc with cybernetic arm-blades zooming around on rocket-powered hoverskates, you owe it to yourself to play this game — and even if you haven’t, Shadowrun still deserves a shot.