This is a guest review from John Tuckey, and he is not a fan of the newly released Shadowrun 6e.
Firstly who am I? At the time of writing, I’ve been GMing solidly for over 30 years and even did a stint as a games designer back in the 90’s-00’s. Shadowrun was one of the first games I GM’d as an ongoing campaign back when both Cyberpunk and Shadowrun were shiny and new back in ’89. I’ve GM’d it on and off over the years through all its editions. Shadowrun has always had a special place in my heart, there’s a lot of memories and nostalgia tied up in it.
In my youth, I was an art student, so I appreciate good design, good art. I’ve never enjoyed maths, so am not a fan of crunch for it’s own sake. Naturally, I enjoy stories, and being able to make and share my own with my friends is what makes the hobby for me. Four out of six of my regular players have been playing as long as I’ve been GMing. You don’t tend to see me on forums or social media as I don’t see social media as a net positive. Me writing reviews is a good example of ‘Do something right and the client tells two people, get it wrong and they tell ten’. If I’m happy I tend to stay quiet, if I’m taking the time to write a review, that’s me telling ten.
So, here’s the review. I originally posted an earlier version of this on Drivethru RPG’s discussion threads, but have significantly expanded below.
Shadowrun 6th core rules review
This is the Shadowrun 6th Edition Core rules, and it’s purple.
I have to agree with the others on the errors (which are all over beginner box too), but the first impression is… an embarrassment of purple. I appreciate some people won’t have noticed this at all – yet. But I did immediately, and I’m sure you will as well now I’ve said it.
It’s in the logos, page layouts, and chunks of the art have been chosen to highlight yet more purple – It’s like the art director only had one pen and in a fit of pique took the other pens away from everyone else in the art team. Art quality is ok in general, but a step down from 5th. Overall though, all that purple is extremely off-putting. I mean, even the branded dice are purple on black (not a great choice for readability). Maybe the goal was to create a retro/arcade/stranger things vibe? Just not working.
So, it seems I’m a purpleist! Beyond my passionate and unreasoned hatred of purple?
The book is defined by errors everywhere and some really badly thought out systems.
Errors can be fixed in later print runs and pdf updates, sure. It’s annoying, sloppy, unfair to the eager gamers you rushed it to GenCon for, and considering what a long-running brand Shadowrun is, it really does feel inexcusable – if the production team was rushing for a Gencon release, then ok.. but you picked the wrong GenCon guys, you should have been going for 2020.
The errors are being flagged elsewhere, the missing essence stat writeup possibly being the worst low. But beyond that, some of the core rules are just really badly thought out, badly executed and badly presented. To the point where on a first read, you think it must be an error… but then realise it’s just that bad.
I’m not keen on some of the world advancements either – this is mainly stuff introduced in 5th that sucked but stuck. Now we have space elevators and solar colonies – which all detracts from what made Shadowrun unique for me. The CFD/Monads are now built into the backstory. I could have seen them just disappear happily to mars and never be spoken of again. In fact, I’d hoped that was the point of the whole mars connection, to lose them – apparently not!
The great thing about Shadowrun was that the world had everything! The bad thing about Shadowrun was that that meant that everything had rules. So, in principle, I like the idea of simplifying the rules, and had supported it in 4th and believe that is still a worthy goal for future editions. However, being as I’ve just been rereading 3rd as well as 6th. There’s no denying the unique flavour of SR is being badly diluted – that has been happening steadily since the system change in 4th, but its a prominent theme in 6th.
Shadowrun is starting to feel like a zombie brand – it says Shadowrun on the label, but there’s very little of it left inside.
New mechanisms in Shadowrun 6e
New mechanisms in 6th that aren’t fails, feel like a gimmick. Let’s discuss a few.
Firstly, the new edge mechanism – supposedly more narrative and fun? It’s been tied into everything – like a parasite or a psycho clowns giant balloon animal throbbing at the center. Yet all this actually achieves is a few extra net successes – until you start looking at the ‘edge actions’ which get ridiculous very fast. Shifting the target number up or down to reflect different circumstances and then spending karma pool on your roll in 3rd ed. or the edge systems in 4 or 5e were simpler and the same end effect for most of it – what have we really achieved here? Sr6 brutally simplifies some things, but then throws all this mess in – we’ve now got more complexity, not less.
So far that’s a fairly shallow criticism perhaps, I’m arguing against change for its own sake, and that’s down to taste. But I’d argue the new edge system has also affected game balance in how actions per turn and things like wired reflexes (and equivalents) happen. If I was a player using a street samurai, I think I’d be gutted – my actions per turn have been nerfed to death, the benefits of superior strength now utterly irrelevant. And now there’s only one firearms skill, so it’s much easier for other less specialised characters to match you in combat as they only have to invest in the one skill now. Critics of 5th called it ‘magicrun’ the same follows in 6th it seems.
Just to elaborate on my comment on wired reflexes etc, yes that’s another broken point, but bear with me.
SR6 maintains the dogged distinction between minor and major actions (simple and major in previous editions). If you wanted to simplify SR, this is just so basic – it’s slowing down play every turn with no value whatsoever. It’s an action or it isn’t, that’s it and it should be that simple. The example of actions being spent on p40 is just painful. Something like aiming should just be an initiative penalty, or if you want to make the spending of edge more dynamic, allow players to spend edge to do that as well.
Some of Shadowrun 6e is simpler, but at what cost?
Where prior editions used the concept of initiative passes to accommodate characters that go more than once in a round, 6th has abandoned that and done away with the whole concept.
For characters like Street Sams or Adepts, who are used to having several actions a round as one of their perks, there’s an unpleasant twist. Now when you get Wired (for example) you still get a boost to initiative so you’re more likely to go first, but instead of that giving you potential multiple extra actions from your initiative roll, your extra actions are now fixed at one extra ‘minor’ action per level. What that means is that with wired 2, you can still only attack once – you can move three times (minor), reload three times (minor), but only attack once (major). You can trade in minors for majors, but only at four of them – so you need wired 3 to attack twice – that’s very expensive, very essence heavy – it’s a late career purchase.
So I’d agree 6th makes initiative somewhat simpler – but at what cost? The concept of multiple actions and passes wasn’t tricky, and it’s loss leaves Street Sams and adepts badly nerfed as a result. It might have made more sense if you could buy a ‘minor’ with edge, as these characters would then regularly achieve a bonus action, but nope, they are screwed unless they save their edge and use the idiotic ‘death blossom’ effect. Another lost opportunity to make the use of edge actually exciting and dynamic.
I’d also say that if the intent is to nerf actions per turn, why on earth have we kept the same initiate dice rolling system we had before? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to change that to a trait+trait+bonus dice roll where we count the successes like every other roll in the game?
Let’s get back to edge. Back in SR3 your character recorded it’s total XP (Karma) received, and 1/10th was your karma pool – your own little pool of luck and sunshine to dip into whenever the bacon needed saving and a direct measure of your characters experience. 4th ed changed this to ‘edge’, and made it a stat that you spent XP on rather than a measure of the xp received. I always felt this was a negative step in 4th across the board – in the name, how it was gained and it’s usage. 6th goes further, the edge stats have been slashed so you now have less fixed luck to accommodate all that narrative edge you’ll be generating and using. It just feels like the characters are more fragile as a result. Agricultural property has always been cheap in SR, but buying the farm in 6? The cheapest daisies to date.
The bad design doesn’t stop there, let’s consider how edge is used in 6th. Every time a character acts, we’re supposed to pause and compare ratings and award a point of edge to the party whose rating is 4 higher. What?
Steaming chunks of no.
I am not disrupting my hard-won dramatic flow with a break to do a sum – never mind one for every attack and opposed action!
If we’re going to award edge as a give and take it should be about narrative, tactics, roleplaying – not sums.
Once you’ve got your edge, you now look up a page-long table to see what you can do with it. Really? Talk about slowing down the flow again. Edge should have been easily defined as things to do with one point at a time. I spend 1 point to do cool thing X, I spend 1 point to add one dice, I spend 1 point to reroll that dice, maybe I spend 4 points to add 4 dice – nice and simple, no table required. A bit like, oh wait, a bit like Karma Pool back in nasty old complicated SR2 or 3. SR5 did this a bit too, it’s like the devs say here’s something cool – but you can only have it on nights of the full moon and while standing on one leg in a field.
Then there’s the ‘Wild Dice’. Oooohhh! Only certain gear and situations allow it to be used – gosh it must be awesome! You roll it as a different coloured dice, and if it rolls a success, it counts as three hits, yay! If it rolls a 1, it utter screws up the probability of your whole roll by negating all your 5’s. Uh, what? So it’s bad then? Yes, this is actually about unreliability, but even so, it’s insanity, utter insanity. Not even gambling addicts would take those odds.
It’s worth noting flag that the wild dice is only used in the mechanics for spraying with flamethrowers on page 117, overclocking on page 184, and in a really dumb rule about overclocking augmentations. It’s boxed out as a separate rule, but only appears in three places. It would have been easier and less ridicule to simply not include flamethrowers or overclocking. I’d have left flamethrowers out until a gear splat book, and just forgotten the rest – and the whole concept of the wild dice.
Presumably, the wild dice is going to see more use in supplements then? Hmm, It also occurs to me that in the Beginners Box, you get a set of the new branded dice. None of them are a different colour for the wild dice. Catalyst, if you have not included a single different coloured ‘Wild Dice’ in each of your SR6 dice and edge blisters after insisting on including the stupid rule, I will personally write to Topps and campaign for the SR license to be taken away from you.
Magic, Rigging and other systems
Anyway, moving on.
Magic rules seem ok at a first read… well, except ‘Argle Bargle’. I see folks on Reddit talking about broken min/maxing – but that’s the nature of min/maxing! We lost a lot of flavour here in 4th, and that’s my primary concern here. I agree the systems seem simpler, but the paring down of the mechanics is removing its distinctiveness. Again, that is down to taste.
Rigging. Streamlined and elegant with no screamers that leapt out at me… Just bear in mind what’s already been said about multiple actions from high initiatives, and there’s still this idea that rigging happens on ‘the matrix’. I’m pretty sure older rulesets are better insofar as any rigging would be a secure private radio or cellular network rather than part of the internet. I’d suggest having a max range for direct control by the rigger before those comms have to go via the Matrix – that gives a reason for the rigger to be out and about, and stops their rigging being vulnerable to deckers in direct control situations. Within that range control would have to be contested by another rigger, not a decker.
Speaking of Deckers! I’ll admit the Matrix has never been a focus in my games. I did run the Matrix for a decker in 3rd ed, but my players never enjoyed the AR side of things with the advent of 4th so our use of the matrix rules in 4th and 5th languished. So I will not comment on 6th’s matrix rules. Just talking about the premise, I agreed with including AR in 4th. At the end of the day it is a real-world tech that is creeping ever nearer, I suspect the future in 2058 or 2080 actually will look something like scenes from Bladerunner 2049 or ghost in the shell with huge AR ads (or more depressingly this clip). But I have never got on with hacking cyberlimbs, or with IC being visible in AR. Let’s keep the distinction between AR as a consumer tech, and the reason to bring the decker along is because you are accessing an isolated system ok? Because any Corp worth hacking is sure as hell not keeping their secrets in matrix accessible systems.
Critters – dear devs, please go back and rewrite the critter descriptions so everything I need to know is in one entry without having to flit back and forth to look things up from a separate section of critter rule entries – SR has been ‘doing my swede’ with this since SR1, so this is not just about SR6. The speed of use in play will far outweigh the extra pages and it’s cost. In fact, I’d be perfectly happy to see all critters thrown out into a separate book, each beastie with a full write up and accompanying card deck containing encounter summaries and page refs.
Contacts – honestly, there should be 5 times as many, at least.
It’s a long write up already, so how do I feel in summary?
Regarding the Shadowrun world, in retrospect, I’m sorry to say that at this point I’d prefer a reboot of 3rd over 6th. The SR world at the end of 2nd ed and into 3rd was really it’s golden age – by far preferred over where 5th left it and 6th picks up. I’m sorry, but 4th and 5th just didn’t add anything worthwhile for me in new additions to the world, only detriments.
Rules wise, SR 6 could have been awesome… but it needs some really big sticking plasters, my suggestions were above, but to summarise, my big issues were:
- Actions – it is or it isn’t
- Actions per turn – unnerf the combat characters for god’s sake.
- Edge – It’s a mess. everything is plugged into it whether it makes sense or not (Armour for example), yet it’s the alleged reason is a fail. As a narrative mechanism, it’s stale, it’s dramatically negative. Kill or cure it.
Do I have the energy to house rule it myself? Maybe, but given where the path from 4th-5th-6th has ended up, I’m extremely tempted just to go back to 3rd! 6th isn’t really any easier, and 3rd doesn’t need any rewriting. So essentially I’m looking at the next few books for SR6 to fix what’s been broken promptly or at least give me the enthusiasm to make the effort myself.
In terms of fixing Shadowrun’s missing flavour?
Bring back Karma Pool, not edge.
Reintroduce the differences between magic traditions – i.e. only mages summon elementals, shamen summon spirits of ‘X’, and the other magic traditions get their uniqueness back while we’re at it.
Change the way dice explode, so it’s a blanket thing rather than something that rarely happens due to edge costs.
Go back to the action/round rules – that’s a distinct part of Shadowrun’s combat flavour.
Where the hell are all the contacts? That’s a signature flavour.
Go back to story elements started back in 1st-3rd and spin campaigns out of them. But for god’s sake, not bugs or Deus – oh you say the whole upcoming blackout campaign is all about bugs? Thanks for that, we haven’t done that to death at all.
What a sad and disengaged conclusion.
To really reengage me? I’d like to see some of that old flavour and nostalgia back in here – it’s what I come back to Shadowrun for and this no longer feels like Shadowrun to me. I get the impression a lot of players said this back when 4th was released; finally, I’m with them.
If Shadowrun was D&D, the whole SR4th-6th era feels like the D&D 4th ed debacle. Roll on SR7 and bring it back home the way D&D5 did – that’s what I really wanted from 6th, and I didn’t get it.
In the meantime, how about some ‘Shadowrun Legends’ Sourcebook releases to marry up with the fiction re-releases? Why not a retro sourcebook that actually gives us a reboot of 2058 – then a series of ‘legends’ releases for classic supplements like the UB, Harlequin, Super Tuesday, Year of the Comet, all updated. Why not a prologue? ‘Shadowrun legends: The Night of Rage’ and so on.
If you reissue classic material use modern production standards and some of the nuRPG things that will make running ‘complex’ old Shadowrun easier. Things like spell cards, NPC decks, summary sheets for game systems and encounter flows.
Give me punch out or cut out cards for the NPC that are in scenes so I can add them into my other NPC decks for easier encounters.
Think of these adventures as boxes like a beginners box, if we’re getting all those play aids in there, no one is going to complain about paying more.
If you really want to get radical, why not a ‘Shadowrun Legends’ rulebook that is a genuine successor to 3rd ed? 3.5 if you will. SR lost a ton of players with the shift to 4th, some lost altogether, others merrily still playing 3rd. Get them back in the fold and dual stat your sourcebooks so they stay reengaged. Why would you do this you ask? Well, do you want more customers or not? Do you want to see everyone rave about the next SR or would you rather see more negative comments and disillusionment? Get everyone happy – then do a public consultation on SR7on how you bring the systems together into one, making Shadowrun 7th our D&D5e
Not that anyone is asking, but my take on that kind of SR 3.5?
- I’d say the same things about actions for 3rd as I did for 6th – it is or it isn’t.
- I would take a leaf from 6th and introduce ‘situational karma bonuses’ an immediate bonus gift of karma to the player for putting effort into tactics/roleplaying/etc but I would not nerf their normal karma in the process.
- Drop the 1/20th karma as a pool for metahumans, make all characters 1/10th.
- Quicker villains – yes, NPC Decks are a good idea, and most of the work is already there in the old style contacts writeups.
- Rewrite the critter descriptions so everything I need to know is in one entry without having to flit back and forth to look things up from a separate section of critter rule entries (again).
- Again, reissue a runners toolkit from 4th ed, but for 3rd.
Those things are valid innovations that go a long way – if these things had been done for Shadowrun 3rd, it would have been more accessible to new players without reinventing the wheel with 4th in the first place.
I think it’s also worth bearing in mind that in today’s RPG market attracting new players is a goal of course, but the vast majority of us are in fact old and pretty discerning hands now – most of my regular group played SR1 at launch! So it is actually more about enthusing old players with a high bar and a taste for nostalgia.
Look at what the recent BattleTech Clan Invasion Kickstarter raised, a good example of the same but better rather than trashed and changed for no valid reason and Shadowrun has had several editions of just that. Lesser IP’s would have disappeared at 4th ed, can Shadowrun survive 6th without real change?
What do you think? Sound off in the comment section below.