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Shadowrun: One Shot Review

Shadowrun has been on my bucket list for decades. I’ve always found its mix of traditional fantasy elements in a dystopian cyberpunk future fascinating and finally pulled the trigger on running a one-shot game using the free Quick Start Rules. Does this classic tabletop RPG still have a place at the table?

I want to start by commending Catalyst games for putting together this free starter kit. We’re seeing more and more of this sort of free content offered and I believe it needs to be a focus for every publisher, big and small. Wizards of the Coast is obviously huge enough to give away some tidbits for free and smaller or solo publishers need to do whatever they can to get the word out regarding their products. It’s great to be able to dip your toes into a game without needing a $50 hardcover book that requires 300 pages worth of reading.

Unfortunately, I found the Shadowrun Quick Start Rules a little lacking. It’s a lot to ask to cram everything needed to play into 30 pages, but if this is going to be the vehicle you attract new players through, it needs to be more polished than even your main product.

It was smart to simplify some game mechanics in the rules, but it seems as if the provided character sheets were made to be compatible with the full ruleset. Some of this is good for providing character flavor, but when information for core abilities (like spells) reference mechanics not presented in the Quick Start Rules, that’s a big problem. There also seemed to be a few minor discrepancies in what some skills were named in the rules versus the character sheets. The sheets in general are full of jargon that makes it difficult to pick up and play. 

The provided adventure, “Fast Food Fight,” is exactly what I was looking for in a system like this: an adventure made up of a single set piece combat encounter to test out how gameplay in Shadowrun feels. Again though, for something that is explicitly designed to be the first experience for some people with Shadowrun, I think it could’ve used more polish. 

There’s a map provided for the encounter, but it doesn’t really match up with the descriptions given in the text. It almost feels like it was created using a different draft of the adventure. I ended up having to draw out my own map prior to the session. It also doesn’t have a grid of any kind, which is fine for a certain philosophy of game, but Shadowrun has very precise rules for movement given. 

My super-polished map, based in part on the restaurant that several of the players and I used to work at

The adventure contains contingency plans for possible work-arounds the players may attempt to use. The adventure literally says that if the players stake out the site, they will never see their target leave. And there is an NPC bystander included simply to guarantee that combat breaks out if the players manage to succeed on brokering a nonviolent solution. I realize of course that there is no accounting for every possible course of action by players, but I think the scope of the adventure should have been changed if the authors wanted to guarantee things go a certain way.

Our play through was fairly straightforward. They did a brief stake-out, in which I had to cobble together some of the hacking rules that aren’t fully presented and let the Decker character hack two sentry guns that were awaiting them ahead of time. The team went in, and after a brief conversation with the bad guy, the fight broke out as planned. After an hour or so of rolling handfuls of six-sided dice, our heroes were victorious.

The Street Samurai class was far and away the MVP of the fight, just mowing through the bad guys and dodging every bullet I sent his way. The Decker also did pretty well, but it feels like the class is intentionally limited so as not to be an encounter skipper. Combat moves so quickly that the one or two rounds it may take to mark a device could make the usefulness obsolete. I assume the Street Shaman and Combat Adept would have more use in noncombat situations, but in this straight-up fight they were really outdone by the Street Samurai.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the core dice pool mechanic. I like dice pools in theory, but Shadowrun perhaps takes it a bit too far, with up to 15 dice at one time in this simple starting adventure. I’m very curious how this scales. In fifth edition D&D, most characters will start with +5 in their core competency and this will scale to more like +10. I can’t imagine the dice pools of Shadowrun scale in the same way.

The core mechanics were a bit stressful for myself as the game master. While the players got used to what they would roll for their attacks pretty quickly, I was running multiple NPCs. Any time one of them was attacked, I had to check that NPC’s stat block, add their Reaction and Intuition, apply modifiers, make that roll, figure out the base damage, then add their Armor and Body, remember any modifiers, and make that roll. Again, I think the beginner version of character sheets could be designed to be more user-friendly and at least have these common roles already added up on their own. With all the steps involved in a single attack however, I can’t believe that combat can move very quickly in Shadowrun, even with experienced players.

There are many examples of this game philosophy in even the quick start rules. Shadowrun seems to value verisimilitude over quickness of gameplay, which is a legitimate decision, but one I personally have grown away from over time. I want less time planning the tactics of each combat and round and more fast-paced action and narrative.

Shadowrun’s strength has always been its setting and now has decades of story to draw inspiration from. It does a good job of taking the familiar— both from real life and from fantasy/sci-fi tropes, and mashing it all up together. It’s something that isn’t presented too much in the Quick Start Rules due to lack of room, but it’s definitely what would bring me back to Shadowrun.

One note on the setting as perceived by both my players and myself in this adventure: both the elf characters are presented with a Native American aspect and the only ork character is named Carlos Martinez. I don’t think that the actual setting has this sort link between real world ethnicity and fantasy race, but that sort of thing does happen and is definitely problematic by modern standards.

I probably won’t buy the full edition of Shadowrun or run it again with the rules as written. However, I do own a copy of an older rule book and would love to use it for inspiration for an urban fantasy/cyberpunk campaign. There are plenty of other game systems, such as Fate, Powered by the Apocalypse, or even (with a lot of customization) Dungeons & Dragons that could better represent the world of Shadowrun.

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