A Glance at Shadowrun’s 5th Edition

I’m busy getting ready to run the seventh iteration of my Call of Cthulhu scenario, Temple in the Sands, and I probably won’t have anything for you this Wednesday due to traveling.  But last weekend I had the chance to play a game of Shadowrun again, something I don’t often have an opportunity to do.  I had a good time, but I think I realized why it was that I play it so infrequently; Shadowrun looks like a chore and a half to run when compared with all the other RPGs that I play.

Shadowrun reminds me a bit of a glamorous ass.  You know what I’m talking about: one of those people with so much style, and with so many good stories told about them, that you forget just how frustrating they can be in person.  If you spend enough time hanging around them the aggravation (mostly) disappears into the background noise, but there’s a lot of settling in and acclimatizing that you have to do first.  And every so often (usually right in the middle of something that is pretty cool) you get a reminder of why you thought the person was an ass in the first place.  But because it’s so glamorous, because it’s practically oozing cool, I keep wanting to come back to it like the sucker I am.  I can explain, I swear.

Oozing with cool.  That part is important to remember.  Shadowrun took the cyberpunk future of the 80s and wrapped it in the fanciest of duds, covered it in so much magical and cybernetic bling that the setting is practically dripping with expensive gold trinkets.  If Shadowrun were a person with a taste for expensive dental ornamentation, its diamond grill would have a diamond grill.

But that’s both a strong point and a weakness.  There are so many different kinds of things that you can be, so many different things that you can do, that there’s no concrete central mechanic or system that binds the whole game together.  The rule book is laden with interesting things, and written to tell you a story about the setting that will let its style seep in through your every pore, but it is rarely comprehensive or easy to use.

Compare that with a GURPS book.  Nearly every book written for GURPS is easy to use, easy to navigate, and has readily accessible tables where necessary.  In some cases GURPS books can be a little dry, but the game is called Generic Universal Role-Playing System for a reason.  Shadowrun also has tables, and some charts, and it has pages and pages of specific actions that you can take for specific circumstances (I’m looking at you, Matrix chapter), but good luck if you want to reference those quickly by simply glancing at a page, or find them easily in relation to a clear heading, or even in a sidebar.  And where GURPS has vast quantities of rules, many of which you may never wish to use, it also has pretty clear break points where the book says “You don’t need to know this if you want to play a good game of GURPS, it’s all strictly optional.”  Shadowrun just has the vast quantities of rules.

The many and varied fiddly bits of the system allow for plenty of cool things: our party had a street samurai who was more machine than woman, a rigger who lived vicariously through his large collection of drones, a healing and fighting mage, a magical troll capable of punching your soul, and a hacker who was able to summon machine spirits and ask computers to do favors for him.  But the complexity takes its toll.  Among other things, character creation is an elaborate struggle, especially when it comes to buying gear.  Which diamond grill do you want?  And which diamond grill do you want on your diamond grill?

Ok, that’s not entirely fair.  It only took me ten to fifteen minutes to pick out the wireless enabled heavy machine gun that my hacker would have our troll carry and deploy for me to use, complete with its smart firing platform, gas venting system, and internal smartgun links.  And I do tend to take a long time shopping for RPG characters when I have big lists to chose from.  But Shadowrun is also the kind of game that will laugh at you when you stumble because you don’t have the best (or the right) gear.

In some ways, signing up to play Shadowrun is signing up to jump through those hoops and be rewarded for just how outside the box you can think when it comes to approaching your problems.  I rather like that part of it, even when I don’t do a very good job.  But like I said at the beginning, every so often you hit those moments of frustration where the beautiful fiction of slick freelance criminals in the grim cyberpunk future breaks apart, and you go hunting through the books again for that one rule because what you’re doing just doesn’t make sense.  It’s certainly a wonderful experience, you just have to put up with seeing the glaring cracks every once in a while as things bog down.

So.  I love the cool, I love the style, and I will keep playing games of Shadowrun.  But I really do wish that it could somehow take all the slickness that it embodies in its setting and use that to smooth out the bumps in its rulebooks.  It would also be nice if technomancers were more than simply computer shamans.  Presumably that will change in some future supplement.

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