The Complexities of Tabletop Shadowrun

ShadowrunI started gamemastering a Shadowrun campaign about a month back. I’ve always been a fan of the universe and I love the video games. I do have some gripes with the tabletop system, though.

The setting

Shadowrun is a cyberpunk/fantasy setting. In that setting, the world alternates between ages of much magic and ages of little magic. In the near future of Shadowrun, a new age of high magic has begun, returning elves, trolls, and dragons to the world after millennia of absence.

The result is a dystopian cyberpunk setting of mega-corporations with magicians and dragons. Ever wonder what an ageless elf could do with a corporation? Or how a fire elemental would square off against a machine gun? Well, that’s what Shadowrun is.

The system

Shadowrun’s rules have developed over a period of over twenty-five years. The system is built around 6-sided dice rolls, as opposed to a game like Dungeons & Dragons, which also uses other dice. Players need to roll a number of 6-sided dice for tests, and the resulting 4’s and 5’s count as ‘hits’.

Characters are made up of attributes and skills, instead of a stricter archetype-based (class-based) approach. Not leaning on broad classes leaves more freedom to players to create the character they want. It also has its down sides – more on that later.

By choosing specific skills, magic powers, and gear, a player can create characters ranging from mystical shamans, to cyborg samurai killers, to ‘deckers’ who live more in virtual reality than the real world. The game has a wide range of choices concerning these skills, magical powers, and gear, giving players a lot of freedom.

The complexities

As you start to dig in to the rules as a game master, the number of choices and specialist rules start to pile up. There are five types of magician skills, each with their own rules. There are rules for virtual reality, for controlling vehicles, for different types of melee weapons and firearms, and hundreds of types of gear players can buy.

To give an example, firing a gun means looking at 14 environmental modifers, which can sometimes be compensated for. After that you choose a firing mode for your weapon, decide if you want to dual wield, check your recoil against your strength. And, should you have been aiming at your target for a number of rounds before firing you will get a bonus. Finally, you take the relevant firearm skill and attribute – which varies by type of firearm, specialization, and certain attached gear – and make your role.  And if you were stupid enough to fire a grenade launcher, you still have to apply the scatter rules after that.

Well, shucks, that’s a lot of rules. There are reams of paper filled with all the things I mentioned above. All in all, the Shadowrun Core Rulebook consists of nearly 500 pages, with only a little setting, and a lot of rules.

The problem for gamemasters

Rich rule sets are not a problem per se. However, as a gamemaster I need to know all of them and apply them when required. I’m pretty good at learning rules by heart, but 500 pages of them is a bit much. Not knowing rules can lead to two things: frequent looking things up which slows down play, or frequent winging it, which can lead to unbalanced gameplay.

Slowdowns in play are bad for a roleplaying game. It means the players are all twiddling their thumbs while you look up a rule. Their mind wanders and they lose the thread of the story.

Unbalanced gameplay is also a problem. If you start houseruling things, you are often making things easier or harder for players. That leads to less tension, which again, makes players less invested.

The problem for players

Things are not much better on the player side of things. Some players enjoy learning a cartload of rules for their specific character. Others just want to have fun without being hindered by a learning curve. I’ve found that the more complex the rule set, the larger the differences in the power of the player characters. Players who invest in learning the complex rules will find ways to make those rules work for them and create powerful characters. The rest lags behind. These differences will cause the power-players to outshine the rest, at the cost of the experience for everybody who is not a power-player.

This problem starts at character creation. As I said, not having a class-based system gives more freedom. It also means somebody has to explain how to fill all the roles that a good functioning group of characters needs. The gamemaster has their work cut out for them, and the more rule-savvy players immediately start to pull away from the rest.

All in all, the onus is on the gamemaster to make the game go smoothly and is still a balanced, fun experience for all players.

The verdict

I like Shadowrun the setting. I don’t like Shadowrun the complicated ruleset. It makes it harder for me to run a fun game.

I hope they trim down the rules in the next edition, but I’m probably hoping for too much. In my experience, game systems only grow in complexity over time.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands