The Saving Throw
Shadowrun 5th Edition 2013
She's just so something new. A waking lithium flower just about to bloom. I smell lithium now.

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Overall Review
published by Catalyst Game Labs reviewed by Scott Wachter
480 pages, 2013, $20.00 PDF, Hardcover $59.99, Hardcover+PDF Bundle $69.99
Game Setting 1
Art 1.5
Character Generation 3
Game Rules 3.5
Intelligibility 2.5
Review Scoring

Some games iterate themselves by revolution, others by evolution. Much earnest debate and much more nerd rage and fanboy wankery have been spent discussing which is the better approach to creating a new edition for the game. The fifth edition of Shadowrun - the first new version under the care of Catalyst Game Labs - opts for the latter method to mixed results.

Surprisingly, the mechanics are much improved over any of the version of the game released. New mechanics which limit the size of dice pools based on physical aptitude and quality of equipment keep dice pools to a reasonable size. The difficulty curve for generating target numbers has also been crushed down significantly. So the largest pool of six-siders a character will be throwing regularly is between fifteen and twenty, which also has a good chance at success against the highest points of the difficulty scale.

Character creation is also greatly improved. 4th Edition's grossly min-maxable point-buy system has been replaced with a new Priority system. Players are offered a series of multiple choice decisions between bundles of skill points, supernatural aptitudes and piles of cash. It produces more well-rounded characters while also speeding up the character generation process.

Another welcome change is the nature of the Matrix. The new Signal Noise mechanic forces hackers to work in the same vicinity as their targets, which now include things like enemy goons' wifi-enabled smart guns. But while the Decker's role has been expanded to include things to do with all the other players, a hardcore matrix diving session is still a cue for the rest of the group to take a cigarette break. It's a shorter break than in the past but the rules still don't do great job of smoothing out the party splitting moments that seem to be inherent to the game. The best change to Matrix and the overall setting is the net is no longer neutral, the darkest verion of every anti-piracy, procorporate internet regulatory act has been passed, meaning that runners need to worry more about the Matrix's moderators than rival hackers.

The magic system seems to have changed the least but then again, it had the least need of improvement. Spells are still 'organic' to the character, which means there's a good deal of upfront bookkeeping to being a mage, but it pays off at the table when all players need to do is adjust the dice pool for circumstances and carry on. Other magic systems could benefit from this. Creating an adept seems to be an exercise in adding up fractions. It raises the question as it may have been worth it multiply the relavant numbers by four just so players could use real numbers on their way to doing crazy kung-fu movie stuff more easily. Then there are the guys who can see the internet with their brains because....magic(?). Shadowrun used to have this really hard-line technology vs spiritualism motif but as time has gone by the megacorps have built up mystically-oriented daughter companies, the resurgent Amerindian nations have become more and more like the corrupt governments they seceded from, and there are guys who can surf the internet with magic. Shadowrun had one core theme that really worked, and now it's just gone. Now the supernatural stuff is just hanging around like the game mechanical equivalent of tonsils, not adding much to the core, but still around because it always has been.

In terms of toys, we have a good news, bad news scenario. Bad news is that biowares are still a thing within the game, the good news is that the designers have done a better job of balancing them against more traditional cybernetics. Cybernetics are more generic, but are much more moddable. So it is less the case of flipping through the catalogue to find the exact robot arm a gamer might want than it is picking a generic arm and picking all the cool options for it. And there a guns, so many guns it's disgusting. They even included the now-infamous DMSO super-soakers, with which you might spray foes with chemical weapons. There are also many fiddly bits for guns, Gunhaver McShootstuff players are going to be ridiculously pleased. The gear section overall feels very complete with a range of choices in each category.

My complaints with the Shadowrun setting are already known, so I won't rehash them here, though they do still stand seeing as how the setting has not changed. The book also takes the opportunity to bury readers in it. The first fifty pages of the book are an unrelenting torrent of setting background, corporate law, a lexicon of outdated future slang and class specific jargon, and short fiction before any inkling of character roles within that setting or game mechanics is offered. To a new player it's overwhelming, for a veteran it's tiresome slog through familiar territory.

There is a great deal of art throughout the book and I can't point to any one piece and say that it's terrible, but I also can't point to any one piece and say it's outstanding either. But across the board it's all very generic. Flipping through the book is a loop of same-y character portraits and bland cityscapes, occasionally punctuated by action scenes for the chapter pages. One note I'd like to make is that going through the book, in all but two instances, Native Americans are depicted as a techno-remixed cigar store indians, right down to bare chests and feathered headgear. Fun fact: the Salish tribes that take the forefront in the SR setting are famous for sweaters, not dressing like extras in a John Ford movie. Also, the layout is messy, with sidebars and boxed-in example text competing for space they shouldn't even be occupying.

The game mastering chapter features the bog standard advice for running games, nothing gamers haven't heard before but still worth being reminded of every now and again. There are few strongly recommended ideas that could just as easily have been codified into the rules at character creation. For example, the authors think it's a neat idea for the group to create characters together and then define each other's relationships and group goals. I'm sitting an ever growing pile of small press games that at worst have it on the character sheet and at best feature it as a major game mechanic. This game could put in at least some effort.

To sum up, Shadowrun 5th Edition has a great deal to offer fans of the franchise in terms of mechanical improvements, but newcomers will find a steep learning curve. As for non-fans like myself, it doesn't do much to win any converts.

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