Posted by: markfender | April 25, 2012

Shadowrun 20th Anniversary Edition – Game Concepts

It’s time for more game fiction! Yay!

Gaia’s Heart
This is a story about how conspiracy theories and secret histories are bullshit. Oh, Shadowrun…

Game Concepts
Excuse me, but this is gonna get long…because it involves history. Earlier editions of Shadowrun used a dice pool system with variable target numbers. It was a simple system that worked pretty fast. If I recall, I was inordinately proud if I could get a character to a base of 10 dice for whatever their schtick is, so the pools were fairly small (that’s before adding in pools, but we’ll get to those). The elegant part was in the Damage Codes for weaponry. There were four levels of damage: (L)ight, (M)oderate, (S)erious, and (D)eadly. These determined how many points of damage you would take when pumped full of lead. Every two successes your opponent got would bump the damage up one damage code, but every two successes you got on your Body roll would reduce the damage by one grade (with the target number based on the lethality of the weapon). So, essentially you’re looking at two rolls per combat exchange. Fairly fast for a dice pool system.

World of Darkness showed up a bit later and took the basic idea of the dice pool system from Shadowrun, but ‘tweaked’ it to be less good. In that game, you still had the variable target numbers, but you were looking at a lot more rolls for one combat exchange. There was an attack roll (that used an Attribute + Skill system to determine the dice pool), a dodge roll, then a damage roll and a soak roll. So, the number of rolls were doubled, which introduced some weird edge cases where you could potentially roll really well on your attack roll, but then fail to accumulate any damage successes. Not as good.

And then a sea change happened in the gaming community: dice pool systems with variable target numbers became anathema. It’s two variables and the interactions aren’t always easily apparent – how is the liklihood of success changed by increasing the target number vs. reducing the dice in the pool? So, I guess for the sake of transparency, White Wolf published their new World of Darkness system and eliminated target numbers entirely. Now, every roll’s target number is 8 or higher (on d10s) and the only variable is how many dice you roll. This reduced combat rolling dramatically – the attacker adds up his Attribute + Skill + weapon in dice, the defender subtracts some dice from that for defensive capabilities, and the resulting successes translate to points of damage. It abstracts things to a high-degree (rocket launchers are more accurate than pistols? Well, sorta, based on how the dice pools are determined) but it also reduced what used to be 4 rolls to 1, so I’m willing to live with some abstraction.

I say all that to give the background for the changes to Shadowrun 4th. Because the new edition of Shadowrun decided to ditch variable target numbers also but through that has actually transformed itself into the bad ol’ World of Darkness system. It somehow ended up cribbing from the bad version of its own ruleset, which is utterly weird. But, let’s go through it, shall we?

So, tests are defined as Attribute + Skill + Gear (+/- modifiers) forming your pool of dice. The target number is always 5. As the stat maximum for humans is 6, you can see we’re already pushing the number of dice that are rolled from previous editions. Combined with the fact that there are a lot more rolls in combat, we’re now at Exalted levels of dice accumulation and rolling, which is really pushing the usefulness of such a system. Even from a logistical perspective, it can be difficult to even hold all those dice, let alone roll them, find the successes, and then do that several more times for just one combat exchange.

However, there are some changes I like. The terminology for successes has been changed to “hits” which is a really minor change, but one that feels a little more flavorful. Also, we have “glitches” now, which are when half your dice pool turns up 1s. These lead to various minor complications, unless you also fail to accumulate any hits in which case they get much worse. It’s a minor thing, but I prefer that terminology. There’s also a section on buying hits, which is used for low-stress actions where the possibility for failure is relatively minor. I wish this section was slightly more useful, as the provisos for buying hits are pretty restrictive and any excuse to not roll dice is okay with me, especially when the pools get so big.

We then have the descriptions of the various tests that can be taken: success tests, opposed tests, and extended tests. There’s also teamwork rules, some definitions of time and various sundry stuff on how to interpret the dice results. This is all pretty standard stuff and doesn’t really impact anything previously expressed.

Next we have descriptions of the various facets of a character. This starts off with Attributes, of which there are more than in previous editions. There’s 8 standard Attributes (plus 4 Special Attributes) in the new rules, versus 6 (plus 3 Special Attributes) in the old rules. The biggest change is that Intelligence has been split into Logic and Intuition. This isn’t a large deal and mostly impacts the way that the Magic system now operates. Of particular interest is the Edge attribute, which replaces the previous concept of Pools (which is totally different than pools – yeah). In old editions, you had these Pools that were extra dice that you could add to appropriate rolls. Things like the Combat Pool added to combat actions, the Magic Pool added to Magic tests, and the Decking Pool added to decking actions (and that doesn’t even get into the Astral Pool or the Task Pool). The Combat Pool always worked for me because it represented dodging bullets as opposed to just absorbing them with your Body roll to reduce the damage. The others were a little suspect, however, especially how inflated the Decking Pool could get. Edge replaces all of those. Basically, you spend a point of Edge and you get to add your Edge Attribute rating in dice to the test you’re making. I prefer this method because the old Pools were refreshed too often for my tastes (every round, in most cases), meaning you were rolling even MORE dice. Edge regulates that some more.

The other Special Attributes are less special than you’d think. Essence acts as your ability to accept cyberware and bioware and is always rated at 6. Magic and Resonance are the two others. You only have those Attributes if you have the appropriate Qualities (and you can’t have both), but they start at 1 and have to be bought up as normal.

Next we have a few more explanations of how some of the other aspects of the system define things – Skills, Qualities, Magic, Technomancy, Gear, and Augmentations. There isn’t much to say about these at this juncture, but I’m sure I’ll have something to say when we get to those respective chapters. The last two things to mention are Contacts and Lifestyle. These are two things that I’ve always liked about Shadowrun. By including these aspects in character creation, the game has emphasized that these are important concepts to the game – expanding its scope slightly above the standard adventurer-looking-for-action. Contacts imply that you have people that are important to you and can provide a solid grounding for a character to exist in the “real world.” Likewise with Lifestyles, which determine your quality of life. Lifestyle is a good way to drain cash from characters, as its essentially your monthly costs for living in the manner you would like to become accustomed to. In other dungeon crawl games, such as D&D, accumulating money pretty much just meant you bought better magic items. Shadowrun makes you pay for your daily upkeep (as well as any super-sweet tech you might want to buy), so it can provide an impetus to go out on those dungeon crawls. Paying the rent can be a powerful motivator.

Next we have the section on metahumanity. This part of the game has never sat right with me. It ruins my cyberpunk verisimilitude to have elves, dwarves, orks, and trolls. But that’s my issue. However, I do think the only metaraces I’m okay with are the elves and orks. Thinking about this, I think the reason is that they have a racial identity – the elves are high-class holier-than-thou types with their own nations and immortal conspiracies to take over the world. The orks are the lower-class oppressed minority fighting for equal rights and establishing their own underground culture. But dwarves and trolls? They don’t do anything – they have no cultural identity. Except that every shadowrunning team has a troll because they’re big and tough and that seems to hit a particular button in gamers.

There’s a sidebar in this chapter about tweaking the rules, presenting a few options to get a different feel. I like this, even if most of the options seem to take the game in a direction I’m not sure I’d be happy with. But, hey, they’re here! That’s more than previous editions got!

So, that was one chapter. If this sort of detail continues, I am never going to get through this book.

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