Posted by: markfender | May 9, 2012

Shadowrun 20th Anniversary – Magic

This review has turned from a review into a thesis.

La Quinzieme Section, le Sixieme Monde
I don’t know if I got that title right because I don’t speak gibberish (I’m also culturally sensitive). This story wasn’t actually that bad at explaining the basics of magic without using exposition. Plus, it just proves that spirits are awesome.

The Awakened World
Shadowrun’s magic is boring. It incorporates everything you’ve heard about “real world” magic (rituals, spell formulas,…) and then boils that down to some number-crunching spell lists. It’s trapped in that place between game rules and world concepts because the basic world concept of Shadowrun magic is that it operates according to the game’s rules. So, while I’m looking for some more mysticism and unexplained phenomena in my magic system, the game does its best to suck all the flavor out of it. What’s especially aggravating about that is that it’s actually a good system.

Yeah, so expect this section to vacillate between awe and aggravation.

The chapter starts out with a really well-done explanation of how magic operates in Shadowrun. It’s really hard to summarize a summary, so I’m not gonna bother, but suffice it to say that its taken the game 20 years to be able to sum it up in a concise way that covers all the bases and makes sense. In fact, I could see myself consulting this summary if a weird magic question ever showed up in game.

Shadowrun divides magic into Traditions. In old editions, these were hermetic and shamanic. This basically just determined how you interpreted magical energy as well as restricting what types of spirits you could summon. In the new system, you get to build your own. I like the basic idea of making up your own Tradition, except that it generalizes magic even further. *sigh*

The targeting rules for spells get really specific. Because magic is essentially channeled directly into someone’s aura (ignoring Armor), it requires a visual link. This can lead to weird exceptions (like targeting an Area spell might miss someone you can’t see even though they’re in the blast area) but it’s essential to how Shadowrun treats magic. Targeting objects also is somewhat funky, as the more technological the item is, the harder it is to affect. I despise this. One of the cool things about adding magic to a near-future game is how the two can interact, an interaction Shadowrun avoids like the plague. Again, I’d like some unexplained phenomena and mysticism in my magic systems, but Shadowrun avoids mixing magic and technology in so many frustrating ways. *sigh*

Casting spells boils down to a Complex Action and rolling Spellcasting + Magic. Depending on the type of spell, it might be Opposed, in which case the target gets to defend with Willpower. So, yeah, melee combat still sucks. After all the spell effects happen, the magician has to resist Drain. Drain is Stun damage that spells do to the caster – the more power they put into a spell, the more potential damage they might take. I’ve always liked that system as it neatly avoids spells-per-day or mana points, but it does mean there’s more rolling to be done (although the magician player can just roll their Drain while the GM moves onto the next person).

Spells have a Force, which determines their overall power (as well as how much Drain you take). Force essentially limits the number of net hits the spellcaster can get on the spellcasting roll. This becomes important (for game reasons) in the next chapter, so just hold that fact in your head until we get there.

There’s also Ritual Spellcasting (because, ancient European ideas about magic). This allows you to cast spells at people you can’t see…except you still need a visual link (accomplished by having a spirit observe the target in the Astral Plane). This is more useful than it looks when you look at the magic sourcebook, as it adds other ways to target people not in your presence, but for the purposes of this core rulebook, we’ve got the rules for something that’ll never get used.

Speaking of things that’ll never get used, this book also includes the rules for Enchanting. That’s how you make Foci. This set of rules is always the first expansion to the rules that appears in the first sourcebook published for every edition, but for inclusiveness’s sake, they’re here in the core rulebook. Moving on…

Magicians also have the option of Counterspelling. This adds dice to those Opposed defense tests mentioned above. What’s neat is the mage can Counterspell other people as well, providing a modicum of protection for the rest of the party. This section is explained better than in previous editions, so that’s good.

Magicians can also conjure spirits. Spirits are pretty bad-ass. They’re murder to non-mages and can also perform services for the mage who summoned them, like sustaining spells for them or just wading into combat. Conjuring spirits causes Drain as well and its possible to pass out from summoning them, which can lead to hilarious situations where the mage is knocked out and there’s an angry spirit unleashed. In previous editions, spirits were divided into nature spirits and elementals, but this edition has simplified this somewhat (Hermetic mages and shamans used to summon them slightly differently, too, but that’s been done away with as well). Mages can also attempt to banish spirits, which can lead to some cool standoffs as two mages battle over the control of one very unhappy spirit. The stats for spirits are in a later chapter, so right now let’s just say that I like this aspect of the magic system and move on.

Next, we get into the Astral Plane. Mages can either perceive the Astral Plane or project there, separating from their bodies. This allows them to interact directly with the auras of people by assensing them. Or, they can roam far from their bodies to do a bit of reconnaissance. This is complicated by the fact that only living things appear in the Astral Plane. This creates situations where corporate facilities will grow ivy on their walls to prevent mages from infiltrating (living auras block astral travel and plants count as living). Another use for Astral Space is the fact that casting spells or having foci create unique signatures that a mage can analyze and determine who actually cast a specific spell. It’s an investigation tool essentially (or use the foci to “ground” a spell from the astral into the physical world). Similar to how the Matrix takes place in an entirely different world, so the Astral Plane is for mages. If a mage on the Astral Plane wants to be seen by the physical world, they must manifest, which is just a ghostly image of them. This is entirely different from Materializing, which is how spirits appear on the physical plane. I wish the terms were somewhat easier to tell apart at a glance, as I always forget which is which.

I didn’t even mention Astral Combat. Primarily because that’s a thing I’ve never seen in any game of Shadowrun ever so I have no experience with it.

Next, there’s a section on Mana Barriers and how they work. See, with the ability to travel to the Astral Plane, there have to be ways to stop those people. So, Mana Barriers. But they don’t stop physical travel, even though supposedly living things have auras and couldn’t pass over them….it starts getting confusing at this point. Suffice to say, there’s a section to explain it all and it only managed to confuse me more. Back to that explanation at the beginning of the chapter…

Next we have Adepts. Adepts are people who can channel their Magic Attribute into powers. So, your elite magic ninja types. It’s basically a way to achieve some cool abilities without having to go the cyberware route – except it’s not equivalent at all. Shadowrun hates adepts for some reason. Barely any of their powers are even equivalent to the equivalent cyberware, and always cost more. For instance, Critical Strike (which increases your hand-to-hand damage) costs way more Build Points than Bone Lacing does, Improved Reflexes costs more than the equivalent level of Wired Reflexes, Improved Senses isn’t at all equivalent to cybereyes/ears (except for those senses that you can’t buy with cybereyes), Kinesics is inferior to Tailored Pheremones, and Killing Hands is worse than Bone Lacing (which you already bought instead of Critical Strike…so Bone Lacing is really superior). Critical Strike and Mystic Armor have one advantage in that they can be used in Astral combat, but I still wouldn’t buy them unless you know your GM is going to spend most of the game in Astral Space. It wasn’t as obvious in old editions, but seriously, these powers are laughably worse than cyberware. To provide a detailed example, level 2 Wired Reflexes will cost your character 6.4 Build Points (to have enough nuyen to purchase them, so really 7 Build Points), whereas the Improved Reflexes Adept Power costs 2.5 Magic Attribute points. Attributes are purchased at 10 points per level, so 25 Build Points (really, 30 since you can’t buy half a point of an Attribute). Even if you include the “free” 1 Magic you get for buying the Adept Quality, you’re still spending 15 (20) Build Points for the same exact ability. Good deal. I think the reasoning here is that Adept powers don’t decrease your Essence like cyberware, but if you go strictly cyber, you don’t need an Essence attribute (you just can’t drop it to 0). Only mages (and technomancers) care about Essence, so really the only reason to look at these powers is if you’re a Mystic Adept (someone with Adept Powers who also casts spells). There are a few powers that cyberware can’t replicate (like Astral Perception or Missile Parry), so those might be okay (and Improved Physical Attribute is cheaper than buying an Attribute the regular way), but in general, this whole section needs radical rebalancing.

Next we have Initiation, which is how you increase your Magic above the natural maximum of 6 as well as pick up cool powers. This costs a lot of Karma, but there’s a lot of neat abilities in there (including Adept Centering, which might actually be a useful power). Next are Foci, which are things you can buy that give you bonus dice for spellcasting actions, from specific spell foci to overall counterspelling. These also cost a lot of Karma (Mages need lots of Karma). Then we have a big list of Mentor Spirits. These used to be a shaman-only thing where you’d pick a totem which would give you certain bonuses to types of spells and some sort of penalty, but now they’ve been opened up so that anyone can buy one. There are the general totemic animals, but there are also natural phenomena and “god archetypes” included.

Lastly, we get to spells. These are divided up into Combat, Detection, Health, Illusion, and Manipulation (which is the catch-all category for spells that don’t fit in the other types). Spells are either mana or physical, which determines which Attribute is used to resist them (and that mana spells can’t affect non-living targets). These are kinda bland, as there’s every variation on mana/Stun damage, mana/Physical damage, physical/Stun damage, and physical/Physical damage for the combat spells (plus, all the variations of those for Area spells). Detection spells have evocative names like Detect [Life Form], with Health spells following closely in its heals with Increase [Attribute]. Illusion spells have slightly better names like Chaotic World and Manipulation has the weirdest-spell-ever Turn to Goo. New to this version of this edition is that hits that increase the Damage Value of Combat Spells also increase the Drain (because I guess they were a little too good). And, just to sling one last annoyance at me, its harder to use heal spells on people with a lot of cyberware because the two should never mix (or something). *sigh*



  1. Re: Physical Adepts. Of course adept powers are inferior to cyberware. They have to be to keep some semblance of balance in the game. You’re overlooking the fact that adept powers do not show up on scanners the way cyberware does. That troll with the metal arm is going to be treated very differently by the cops than the little unassuming physad, even though they both have similar potential for violence and enhanced abilities. Additionally, adept powers lack the vulnerability to hacking and EMP that cyberware has. With the new wireless hacking and RFID rules in 4e, A competent hacker can override a lot cyberware and turn it off, negating its enhancement. That’s not possible with an adept. Lastly, the adept isn’t paying the enormous amounts of money needed to buy the cyberware, have it implanted, and then pay State of the Art upkeep and maintenance fees.

    • – scanners, I’ll give you. (Although trying to balance with fluff is a losing game).
      – hacking vulnerability – eh. It’s still cheaper (BP wise) to buy a commlink with a good Firewall and slave all your cybeware to it. Yeah, you’re still vulnerable to hacking, but I’ll take the cost savings. And last time I checked, bioware was still invulnerable to hacking.
      – SOTA – tell me what page upkeep and maintenance fees are on again? Because all I see is one Quirk and an optional rule in Augmentation. And that “enormous” amount of money still costs less BP than raising your Magic attribute.

      Bottom line, adept powers do have some advantages (I glossed over those that can be used in astral space as well as meatspace – that’s something cyberware won’t give you), but 20 BP worth (in my Improved Reflexes example above)? I don’t think so.

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