Monday, June 9, 2014

Play Report: Shadowrun

Yesterday afternoon, I played my first game of Shadowrun, Fifth Edition, with five of my friends. They all used the templates out of the book, and chose as follows:

-Orc Sprawl Ganger
-Troll Bounty Hunter
-Elf Street Shaman
-Human Weapon Specialist
-Elf Face

We ran "Chasin' the Wind," the first shadowrun for the current season of Shadowrun Missions. I haven't played Shadowrun since second edition. The Face had experience with fourth edition. No one else had experience of any kind with the game. A few of them had never even heard of Shadowrun, prior to yesterday's game.

Following are my thoughts on the game, the adventure, and the characters. I'm not going to give a detailed synopsis of the story since the adventure is published:

The Game

Shadowrun is one of the most unique and crazy settings ever published in the history of RPGs. Not only that, it's managed to retain that crown for nearly 20 years, since the first edition of the game came out. Seeing Shadowrun in all its glory, updated with the trajectory of today's technology and today's gameplay sensibilities, was a ton of fun! The system definitely lacks the organic flow of modern story games like Fate Core or Dungeon World, but the flavorful crunch outshines generic systems like GURPS and carries itself much better than the last edition of D&D did. For gamers looking for an RPG with as much "G" as "RP," Shadowrun is a definite strong option.

That being said, yesterday was a "learning" game, and it was just as ugly as learning games can be. Combats stopped practically mid-dice roll as we looked up seemingly simple rules, like how much damage the Bounty Hunter's fist does (it's Strength (S), by the way), and how to resist damage from magic spells (apparently you don't; you get the basic defense roll but if you fail it, you take the full damage of whatever spell you're hit with). Environmental modifiers, wound penalties, and various bonuses were routinely forgotten or overlooked.

Oftentimes, a learning game can be quite unfun as you put the work in to learn the system. But this wasn't the case with Shadowrun. Even with frequent flips through the book, we all had a great time. Part of this was just the great group I was fortunate enough to have. I wrote about this last week; having a good group is critical during a learning game because that's where the majority of your fun factor is going to come from, not the game. The game will be busy frustrating you with its rules obscurities. Despite those obscurities, though, the wonder and madness of Shadowrun's setting held through. It was still awesome to see the Weapons Specialist pop someone's head off with a well placed explosive round while the Street Shaman engaged in a magic duel with another mage and the Face...well, the Face hid behind a snowbank...but it was so cool to watch unfold. Seldom do I have this much fun in a learning game!

The Adventure 

"Chasin' the Wind" is a fantastic learning adventure. It's simple to follow, easy to adapt to the players' group composition, and seems to be structured to allow players and GM alike to just fiddle with the rules for a bit. There's a little of everything...driving, combat, a little magic, a little hacking, negotiating, investigating...and, as I just said, any one of those parts can be easily modified or removed to handle the particular makeup of a group of shadowrunners. Yesterday's game had no deckers, for example, so I ended up hand-waving the hacking bits, and the adventure was no worse off for it.

That strength is also its weakness, however. There are a lot of unnecessary rolls, mechanical dead-ends, and zero-stakes situations that can have the potential to be boring, even frustrating, if not handled well. For example, one part in the adventure has the shadowrunners searching for a false tree in a park where a Matrix relay is hidden. There are rules laid out to find the tree; how it's an extended test requiring X hits, where each roll takes Y minutes. However, nothing happens if the players fail their rolls, or take an inordinate amount of time to find the tree. Worst case scenario is the Johnson gets pissed that the job took longer than expected. GMing 101: you don't roll if failure doesn't do anything interesting! Again, though, the point is to learn the system in a safe environment, so this is forgivable, from me at least. An experienced Shadowrun GM with experienced Shadowrun players, however, are going to want to seriously retool this adventure to have a little more spice (or simply call it what it is and blow through it in an hour, to get to the next mission).

The Characters

I read online that the templates in the Shadowrun corebook aren't built too well. After this one session, I can see where they are coming from. I understand the theory...the templates are built to be well-rounded, multi-faceted characters, interesting to think about and play as...but the practice is that the template characters seemed to be a little too broad.

Take the Ganger, for example. With decent social skills and a range of contacts, the Ganger has social assets as well as considerable physical strength. However, with undercooked weapons skills and just fair armor, the Ganger ended up being the only character who got knocked out the whole session. For another example, the Street Shaman only has 3 Magic. I've never seen a mage have less than 6 Magic. Granted, my experience is very limited, but it just seemed to me a lot of points went nowhere useful in the creation of these characters.

My recommendation to new players diving into Shadowrun is this: take a good, long look at your chosen archetypes and customize them as much as you can! I do think archetypes are a good idea for fast/new player play because chargen is a very complex process, but I do not recommend just grabbing an archetype off the shelf and running the shadows. I actually just spent the first hour of the session just talking about the world and explaining the rules and the various bits of their characters, which I think really helped and stopped the template deficiencies from becoming really frustrating. I have a feeling these concerns will be addressed with the forthcoming Beginner's Box that Shadowrun's publisher, Catalyst Game Studios, will be releasing, but until then, be careful with those quick-play options!

In closing, it was another great time, with great friends, playing a great game. Despite the perils and pitfalls of the dreaded learning game, this session definitely gets chalked in the "win" column in my book.

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