The year 2019 marks the thirtieth anniversary of Shadowrun. To mark that date, its publisher, Catalyst Game Labs is releasing an all new edition of the roleplaying game in which man meets machine and magic, corporations are states unto themselves, dragons are CEOs and media personalities. The year is 2080 and the setting is the Sixth World, a future in which shadowrunners run the shadows to undertake missions against corporations, gangs, organised crime, and more, often simply to make a living, but at other times to make a difference. The first release for Sixth Edition is the Sixth World Beginner Box, a quick-start for the new edition designed to introduce both the setting and the rules as well as provide a starting scenario.
Open up the deep box and you will find contents aplenty. This starts with a quick one-sheet guide to what is in the box, preparing the reader for what lies underneath. Underneath is ‘An Instant Guide to the Sixth World’, which explains the setting and history of the Sixth World into just three pages, whilst devoting a fourth to summarising ‘The Big Ten’, the current most powerful, influential, and rich corporations in 2080. It is a quick read, but deftly distills over thirty years of multiple editions of the roleplaying game and accompanying supplements into something which can be read in a few minutes.
Below this are not four character sheets, but four character dossiers. They include a Troll Street Samurai, an Ork Combat Mage, an Elf Covert Ops Specialist/Face, and a Dwarf Decker. Each is eight pages in length and includes a character sheet with a breakdown and explanation of its various parts; background, preferred tactics, and roleplaying tips; and a write-up of a complete Run or mission. It is a simple Run, basically a case of getting into a lightly guarded facility, stealing some data, and getting out again. How it is presented is actually old fashioned, so looks a bit clever by today’s standards. It is divided into two columns. In the left hand column, the narrative of the Run is given, whilst in the right hand column, is an explanation of what skills might used, what dice might be rolled, and what the outcome might be if the Run had been run as a roleplaying session. The Sixth World Beginner Box does this not once, but four times, once for each of the Character Dossiers and thus from a different point of view each time. Read each of these recaps for the Run and you get a nice idea of not just how each character approaches the Run, not just in terms of roleplaying, but also in terms of their role on the team and they do. The only issue with the set of Character Dossiers is that there is not a Human among them and so do not reflect the mix of Metahumanity—Dwarves, Elves, Orks, and Trolls—and Humans in the Sixth World. (That said, a Human Rigger, a Drone or vehicle pilot, is available to download as an expansion to the Sixth World Beginner Box.)
Characters in the Sixth World Beginner Box and thus Shadowrun, Sixth Edition have eight attributes, plus two or three special attributes, depending upon their character type. The primary attributes are Body, Agility, Reaction, Strength, Willpower, Logic, Intuition, and Charisma, and whilst all characters will have the special attributes, Essence and Edge, only spellcasting characters have the Magic attribute. As in previous editions, the value for attributes typically ranges between one and six, but can be higher. Of the special attributes, Essence is a measure of a character’s nervous system and spirit, whilst Edge represents the ability to do amazing things within the bounds of the setting. Characters also have skills, typically rated between one and nine, which have been greatly streamlined and condensed in comparison to previous editions. All of the gun skills are not represented by the Firearms skill for example, but it is still possible to specialise in weapon types. Characters also have Knowledge skills and Qualities, sort of advantages and disadvantages, but whilst the characters have them in the Sixth World Beginner Box, they are not explained and do not play a role in the game. Really they are there for flavour and detail, though experienced players of Shadowrun may want to bring them into play.
The new rules are explained in the twenty-four page ‘Quick Start Rules’ booklet. As with previous editions of Shadowrun, it uses a dice pool mechanic to generate successes and the more successes or Hits a player rolls, the better his character does. To have his character undertake an action, his player rolls a number of six-sided dice, aiming to roll fives or sixes. Each five or six rolled is a Hit and the more rolled above a task’s threshold or more than an opposing character, the better the character does, but if more than half of the dice come as a one, then a ‘Glitch’ has been rolled and something goes wrong for the character. Dice pools are typically formed from a skill plus a linked attributes, such as Firearms and Agility, Sorcery and Magic, and Influence and Charisma, with modifications adding to or detracting from the dice pool. It should be noted that characters can get a lot of dice to roll, often ten or more.
Besides having a lot of dice to roll, what the players and their characters also possess something that gives them the edge, and that is, well, Edge. Every character has an Edge Pool equal to his Edge attribute at the start of every session and his player can spend Edge points from the pool to give the character an advantage in a situation or encounter, for example rerolling a die, giving Edge to an Ally, gaining an automatic Hit, adding more dice to roll, rerolling failed dice, healing damage, or even forcing an opponent to roll a glitch. These all have varying costs and a player can only spend Edge on one of these options on a turn. In the Sixth World Beginner Box, Edge can be gained through having tactical advantage in a situation, up to a maximum of seven. Hopefully more options will be provided in Shadowrun, Sixth Edition to gain Edge through play and roleplaying, what the Sixth World Beginner Box introduces is an Edge economy, with a flow going in and out of each character’s Edge pool.
Combat involves multiple dice rolls, but still feels quite streamlined. Characters get to maneuvre before they act, check to see if they gain any Edge, and expend Edge as necessary, but then their players get to roll dice. So when a shadowrunner fires at a ganger with his Ares Light Fire 75 light pistol, his player rolls dice equal to his shadowrunner’s Agility and Firearms, whilst the Game Master would roll the ganger’s Reaction and Intuition. So for a shadowrunner with Agility 4 and Firearms 3, his player would roll seven dice, whilst the Game Master would roll six dice for the Ganger’s Reaction 3 and Intuition 3. The shadowrunner’s player rolls 1, 3, 4, 5, 5, 6, and 6, whilst the Game Master rolls 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 6. This gives two extra Hits to add to the weapon’s Damage Value of 2. That is a total of 4 Hits against which the Game Master will roll four dice the Ganger’s Body of 3 and his ganger leathers which give him +1. The Game Master rolls 1, 3, 4, and 6 for one Hit, which means that the Ganger takes three damage.
The rules for the Matrix and Netrunning use the same mechanics, whether a Decker is scanning for a wireless feed or the presence of corporate decker, taking control of a set of security cameras, hacking open a data file, and so on. Basically, a Decker’s player will either be rolling his character’s Electronics and Logic if action is legal, but Cracking and Logic if not, choosing from a mix of legal (edit file, enter/exit host, jack out, and Matrix perception) and (crack file, data spike, format device, hack, snoop, and spoof command) illegal actions. An interesting limitation upon a Decker’s actions in the Matrix is Convergence, which occurs when a Decker has done too much and attracted the attention of the Grid Overwatch Division, illegal actions in particular attracting their attention. When Convergence occurs, the Decker is dumped from the Matrix, his cyberdeck is bricked and rendered useless, and law enforcement is called to their meatspace location. Overall, it adds an urgency to all decking operations in the Matrix, whilst the mechanics are easy and fast, giving netrunning an immediacy that was not always present in previous editions.
Lastly, there is magic, and that too uses the same mechanics. The traditions are Hermetic and Shamnic magic, all just using the Sorcery, Conjuring, and Enchanting skills. The danger of casting magic is that spellcasters can suffer from Drain, causing fatigue, and a spellcaster can only improve the effectiveness of a spell—Amp up a combat spell for extra damage or Increase Area effects for spells with area effects—by increasing the effects of Drain. Fortunately, a spellcaster can Soak the Drain Value of a Spell, using either Logic and Magic if a Hermetic Mage or Charisma and Magic if a Shaman. Again Shadowrun, Sixth Edition will add more detail, but the mechanics for magic in the Sixth World Beginner Box cover just about everything the Ork Combat Mage will need just as the rules for the Matrix cover everything the Dwarf Decker will need.
The second book in the Sixth World Beginner Box is the ‘Battle Royale Adventure’. The adventure begins in a Stuffer Shack supermarket and if that is enough to cause veteran players of Shadowrun to groan—the first adventure for Shadowrun, ‘First Run’, which appeared in the first edition was essentially a fight in a mini-mart—then there is no need to be on that account, for it is only the start. The shadowrunners are in the Stuffer Shack when something goes down outside and in the warehouse complex opposite, a four-way gang showdown over a limousine and its passengers. It comes with advice for the Game Master, a map or two, and some NPC stats. In general, the players are free to approach the situation however they want—stealth, charm, diplomacy, out and out combat—and there is good advice for all of that for the Game Master (though it could have been organised to more obvious during play), but it is a terrible scenario.
The problem is that it is a set-up to help both the Game Master and her players work out the rules. Which is fine, because that is what you want in a quick-start or an introduction to a roleplaying game. Yet it is no more than that. There is no plot to speak of that the player characters will get involved in; there is no beginning, middle, or ending, it is just a set-up for the player characters to be pulled into, resolve, and no more. The backstory for that set-up involves Seattle and Washington, DC politics, but there is no way for that to come out in play and there is no sense of Seattle as a place because it takes place in one location. In fact, it is so annoying unsophisticated in its lack of storytelling and development, it does not actually read like a scenario for a roleplaying, but an encounter for a wargame. And that is exactly what it is.
Above all, what ‘Battle Royale Adventure’ does not do is provide a means for the pre-generated player characters to do what they are supposed to—and that is, to go on a ‘Run’. In fact, what the Sixth World Beginner Box does instead is tell the players, in each character dossier, how a run through the shadows might go down without the players having any influence over it. Given how irrelevant the ‘Battle Royale Adventure’ actually is except as a combat encounter, the Game Master could actually tell her players not to read the fiction in their character dossiers and then she could run the run that the characters go on in that run. It would be a better illustration of a Shadowrun adventure than the ‘Battle Royale Adventure’.
In addition, the Sixth World Beginner Box comes with an excellent poster map of Seattle—which would be even better if more of it was involved in the ‘Battle Royale Adventure’, a dozen Shadowrun six-sided dice—not quite enough for some of the pre-generated characters in the box, and a set of fifty-four quick-reference tool cards for items, weapons, spells, and stats for the NPCs in the adventure. Physically, all of this is presented in full colour, on glossy card, with fantastic illustrations. The cards are perhaps a little flimsy and it would have been nice if they had been illustrated too as they would have increased their versatility, but otherwise, the production values on the Sixth World Beginner Box are excellent.
The Sixth World Beginner Box is an impressive set. It is a great introduction to Shadowrun, Sixth Edition, with some excellent pre-generated characters and well presented rules that are easy to read and understand. Veteran players of Shadowrun will find a lot here that is familiar and mechanics that are easy to run and play, whilst those new will be enticed by the nicely done pre-generated characters and the quality of the components before discovering the ease of the rules. Unfortunately, both will find the single encounter that is ‘Battle Royale Adventure’ a dreadful disappointment. As written, there is nothing wrong with the single encounter that is ‘Battle Royale Adventure’, but as a Shadowrun adventure and as an introduction to playing Shadowrun it is singular in nature and severely lacking in terms of plot and story, and that lack fundamentally betrays the quality and purpose of the Sixth World Beginner Box.