Shadowrun 3rd Edition
Shadowrun 3rd Edition
Shadowrun is set in the mid twenty first century, 50 years after the return of magic to the world. It is a cyberpunk game with the addition of Tolkienian races, powerful sorcery and an extensive and detailed bestiary. The first edition came out almost 11 years ago and was an intriguing game with a number of good ideas. Unfortunately the combat system didn't work, and as a the combat system doesn't work you don't have a game. The second edition came out 4 years later and if I were reviewing that edition this article would end with pretty close to perfect score, because it cleaned up the vast majority of the flaws in the first edition, and did it well. Unfortunately, I'm reviewing the third edition and I have mixed feelings about it at best.
A Rules Compilation
Mike Mulvohill, the line developer for Shadowrun in his "Developer's Say" tried to explain why a new edition was necessary. Frankly, his explanation isn't all that clear but there is one part of his explanation that no Shadowrun player could disagree with: a new main rulebook was needed because the game had changed extensively from the second edition. To play Shadowrun 2nd edition required at least three rulebooks, and lugging around six or seven books just for the snippets of rules in each wasn't uncommon. So, clearly a rules compilation was necessary and Shadowrun 3rd does that well. Not only are all the main systems adequately described, from skills and combat to computer hacking and vehicle combat but such necessary sections as false identities, defeating security systems and dealing with contacts have all been added to the main rules. Give that Shadowrun is essentially about grey and black ops, that is where they always should have been and the designers deserve credit for the clean and well organized way they have managed to include all the basic and necessary rules in the main rulebook.
The new line developer puts his stamp on the game
The world, Mike Mulvohill tells us, has changed from when the game was first created. It now has to compete against all sorts of media it didn't have to compete against when it was first created. As a result, he felt compelled to change the game in as many ways as possible, because otherwise the game was doomed. It's hard to argue that the old rulebook was stodgy and uninteresting and that the new rulebook should be jazzed up in terms of presentation. Who can really argue with a better looking and better organized rulebook? But the changes to the rulebook aren't just a matter of rules compilation, organization and style. The rules in third edition are different in significant ways from first edition.
The first change is what a friend of mine calls the "anti-cuisinart effect". The best example of this is the change to the initiative and action rules. Shadowrun, to my knowledge had the most brutal boosted reflexes rules of any cyberpunk game. It is no exaggeration to say that someone with enough enhancements could trounce a whole squad of unenhanced opposition with very little real risk to himself. It was a game where an enhanced individual could literally walk into a room full of people, shoot someone and walk out, closing the door behind him, before anyone in the room could react. In third edition this has changed, it is still possible to act first if highly enhanced, but the overall effect has been much reduced by the new rules. This is only one example of a general weakening of those who rely on cybernetics for their special abilities that is evident throughout the game and in the Man and Machine supplement which expands on the cyber and bioenhancement rules.
This weakening is perfectly defensible. It changes the style and feel of the game in a way which many gamers may prefer. However a simple set of recommendations governing how much money characters should receive in order to encourage different styles of games would have done the same thing without removing the possibility of playing high end cyber-enhanced characters. This is because being highly cybered in Shadowrun is extremely expensive. If the GM doesn't give the characters hug gobs of cash, they'll never have the very best cyberwear anyway --- while still allowing the gamemaster to still use highly enhanced individuals as opposition.
The second change is the "one size fits all effect". The abilities of those who use magic to enhance their fighting abilities and those who use cyberware have been brought into line, making the two much more alike other than the superficial difference that one uses "magic" and the other uses "tech". This change continues in the Magic in the Shadow supplement where the prior extensive differences between magical traditions such as Voodoo and Druidic magic are boiled down to half a page each of generic description. One the one hand this allows for the description of a large number of magical disciplines in a short space, and makes the choice between magical traditions or the tech versus magic choice for fighters largely a question of taste, not substance. On the other hand --- well, it makes it largely a question of taste --- not substance.
A third substantial change is an almost complete rewriting of the skill section. The old edition had a fixed set of skills, each of which was very broad and covered a large range of activities. For example firearms skill covered everything from pistols to assault rifles, while melee combat let your character use anything from a quarterstaff to a monowhip. The new system has broken down many skills into much more discrete sets. The following skills, for example, now take the place of what was just firearms skill before: pistols, rifles, submachineguns, assault rifles, stream weapons and shotguns. That's six skills where there used to be only one. Some skills, presumably judged less useful, have hardly been changed at all --- the magic skills, for example are pretty much the same. The overall effect of the changes, as discovered when characters were converted is to weaken characters who are primarily fighters. Suddenly your it is all a street samurai can do to have a good selection of weapon skills, while those such as mages and hackers find that their skills have been subdivided very little (some have even disappeared. It now actually takes even less skills to be a competent hacker than it did before). The good side of the change is that the skills have been opened up. It is now very easy to add a new skill if you find a gap in the skills. Likewise the new rules link skills to attributes, correcting the odd situation that existed in second edition where skills and attributes existed in a strange isolation from each other. Still, overall the new skill system destroys a much cleaner system which covered almost all the bases, without offering clear benefits in its place
Shadowrun is still a hell of a good game, and I can't in good conscience recommend second edition, with its huge rules gaps. However I have mixed feelings about third edition. On the one hand it is a well organized and good looking rulebook which includes pretty much all the rules you need to play as well as enough background information to the immerse you in the Shadowrun world, one of the best and most well realized role-playing worlds ever created. On the other hand the rule changes actually reduce the influence of the game world on the game itself, thus lowering the overall flavour of the game and tilting the game balance heavily towards mages and magic and away from the cyberpunk side of the world. While it is magic that makes Shadowrun different from other cyberpunk games, it is still a cyberpunk universe and this shift makes it less likely that players will ever experience what are possibly the best thought out and realized cybertech rules any game has offered. I would have been much happier with 3rd edition if the designers had stuck more with compilation and cleanup, and less with putting their own stamp on it. That said, Shadowrun is still a good game and I still recommend it.
Style: 3 (Average)