OK, let's get one thing out in the open before we get started: I love Shadowrun.
Story time with Uncle Doc: Shadowrun was the first table-top RPG I ever played. Almost as soon as I was old enough to properly comprehend what an RPG was and why people bothered with them, I'd picked up the first edition BBB (Big Black Book, an affectionate title given to Shadowrun core books...even though the first edition hardback was more blue, which I guess still fits the abbreviation, but anyway...) and delved into the cyberpunk world. Being young, I was more drawn in by the magical aspects, but as the years passed and I read Neuromancer, I began to understand more of what was going on, and I began to love the game even more. It gave us a future of corporate greed and a thinning divide between man and machine that, at the time, seemed all-too possible. It was gritty, but stylish; explosive while emphasizing "flying under the radar"; idealistic in a wholly amoral society. There were so many sources of conflict that, it seemed to me, it would never run dry. Even better, there was developing metaplot, giving us Alien-inspired insect spirits, a host of insidious conspiracies, and the long games between the immortals, who used normal people (like, say, PCs) as pawns. Sometimes it got a bit overboard, bringing to mind the "every historical figure was a vampire" era of the old World of Darkness, but there was still a lot to play with. I stuck with the game even through the collapse of original publisher FASA Corporation, and the later problems at current publisher Catalyst Game Labs, because I had become so invested in the world that had been created. Even as the technology advanced, and the setting had to chance to keep up, I stayed on even as the game devested itself of the '80s style that had first caught my interest. When the twentieth anniversary of Shadowrun came up, I was glad to take part in the celebrations by hosting then-developer Adam Jury at MechaCon, a convention I work for. There's a reason, then, that my user title on the RPG.net forums is "MechaCon's Shadowrunner". I'm dedicated to this game, is what I'm trying to say.
As a result, when Shadowrun 2050 was announced - a supplement for the fourth edition of the game that adapted the current rules (which I prefer) to the setting as it was originally presented - I was, to put it lightly, overjoyed. Most of the players I currently game with (young'uns, all of 'em) had never seen the original version of the setting, having only been introduced to the fourth edition of the game by me within the past few years. Again, don't get me wrong, I have no problems with the current version of the setting, but part of nostalgia is wanting to show others the game I originally fell in love with, and now I'd be given the chance. When the cover of the book was previewed, I was even happier - it was using the old cover layout! Sure, it's relatively simplistic and dully-colored, but again, nostalgia. A week ago as of the writing of this review (July 24th, 2012), the .pdf of the book was released, and I immediately snagged a copy and gladly read through it immediately, and I'm glad to say that, with a few minor exceptions, it lives up entirely to my expectations.
Now, Shadowrun 2050 sets out to wind back the clock to the game's original setting as much as possible, and it accomplishes that admirably. Flavor-wise, we've got a few good pieces of fiction (one told in retrospect by a more "modern" FastJack) that set the scenery, and a good portion of the book is dedicated to explaining how things worked in the 2050s, including security zone ratings (largely phased out by 2070, although the divides they once indicated are still mostly present), the old Big Eight corporations, information on the now less-relevant Lone Star Security, and a fairly comprehensive look at 2050s culture featuring information on big names like Maria Mercurial and Concrete Dreams, as well as a few newer names I didn't recognize. There is quite a bit of overlap with information presented in other fourth edition sources, though - while the names have changed among gangs and criminal organizations, for example, the general structure of the organizations is similar enough to that presented in Vice that it makes little difference. Furthermore, the "Mr. Johnson: (insert group here)" sections on employers from gangs to corps to the government doesn't seem to depict those situations as terribly different from how they would appear in 2070. The times and tech may change, but the job stays the same, so I'm not entirely sure why we really needed these passages.
Most of the cultural information focuses on the classic Seattle setting, with lists of Seattle gangs and a bit on the complexity that is the Salish-Shidhe Council, but there are sections on Chicago (pre-Bug City) and Hong Kong, as well. Speaking of Chicago, there's a bit in that section hinting at the insect spirit infestation that will quite literally explode five years later, which I liked...but in the Magical Threats section, there's a passage on insect spirits as well, one that goes un-commented on by the Shadowland regulars. At this point in the game's history, information on bugs should be mostly limited to rumor and considered a baseless conspiracy theory by all who haven't actually encountered them. Captain Chaos himself wouldn't even admit that bug spirits were real until the Bug City supplement, which made the fact unavoidable. To have them listed here among other threats seems to jump the gun, especially without the benefit of commenters questioning the veracity of the claims made in the, admittedly small, section. That aside, the three locations are exactly as they were at the game's foundation - Seattle is a melting pot of cultures in the shadows of towering megacorporate presence, Chicago is a physical manifestation of the social hierarchy with the wealthy (read: corporate) living in their towers high above the squalid and dangerous streets, and Hong Kong is a neon-soaked free-for-all. There's enough information on the three locations to get by, although by necessity they're painted with a rather broad brush. GMs might want to consult earlier books addressing these locations if they want to add more detail.
The cultural roll-back complete, we're now given the mechanics needed to create characters and run adventures in 2050, and everything seems to work out quite well. The character archetypes intruducing the second half of the book, though, give it a very rough start. Several of the characters have equipment either inappropriate for the setting (fake SINs rather than forged credsticks) or gear from other sourcebooks, which may not be a good fit for the setting due to the adjustments to price and effectiveness of 2050 technology.
Magic gets a rather hefty roll-back, reminding players that the traditions were once much more clearly defined than they are now. We're given updates to four traditions, hermeticism, shamanism, buddhism, and wuxing - other traditions are, as the book described, extremely rare at this point, and likely deserving of an uncompensated Distinctive Style negative quality. The biggest change here is the effective destruction of the Conjuring skill group. None of the traditions can use both Summoning and Binding - mages and yogis bind spirits only, while shamans and wushi can only summon. The Binding skill is updated allowing the two traditions that use it to handle summoning and binding with a single roll. There's a bit of a problem here, though, one that existed in previous editions of the game: Summoning is almost always superior to Binding. While it may be short-term, Summoning lacks the not inconsiderable cost in nuyen that Binding requires, and Binding is less effective and more draining due to testing against double the bound spirit's Force, rather than just its Force rating. The ability to have multiple bound spirits "on call" is nice, yes, but only in a game generous with nuyen and downtime is this likely to actually happen. Shamans get a Mentor Spirit for free to compensate for not having access to Binding, as well as the limitation of spirit domain (long story short: certain spirit types can only be summoned in certain places or, in some cases, weather conditions) but none of the other traditions do - mages even lose out on a spirit type attached to Health spells, since they don't have access to anything beyond the four types of elementals in 2050. Shamans and wushi continue to use magical lodges (termed medicine lodges for shamans), and mages and yogis have the ability to establish magical or meditative circles, respectively, that serve the same general purpose. Finally, we're given a reintroduction to grounding spells - casting spells from the astral plane through a dual-natured bridge of some kind to the physical plane. It's explained that this is no longer possible in the 2070s due to an increase in the divide between astral and physical planes. Frankly, it's nice to see it back, but I only ever saw it used in play once due to the combination of factors needed to pull it off and the physical damage caused by grounding drain -- it's just easier to use ritual casting to blast someone without being physically present.
The Matrix also returns to its roots, including a return to the old virtual topography. While later editions shifted to a more nebulous model for networks, first and early second edition imagined them as a literal network of nodes that a decker would have to navigate in order to find the right node for the task he wants to perform. This, of course, could often take quite a bit of time at the table, leading to long stretches of one-on-one gaming between the GM and a decker that effectively stalled all of the other players at the table, and this problem is likely to arise again. Commlinks and hackers are out, replaced by deckers and their keyboard-sized simsense modules/minicomputers called cyberdecks, and the rollback here actually solves a problem present in the 2070s Matrix. It's been my experience that, due to the way Matrix-related tests are designed, it's relatively easy to put together a standard fourth edition hacker that can breeze through most defenses, relying mostly on a state-of-the-art commlink with highly rated programs. Without the almost unlimited storage available in the 2070s, cyberdecks (along with their bigger cousins, cyberterminals of both desktop and "luggage" sizes) are much more restricted in what and how much they can run. Most starting characters will find that they can only afford a deck that can run one or two low-rating programs, meaning they'll have to rely much more on their own skills to survive. It looks like Shadowrun 2050 decking will be a much more exciting experience than the near-free pass that 2070s hacking has become, even if it does take up more time at the table. We're also given a wide variety of IC programs, which have largely been replaced by the better-functioning but less flavorful agents by the 2070s. There are a few notable bits of information missing from this chapter, though. Cyberdecks and cyberterminals can be upgraded (cyberdecks adding only more memory while terminals can boost their stats as well), but no price is listed for these upgrades. Programs, too, lack listed costs, as does the Program Carrier cyberware accessory, described in the Matrix chapter as being necessary for a more subtle approach (since a cyberdeck tends to draw attention) but not found in the Gear lists. I've seen that the Catalyst development team has already begun work addressing these details, so just like real modern computer users, we'll have to wait for the patch for full functionality.
The Gear chapter is a much simpler affair, as it's just an adjustment to the lists found in the fourth edition BBB with names changed and some "new" items added to adjust for the limits of 2050 technology. It should be noted that the prices of many items has "jumped" (datajacks, for example, cost twice what they do in 2070), and the reduced amount of funds available to starting characters (a maximum of ¥250,000 as opposed to the ¥1,000,000 maximum available to starting characters in earlier editions) means that many character types won't be starting at their peak, so players should take note that they might need to be more patient and more attentive to character development, rather than just character building. That said, we'll move on to final thoughts. As we can see, I've been a little rough on the supplement's mechanics, and have pointed out a few areas where the flavor seemes either repetative given previous works or not otherwise specific to the setting...so why do I still come away from this book loving it? The simple answer is nostalgia. It may not be perfect - far from it in some sections - but this is still a good picture of the game I originally fell for. Even the price - $25 for the .pdf, and $45 for the hardcopy pre-order) can't really disrupt my appreciation for Shadowrun 2050. As I've seen it stated elsewhere, you just can't put a price on nostalgia. Flawed as it is, I'm glad I got it, and it will certainly be hitting my gaming table in the not-too-distant future.
Style: 4. A welcome return to the classic appearance and layout is more than appropriate for this supplement, and the mix of new art and memorable pieces from earlier books is quite welcome.
Substance: 2. Much as I hate to say it, there are some real flaws here that will require some work from a GM in order to make some aspects of the game (the Matrix, notably) playable.