Here we have one of the current players current opinion of Fourth Edition Shadowrun – although it’s worth noting that it includes some of the gripes that the rest of the group has brought up, since it is a current opinion and not an initial reaction.
It behooves an honest man to laud even his enemies, or those he dislikes, when they do right. And it is equally his duty to honorably criticize them, without rancor, for their faults. Therefore, I have tried to remain objective, and this is difficult, because I had high hopes for Shadowrun 4, hopes I felt were dashed by the actual product.
The major and greatest issue with Shadowrun 4 is that they threw away years of development in favor of a not-so-radical new design. A radical design might be forgivable – great risks can become great results. This is neither a great risk nor a great result. It tosses most of what made Shadowrun a great and long-lived system away.
And I find it incredibly amusing that the design is the very definition of Ironic. The original Shadowrun system was adapted by White Wolf for Vampire: The Masquerade. Then White Wolf’s new system was adapted into the Shadowrun 4 system! The original swap worked; the second… not so much.
The reasons are pretty simple. The new White-Wolf/Shadowrun system relies on rolling against an even target. In Shadowrun, a result of 5 or better on a d6 is always a success. Not everyone likes this system in White Wolf’s World of Darkness (based on 7+ on a d10), but it works reasonably well because there’s a large difference in dice pools between humans and magical creatures.
In Shadowrun 4, this isn’t the case. A starting Shadowrunner has very little edge over a normal person, and the nature of the system makes it hard to build on it. Even a difference of three total attribute and skill points is only one average success difference. One success isn’t a whole lot of improvement, either. And every improvement costs more and more experience. At the absolute most, a Shadowrunner can expect perhaps 3 more successes than a normal man-about-town unless they are absurdly specialized.
Shadowrunners need a lot more of an edge than normal people. They are expected to take on many enemies, and defeat them. In Shadowrun 4, they simply can’t plausibly do this.
Another seemingly change which enforces this was the alteration of the cyberware system. Simply put, it’s so incredibly cheap that no Shadowrunner can actually beat the system. There’s no edge for non-magical characters (and as we’ll get to later, precious little for magical ones).
Let’s look at it this way. A security guard, even a cheap one, costs thousands and thousands of dollars (or nuyen, as the game uses). And cheap security guards are rarely even armed, much less willing to fight off armed invaders. Loyal fighters will cost a lot more, even in a rough-edged world like Shadowrun.
What does this mean? It means that criminal organizations and corporations will invest in those loyal to them. Even the Evil-lest Corporation doesn’t just go out and hire a dozen goons to guard their high-security areas. The idea fails to even be ridiculous.
In earlier Shadowrun editions, security guards might have a smartgun link and an implanted communication system, or maybe some Boosted Reflexes. A tougher security team probably had some more serious cyberware, even (*gasp*) Wired Reflexes I! And while they’d fight at a disadvantage compared to player characters, teamwork and weaponry and armor could definitely even the odds. Only the elite were equal to player characters, and fighting one was a major threat.
That isn’t the case anymore. Here’s a question for you. Which is cheaper: Taking a security guard, train him in physical development, firearms us and repair and care, small-unit tactics and riot control and zone defense, and proper security practices and protocols… or simply get some loyal people and implant some skillwires, wired reflexes, and a smartlink, and send them out?
That’s not meant to be facetious. In Shadowrun 1-3, giving people really useful cybernetics was extremely expensive. Low-grade stuff might be affordable, but advanced cybernetics was the domain of the well-funded and well-supported elite. In Shadowrun 4, it’s actually cheaper to hand out cyberware than train people.
So, where do player character come into this? If cyber if so cheap (yet still a huge expense for a new player character) how can they compete? Someone within skillwires isn’t just decent, they’re omni-competent: good at everything! Simply put, the only reason to even practice is to have skills above, say, rating 3. It’s actually cheaper to just install skillwires in children once they turn age 18 or so than to educate them! (They can go to college and specialize later, if at all.)
And even an entire security team can easily outfit itself with top-grade cybernetics with a small expenditure – compared to the training they’d need otherwise. Even specialized player characters simply cannot match that.
As a note here, Shadowrun 4 does lend itself to play on a less-heroic, and somewhat easier-to-manage scale than earlier editions – it’s just that most players like to have their characters be considerably larger-than-life. The old-style “Robin Hood” and “Undercover Reporter” concepts won’t work – and neither will any character concept calling for being an ex-special operative or otherwise starting off with an impressive record. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a radical departure from the older editions. Of course – as shown in the Gang Wars campaign log – older editions didn’t do well with more down-to-earth campaign styles.
I’ve got to admit, I tend to prefer the high end. I can be a competent, but relatively normal, human being in real life. Why should I need a game for that?
OK, but enough about Street Samurai, right? Maybe Hackers make sense.
First off, I won’t even go into the bandwidth issues they present. Suffice it to say it makes no sense, at all, on any level. Simply put, wireless signals can’t carry the kind of signal as the authors seem to think. It works for simple computer browsing, but full-on decking is a wholly different beast. There’s just not enough bandwidth to run programs.
Second, the level of connectivity they envision is not only ludicrous, it’s downright stupid. Given hackers running about fiddling with wireless signals, who’d be crazy enough to wirelessly link their doors, or even worse, cybernetic limbs? There’s literally nothing to be gained, and that creates a point of failure. Signals can be disrupted, but wires must be cut.
The final problem (and it’s a whopper) is that the level of computing they envision cuts out a major and fun aspect of the game and has major implications they don’t acknowledge. Computers are virtually free in Shadowrun 4, and you don’t upgrade them. They’re simply that good. This cuts out the fun of upgrading, of gradually getting better components until you create a really powerful custom deck.
But alright, so you’ve lost that. But doesn’t it makes the game fun? Doesn’t it let you focus on gameplay? Well, no, because they didn’t consider the consequences of the change. Computers are virtually free… and corporations have a lot more resources than Shadowrunners anyhow. They can simply plop down fifty computers, or a hundred. Heck, why not just install a thousand computers running security. Any hacker has to take on every last one of them.
Of course, game-masters don’t have to do this. But you have to come up with a pretty crazy reason not to.
Next, let’s look at magic. Mostly, the magic section survived reasonably well. However, they introduced a number of questionable ideas, most notably the redistribution of spell effects. The problem with this is that Shadowrun’s magic system, and the spells developed for it, were never designed to fit into a results-based magic system.
What does that mean? Shadowrun was originally (editions 1-3) an effect-based magic system. An Attack spell, no matter what the actual results were, pumped magical energy into the structure of whatever it hit. This disrupted the target. A Divination spell probed the target with magical energy, a Health spell reconstructed or even temporarily enhanced the target’s structure, and Manipulation spells simply changed one thing into another. This does not happen in Shadowrun 4.
Originally, a spell which popped acid into existence was a manipulation spell. There were many things you could do with it. You could use it hurt someone, but it was less efficient than an Attack spell. You could slowly etch an engraving, or eat a tire, or destroy a door. You could use the acid in chemical tests. In Shadowrun 4, the spell system became consequence based, so if you use to attack someone, that acid creation is… an Attack spell.
This falls under the Does Not Work category. If you have a spell which creates acid, you can use it as Attack spell. What happens if you want to use it for chemical tests? That’s a divination effect now, so it doesn’t work. What if you want to use it to etch things? That’s a Manipulation effect, so you can’t use it now. The effects on one spell in Shadowrun 1-3 now requires four or more. Even worse, the entire idea of an Acid-based Attack spell is meaningless in Shadowrun 4. It’s only words on a page; the “acid element” doesn’t add any utility to the spell or even make it more effective in combat.
And this is repeated for all the fire spells, ice spells, and so on. Had they really wanted this right, they ought to have gone down a different road. The idea is defensible, even in Shadowrun. They’d have done better to go back to source and present a new Shadowrun universe in that case, with slightly different magic, technology, and world design.
The character build system presents another irritating anomaly. Character design makes it grossly obvious that there is an absolute best build mechanic. And it’s blatantly obvious. The reason is that everything comes from the same pool of points, and money doesn’t matter much. You spend cash only to get what you absolutely, desperately need, buy magic if you like, and then pump as many attributes as you can up to 5 (costs rise exponentially at 6). Any attribute you don’t immediately need is left at 1, where it can be upgraded with experience later on the cheap. Skillwires make up the difference anyhow.
Then there’s the humans. Problem is that every human gets a karma pool bonus. Which can be burnt off to save your hide from anything (the old Hand of God rule). But so what, right? We can expect under this system to see that almost all the humans in a plane crash survive happy and healthy, while orcs and trolls are splattered. Oops, fire a cruise missile at some poor human? Naw – he’s fine. And in another game, in another game world, I might accept this. Edition 4 of one single game is definitely *not* the time to be introducing that rule, however.
Possibly worst of all is that is makes conversion hard. You just can’t do it; converting a character over is impossible and nonsensical. The new edition breaks almost every connection with its predecessor, and worse yet, doesn’t really explain or show that this is a better way. Compare this to the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons or Fourth Edition World of Darkness. Both of those were fundamentally new systems, but they made an effort to appeal to old-timers. The important aspects of the game were easy to understand and adapt.
Indeed, there’s the larger question of why anyone would want to play this game. It’s not terrible, but it’s decidedly mediocre in all areas. There are faster and more cinematic games. There are more technical and expansion games. There are more popular games with more book support (new Shadowrun 4 releases are rare and sporadic). For whatever reason, the Shadowrun 4 team decided to simply chuck the baby, the bathwater, the tub, and then burn down the house the bathroom was in.