Shadowrun 4: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

   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.

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8 Responses

  1. Interesting read. I GM’ed 2nd edition fourteen years ago. Haven’t played any rpg since then. Thanks for reminding me what a gret game it was. Maybe i will try fouth edition for old times sake…

  2. Some great points but it all ends up being so misguided in the end. No one cares [no one should] if you can exploit a system, the game is never the system, it’s the inspiration that comes with it, the system is just something to abuse and fuck about with so you can get your story experienced with some elements of randomness. I agree that they messed it up, there’s holes big as bug city in there. But it’s more in how they fail to realy explain the imagery of the newer elements, then the system fails on top of that [it’s a good core system, they just fuck up on every little detail, where they could have gone for even more freedome they whent in the other direction and overcomplicate where it’s leats needed and simplify where detail is fun]. They started with something interesting and they diden’t realy go where they should have with it, but I as a player and a “GM” have never seen possible system exploits as an issue, after all it’s about concepts, ideas and story, never about points and rolls. Just say no, be you player or GM, if it’s a shitty concept that won’t entertain every one, then just don’t go there, as a gamer or GM, no matter what game you play.

    Not an issue.

    • For Farsot:

      It’s not my review here since this is a player contribution – but it’s a lot easier to run a good game with a good system. A bad system doesn’t entertain everyone, since some players will find it irritating – which means that, by the standard of “entertaining everyone”, the game will automatically fail, no matter how neat your concepts, ideas, and story may be.

      In any case, a lot of players have no real interest in your concepts, ideas, and story; they’re there to have their characters make their own stories. You can go for the passive players only – but that just means that you’ve limited your ability to run games to that segment of the players who don’t care about the rules or about actively shaping what’s going on in the game.

      Still, if that’s the way you want to limit yourself, it’s not an issue for anyone else.

  3. I have only recently upgraded my Shadowrun collection to 4th Edition (wasn’t going to bother, but who can resist an anniversary edition?!). There are indeed many disappointments, not least in the loss of defining characteristics like the Rule of Six (though it does just about remain) and the damage codes. However, IMO great strides have been made in streamlining the gameplay and making processes more homogenous – e.g. technomancers functioning almost exactly like magic-users is dissatisfactory, but it does drastically reduce the mechanics burden on players and GMs and can be covered over through focusing on the thematic elements.

    I do take exception with several points raised in this review, so this post will seem highly negative. To counteract that, let me stipulate that anything I don’t mention here I implicitly agree with and I write this purely in the hope that it will help to dis-disillusion the author and readers.

    It’s not very accurate to claim that starting shadowrunners are not far enough removed from the man on the street. Average Joes would have to default on most of the pertinent skills, to attributes that are rarely higher than three. That’s two dice on average, which will give an unglitched success less than half the time and limit hits to a maximum of two whilst suspiciously assuming no negative situational modifiers apply. Every extra die is valuable, even just for reducing the frequency of glitches.

    Critically, what makes a ‘runner more than a punk with a gun is what he does, not how well he does it, and this seems to have been overlooked here. He knows tricks of the trade, he does his legwork, he covers his tracks, he considers the implications of his actions and how the various interested parties will react. If the players aren’t bothering with this sort of stuff and choosing instead to rely on massive dice pools to see them through then the very essence of the game has been lost.

    Whilst Shadowrun is certainly capable of high-power gaming with big fun toys and outlandish powers, it was never best suited that way (especially not for starting out). All who I’ve met and played with have thought starting characters were (if anything) too good and should be made weaker to keep the game gritty and tense. Runners aren’t meant to be special-forces-standard or on a par with comic book superheroes – they live and work on the streets and have to strive hard to access resources megacorps take for granted.

    On that note, yes of course the megacorps can make hostile incursions stupidly difficult – they are The Establishment and a supremely successful one at that. You wouldn’t expect to find and kill a dragon in your first few months on the job and likewise you shouldn’t expect to cause multi-multi-billionaire corporations any kind of headache without serious reality-defiance.

    But you will run against corps and varying degrees of success are possible if you stick to basic tennets of realism. Corporations cut costs wherever they can: computers aren’t free to them and neither is cyberware. Augmentation may well cut costs in some areas, but remember that one training program can cater for hundreds of employees who would otherwise each need their own ‘ware. Augmentation also needs the technology, clinics and maintenance costs to be covered, not to mention training in its use. On top of that, people (even wage-slaves and executives) can be lazy, complacent and short-sighted so security procedures will never be air-tight or 100% efficient.

    The latest development to hackers (nee deckers) is the clinching reason I gave SR4 a go – it was among the most broken of broken elements and they (almost completely) made it work. It’s not very apt to criticise the impossibility of the wireless capability of a fictional 2070 using modern day technology as a benchmark – this is both a sci-fi and fantasy setting so suspension of disbelief is not much to ask. Ever hear anyone criticise Star Trek for faster-than-light travel?

    The acid spell example given also doesn’t quite ring true. I get the point and it’s not completely off the mark, but I disagree that an acid spell should be valid for any conceivable acid-solvable problem. Otherwise you could probably get by brilliantly well with only two spells – one to mess up physical forms (either beyond function or to function in your favour) and one to kill spirits. And for the record, yes the acid element of the attack spell DOES have game-mechanical and thematic implications, as does fire, ice, electricity, etc.

    The build point system is less than perfect. My personal dislike is that the only way to create a character with very weak attributes is to either be a magician/technomancer or buy more skills than you will ever need whether they suit the character or not – most of the time I find it difficult to find a place for the build points and have decided to reduce the starting allocation in my games. But power-gaming, whether the opportunities are blatant or not, should (again IMO) never be tolerated and that responsibility falls, as ever, to the GM.

    Edge is a tricky one and does need to be handled in a way that suits the table in question. The Hand-of-God rule used to be subject to GM approval and even then only ever once per character. I forget how it stands now (having lent the book) but that’s perfectly good enough and even then in SR4 it stipulates that using it must incapacitate the character for the rest of the adventure, so abusing the rule really doesn’t do the player much good even if the character is very grateful. Either way, the human bonus of one edge is far from extreme.

    That’s a longer diatribe than intended, but the review did rather inspire me which is only ever a good thing. One final note: what really stood out to me with the 4th edition is just how often the words “gamesmaster discretion” appear. Whilst many may see this attitude as shirking designer-responsibility, it does keep the setting and mechanics wide open to customisation for whatever you’re not happy about.

    • I can’t agree with everything Editorial0 has to say either, and some of his gripes don’t match mine (he’s more into the economics and politics of a setting than I am, and less into it’s physics and technology) – but he doesn’t always respond, so I will.

      Personally, for example, I have some serious problems with the dice mechanics.

      Lets take a simple situation: a very small object has fallen into a deep-pile rug in some out-of-the-way spot.
      It might catch anyone’s eye, although the odds are poor. It might readily be missed on a fairly detailed search; unless you’re at just the right angle and are looking the right way, there’s no sign of it’s presence.
      How do the dice represent this simple situation?
      Anyone might succeed, so we can’t use edge – or the rule of six, which requires edge – because not everyone has edge.
      There’s got to be some chance of success with a single die, so we can’t require extra successes.
      Enhanced senses and extra alertness might help, but there’s still a large luck factor. A larger dice pool shouldn’t be a near-guarantee (or guarantee if a character opts to “buy hits”).
      Oops! We’ve just run out of mechanics – and we haven’t even gotten to the problem that the base chance of success is far too high. Shadowrun Four has no way to represent a variety of simple, common, situations. Sure, I can handwave it – but why should I when Shadowrun Three has just the mechanism I need? If I raise the Target Number, anyone might succeed, and someone with ten dice as opposed to one is far more likely to succeed – but there’s no guarantee.

      Throwing out an existing mechanism which works in favor of a new one which doesn’t is poor design.

      As for the actual reply:

      Point One:
      “It’s not very accurate to claim that starting shadowrunners are not far enough removed from the man on the street. Average Joes would have to default on most of the pertinent skills, to attributes that are rarely higher than three. That’s two dice on average, which will give an unglitched success less than half the time and limit hits to a maximum of two whilst suspiciously assuming no negative situational modifiers apply. Every extra die is valuable, even just for reducing the frequency of glitches.”

      I’d agree that every additional die is valuable – but you’re making your own very suspicious set of assumptions. First, that because the average attribute is “3” most people will have a full set of “3’s”. Looking around, I see lots of people who are above or below average in various things – and most of them preferentially try to do the things they’re good at and leave other jobs to other people. Second – and far more importantly – you’re assuming that the “average joe” won’t have any training in the job he or she is doing. Ergo, the “average joe” doing his job is likely to have an attribute score of 3-4 and a skill of 2-3 – giving him 5-7 dice. Even a nodding acquaintence with a skill is +1.

      Secondarily, it’s always better to present the math; on two dice, you get 7 chances in 36 of a critical glitch, 4 chances in 36 of getting a glitched success, 9 chances in 36 of getting a simple failure, 12 chances in 36 of getting a success, and 4 chances in 36 of getting two successes. It took much longer to type that than to construct the quick matrix (1-6 on each side and four lines to split things into categories) to demonstrate it.

      Point Two:
      “Critically, what makes a ‘runner more than a punk with a gun is what he does, not how well he does it, and this seems to have been overlooked here. He knows tricks of the trade, he does his legwork, he covers his tracks, he considers the implications of his actions and how the various interested parties will react. If the players aren’t bothering with this sort of stuff and choosing instead to rely on massive dice pools to see them through then the very essence of the game has been lost.”

      In other words, he has “Knowledge/Shadowrun Procedures” – just like a cop with Knowledge/Police Procedures. That is what “knowing the tricks of the trade” is – although presumably the skill is being supplied by the player, rather than being on the character sheet. Of course, anyone can pick up a knowledge skill or put it on a chip. As far as the game goes, this notion pretty much eliminates any reason for hiring “professional” shadowrunners – pretty much the opposite of what you apparently wanted.

      Point Three:
      “hilst Shadowrun is certainly capable of high-power gaming with big fun toys and outlandish powers, it was never best suited that way (especially not for starting out). All who I’ve met and played with have thought starting characters were (if anything) too good and should be made weaker to keep the game gritty and tense. Runners aren’t meant to be special-forces-standard or on a par with comic book superheroes – they live and work on the streets and have to strive hard to access resources megacorps take for granted.”

      Well, that was why I interjected the note about the differences between the editions in Editorial-0’s original writeup. Now, personally, I’ve been running Shadowrun since it came out in 1989 and “the characters are too good!” has been a pretty rare complaint. The older editions had special-forces troopers, retired police detectives, investigative reporters, and rock stars as standard archetypes. Characters might be equipped with a million NY worth of special equipment, or the equivalent in training or special advantages – which neatly explained why the Corps would want to hire them; they were damned good.

      For a basic objective measurement, “Grim and Gritty” means that characters die fairly often. That means that they’ll often need to be replaced – as often during the first half of the session as during the second. If it takes more than 10-15 minutes to generate all the mechanical details for a new character, the game is poorly adapted for “grim and gritty”, since players will often be sitting out. Shadowrun Four takes longer than that.

      Point Four:
      “On that note, yes of course the megacorps can make hostile incursions stupidly difficult – they are The Establishment and a supremely successful one at that. You wouldn’t expect to find and kill a dragon in your first few months on the job and likewise you shouldn’t expect to cause multi-multi-billionaire corporations any kind of headache without serious reality-defiance.”

      Nope. I expect them to have a good reason to hire the characters – d to not have to have the opposition make stupid mistakes or leave massive security holes to give the characters a chance to accomplish something. If I can think of a cheap way to make something secure using shadowrun technology, the Corps can probably think of twenty.

      Point Five:
      “But you will run against corps and varying degrees of success are possible if you stick to basic tennets of realism. Corporations cut costs wherever they can: computers aren’t free to them and neither is cyberware. Augmentation may well cut costs in some areas, but remember that one training program can cater for hundreds of employees who would otherwise each need their own ‘ware. Augmentation also needs the technology, clinics and maintenance costs to be covered, not to mention training in its use. On top of that, people (even wage-slaves and executives) can be lazy, complacent and short-sighted so security procedures will never be air-tight or 100% efficient.”

      Actually, Editorial-0 is the business management person, but I can add:
      Lets look at a training programs basic costs: Salary + Corporate Benefit Expenses + Training Facility and Staff + Insurance + Course Development + other. A lot of employees will have families, which will need supporting. Since it’s cheaper to support guests at middle lifestyle (5000 a month) than it is to support several people at low lifestyle (2000 a month each), we have a base salary – 6000 a month. Rule of thumb: when you add employees, you can double the salary to cover the costs of benefits, supervisors, managers, facilities, and other business expenses. Lets say that that covers everything. A basic four-month intensive training course thus costs some 48,000 NY. You also have to put up with a failure rate and variable results.

      Skillwires-IV cost 8000 NY and – since the corporation can copy it’s own programs for free – the programs are free.
      In fact, since the corporation will be installing the skillwires at cost, rather than having to make a profit off of the intermittent business from people buying cyberware like the various cyberclinics, it will be cheaper than that. By rule of thumb, about 4000 NY Even better, if a company installs it’s own cyberware, it can load it up with whatever security and control measures it likes – something that you can’t really do with knowledge you put into people’s heads.

      In Shadowrun Four it will cost a corporation less to give people Skillwires-IV and any programs they need than it will to run them through a two-week training program which might (if you are VERY VERY lucky) result in them getting a couple of skill level twos in some skills.

      Point Six:
      “The latest development to hackers (nee deckers) is the clinching reason I gave SR4 a go – it was among the most broken of broken elements and they (almost completely) made it work. It’s not very apt to criticise the impossibility of the wireless capability of a fictional 2070 using modern day technology as a benchmark – this is both a sci-fi and fantasy setting so suspension of disbelief is not much to ask. Ever hear anyone criticise Star Trek for faster-than-light travel?”

      Well lets see… I never had any particular problem with deckers. Sorry you did.
      Actually, suspension of disbelief is a lot to ask when it requires new laws of physics. Personally, I can think of several systems to provide limitless wireless bandwidth – and they all require things like control of gravity. Have you actually considered the physics of things like the holograph projector, or what else can be done with the nanite capabilities needed to make the dab-on simsense trodes work? My players do. They often want to use the principles behind a technology in ways it wasn’t designed for – and Shadowrun Four introduces technologies that do things that are impossible under the known laws of physics and doesn’t tell you what the new laws are.
      Inidentally, since you don’t seem to have noticed, Mr Roddenbury provided quite a lot of information about how things were supposed to work for the original series – and there are plenty of ongoing debates over star trek technology and a good deal of criticism over the series notions about faster than light travel.

      Point Seven:
      “The acid spell example given also doesn’t quite ring true. I get the point and it’s not completely off the mark, but I disagree that an acid spell should be valid for any conceivable acid-solvable problem. Otherwise you could probably get by brilliantly well with only two spells – one to mess up physical forms (either beyond function or to function in your favour) and one to kill spirits. And for the record, yes the acid element of the attack spell DOES have game-mechanical and thematic implications, as does fire, ice, electricity, etc.”

      So lets take a simpler example. A spell that summons a construct that can be used to attack and damage people. A spell that summons a missile that can be hurled at people. A spell that allows you to exert great force against a limited set of objects. A spell that allows you to check for monowire. Lets see – Combat, Combat, Manipulation, Divination – except that they’re all “Summon Crowbar”. Spells haven’t got “purposes”. Spells do particular things. Dividing them by how they work makes sense. Dividing them by “purpose” does not. Sorry.

      Point Eight:
      “The build point system is less than perfect. My personal dislike is that the only way to create a character with very weak attributes is to either be a magician/technomancer or buy more skills than you will ever need whether they suit the character or not – most of the time I find it difficult to find a place for the build points and have decided to reduce the starting allocation in my games. But power-gaming, whether the opportunities are blatant or not, should (again IMO) never be tolerated and that responsibility falls, as ever, to the GM.”

      With this I both do and do not agree: Building an effective character is part of the game.Exploiting rules loopholes is abusive – but they’re not at all the same thing. Complaining about people trying to make effective characters amounts to complaining that “This guy put more work into the game and is getting better results! How unfair!”. Players who invest time and effort in the game – and that includes designing better characters – should be rewarded for it.

      Point Nine:
      “Edge is a tricky one and does need to be handled in a way that suits the table in question. The Hand-of-God rule used to be subject to GM approval and even then only ever once per character. I forget how it stands now (having lent the book) but that’s perfectly good enough and even then in SR4 it stipulates that using it must incapacitate the character for the rest of the adventure, so abusing the rule really doesn’t do the player much good even if the character is very grateful. Either way, the human bonus of one edge is far from extreme.”

      Sorry, no GM approval any more. Spend one point of edge, get miraculous survival – although the rule for NPC’s differs (which is always a bad idea).

      Point Ten:
      “That’s a longer diatribe than intended, but the review did rather inspire me which is only ever a good thing. One final note: what really stood out to me with the 4th edition is just how often the words “gamesmaster discretion” appear. Whilst many may see this attitude as shirking designer-responsibility, it does keep the setting and mechanics wide open to customisation for whatever you’re not happy about”

      “Subject to GM approval” and “game master discretion” do indeed both translate as “we couldn’t be bothered coming up with a workable set of rules here”. That’s not a good thing in game design. There’s nothing wrong with house rules, but defaulting to them is indeed shirking designer responsibility. The fact that you bring up the argument, and then attempt to dismiss it without answering it, suffices to demonstrate that you (1) know that its a valid argument, and (2) that you have no valid answer. “Game Master Discretion” is just a way of saying “Write your own rules!” – and why should I pay someone else for a chance to do that?

  4. Hello, SmilingGM. I’d like to thank you first, for having the guts to come here and post, and for having the good taste to base your username off my favorite Shadowrun character, the Smiling bandit. I operate under that handle on several corners of teh intrawebz myself.

    TO start off, I think requiring ordinary people to default is a bit of a poor save; I can shoot guns, run computer programs, and drive cars. Under the Shadowrun 4 system, that makes me about equal to a supposed secret-agent hired by globe-spanning corporations and criminal syndicates. Remember, on average it takes three whole dice to acheive one net average success. You’re more likely to succeed spectacularly, but then casinos bankrupt people on the same principle all the time.

    What I mean is that such an edge is not enough for any kind of combat character – whethre that combat is physical, matric, or whatever. As long as there’s risk, you can’t rely on that very limited edge. The “House” will win, simply because it has reserves and you don’t. One or even two net average successes just won’t take you very far. Of course, that assumes the odds are in your favor, which is a very dubious proposition.

    I was not joking about people getting skillwires at 18. It’s extremely good sense even if they have magic! With skillwires, they can easily get any skill they neeed up to rating 3 or so, as much as most people manage anyhow. Plus, you can take advantage of that infinite bandwidth to download whatever skill you need, when you need it, as you need it.

    Your next point is both right and wrong. It’s right in that, yes, a major difference is what you do (experience) as much as what you know (skills). However, Shadowrun 4 implies there are a heck of a lot of people barely better than the security guards they fight risking life and limb for petty cash, and that just doesn’t work. At the end of the day, their ability to do legwork doesn’t mean a whole lot against chipped guards and corporate computer arrays.

    And you are also wrong to think that training programs are ever cheaper. Believe me, I’ve seen how much they cost, because I’ve paid for it. Training somebody is slow, uncertain, and extremely expensive. You pay for teachers, facilities, the people in training, and the materials they use. At the end of it, you *hope* they learned something.

    Yes, one training program can cater to hundreds – if you spend massively on it for years. Corporate training programs are a huge expense they undertake only because they absolutely must. Shoving a thousand corp computers to mash deckers and popping a few thousand to upgrade your workforce with cyberware is virtually free by comparison. Even a cheap training program can cost tens of thousands of dollars per employee (it’s at least double the pay of the employee), and has much less success than skillwires. And the employees are going to be happy about it, too. They’ll immediately have far better earning power and be able to do many boring tasks almost on autopilot.

    You just can’t handwave this away, particularly given that Shadowrun traditionally has large corporate facilities guarded by a fair number of security personnel. They are at a minimum going to be a rough match for player characters and possibly much better. I’ve spent enough on state college to have walked into a cyberclinic in Shadowrun 4 and been out the next day with skill 3 in everything I wanted. Plus I could fit in Wired Reflexes 3.

    This means I persdonally could afford to instantly become a better combatant than starting Shadowrun 4 characters with the money I earned in about one good year of work.

    The Matrix system doesn’t work. It’s fundamentally not possible to do what they claim: there is literally not enough bandwidth to link things as they pretend. This would be forgivable in a new game, but it’s another instance where Shadowrun 4 introduced magic technology and didn’t consider the consequences. If they can do this, it has huge implications on the world.

    And again, you claim the corporations somehow won’t be putting in a hundred or a thousand computers to deal with intruders, but they’re nearly free. But they can, it costs them virtually nothing, and so they should and will. Corporations probably spend more on toilet paper in Shadowrun 4 than they do on computers, even putting in a thousand or so to blast deckers.

    You respond to my section on magic (with the acid-spell example), but I’m afraid I don’t follow your logic. Why shouldn’t I be able to use acid to do those things? If I can create acid, I should be able to use it in various ways. There’s no game mechanic to it, except that it halves armor – along with several other wildly different elements.

    Shadowrun 4 does not have elemental spells: it has attack spells that look fancy and halve armor. What it does not do is act like acid. Pretty much the only other thing they do is deal damage, which as the crowbar example shows, really doesn’t make much sense. Combat spell or not, it has a definable effect (creating acid) which is mysteriously useless outside of destroying things. Plus, dumping acid all over somebody mysteriously does damage once and then vanishes. So we have acid which does not in any way act like acid, much like all their other elemental effects.

    Now, it could have been put in place properly. There’s nothing intrisically wrong with a purposed-based magic system. However, it conradicts everything we know about Shadowrun magic, contradicts all earlier editions on a pretty damn fundamental point, and isn’t even internally consistent.

    Mate, I’m sorry, but your argument for Edge doesn’t really go anywhere. It just doesn’t even respond. When we read it, we started combing the book to find out where Edge was limited to GM’s option or where ordinary people couldn’t have it. In a single pass through, we noted a giant gaping hole the designers never noticed, and then couldn’t figure out if humans *were* supposed to have a Get Out of Death Free card or not.

    I agree that Gamemaster discretion is good, but it’s also not something I like to see in a system. I already know I have it: but the note should appear and be emphasized *once* in the book: right at the start. If you have to note it multiple places, it means you have a bad design.

    The only exception I’ve ever allowed to this was our own Eclipse: The Codex Persona. Even that was only excused because we were letting people make characters from levels 1 to anything, with every imaginable power and feat and combination thereof, and giving GM’s a dozen convenient tools to build their own worlds and styles. We were simply reminding people that no one campaign should include everything, not making excuses for our failures to evelop a coherent game.

    Now if you want to argue it streamlined things, I won’t argue. But if you want a streamlined gameplay, there are much better systems: Shadowrun 4 has no advantage on them. You like the simpler mechanic and the “decker is in the action right with everyone else” aspect. This is fine – but it’s forcing the setting to fit the mechanics you want, rather than letting the mechanics reflect the setting.

    At the end of the day, S-4 is living off the capital it accumulated in earlier editions, and there simply isn’t any reason to play it. We could probably whip up a copycat White-Wolf system which would work better pretty quickly.

  5. Wow, such thorough and rapid responses – that’s quite refreshing. Not having the time nor inclination for an exhaustive debate I’ll just add what notes spring to mind and then wish you well. (Hope you don’t mind me replying to both in a single post).

    On the ‘Average Joe’ subsection, even in today’s world people are neglecting their natural capabilities in favour of machines doing things for them, both physically and mentally. In 2070 the general populace should be mostly filled with unfit and slow-witted individuals and an attribute of 4 would make someone very attractive to corporate employers. As for skills – people you bump into on the streets and in the bars are going to have almost none of the skills a shadowrunner relies upon. Pistols, Infiltration, Hacking, Climbing, Blades, nobody uses these in their humdrum lives of night clubs and trid shows. swallowing what the megas tell them and hoping for as easy a life as possible. VR computer games might ellicit exceptions but they’re not exactly high-end, reality-focused training suites. Being an effective combatant without corporate ties still works as one of the main selling points of the professional ‘runner.

    The Summon Crowbar analogy doesn’t really support the argument against the system. Go ahead and summon your crowbar, it won’t attack your enemies or pry open doors for you – you’ve just gained a sustainable shiny lump of metal and if you’ve not the skill to use it then good luck. Likewise you can cast a Create Acid spell, but it’ll just sit in front of you eating a hole in the carpet rather than envelop the guard and gush through the gaps in his armour. Spells are and always have been function-driven (e.g. Slay Elf, Detect Firearms, etc.) – they do certain things in certain ways and some have a lot more scope than others with drain being the equalising factor.

    I cannot agree that players should be rewarded for their efforts in creating unrealistic characters. Things like dump stats and squeezing every build point to min-max a character according to the kind of tests the player finds interesting is essentially assuming the character has mapped his life out from birth and has spent every waking moment on personal optimisation for his career whilst actively avoided any distracting opportunities (You want to have sex with me? How’s that supposed to make me a better hacker??). It’s all relative anyway, since the GM has to set an appropriate difficulty level – the player may be rolling a lot more dice but he won’t (read: shouldn’t) succeed more often because of it so playing the system and not the setting is ultimately a self-defeating exercise. I personally think it’s also a rather trivial and uninteresting approach to roleplaying – RPGs don’t have winners and losers so why try to out-do anyone?

    Overuse of GM discretion – I do consider it a valid point and had meant to say so. As you say, technically every rule in every system comes with this caveat and I agree SR4 abuses the notion.

    On the subject of Edge, I was responding to the claim that humans with their single point of Edge bonus will survive miraculously where all other races will get splattered. There seems to be an implication here that Edge and/or Hand-of-God works differently for humans which isn’t true. Their luck lasts a bit longer, that’s all, and it is explained thematically. Don’t see what the problem is.

    It’s clear that we have radically different gaming groups. My players tend to be happy enough to accept a setting that mostly hangs together in its own right whilst your group (if you’ll pardon the almost blind assertion) seems more like a collection of elite physicists impatient for the world to catch up with what’s theoretically possible. Neither is ‘better’, I truly have no criticism on this score.

    I’m a self-confessed arch-pedant, but even I don’t need to have every detail rationalised. I can’t even imagine what sciences you’ve studied to come up with gravity-altering solutions to bandwidth issues but you have my earnest respect for out-geeking me! Truth be told, if you simply asked me to define bandwidth my answer would be vague and almost certainly wrong and I don’t much care. I don’t know much of the occult either but it’s fun to pretend magic exists in an arbitrary structure. I do fully understand where your dissatisfaction comes from and in all honesty I would share it if I had the time and education to take fiction just that seriously.

    Similarly I can’t continue in the skillwires vs training discussion due to lack of real-life knowledge, but though you’ve given me much to mull over I do feel you’ve neglected to allow for how much cheaper and more effective training processes would be. If computers are “effectively free” to megacorps then why aren’t VR training suites, virtual mentors, on-the-job-assistance agents etc. just as frivolously cheap, prevailent and effective?

    SR4 clearly isn’t for you so I sympathise that you feel let down. It’s still too soon to tell if it’s for me and my group, but it’s fun finding out and hopefully the fun will survive.

    Happy gaming.

    PS – You give me too much credit. ‘SmilingGM’ actually comes from an illustration on a card in Steve Jackson’s Illuminati. The full quote is “Never trust a smiling GM” and hey, who would? lol

    • Well, an answer is always in order – so here we go:

      Point One:
      “In 2070 the general populace should be mostly filled with unfit and slow-witted individuals and an attribute of 4 would make someone very attractive to corporate employers.”

      Unfortunately, the game defines the average attribute as a three. It doesn’t define a three as “the average ability people could reach but most don’t”. That’s throwing in a house rule to make your assumptions work.

      Point Two:
      “As for skills – people you bump into on the streets and in the bars are going to have almost none of the skills a shadowrunner relies upon. Pistols, Infiltration, Hacking, Climbing, Blades, nobody uses these in their humdrum lives of night clubs and trid shows.”

      1) As already noted, the “Average Joe” is most likely going to be doing a job for which they have an aptitude and some training.
      2) As for your examples… Lets see. You live in a world with mutant rats, ghouls, vampires, and other supernatural horrors. How likely is the “average man” to have a gun and some practice? Seattle used to be the US. Have you looked at gun ownership in the US? (The same goes for blades). Infiltration gets used every time you want to get into new social group or get past that bouncer. Hacking is also known as “getting the computer to do something it’s not directly programmed to do”. In case you haven’t noticed, most kids do that, and some are pretty good. Climbing may be a bit rarer – but it’s an awfully popular bit of recreation, especially around Seattle.

      Point Three:
      “The Summon Crowbar analogy doesn’t really support the argument against the system”

      I’m afraid it does. You just evaded it. What is the spell category and why should it change according to the purpose for which I summon a lump of metal? Talking about what skills are needed to use it is irrelevant to the question.

      If you want another example, try “Electrokinesis” – a popular spell to research. You can use it to disrupt machines, to injure people, to induce epileptic fits, to recharge batteries, or to defibrillate a heart. All of those will call for other skills of course; the spell is simply a tool to allow you to apply them in ways you otherwise couldn’t – but the skills are irrelevant to the spell category. That’s a simple spell. Is it going to change category according to why I cast it? If it’s a sustained spell, and I’m charging a battery when someone threatens me and I use it to give him or her a shock, has it now jumped categories? The original system handled this nicely; it was a manipulation spell. The new one does not work with such spells – and if you don’t have players coming up with such spells, you have some very dull players.

      Point Four:
      “Things like dump stats and squeezing every build point to min-max a character according to the kind of tests the player finds interesting is essentially assuming the character has mapped his life out from birth and has spent every waking moment on personal optimisation for his career whilst actively avoided any distracting opportunities”

      Basic statistics here. There are several billion people in the world of Shadowrun. Just like in the examples in the book, players are allowed some major coincidences in their backstories. What were the odds of Sidewinder, as a kid, stumbling across and downloading the master security codes for the entire megacorp? One in a billion?
      That gives us a base figure: a character is too unlikely for the game if, and only if, you couldn’t expect to find such a person in several billion billion people. What you’re really saying here is “I don’t like creative backstories because they can result in characters who are hard for me to manage”.

      Point Five:
      “It’s all relative anyway, since the GM has to set an appropriate difficulty level – the player may be rolling a lot more dice but he won’t (read: shouldn’t) succeed more often because of it so playing the system and not the setting is ultimately a self-defeating exercise.”

      In other words, you house-rule it so that a characters actual skills and attributes make no real difference – in which case, once again, you’re back to having no reason to bother hiring runners since anyone will do just as well. For that matter, there’s no reason to bother with character sheets. If you aren’t going to bother using the rules, there’s no point in defending them.

      Point Six:
      “On the subject of Edge, I was responding to the claim that humans with their single point of Edge bonus will survive miraculously where all other races will get splattered.”

      By the rules all humans get edge. Most other noncombatants don’t. You may burn one point of edge to get out of a certain-death situation. If a hospital full of newborns burns down, and the neonatal wing is destroyed, all the human infants will survive while the metahuman infants all die. You can houserule it – but you should not have to.

      Point Seven:
      “It’s clear that we have radically different gaming groups”

      Yep. I expect them to think, examine their environment and resources, to look for bits that don’t fit in and treat them as clues, and to plan so that random chance comes in as little as possible. If there’s a technology or ability in the system, I expect them to examine it’s implications and use it. Ironically enough, I’d agree that skills and dice aren’t too important – but it isn’t because I make sure that they’re useless, it’s because the players try to make sure that nothing important ever relies on random chance if they can possibly avoid it.

      Point Eight:
      “I can’t even imagine what sciences you’ve studied to come up with gravity-altering solutions to bandwidth issues… Truth be told, if you simply asked me to define bandwidth my answer would be vague and almost certainly wrong and I don’t much care”

      It’s basic high school physics, and only requires a little thought.
      To make a waveform carry information, you have to change it somehow.
      The faster you change it, and the more subtly you can detect those changes, the more information you can put in – and the more secondary frequencies it takes up, and the more sensitive to background noise it becomes.
      That is the “Width” of your frequency “Band” – although modern usage mostly refers to how much information can be transmitted.
      There is only so much room in the electromagnetic spectrum.
      Background noise is not decreasing. In fact, we’re increasing it.
      The available broadcast bandwidth is fixed.
      Forever.
      There are ways exploit that possible bandwidth more efficiently – to keep signals separated better, to avoid as much noise as possible, and so on – but the limits of the available bandwidth are finite. That’s why there are broadcasting licenses, limited numbers of channels, radio stations that interfere, and so on.
      The governing math was formally examined in the 1920’s – but any amateur radio operator, communications or computer technician, kid who’t taken a course in communications technology, and many others, will know the basic principles.

      So; to get “infinite bandwidth” we can’t use electromagnetism. In fact, we can’t use anything which exists as waves, including tachyons.
      Not being able to use waves means that our devices have to effectively be in contact.
      How can we do that?
      Lets see… we can:
      1) Link them with “micro-wormholes”. Requires micro-devices with fine control of gravity – and by far the solution with the least major implications.
      2) Employ “quantum teleportation”. Requires the ability to control quantum probabilities – and thus the ability to cause any desired event on command.
      3) “Fold Space” to put them in contact. Requires entirely new theories of physics, unimagined technologies, teleport gates, and – almost certainly – travel between times and dimensions.

      In other words, we could bypass the space, ignore the space, or eliminate the space. Not too many other options there – and gravity control is the LEAST of the super-technologies that could be involved.

      Point Nine:
      “I do feel you’ve neglected to allow for how much cheaper and more effective training processes would be. If computers are “effectively free” to megacorps then why aren’t VR training suites, virtual mentors, on-the-job-assistance agents etc. just as frivolously cheap, prevailent and effective?”

      Actually we’re already assuming that; that’s why the expense is only listed as being double the base salary – but say we go to just the salary. It’s still cheaper to install Skillwires-3 and hand out every skill that would ever be needed than it is to pay an employees salary while they take a one-month training program. Given the need for a cyberclinic profit margin, I could probably justify Skillwires-4 – but I don’t need to. Most professional-level training programs take far more than a month. If you want to assume advances in how fast people can learn, you’ll need to give all the corporate types lots of extra skills – and the runners will be redundant again.

      Besides, if you want to assume that VR training is virtually free, then it’s soon going to be available to everyone who wants it – and we’re back to “everyone is highly skilled in any field they’re interested in or feel like taking”. The characters AND NPC’s should all have an immense array of skills.

      Oops, that’s both house-ruling and contradicting the setting assumptions again.

      Point Ten:
      “It’s still too soon to tell if it’s for me and my group, but it’s fun finding out and hopefully the fun will survive.”

      You can have fun with pretty much any system, or without bothering with one – but if I’m going to pay for a system, I expect the authors to have spent at least a few hours researching each of it’s major elements and to have its background make sense. If it’s a new edition of an old system, I expect it to have fewer problems than the previous one – and for those to lie in the mechanics rather than the background, since the background is a lot easier to work with.

      In the case of SR4 they have, indeed, made several areas of the rules that many people had trouble with, or house-ruled, easier to use. They’ve also added a series of problematic background elements, have thrown out a robust dice mechanic which could properly represent a wide variety of realistic situations in favor of a much more limited one (instead of simply streamlining the underlying tables of modifiers – the approach I took with the one-page basic SR3 rules), and they’ve neglected to cover the implications of the elements that they’ve added.

      That makes the game easier to run for groups that are not interested in digging into the setting too much. For groups that are interested in such things, it makes it unusable – and losing a part of the potential market is never a good thing. SR4 gambled on pulling in enough new gamers to make up for the ones they’d lose. I haven’t had a single request to switch to SR4 yet. That’s hardly conclusive – but it’s not a good sign.

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