Sunday, October 9, 2016

Shadowrun: Anarchy Review

My very, very long Shadowrun: Anarchy Review is HERE!

Shadowrun: Anarchy

First things first

I won’t be commenting very much on the fiction in the book because I don’t typically read it and I’d rather focus on the game, but I will be looking at flavor text in character descriptions and so on. I haven’t yet played the game for logistics reasons, so this is purely a review of the mechanics, art, and characters. I intend to eventually read the Seattle background but I have set it aside for this review to get the things out that people will see first and most often.

I have only played Shadowrun 3e, and only built characters for 3e and 5e. I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs since I was 15, text-based since 11, and my first TTRPG that I recall playing was Shadowrun. I’ve played indie and story games since around 2011, and I’ve been writing on Thoughty about games, doing interviews, and occasionally writing reviews for like, 4 years I think. Maybe longer? I bounced blog names a couple times. I’ve GM’d and played, and I’ve worked on some tabletop games which you can read about here on my work page.

With that out of the way...

Shadowrun: Anarchy on first glance is a true family member to 5e, having beautiful art, lots of graphics, and fiction first. The art fits just fine! The graphics we’ll get to. The fiction… let me explain here that I don’t like fiction on RPGs, for the most part. I like fiction within RPGs – specifically, if you look back to like, Shadowun 3e where the interactions between The Smiling Bandit and Harlequin were interspersed in the rules and flavor text, that kind of thing I like. Unreliable narrators having interactions between bits of important information just really felt like the game to me.

That is, unfortunately, not the dealio in Shadowrun: Anarchy. I am sure the fiction is fun and great – but I don’t really have interest in it. I hope you do! But the fiction does you no good if you don’t like the rest. Covering art, then layout, then mechanics, then flavor text. Basically what you see first, whether you can even read it, what’s inside, and how it’s dressed up. (click thru)

The Art

I’m not doing a full numbers breakdown of the art in SR:A because 1) I don’t think it’s as valuable as it seems and 2) I don’t think it’s entirely necessary. The art in the book is still majority men or masculine, but there are a greater number of women or femmes than I expected to see. There are a number of androgynous people, but I was incredibly disappointed to see zero androgynous or nonbinary styled characters in the pregens. Getting close to gender binary parity is great, but this issue is in the forefront for me of late and I still can’t fathom why – I never have been able to – we don’t see more androgynous characters, especially in identity as opposed to simply presentation, in Shadowrun. I mean, y’all. Y’all.

Also, most of the time we get this:

But then we got this:

But let me be clear, my problems with the second piece here are mostly that it seems somewhat disjointed (kind of literally, but if it had a caption talking about an articulated spine, I’d be cool) and I was just kind of bummed out by how it felt in comparison to the other (frankly badass) art. This is the only piece that really stood out, but I wouldn’t be a cranky critiquing feminist if I didn’t point it out.

The Layout

The layout overall has a couple of hinky bits. Foremost, shaded boxes. Shaded boxes are not something I’m a fan of, and everyone who has talked about layout with me probably knows that. One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard thus far, that I agree with, is that the shaded boxes on the character sheets are bad news bears.

There is also shading/coloring on sidebars and callout boxes that could be done away with for readability and to make it possible to print. I’ll say this one time: If I cannot print a character sheet, it is functionally useless to me. Bonus note: If you make it a fillable form downloadable as well with the game that can also be printed and legible, I’ll love you forever.

Most of the rest of the book is bog standard Shadowrun/80s-90s-esque layout, from what I can tell. There are some more rounded edges, but that’s not too different. Standard two-column, as following.

There are also, of course, tables. I personally love tables, but the tables in SR:A leave me wanting because they don’t have any dividing lines. Some people like them without, they flow more easily. For me, they’re less readable, and I also just don’t really dig the look. Gimme something that looks directly ripped out of Excel and I’ll be cool. Example of current tables follows!

Also, the text is super, super small. Like, I have to zoom in to read it clearly a lot of the time, and I have no issues with reading up close most of the time. Perhaps it’s better in print? But we should be designing for digital too. I also don’t know if it works well with screen readers, as I couldn’t figure mine out. That’s something that should be clear!

Aside from those things? I’m sure someone with more graphics and layout experience could nail down further problems. Those are the ones that hit me. Moving on!

The Mechanics

First, a quick note on the way the game works in Shadowrun: Anarchy. Anarchy is not a game with a GM running the show and the players taking on roles within that show. Anarchy is about collaborative narrative storytelling (it’s a thing!) and there are things that they’ve done great about this, and things that may be confusing for people who haven’t done it before. I may be translating the rules incorrectly, but if you like what I’m saying, just play it that way, it’s just a damn book.

SR:A institutes turns, effectively letting each player take a turn playing their part of the scene. From what I can tell, there are no rules preventing other players from acting within that scene, but they would most likely need some input from the lead player in those scenes. From there, we can see each player narrates within their turn their actions and their interpretation of the situation. Cool! Now, I’ve seen some people get stuck on Talk Time. Admittedly, I kind of hate the term, and would prefer something like “free play,” but that’s just being a jerk about semantics.

Talk Time itself makes sense. When things are going down or it’s too hectic, let’s stop with turns for a minute and get shit done, right? However, from the comments on the Prototype review and the forums I’d seen it interpreted that you can’t interact freely at all outside of Talk Time, and regardless of how it was originally intended in the text, I read it otherwise, and it has been clarified since then in the text under Turns and Narrations. Specifically, it says that “Other players may have things to say during a narration–their characters may react somehow, or players may offer commentary, ideas, or observations–but the primary thrust of the Narration should be directed by the player whose turn it is.” Which, I mean, yeah? That’s just being polite. However, I see why they had to write it out. Hooray, rules to help solve social play problems!

For framing of the next mechanical bits, you use six-sided dice (d6s) in dice pools, scored individually – 5 or 6 on the die is a success.

Character generation is not complicated, in my opinion. There are definitely a crapton of characters to select from if you want to just quick start, as the section for pregenerated characters is massive (but I have some thoughts later). The game suggests you select a contract brief (scenarios for quick play), but if you want to build characters first or play without a contract brief, I’d just go to it. For a new GM or a new group, you might find the briefs useful, at the very least to learn useful structure for a general shadowrun.

Characters use some stuff that seem kind of “eh, maybe,” while others seem absolutely essential. The perceived essentials are: Personal Data, Attributes, Skills, Shadow Amps, Karma, Qualities, Weapons, Armor, Gear, and calculating your condition monitor. That’s a lot of words, not as hard as it sounds. The things I’ve noted as seeming optional are Dispositions and Cues. These don’t have a lot of mechanical impact, and I can guarantee for a lot of people they’ll be dismissed. However, you’re playing a narrative game here. That makes a difference.

If you look at the character sheet for Ms. Myth (one of my favorites), you can see how these things might be useful for 1) new players, 2) players new to narrative games, 3) players with a new character, 4) players who are unfamiliar with Shadowrun’s world, and/or 5) players who are just plain tired and need some good ideas on a slow day.

This is a moment where I remind people that just because you don’t need a thing, does not mean no one needs a thing, or would benefit from it.

Character creation goes through these items, however, pretty smoothly. Don’t be fooled by the early character creation section like I was at first, go straight to page 61.

To create a character, you:

  • Choose what type of character you want to play, name them, and create a character “theme” (basic description)
  • Optionally create “tags” (helping define your character)
  • Choose a game level (this is how many points you’ll get based on how hard or advanced a game you want, and should be chosen as a group)
  • Choose a metatype (Are you a little troll? Yes. Yes you are.)
  • Determine whether you’re Awakened or Emerged (you can be one, the other, or neither, and they basically mean you can do magic, you can do matrix junk with your mind, or neither)
  • Assign attributes (Strength, Agility, Willpower, Logic, Charisma, Essence, and Edge – I still kind of hate Edge, I miss when Karma was able to be spent for some of the purposes Edge is used)
  • Choose skills (general and specialized, the latter of which gives you bonus dice in appropriate situations)
  • Select Shadow Amps (encompassing all augmentations and magic, including technomancers and casting spells – there’s a list with some examples but there is a lot of freedom to define them. Also, there is essence loss! If your augment has essence loss, you get a penalty on your dice pool for magic- and healing-related tests.)
  • Figure out Karma (This functions as experience points, so you can obtain both points in attributes, skills, get Amps, change qualities, and get gear, weapons, and armor once earned)
  • Define some qualities and their effects (like edges and flaws for 3e, which I was super happy to see, though kind of took a bit to understand the differences between them and edge)
  • Choose your weapons (weapons have various ranges and impacts)
  • Choose your armor (armor is basically an add-on to your condition monitor, and gets marked off before you get hurt)
  • Sort out your condition monitor (has both stun and physical damage)
  • Get some gear (including Contacts)
  • Create cues (basically little phrases to help inspire your play, from the Cue System, which I haven’t bothered to read up, sorry)
  • Make a character background (personal data like size and gender – which they call “sex” in here and it made me really annoyed – the history of your character and how they behave, and dispositions that you can use to flag your actions in-game)

It sounds like a lot, but the individual actions don't take very long themselves. There’s characters to choose from, and there’s not a lot of trouble in making your character, but this is way more than a lot of indie and story/narrative games. You will need to set aside more time for this game than you would, say, a Powered by the Apocalypse game – by a significant margin. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good game. Just different.

Combat in SR:A seems to be appropriately dice-heavy, which y’all know I love.

This isn’t actually that complicated, even though it looks it. It’s all simple numbers you’ll be adding, most single digits, versus similar numbers for the opponent. I like this combo, as I’m sure I’d learn it pretty quickly, which is a really good sign.

There is information on close combat damage, carry limits, unarmed combat, and lots of other stuff – one of my favorite bits is no more counting ammo! Handwaving ammo counts is awesome in my book (ha, my book). It also talks about custom mods of weapons (like knockbacks), which is awesome! There’s a note that I appreciated on making the game more or less lethal. Variety is good.

There are rules on taking and recovering damage, and repairing armor, which brings me to an important point: There are no nuyen in Anarchy. To me this is amusing on a conceptual level (of course there’s no monetary system! It’s anarchy!) but also I think it’s cool on a fiction level, in that everything has a cost – and more often than not, that cost is you.

Initiative advantages like wired reflexes now give you plot points, which are functionally shortcuts or cheats. They give you rerolls or change turn order, or add Glitch Dice (which I will say straight up I don’t understand, but the general idea is that if you roll a one on a glitch die, all goes to hell, if a 5 or 6, you get an exploit and things go well. This may sound fun and exciting to people who like adding additional chance into their game, but it’s not really something I love.), and so on.

Gear is mentioned in this same section (page 47) and is super duper basic. Gear has no specific mechanics, but can narratively help with problems, like med kits and tool sets. Very, very basic.

I don’t have much interest in hacking or cybercombat, but I’ll bet at least one of you do.

There is both AR & VR, where in AR you generally interact like software and icons and stuff, and in VR, you’re living all Second Life. AR doesn’t give any bonuses to hacking, but VR gives a +1 to hacking. With VR you can’t do anything non-virtual, and cybercombat kicks your ass. Hacking is basically a skill test, and cybercombat comes with a fun little dice pool calculation too.

There are additional matrix rules you can dive into on your own.

Spells and spirits and stuff have their own section. One of the most notable things is that there are no longer spell effect limits beyond those narratively defined, except in the case of combat spells, which only last for the time their damage is applied. GMs can apply a negative modifier if someone wants to maintain a spell for a long period of time. Not unreasonable, in my opinion, if you don’t have a jerk GM (if you do, try to find another GM! Look on the internet! Run, little chummer, run!).

There’s information on astral projection (no test needed) and astral combat (use the Astral Combat skill and have a standard combat experience, take stun damage).

Vehicle and drone combat addresses AR vs. VR in regards to how you use the equipment, and there’s info on vehicle movement, just basic stuff, but I’m sure gearheads will be happy to know they’ve been recognized.

There are also additional rules about breathing, environments, and mind control, in case you were wondering. There’s an important note about what an NPC can’t make someone do under mind control:

I mean, if you like doing that stuff, you do you. I'm glad they pointed it out though.

For those not a fan of sharing their GM hat, there are rules about giving GMs more control via plot points and who interprets perception tests. In standard SR:A the player doing the narration has freedom to define a lot of what is seen with a perception test, but with the adjusted version, the control is given solely to the GM and controlled by how many successes are rolled. I really have to say, though, give shared narrative a shot if you've got the time and energy. It can be really fun for everyone.

The GM section is a lot of detail that I’d not normally read since I’m traditionally a player. I wanted to highlight two pages that I think are absolutely important.

This page shouldn’t be necessary. But, it is. Just… yeah. Be cool, kids.

If you all thought that someone could put a section in a book called “Asking Good Questions” and I wouldn’t pull it out, you were sorely mistaken. As people know from games like Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts, as well as about 80 other indie games, asking good questions is an amazing GM tool – hell, amazing for players, too (“Do you really want to kill that guy? Why? Oh, he killed your uncle? Shit. Let’s do that.”). I like seeing it hard coded into a game, though, because I love questions, sooo much, and for narrative games they are the soymeat in the sausage.

The pregenerated characters are pretty fucking cool on the start, I’ll be honest. I love cool character art, many of them are really interesting. I’ll try to keep this brief.

The Native characters are very cool on the surface, but the conflation of Pacific Northwestern tribes and the Plains tribes in their backgrounds, plus having one of them taking artifacts and putting them in a museum (with jokes about angry locals, even), and Coydog wearing an eagle feather headdress that’s most likely inappropriate for her background are problems! I’m intending to do an extended feature on Natives in RPGs and specifically in Shadowrun with a consultant I’ve been corresponding with, where I’ll explore this, but for now: Chrome Bison is _really, really cool_ but we need to think harder and ask more questions and remember whose stories we’re telling. I know Natives are a huge, huge part of Shadowrun, and I don’t want people to stop making them part of it – but we need to do it right.

Chrome Bison, following, is cool – but cool doesn’t erase responsibility. Chrome Bison would be very disappointed in cultural appropriation, I think.

There may also be other issues of cultural appropriation or misrepresentation here. It’s important to remember that while Shadowrun is an alternate-fantasy-history, the cultures that it’s pulling from are real and existing in the majority of these cases. I am disappointed when I see misrepresentation and negative stereotypes in fiction, and I am doubly so in games where players are supposed to take on these identities.

That being said, there are a ton of characters I love, starting with Ms. Myth.

LET ME TELL YOU HOW MUCH I LOVE TROLL FACES. LET ME. No wait, that is way too much enthusiasm for this, I’ll never finish. But yes, she seems amazing. Borderline is incredibly cool, too cool for me. As mentioned, Chrome Bison, as a troll street samurai, is freaking amazing. Fourth is cool but I wish she’d been nonbinary or androgynous, as the art brought it pretty close to it.

Jinn is an elf brute force decker who is from Istanbul, and his jam is fashion, and I’d love some input from people on his presentation and cultural representation in the art and text at some point. There are TONS of really fascinating characters of so many different backgrounds. I still wish for nonbinaries because I’m a pain in the ass (and because we should be represented in such a world!), but the last one I want to shine a light on is Rose Red.

Rose Red has a fascinating background. I really love the concept, but it is a difficult one. The general idea (for those who can’t see the image or don’t feel like reading the teeny text), she was trafficked as a sex worker, then she awakened, and overtook her boss and became a trafficker herself. It leads to her trafficking her own sister, and then finding salvation through a neo-anarchist group. I have so many mixed feelings about the representation of sex workers here, because it’s good to see them represented, and there is a specific note about how the neo-anarchists welcomed her with no shaming, but it is still a hard line to walk. I’d love to hear the input of any sex workers on this topic, as I can’t speak from experience.


I really, really want to play this game. There are some issues, yes. And I’m not happy with all of the flavor text. But, I have to be honest: what I have read in Shadowrun: Anarchy feels more like Shadowrun to me than 5e ever did. Maybe it’s because it’s simpler in writing, I’m not sure. But, it’s simpler in mechanics, too, and way simpler than 3e. Shadowrun is my favorite fictional world and while it always could be improved, so could a lot of other games.

Shadowrun: Anarchy could use some better layout choices in regards to accessibility and print use. It could use more attention to nonbinary gender representation, and representation of cultures and races that are unfamiliar (or only stereotypically familiar) to the average white gamer. The mechanics are far more lightweight in comparison to all other Shadowrun editions, and in my opinion mix a lot of the good mechanical bits with a lot of my favorite narrative things. The fiction is supported in some ways by the mechanics with the damage, the complexity of combat and spell casting, and the impact of metahuman races, and the pregenerated characters are many and varied.

I would suggest that, if you have played Shadowrun and you like narrative games, you give this a shot. If you like narrative games but know nothing about Shadowrun or really any trad games, consider trying it out for a one-shot with pregenerated characters. If you’ve only played trad games and you like Shadowrun, consider trying this out – the worst that will happen is that you’ll decide it’s too simple, and that’s not much of a loss.

In general, I think it sounds really fun. I’m trying to find time to get a friend to run for me, and in the meantime, I’m going to continue enjoying the beautiful art and maybe build some characters if I have some free time.

Good luck, chummers!

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