Thursday, August 11, 2016

Shadowrun: Anarchy Gen Con Prototype Review

Check out a review for the final product here!

Note: Lots of pictures! Lots of words! Sorry!

Hi all!

As mentioned in my previous post a friend picked me up a copy of Shadowrun: Anarchy, Prototype at Gen Con. The book is not long, but features a lot of basic rules and information. I was pretty happy with it, honestly! I started out in more traditional games, but now often fall into games based on basic rules and simple mechanics.

I love Shadowrun, but getting my friends (when I can ever get them together!) to sit and build characters for as long as Shadowrun takes and then play through? Not as easy as I'd like it to be. When I was at Origins earlier this year, I had a brief discussion with someone about the possibility of a rules-light Shadowrun coming out, and since I'm pretty out of the loop, I was surprised and interested. There was little to be found online, and my attempts at contacting Catalyst directly were denied by their email system (though I doubt getting through would have made any difference, even if I was offering promo). Anyway, I had given up on seeing it when Adam Koebel took a picture of the cover and posted it to Twitter, and I lost my shit, so he kindly sent me a copy.

I have THOUGHTS and FEELINGS, so be warned. With a few notes, though: I have only played 3e Shadowrun, while I've read the 5th and 4th sourcebooks, I haven't played (time investment & lack of interest in a priority character build, not many people to play with, etc.). Nonetheless, I'm a fan of the setting, I loved playing 3e possibly too much, and I actually enjoy a lot of the mechanics. I get so excited when I get to roll a handful of D6s (I think I hit 30 once, playing a drugged up elf archer... I don't know, he was based on Iggy Pop) that the idea of doing it again really got me amped.

Note: This post will discuss the book and rules presented, but will also include some of my general feelings on Shadowrun, cyberpunk, and how the rules matter. I won't be evaluating it through what's already available in 5e, as I don't feel like lugging books and comparing page by page. My bad. Please excuse the cell phone pics, my energy wasn't here for a photoshoot right now, I'm so sorry.

Everything has a price. That's a sexy phrase to kick off with. And it's true - it's super appropriate to Shadowrun, because the reality of the setting is that money does run the world. Corps run wild with access to power that sounds scary even in the fucked up modern world, and governments are a hot mess. One of the things I always like to note about SR3e is that it does actually address class. Really! Like, class imbalance is something rarely given genuine attention in RPGs, and in SR3 (and I believe other editions of SR) there are costs of living - essentially, whether you pay money for your livelihood or not matters, from luxe high level apartments to literally squatting. It is something I think is often missed, tbh, and something I miss being a vivid element in Shadowrun. I'm wondering if we'll see that.

I love cyberware and bioware. In spite of being someone who cringed at doing basic math for D&D, I have spent hours building characters in Shadowrun, trying to get that Essence score as close to 0 as possible without becoming just a chassis. It's good to see this recognized in the text even in this smaller book, because this book could be someone's first book and that's a core element that needs to be recognized - that your body is not promised to be whole just because you can get replacement parts.

This is a shitty cell phone picture, but deal with it. This is here in part because I just wanted to point out how great and dynamic the art in here is. I always LOVE Shadowrun's artwork, but for such a small piece (though they may have reused art) I thought it was pretty great.

Speaking of art... as you all know, I'm big on representation in art. As I mentioned in my previous post about this, I was pretty happy about the art representation! Three of the 6 offered characters are women, and I enjoyed all of the badass art in the rest of it as well, especially this. Ork ladies are amaaaazing and totally underrated. One thing I'll note is that pretty much all of them have cleavage showing, but I'm not super bothered. Considering there is not one identifiable woman listed on the entire credits list I'm not surprised, either.

I'm being forgiving in part because of those abs, though. 

Here's where we dig into the actual meat of things. The first things the book notes is that the GM doesn't have sole responsibility for story elements or narrative, and this is considered to be different. That's actually pretty cool, as someone who prefers to contribute to the story, and I think that the new functionality of the gameplay supports it. In the book, they detail new scene play - which is after some of the basic rules and character build instructions, which can be confusing, but hooray! games with lots of stuff to cover have organization issues! - based on turns and narrations, within scenes. Simplified: Each Contract Brief (basically, campaign or scenario, multiple of which are included in this prototype) includes a number of Scenes. The scenes have varying levels of detail and I think that is a little wobbly, but a GM could probably make good decisions based on the material there.

Turns are called Narrations, which are basically player actions. Every turn starts with the GM, then rotates moving to their left until everyone has the chance to take a turn, then a new turn starts. Basically, the GM starts, and they move around the table to address actions. This may sound terrible to a lot of freeform and indie gamers, but I actually love this. One of the problems with games like Shadowrun for me is that so many players are so into it, which is great! Unless you want to get a word in edgewise without shouting. It directly gives the GM control of the scene, but ensures everyone gets a move in, and it also, from what I can tell, removes the complications of combat initiative entirely.

They further discuss things like plot points (points you earn and can use to alter other players' rolls, your own rolls, situational modifiers, etc.), etc., and cues.

Cues are a part of character generation and also used in Contract Briefs. They're basically short phrases or quotes to give players or the GM information that can help them push the story along through Narrations and plot. I like the concept - they're similar in some ways to Fate's aspects, but not quite. There are also Tags, which are basically markers for what your character is (hacker, elf, etc.) and Qualities which seem to me to be the equivalent of 3e's Edges and Flaws (one of my favorite things), and I was so excited to see them included in this, I can't even tell you.

Character Creation includes your standard stuff: the aforementioned Cues, Tags, and Qualities, as well as Attributes (Strength, Agility, Willpower, Logic, Charisma, Essence, and Edge), Skills, and Shadow Amps, which is the catch-all for spells, talismans, cyber and bodywear, adept powers, critter powers, cyberdecks, programs, etc. There seems to be a lot of flexibility for these Amps and what they do, which increased my enthusiasm, but watch me go and be wrong. There are also still Weapons (addressed later in the book, including details on carry limits, no ammo counting, and similar stuff), Armor (which functions, from what I can tell, kind of like damage absorption and gets wiped off before you start taking hits), and Gear. Gear has no stats. I KNOW RIGHT? I think the way they frame gear in general in the text is pretty cool, as they function very narratively, and this is the one area where the GM might have to apply some pressure to keep it somewhat realistic, as much as that matters in Shadowrun. It also includes Contacts under Gear.

Teamwork tests seem pretty cool! I like teamwork mechanics a lot, and in a game with such high capacity for PvP style behavior and play (which I have seen a lot of), it's awesome to see this kind of mechanic. They actually function hilariously similar to a mechanic John and I were using for Blockbuster, which is you choose the leader who does the main work, then others roll the skill tests, and their successes are added as additional dice to the roll for the original player. It's a good mechanic, in my experience.

There are also glitch dice which, honestly, when I read about them in 5e I cringed and kind of moved along. However, written here, they sound better. I don't know if it's a matter of who wrote it, how they wrote it, or changed context, but I'm more favorable towards them here than I expected.

I'd like to note that around here in the text (page 26), they have a section called "Troubleshooting" where they discuss how to deal with situations where players are struggling with the narrative-focused play and who are new to improv, and it's good advice and I liked it a lot. Super glad to see it.

Just in case you thought it was sounding too simple for Shadowrun, here's the "basic dice-rolling mechanic for all combat," which, as you can see, is like four different things against four different things. It's pretty awesome. I mean, it's really just a bunch of D6's? Which I probably will never complain about. It's still your standard 5s and 6s are successes, unless you have an Edge die, which can make 4s eligible, or you can reroll those failed dice if you spend the Edge after the roll.

This might sound silly, but the note in the Attack Limits section about what counts as an attack action: "Want to debate the meaning of Attack action beyond that? Have fun, and we'll be here for you when you're ready to play!" just made my goddamn night. This is totally a huge discussion had at many a game table, and their specific note that an attack action is "An action that intentionally and directly damages another living being..." sums it up pretty clearly. Nice.

I like the option here for making the game more or less lethal. While most times I want to go and drag myself through the mud to kick some ass, it's occasionally nice to have a way more chill session or two when things are busy and I just want to feel like a hero. I actually discussed with Morgan Ellis and a few others today on Twitter why Fate doesn't work for me for cyberpunk and specifically Shadowrun, and that's because it's too heroic, too successful! This option here gives people who waver in preference, or just lean one way or the other, the choice! And that's super great.

There are quite a few more details I didn't cover. Like, there's a section on character death that was interesting. The Spells, Spirits, and Astral Combat section was pretty cool, talking about using your Sorcery test (based on your Skills) with the Shadow Amp spell effect to do your thing. Most of this stuff seems pretty standard issue in regards to damage, etc., from what I have read in previous books. The Condition Monitor section is a little confusing and could definitely use some rewording, and I think they need to clarify their +1/-1 etc. modifier wording, as I - someone coming from 3e and used to using target number modifiers was super confused at first, after having read 5e previously.

I mean, I still miss my exploding D6s, but I suppose I can settle for my handfuls of dice.

My general thoughts? I'm in. I'm planning on picking up whatever official, final book Catalyst releases for Shadowrun: Anarchy, and I actually might bug some friends (PAUL STEFKO) to play with me. 


I was really disappointed by one specific part of the book. What's this becoming a legend nonsense? I know that a lot of the Shadowrun canon and surrounding media make a big deal out of being The Coolest HaXX0r, and that getting nuyen is awesome, but man, that's not at fucking all what I'd be promoting in a Shadowrun book - especially one called Anarchy - right now. Extralegal individuals who are dangerous, powerful, and able to pit Corps against each other should be doing a lot more than getting excited over some expensive junk and sitting in hell beside The Smiling Bandit. Making it about notoriety, in my opinion, takes the "punk" out of the pulp.

At heart, for me, Shadowrun has always represented people who have nothing taking something, changing the narrative, and resisting the system. Honestly, in the world we currently live in, I can't imagine taking a look at the world of Shadowrun and saying that these characters would just give up their bodies for a cool name & some money, when instead they could be dismantling corrupt systems of power while on their payroll. 

That aside, I just want to share below my two favorites of the six offered characters, and I hope you like them too! This is Ms. Myth who is a fucking TROLL FACE which is one of my favorite combos EVER and should ALWAYS HAPPEN. You're welcome. Also, Strider, who is a Dwarf Parkour Adept, which is fucking aces. Her outfit gives me liiiiiiiiiiiiiife. Enjoy!

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