I’ve followed some talks lately about the next edition of Shadowrun (SR5). And before rumors crop up: I’ve followed them on dumpshock or the German forums, not some ultrasecret champagneroomy freelancer forum where SR5 development is currently taking place. And neither do I know nor do I think that there are efforts going on to release Shadowrun 5 anywhere in the near future (say, 2012 or even 2013).
By its very nature, publishers are always thinking about „the next edition“, because, well, a new edition is always a big sale, and often a necessity or opportunity to get rid of BS mechanics or even bits of the setting. So yes, there have been freelancer chats about possible ways to approach SR5, and even Jason (gasp!) may have mentioned a release of SR5 someday before 2070.
All of that is not the point of this post. IF it has a point. I have neither been asked to develop anything SR5ish, nor are the following thoughts something like a version of SR5 that was rejected or something like that.
And I’m writing this in English on my all-German web enhancement website for the German setting of Berlin in Shadowrun because sooner or later someone will ask me to translate this stuff anayway. There ALWAYS is one. So if you’re just looking for material on Berlin: Take a look around, there’s plenty of that. And if you don’t speak German: Do it anyway and use some translation app (and have a laugh at the mess it spews out).
Now on to the main event (thx, Hades).
Basic problems of Shadowrun
There are many problems and issues with SR as a game and setting, and I’ll leave it to your own experience to tell what I mean by that. Let’s just assume I’m meaning whatever it is you would mean by saying that. Most of these problems are little nitpicky things, like that one NPC you hate, or that there are too many references to dragons or too little references to Earthdawn, or that the slow spell basically fucks up the whole game. Whatever. All these issues are „single item“ issues, meaning that they are isolated problems within a greater framework of rules and events and the setting.
I’m not talking about that kind of issues here (although many of those should be fixed, of course – to suit whoever’s personal preference, I don’t know). I’m talking about „greater“ things, things within the system SR is built. And no, this is not a complete SR5 rulebook, it’s just the way I would approach work on the next edition of Shadowrun.
The single, biggest problem of Shadowrun is the contradiction between complexity on the one hand and simpliccity on the other.
Meaning: The world of Shadowrun is WAY more complex, detailed and by that confusing than your basic fantasy campaign world, and hence less accessible for new players – and gamemasters! The same is true for the rules: A system with magic, melee combat, firearms combat, car chases, remote controlled drones, computer hacking, augmented reality, cyber implants and whathefucknot is by its very nature more rules-complex than a system where your biggest concern is to knock down a door and bash in some poor slob’s head.
Yes, you could dumb down the rules – all pistols do X damage and have range Z, all computers just have a system rating and all computer operations are done by just rolling A+B, and programs are part of the system rating, voilà – but you would lose the opportunity to make stuff important. You would lose the „technogeek“ aspect of Shadowrun: In a very simplistic rules system, you can present 1,000 weapons whose only difference is their name, weight and price (and magazine capacity). Without „screws“ to turn to modify the stats of an item – range, ROF, base damage, probability to score critical hits, number of fragments, precision, handling, different bonuses to hit on various different range brackets, armor penetration, targeting bonus by use of an integrated computer, effect on various types of armor, smart aim tech – your choice of equiopment becomes irrelevant.
The uncrowned king of technogeeking is Battlelords of the Twenty-Third Century, a wonderful science-fiction roleplaying game with I dunno, about a hundred weapons, armors and equipment pieces in the main rulebook and two more sourcebooks – Lock’n’Load 1 and 2 – filled to the rim with even more guns, armors and „stuff“. And of course, BL23C supports this technogeekness by using screws that can de turned in 1/100 steps (it works on d100) AND that features different rules for different guns pitted against different armor types (AND magic. AND hacking. AND cyberware…). So yes, if you love handpicking the exact right equipment for a certain job – with deadly consequences if you pack too much of this or too little of that – then BL23C is for you. But „easy to learn“ rules? Hm. Maybe in the next edition (It’s in the works!).
So back to Shadowrun.
The SR5 core rule mechanics: Bridging the gap between complexity and simpliccity
First off: I’m wholly against changing Shadowrun from rolling several d6 high to, say, rolling a single d100 low, or rolling d20 (shudder). Rolling a handful (or several hands full) of d6 is THE central tangible sensory experience when playing Shadowrun, and should never change this late in the edition process (not after four editions of rolling pools of d6 high!).
By rolling d6, you are down to adding or subtracting dice of a pool and increasing or decreasing the number of dice needed to be succesful in a task. In comparison to a d100 system, where any +1 is a direct 1% increase in success probability, using modifiers in d6 Shadowrun is like trying to chisel Michelangelo’s „David“ by using a sledgehammer: d6 is by nature a very crude mechanic (unless, of course, your success number is like 300, and you roll a hundred dice).
Already, using all of the modifiers and bonuses available in SR4 will sometimes lead to dice pools not fitted for troll hands even. And already, the amount of rules you have to remember about what to roll against what can be intimidating, and often is counter-intuitive (especially in hacking, where the skill or basic talent (attribute) of the hacker often is totally unimportant, as it is not part of a roll. Which is kinda bad in a system that should be all about the choices and acts of a character).
But okay, how to fix this? How can you dumb down the system without sacrificing the importance of both the character and his traits and his equipment (which may or may not be part of his body and mind).
Welcome to pips.
Players of Star Wars d6 by West End games may be familiar with a system that is not really a patent of d6, but a simple, known mechanic of (board and tabletop) game design: In d6 character generation, any six-sided die can be broken down into 3 „pips“, that is: 3 single +1 bonuses you can apply to 2 or 3 different attribute scores instead of adding „1d“ to a single attribute score. So basically a „pip“ is one third of a die. And if you have a dexterity score of 3d+2, and you buy a gun that gives you a +1 bonus to dexterity (or rather: shooting) you don’t roll 3d+3, but 4d. Guessing where I’m heading?
By breaking down d6 dice into 3 „1/3 dices“, you have just refined your tool with which to apply changes to a roll, increasing or decreasing the probability to succeed.
Of course you need a different kind to notate these pips in SR, because there every +1 means „+1 die“, and an attribute of 4 actually means „4 dice in the pool“. I suggest a notation of „|x“ – so 4|2 is actually 4 dice +2 thirddices (pips, for lack of a better word for now).
By applying this system to SR5, you can have a gun give a bonus of +|2 which is better than a gun with no such bonus, but with a bonus that is not relevant in game terms (because |2 is not a whole die and hence cannot be rolled (= cannot score an additional success). Combine that gun with a tailored grip that does give a +|1 bonus to hit though, and you have +|2 + +|1 = +|3 = +1 die.
Where’s the simplicity in that?
There is no simplicity in that by itself. But it is a way to „scale down“ dice pools to a number of dice you can actually roll. The „simple“ side of the SR5 comes at a different point: The return of the old action pools.
Let’s view it that way: we want to keep the importance of stuff and advantages, of skills and talents and attributes and whatnot. And of course, players want their characters to be as good as possible at those things that are relevant to their role. Some may go for „realistic character“ and spread their points to all sorts of skills and stuff, but others may want to play a specialist, combining the best attribute with the best race bonus with the best skill and specialization bonus, the best cyberware, bionic augmentation and equipment item and the best advantage/merit/whatever. Plus magic, if possible.
The real pain in the ass of that – besides having to roll a gazillion of dice, which we just dealt with by introducing pips – is having to apply different modifiers to different situations and actions (i.e. „to do this, I have to add my attribute A to my skill B, for which I get a bonus C and D from my geek items X and Z“). You can avoid the pain to recalculate pools by situation if you manage to build the rules in a way that there is less NEED to rearrange pools.
Like, say you are a hacker. Then you know that it can be very painful to remember what to roll against what, depending on what you wanna do. Especially since you’ll level up your progs to roughly about the same values anyway.
In my SR5, you would have a rough time adding all those litlle +|x bonuses of your equipment (and other factors). BUT when you are done doing that, you can write down a big fat „8|1“ in the circle where it says „HACKING POOL“, and whenever you wanna do something you roll 8 dice (the |1 gets ignored). And below that Hacking pool, you would find some lines on your character sheet where you can note those very few +|1 bonuses that apply only in special situations:
HACKING 8|1 – +|2 for tracking a comlink, +1|2 decrypting, -|2 stealth
Wanna check for hidden commlinks? Roll Hacking. Want to penetrate that firewall? Roll Hacking. Wanna take over that drone? Roll Hacking. Just check if you have a special bonus or penalty for the exact thing you want to do.
I haven’t done the whole system development yet, so I can’t tell you how many pools there would be, but there shouldn’t be more than about 10 (Let’s see: COMBAT (means Firearms, Melee is a modifier to the Athletic pool), ATHLETIC (Melee, Movement, Dodging, Climbing, Running…), SOCIAL, STEALTH (because it’s so important to what shadowrunners do), HACKING (includes Electronic), RIGGING (remote controlling), PILOTING (includes driving), MECHANIC, SPELLCRAFT, SUMMONING… that seem to be all that are needed).
Don’t get me wrong: You would still have all the attributes and all the skills, they would just be „regrouped“ differently and combined into fixed pools to do certain classes of things. Note that each pool is a combination of |x attributes, |x skills, |x item bonuses and |x advantages or other bonuses. So maybe you have Strength 3|2, Athletics 4|2, Melee combat specialization +1|2, got Combat Nerves (+|1 bonus in all combat actions) and use a rather crude Trollinger combat axe with precision -|2, which would read on your character sheet as
ATHLETIC 8|1 – +2 Melee (-|2 with Trollinger)
Or better yet:
ATHLETIC 8|1, Melee 10|1, Trollinger 9|2
(Note: to make calculation of the pools more easy, all other things could and maybe should be noted as pips only. It’s much harder to add a bonus of +4|2 to 3|2 than to add 14 to 11 and then divide by three (14 + 11 = 25, divide by 3 = 8, with 1 pip remaining (8|1) (actually, I find adding 4|2 to 3|2 easier, but I am fluent in Star Wars d6).
Most of the other machanics could stay more or less like they are for all I care.
I see the shitstorm growing already. But it is uncalled for. I have NOTHING against keeping the backstory of SR, nor am I suggesting to advance the timeline back or forward to a time where all BS of former SR editions will be irrelevant.
I would, however, not bore new players to DEATH with tidbits and side stories and old stuff that is only interesting to us old farts who were there when that stuff happened: We don’t NEED that info in our rulebook, because we know better already. And the only time we will read the „How it came to pass“ chapters is for our negative review about everything that’s missing from the history chapter of sucky SR5 on our blog.
Please stop and think about SR1 for a moment. There was a chapter explaining the world of SR and how it came in existence, but the SR1 rulebook didn’t force you to read through 120+ pages of irrelevant dribble before presenting you with a cool full-page pic of a character you can actually PLAY (aka „the fun part“).
It’s a CORE BOOK for people starting with the game. BEGIN with the fun part. Or get there as fast as possible.
If there is someone who wants to know all the details of the Dunkelzahn election, assassination, the testament, the appearance of the Draco Foundation, the rift, Ghostwalker and all else REFER THEM TO A WIKI OR AN ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND SOURCEBOOK. Really peple: All the details and side stories have nothing to do in the core rulebook!
In SR4, players get to know more about how the world of 2070+ came into existence than about actually LIVING in the world of 2070+ (nods in the direction of the author of „Commlinks 101“). Really? Is this what first interests you when you read a science fiction story? Reading an endless list of year-by-year events?
When I’m falling in love with a setting, it’s because of the „here and now“ of that setting. And much like in any novel, I am wholly content with the backcover or prologue synopsis of the chain of events leading up to that point in time.
There are Science-Fiction stories out there set in the yearfivethousandwhatnot that apparently can do telling the history of that setting in 1–2 pages.
Also: When presenting information on history, it is always better – and more informative, AND more entertaining – if you put things IN CONTEXT. So write the chapters TOPIC BY TOPIC, not year by year.
In my SR5, you would NEVER read a headline like „2058“. You would read „On Dragons“ (hopefully a little more catchy than that, although I like headlines that actually tell me what the chapter contains, instead of some clever wordplay that tells me zip about content), and would find information about the existence of dragons (and different classes of dragons), that there’s a dragon running a megacorp, about how the public view dragons (mentioning UCAS president Dunkelzahn and his influence on public opinion on dragons), maybe touch interesting points like human(?) rights for Dragons and other sentients, mention the year the forst dragon appeared somewhere if it’s convenient and doesn’t lead away from the „bigger picture“ of the existence of dragons and the influence that has on the setting AND ON SHADOWRUNS.
That way of relaying information to the reader has an additional advantage for long-time players of SR: They get to know WHAT AN EVENT MEANS IN 2075+! Instead of rereading the same old, same old of a past development, they get to view things from a fresh, new perspective. And get additional (contextual) information in the process. How great is that??
Welcome to 2075
When doing SR5, I would not aim to advance the story line all that much: We had several big shifts in mood, theme, technology and magic in 2068, and adding any more weirdness or „even bigger megachungawonga“ to the background will only overweird the game even more.
Instead, I would allow the world to „settle“ a bit in the wireless world. You know, casually tell that tech has become smarter and more streamlined, with expert programs taking over most tasks that they are really better at doing than human operators. I would use this slight advancement of technology to explain away unnecessary rules bits. Like: „Even in 2070, you had distinct programs with different ratings for this and that, in 2075 everything is integrated into the system architecture (= the system rating), but you still have the option to attach modules for special tasks if you so wish“.
I would take the first chapter of SR5 to present the world of 2075 „as seen through the eyes of a person living there“. You know: To actually IMMERSE the reader into the setting right from the start. Maybe even with a solo adventure. Wherever I need to explain little things to the 2011 reader, I use information boxes styled as pop-up windows that provide additional info/background on certain parts in the text (maybe even with a soft line attaching the infobox to the word or sentence it refers to).
Maybe I would even do the complete first chapter „in-game“, as an online magazine of 2075. I dunno.
In any way, I would take a HUGE step back from the current makeup and structure of the Shadowrun rulebooks and ask myself: Is THIS really the best way to present the information?“. And then I would throw out everything not absolutely necessary and SERIOUSLY RESTRUCTURE the book (T means text-heavy, few illustrations, maybe black&white, P means picture-heavy, lots of illustrations, hopefully color):
- T Opener: Short backcover-like introduction text („The year is 2075. Magic has returned …“)
- P Chapter One: Plunge the reader directly into the setting. Ingame Magazine or comic (lots of artwork in any case: a picture says more than 1,000 authors).
- T Chapter Two: Shadowrun (the profession and the roleplaying game – need to know information, introductory solo adventure, example scene at the gaming table). Explains the core mechanics, too.
- P Chapter Three: The good stuff (Archetypes) – lots of picture again after a lot of text. Let the reader relax a little.
- T Chapter Four: Character creation (Skills…)
- P: Chapter Five: Shadowrunning (underground website style, lots of attitude, some gear („stats for this gun see page XXX“). Things that let readers drool and look forward). Introduces the „voices“ of Shadowrun (Jackpointers, Runners that speak from experience, introduction of the tools of the trade, jargon…). Must be extra cool, because there’s a lot of dry text following
- T Chapter Six: Combat (with ongoing scenes from the gaming sample of chapter two)
- T: Chapter Seven: Hacking/Wifi
- T: Chapter Seven: Rigging/Chases
- T: Chapter Eight: Magic
- P: Chapter Nine: Spirits (directly after magic), critters, enemies (full-body pics of enemy units in uniform with equipment)
You get the idea. Anyway. That’s it. I#m done ranting for now … but additional rants will come, i’m sure…