Back to the Shadows

I recently posted about my frustration with some of the oddities of Shadowrun 5e on Facebook and was asked to elaborate on some of the specifics of what I’m encountering. This is a much easier medium to write a long post in than Facebook though, so I’m putting it here – where it will post to Fb anyway. I’m going to start with my pet peeve and then just jump around as I think of specific things.

The Priority System

I might as well start with my pet peeve. Some of my players like the priority system because they claim that it helps them know where to put points and cut down on analysis-paralysis. I dispute that claim because even though sure, Priority C tells you that you get 28 skill points and 2 skill group points… that doesn’t help you actually spend those points or to know whether your particular archetype would have done better with 30 skill points, or just 16. I think it was re-instated as a throwback to previous editions (4e did away with it) and was a solution in search of a problem.

Ultimately, the effect of the priority largely seems to be to create very cookie-cutter runners that are pushed to specialize hard rather than offering a real path to doing a couple of things well. It also doesn’t handle skill groups well. I don’t know if Skill Groups were around in 3e (I don’t know that edition at all) but they were super helpful in 4e, pulling together like skills, offering a small price break at the expense of forcing you to raise them all together and not allowing specializations. 4e’s Build Point system made them a viable choice. 5e’s Priority System does not handle them well.

The Priority system also has some really odd dead spots. Like, for anyone who is not a mage, you are likely to take Priority E as your “magic” spot. But this is literally the only priority choice that grants you zero benefit. So mages – who have to spend a different priority on magic will still get a benefit from taking all five priorities whereas everyone else only benefits from 4 of them.

(Mystic) Adepts

The Physical Adept vs. Street Sam problem is one that Shadowrun never seems to really solve adequately for itself. They are tough to balance against one another even though they fulfill a similar role on the team. In 2e, Adepts felt a little too weak. 4e – after they revised the costs of some powers in Anniversary Edition – got close(r). In 5e the pendulum has swung far in favor of the Physical Adept. Don’t get me wrong… At character creation, the balance is actually pretty good. They Physical Adept is likely a little faster, but the sammie is likely more versatile. But as they advance, Physical Adepts can quickly outstrip street sams. They effectively have no ceiling and some of their abilities are “uncapped” in such a way that you could spam them to just make an un-hit-able monstrosity with ridiculous abilities.

But that’s not the most egregious offender. No, that’s the Mystic Adept. With the way Mystic Adepts now work (they don’t “split” their Magic between Adept and Magician) they can start the game with all the same abilities as a full mage (except for Astral Projection) AND they can choose how much Karma to spend to potentially also start with a full slate of Adept Powers. And yes, the argument could be made (and has been made to me) that spending that much of your Starting Karma (freebie points) on Adept powers means you don’t have any for anything else… but honestly, nothing else you could buy with that Karma even comes close to the advantages you get from buying a Power Point’s worth of Adept Powers.

To illustrate how wonky the interactions between Adepts, Mystic Adepts, and the Priority System are… I sat down and made a decker (hacker) who also is a mystic adept, and it was brutal. Like, I’d pretty much always choose this character over a standard decker any day. And the thing is, my gripe before about specialization? This is how you get around it for some character types. Just about any build can be made better by slapping “mystic adept” into the mix.

Deckers

Now is a good time to talk about deckers/hackers. So, 4e/Anniversary Edition’s timeline ran from roughly 2068 to 2074. That’s how much time that edition spanned in-world. And a whole new Wireless Matrix Initiative had changed how the Matrix worked. Gone were the days of cyberdecks and it was the wild west out there again. Shadowrun 5e picks up in 2075 (though apparently the timeline has already advanced up to like 2085 or something which seems way too fast a pace) and the Matrix has changed again. Completely. In less than a year, the Corps completely took over the Matrix, re-instated Grids, created an overwatch division for those grids that is effectively all-powerful, re-introduced cyberdecks, and somehow completely recalled millions of commlinks and turned them into something else. Hell of a thing.

The effect this re-write of the Matrix rules has had on game play is a double-edged sword. To the good, the Matrix rules themselves are much clearer now (not “Clear” mind you, just better than they were in 4e). To the bad… I’m going to just throw this out there… the game wants you to know that it is a bad idea (TM) to play a Decker. Everything from character creation to dice-pool math to action economy is stacked against you. Hosts are infinitely more powerful than you. Your deck is so expensive that you are forced to take a top 2 priority to even have a reasonably good starting deck – and then that deck is worth more to you than your life because without it, you stop being useful at all to the team.

Also, despite the fact that cyberdecks are the pinnacle of Matrix interaction technology, for literally 5,000 nuyen (a pittance), any character can just start the game with a device rating 6 commlink that means they will likely have a higher Firewall attribute (Matrix defense) and better device rating (meaning more Matrix hit points) than the hacker’s cyberdeck. Once you add the Data Trails splatbook, for the low-low price of 1,000 additional nuyen, you can up that to Firewall 7 in an afternoon and now the decker will waste so many actions trying to affect your systems that they might as well just shoot you. It will be more effective.

That the decker is so poorly represented in 5e is a shame, because again, the actual hacking rules are much better written.

Limits

Shadowrun 5e introduces the concept of Limits. Characters have a physical, mental, and social limit. Limits apply as a cap to success. So – if your Physical Limit is 4, and you roll a Gymnastics check and get 5 hits, you just lose one because you can’t keep more than 4 hits. On the surface, this seems like a potentially valuable idea but it is insidiously bad.

First, limits only apply when you are making a Skill + Attribute test. For Attribute-Only test (where you use two attributes together to form your dice pool) they don’t apply. This is largely written this way because resistance tests tend to be Attribute Only. But it creates some wonky shit. Like the fact that you can be better at stuff you aren’t trained for than stuff you heavily train for. It can also discourage buying skills particularly high because you’ll never get to use all your hits anyway. (It’s kind of the opposite at character creation/early play in that you’ll rarely ever hit your limits so they seem like unnecessary bookkeeping.)

What’s worse though, is that this is further complicated by Gear Limits, such as Accuracy Limits on guns. This creates some super weird interactions because gear limits always supersede inherent limits. So if your physical limit is 13 and your shotgun has an Accuracy of 5 – then your limit is 5. However, if you have a physical limit of 4 and your pistol has an accuracy of 7… then your limit is 7 when using the pistol.

It’s especially a problem because Limits don’t control how many Net Hits you can apply to a test, they control how many hits you get to keep from your roll total. This creates the following weirdness… Your PC has an Agility of 6 and a Shotguns skill of 6. You are really good at this. But your shotgun has an Accuracy of 4. You can never keep more than 4 hits when you shoot that gun. But since the basic defense roll is an Attribute Only test, it has no limit. So it’s very likely that a low accuracy weapon is just useless because you’ll never actually hit with it, no matter your skill level. You can’t overcome the weapon’s limitations, you are just stuck with them. At least most guns have some add-ons that help improve Accuracy. The poor combat axe (Acc 4) melee weapon will never see any use because there is no way to adjust that limit. The wiff factor is going to be high.

Ultimately, Limits feel like another solution in search of a problem.

PS- some random weapons have your Physical Limit as the Acc. Like the boomerang. This means that a troll with a boomerang is more likely to be able to hit you in combat and do reliable damage than one with a massive axe designed specifically to be used in combat.

A few other nits to pick

So, there are a few other nits to pick. 5e drastically oversimplified Armor such that in the core rules, there is never a reason to buy anything other than an Armor Jacket. Oh, and a suit of Actioneer Business Clothes for those swanky outings. But since armor lost any nuance in type, there is never a reason to buy anything other than these two. Direct Combat spells were too powerful in 4e but have been over-corrected to the point of being just plain frustrating to use in 5e. The wireless bonuses – while an interesting thought experiment – were meant to create “tough choices” for PCs but don’t really actually do that (because the answer is almost always obvious) and instead just create another layer of bookkeeping for very little return at the table.

And all this in a game that I overall like pretty well. Here’s the thing, no game is perfect. As much as I loved 4e/Anniversary edition, it had some pretty ugly flaws too. But 5e made the choice of trying to start from scratch rather than just trying to hone down the issues in the existing system. Thus, while they totally patched up the dam in one place, they just left a gaping hole in others. More game companies need to take a cue from GURPS or Chaosium and just work on making their existing game work better rather than trying to constantly make it different. (I know it’s not an RPG but Malifaux did an excellent job of this in their move from 1st to 2nd edition.)

Final Thought

What I said about editing and book-to-book continuity in my original Facebook post is a huge bugbear of 5e. The books flat out contradict themselves at times. Sometimes in the same book, sometimes in different sourcebooks. There is also a ton of unexplained material that they have still never bothered to errata. For example, the core book has a Drone in it called the Ares Duelist. This is a bipedal drone with sword arms. It also has absolutely no rules explaining how it works. There is no discussion of how strong the drone is so you don’t know how much damage its swords can do. There is no explanation of how a rigger uses the swords when jumped in… And this is not in a splat book, this is right in the core book. And that is just one example of many where something is introduced and then as soon as you go to use it you realize that you have no idea how it is supposed to work.

Also, Catalyst doesn’t do a very good job of updating their PDFs. The Core Rulebook is on its eighth printing. I bought one. I did this because the version you can download from RPGNow is still the 4th printing.

If I had the time, I’d sit down with 4th and 5th edition and go through every book combining the best parts of the two and re-writing rules for clarity and continuity. I think the frame of this game is very, very good. But it needs a lot of love and massaging. And well, since I’m not getting paid for it, that’s a labor of love I’m not sure I have the literally hundreds of hours that would take to do just for the feels.

If people still have questions about specific systems/parts of the game or want me to expand on anything I’ve said here, just comment and I’ll do my best.

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