Shadowrun is a great game, but it has its idiosyncrasies. It’s not as internally rigid as D&D or other class based systems, which is a wonderful thing, but it also means the game can be utterly broken by crafty players. Here are some tips on running a campaign and reigning in some of the more abusable power combos.
[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared as a comment here at Robot Viking. I asked Billy if he could revise and expand it, since it contains a lot of great and useful info for anyone running or planning to run a Shadowrun campaign. Ed.]
If you’re looking for books, 20th Anniversary Edition is kinda a 4e+. It fixes quite a few issues in the old version, though it makes a few of its own. For the ‘advanced rules’ I’d recommend Arsenal because everyone uses guns and cars, and half of Unwired because it makes Technomancers cool and contains great fluff about how the new wireless matrix is set up, then it adds tons of stuff to make the already overcomplicated matrix mores. Augmentation is full of great cyber, Street Magic is ok but the new elemental effects it introduces can be a headache, and Runner’s Companion has some good qualities, but it’s got a ton of messy, messy stuff. WAR! is good for nothing.
If you’re looking for GMing tips, the first step is to establish the tone and setting of the game. Is it going to be a Pink Mohawk rampage through the Puyallup Barrens or an Ice Cold Corporate Run? Maybe you’re trid stars in LA’s Reality TV Surveillance State working on improving your Twitter following. These aren’t the only options. You can have a game of Pink Mohawked cyberpunks smashing their way through a Tacoma Mob War while the next table is playing gritty survivalism in the barrens. Mix and match as you please, but let all the players know ahead of time, and check character concepts to fit your theme. A gang of mostly insane Halloweeners isn’t going to fare well in the corporate world. I also recommend having the players start out as a team, unless intrigue is going to be large factor in the game. It reduces the chances of game paralysis if the characters begin with a level of trust. Besides, if they work together well you can always reward them.
On that subject, I would recommend looking at your party makeup before determining what rewards you give. If your party is mainly cybered, they’ll ‘level up’ primarily through cash, with Karma for secondary skills. Mages generally want a decent balance between cash for foci and Karma for EVERYTHING. Technomancers have little use for cash, but Need Karma for Subersions. Adepts have almost no use for large sums of cash except for the ever tempting Path of the Burnout. Oh, if you have an adept, look into the Way of The Adept PDF. It fixes some issues they have with being generally underpowered or overspecialized.
The right balance is key to the type of campaign you’re running, as well. If it’s a low class ganger type campaign they probably aren’t making the money that the pros make, but their opposition is probably not as heavy as the Corps can throw. Too much money and smart characters would buy their way out of your setting or break the game with high class cyber. Too much Karma and the Mage is king of all. If your group leans more toward awakened I ‘d suggest leaning more on the karma heavy , maybe lower paying gigs. Helping out your Talismonger with a favor or saving that endangered paracritter. Also, if the Team takes a job for someone who can’t pay much, I usually reward more karma than normal. Giving out a couple of points of Karma for ‘being awesome’ is encouraged. Look at a couple of the free Denver Missions on their site, use that as the lowest possible amount for the tiniest jobs they’d deign to do. My group met every week, and it often took them three sessions to complete some really big runs, but they also finished a few in one. I estimate that they got an average of six karma per session, and about 15-20 per job. Nuyen varied since they managed to collect a bounty on a live Blood Mage. Giving cash and karma in lump sums at the end of the run gives all the players a chance to do their advancement at once. Also, any amount of karma less than four is useless, so don’t reward them with less for a run unless you want really slow progression.
The Golden Ratio of Reward is debated endlessly on Dumpshock, and may never have a perfect answer. I’ve given the best advice I’ve got, but I say, go with what feels right, and use this epic character generator.
As Gm you should know The Matrix nearly as well as the hacker. Now I’m not talking about the movie, though if you want to name your elf “Elrond Smith” go ahead. I’m talking about the Future Internet. Read EVERY THING ABOUT IT. Tell the hack to do the same. It operates with its own internal logic which, while not too strange, is different from the meat world’s significantly. Even Astral space is easier to grok, and it’s magic! I really recommend finding or making a good cheat sheet for how hacking happens, then try to make sure you do it fast. It’s time consuming and no one else can really do anything while waiting.
Technomancers should read their section of Unwired and get the Shield complex form so they don’t get slaughtered in cybercombat. They should also try to Submerge with their karma and stay far away from cyber. In my opinion they suffer from essence loss more than Awakened. Submerging with Technos is like Initiating for mages, except that Initiating mainly makes the mage better at things he could already do, the Echos that Technomancers get can completely change their role on the team.
The big thing to remember for a Technomancer is that Threading is a non-action. That means if you have an asshole at your table he could theoretically keep rolling till he got his maximum. Either make it an action, or only allow a limited number of rolls. My techno immediately agreed to two attempts per Form, agreeing that “It’s dumb to keep rolling.” I also try to set things up so that if the hacker is hacking, everyone else is on combat rounds for some reason, just to keep everyone there. Plus, Defend The Decker is a time honored tradition.
Big warning, if you’ve got a super power gamer, he will break the crap out of this game. I made a martial artist Ork Adept that could regularly one punch people to death with stun damage. You can also make characters that break the game in a useless direction quite easily. Specialization is key, but overspecialization is death, and the GM needs to have a firm grasp of everyone’s power-level, and exert the veto right if the characters look like this or this. These were whipped up by my local power gamer, the Troll archer was actually his character for the first campaign we played. He realized two things quite quickly: Edge is well worth the points, and overspecialization will kill your character. Sure, he can fire trees through tanks, but he’s not subtle, and took the uncouth flaw so everyone he talks to hates him. Looking back now, one year later, I should never have allowed that character, and should have encouraged more diversity amongst the players’ skills. Everyone should have points in Infiltration, Etiquette, Perception, and Gun, barring some really convincing reason not to. (Note: being able to dissolve a tank in two punches is not a reason) (Well, maybe it’s a good reason to not have Gun). Characters without these lead to a lot of cleaning up after the troll’s social failures.
If you’ve got any other questions, let me know in the comments. I’ve been a big fan since forever, but never got to play til 4e. Oh, and initiative passes are king, don’t let combat characters not take them, and make sure everyone has a source for when things break hard. Thanks to the crew at dumpshock.com for tolerating my confused questions and any future questions they’ll receive since I linked to them. Also, check out the first issue of their fanzine The Dumpshock Datahaven.