Practical Advice for the Prospective Shadowrun GM

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 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.


43 Responses to Practical Advice for the Prospective Shadowrun GM

  1. I built a character without reading the rules, so he probably sucks.

    Based on the little I’ve read on Dumpshock just now, I’m more sure of that fact than ever.

    How bad could a bald elf magician on a Japanese motorcycle be though?

  2. Seriously, initiative passes are key for any combat character. They all should have 2-3 and everyone should be able to get to 2 even if it’s just combat drugs.

  3. I’m totally chomping at the bit to get going on this. Thanks for all the advice Billy. The mechanics have definitely changed over all four editions, and the new Augmented Reality seems pretty cool. I think we’ll go with that to get our feet wet, plus that means the hacker will be able to still interact with the rest of the team in the real world. Though Ed is going to go a hacker/rigger route I think. We’ll see how that plays out, but i’m kinda looking forward to the steel lynx rolling along with the team on infiltrations . . . and all the problems that may create.

  4. True. I don’t actually know what ed is going to use, and neither does he yet. I did always like the fact that the steel lynx picture showed a human silhouette for scale. I wish they all did that.

  5. So psyched to play. Did I mention that my magician has only one combat spell and it doesn’t do physical damage?

    But, I have a sweet car, so that makes up for it.

  6. Yep, Stunball is my only Combat spell.

    My spells are Stunball, Increase Reflexes, Detect Life (Extended), Confusion, Influence, Levitate, Control Thoughts, and Turn to Goo.

    Last night I used Influence (to speed along a social interaction), Increase Reflexes (to speed along myself) and Control Thoughts (to sow chaos in an already confused enemy).

  7. Stunball is the best damage to drain spell in the game. You don’t even need to do physical damage with spells, guns do that fine.

  8. That was my thought, too, Billy. Why kill things when I can make it easier for my allies with guns to kill things?

    Ryk allowed us to make changes to our characters after that first session since we are all learning the rules. I took full advantage of the opportunity, and now my wizard is even more effective on paper I think.

  9. How’s Ed handling The Matrix? It’s confusing enough that the guys who wrote the rules aren’t sure what it does.

  10. Actually I think Ed has done a great job with the matrix so far. of course we haven’t done any corporate data steals or anything. So far the full team has only played an amalgamated version of the 1st and 4th edition stuffer shack run. Ed tracked the girl and baby to the stuffer shack and after they got there, he hacked the cameras and slaved the output to all the team’s commlinks. they scoped out the hit team hiding in a ford americar around the block and Ed hacked into their ‘sync’ system and turned on the microphone to listen in on their conversation. Then the chiller thrillers arrived and decided to knock over the shack rather than pay for munchies – the extraction team was still inside getting the girl and kid, so Ed hacked the hit teams car and rammed it into the chiller thrillers’ bikes. Then the guns, grenades and car-bombs came into play.

    As the team was leaving Ed hacked the video storage and erased any imagery of their involvement, and also wipe veronica’s commlink, which she was using to film the whole event. Then he got google-earth imagery of the junkyard where the exchange was supposed to take place . . . and that’s where we left things.

    Good use of AR I think, especially for a first run.

  11. My take on that had the runners just getting food when the extraction team hit. The techno managed to explode the burrito that the mage had in the microwave, distracting one goon long enough for the melee troll to punch one guy quite hard. He then proceeded to hide in the back while rigging the roomba in an attempt to disrupt one goon’s suppressive fire. My team disabled the vehicle with a small tree through the engine block.

  12. Nice. I ran it as the team was sent by a johnson to extract the chica. his corp wanted to take over the blackmailing operations. and as an added bit of fun, the original badguys from the 1st edition version stopped by to rob the place. after the car rammed the bikes, there was a lot of confusion, especially as the team’s street sam lobbed a grenade about 6 meters away at the ganger sam who wasn’t downed by the team’s LMG fire.

    the team’s street sam was hurt by his own grenade, thought the ganger sam rolled of to the other side of the car and got away with little damage. he thought the car group was attacking him too, so he climbed inside and wiped everybody, but not before the hit team hacker detonated the car-bomb that was meant for the girl and the kid.

    Lots of mayhem, but the team hustled the targets into their van – not at all sketchy – and then hightailed it out. No actual combat int he store at all, except the team’s face man fired his AK full auto through the window at the gangers once.

    no exploding food – but still a lot of fun.

  13. I generally find that power gamers get turned off when their antics result in either a) a manabolt death or b) a shotgun death. Depending on the power gamer. I just figure– you push the system, & so do the antagonists.

    Anyhow, I ran a “magic” arc, a “science-fiction” arc, & then the old “Harlequin” adventures– individual runs could come from any three of the arcs, mixed n’ matched. So in one, there is the…what, Universal Brotherhood, or a dragon, or…some supernatural campaign threat. In the other it was…an AI, or an orbital weapons platform, or some kind tech threat. Then…well, I like Harlequin, & it tied the PCs into the metaplot in a fun way.

  14. Yeah, not all powergamers are that bad, mine even made his OOC hatred of mages into a serious psychological issue for his character, to the point of not showing his undisguised face to anyone, that way “the mages” couldn’t get his face through mind reading and hit him with ritual magic. He was also a body 1 character with physical issues that kept him wheelchair bound. The team actually used his wheelchair to smuggle weapons once, and they’ve used some great Con rolls and IDs to pass him off as the magic equivalent of Steven Hawkings. He’s a mundane rigger who’s taken “know thy enemy” a little too far. 6s in magical knowledge skills.

    EDIT: And to answer a question from Ed’s Twitter, the 20th Anniversery edition is functionally identical to the Wizkids/fanpro one, they just tweaked a couple things and raised the recommended karma rewards.

  15. Ed, I have no twitter handle, I’m not near enough to a computer during the day to warrant it, and I’ve never really gotten the purpose of it. I check yours every once and a while because it often leads to more gaming related stuffs.

  16. Shadowrun might bring out the worst in me.

    “Just cut out his tongue. We’re not nuns, you know.”

  17. My players got into a gunfight with Interpol. The sniper’s player returns from a bathroom break.

    “Your turn, what’re you doing?”
    “I think I’m going to shoot them.”
    “The bad guys”
    “What’re you going to do after you’ve killed your team?”

  18. I love the fact that there is no alignment in Shadowrun. I should perhaps point out that Gavin was referring to a chop-shop reaper who was caught red-handed, selling bodies and at least one live person to be harvested. so it was sort of an ‘eye for an eye’ situation.

  19. Hey Billy, we are getting back into our Shadowrun campaign and I’m looking at more books to buy etc. I remember you having nothing nice to say about War! and apparently others agree, but I’m not sure why. I have a pdf of it that I’ve gone over a bit, and it was in one of my hero lab updates and so far (at least for the crunch which is what I’m really looking for) I’m not seeing problem with the stuff. I think you went into your complaints in more detail in one of the comments that this post grew out of, but I can’t find it.

  20. The biggest problem with WAR! is that crunch-wise few things make sense. Battle Rifles are probably the most allowable things, but even then Burst capable Sport Rifles that are easily available at chargen is an issue for most folk. Burst fire grenade launchers are a new level of problem. MRSI doubles your base damage. Lord only knows why they thought Aesir needed stats, it’s so very much a plot device. Cruise missiles are overkill all the time, except that they aren’t always. The slow spell is the single greatest spell ever printed. With it, there is no need for any other spell to exist, assuming you can figure out how it effects the core rules. Nanotech screws with the setting by essentially negating the need for anything else on the tech side. The milspec commlinks are a nice way to counteract powergamed hackers, though.

    I think my biggest complaint is that the contents of the book either shoot the power level of the game through the roof or you don’t use them, at which point you’ve wasted money on a book you can’t use. Toss that in with the tree plot war background and Bogota being a central submarine base and you’ve got a book that I have no use for. It’s essentially the old Epic Level Handbook for D&D. Yeah, it’s cool to look at the stats for gods and such, but no one actually wants to play with the guy that has 1d100 attacks per round.

    If you want a recommendation, Gavin’s got Elven Blood which is brilliant. For rules-type books I don’t know. They’ve published a ton of PDFs I haven’t read, though I will recommend Way of the Adept if you have anyone playing one. It really helps them keep up with the cyber. Mostly I’ve been reading The Clutch of Dragons, which is fun to read, and contains plot hooks a plenty but no full adventures. If you don’t have the ‘Core’ add-ins I recommend Arsenal, Augmentaion, Street Magic, and parts of Unwired, in that order. Arsenal because everyone needs guns, Augmentation because most folks need cyber and because it’s got more medical stuff, street magic for the mages and adepts, and the unwired if you want the matrix to be harder to use.

  21. Thanks Billy

    Are the battle rifles only BF capable? They should be full auto, or at least some of them should be. see I don’t have a problem with them because I’ve fired them before. the M-14 is properly a battle rifle, as would be the BAR i suppose. I expect to see them. I do think they should have double uncompensated recoil penalties like a machine gun because that’s what they really are. which is one of the reasons they’re not used all that often as I understand it. I haven’t seen the BF grenade launchers (that should have some hella recoil), but i did not that the WAR! supplement has rules to make grenades that are launched detonate on impact, like that actually do. timed detonation should be the option.

    I agree with the MSRI issues, at least from what I’ve read so far. I know that we can do that with our artillery now, bu I think there are some minimum range requirements on that (not an artilleryman though) that a grenade launcher couldn’t do. I haven’t looked at the spells at all, or the nanotech. I may still get it because that;s the kind of stuff I like. Even if most of it isn’t used, I like it for the overall frame of reference.

    I am thinking of getting more fluff books i guess. I have augmentation, arsenal, street magic and unwired. I don’t have runner’s companion. what do you think of that one? I have the runner’s black book and black book 2074 (signed by the author at gencon which is pretty cool) which have a bunch of the pdf’s for tech at least. I’m also thinking of getting Seattle 2072 and the 6th World Almanac, perhaps Vvice and the corporations books intrigue and the other one that I can’t remember the name of right now. any thoughts on those?

    Gavin will be running us through Elven Blood in the coming months. I set up a wiki at Obsidian Portal by the way. Here it is if you want to check it out:

  22. Battle Rifles are only BF, they don’t have the double recoil, they have better built in recoil compensation. They’re basically assault rifles with more range, more damage, less recoil, and no full auto. The lack of full auto isn’t really an issue, because burst fire off of the base damage of seven means 10DV + net hits. As for grenades, I’m pretty sure impact grenades were from Arsenal, but I don’t recall off the top of my head. Also, by RAW MRSI can be put on every weapon with a smartlink. Aside from the Leadership Rules giving leadership a mechanical use, WAR! is basically a book full of things I never want my players to have, with a plot that is rather out of character for the two primary nations. That and how does one get a submarine to Bogota?

    For fluff books I like Vice, it’s a great breakdown of the criminal underworld, Seattle 2072 is the greatest GM aid in the game, because now you’ve got tons of random locations for meets, gunfights, downtime, whatever. Sixth world almanac is sorta good. It’s full of typos, is self-contradictory, contains nearly no new information about the world post-third edition that isn’t in the core book, and is full of typos. The corporate books give a nice breakdown of who the players are and what their games are. I like them for that, the older edition players have some issues with them that I don’t fully comprehend, but it might be because I wasn’t there for earlier editions.

    Runner’s Companion as some great additional qualities, which I enjoy having access to, but it’s a lot like Unwired in that it’s about 50% half-baked things I’m not sure I want. I really like the parts I like, though. Karma-gen, lifestyles, and qualities are great. The alternate Character types vary wildly in playability and balance. Shifters are potentially crazy powerful, vampires are not something I encourage my players to be, Free Spirits are either stupid-good or overcosted to the point of crippled, AIs are worse at hacking than organics, and can’t do much else, Drakes cost so many points in chargen that you’ll likely hamstring yourself before the game begins, but are probably the most balanced. They’re sorta like adepts in the core book, they sound really cool, but are so points intensive that they get beat by everyone.

    I don’t know how much you want to travel in the campaign, but most of the setting books are interesting alternatives to Seattle. If you’re playing Seattle, though, get any of the Seattle books, there’s four editions worth of them, and they’re all easy to update to the now. I own two of them, and they’re just fun world building.

  23. I own the 1st edition Seattle Book and I never really used it all that much. I think 4e has better formatting and is just usually more accessible. I also own corporate shadowfiles which is 1e or 2e (i can’t remember) but several of the big ten have changed since then so i was thinking of getting fresh info. I can see some the the runners companion stuff in my hero lab data and I can tell that some of it i won’t really like. In fact I’ve already pre-vetoed the raced (at least until i get a better handle on them).

  24. The only race I would allow is Drake, and that’s just because my next campaign is going to be Elven Blood into Clutch of Dragons, if/when I get another campaign off the ground. Since nearly every dragon keeps pet drakes, having a free drake among them may cause the party to take sides in the Dragon War. That and they are far and away the least breakable of the the extra races. I don’t know how they decided on the points costs/traits of the the other races, but they really didn’t work on it enough.

  25. Alright. so I just looked at it. I haven’t spent much time evaluating possible implications and nothing’s jumping out at me, so what’s wrong with it?

  26. You cast the spell, it creates an area of Force meters, where nothing can happen. Hey, those guys shooting at me? Now their bullets can’t get to us, hey, those guys? Now they can’t move until you say so. It states specifically that it prevents damage from explosives and bullets, it’s like a Physical Barrier that can never break, never be shot through, and can also be used for pretty much anything. It is sooooooooo powerful. So so powerful. For less drain than a Fireball that likely will hurt no one, you’ve ended the encounter. Admittedly Fireball is a bad example because elemental spells are really bad, but the point is that it is way more powerful than anything ever printed and has an availability of 8. It is soooooo strong.

  27. The guys using it can’t really move though – like 1 m per second? They will have pinned themselves down. they can only move one meter per second, so they stay there or get shot, meanwhile KE calls in a brute squad with stun batons and takes out the whole team.

    It can be broken with enough mass though right? like drive a car or a truck into the zone. even a bunch of guys charging into the zone could break it. 2 trolls running is 700 kg which will break a spell that got three hits. How much mass would a manifested earth elemental have? and it only stops matter, so what about a pure energy spell or a laser? and it won’t affect anything in astral space right?

    It does seriously hamper regular gun battles though. I agree that there should be some easier ways to break the spell but even as is I think there are some work arounds. and 8 does sound too easy for availability – on the other hand if it’s that easily available most security people should know about it and have had training on ways to counter it i would think. How many successes are your mages getting when casting that kind of spell?

    I guess maybe i should see what they have to say on dumpshock.

  28. Well, you don’t put it on yourself. Center it on the baddest guy or even a group. Then, either you take as many aim actions as possible before dropping it or toss a few manabolts or stunballs or whatever. It is a manipulation spell, so that’s right up my alley.

  29. Pretty much what Gavin said. Also, it’s hits, not net hits or anything. Most mages ought to be able to conjure up more than 3-4 hits on the test, assuming they’ve got some form of foci and decent casting stats. The thing with the mass does make it breakable, but then you’ve just got to not cast it on two trolls, cast it at one troll and his less gigantic friends and they’re stuck all day. Cast it at another mage and laugh when he cant use his gesture geas, or speak, or do anything.

    Also, Gavin, look into Powerbolt. It kills drones dead.

  30. After learning a ton at Gen Con, I did a rebuild of my character with Ryk’s permission. Now, not only is he a better mage than before, he’s also pretty damn good with a sniper rifle. He’d roll 20 dice for that Slow spell, if he learns it someday, so 3 hits is nothing. Powerbolt seems pretty nice. Maybe I’ll look into it down the road, but, in the mean time, I’ll leave the drones for my buddies.

  31. Oh sniper rifles, you’ve got an Optical Scope on it, right? Then you can use the scope to cast spells through. GM’s favorite downside, Concealing a sniper rifle. In a pinch the last sniper I GMed for had to run away with the rifle, so he triggered the ruthenium coating and tried to blend into the crowd. Then some guy ran into the invisible sniper rifle he strapped to his back, leading to even more confusion. Good Times.

  32. Definitely an optical scope. My rifle disassembles and fits into a briefcase. I thought I retained Improved Invisibility, but it appears it was one of the spells that got swapped out in my rebuild. Oh well. In a pinch, there’s always Control Thoughts, or, if I really need it, Mob Mind, to convince the searchers that I “went thataway.”

  33. Sweet, gotta love manipulation spells. I’ll be watching the campaign on Obsidian Portal to see this thing in action.

    Ed, if you’re watching this, expect an email in the next week or so about battletech.

  34. Alright so 3-4 hits is going to be 600 to 800kg. If I’m corporate security, and I’m hit by this, I’ll be ineffective with firearms and probably won’t have any energy weapons, but I should still have a commlink so I can call for help. Plus they can’t really shoot me. they could hit me with another spell, but they’re at -2 dice for sustaining. If they don’t put me down, then I can follow them and when they go out of line of sight, the sustaining drops right?

    It seems, based on the uses that were offered fin the spell description it should be a ‘self’ spell but the 4e rules don’t have a range of ‘self’ that I see. I suppose Voluntary is similar but not quite right.

    See I actually like the concept of the spell and hitting some baddies with a Slow and then a Stunball appeals to me. Of course I’ve always thought manipulation spells are a bit too powerful since many of the targets are nowhere near capable of rolling as many dice in defense as the caster. though that’s kinda neat in itself from a plot standpoint.

  35. Dang, now I’m tempted to save up karma to get Slow sooner rather than later, just to see if I can break it.

  36. Oh, and because it’s a physical spell, you can cast it on an area, not on a target, meaning that you can slow an area in front of you to stop bullets, then throw a grenade around/over to kill the guys on the other side, while not having to worry about shrapnel.

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