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Shadowrun 5th Edition Beginner Box, Detailed Review

#RPGaMonth – January – Shadowrun Beginner Box


Similar to the #LessShameMoreGame challenge, the goal of the #RPGaMonth Challenge is to get some use out of those roleplaying games/modules/splatbooks that you picked up but never actually sat down and read. Whether that means loading up the PDF reader or dusting off a book from your shelf of shame, it doesn’t matter.


This month I’m dusting off a copy of the Shadowrun 5th Edition Beginner Box that I picked up in 2015 but never got around to actually reading.

Disclosure: Some links in this post are Amazon Affiliate links. As an associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.


What is #RPGaMonth

#RPGaMonth is something that started a couple years back on Google Plus. Roger Brasslett was the first person I saw use the hashtag, which he shared along with a pile of twelve games he planned to read that year. I loved the idea of getting some of my own unread books read and sharing my thoughts of them with other people doing the same. With multiple people taking part there was more reason to actually try to keep up.

I have to admit I didn’t do so great on it the last couple years, there was just too much other non-gaming stuff going on with my family to keep up. As I announced during our Hindsight/Foresight New Years Podcast, I’ve re-dedicated myself to this challenge again in 2019. Life seems to have somewhat normalized, so surely I can read at least twelve RPG books this year?

The actual challenge is to read at least one new RPG item a month. With the goal being to get some use out those games that are sitting on your shelves (or hard drives) gathering dust. As far as I’m concerned just reading an RPG book is getting use out of it. Even if you never run the game or the module, the information may be of use to you in other games, it can act as inspiration or change the way you think about something you are actually playing. That said, if I can also get a few of these games to the table, I’m all for that too.

I invite anyone reading this to join in on the challenge with me. Get one of those old books read and then talk about it online using the hashtag #RPGaMonth.


Why the Shadowrun Beginner Box

Shadowrun is a true classic. It’s been around since 1989 and was one of those games that everyone knew about and it seemed like everyone played. Everyone but me at least. This is actually my first experience with Shadowrun. See back in the day I was a big Cyberpunk 2020 fan and I wasn’t at all interested in a game that added elves and dragons to my beloved Cyberpunk setting.

Now over the years I’ve met many fans of the system. I know people who have been playing it since the first edition and still play it now. I also know people who have given up on the game. Overall, Shadowrun has a very strong reputation for being a very crunchy, rules heavy, system that needs way too many D6s. A game where character optimization and picking out the right gear is hugely important and where combat is one of the primary focuses of the game.

It’s a system that I’ve grown more curious about over the years. I’ve often wondered if I missed out on something by not getting into the game in it’s heyday. Plus it feels like having not played a game as well known as Shadowrun is somehow a gap in my RPG resume.

This is why when they announced a Shadowrun Beginner Box for the 5th edition of the game I decided it was time for me to finally give Shadowrun a chance. See, I love RPG boxed sets, I really do. I have a hard time turning down a boxed set, and here was a new one for a game I was already curious about. I had to buy it.


What’s in the Box?

The first thing I found when opening this box is that the box itself isn’t so great. It’s a very thin and flimsy box. The kind you open up the top, not the kind with a lid. It’s not very sturdy at all and I worry that it’s not going to last very well on my self. I can see it easy getting crushed, especially after removing the cardboard insert that was in the box.

Along with that insert and far too much air I found:

A Welcome to the Shadows “read this first” intro sheet. One side of this glossy full colour sheet told me what I’m supposed to do with the stuff in the box and what order to read everything in. Then on the back was an advertisement for where to go next, once I’ve fallen in love with the game.

Up next were five more glossy sheets. This time character sheets, including Ms. Myth a troll face-style character, Gentry a human hacker (Decker), Sledge some ork muscle, Hardpoint a dwarf techie, and last Coydog an elven shaman.

Then there was a Shadowrunner Dossier for Ms. Myth. I found it really odd there was only one of these dossiers for only one of the characters.

The Edge of Now is a booklet. 24 pages that is filled with setting information.

The last game book is the actual Shadowrun Quick-Start Rules. Again, full colour glossy and 31 pages long.

The last book in the box was Fire & Frost, which is an excerpt from an “upcoming Shadowrun Novel” from Kai O’Connal.

The box also had 12 blue D6. Standard board game D6 with pips not gaming D6s.

Sorry, I almost forgot there was also a 2015 Catalyst Games Labs brochure showing off their other games like Battletech and a personal favourite The Duke.

Overall I was impressed by the contents if not the box or the amount of air in it. All of the books are high quality, on nice thick paper, in full colour and filled with excellent evocative art. Both on the covers and throughout.

I’m going to go through each of these in the order that was suggested by the Read This First sheet.


The Edge of Now

This is the Shadowrun Sixth World setting book.

It starts off with a short story introducing you to a new Shadowrun team made up of the characters included in the box. Then dives into exactly what the setting of Shadowrun is.

Now, Shadowrun has been around a very long time and it’s a long standing, well loved, setting that has been well developed and explored for years, and it shows. I can tell just reading this short introduction to the setting that I’m only scratching the surface. I also see hints of past meta campaigns and things that have happened in earlier iterations of the books. Things listed as history that I’m certain were past campaigns.

I even found I didn’t mind the whole explanation of how magic came back and the whole Goblinization thing (where people spontaneously turned into Orks and Trolls). I doubt there are many people out there who don’t know the deal here. It’s a cyberpunk dystopian future. Big mega corporations own everything and you are playing the people on the fringes. It just happens that there is also magic. The thing is magic is mainstream, it’s also been capitalized. It’s just another fact of life. I dug that.

The thing I had somehow missed in all these years, being on the fringes of people playing Shadowrun, is that the game is meant to be all about “the run.”  The default setting for the game is that your characters are a group of runners who do jobs for corporations. It doesn’t matter what corporation, whoever is willing to pay the right price. These jobs include intrusion, extraction, sabotage, etc.

This isn’t Cyberpunk 2020, where you are free spirits trying to be awesome and cool and show off your chrome while flipping the finger to the corps. It’s not: attitude is everything and style over sustenance. It’s not: live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse. It’s do what you can to get by which involves selling out to someone somehow and hoping you don’t get too screwed over by it. Heck almost every chapter in this book is about how your character is paying for something and how much it sucks. That’s not quite the tone I was expecting.

The book goes into some details about all kinds of specifics. What life is like in this sixth world. What a character’s average day is like. What is involved in a Shadowrun. Who you may run for and who you may run against, and other opposition you may encounter. A bunch of standard cyberpunk setting stuff and technology. Yes there is a Cyberspace, it’s called the Matrix. They don’t really get into details about it at all in this book. I did think it was worth noting that everything is at least wireless. The book finishes off with a description of Seattle a city that has been the default Shadowrun stomping ground since the 80s.


Character Sheets

The first thing I noticed when looking at the first character sheet I grabbed (which happened to be Sledge) was just how much game mechanics there are. The front of the sheet has a really quick one paragraph intro to the character and is mostly art. The other side though is half a page of small text game crunch.

I had flashbacks to when I bough the AD&D 2e Monstrous Manual without having read a D&D book in my life and trying to figure out what the heck a Hit Die was. Except that made more sense.

There is a ton of info on these character sheets and pretty much none of it makes sense at this point. It’s way more than I would expect from a beginner box like this. You usually get simplified characters in a boxed set like this and I’m pretty sure these are characters made with the full 5th edition rules.

Now at this point I’ve actually read the rest of this boxed set and I can tell you there are lots of things on these sheets that don’t need to be there.

I have no clue what EDG or ESS means and these are from the main stat line. The Quick-Start book tells you to ignore the Quality Section (even though in one example they use it). The solo adventure references skills that aren’t on any of the sheets. I assume those skills are buried in “skill groups” but no where in this box does it list what a skill group is. Even now I’m not sure which number in which set of brackets is the proper one to use to build a dice pool.

I would say only about half the info on these sheets is actually used with the information in this box. That just seems silly and needlessly overwhelming to someone new to the system like myself. They do look good though.


Ms. Myth Troll Face Shadowrunner Dossier

This small 7 page booklet is a bit odd. Mainly because there is just the one of them, for the one character. I guess it points out how you can better flesh out a character. It does give a ton of info about this particular character. How she was raised, jobs she had, downtime activities, loyalties, contacts, preferred tactics, and a whole lot more. Though I’m still not sure if her nickname is Troll Face or if that’s like a race and class thing Troll: Face.

There is also a solo adventure in the later part of the booklet. There’s a problem with this though. At this point, following along the “what to read first” sheet, none of the rules have been explained. So when the solo adventure says, “Have Ms. Myth roll her Etiquette 6 + Charisma 5 (total 11 dice) against her supervisor’s Perception 2 + Charisma 3 (total 5 dice), you don’t actually know what to do with it. So when you get to this point in the book you are stuck until you go on to read the actual Quick Start Rules.

The end of this booklet shows what I’m guessing is a full Shadowrun 5e character sheet for Ms. Myth, but the pictures are too small, and you can’t actually read it. On the back is the same set of stats again in the same format as the character sheet. It’s also worth noting that Ms. Myth doesn’t have the Charisma skill listed there. Yes I’m probably right in guessing it’s part of the Influence skill group which is rated a 6, but I don’t actually know that for sure based on the info in this box.


Quick-Start Rules

Finally the meat and potatoes of this boxed set. The book that should make all this other stuff make sense and come together. And it does, for the most part.

This is a 30 page booklet that has all of the rules of the game. Right off the bat, it starts off describing what an RPG is, then actually tells you how to read the included character sheets. It even warns you that this is a starter set and that some of the stuff isn’t explained here. By page 4 the character sheets basically make sense and by page 5 you can actually go back and play through that solo adventure. It’s baffling to me that this book wasn’t at the top of the “read first” list and not second from the bottom.

The rules are actually quite simple. Simpler than I expected based on the game’s reputation. Basically you add your skill + your stat to get a number. You grab that number of D6 and you roll them. Every 5 or 6 is a “hit”.  A standard task requires two hits. For opposed rolls, you just compare hits with the party with the highest total winning. In addition there are limits, these set a maximum number of hits you can roll. These are based on your characters stats for most tests but limits can also come from things like gear or equipment. For example shooting someone it limited by the accuracy of the gun used.

What I found interesting about this is that I guess this is a way simpler system than previous editions of Shadowrun.  When I got to the solo rules in the Ms. Myth  book I sent out a tweet about how they hadn’t explained how to make a roll yet. A fan of the system replied with a pretty complicated set of rules for figuring it out. Where the limit reduced the dice pool and the target number was based on the opposing skill check. Definitely way more complicated than roll all your dice, count the 5s and 6s and check to see if you hit the limit.

Then there are glitches. These happen if more than half of the dice rolled come up with a 1. What I dig about this is that you can still pass your test and have a glitch happen. That’s a rather modern rule for such a classic game and allows for things like success at a cost. Of course, if you glitch and also fail you end up with a botch, so some of that old school feel is still there.

Not having actually used the system I can’t say how well it works in play, but I’ve got to say it sounds pretty simple and even a bit elegant. Well, if you can call rolling 12D6 at once elegant.

As expected, a big chunk of the rules are combat based. It all still uses the same basic system though. Combat is handled with opposed roles and a pretty straight forward initiative system that does a good job of accounting for things like cyberware and enhanced reflexes, common to the genre. Rounds use an action economy that will be familiar to anyone playing anything D20 in the last 20 years, where characters get one complex action, or two simple actions and one free action a round. Movement and location are all abstracted and part of regular actions unless a character wants to run.

Combat gets a bit fiddly once you actually hit. Here you get into things like armour values, the piercing values of weapons etc. Damage is more opposed rolls and characters have two damage tracks, wounds and stun. It’s all stuff I fully expected to find but was surprised to see that none of it was overly crunchy. It’s definitely heavier than the aforementioned D20 games especially with everything being opposed rolls but it’s no Twilight 2000.

After combat, we get reminded that this is Shadowrun and not Cyberpunk and that we live in an Awakened World. Here we find rules for Magic. Again it all follows the same basic system of opposed D6 dice pool rolls looking for hits. Spells can be used just like any other piece of gear or ability, there’s no Vancian magic here or magic points. Pick a spell and use it, just like the Street Samurai picks which gun to fire. I dig it. I particularly like the rules for counter-spelling, they are some of the simplest I’ve seen in any RPG with magic.

Up next, we get back to the tech with the Matrix, Augmented Reality, Programs etc. This was a disappointing section for me. Here the beginner box really skimped on the rules and basically hinted at the fact that there’s a lot more going on and that I will have to check out the full rules for more. I get that they had to cut some stuff for an intro box but I was bummed that it was this section.

Overall the actual rules section was well laid out, things were explained clearly and there were plenty of examples.

Up next is Food Fight. This is a sample adventure that confuses me quite a bit.

Remember up above how I noted that I somehow missed, over all these years, that Shadowrun was all about doing jobs, Runs, for Corporations. Well based on Food Fight, that’s not all it’s about.

That’s right the sample adventure in the Shadowrun Beginner Box isn’t actually a Shadowrun.

I don’t get it.

Anyway, what we actually have here is an intro scenario, really just one scene set up to teach you the rules. Specifically the combat rules, with almost no focus on anything else. The start of the scenario even states “While Shadowrun is indeed an RPG, don’t worry about being in-character this first adventure. Roll-Playing can come later.” I still find this a very odd choice.

Oh and what’s with that map? It’s like half of the key is missing?  What’s in aisles 11-18. What is location L? Besides the map what’s Karma? As a reward for finishing the mission the characters earn Karma. My guess would be the XP system from the full rules but this is the only place in the box you see Karma mentioned.

The actual scenario sounds interesting enough. It’s a cool set up that shows off some aspects of the setting. It does indeed seem like it would highlight most if not all of the combat rules, all in one place. It also includes a fair amount of humour. I admit it sounds fun. It just doesn’t fit what I expected from the rest of what I had read so far.

As I was reading this section, I was tweeting out some of my confusion and I learned something interesting. I guess this specific scenario has a history. Apparently, Food Fight has been the intro scenario in every edition of Shadowrun ever published. So I guess this is a nostalgic nod to long time fans of the game. I get it, I guess. Though I would have preferred if they had included Food Fight for the long term fans and then an actual sample Shadowrun for those of us new to the setting.

After Food Fight we get to a section about what to do next. I was really hoping for more out of this section. There are three really vague plots suggested but not in any detail that a non-experienced GM would be able to turn into a game session. While these are probably great prompts for experienced Shadowrun GMs, for someone new to the system or new to RPGs completely, there’s not enough here to really work with.

Now this is followed by a section on gamemastering. I found it odd that this wasn’t before the actual scenario but at this point I’m used to things being out of order. There is some rather solid GM advice here, stuff that’s good to see in a classic game. This is followed by some sample NPCs, with more stat blocks, including stuff that’s never explained in the rest of the box.

The last page of the book is the Gamemaster Screen. Here we find some of the charts and crunch that the system is famous for. There’s nothing surprising here. Ranged Combat Modifiers, Visibility Modifiers, Combat Turn Sequence, Perception Test Thresholds, etc. My only real surprise is that there weren’t more charts like this throughout the book. One page of charts is crunchy but not overtly crunchy.


Fire & Frost

Fire & Frost is the last book in the box. It’s a digest sized excerpt from a novel. It runs 37 pages.

I know that fiction and novels have been a big part of Shadowrun since the beginning, so it just makes sense to tie that into this boxed set.

You don’t get much of a story here, one segment of a run that goes wrong, opening up to a bigger plot. It was a decent enough read but didn’t have me rushing out to find the full book. My main disappointment with it was that it didn’t involve the characters from the boxed set. I think that would have been a much cooler tie in.


My Overall Thoughts

Overall, I found the Shadowrun Beginner Box to be a real mixed bag.

I realize that a lot of what I’ve said so far paints the entire thing in a pretty negative light. There are definitely some problems here. But a lot of those problems end up resolved once you read through everything in the box and could have been more easily fixed if Catalyst just told you to read things in the right order.

The biggest impression I got from this boxed set is that it was made by Shadowrun fans for Shadowrun fans. It feels more like an introduction to 5th edition for long time or returning Shadowrun fans. Despite saying it’s a Beginner Box, I feel it’s not a great tool for beginners. Both beginners to Shadowrun and beginners to RPGs. Now I’m an experienced RPG player so I can’t really tell, but I have a feeling this would be a pretty bad box for someone experiencing roleplaying for the first time.

All that said, if the goal of this box is to get me to want to play Shadowrun, it worked.

Sure maybe there’s way too much stuff on those character sheets, I’m having to guess what skills fall under what skill packages, and the map may be incomplete. But I’m an experienced GM, I’ve run with less complete information. Though my teenage self is sticking me the finger from the past, I’ve gotta admit the setting seems cool. I really dig the aesthetic and a gun fight in a convenience store sounds like a way better way to get the party together than “you all meet in a tavern”.

Right now, I’m glad I picked up this box. It was an interesting read. It was cool to learn how little I actually knew about the setting. It was also good to see it’s not quite the crunch fest it used to be. Would I recommend it? If you are already a fan of Shadowrun and are interested in seeing what they’ve done with 5e, this does seem like a really good place to start. If you are like me and an experienced roleplayer who is curious about the system, check it out. It’s got some flaws but a lot of good going for it to. If you are new to RPGs, I’ve got to steer you away from this one. If you are still interested in Shadowrun, find someone already running a game and check that out before trying to dive in with this boxed set.

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6 Responses

  1. If you weren’t familiar with Shadowrun, maybe you didn’t realize that it was a shared fantasy world with Earthdawn, back when they were both owned by the same company. Magic would wax and wane. When it waxed: Earthdawn. When magic waned: Shadowrun.

    I don’t see a way to get notified for follow up comments, so message me if you’d like to chat along this line.

    1. Thanks for the comment Roger,

      I have head that over the years, but then I also saw some people dispute it. I was under the impression that it was actually a very strong fan theory never actually confirmed by any of the designers.

      Moe

        1. That’s interesting.

          Earthdawn always fascinated me. It’s the RPG system I own the most stuff for but have never played. I have almost a full shelf of books. I could never convince anyone to play.

  2. Personally, I felt the Alphaware Runners Toolkit is a FAR better introductory set to this. While it still suffers from lack of order, it’s far more comprehensive.

    Plus, much nicer box!

    1. Interesting. You would think the product called “Beginner Box” would be the main intro point.

      I’ve given up on 5e at this point, but I’ve already got a copy of the 6th edition starter set and so far it’s looking much better.

      Thanks for the comment,
      Moe

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