What Do I Know About Reviews? Shadowrun: Anarchy
Much like Adventures in Middle-earth, Shadowrun Anarchy wasn’t on my big list of RPGs that I was attempting to get caught up on. I had heard of it a few months ago, and was kind of interested in checking it out, but it dropped off my radar until a few people in my online gaming chat circles started to talk about it again. After a couple weeks of successfully resisting the impulse buy, I finally gave in.
Shadowrun is one of the Big Names in the RPG industry, regardless of who is currently publishing the content. Much like World of Darkness, Shadowrun was one of those RPGs that gained a lot of traction and managed to shrink the domination that D&D held over the RPG industry. The other thing that is probably a bit ironic is that it is the biggest cyberpunk genre RPG, even though it’s not “straight” cyberpunk by a long shot. Not too bad for a game that makes William Gibson cringe.
Shadowrun first showed up in 1989, and given that I was a subscriber to Dragon Magazine at the time, I couldn’t escape it. I saw the ads, and I saw the products in game stores and book stores whenever I went shopping for the more traditional games that I was currently purchasing. Despite that, my group never really got into Shadowrun. At least not when we were all one group. When my friends went off to college, and we talked about separate gaming experiences, they had apparently picked up Shadowrun habits while out and about.
I was certainly interested, but initially the lack of disposable income (I wasn’t ready to abandon D&D and Marvel Super Heroes to pick up something new), and eventually, the lack of gaming group, meant that I never checked the game out. Eventually, through the magic of video games, I was introduced to the setting, but I still had never purchased a Shadowrun tabletop product or played in a game.
When I returned to the RPG scene, I heard a lot of Shadowrun stories. People seemed to have a good time playing the game, but there were always–warning signs. Gamers would recount entire four hour sessions just spent planning a mission. Stories were plentiful about how combat was super lethal. Plans were so important that a player whose character screwed up their part “deserved” to have his character killed by the other PCs. Jokes about the number of six sided dice that needed to be rolled, and of course, about the density of the rules were common.
I wasn’t overly moved to learn the game. But it still all looked so compelling, and I loved the video games. I really wanted some kind of “in” with the setting, something that wasn’t just playing an RPG on my computer. I picked up the 5th Edition PDF, which looked gorgeous, but never quite made my way through it. Then I heard about Anarchy, which was suppose to be a “low impact alternate ruleset.” I was interested, but there were so many other games out there. Then I started hearing people’s impressions of the game. And now we’re here.
The Book Itself
Shadowrun Anarchy is pretty consistent with books that I have seen from Catalyst Labs, which is to say, they are up there with the top players in the industry when it comes to attractive, well formatted books that sport high end, full color artwork. As far as I can tell, at least some of art is re-purposed from other Shadowrun material, but the art that appears is attractive and appropriate. It’s grungy, shiny, colorful, and dark, all in equal measures, which makes sense for the setting. The book itself clocks in at 218 pages. All observations on how the book appears are made from the PDF, because, at the time of my review, the physical book isn’t available.
The book has opening fiction. It takes up multiple pages, and uses some of the pre-generated characters from the Forces of Chaos section of the book, which is a nice touch. It’s pretty standard if you are familiar with any cyberpunk tropes, but since this game is marketed, at least in part, to get new players into Shadowrun, it’s probably not bad to reintroduce the basics. As with most fiction in game books, I prefer it right up front and not shotgunned throughout the rest of the book, and that’s pretty much where Anarchy contains the fiction.
This is a really quick introductory section of the book that just quickly explains what each section of the book is about and then moves on.
Bleeding on the Edge
This part of the book is a quick primer on the Shadowrun universe, explaining why there is magic and weird creatures in the middle of all this cyberpunk. It outlines corporations, organized crime, gangs, law enforcement, political and magical groups, and daily life in the setting. All of this is in pretty broad strokes, but enough that someone picking up one of the pre-gens and playing through the mission briefs included in the book will probably “get” what is going on.
As an interesting side note, they do mention that Shadowrun is now “alternate history” urban fantasy cyberpunk, since the setting has remained relatively consistent with how it was envisioned in 1989, and introduced things like wireless access to computer networks much later in history than we have it now–and we also didn’t get magic back in 2011, either. That we noticed.
Rules of the Street
This section explains the core mechanics of the game, how to roll the dice, and how to know when you were successful or when you failed at a task. Essentially, you build a dice pool based on a skill and an ability trait, and you need a number of 5s and 6s based on the number of 5s and 6s rolled by the opposing die pool, which is either a set number of dice or a dice pool built by an NPCs traits and skills. This can be modified by various Shadow Amps (anything magical or cybernetic you have as part of your character) and by other aspects of your character. You can spend Edge to change the success threshold of your dice roll, as well, and you can also spend plot points to alter your rolls, get extra actions, or movement.
There are quite a few ways that Shadow Amps, traits, and plot points can alter rolls. Enough that it’s not easy to summarize them here. I will say this–from what I have seen of Shadowrun 5th Edition, this game is simpler, and easier to learn, but it’s not exactly rules light. It’s more on the low end of rules medium. The rules are logical, and intuitive, but there are a lot of ways to engage them.
Also, some terms start to be thrown around in this section that aren’t as obvious until you see examples in later chapters. The section on building characters and the catalog of amps, traits, and gear at the end of the book make things much clearer, but the way the book presents some rules, you aren’t sure if that clarification is coming. It may have been worth it to move that section forward in the book, especially for someone reading the book in a linear fashion.
Building Street Cred
This section goes into more details about how the rules presented in the previous chapter work at the table. By default, the GM doesn’t do quite as much as a GM would in a traditional Shadowrun game. Their job is to present the scenario, and run the obviously appearing opposition. On each player’s turn, called a narration in these rules, the character can use plot points to introduce more twists and turns into the story, and when characters make perception checks successfully, they get to narrate what they see.
The intention is for the players to add many of the details and surprises that a GM might normally be responsible for. This is the standard way that the Cue System works for games like the Valiant Universe RPG and Cosmic Patrol. For those not familiar with those games, it’s not entirely dissimilar to Fiasco, where the players are expected to make their own lives more difficult and interesting, and the GM is only presenting the most obvious and straight forward of challenges in the game.
I think this could be a very interesting way to play the game, but this game is also meant to bring in people used to more traditional RPGs, as well as to possibly get some gamers from other editions of Shadowrun involved, so this section also includes a few notes on how to shift the game back to a more traditional PC/GM narrative structure. These rules give the GM a few more plot points to use and some more freedom on how to use them, and more narrowly defines how the PCs can use their plot points.
There are also alternate initiative systems, which involve moving from one side of the GM around the table, “cinematic” initiative, which should be familiar to players of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and traditional rolling. This section also mentions specific “Talk Time,” when all of the PCs are interacting in a less structured manner, as every scene, not just combat, is assumed to use the same structure as combat rounds, allowing them to introduce plot elements via plot points, if they wish to do so.
This section gives GM advice on how to keep the narratives moving from player to player, how to ask the right questions to get details from players, and how and when to offer the players clues that they can latch onto in order to advance the storyline. It also introduces one of my favorite alternate rules–Target Tokens.
Using this alternate rule, if a player does the exact same thing in multiple rounds, that player acquires Target Tokens. If the player picks up three Target Tokens, the GM can cash them in to gain a bonus on actions against their character, since they have provided their opposition a discernable pattern of behavior.
Forces of Chaos
This section details character creation, for those players that aren’t playing one of the characters from the section that provides pre-gen characters. There are rules for game “level,” to show if the characters are brand new to their profession, somewhat experienced, or seasoned operatives. There are modifiers for what metatype the character has (human, elf, dwarf, ork, or troll) as well as attribute maximums for those metatypes. There are point costs for being awakened or emerged, allowing the character to chose magic Shadow Amps. Skill points are next, and then Shadow Amps.
The section on Shadow Amps is another one that can be confusing without the example Amps show up at the end of the book. While the cost in points (and essence, for cybernetics) is clearly laid out, examples definitely help to show exactly how the Amps should look and what they should do for their cost, especially when they can be custom built.
Essence measures how much of your metahumanity you lose to your cybernetic parts, and it creates a hard limit on how many cybernetic Shadow Amps you can have. Additionally, you take a penalty on rolls involving magic and healing based on how low this score gets.
One thing I’m going to throw in here that isn’t apparent until later in the book is that while Shadow Amps are suppose to represent super high tech gear, cybernetics, magic items, and spells that the character knows, a few sample characters, as well as the examples at the end of the book, show “social amps.” These are just basically things your character can do to interact with other characters. Given that there is a section for positive and negative qualities later on in character creation, it almost seems as if these “amps” might have been clearer if presented as qualities instead. Maybe it’s just me.
Eventually you pick up two positive qualities and one negative (which you can later buy off with Karma), armor, and gear.
To finish up your character, you create cues, and then create your background, which includes dispositions. This feels a little redundant to me. Cues are kind of like catch phrases, and the point is to give you an idea what to do when it’s your narration and you aren’t sure what to do next. Dispositions aren’t worded like cues, but they are suppose to be the things that your character is motivated by. Neither of these has a direct mechanical function, other than to flesh the character out, so it feels odd that these are two separate things, which have kind of a formalized way to represent them, when they are just there to help you define the character.
Finally, the chapter goes into character advancement, which is how much Karma you have to spend in order to upgrade your weapons or amps, or how much it will take to increase your skills. One note that isn’t quite clear here, but is made clear later in the book, is that Karma is both your XP and your money, essentially. In the universe, you get paid X amount, but that translates into Karma you get for completing a run, and your character can negotiate the Karma they get much like they would scrip or nuyen “in character.”
This section presents pre-generated characters, who can also serve as NPCs (and are referenced as such in some of the mission briefings later in the book), as well as definite NPCs, like bug spirits, corporate security, nature spirits, and dragons.
There is a huge selection of pre-gen characters, which makes this product very useful to just pick up and play, especially with how the mission briefs are presented later in the book. There is also a good cross section of the various metatypes and potential archetypes of runners from the setting.
The NPCs section feels a bit lighter. Even in the mission briefs, there are a lot of references to stat blocks that say to use “X, but swap out Y and add +2 to Z,” which feels like it loses some of those great “pick up and play” kudos I just gave the game for all of the pre-gens included. There is a a fairly comprehensive conversion guide in the back, which should help a lot for building more distinct NPCs, but I can’t help but wish for just a couple more pages of variety from the Shadowrun setting. Despite this, they do pretty much cover the basics, just not much of the exotic.
The Secrets of Seattle
I really like what they did with this chapter. While it could have been a fairly straight forward gazetteer of the Shadowrun version of Seattle, the end of each section makes the difference. Not only do they have a few comments “in universe” about what was just said above, which often highlights what the “adventurers” of the setting find most important, but each section has tags. These are several words that pertain to that section to remind you what sites are there and what the important themes of that section are.
It’s not quite as extensive as what I have proposed in the past, but it is exactly the kind of tool I have been hoping more “setting detail” sections of books would adopt. Having the “bullet points” of what you were suppose to take away from the section appear at the end helps to digest the information, and makes it much easier to remember what was distinct about an area by just looking at the tags.
This section has many, many mission briefs, which generally serve as an adventure outline for a mission that should be sufficient for a night of play. There are a few multi-part missions towards that end that can be chained into longer campaigns.
Most of them are simple and straight-forward, and there is a lot of “this is the main thing they need to do, make up the details as needed” to the mission briefs, but that is completely within the spirit of how the rules have been presented thus far. Additionally, the briefs usually give you names and locations, so you don’t come up blank when pressed for more information.
However, the briefs also go one step further, with their own bullet points to reiterate the objectives, and tags to remind you of the elements that should be coming up in the mission. I really like this, both for keeping the session on track by reminding you of the objective at a glance, and for giving you a prompt when you need to improvise something. Look at the tags–has X come up yet? No? Then I guess it’s time for that to happen.
Some of the briefs also start with a context or word watch section, which explain elements of the Shadowrun universe in more detail than the rest of the book might have, as it pertains to the particular mission at hand.
Some of the missions are just set pieces that can happen in between other elements of another mission brief, and the missions, have a lot of variety. There are standard cyberpunk style jobs, but there are also jobs that act as a sort of guide to daily life in the Shadowrun setting, and there are also jobs that deal heavily with the magical side of the setting. It was a broader range of missions than I was expecting.
If there is a downside to this section, it’s what I mentioned earlier, in the Street People section, where NPCs will be referenced in the briefs, but then call for the GM to make multiple modifications to the stat block. This seems inimical to the improvisational feel of the game, as presented, and the more free-form structure of the mission briefs.
Anarchy and Fifth Edition
This section of the book gives you a guide to converting characters to and from Shadowrun 5th Edition, and makes a few notes on what books from the Shadowrun line would be the most useful to those wanting to use Anarchy in depth. I appreciated the candor about how some books might be too rules heavy to be of much use to an Anarchy-utilizing group.
I can’t speak to how well the conversions from Anarchy to 5th Edition would work, since I never quite made it through that book. I have to admit, I’m kind of excited at the prospect of picking up a few of the suggested books and modifying the stats accordingly, which I guess is pretty good for Catalyst’s bottom line.
For people playing Anarchy itself, however, the most important part of this chapter is probably the Anarchy Catalog, which is a list of all of the example Amps, Qualities, Weapons, Armor, and Gear, some of which only appear in this list. This includes “Critter Amps,” which can be helpful in modeling monstrous things that weren’t detailed in the NPC section.
My only real criticism of this chapter is that I wish the catalog had appeared in the character creation chapter to give some better examples closer to where they are most likely to be used.
There is a lot to like in this book. It is easy to build dice pools, and fairly simple to figure out if actions were successful. The book “feels” crunchy enough to still be Shadowrun, despite using more narrative mechanics. While there are a lot of rules, the rules are intuitive in how they work, so it’s not too hard to puzzle out all of those functions using logic.
Because of where information is in the book, and the order that terminology is introduced, some people trying to puzzle out the rules may get lost before they find out how something is suppose to work. If you really, really want a rules light, narrative game, this one isn’t quite what you may be looking for. Ironically, examples of how the game should work in the “default” mode, with more player control of the narrative, are a little light, and may be harder to pick up for people not used to more narrative based games, and the “alternate” standard GM/PC set up presented may be a lot easier to set into motion with the tools provided.
Fate of the Sixth World
I was feeling this product as a solid three stars until I started to see the tags, objectives, and variety presented in some of the later chapters, and the Anarchy Catalog, providing the solid examples that it did, pushed me over the top.
**** (out of 5)