Friday, December 13, 2013

Fireside Chat: Game Settings, and Systems

What is Shadowrun? When I've been asked that question I usually embark on a long description of the game, the setting, and the fluff. This works for new players, and helps people understand what they are getting into, but it's limiting in and of itself. Let me give you an example.

I happen to frequent a local game store, as I like to shop local, and as chance would have it one of the fluff writers for Shadowrun 5th Edition also frequents the store. We got to talking, and she took me to task after I stated that Shadowrun was based in Seattle. Her point being that, as she wrote for Catalyst, she knew that the plot wasn't going to be Seattle-centric, and therefore I was wrong to state that Shadowrun was based in Seattle. This got me to thinking, first that it's silly for a person who is a representative of a company, however, peripherally, to be arguing with that same company's customers, and second, what exactly is meant by a setting, or really, a system at all?

Let's look at system first. There are two main game systems. The first, is a threshold based system. This is the D20 system, in a nutshell. You have a target, if you roll over it, you succeed, under it, you fail. You also have a success based system. This, is Shadowrun. You have a pool of dice, and if enough dice succeed you pass, if they don't you fail. If you want to describe Shadowrun in minimalist terms, you would describe it as a success based D6 system. That's it. There's no trappings of settings, or fluff, it's simply the system that is used, and the type of dice rolled.

Now, let's talk setting. Setting is where the game's fluff takes place. This is often confused as being where the game itself takes place, but once you remove the fluff, you're often left with very little in terms of setting. In Shadowrun 3rd, and 4th, edition the game's setting was Seattle. In my mind, this continues into 5th Edition as well. Regardless of the official cannon. Why does this matter? Let me explain.

For years now, I've wanted to run a role-playing game set in Prohibition. That is, 1920's era, New York City. In order to run such a game, I went looking for a set of rules who's fluff meshed with the setting I wanted to run. What I should have done, and this comes back to the discussion in the game store rather neatly, was adapt a game system, to fit the setting I wanted to play. What's to prevent me from taking the D6 based success system of Shadowrun 5th Edition, and dropping it into a 1920's era setting? Nothing. That's the great thing about viewing a game as a system, and not as a setting.

But, let's keep it a little closer to home. I have a group of players, and they've never been to Seattle. Tacoma means nothing to them, nor does Redmond, Bellevue, or Lake Washington. The setting, as it's presented, is meaningless. Why use it? I know we get attached to a setting, and we feel that we have to do whatever it is that the designer wants us to use, but why not set a campaign in your own home town? Have your players meet Mr. Johnson in your favorite local watering hole, and meet up for after-the-Run dinner at your favorite greasy-spoon.

Remember, it's your game, and your players game, if they want to keep the setting in Seattle, great. If not, great. Do what you want with the system, regardless of the setting.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Tactics: Riggers, Deckers, and Party Design

I'm a car guy. I love vehicles in Shadowrun. It always pained me in 3rd, and 4th Edition that most of my teams had an NPC rigger. Strictly from a mechanics, and flow perspective it wasn't feasible to have a PC rigger. Once the player had spent most of his money, and/or build points into a vehicle they had little incentive to get out of the vehicle. This meant that one player would usually sit out the run, until the group needed a quick getaway. This, to say the least, was no fun. Drone riggers fixed this to a point, but then the drones took over the scouting and combat roles, and other players who would usually be performing those roles ended up sitting twiddling their thumbs. In the end, most GMs, and most groups, abandoned the Rigger.

Even in 4th Edition, where the vehicle rules were better, few groups ran a PC rigger. When I picked up Shadowrun 5th Edition, I had low hopes for a lot of the mechanics. After reading through the Matrix rules, and wanting to build a Decker for the first time in a long while, I moved on to the vehicle rules. I fell in love with the amount of synergy between Riggers and Deckers. That was a master-stroke and one that has fundamentally altered the way I run, and plan, my games. You can no longer have a Rigger without a Decker. Opposing Deckers are now a massive threat to a NPC, or PC, Rigger.

This has prompted a shift in the metagame, the dynamic of the "Default" party. When I say default party I want you to think back to D&D, specifically early D&D. When you sat down to play D&D with your friends, as I often did, there was a default set of characters that had to be played, or the party never quite worked. You had the Fighter, the Mage, the Rogue, and the Cleric. Granted, some of these roles could be filled by other classes but the optimum build was always those four. Shadowrun, despite not having classes has an optimum build. In 3rd Edition you could do without a Decker, provided you had someone with good hardware skills. You needed a Face, but often times you could get away with another player taking some social skills, and a decent charisma. Usually, in my groups, that was your mage. There was no real call for a Rigger, in fact most of the time you only needed a car, and didn't even need the driving skill, 4th Edition was more or less the same. However, 5th Edition changed all that.

Let's look at the default build-point based 3rd Edition party.

- Street Samurai (Usually metahuman, Ork, Troll, etc.)
- Socialite (Elf, usually)
- Magician (Elf, or Human)
- Wildcard (Medic, Hardware guy, gun nut, decker, adept etc.)

The point being, with a Street Samurai, Social Character, and Magician, you had the game on lock. There was little you couldn't do with those three builds. The forth character was syntactic sugar, a nice to have, but not needed for the group to accomplish their objectives. The issue here is simple, you've reduced the game to a formula and whomever got stuck playing the forth man was in for a less than stellar experience.

With 5th Edition, things shifted. Sure, you can turn your network connectivity off, but the bonuses for wireless connectivity are huge. So, you leave your gear connected. Most characters won't even think about being hacked. As a GM, you let the following story play out. Runners get a job, they get hacked, badly, things go south, their gear goes haywire, guns won't fire, cyberware bricks, commlinks smoke and fail. Everything goes south. It's not hard to orchestrate, and it proves a point. So now you have to run a PC Decker, it's flat-out required. Now let's look at the default party again.

- Street Samurai
- Socialite
- Magician
- Decker

Still looks awfully formulaic. But, let's take it one step further. Why take a dedicated Socialiate? Your Magician, if they are a conjurer they will have a solid Charisma. So, your Magician becomes your Face. If not your magician, pick a character with a decent Charisma and tack on a Negotiation skill.  It's not hard to imagine. So now we have an empty spot. What do we do? We take a Rigger. Why? Because noise forces them to be johnny on the spot, and drones are incredible. Plus, it's nice to not have to walk to the meet.

So now your baseline party looks like this:

- Street Samurai
- Magician (with Negotation)
- Decker (possible with Negotiation, if the Magician isn't a conjurer)
- Rigger

Everyone has a job to do, there's enough overlap to handle injuries, and nobody is left sitting out because they've done their part. 5th Edition solves the wildcard character problem, while promoting synergy within the team, and making your Rigger, and your Decker into best friends.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Fireside Chat: Mages

I wrote two blog posts on the magic rules in Shadowrun 5th Edition, specifically Spellcasting, and Conjuring. I wanted to take a moment and write one more post about an interesting opinion I read online while building my canned characters for my first session.

"Being an aspected mage actually penalizes for taking power limitations at priority C.  (At priority B, aspected magicians are equal to magicians at least in terms of the karma value of their bonuses.)  At priority D, obviously there isn't a comparison.  The obvious conclusion however is that nobody should ever play an aspected magician except at priority D, unless you are going to be a conjurer, and even that is debatable.  (Of course, then there is the question of why you would ever want to be a magician instead of a mystic adept, since Mystic Adept > Magician > Aspect)."

Courtesy of Ricochet here

Now, let's look at this a bit closer. At priority A, there's no Aspected Magician, so you have to choose Magician, or Mystic Adept. I cannot fathom why you would take priority A for Magic. By taking A in Magic you are selling yourself short. So much of the game focuses on Attributes, and Skills, I cannot fathom why you would waste A on Magic. Especially when B is nearly as good, and leaves your top spot open for Attributes.

Priority B is where I like to start with every Magician I've built. I look at it like this: If I'm building a human Character, then Mystical Adept, Magician, or Aspected Magician all make sense. Remember, if you're going to take Magician, you might as well take Mystical Adept. You don't have to buy the power points, but having the choice doesn't cost anything, and can leave interesting growth options open to you down the road. If I'm building a non-human character and I'm not going to have a large number of extra points to add to my Edge, and Magic, then I prefer the Aspected Magician at this level, as the one higher point in Magic can help offset the lack of special attribute points from the metatype. That being said, a full Magician at priority B can be solid with a non-human metatype, you need to balance the metatype choice, and the rest of your priority choices though.

Priority C is the first level where I'd actually consider taking an Adept. You have a reasonably high Magic, and you've left Priority A, and B, free for attributes, skills, or metatype. Though again, I'd caution against taking Priority A as anything other than attributes. For Magician, Mystic Adept, or Aspected Magician I have to agree with Ricochet. The skill group for the Aspected Magician simply isn't enough of a benefit to make me not want to take the full Magician or Mystic Adept. Magic 3 is still solid, especially if you're playing a human, or other metatype with a few special attribute points to bolster your magic rating.

Priority D, this is an interesting one. You're left with Adept, or Aspected Magician. You get no spells, or skills, for free. Why would you bother taking Priority D for Magic? Honestly, I would only take Adpet at this Priority. Given that all Adepts have to buy power points with Karma you might as well take Attributes, Skills, and Metatype/Resources as A, B, and C, and use the special attribute points to up the magic attribute, and the skill and attribute points to build a solid foundation for a character. I can't advise taking Aspected Magician at D, as there's simply too many demands on your skill picks, and karma, to make a mage work at such a low priority.

This is one of the only failings of a priority based build system. You end up with character builds that simply aren't as good, or aren't even viable. In the end, you're going to see a lot of Human Mystic Adpets. If this was intentional by the designers, or not, this is definitely the way I see things going.

Attributes: A
Magic: B (Mystic Adept)
Skills: C
Metatype: D (Human (3))
Resources: E

That's your cookie-cutter mage build, in my opinion.

I'm curious though, does anyone have an idea for a character that doesn't seem possible? I'd like a challenge. If you can think of a character concept post in the comments, and tell me what the character concept is, and what you'd pick for Metatype, Attributes, Skills, Resources, and Magic. I'll pick a few I like and see if I can actually build them.

Run Recap: First Session!

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving, or at the very least, a great weekend. As I mentioned in an earlier post I ran my first Shadowrun 5th Edition game this past Friday. I had planned to run a four player street-level game. I had developed a run that should have been a challenge, while highlighting a number of the mechanics in the game.

Once I arrived and got the session started I ran into the first of a number of hurdles. My forth player was a no-show. He'd been called into work, and wouldn't be able to make it to the game. This meant that my group was going to be down either their mage, or their primary combat character. Figuring it would be easier to work around the lack of the gun fighter I handed out the three pre-generated characters, explained the basics of the game including skill tests, limits, and opposed tests, as well as covering some of the language I would be using in game, and we got started.

As this was both a one-shot, and a new group, I kept things informal, allowing table chat, and questions as they came up. If this was a more serious group I'd have kept the cross chat to a minimum but I found that in this case it helped move things along as the one experienced player could field questions as they arose, freeing me to ad-lib a less dangerous version of the run.

We began with the meet. I went with my usual method when I have a new group, each player gets a call from their fixer, or other main contact. On the call they were told that a job was in the works, but the timeline was short and they needed to get to the '12 Stone Steps' I cut out a lot of the pre-meet work that I had planned. I let the players wander around the Tacoma waterfront, described the environment, and the police presence. I had made it clear to the players that they would need to play nice with police, and all three of my players took it to heart and showed up to the meet with small arms, under jackets, in concealable holsters. In the end, it worked well, and the descriptions of the police provided enough dramatic tension to keep the players involved. As my players staggered into the bar over the course of an hour and a half of in-game time I played up the bouncer, worked in a few concealed weapons rolls, and was lucky enough to have the bouncer spot one of my players guns, and give him a bit of trouble. As none of the characters knew each other I was able to work the meet in such a way that the group formed organically, with each player coming to the table when I needed them to.

This is one of the things I love about Shadowrun. You can effortlessly side-step the problem you run into in every D&D game, that is, why would a bunch of strangers meet up at a tavern, and go treasure hunting together. It makes no sense. At least in Shadowrun each player arrives at the meet with the idea that they are there to do a job, and get paid. Much simpler.

Once the introductions were completed, the players, and Mr. Johnson squared off for some negotiation, and then the players went their separate way to work their contacts for information on the new gang pushing BTLs in Tacoma. This wasn't part of my original plan, but I found that having the players decide their own next steps generally works well. I had planned a table of extra information, but as I was running a player short, I ad-libed and after some money changed hands, each of the players had a piece of information. Some of the information was duplicated by multiple players, but when the group got back together they were able to plan their next few steps.

I had deliberately designed the run to have a few safety features. One of these was the fact that several of the characters had Lone Star ties, and Lone Star was actively surveying the gang that the runners were targeting. This allowed me to bring in reinforcements if the run went south. This also made the players reconsider a direct confrontation, as the police are nearby, and would get involved. While this wasn't my objective, I found the fact that the players themselves took the time to talk about the pros and cons of a direct confrontation as a good sign. In the end the team mage used an improved invisibility spell, and went out to do some direct reconnaissance.

Unfortunately due to time constraints that's as far as we got, and I'll have to save the rest of the run for another day. All in all I thought it went incredibly well, and I'm looking forward to another game in the near future.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A few points...

I wanted to take a moment and thank The Arcology Podcast for linking to my earlier progressive recoil post. Also, I wanted to address a comment I received about a few errors in one of my earlier post on Limits.

I know online people can get defensive, and arguments can quickly spiral out of control so I wanted to take a moment to say thank you. I try my best to present accurate, and factual information and when information is wrong, I do apologize and I sincerely appreciate issues being brought to my attention. I do moderate comments, but will not delete any comment unless it's spam, or inflammatory. So, long story short, if in the future you spot an error in any of my posts please don't hesitate to drop a comment and let me know. If, at first you don't see the comment don't worry it's being moderated and should show up shortly.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

First Session!

After some weeks I've finally nailed down a date for my first Shadowrun 5th Edition session. I have nearly all new players, so I'm running this as a one-off. I'm going to build a number of canned PCs and let the group pick. As this is a one-off, that will make things smoother, as I'll know the player's characters, their capabilities, and can offer advice as the game progresses.

I started by trying to come up with a hook, that is, the point of the run. I wanted to keep the players at street level, so I started thinking about a less technical run. I wanted them to experience Shadowrun, and have an enjoyable game, yet in a lower threat environment. I decided that they were going to be hired by a friend, of a friend, to help deal with a local gang that is muscling in on some new turf. Setting the run in Tacoma around the Port of Tacoma and Commencement bay would give me ample opportunity to tie the narrative in with the wider Seattle area, and the Shadowrun world.

I plan to expose the characters, some who are SIN-less to the dangers of not being a citizen in a world where the police are for profit. Police presence, the hazards of open carry, and the risk of low-rating SINs are all going to come into play between the call, and the meet itself. For the meet, I'm  borrowing a favored location of mine the Three Stone Steps Pub. This is a well known, and well loved, location. As with most of it's incarnations it's a small, basement level pub. Mafia controlled, usually by the Finnigan family, it does treble duty as a watering hole, money laundering front, and fence house. I describe the location as small, dark, and well worn. Think of your favorite townie bar, put it in a basement, add bagpipes, and you have the rough idea.

Mr. Johnson is a low-level made man in the Finnigan family, who's been contracted to deal with a problem in Tacoma. A new gang has started moving chips, and setting up a protection racket. This, obviously, cannot stand, but the family can't get involved directly, for political, and personal reasons, which if this wasn't a one-shot could serve as a plot point for later runs. When I plan a run, even a one-off I try to leave myself options, leave things open, so that I can reuse the run later, in a different setting, if needed. This keeps me from ever having to toss a run, everything is reusable.

Once the team goes through the negotiations they will need to use their contacts to find the gang, their hideout, and any other information they might need. I like to leave the legwork phase open to interpretation. Depending on the player they may think to ask an unexpected contact, an unexpected question, and if their logic is sound I like to reward them. This means I rarely tie specific bits of information to specific questions or contacts. Instead I have a list of answers, and when a player asks a reasonable question, to a reasonable contact, they get an answer. For a more experienced group, I might take a harder line, but for a one-off, with mostly new players I focus on the fun, and flow, of the session rather then trying to run a tough game.

Once the players have amassed enough information they move to planning the run itself. This is a fine balancing act. If they dig too deep, I'll have the gang get wind of the impending attack, and the lethality goes up some. If they don't have enough information, then the run becomes more difficult if not impossible. Once the planning begins, I leave it wholly up to the players. If they want to scope out the hideout, great, if they want to show up guns blazing, great, if they want to wait for nightfall, and go in stealthy, great, but the point here is that I'm leaving it up to them. This is one of the big issues I have with canned adventures. You lose that flexibility. I like to have a series of points, plot points, if you will that the players will bounce from. Keeping a series of points in mind keeps the session from turning into a railroad, which is no fun for myself, or my players.

Once the run is planned, I let them execute. At this point my role shifts, I move from being a narrator, to being the op-for, I am the bad guy. While I need to keep the game moving, and fun, I need to put myself in the shoes of the NPC, the mindset of these gangers. Once that is done, then I can have them react in ways that make sense, that mirror reality. This, again, is where staying flexible really helps out.

Here's the roster I've put together:

- A human decker/face.
- An orc investigator, think Eddie Valient with tusks.
- A human street aspected mage, no SIN, focusing on combat spells.
- An elven adept, focusing on stealth.
- A human rigger, with a small arsenal of drones, and a large shotgun.
- A troll "street samurai" though at street level play there's not much cyberware.
- A dwarf gunman, two pistols, and a leather duster.
- A human shaman, low-grade mage, mostly optimized for conjuring.

With four players, this gives them some choice, and flexibility. For me, it limits the potential pool, and makes planning the enemy much, much, simpler.

Magic in the Shadows: Conjuring

If you read my previous post on spellcasting you'll know I'm not a fan of the magic rules in Shadowrun, and unfortunately 5th Edition hasn't done much to make me a fan. However, of all the magical abilities, I like spirits the most. I find the concept of spirits, and especially the various types of spirits to add a lot of flavor to a game, and to the universe as a whole. I've always enjoyed finding new ways to describe the various spirits when they use their powers, or manifest.

Conjuring is broken into three sections, summoning, binding, and banishing. I'll handle them separately beginning with summoning. Summoning is the act of compelling a spirit to serve you. One of the new features that I like, but haven't gotten to play with much is specifying optional powers. If you summon a spirit of Force 3 or above, you can specify an optional power for every three points of force. Force 3, one power, 6, two powers, etc. My only complaint is that it's harder to summon a low level spirit, then it is to summon a higher level one. The test for summoning is an opposed test: Summoning + Magic [Force] v. Force

This means that to summon a force one spirit, you only succeed if you roll a success and the spirit does not, as ties go to the defender. With a higher force spirit, there's a lower chance of all their dice (the limit) coming up as hits, so it gets easier the higher the spirit's force, as it raises the limit. Granted, the rules do let you raise the limit through use of magical reagents, but for such a low-level spirit it hardly seems worthwhile. Once the test has passed, or failed, you must resist drain, the same as with spellcasting. In this case the drain is twice the total hits the spirit rolled on the summoning test.

I really like conjuring for two reasons. First, it's flavorful. Spirits can have a personality, they are all different. A spirit of man (my favorite) can manifest as a stop sign, a pile of garbage, a dust devil, reminiscent of a subway train coming into the station, or a sentient tire. A spirit of water can be a puddle, or a quick micro-burst shower. Second, I love the fact that spirits are sentient in and of themselves, I like that they can break free, or on a glitch show up for a "chat" with the summoner. I like that mages can develop a relationship with spirits. Conjuring, as a discipline, is less flexible then spellcasting but in my mind, from a game play experience I'd much rather conjure, then spell cast.

Let's move on to binding. When you summon a spirit through conjuring the spirit/mage relationship is short-term. There's nothing holding the spirit to the mage past the next sunrise/sunset and there's nothing I like more as a GM then having a spirit dissipate, mid-service. Ah, the joys of being a GM. A bound spirit however, is around until their services are used up. This generally is reserved for a higher level spirit. I wouldn't recommend binding any spirit below force 6/your magic rating. Though your mileage may vary.

Once a spirit is summoned, and has enough services to be worth keeping around, or maybe you're lonely and simply want a friend, you need to bind them. In 5th Edition, the binding rules haven't really changed, and unlike spellcasting they are fairly straightforward. The only hitch is that you need a significant amount of reagants. Once you have them the test is fairly straightforward, if taking a fair amount of time.

Note: This is one of the reasons I give my players downtime between runs. I'll often let my players dictate how they spend their time between runs, this gives players the ability to fence stolen gear, find new gear, to summon, and bind spirits, to train, find an instructor, heal, or whatever they need to do. It also provides a great mechanism for me if every now and again the downtime gets broken up. A contact calls in a favor while you're busy binding a spirit, or before you've found that nice gun you're looking for. Do you say no, and risk alienating a potentially useful contact? Or, do you say yes and run somewhat under-prepared. It's a good way to, occasionally, up the dramatic tension in a group.

I'm going to skip over Banishing, and move on to why I really, really, like Spirits in Shadowrun 5th edition. In 3rd Edition which was the system I've played the most to date any spirit could do any task. There was no real limit on what a spirit could do. In 5th Edition however, spirits are limited in what they can do, and how useful they are, by their force. This gets around one of the most frustrating "tricks" in 3rd and 4th Editions, namely mages spawning force 1 spirits, having them do one task, and letting them go.

In games, from a GM perspective, I like that spirits are still useful, and can be a very flavorful part of the world, and I like even more that a mage has to risk drain when summoning. While the fact that a force 1 spirit is very hard to summon doesn't seem to mesh with my view on the game, I can respect the designers not wanting to break the system of Skill + Attribute [Limit] just for Conjuring. From a role play perspective, I like to make my spirits helpful, but a little surly. A spirit, in my mind, has a pilot rating equal to their force. Send a force 1, or 2, spirit to do a complex task and you may not like the results. This forces my players to think about their commands a bit more, and makes them leery to send spirits to do important things unsupervised. Let me give an example:

A low force spirit, single service, gets sent across a factory to "push the red button on that panel" the mage has line of sight to the panel, so can convey to the spirit the panel in question. If I'm feeling generous I have the spirit go, and push the button, and then consider it's service completed and leave. However, let's say the mage has a reputation, they have abused a spirit or two before, and word has gotten around. The spirit goes over and pushes the button, a lot. Not once, not twice, but a few dozen times. It's still within the scope of the request, and who knows what that button does. Or, if the mage uses a spirit of the earth, maybe he pushes the button really hard. There's so many things you can do as a GM to curtail a mages reliance of spirits. It's entirely up to you.

In a later post I'll talk a bit about magical security, and physical security, and using mages in security teams.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Magic in the Shadows: Spellcasting

I want to go out on a limb, and voice what I'm sure is an unpopular opinion. I hate the magic rules in Shadowrun. In three editions now, 3rd, 4th, and 5th, I've yet to see a mage that wasn't balance-breaking. I've played mages, and run magic heavy games, and even did a stint with a group where magic didn't exist. The last was the most enjoyable.

While I don't have significant experience with magic in Shadowrun 5th Edition, I have read through the bulk of the core rules, and have formulated a number of opinions. First, let's look at the two traditions in the core rules. Hermetic Mages, and Shamans are given as your two default choices. This is in line with previous editions, and I don't find fault here. Descriptions for both are fairly clear, and explain the difference adequately. The rules go on to cover Magical Lodges, and this is where my first complaint arises.

I understand the need to tie a mage to a physical location. I get that. I think the concept of a lodge grew up out of the need for a "spellbook" concept. If you look at a mage in a traditional D20 setting, they are hamstrung by their spellbook. Get rid of a mage's spell book and you've effectively rendered them impotent. However, lodges don't really accomplish that. As most players won't craft foci, or cast ritual spells you only need a lodge for learning new spells. As that's not exactly a common occurrence what's to keep a mage from simply not buying a lodge till one's needed? Buy the materials, sure, but keep them in boxes in storage, when you need them, pull them out, learn a spell, and put them back away. A mage in Shadowrun isn't tied to their lodge, or limited by their lodge in any way. This means that a mage, especially in low threat settings is simply better than the rest of the team.

Let's look at the changes in spellcasting now. I want to start by saying I like that they kept casting multiple spells fairly simple. Take your pool, divide, roll, I like that. They kept the need for touch, or actual line of sight, again, I like that. I allows some very simple tactics to keep a team safe from magical over watch. Smoke is your friend. However, force, is where I start to have problems. It's not so much that I don't like how they determine if drain is physical, or stun, it's that the wording is terribly obtuse. What I *think* they are trying to say is that the hits you get on your spellcasting test determine if drain is physical or stun. Which just doesn't make sense. Sure, it's not a bad rule, but think this through. Magic rating 5, I cast a force 10 spell, and get one hit on my spellcasting test. It's still a force 10 spell, and I only take stun drain. They should have stuck with the force > magic rating = physical drain. I can't think why the would have changed it.

Then, to make things even more confusing they go on to reiterate the drain rules in the Cast Spell section, using slightly different wording. Given that the limit for the spell is the force, why would you ever, for example, light off a force 1 spell? It's very confusingly worded, and desperately needs a few concrete examples. If these rules make sense to you, feel free to comment, as I certainly could use some clarity.

Unfortunately, the rules continue to be clear as mud. We'll skip over Determine Effect, and move onto Resist Drain. They should have left this as "The Drain Value for a spell is given in it's description, and cannot be lower than 2" given that each spell description includes an F, for force, I don't see why they chose to include that it's based on force in the determine drain section. Also, why not print Force, instead of F? I understand ink's not cheap, but it took me a few reads through the chapter to connect F - 6 to Force - 6 (min 2) It's just shoddy. Also, while we're on the subject of Drain, a little reminder sidebar that resisting drain depends on your tradition would have been incredible. Given the high quality of the Matrix, and Combat, sections the Magic section comes off sloppy, and half-baked.

I don't mind the Spell Characteristics section, it's not great, and like the rest of the chapter it's needlessly cluttered, but it's not terrible. Once you tear the section apart, and re-write it with the appropriate tests, and limits in place of the page references it becomes usable, but I shouldn't have to re-write rules to make them make sense, and in this case that's exactly what is required.

Spell categories, are just as cluttered as the rest of the section Instead of a wall of text, a few good examples would have been incredible here. For example:

Combat Spells: Direct: When you cast a direct combat spell it inflicts a number of boxes of damage on the target, equal to your net hits. When casting a direct spell use on of the following tests. For physical spells, those with a Type P, the test is Spellcasting + Magic [Force] v. Body + Counterspelling. (if any) For mental spells, those with a Type M, the test is Spellcasting + Magic [Force] v. Willpower + Counterspelling (if any) Spell damage, once applied, cannot be resisted by any other means.

It's not a huge rewrite, but it follows the format of calling out tests directly like every other chapter does. It eliminates a lot of the waffling, and the parenthesis, for me at least it seems cleaner. Personal opinion maybe, but the whole chapter screams out for a rewrite in my mind. I won't even go over Indirect spells, that section makes my head hurt.

What kills me though, is when we get to the next section for Detection Spells, they go back to the format I used above, the tests are spelled out using the normal form. While it's still opaque, it's better. They have an example, it's a good one, it's game-relevant, and it helps to cover why you'd use a detection spell. Unfortunately it covers Passive detection spells, not active, which in my mind need the example more. Why burn the page space for an example here when the combat spells need one so desperately?

Then we get to Health spells. Good gravy! It's clean, the description makes sense, they explain Essence penalties in a way that works immediately. There's no confusion here. Whomever wrote this description, have them re-write the others. This is the best description section for the spells, and some of the best writing for the chapter to this point. Fortunately this spat of good writing continues through Illusions, a section that in 3rd Edition was murky to the point of being unusable.

The section on Manipulation spells is decently written, but I feel that they should have broken the manipulation spells up into sections based on their sub-type. For example, handle Damaging spells apart from Mental, or Environmental, or Physical. If the spell requires a different mechanic, then you need to handle them separately.

Next, we get to Counterspelling. I like the mechanic, and I like the way it's written. However, I really think they should have talked about counterspelling before the spell list. You need to understand the value of counterspelling before you slog through pages of spells. I have to say, I love that you can designate multiple friendlies, and they each get the full dice pool. In 4th Edition, or maybe it was 3rd, you had to split your pool, and you usually ended up with a die, or two, per friendly, and that never seemed to matter. In 5th Edition counterspelling matters.

I'd like to go over Ritual Spellcasting, but I'm going to borrow a saying used by my U.S. History teacher when covering the Vietnam war: "I didn't support it, and I won't teach it, you can read it yourself." I feel the same way about Ritual Spellcasting. It's a terrible mechanic, it doesn't fit with the rest of the world terribly well, and it's seriously game breaking if you're not prepared for it. Why did the designers think to burn three and a half pages on it? This is perfect material for an advanced sourcebook later, this isn't something you put in the core rules. So, want to know more? Read it yourself.

Next, tacked on seemingly as an afterthought, is the Learning Spells section. This is well written, but feels out of place for me. This belongs in the character improvement section, not tacked on to the end of the Spellcasting section. I like that they call out the benefit of Instruction, and they also call out that you need a lodge, but don't say that it needs to be your lodge. So, again, why pay for a lodge? I can totally see a Rent-A-Lodge concept.

Whew, that was a lot of Spellcasting hate, sorry. What I would have liked to see is a clear set of examples walking the player through casting a spell of each of the types, from start to finish, including tests, and attributes for the mage, and targets. Take out Ritual Spellcasting, and you'd have plenty of page space to do just that. Do that, and re-write the most confusing sections, add in a spell reference table, and I'd be much happier with spellcasting.

I'll touch on Conjuring in my next update!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Sample Contact: Gunner Doyle

My last post on contacts got me thinking, and I dug back through my folio to one of my original Runners, a one-trick-pony of a gun nut from 3rd Edition. This character had three, or four, incarnations over the course of his lifetime, each slightly more fine-tuned then the last. He is still remembered fondly for glitching a climbing test, and getting killed messily in the middle of a museum. Oops. This is also the reason why everybody in my group took the Athletics skill group at a 1, or better.

Now, I'm not going to give you his stats, other than some basic information, instead I'm going to describe the scene as if I was GM'ing for a group, and they wanted to contact Mr. Doyle for some reason.

The sign reads "Doyle & Sons: Gunsmith" sandwiched in a strip mall in Renton between a discount shoe store, a mom & pop take on a Stuffer Shack. The front of the store, viewed from the street has a series of windows, covered in a fine black grill, to deter break-ins. As you push open the door a bell sounds. The front of the shop is dimply lit, a few overhead bulbs suspended in metal cages provide illumination for the racks of ammunition, and accessories, and the front counter. As you approach the counter you can't help but notice the myriad nicks, and scrapes in the wood, a sure sign of years of use. A man steps out of the back room, a sawed off shotgun dangling from one hand, along the side of the stock you can see "First Born Son" has been engraved. As he catches sight of you, and your group, he speaks. His voice is rough, gravely, from years of smoking. A fact that is only reinforced by the full ashtray on his side of the counter, and the bulge in his shirt pocket that you hope is nothing more dangerous then a pack of cigarettes. "Can I help you?"

What all did that monologue accomplish? First, I established the scene, the mood, the feeling that I'm trying to convey. The shop is older, worn, I gave away no crucial information, no sense of the security, or information about the proprietor, then the fact that the windows are covered. I ended the monologue with a query, the player, or players, must now choose to respond. I have not confirmed that the individual greeting them is their contact, nor would I, if a player knows the contact then they could ask me out of character if that's the contact, and I'd privately answer in the affirmative. However, if this is a blind meet, then it's up to the players on how they proceed.

After confirming the contacts identity, I'd say the following:

The man facing you across the counter appears to be in his mid-40s, though years of work outdoors, and heavy smoking have aged him some, so his exact age is hard to determine. His eyes are a soft blue, a well-washed denim blue, and they stare out from a face covered in fine wrinkles, and a perpetual tan that he's managed to keep in spite of Seattle's patchy weather. He places the shotgun across the table and leans forward. His forearms flex, not with the bulky muscle of steroids, but with the long lean cords of muscle earned through hard work, and harder living. His shirt, a well worn flannel button down, with the sleeves rolled above his elbows, is unbuttoned at the neck, revealing a hint of a tattooBehind him, is a rack of firearms, of nearly every shape and description, all neatly tagged and awaiting pickup.

When you describe anything, but especially a contact, you have to make them come alive. Of course, I could say that "Your contact is a white human, male, six feet tall, tanned, with blue eyes he's wearing a flannel shirt and carrying a sawed off shotgun." that conveys the same basic information, but it's dull, terribly, terribly, dull. This is a game, and what's more, it's a story. You have got to sell your characters, every person you meet, sell them.

The best advice I can give a new GM, is that you must, absolutely must, pay attention. If you're going to tell a convincing story pay attention to the people around you, what makes them unique, what little things, ticks, facial expressions, patterns of behavior, and dress, stick out? Remember them, and make note of them, and use them. Your contacts should be just as important, if not more important, then your players. Your players can sell themselves, they can describe their actions, their look, their gear, your contacts have only you, and you must do them justice.

Fireside Chat: Contacts Are People Too!

I want to talk about Contacts. As a game mechanic they serve a useful purpose, they find your players jobs, fence gear, sell gear, and provide a wealth of information for just a small pile of cash. The contacts your character picks tend to reflect the role, and back story of the character as envisioned by the player. These contacts have loyalty and connection rating, and are generally named after their role, and not themselves.

For example, in my current group we have a Decker/Face with a contact on his sheet that reads like this: KE Lieutenant (3/3) Now, that's enough to handle the contact. We know what he/she is, and what numbers to use for tests. This, for now, is enough. However, what happens when you actually start playing? Is this contact male? Female? Human? Ork? Troll? This is a trap that a lot of new GM's fall into. It simply doesn't matter.

Let's use the Lieutenant above. My Runners are looking to hit a local gang. Mr. Johnson wants to send a clear message that this upstart gang is moving in on his territory, but Mr. Johnson doesn't know, or won't divulge the location of the gang's base. So, the runners need to do some legwork. Knowing that he has a police contact, the group rings up this nameless, faceless, Lieutenant.

How do you proceed? As a GM I find you have a few options.

1) AR is your friend. Don't know, or care, about a contact's particulars? The Runners make a com-call, and the entire exchange is done via AR, they never see more than the contact's icon. Which, would be something police themed, and off the shelf.

2) Fall back on the archetype, we've all seen an episode of Law and Order, voila. Instant detective contact. Male, human, white, wrinkled, keep the conversation brief, and you should be in the clear.

3) Actually plan ahead. This is a tough one for new GM's but as you run more games this gets easier. I have a folio of canned Runners, contacts, places, etc. which comes with me to every game. If I need a canned police Lieutenant, I simply pull the canned policeman out of my folder, consult the list of pre-generated names, and pick one. This is tied to some vital stats, height, weight, etc. which allows me to build a plausible character out of a canned template.

I also make a point to keep every Runner I have ever built, for every edition. Just because the stats no longer translate into 5th Edition doesn't mean that the character itself isn't still valuable. In the end, it's the GM's job to provide a meaningful exchange. What that means to you, and to your players, varies by group. However, I find that I'm much calmer when I know I've planned for most eventualities.

Let's take a minute to look at the other side of the fence. Sometimes you have a player that knows exactly what they want their contacts to be. Name, age, place of employment, they have an image in their head and they want to take that image and express it on paper as a contact. These players tend to be more experienced, and in this case I have them write up a short bio for the contact. This gets tacked onto the back of their character sheet, and when the game wraps up, both their Runner, and their contact, get added to my folio. It's always nice for veteran players to see their old Runners, and contacts make another appearance. Plus, it gives you, the GM, a beautiful emotional hook. Don't ever discard an old character, crib sheet, or note from a game session. I've never regretted having too much detail on hand.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Tactics, Recoil, and Single-Shot Guns

I sat on this post for a good long while, mostly because I wanted to try and find a way to explain what I was seeing, and thinking, with the 5th Edition rules changes around combat without having to go back and explain 4th Edition combat to readers who haven't played 4th Edition.

In the end, I gave up, and simply wrote the post below with the understanding that I would have to preface the discussion with a lesson on 4th Edition mechanics, before I could go on to talk about the new mechanics in Shadowrun 5th Edition.

Let me start by going over how combat worked in 4th Edition, and why it was, frankly, terrible. Combat in Shadowrun is usually a matter of putting as much lead down range as possible. In 4th Edition this meant a few very simple things. First, you never took a single shot rifle. It just didn't make any sense. With the exception of the miniguns, and why they are single shot, we have no idea. Anyway, there was simply no reason to take a single shot gun when you could take a semi-automatic gun, and have two shots in the combat turn verses one. The same was true on the other end of the spectrum, you never saw a character with a fully automatic rifle, as the recoil penalty simply got out of hand. Fully automatic weapons were used, in my games, for supressive fire, and that was it. This meant, for my players, and for myself that you only ever saw semi-auto, and burst fire guns, with a lot of gear strapped on to overcome the recoil penalties. While this was "legal" it certainly wasn't much fun. There were whole swaths of guns that nobody ever took, as their were cheaper, easy to fire, and more accurate options.

Now, we move to 5th Edition where several rules changes have turned the formula for ranged combat on it's ear. First, let's look at Progressive Recoil. This is a very simple rules change with massive repercussions. Progressive recoil states that recoil carries over from combat turn, to combat turn. This, if you think about it, makes sense. If you've ever fired a rifle, or pistol, as fast as you can eventually the gun gets away from you. That's what progressive recoil means, and we love it. In 4th Edition it was as if everyone stopped to take a breather between combat turns. There was no sense that combat flowed from one turn to the next, now, there is.

Right on the heels of Progressive Recoil comes another small, but catastrophic change to combat. You may take one attack action per round. One. That means, your single-shot rifle fires once per round, or your semi-automatic pistol fires once as a simple action (making it the same as a single-shot gun) or you can fire three times as a complex action. This is great, you get more bullets that you did in 4th Edition, but with the progressive recoil rules your three-round burst recoil carries over to your next turn. Fire another three-round burst and you have to contend with six bullets worth of recoil, out of a semi-automatic gun! That's nuts! Burst fire is even more insane, regular three-round bursts are a simple action, but you can fire TWO three round bursts as a complex action, however you're now carrying six bullets worth of recoil into your next turn. Full auto guns fire 6 rounds as a simple action, and a whopping ten rounds full auto!

What does this all mean, from a tactical perspective? Well, quite simply you cannot stand behind cover and spray bullets down range and expect to hit things turn after turn, after turn. You must take time to pause, adjust, aim, and at the very least break the flow of bullets to minimize the Progressive Recoil. Large characters, and guns mounted on tripods, or in fixed positions will still allow you to fire numerous rounds before incurring penalties, and that's as it should be, but for the average Runner the player now needs to weight the options, do I fire a burst this turn, and accept that I may have recoil to contend with next turn, or do I fire a single round and then move to a better position? Do I use a Take Aim action, and break the flow of recoil, before firing another round? All of these things were included in 4th Edition, but rarely used as it was simply easier to fire, and to keep firing.

Catalyst, good job. Seriously, good job.

After I published this, several of the comments brought to my attention two additional points. First, single-shot guns do not suffer from Progressive Recoil, they are immune. This makes single-shot guns, especially rifles, very useful.

Second, all characters start with one free point of recoil compensation, and then get strength/3 (round up) points of additional recoil compensation before any other equipment is added in. This means a troll, with a very high strength can handle Progressive Recoil much more readily then a human, or other less bulky character.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Gear Review: Hold-Outs

One of the thing I love about role playing games, of all stripes, is the gear. Players develop a love affair with their equipment. I've seen players go to great lengths for a piece of equipment. With D&D and Pathfinder, artifacts and magic items make some sense. We all love our +2 long sword of troll slaying. However, in Shadowrun I have found no less love for the inanimate objects of our world. I'm going to take the time to go over the gear section, in no particular order, to point out the things I love, the good, the bad, the ugly. Today, it's the drop gun. You don't buy extra clips for them, and you most likely will never fire them, but every runner worth his salt has one, or two, or ten. They are cheap, disposable, concealable, and cheap, did I say cheap? They are, the hold-outs.

In Shadowrun 5th Edition you're presented with three hold-outs in the core rules. Three, it's a shame I tell you, but it's a shame that I hope they will rectify when the gun source book comes out. You hear me Catalyst! I want hold-outs by the dozen! Why do I love hold-outs? Let's look at the bargain basement one, the Streetline Special.

Acc: 4
Damage: 6P
AP: -
Mode: SA
RC: -
Ammo: 6(c)
Avail: 4R
Cost: 120¥

Want to spot this little beauty? That's a Perception + Intuition [Mental] test. Drop 4 dice, because it's a hold-out, might as well put it in a concealable holster, though it'll cost you more then the gun, that's another -1. If you read my "Let's Build" for the Decker a few weeks back you'd know that every runner worth his salt has a lined coat. That's another -2. So, you're walking down the street, it's a lovely day in Seattle (yes they happen) and you pass by a beat cop. He gives you the eye. Let's assume he's the canned grunt from the core rules, Perception 3, Intuition 3. He gets 6 - 6 dice, that's a big fat 0. You can walk through town with a gun and know for sure, that you're safe. That, friends, is a comforting thought. Add to that the fact that MAD Scanners take a -2 dice hit to detect it, and I won't leave home without one.

Now, let's look at the gun itself. I love the Streetline. At 120¥ it's disposable, and I mean really disposable. This is the snubby .38 of the Shadowrun world. You don't reload it, you drop it and quick draw another. Why? Because you have multiple, and what's the harm? The biggest drawback of all the hold-outs is the low accuracy, 4 for the Walther, and Streetline, 5 for the Fichetti. However, this isn't a service pistol. You're not going to stand at 50 yards and empty a clip John Woo style. You're going to be in the bathroom, with your opponent at arms length, and you're going to pull the trigger till the gun runs dry, jams, or both, and then you drop it, and you run. This is the ankle gun, the small of the back gun, the taped behind the toilet gun and for that, it is incredible.

If you plan to go to war, you don't bring a hold-out alone. However, if you're going to go to war, what's the harm in having a little friend as backup?

Let's take a look at the other two hold-outs that you can chose in the core rules. First, we have the Walther Palm Pistol, think derringer. Two shots, break action, can fire both barrels. Not a bad little piece, but given that it's 60¥ more than the Streetline, I worry about what, if anything, you're going to get for your money. Long story short, you get one higher damage, and the ability to fire in SS or BF mode, however the burst is one bullet short, and requires that you reload the gun. If you're going to be burst firing with a pistol, you might as well go with the Streetline, and go for a Semi-Auto burst. Our advice, pass on the Walther.

Thirdly, you have the Fichetti Tiffani Needler, one higher accuracy, two higher damage, 8P(f), with a whopping +5 AP modifier, and a smaller clip, with only 4 rounds. Add to that a 1,000¥ price tag, and even the fact that it changes color doesn't really impress me. This is a gun for dealing quietly with soft targets. Want to off a man in his night shirt, go for the Needler. Want to carry a backup piece that might just save your hide against that angry ganger? Carry the Streetline.

Our final thoughts: Buy a Streetline, or if you're an up and coming fashionista, buy a Streetline, and a Needler. Keep them close, pay the extra for a concealable holster, and go forth into the shadows knowing that, at the very least, you have your hold-out.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fireside Chat: Run Their Game, not Yours

I have always preferred to run games, rather than play them. I'm a storyteller by inclination, and I've been told I'm good at it. While I can't speak to my own ability, I can say I derive a great deal of enjoyment from running a game. Over the years, and editions, I've learned a lot as a GM, a lot of mistakes that could have, should have, been avoided. These little tidbits of wisdom will be shared in a "fireside chat" format. For those of my audience who have never heard of the "Fireside Chats" a quick check on Wikipedia should bring you up to speed.

For today, I want to touch on a very difficult topic. When you run a game, for a set of players, you're running a game for them, not for yourself. Think of a GM as a server, as in waiter/waitress, you are providing a service. GMs that remember this, run great games, GMs that forget it, don't. It's not difficult on the surface, yet it's a classic mistake I see in newer, and even some "veteran" GMs. When I develop a run I plan for as many factors as I can, and I ad-lib the rest. However, if in the course of a game I stray from what my players want, then my plans must change, and they much change quickly and dynamically. I'm providing a positive playing experience for my group, not for myself. Let me give an example.

I love grenades. Absolutely love grenades and have always felt that in Shadowrun grenades should be a standard piece of equipment for any paramilitary response unit. Now, I'm not talking beat cops, Knight Errant shouldn't pack frag grenades, maybe a flash bang or two, but that's it. However, if you're running up against a High Threat Response team, or a Red Samurai unit, you better believe there's going to be grenades involved. Grenades in Shadowrun, have a massive damage potential, and I've killed several characters using a well placed grenade at the end of a combat turn. They are the ultimate way to deal with min-max'd characters. Nothing says "I don't like you" quite like a grenade.

In some of my groups, where my players are looking for high-threat and highly lethal play my grenade happy mindset is not only welcome, it's expected. However, when I play with a group that isn't looking for the same level of high threat play I have to alter my tactics. It does not, let me repeat that, does not matter that I like grenades. If my players don't, then I have to alter my play style. The same piece of gear, used at the start of a combat turn, adds a level of tension, and drama to a combat, and allows me to describe the combat in greater detail. Plus, it gives a player the chance to be the hero and lob the grenade away before it explodes, seconds later, in mid-air. What changed? My NPC still threw the same grenade, the threat is the same, the only difference is that instead of holding an action to the end of the round, to pop a grenade into the middle of my party, I threw that same grenade at the start, allowing my players to react.

This is the essence of a good GM, tailoring every aspect of a run to meet your players needs, your players desires, to maximize the end experience for your players, over your own needs and wants.

However, with all things there must be balance. Nothing ruins a game faster then having too much fun, too much loot, and too much karma. However, I've found that Shadowrun is the easiest game system to handle the "Monty Haul" problem. Let's assume a character, without the SINner quality simply has too much money. It's relatively simple to have a cop, investigator, or Decker realize that the player's SIN is fake, and freeze all his assets. This also works as a great run hook for the players to win back their ill-gotten loot. Remember, GOD is watching.

For gear-snobs, the availability rules are a GMs best friend. Don't want players to have a certain piece of gear? Make it nearly impossible to find, or if they've already purchased it, brick it as part of a run, or if it's a firearm, make the ammunition so scarce that the player dare not fire a round. This too works as a great run hook, or story arc. One of your players really wants a minigun? Ok, go steal one. Make sure you get enough ammunition too!

I'm not advocating that you take away a players hard-won gear, nor am I advocating that you as a GM give a player everything they could want, I'm merely saying that you need to balance the fun of the game, with the long-term goal of the campaign.

As always, feel free to comment if you've run into good, or bad, GMing decisions, and how they were handled. I'll do my best to respond to the ones I like, and who knows you might even end up the feature in the next Fireside Chat.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Let's Build: A Decker

The "Let's Build" segment will be a semi-regular part of this blog. In it I'll go through building a character from the ground up including my thoughts behind the choices I've made, and the role I see the character playing in-game. I plan to loosely divide these characters into "competitive" builds, and "flavor" builds. Competitive Runners are exactly what they say on the tin, these guys hold to an archetype, and are good at what they do. They are built to be, if not the best, then close to the best they can be. Flavor builds aren't bad, per say, but I'll have made choices to enhance the flavor, or in-game experience of the player, over simply building the best statline I can.

For this episode, I give you a Street Level Decker. One of the new-ish Mechanics in 5th Edition is the ability to tailor game play out of the box for Street, Standard, or Prime levels of experience. While rules for street level, and higher power runners have existed in 3rd, and 4th, this is the first time that I know of where the rules have been presented as part of the core book, and as part of core character generation.

Onto the build!

One of the first things to note are the changes that a Street Level character comes with, first, is a lower nuyen value, an A, for example nets you a measly ¥75,000, as opposed to the normal ¥450,000, starting karma drops to 13, with a max of 26, gear ratings max out at 4, and availability is limited to 10 or less. Also, painfully in this case, I can convert no more than 5 karma into extra nuyen. Ouch.

Here's where I put my build choices.

A - Resources (¥75,000): This was a no-brainer for me, Cyberdecks are incredibly expensive, and even with a resource rating of A, I'm going to be hard pressed to buy a deck, and the gear and programs I need to run it, without skirting dangerously close to running in my skivvies, and living behind the local Stuffer Shack. With that in mind, for a Decker, especially at Street Level, A is the only choice here.

B - Attributes (20): This, again, is a fairly easy choice. A reader commented on my last post and pointed out the skill/attribute disparity, that a high skill cannot overcome a poor attribute. With that in mind, I generally prioritize attributes over skills. While I don't necessarily agree with the mechanic, it's the game we play in, and that drives Attributes into the B slot for me.

One of the sad things that I encounter when building a gear focused character is that it's very hard to build the character as anything other then a Human, or Elf. I have fold memories of a Troll Decker in 3rd Edition, and I hope with a Standard or Prime build, that I'd be able to push Resources down a peg, and still come out ok. But, that's for another day, and another post.

C - Skills (28/2): This is lower then I would like it, and means we're going to have to make some hard decisions when it comes to skills. However, with A, and B, solidly spoken for there's not much else to do. You could take Metatype as your C here, and go with a Human, Elf, Dwarf, or Ork, but I don't see much value, especially in the Ork, as you receive 0 extra attribute points. This means raising Edge with karma, an expensive prospect indeed, given how much you already need to do with karma at a Street level build.

D - Metatype (Human (3)): You could go with Elf here, but I love a high Edge attribute, so I went with the Human. Especially as the Elf's natural bump to Agility, and Charisma doesn't help a Decker much, at least in my opinion.

E - Magic/Resonance: That's a big fat 0 there boys and girls.

Attributes: In Shadowrun, you have 11 attributes. I've filled in my Decker's attributes below, and will go over some of them below.

Body: 3 (+2)
Agility: 3 (+2)
Reaction: 4 (+2)
Strength: 2 (+1)
Willpower: 6 (+5)
Logic: 5 (+4)
Intuition: 3 (+2)
Charisma: 2 (+2)
Edge: 5 (+3, special)
Essence: 6
Initiative: 7 + 1D6

Just for the sake of completeness, here's my Limits, at this point.

Mental: 7
Physical: 4
Social: 6

I tried to go for a balance across the board, taking a hit on Strength, and Charisma, both of which tugged at my limits a little. However, my Mental limit, which is the key one for a lot of tests a Decker makes, is 7, which is rock-solid in my mind. One advantage of playing a Human, aside from being able to take a D or E in Metatype is that your Edge starts at 2. Anyone who doesn't value a high Edge attribute hasn't played enough Shadowrun. Also, I chose to drop Strength, in favor of Reaction. This was deliberate for several reasons. First, my Physical limit is still high enough that I can do most physical tasks, and as long as I have a decent skill I should be ok. Reaction, given that it is used for Initiative, and ranged combat, is more important to me then Strength, which would be used for more up close and personal combat.

Before we talk Skills, I want to touch on another Shadowrun mechanic that I absolutely love, Qualities. Qualities work to customize a character so that each Runner can be different, even if they perform the same job in a team. For my Decker, I like to look at a few positive, and negative, qualities.

Codeslinger (10 Karma) is a must-have for any serious Decker. This positive quality gives you +2 dice to any one Matrix action. For me, that's either Brute Force, or Hack on the Fly. For this Decker, I went with Hack on the Fly. (Karma remaining, 3)

Quick Healer (3 Karma) is another great positive quality. While I'm going to pass on it for today, I find that it can really help when your character's Body attribute isn't quite what you'd like it to be, and for 3 Karma, it's a steal.

Negative qualities can get out of hand, and I appreciate that there's a built in maximum in 5th Edition, it keeps players from loading on odd allergies, and strange addictions, for a few more Karma. In our case, as a Street Level character, we're limited to a max of 26 Karma. I took this to mean base + 13. As always, feel free to correct me in the comments if you feel otherwise. Citing page numbers is appreciated.

The only Negative Quality I regularly take is SINner, I like existing. I know it has drawbacks, but I find that the knowledge that I'm a citizen makes a lot of decisions easier. I usually carry a backup SIN, for illegal things, but my lifestyle, permits, gun, commlink, etc. are all registered to the legit SIN. As a GM, nothing makes me happier then a player with no legitimate SIN, and a low-rating fake. The police like it too.

National SIN (+5 Karma) This is the lowest grade SIN, and I generally make my characters a UCAS citizen, keeps things nice and tidy. (Karma remaining, 8)

Remember, I'm going to use the Karma I have for more nuyen later, so I want to have some leftover.

Skills! If you remember from up above I took skills at C, this gives me 28 skill points, and 2 points for skill groups. This is a good point to touch on another of my favorite additions to 5th Edition, the separation of skill points, and skill groups, at character creation. Also, the fact that you can break apart, and re-assemble skill groups over the course of game play adds a layer of extra customization that really works for me.

Let's start by assigning my two Skill Group points. Skill groups are a great way to get a lot of bang for your buck, though with only two points my bang is going to come out as more of a whimper. Oh well. First, I'm going to a take a point in the Athletics group. This is something I always suggest players do, unless they plan to build a physically minded character. The one point in Gymnastics, Running, and Swimming save you from defaulting on a lot of tests. Given my low Strength attribute, defaulting could be catastrophic and leave me hanging, possible literally, at the end of my rope at the worst possible moment. For the other point, I have a number of options. Stealth could be helpful, as could Acting, or Influence. Given that I'm looking to build a competitive Runner, I'm going to take Influence, also at 1. This helps offset the low Charisma, and will give me the ability to work a bit in social situations, without defaulting.

Influence Group: Etiquette, Leadership, Negotiation (1)
Athletics Group: Gymnastics, Running, Swimming (1)

For my 28 skill points, I'm taking the following:

Hacking: 6 - As a Decker, this is my bread and butter.
Cybercombat: 4
Electronic Warfare: 4
Pistols: 4 - This gives me some offensive firepower, alternatively you can take Longarms, and carry a sawed-off shotgun, which is always a nice touch if I do say so myself.
Computer: 3
Software: 3
Hardware: 1
Perception: 3

My biggest piece of advice, when it comes to skills, is don't be afraid to take a skill at a rating of 1, or 2. It won't get you far, but it's head and shoulders better than defaulting. One skill I would have liked to have higher is Hardware, given that I'll be repairing a fair amount of my own gear, and my team's gear, I'd like to have a few more dice here. This is a good place to spend some in-game Karma.

Knowledge, and Language skills I leave to your imagination, for competitive characters I tend to take business related skills, clubs, bars, gang identification, police/corporate policy and the like. For flavorful characters, it's a wide open world, and you take whatever it is that makes you smile.

Money! It's time to spend that big pile of green we burned an A on up above, a big, fat, stack of ¥75,000! I'm not going to go into exact detail, instead I'm going to hit the highlights that I go over when buying gear for a competitive Street Level character. To begin, the Cyberdeck. My view here, as with any character is, if it's your main piece of gear, get the best you can. In this case, that's the Microdeck Summit, at ¥58,000. Our big pile of money just got a lot smaller. Next, programs. Common programs will set you back ¥80/per, and there's 7 of them, get them all, that's another ¥560. Now, the fun stuff, the illegal hacking programs. These bad boys will set you back ¥250/per, and with money already looking tight we can't buy everything we may want, or need. Here's the selection I recommend.

Armor: +2 Firewall, a lifesaver.
Biofeedback Filter: +2 dice to resist Biofeedback damage, another lifesaver.
Exploit: +2 to Sleaze when Hacking on the Fly, worth every penny.
Sneak: +1 to Sleaze. Alternately, to run a heavy-handed Decker swap Brute Force in with Codeslinger above, and take Decryption here.
Shell: Additional +1 dice for damage resistance, and Biofeedback. Works great with Armor or Biofeedback Filter above, and the Virtual Machine common program.

Five programs, ¥250/per, that's another ¥1,250 spent. A quick tally tells us we've used ¥59,810 of our starting funds. We still need a lot of gear to survive even a basic run, and funds are going to get tight.

Next, I worry about a gun, clothes, and a place to sleep.

The Gun, for this character I'm grabbing two pistols, with ammunition. First, is a Streetline Special (¥120) with 20 rounds of regular ammunition (¥10 for the clips, ¥40 for the rounds) this is my daily carry piece, I'll pick up a concealed holster (¥150) to go with it making sure anyone trying to spot my piece will have to roll really well. As a working gun, I'd usually go for the Ares Predator V (¥725), and as I'm going to have a datajack (¥1,000), and SIM module (in my cyberdeck), there's no need to deviate here. I'll pick up 20 rounds of ammunition to go with it as a starting point as well.

For armor, I usually start, and stop, with a Lined Coat. I simply love it, and even though it's a bit steep at ¥900, I think it's worth the money.

Lifestyle, as much as I'd love to start with Middle, a few months of Low is the best I can afford right now, that'll set me back another ¥4,000. With that, we've now spent ¥66,805! At this point we have the bare minimum covered, and it's as far as I'll take this build. Good things to pick up at this point include a vehicle, B&E gear, a Hardware Kit, and a second SIN. Given that you have a SIN might as well grab permits for your guns, as well as a second lined coat, or armored jacket. A backup,backup, gun isn't a bad idea either. Don't forget that once you reach the bottom of the barrel you can keep ¥5,000 nuyen back, for the start of the game. While most characters won't have that extra, it's certainly not a bad idea to line your pocket, even a little. I've also had players pick up a random assortment of higher availability gear, that they don't want to bother finding in game, explosive rounds are always popular, though how you fit them in a hold-out I'll never know.

I hope this has been informative, and I'd appreciate feedback in the comments. I'm going to be away from the net for a week, but when I return look for a post on Riggers, and a Let's Build post, most likely for a colorful Face character.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dumpstats, Gear & Limits

I wanted to touch on Limits, one of the new game mechanics in Shadowrun 5th Edition. Limits are used for every test in Shadowrun. They provide a hard limit for the number of successes that can be applied to a test. For example, in 4th Edition, if a player wanted to fire a pistol they would roll their Reaction + Pistols, and would apply the hits they rolled to the damage of the pistol. This works great, but it allows a few strange scenarios.

Let's look at an example. With a Agility of 6, and a Pistols of 6, the player is rolling 12 dice. Assuming one third hit, that's 4 successes. That's enough to take a hold-out pistol up into one shot, one kill range. Which, makes sense for a highly skilled user, even if it is a little off putting. Now, as I'm sure anyone who's ever rolled dice knows statistics mean little in the real world. Let's take that same test, and assume the player rolls really well, with 8 successes that same hold-out pistol has now shot up into combat rifle damage. That just doesn't make sense. This is where limits come in, and really shine.

Every test, every piece of gear, has a limit. For firearms it's accuracy, for active skill checks it's a calculated limit using your attributes. In our hold-out example above the accuracy of the firearm is a 4, or 5, depending on the model, that means that the player can use at most 4, or 5, hits. Granted there are ways to get around this using Edge, another game mechanic that we'll go into later, but for most tests you're stuck with your limit.

For gear this enforces a sort of "state of the art" mentality, as your character improves, you'll find you're losing more and more hits to your gears limits. This encourages players to update their gear, to purchase equipment, and cyberware to push those limits even higher, or to simply accept that the amount of damage they can do with their bargain basement Street Sweeper shotgun is sadly, limited.

Limits also effect skills, in fact limts apply to nearly every skill test. Skill tests in Shadowrun 5th Edition are limited by a calculated maximum based on a players attributes. Let's look at an example I've seen time, and time, again. Take your average magic user. Nearly every player I've seen builds a mage, and uses the physical stats as their dump stats. Body, I don't need no stinking Body! In 4th Edition this was safe, you could get away with having a few dump stats, without too much pain. But, in 5th Edition, with limits, these dump stats hurt, a lot.

Let's assume the following spread: Body 2, Reaction 4, Strength 1. Our mage knows that he might have to move, and needs to be able to react, but he's not terribly worried about his body, or strength, he has hulking Street Samurai to absorb bullets, and spirits to do the heavy lifting. How does this effect his Physical Limit? It's a 3 folks. That means, for any physical test he can apply no more than three successes. Want to climb a rope? Want to scale a wall? Want to simply run away? Hope you don't need to swim.

Limits don't prevent you from performing a skill, they simply prevent you from performing a skill well. Our mage above, with a Climbing skill of 12, and a Strength attribute of 1, the player is rolling 13 dice. Regardless of the number of successes they can use at most 3 hits. So, he can climb, but he's not climbing quickly, or with any grace.

Limits provide an effective method of limiting end-game power, veteran characters become more and more reliable, able to pull of dangerous, or highly technical actions reliably, yet they can't simply walk through a platoon of enemy guards, even with all the dice in the world, they are still limited by their own bodies, and the quality of their gear. As a GM, this opens up a much longer campaign view.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Group Sensitivity

Since moving to Seattle WA, I've gotten used to the idea that women play games. I know this seems fairly straight-forward, but I can count on one finger, the number of active female participants I had in any game in NY. In Seattle however, it's a much more common occurrence.

When it comes to Shadowrun, the topic of this blog, I find that to be a great thing. Shadowrun doesn't have to be combat-centric, it doesn't have to conform to a male-driven view of the world. Crime, as we all know, doesn't discriminate. However, I'd never given much thought to the sex of my players, nor to any other factor then if they could roll dice, and follow the rules, and some semblance of table etiquette.

This is why, while reading the Shadowrun 5th Edition core rules, I was pleased to see a significant amount of space given over to Group Rules and Boundaries. Even more surprising was the frank and open nature the designers discussed the need for sensitivity when it comes to racism, sex, violence, and the questionable morality in Shadowrun. While this was always something that was in the back of my mind as a GM, having it spelled out in the core rules was a new experience for me. Quite frankly, it made me sit down and think about things in a more structured sense then I ever had before.

As I'm approaching my upcoming game, with three players who are new to me, and one veteran, I wanted to take a moment and decide how to approach the issues raised above. If a player approaches me with a concern about the content of a run, or the direction a group is taking I feel it's my job, as GM, to address the concerns.

Morality: I love Shadowrun, as it allows me, as the GM, and my players to act out criminal behavior that would get us all arrested in the real world. It's escapism on a level not seen in most other games. In D&D, and Pathfinder, you're the hero, the villagers all know it, you are there to right the wrongs, and slay the bad guys. Games that go in another direction exist, sure, but they are the exception. I like to encourage my players to think outside the usual societal morals. Want to deal with a snitch, killing him is a perfectly viable option. That is if you can get away with it. However, this might not sit well with all players. With that in mind I try to design a run with a number of solutions. With that in mind, I try to encourage quieter behavior. Killing people, and breaking things, while fun is messy and should evoke an appropriate legal response. Frankly, the cops frown on bodies.

Racism: I try to not play the race card. This isn't so much a group dynamic decision, as it is a storytelling decision. I find racism a poor motivator. If I as a GM cannot find a better motivator then racism, I've not done a good job. Now, there are scenarios where race plays a factor. Posers, the Ork Underground, and modified gear come to mind. I have no issue with making it harder for metahumans, specifically Trolls, and Dwarfs, to find gear. This isn't racism, in my mind, this is a game mechanic the player agreed to by taking a troll, or dwarf metatype. With metatype-centric organizations, where racism is already a factor, again I feel that this is a style decision made by the designers, and if it's an issue with the group I simply won't write the organizations into the story.
Note: I feel the need to address real-world racism. If I were to encounter racist attitudes within a gaming group, I would simply disallow the offending player to return. While I know this seems extreme, I cannot help but feel that there's no place for any "ism" in a group I run.

Violence: This is a big one for me. I GM, to tell a story, and violence makes for great storytelling. There are two points addressed in the core rules, how graphic the violence is, and if there are any groups that should be off limits. I tend to not be overtly graphic in my descriptions, unless it's meant to set the tone. I'll gladly describe an ossuary, as a dank pit filled with half cleaned bones. But I won't go into the look of a hit and run victim, unless the players ask for more detail, or there is some detail that is crucial to the advancement of the plot, or story, and in that case I'll reveal only the necessary details. As for groups, or acts, that are off limits, I struggle to draw a clear line in the sand. From a storytelling perspective I'm willing to go anywhere, as long as the group agrees. From an individual perspective, I draw the line at gratuitous abuse. I'll gladly describe an abusive relationship, if it's relevant to the plot, but I won't toss details into the narrative about the child prostitute on the corner, unless it's absolutely critical. I don't view suffering, and violence, to be good narrative flavor. If I have to resort to those tactics, I'm not telling a good story in the first place.

Sexuality: This is another tough one, though murkier then violence. I think sex, and sexuality has a huge part to play in any Shadowrun game. If we look at the trends in our world, and extrapolate out to the Sixth World you can't help but think that sex will simply be everywhere. However, there are limits. Openly describing sex acts, or sexual abuse, in a gaming session is off limits to me. References to abuse, as plot devices, or hooks for a run, sure, but as with violence above if I have to resort to describing sexual abuse, as narrative flavor, I've not done my job. While it will largely depend on the group, and their triggers, I do plan to use sexuality in my game, specifically prostitution, and human trafficking. While these are sensitive topics, I feel they add a significant amount of depth, and emotional investment, into the setting.

These are my initial thoughts, and I'm sure they will change as I gain experience with my current group. As my views adapt, and change, I'll be sure to continue to expand on the thoughts above.