Shadowrun 20th Anniversary Edition cover
L. Ross Babcock III
Catalyst Game Labs
1992 (Second Edition)
1998 (Third Edition)
2005 (Fourth Edition)
2009 (20th Anniversary)
2013 (Fifth Edition)
|Set in the same world as Earthdawn,
millennia later (2075 AD)[note 1]
Shadowrun is a science fantasy tabletop role-playing game set in a near-future fictional universe in which cybernetics, magic and fantasy creatures co-exist. It combines genres of cyberpunk, urban fantasy and crime, with occasional elements of conspiracy fiction, horror and detective fiction.
The original game has spawned a vast franchise that includes a collectible card game, two miniature-based tabletop wargames, multiple video games, a series of novels and music. From its inception in 1989, it has remained among the most popular role-playing games.
- 1 Setting
- 2 Publication history
- 3 Fictional universe
- 4 System
- 5 Influences and links
- 6 Novels
- 7 Video games
- 8 Awards
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes and references
- 11 External links
Shadowrun takes place several decades in the future (2050 in the first edition, currently 2075[note 1]). The end of the Mesoamerican Long Count ushered in the "Sixth World",[note 2] with once-mythological beings (e.g. dragons) appearing and old forms of magic suddenly re-emerging. Large numbers of humans "Goblinized" into orks and trolls, while many human children are born as elves, dwarves, and even more exotic creatures. In North America, indigenous American tribes discovered their traditional ceremonies allow them to command powerful spirits, and rituals associated with a new Ghost Dance movement let them take control of much of the western U.S. and Canada, where they formed a federation of Native American Nations. Seattle, Washington remains under U.S. control by treaty as a city-state enclave, and most game materials are set there and assume campaigns will use it as their setting.
In parallel with these magical developments, the setting's 21st century features technological and social developments associated with cyberpunk science fiction. Megacorporations control the lives of their employees and command their own armies; the ten largest have extraterritoriality, such as now enjoyed by foreign heads of state. Technology advances make cyberware (mechanical replacement body parts) and bioware (augmented vat-grown body parts implanted in place of natural organs) common. The Computer Crash of 2029 led to the creation of the Matrix, a worldwide computer network that users interact with via direct neural interface. When conflicts arise, corporations, governments, organized crime syndicates, and even wealthy individuals subcontract their dirty work to specialists, who then perform "shadowruns" or missions undertaken by deniable assets without identities or those that wish to remain unknown. The most skilled of these specialists, called shadowrunners, have earned a reputation for getting the job done. They have developed a knack for staying alive, and prospering, in the world of Shadowrun.
Shadowrun was developed and published by FASA Corporation from 1989 until early 2001, when FASA closed its doors and the property was transferred to WizKids (a company founded by people from FASA). WizKids licensed the RPG rights to FanPro (who were already publishing for the German version) until they were acquired by Topps in 2003. Catalyst Game Labs (a publishing imprint of InMediaRes Productions) licensed the rights from Topps to publish new products. WizKids itself produced an unsuccessful collectible action figure game based on the property, called Shadowrun Duels.
Since 2004, Shadowrun Missions (SRM) has offered fans a "living campaign" that allows for persistent character advancement. SRM is broken down into "seasons" which are made up of up to 24 individual missions that can be played at home, with special Missions available to play exclusively at conventions. Each SRM season develops an overarching plot focused on a specific city from the Shadowrun setting. Previous settings have included the divided city of Denver, the corporate city-state of Manhattan, and the Seattle Metroplex city-state. Season 5 will be set in the formerly walled-off wastelands of Chicago.
Shadowrun Fifth Edition was released as a PDF in July 2013, with a soft release of limited-edition Origins Edition softcover versions of the Fifth Edition core rulebook sold at the Origins Game Fair in June 2013. Preorders for the hardcover rulebook were also made available in July 2013 with an expected August 2013 street date. Shadowrun, Fifth Edition RPG was announced on 21 December 2012. It is generally a successor to the system that was unveiled in Fourth Edition and modified in the Twentieth Anniversary Edition.
The Shadowrun role-playing game has spawned several properties, including Shadowrun: The Trading Card Game, four video games, an action figure game (Shadowrun Duels), two magazines, an art book and more than 50 novels, starting with the Secrets of Power series which introduces some of the original characters of Shadowrun and gives a good introduction to this fictional universe. In addition to the main rule book (now in its fifth edition) there have been over 100 supplemental books published with adventures and expansions to both the rules and the game settings. Catalyst Game Labs announced that 2013 would be "The Year of Shadowrun," and in addition to the release of Shadowrun Fifth Edition that it has collaborated with publishers on the following properties: Shadowrun: Crossfire, The Adventure Deck-building Game; Shadowrun: Sprawl Gangers, a tactical miniatures game; and Shadowrun: Hostile Takeover, a board game planned for release in 2014. In addition, Catalyst has been in collaboration with the publishers of the Shadowrun Returns turn-based video game, and the Shadowrun Online MMORPG, as well as teasing the release of future novels and other Shadowrun fiction.
The Shadowrun world is cross-genre, incorporating elements of both cyberpunk and urban fantasy. Unlike in a purely cyberpunk game, in the Shadowrun world, magic exists and has "worked" since 2011. Among other things, this split humankind into subtypes, also known as metatypes/metahumans. Some of these metatypes take the form of common fantasy races. Likewise, some animals have turned into familiar monsters of past fantasy and lore and both monsters and human magicians have regained magical powers. By the second half of the 21st century, in the time the game is set, these events are accepted as commonplace. Man, machine, and magic exist in a world where the amazing is among the most common and technology has entered into every facet of human (and metahuman) life.
Characters in Shadowrun can be humans, orks, trolls, elves, dwarves, as well as certain diverging subspecies (known as metavariants) such as gnomes, giants, minotaurs, etc. In the early days, when magic returned to the world, humans began to either change into, or give birth to elf and dwarf infants, a phenomenon called Unexplained Genetic Expression (UGE). Later, some juvenile and adult humans "goblinized" into other races (mostly orks, but also some trolls). The term "metahuman" is used either to refer to humanity as a whole, including all races, or to refer specifically to non-human races, depending on context. With the return of Halley's Comet new human variants called "changelings" arose. Two of the metahuman races have fictional languages.
Additionally, a virus known as the Human Meta-Human Vampiric Virus (HMHVV), with many variant strains, has been known to cause further change, far beyond that of traditional vampirism, frequently resulting in fierce abominations that are no longer human and sometimes no longer even sentient: bandersnatches, banshees, dzoo-noo-quas, goblins, ghouls, nosferatus, vampires, wendigos, wild fomorians, and others. Most of these species do not consider human/metahuman types as more than victims, and are generally treated as dangerous subjects by society. They are not normally available as player characters. Dragons are also present in the awakened world, though not as player characters. Dragons are very powerful physically, magically, and in some situations, financially. Some dragons found the riches they hoarded and hid during the last Awakening. Their great intelligence allowed them to gain a great deal of influence and power quickly and a few have risen to high political and economical posts, running entire corporations or even as head of state.
The game is set 62 years in the future,[note 1] following a great change that has returned magic to the world. The emergence of magic, the outbreak of the VITAS plagues, the Computer Crash of 2029, the Euro-Wars, and the fevers for independence of Amerindian tribes, Chinese provinces, and everything else that came with the many struggles that ravaged Europe and Asia left the world's governments tumbling and falling. The United States was broken into substates. Monetary value was lost. The world had to rebuild, and rebuild they did, this time in the image of the megacorporations that seized power. Taking advantage of the laws that had been passed years ago, and using their newfound freedom, the megacorps began impressing their power on the failing governments. Before long the world was transformed. Boundaries were redrawn, and the political landscape was changed forever.
A basic premise of the setting is that as the world endured the string of state-changing events and conflicts, the political landscape fragmented and reformed. In North America, for example, some nations broke apart and reformed, as was the case with the Confederation of American States and the United Canadian and American States, while others became havens for specific racial or ethnic groups, like Native American Nations (the Native Americans having used their newfound magical abilities to regain massive tracts of land) or the Elvish principality of Tír Tairngire, which encompasses all of the state of Oregon. Some, like the California Free State, simply declared independence, while yet others became de facto corporate subsidiaries like Aztlan (the former Mexico), the headquarters of the Aztechnology megacorp. Despite the new role of megacorporations, many nations still hold considerable sway through economic, social and military means. For most people, “getting by” means taking advantage of whatever the corps or the government might bring their way.
The monolithic "enemies" of the Shadowrun world (borrowing heavily from cyberpunk mythos) are the corporations, dubbed "megacorporations", "megacorps", or simply "megas" or "corps" for short. Megacorporations in the 21st-century are global, with all but the smallest corps owning multiple subsidiaries and divisions around the world. They are the superpowers of the Shadowrun universe, with the largest corporations having far more political, economic, and military power than even the most powerful nation-states.
In Shadowrun, corporations are effectively "ranked" by the amount of assets under their control, including material, personnel, and property, as well as profit. These ranks are A, AA, and AAA; AAA corporations are top tier. Most corporations in the AA and AAA level are immune to domestic law, responsible only to themselves, and regulated only by the Corporate Court, an assembly of the ten AAA-rated corporations. All AAA-rated and most AA-rated corporations exhibit a privilege known as "extraterritoriality", meaning that any land owned by the corp is sovereign territory only to the corp and immune to any laws of the country within. Corporate territory is not foreign soil but corporate soil, just like its employees are corporate citizens, though dual citizenship in a corporation and a nation is common. The AAA corps, as well as numerous minor corporations, fight each other not only in the boardroom or during high-level business negotiations but also with physical destruction, clandestine operations, hostile extraction or elimination of vital personnel, and other means of sabotage. Because no corporation wants to be held liable for damages, it has to be done by deniable assets, or shadowrunners, invisible to the system where every citizen is tagged with a System Identification Number (SIN).
Technology and the Matrix
Despite the Crash which caused much data corruption, technology in the game is advanced. Cyberware (technical implants) and Bioware (genetically engineered implants which enhance a person's abilities) emerged. Characters can also augment their bodies with nanotechnology implants.
In earlier editions, direct neural interface technology enabled humans and metahumans to directly access computers and the Matrix, the ingame global computer network restructured after the 2029 Crash. Access to the Matrix was accomplished by "deckers": individuals that have "cyberdecks". These interface machines are connected to the brain through a Datajack generally located at the temple or behind the ear.
In Shadowrun, Fourth Edition, the Matrix rules have changed, thanks to the setting's constant evolution and a drive to match real world technological developments. After the second Matrix crash in 2064, Matrix technology was moved away from the wired network and led into a wireless technology. The most noticeable difference between the Matrix in the 2070s and the earlier editions is that wireless technology has become completely ubiquitous. Communications and Matrix access is provided through wi-fi nodes placed throughout the infrastructure of just about every city on Earth, fulfilling a service similar to contemporary cell towers - but as these nodes are as numerous as telephone poles, only a tiny percentage of their range is necessary. The nodes of all electronic devices a person carries are connected in a similar manner, creating a Personal Area Network (PAN). People access their PAN with their Commlink, a combination personal computer/cell phone/PDA/wireless device available either as an implant or a head-mounted display. This access can be the total sensory immersion common to cyberpunk fiction, or a sensory enhancement by which the virtual features of one's physical surroundings can be perceived and manipulated. The Matrix of the 2070s is thus not only a virtual reality, but an augmented or mixed reality. Cyberdecks are obsolete, so "deckers" have once again become "hackers". In turn, the otaku of previous versions (deckers who did not need decks to access the Matrix) have been reworked into technomancers, who possess an innate connection to the Matrix that permits them to access the wireless network without hardware.
Those able to actively interact with the magical energies of the Sixth World are known as "awakened". An awakened character's power in magic is linked to their Magic attribute. A magic user's approach to working with mystic energy is called their Path. The Awakened fall into three general Paths: magicians, adepts and mystic adepts. Broadly speaking, magicians focus their magic outward, actively affecting the world around them, while adepts focus their magic inward, passively enhancing their bodies and minds. Shamans connect with natural magic forces around them.
Magicians are able to cast spells, summon spirits, and create magical artifacts called "foci". All magicians follow traditions that determine their understanding of magic, including hermetic mages (whose control of magic comes through study and manipulation of magical energy or mana, and who summon and bind elementals in lengthy and expensive rituals to be called on later) and shamans (whose magic derives from a connection to nature via a totem spirit, and who can summon the nature spirits associated with a particular place). Adepts use magic internally in order to accentuate their natural physical abilities. Adepts can run on walls, use mundane objects as deadly thrown projectiles, shatter hard objects with a single unarmed blow, and perform similar feats of incredible ability. All adepts follow a very personal path (Path of the Warrior, Path of the Artist, etc.) that normally determines their abilities which might be very different for any two adepts (while one might demonstrate increased reflexes and facility with firearms, a second might possess unparalleled mastery of the katana, and a third might be able to pull off incredible vehicular stunts). Mystic adepts, also known as physical mages, are part magician and part adept who distribute their magic power between the abilities of both aspects.
The Shadowrun game mechanics are based entirely on a 6-sided dice system. The game is skill-based rather than class-based, but archetypes are presented in the main book to give players and gamemasters an idea of what is possible with the system.
Before the fourth edition, skill and ability checks worked as follows: all actions in the game, from the use of skills to making attacks in combat, are first given a target number that reflects the difficulty of the action which is then raised or lowered by various modifying factors, such as environmental conditions, the condition of the character, the use of mechanical aids, and so forth. The player then rolls a number of dice equal to their level in the relevant skill, and the number of dice rolled that meet or exceed the target number determines if the character is successful performing the action and the degree of success the character has. As an example, a character with a high firearms skill not only has a better chance at hitting a target than someone with a lower ranked skill, but also is more likely to cause more damage to the target. Target numbers may exceed 6, in which case any dice that show a 6 have to be re-rolled (a target number of, e.g., 9 is reached by rolling a 6 followed by at least a 3; thus, a target number of 6 and one of 7 are identical, except extra dice rolls are not allowed for target number 7 or greater). For even higher target numbers, this procedure has to be repeated; thus, an action with a target number of 20 (like attempting to procure military-grade weaponry) will only succeed if three successive dice rolls result in sixes, and the fourth gives at least a 2. For any dice-roll a roll of 1 always counts as a failure. This system allows great flexibility in setting the difficulty of an action.
In addition to this basic mechanic, players can use several task-specific dice pools to add bonus dice to certain tests, though dice that are used do not refresh until the end of a turn. This adds an extra tactical element, as the player must decide where best to spend these bonus dice. For example, combat pool dice could be spent to improve attacks or to improve defense, or some of each. Players also have Karma Pool that can be used to reroll any dice that failed to reach the target number. Karma Pool refreshes rarely, typically once per scene or less, at the GM's discretion. The combination of Karma Pool and dice pools gives players a considerable amount of freedom to decide how important a task is to their character. Two characters with identical statistics could perform very differently on the same tasks depending on their priorities (and thus, allocation of dice pools and Karma Pool).
In the fourth edition, things have changed substantially. The game still runs on six-sided dice, but now each task is given a threshold. The player then rolls dice equal to their skill plus the relevant attribute modified by applicable modifiers. The number of fives and sixes is equal to the number of hits. Hits above the threshold indicate extraordinary performance. Furthermore if more than half the dice rolled are ones, then the player has made a glitch. Glitches cause bad things to happen to the player and game masters are encouraged to be inventive and funny.
Although the skill system is freeform, certain combinations of skills and equipment work well together. This combination of specialization in skill and equipment is known as an archetype. The most notable archetypes are street samurai, characters who have heavily augmented their bodies with cyberware and bioware and focus on physical combat; adepts, characters who have magical abilities that increase their physical (and sometimes mental) combat abilities; faces, highly charismatic characters who specialize in negotiations and social manipulation; hackers (deckers), specialize in electronic surveillance, security, and augmented/virtual reality monitoring, combat and response; riggers, who augment their brains to achieve fine control over vehicles and drones; and magicians who cast spells and can view emotions and call spirits from astral space. In Fourth Edition, with the setting change, deckers are replaced by hackers, who manipulate computer networks with augmented reality via ubiquitous commlinks; they also tend to take over the rigger's role.
However, the archetypes are not character classes: the player is allowed to cross boundaries. Restrictions are not imposed by the system itself, but by the player's specializations. Because character-building resources are limited, the player has to weigh which game resource he wants to specialize in and which he has to neglect. This allows high character customization while still ensuring that characters are viable in the setting.
The fourth edition of Shadowrun uses a point-based character creation system. Earlier editions used a priority-based system with point-based character creation as an advanced option. Priorities are divided into race, magic, attributes, skills, and resources. All things that do not explicitly fall under the first four classifications, including contacts in third and earlier editions of Shadowrun, are given cash-equivalent values to be bought with resources.
Shadowrun characters are created with contacts, friends and acquaintances who serve as key nodes in the character's social network and who will often help the character out. Through the contacts system, players may uncover information that their characters cannot independently acquire. Additionally, players can often negotiate for the use of skills that their characters do not themselves have, a radical departure from most role-playing games.
Essence and Karma/Edge
Essence is a measure of a living being's lifeforce. All humans and metahumans start with a value of six (although critters may start with a higher or lower Essence). It powers magic, and as essence fades, so does magical aptitude. Cyberware, bioware, nanotech implants, extreme cases of substance addiction, and other major changes to a being's body can damage its essence as well. Generally, if a being's essence ever reaches zero, it dies. Cybermancy allows metahumans to survive with an essence rating of zero or less.
Players are awarded Karma points as a game progresses. In third edition and earlier, these points are usually added to a total called Good Karma, which can be used to boost attributes and skills. Skills that are already well-developed cost more Good Karma than skills which are undeveloped, which helps encourage specialized characters to become more flexible by spending Good Karma on weaker attributes. Karma also makes characters more powerful in general because every tenth (or twentieth for metahumans) point is added to the Karma Pool instead of Good Karma. The Karma Pool allows players to re-roll dice or "purchase" additional dice in certain situations. Karma can even be used to avoid certain death, at the cost of all Good Karma and Karma Pool points. In fourth edition, Karma Pool is replaced by a new attribute called Edge which can be used in most of the same ways as the third edition Karma Pool. Experience and character advancement is still tracked with Karma, although Good was dropped from the name as it no longer needs to be distinguished from the old Karma Pool.
Shadowrun is linked to Earthdawn, and is set in the "Sixth World", where Earthdawn is the "Fourth World" and modern-day Earth is at the tail end of the Fifth World. Such links are not necessary for play, but they allow crossover potential. The concept of the "Worlds" is linked to the ancient Aztec belief that the world is renewed every five thousand years—a period called a "Sun" (currently we live in the fifth Sun). The date of the beginning of the "Sixth World" is based on the ancient Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, which when Shadowrun was developed was correlated as finishing a 5,200-year-long cycle on 24 December 2011. The understanding of the Maya that resulted in the use of the 2011 date and the use of the "worlds" concept is due to the influence of Frank Waters's 1975 book Mexico Mystique: The Coming Sixth World of Consciousness, whose elaborate cosmology is selectively utilized in the framework of the Shadowrun universe. Waters took his information about the date of the end of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar from the 1966 edition of Michael Coe's The Maya.
…when I see things like Shadowrun, the only negative thing I feel about it is that initial extreme revulsion at seeing my literary DNA mixed with elves. Somewhere somebody's sitting and saying 'I've got it! We're gonna do William Gibson and Tolkien!' Over my dead body! But I don't have to bear any aesthetic responsibility for it. I've never earned a nickel, but I wouldn't sue them. It's a fair cop. I'm sure there are people who could sue me, if they were so inclined, for messing with their stuff. So it's just kind of amusing.
In 2007, Robert Boyd from Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, robbed a Belfast lingerie shop at knifepoint while wearing a blonde lady's wig. During his trial, Boyd stated he was playing Shadowrun, specifically the role of criminal elf Buho, at the time and may have "blurred reality and fantasy". This claim convinced only two members of the jury and Boyd was jailed for two years.
FASA released 40 Shadowrun novels in collaboration with Roc publishing between 1991 and 2001. Shadowrun novels went out of production between 2001 and 2005, making the books produced towards the end of FASA's ownership of the license hard to find. Another (41st) novel was announced, but never released.
In 2005, WizKids began publishing new Shadowrun novels, again through the Roc imprint of the New American Library. Six novels were released in the new series. In 2008, Catalyst Game Labs announced the return of novels for Classic BattleTech, MechWarrior and Shadowrun. The announcement states that the first of the all-new Shadowrun novels would appear tentatively by early 2009, but the novels were not released due to unexplained delays in production of the novels for all three franchises. A collection of short stories titled Spells and Chrome was published in 2010. In 2012 Catalyst Game Labs published a standalone electronic novella, Neat, written by Russell Zimmerman.  Catalyst later announced plans to release further fiction and eventually novels to be released in collaboration with Barnes & Noble in Winter 2013. 
Several additional novels were published in other languages. More than 30 novels have been written in German, by German and Austrian authors published by Heyne (since 1991) and FanPro (since 1997).
Six video games have been developed based on the Shadowrun franchise; the first in 1993 was an action role-playing game titled Shadowrun and developed by Beam Software) for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The second also titled Shadowrun, was released for the Mega Drive in 1994, developed by BlueSky Software. The third game was an interactive fiction adventure game developed by Japanese company Group SNE in 1995 for the Sega CD, again titled Shadowrun. A fourth game, titled Shadowrun: Assassin, was planned to be released in 1998 by FASA Interactive for the PC, but was cancelled. Next game released was a first-person shooter for the Xbox 360 and Windows Vista and is titled Shadowrun. It was developed by FASA Interactive, owned by Microsoft Corporation, which also produced the title. It was the very first game that allows cross-platform play on the Live for Windows service. As the publishers of the Shadowrun role-playing game stated at the time of the video game's release: "Microsoft rewrote the timeline and setting for this game, so it is not in continuity with the tabletop RPG. It may be more accurately described as a game loosely based on Shadowrun."
In September 2007, Microsoft closed FASA Studios and licensed the Shadowrun electronic entertainment rights to Smith & Tinker, a company owned by Jordan Weisman, one of the original creators of Shadowrun. In 2012, Weisman's company Harebrained Schemes launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the development of Shadowrun Returns, a 3D turn-based single player role-playing video game. Approximately 1.8 million US dollars was pledged, four times more than the $400,000 goal. Shadowrun Returns was released on July 25, 2013. Jan Wagner's Cliffhanger Productions also ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for Shadowrun Online, a 3D turn-based online role-playing video game that can be played either alone or with other players. On 14 August 2012, the campaign was funded at $558,863. Shadowrun Online is expected to be released at the end of 2013.
Chronology of Shadowrun video games:
- 1993 – Shadowrun (Beam Software; SNES)
- 1994 – Shadowrun (BlueSky Software; Genesis/Mega Drive)
- 1996 – Shadowrun (Group SNE; Sega/Mega CD)
- 2007 – Shadowrun (FASA Interactive; PC and Xbox 360)
- 2013 – Shadowrun Returns (Harebrained Schemes; PC, Linux, Mac, iOS and Android tablets)
- 2013 (projected) - Shadowrun Online (Cliffhanger Productions; PC, Linux, all browsers/tablets via the Unity Web Player)
The Shadowrun role-playing game, various expansions, and a Shadowrun collectible card game have won Origins Awards. The fourth edition also won the prestigious independent Ennie Awards for Best Rules as well as for Best Product in 2006. In 2010, Shadowrun – 20th Anniversary Edition won three silver Ennie Awards: Best Interior Art, Best Production Values and Best Game.
- Earthdawn - A role-playing game set in the same world as Shadowrun but many thousands of years in the past.
- Echo Chernik - Shadowrun interior and cover artist.
Notes and references
- The First and Second Edition books were set 61 years in the future from their release dates (giving the game an original start date of 2050). This was bumped up to 65 years for the Fourth Edition. Fifth Edition is set in 2075, 62 years in the future.
- See 2012 phenomenon.
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