Shadowrun Beginner Box from Catalyst Game Labs – Review

I think it’s a good jumping in point for the game and will be a useful tool for people looking to try the game or introduce it to their friends.

Steve Mayne

Meeple Gamers

8.75/10

Theme and What is it?

9/10
*Note* Copy of the game provided by publisher for review purposes.

Welcome to the 2080’s. The world has changed. Governments are second class citizens, people are a commodity, and magic has returned. Humanity has been altered on a fundamental level. This is mostly due to all of the elves, orcs, dwarves, and trolls. The cybernetic enhancements didn’t hurt either.

Everything is run by huge multinational corporations called Megacorps. These giant industries run the world from shining boardrooms on top of imposing structures. The kind that cast deep shadows. You live in these shadows.

In this kind of world anything and everything is available. If someone has the money, the time, and the desperation they can buy anything. If they can find the right sort of people. People like you.

Welcome to the Sixth World.

Shadowrun is a tabletop roleplay game set in the not too distant future. A future where science and technology meet. Taking on the parts of Shadowrunners, elite criminals who get hired by shadowy organizations to do the off the books jobs that are frowned on in polite society. Stealing data, extracting a target (sometimes willingly), delivering a package, or collecting a mysterious briefcase with a golden glow that’s gone missing. These are the jobs you take.

You’ll accomplish this by negotiating with clients, planning jobs, and performing crime; multiple crimes. Using a dice pool system to determine if success or failure. A combination of Ocean’s 11 and Demolition Man with a sizeable chunk of Lord of the Rings sprinkled in for good measure. With cybernetics, magic, and skill you’re about to enter into a very dangerous profession.

Gameplay Mechanics

8/10

Shadowrun is a Role-Play Game (RPG). As with most role-play games you be taking part of a character that represents you in the game. You’ll decide how the character reacts in different situations. Typically this will be a character you create and define. 

In the Beginner Box the game comes with four pre-generated character’s you’ll use. One player will function as a Game Master whose job it is to tell the story. They’ll be in charge of deciding how villains works, what the different non-player characters do, and deciding when you’ll need to roll the dice to determine an action.

Most of Shadowrun falls into a very simple dice pool mechanic. You’ll simply take your skill play and attribute and roll that many six sided dice. Every five and six is a success. Compare your successes to a target number for the action you’re performing and it determines success and how successful you’ll be.

That is the base of the rules you’ll need to know. There is a bit of extra bits added in on top of that but those are the basics. For example in order to cast spells you go through the above steps to see if you cast the spell and how successful you are. Typically, the more success you roll the stronger the spell is. After you cast the spell you’ll need to resist the drain from that spell. This is the same procedure of rolling dice and comparing the results.

Where the flavor for this game comes in is not the rules but how they are applied. For example, Hackers, or Deckers as the game calls them, can break into computer systems. Same basic dice pool mechanic but there are a few additions for them. 

There’s a watchdog group that scours the net looking for anyone doing anything illegal. This is represented by a score that steadily increases as the decker performs illegal activities. If doesn’t hinder their job performance in any way, but if the score gets high enough then Johnny Law is able to pinpoint their location and transmit it to. This can be avoided by simply logging out of the net and back in to reset the clock to zero. Basically turning it off and on again.

Fighting someone is a simple matter of rolling to hit versus their roll to defend. However, in this edition of the game they introduce the concept of goons. These are large groups of minions who are all mechanically used as a single group. They get more dice to roll in a single action but only get one dice roll for the group instead of one for each member.

One final mechanic that was new for me was edge. Edge is a system of judging advantages in every situation the group might find themselves in. Every character starts with enough edge equal to their edge attribute and can get points every time they engage with someone or something else. 

These points are available during combat, social situations, and just basic skill challenges. They are meant to be spent fairly frequently. IN the editions I’ve played there was a system in place to modify dice roles and buy advantages but it cost Karma. Which is the games primary source of character advancement. Which made everyone leery of spending it unless they really needed to.

Initial Impressions

9.5/10

I’ve been playing Shadowrun for a long time. I dropped off back around third edition and haven’t been back in quite some time. Getting handed this box mad me very happy. I even enjoyed the experience of opening it and seeing what was inside. Each new thing I removed from the box put a smile on my face. I was thrilled to get my hands on this and the various pieces inside.

Game Build Quality

8/10

The quality here is very nice. The booklets for the players were good with plenty of information. The books were all well put together with nice imaged and clean layouts. The dice and cards included were all of good quality. The large poster map that was included in the game was magnificent and I feel would be worthy of framing if not for it being two sided.

Artistic Direction

8.5/10

I really like the art that’s included here. There’s not a great deal of if but this is the beginner’s box that they are using to introduce the game. I suspect the focus was more on readability than on appearance. 

Fun Factor

8/10

This is an RPG and in the general sense it’s a game where you and you’re players will spend a few hours pretending to be someone else. 

More specifically, this is a game where playing and careful thought win the day. You’ll need to spend your time figuring out how to perform the job, what sort of tools you’ll need, and the best way to do that. 

It’s possible to murder hobo your way through it but I find games with a more deliberate pacing are more successful. 

There’s no age given on the box but I got the original when I was sixteen and played with my brother when he was fourteen or so. This is a more streamlined version of those rules so I think 14+ is probably a pretty good age range for this.

Conclusions

8.5/10

I like Shadowrun. Back when I was in high school I was walking through a book store when I passed their RPG shelf. My mind registered the cover of the Shadowrun book a second after I had passed it. My arm shot out behind me and grabbed the book off the shelf. The cover was a group of people in an alley gathered around a ATM while their decker hacked the system. It had a troll and an elf. Plus the elf had magic. I was infatuated instantly.

I haven’t played Shadowrun since third edition. Not out of a lack of desire but simply because a friend of mine was the GM for our Shadowrun game and he was always better at running Shadowrun than I. He moved some time ago and that’s been it for me.

It was nice to get my hands on this. I was happy to see the books inside and read through the short history overview and see how many of the events I remembered. It was even fun to see some of them described how the world saw them as opposed to what actually happened. Such as Dodgers AI girlfriend crashing the net because she couldn’t find him his merely called a crash.

Doing a little research on line I can see that there are some changes from fifth edition to this one that I simply can’t speak to as I have no experience with it. That said there are things here I really liked. The addition of the grunts rule was a big upside to me for this game. 

In editions I played there was a balancing act where you couldn’t send too many enemies at the group at once for fear of overrunning them while ate the same time you needed to make them skilled enough to give the players a challenge. This led to every mall being guarded by seal team six. Grunts level that playing field quite a bit.

The four character dossiers in the box are decently put together. In addition to nicely place indications of what everything is and what it’s four it had roleplay tips and character guides. There’s also a short story in the back of each one that details the groups last job. The section is divided in half with one half being the narrative description of the job from their point of view and the other half is a description of the mechanics in play and how they were used. 

There’s supposed to be a fifth character, a human rigger available online. It took me a while to find I’ll include a link above. The Rigger is a fine character but is slightly more advanced than the other four. If you’re only using four characters I’d stick with the ones in the box.

The adventure inside is playable and does a good job of teaching the mechanics to the players. I had a couple of problems with the adventure that I’ll talk about in a separate section below after my parting words in case any potential GM’s want to have a look.

The game also game with a deck of equipment cards that represented all of the different gear, spells, and some of the NPC’s in the adventure. I found these extremely useful and hope they come with more of the products in the future. Though there a small hiccup in mine where two characters have a lined coat and the box only came with one card. It would have been nice for each player to get their own copy of the card.

Plus the map of Seattle is gorgeous. I can’t say enough good things about the poster map of the city that I would have loved to have had access to in the early days of the game.

All in all I like this box. I think it’s a good jumping in point for the game and will be a useful tool for people looking to try the game or introduce it to their friends.

As always try before you buy. See if you can get a demo at a small convention or a local group or game store to give you a run through with this one. I know it’s a bit more difficult with RPG’s since you may be one of the players and don’t want to spoil yourself and if that’s the case I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with a blind buy in.

Thanks for stopping by. And while you’re at it please remember to stop and take time for yourself. We’re all very busy these days and it easy to forget to put ourselves first every once in a while. So, please take this as permission to take a few minutes for yourself to take a breath and relax. Remember, you’re important and if you don’t take care of yourself first you can’t help anyone else.

Okay, seriously this is going to be about the adventure and there will be spoilers here. If you are going to be one of the players please walk away now or have some of the surprise ruined for you. If you’re interested in this grab your GM and send him this way to see what he thinks.

If you’re still here…

The adventure itself is fine. It’s a nice throwback to the Stuffer Shack encounter found in the first book way back in the 1980’s. They take that and expand on it to give it more weight and substance. What was once a hold up in a convenience store has become a full on gang war. The problem is there isn’t really a hook for the players.

The adventure starts with the group making a snack run to get some munchies at two in the morning. While in the Stuffer Shack they hear an ungodly commotion outside as several motorcycle gangs show up and guide a limo into a warehouse. The game assumes that the players will get involved for several reasons. Most of these are individual roleplay reasons for each of the characters and the final one is money.

I had to stop the module and tell the players what the game thinks their personal motivation was. They had each considered that as a reason their character should get involved. They had also all discounted them because they felt they didn’t need to prove anything, would be fine even if the police showed up to deal with the gangs, and were outnumbered by a ridiculous amount.

The other reason the game assumes they’ll get involved is to get a reward for saving the person in the back of the limo. The problem here came from the opening description not giving any indication that there was anyone in the limo to be saved. From how the opening was written my group thought the limo was stolen and empty. In addition to this, the group felt that there wasn’t even a guarantee of a reward for saving the person in the limo which meant there was still no reason for them to get involved.

This entire problem is solved by one simple addition. Instead of being on a snack run have them there to meet a prospective employer, or a Mr. Johnson as the game calls everyone who hires shadowrunners. If they’re there to meet a Mr. Johnson and see the limo get grabbed then they now have several reasons to get involved. For financial reasons, that’s their payday in that limo. Reputation wise, it’s going to look very bad if the person their supposed to meet gets grabbed near the meeting and they don’t do anything about it. For longevity reasons it makes this Johnson more likely to hire them again for more money if they’re grateful for the save. It’s also not unusual to get a job where they’ll have to leave immediately from the meet so it explains why they have all of their gear. Who needs an assault rifle to go get Twinkies?

From this point the game becomes the group fighting, talking, or sneaking their way into the warehouse to rescue the people in the limo. They’ll have to face each of the groups one at a time in order to get to the warehouse. Once inside they need to face off with the four gang leaders and more gang members. While still using whatever method they have to get to this point.

This part is okay but it put the group on their back foot for the first part of the adventure. It also has some odd thematic problems. The gangs use the grunt rules making the confrontations easier as they move towards the warehouse but it feels weird for them to only face one gang at a time. Since all of the gangs are within view of one another after they’d probably get involved after one or two groups go down.

After they’ve worked their way into the warehouse they then have to face all four gangs at once, plus their leaders. So the final confrontation can become four individual gang leaders, and four gangs of grunts. This is incredibly overwhelming. Yes the group can talk their way through parts of the meeting. They can get some groups to stand down but a bad dice roll and they can all get creamed.

For my group they started negotiations with the woman in the limo by having the decker hack into her personal network and talk to her over the phone. Then the decker in the stayed in the stuffer shack and played with the cameras, personal networks of the gang members, and the warehouse. The rest of the team went in invisibly and started the gang leaders fighting one another. They then turned Johnson invisible and snuck out the back of the warehouse.

Once they get outside the warehouse the group is supposed to be attacked by an unmanned combat drone that has a preprogrammed set of instructions. Once they’ve defeated the drone the adventure is supposedly over.

My group didn’t face the drone since they exited out the back of the warehouse after decker closed the warehouse doors. The drone wasn’t programed for something like that.

A simple plan to modify this adventure if your group does something similar then I have a couple of recommendations to extend the action. First let them succeed. I wouldn’t punish them for coming up with an idea to circumvent the entire adventure. They should feel like they accomplished something. After they get out make them play out the Warriors.

Give them a goal of a nearby safe house about three blocks away. Give them a head start and then have the gangs notice the woman is gone. If the decker is watching the warehouse they’ll know they gangs are on the move.

As the players move towards the safe house have them hear motorcycles in the distance. If the group contacts someone for help then let one of the gangs show up. There are hints in the module that one of the gangs was hired to kidnap the woman.

This way you can have the players interact with each gang individually and come across the big fight near the end. This way you can wait to drop the drone on them near then end when they’ve just about made it to safety.

The biggest problem I have with this is that it gives the players a sample run in the dossier. In that run they go to a meeting, plan a job, perform the job, and deal with the fallout of something going wrong. That is a traditional shadowrun. When most people play shadowrun that’s the expectation of what you’ll be doing. That’s not to say that things like this adventure can’t and won’t happen. I can think of three times where we’ve had the random night from hell.

This is supposed to introduce people to the game. It’s supposed to give you the mechanics and it does an excellent job of that. However, it’s also supposed to give them the flavor of the world. This module doesn’t give them the flavor of this world. I wish the included run had included all of the steps a group goes through for a more traditional shadowrun.

The adventure is fine. It teaches them the rules. It gives them some sense of the world. If you’re an experienced group or GM you’ll be able to spin this pretty well. If you’re new to the system have notes ready and be prepared to need to explain the importance of a tag on a car that says, “Free the UCAS.”

I still recommend the set. What I said in the conclusion is true. I think this is a good jumping in point and a useful tool. You will get use out of this box. I just wish they’d have spent a little more time developing the actual adventure than reskinning a very old one that wasn’t that good to begin with.