This last two years has been one of old or existing RPGs in new editions. All of the major releases have been versions or editions anew of too many games to mention -- Warhammer Fantasy Role Play, Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, Tunnels and Trolls, RuneQuest, and Cyberpunk V3.0. The latter title was the big surprise, having been awaited for almost a decade. It was not though the only cyberpunk release of late. The other was the Shadowrun Fourth Edition, the only other surviving cyberpunk RPG from the genre's first appearance at the end of the 1980s.
Shadowrun unfortunately carries a certain stigma. It combines elements of fantasy with cyberpunk. In a much changed future, the fantasy races of Dwarves, Elves, Orks, and Trolls join mankind in using magic as well as cyberware, bioware, and cyberspace. Dragons dominate politics and corporate affairs, and the world of Shadowrun is diverse, broad and developed in depth over a swathe of supplements.
Originally published by FASA in 1989, the first three editions of the game focused on the enclave city of Seattle in 2049 through to 2060 or so, with the numerous supplements, scenarios and new editions of the rules advancing the timeline and background. Shadowrun Fourth Edition or SR4, now published by FanPro, advances the timeline to 2070 following the Matrix Crash 2.0 and the implementation of the wireless matrix, a failed coup attempt to restore the old United States of America from the current United Canadian and American States and Confederation of American States, and earthquakes that flooded the southern part of Californian Free State.
The default set up in SR4 has the characters cast as "shadowrunners" -- operatives who literally run the shadows cast by corporations, governments and other power players. They play mercenaries, drone riggers, techies, bounty hunters, mages, shaman, gunslingers, hackers, street samurai, technomancers, and face characters.
They make their monies in clandestine operations, working as deniable assets for "Mr. Johnson," stealing data, extracting people, grabbing prototypes, planting false data, and so on. Their actions are certainly criminal and more so because most shadow runners are SINless. They lack the System Identification Number that would grant the various rights and privileges of UCAS citizenship.
Other setups are also possible, working the streets as a gang or as law enforcement, special forces teams, resistance fighters, smugglers, and so on. The Shadowrun game and its setting of the Awakened World is broad enough, and if you want it, has enough depth to support these ideas and more.
SR4 comes with some fundamental changes. To the mechanics, to net running, and to character generation. They are all for the better, presenting a cleaner, more contemporary approach to both settings and mechanics.
Shadowrun has always used dice pools, derived from core attributes and skills, and using six sided dice. Rolled against a target number, the number of results from the pool equal to or exceeding the target number count as successes. The greater the number of successes, the better. In SR4 the dice pools of six sided dice remain, but the target number remains constant, 5 or more. Modifiers alter the number of successes required. There are tweaks here and there made to the Shadowrun system, all of which move it to a slightly grittier feel. If the GM does not like that, there are guidelines to making the game play easier, grittier, more cinematic, and so on.
Similarly in previous editions of Shadowrun character creation involved prioritising a character's race, magic ability, attributes, skills, and resources. To play a particular metatype race or a magic using character -- whether full blown Mage or Shaman, or an Adept, who uses magic to enhance himself physically or mentally -- you had to assign it a particular priority. The aim was to provide a balanced method of character creation with a player having to sacrifice certain aspects to get the ones he wants.
Now all that is gone and replaced by a simple point buy system. Each player is given 400 build points to create a character, buying races, magic ability, resources, skills and attributes. The latter is not just straight Nuyen, but also gear, cyberware, bioware, contacts, and lifestyle. The upshot of the point system is twofold. First it allows the purchase of advantages and disadvantages like Ambidextrous and Spirit Bane, second it broadens character creation offering wider choice and flexibility.
Over the course of the previous editions, the type of characters available in Shadowrun has changed, just as the number of skills given to characters has broadened also. Long gone are the Native Warrior character type, in part because the emphasis upon the new Native American Nations has passed in the Shadowrun universe, as has the Rocker. This is mostly because whilst the Rocker is a staple of the cyberpunk genre, it was the least suitable to run the shadows.
In recent editions Shadowrun introduced the Body Magician or Adept character. SR4 introduces the Technomancer character, capable of accessing the matrix directly without the need for a comlink or cyberdeck. Touched by something deep in the machine, Technomancers are literally aware of the flow of information around them.
Matrix 2.0 or the wireless world of 2070 takes in contemporary concepts with the PAN or Personal Area Network. These can mesh within other PANs, commercial networks, and so on, enabling communication, shopping, monitoring (by yourself and big brother), and hacking into local security networks. Not only does this give every character some degree of access to the electronic world, it makes hacking and electronic security work more immediate. No longer does a decker have to sit back at base making a run while everyone else goes on with the mission. This solves one of the problems of gaming the cyberpunk genre.
Physically, SR4 is a cleaner, less densely laid out book than before. Although full colour is only used for the sample characters, the use of green as a highlight works well in this 352-page hardback. The artwork is less effective than of old, and does not match the quality of more recent supplements.
SR4 gives you everything necessary to play, except somewhere more immediate to play. Previous editions have always included some information about Seattle, the default setting. The absence will not be a problem for veteran players or GM but is for anyone new to the game. To get really started, a new GM will need to refer to the Runner Havens and On The Run supplements.
The truth is, if you dislike mixing fantasy with your cyberpunk, Shadowrun is not the game for you. The cyberpunk element tends to take a back seat to the fantasy elements anyway, and really if you want a cyberpunk RPG then the classic Cyberpunk 2.02.0. from R. Talsorian Games, Inc (but not the recent Cyberpunk V3.0., which is anodyne and plastic) or Guardians of Order's Ex Machina are superior choices. Ex Machina in particular explores the literary game in more depth.
Yet if you are looking for an integrated setting that provides plenty of options and rich deep background, Shadowrun more than delivers. Shadowrun Fourth Edition is both a solid update of a very commercial RPG and all but the perfect introduction to the Awakened World of 2070. If it had the information on Seattle, it would not have been "almost."