Rebuilding Shadowrun Anarchy

Many people were intrigued when news of Shadowrun Anarchy leaked out. While the setting has many fans, the rules are very dense and not to everyone’s liking. So the idea there would be a lighter or even narrative version of the game piqued a lot of interest. Then a preview came out and a bunch of people started to scratch their heads. By the time the full game came out most people were perplexed. Shadowrun Anarchy (SRA) seemed to be a simpler version of modern Shadowrun with some narrative elements glued on for decoration.

In fact looking at it with two lenses also one to see how it’s very much a thinned down fifth edition type game. It has attributes, skills, qualities and then dumps all the heavy crunch into something called Shadow Amps. All magic, hacking, even special equipment becomes an amp. I actually think amps are the best part of the game. The game has rules to make anything you want, so while it is the crunches part it’s not brain science. Also if you don’t want to make anything the game has numerous example of completed amps you’d find in a typical Shadowrun game.

But what about that narrative aspect you ask? SRA was originally based on a system called Cue. It wasn’t a d6 dice pool game, it was much lighter. From this lineage SRA got Cues and its damage system. Cues are statements that your character might say to help define who they are. Then they add in Dispotions which are “a character’s motivations and rules of conduct”. Sound familiar? Damage is a series of boxes that in SRA is based on your attributes. Amor becomes just more boxes to fill in. And if you liked Cues and Dispositions then they added Tags, which are just one work descriptors to also help define your character like Elf or SINless. Lastly turns are taken like a board game where the GM starts the scene then each person takes a turn before moving on the the next person beside them. Oh ya, SRA has Plot Points, which have predefined uses of which usurping initiative is the most common.

Remember when I said SRA had narrative elements glued on for decoration. Every character has a set of Cues, Dispositions and Tags which do NOT directly interact with the game on any real level. They are there purely for player and GM motivation. What’s really strange is the SRA has all the moving parts to steal one of the most loved narrative aspects of the new century, but just seems to say no thanks. In the end, SRA is a game that Shadowrun veterans felt was too light to play Shadowrun and outsiders felt was too rules heavy for them and never delivered on the narrative promise.

One can argue if merging narrative elements to a lighter Shadowrun is even wanted, but it is hard to understand why the final printed product seems to have missed the mark. The lighter Shadowrun is too heavy and the narrative elements aren’t really part of the game. What’s truly strange is that that are easy fixes for both these problems.

Fixing the narrative aspects are as simple as…Aspects. Remember when I said SRA had all the moving parts to steal a favourite narrative aspect. Yes, I mean Fate’s Aspects. What is maddening about SRA is how it has Cues, Dispositions and Tags, which are all clear analogs to Aspects, and it has a metagame resource like Fate Points; but it never links the two. The first fix is just as easy as linking Plot points to Cues et al and allow players to use Plot points to Invoke a Cue/Disposition/Tag to get a 2 Hit bonus to a relevant test. That’s a rules addendum that is small enough to be a Tweet that instantly makes the game much more narrative. OK, that’s a bit of a hyperbole because you need to include GM Compels as well and I’d like to look at the whole Plot point economy to not only deal with jumping the initiative queue but deal with other things like Dramatic Editing and such.

If the narrative aspect was relatively simple to “fix” then the other side of a lighter Shadowrun isn’t as easy. Make no mistake SRA is much lighter than Shadowrun proper. And I am firmly in the camp that while you could make a lighter game that there must be a minimum to make a Shadowrun game, Shadowrun. I am content with Shadow Amps to be that line in the sand. The rest of the game seems to be too focussed on being mini-Shadowrun.

What do I mean by that? I mean attributes, 40 skills (with specialization), qualities and Edge. In reality SRA isn’t a rules light game, but a rules medium game more akin to the cinematic version of Unisystem found in the Buffy and Angel games. But for the most part most of the move parts of the game add dice to roll or allow re-rolls.  Attributes: add dice. Skills: Add dice. Specialization: add dice. Qualities: add dice or give rerolls. See a point there? If one of the things people often complain about Shadowrun is how many dice are thrown about, you’d think a game meant to attract new players might cut that down a bit. I made a starting SRA character who can easily toss 16 dice on their specialty. SRA also enforces focussed characters by only allowing 5? starting skills. Each skill is matched to one of the five attributes, which means the things you do, you do very well. Add in the right qualities and Amps and you’ll never roll less than 10 dice on anything. It’s not an oversight since in SRA you don’t roll against static numbers, but against different levels of dice pools.

I love rolling a handful of six-siders! I am a bit less enthused by rolling two hands of dice though. It seems to me that the easiest thing to do with SRA is to go back to the beginning and delink skills and attributes. Voila, dice pool halted instantly. And maybe only one other category should give bonus dice while the other gives rerolls. It seems SRA has very tangled hair and no one wanted to take a comb to it. Further qualities tend to encroach on Amps territory, not cool bro. In my world Invoking a Cue (or Tag) would give you two hits to add to your Skill roll. Amps may add and preroll their own added dice or simply give a benefit. (I might add a Plot point trigger to lessen costs of some Amps.) Qualities, if they still existed, would give more mundane benefits or retools. Or to summarize: Skills give you dice to roll, Amps add to that dice total, Cues add Hits, Qualities allow re-rolls. Lower dice pools and each moving part does something mechanically different from each other.

So what about attributes and Edge and the other stuff? I guess this is where I diverge from the winning faction that produced SRA. I’d kick them to the curb. My rational is that in the first three iterations of Shadowrun that skills were what you rolled for dice and attributes were something that were either a limiter or something you roll against. In short we never cared why someone was good at something, they just were. But if I got rid of attributes, how would the races be differentiated from each other? Sure Orgs and Trolls could get more boxes to take damage. Maybe there’s a a bonus or re-roll for Elves when doing dexterous stuff. Or MAYBE we just Invoke that racial tag with Plot points when we need it. Maybe things like a Troll’s strength is a free Invoke. I tend to favour that more than attribute bonuses or purely mechanical benefits.

What about Edge? Sigh. Edge is a hold over from a time when Shadowrun had numerous pools. Ironically these pools existed because characters only rolled a number of dice equal to their skill. In modern Shadowrun you roll attribute and skill and what ever bonuses you can get AKA a bucket of dice. The real problems is the SRA has Plot points which already seem to be another resource that marginalizes Edge as a dice adder. Since I’d rather get rid of dice adding to pools from multiple sources and I’d rather just have one meta-game resource, I’d choose and expanded Plot point and jettison Edge. By keeping it you make modern Shadowrun players think they are looking at something familiar and misunderstand the redheaded stepchild it is. All hail the Bolt point.

Equipment is the only place I’d go the opposite direction, but not much. I don’t like that amor just gives you more “hit points”. It seems to be a hold over from the Cue system. I’d rejig amor to reduce damage, and possibly give other minor benefits a la Shadowrun Returns Outfits. OK, I’m going to rename amor Outfits to re-enforce the style over substance that is missing in modern Shadowrun. But Outfits like all other equipment would fir on a single line. POWER SUIT (AR:5) Re-roll two Persuasion dice. Weapons I’m fine with, but the other more common Shadowrun equipment should be listed with a single line of what they do. MAGLOCK PASSKEY Unlocks any residential or commercial door lock. If equipment requires a Plot point to activate or you want it to add dice to a roll, congratulations you just made a Shadow Amp…not a piece of equipment.

Shadowrun Anarchy was announced in spring and arrived before the end of summer. They game was admittedly rushed and there was serious tweaking going up until Gencon. Developers and play testers have indicated the game was in a high state of flux until the last minute. Many have commented it is not the game they wanted it to be. And if you only had read this from me you might think I have a very poor view of the game. That is only true in comparison to what SRA could have been. SRA as printed is a very serviceable game. Clearly two paths collided while making it and I think the wrong path won. Yet, with a few tweaks the game could easily live up to its billing of a lite narrative version of Shadowrun. Even that wouldn’t placate hardcore Shadowrun fans or the equal fervorant story game adherents. But for the rest of us we could have a game of Shadowrun that was not much more complex than Fate while still being accessible to tradition RPG players. Then again maybe that sweet spot is not as popular to make a game like SRA “successful”.