Comparing editions through the ages

I also have a doc that breaks down key game systems (combat, initiative, spellcasting, …) and compares them, line by line and side by side, in all six major releases of Shadowrun.

It’s difficult to present as a web page - it has very large tables - so you can download it as a PDF instead.

PublisherFASAFASA / WizkidsWizkids / CatalystCatalyst
Core mechanicSkill or stat; variable target numberSkill+stat; variable dice pool
ToneRetro-futuristicSome transhumanist/sci-fi themes
Matrix & comms techWired & chunky; voice-only cellphones & PDA-like pocket computers; some “dungeon crawling” MatrixWireless & sleek; smartphones; Matrix stuff somewhat more integrated into gameplay
Deckers exist as a distinct role?YesSort ofYes
Editing quality / organisationGoodMostly good; later books poorPoorPoor
Roll20 charsheet?NoYesYesYesYesWIP
Foundry system?NoNoNoNoYesNo
Sourcebook selection, community support, quick ref material, digital toolsGoodGoodGreatGood

Tone through the ages

  • 1e through 3e are a bit more “pure ‘80s cyberpunk”: chunky cyberdecks with QWERTY keyboards, everything is plugged in with cables, simplistic (and very expensive!) smartphones, people call the police via phone booths and receive breaking news via faxes. At the time, this was futuristic; to modern eyes, it’s fair to describe it as “retro-futurism.”
  • 4e onwards increasingly introduce more modern elements into the setting, including transhumanism and more obvious sci-fi. These editions have wireless charging, laser weapons, railguns, nanotechnology, and ubiquitous augmented reality. In later 5e books there is even anti-gravity tech and a colony on Mars. Everyone has a smartphone analog (“commlinks”) capable of full wireless Matrix access; hacking is via devices that look like tablet computers.

Deckers through the ages

  • 1e-3e feature deckers who are quite “disconnected1” from the rest of the team: they have Matrix “dungeon crawls” that can involve a prolonged exploration of computer systems while the other characters might not have anything to do. This can be a challenge for GMs to manage.

  • 4e attempts to address this by adding the ability to get hacking done to any character willing to spend money on gear, so at least all the characters can participate in hacking together. The addition of the wireless Matrix means hackers also have things they can hack in real-time during combat. But this dilutes the iconic cyberpunk hacker tropes. Many people felt this was a net loss. (But they are wrong! -Tony, 4e advocate)

  • 5e & 6e revert back to having a distinct decker role, but continue to try to offer deckers the ability to act in concert with everyone else through wireless hacking. But again, complex Matrix actions can involve the decker doing their own thing for prolonged periods while the rest of the team is idle. GMs still need to work to manage this, although it’s not as tricky as with 1e-3e. Some tables still take an “all decking is done by NPCs” approach.

Dice mechanics through the ages

Shadowrun started in 1e with a kitchen sink approach to dice mechanics: variable target numbers, dice pools, and two different vectors of modifiers for difficulty – plus opposed and resisted rolls, and other mechanics. Some of these were phased out gradually, others still exist in modern Shadowrun.

  • Variable target numbers: roll a number of dice equal to your skill, against a target number set by the difficulty of the task. Count the number of dice that succeed.
  • The target number would be further modified by the situation, as would the number of dice you rolled.
  • With variable targets, the target might be higher than 6; this required the rule of 6. If you roll a 6, you re-roll and add the next roll to 6, and keep going until you beat the target. If at least one dice beats the target, you succeed.
    • This results in some odd maths because 6 and 7 have the same probability of being rolled, but the system doesn’t adjust for that. Taking a +1 penalty to a target number of 5 and one to a target number of 8 has a very different effect on your chances of making the roll.

Variable targets were phased out over 2e & 3e, for a static target number of 4, although sometimes they could still vary, and it would still be modified up or down by situational modifiers.

In addition to the above, SR1-3e have “dice pools”: some number of dice that the player can choose to use on important or difficult tasks. Once used, though, they couldn’t be used again until the pool refreshed - typically the next turn. These dice pools are derived from your character’s skills and attributes and are the primary way attributes affect their chances of success. This can be a fair bit of book-keeping, as each character has multiple pools to draw upon, that must all be tracked as they are used and later refreshed. However they do give players a good amount of tactical agency.

From 4e and onwards, there is a major change to these mechanics. The “dice pool” term is re-used, now defined to mean “your skill rating plus the rating in a linked attribute”; for example, to shoot a gun, you might use a number of dice equal to the number in your Pistols skill plus the number in your Agility attribute. The target number is always 5 and situational modifiers only influence the number of dice you roll. This results in a smoother probability curve, but you’re rolling (and counting) a lot of dice. 20+ is quite common; 30+ is possible; for very powerful characters 40+ isn’t unheard of.

5e introduced a system-wide mechanism called “limits” in an attempt to curb powergaming. Each character has a set of intrinsic limits, derived from their attributes, which cap the maximum number of successes they can achieve on a test, regardless of how many dice they roll through combinations of high skills, expensive gear, magic spells, etc. It is also used for some gear, eg. the accuracy rating of a gun is applied as a limit on the hits when rolling to attack with it. Limits are often criticised for being fiddly to apply and ineffective at stopping players becoming very powerful. They were dropped in 6e.

  1. Pun intended. Sorry. ↩︎