Last Updated: September 22, 2021
Shadowrun, the iconic cyberpunk-fantasy RPG, dates back to 1989, making it just slightly younger than I am. In its 30+ year history, it has seen 6 editions of the tabletop rules, 40+ novels, and 8 video game adaptations. While nowhere near the consumer juggernaut that is Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun has a loyal fanbase and a ton to offer.
So why is it to horribly frustrating to get into Shadowrun?
I’ve followed Shadowrun from afar since I first learned that it existed (I think sometime around 4th edition? I honestly don’t remember.), and I have always found it inaccessible. Considering that 90% of the text I read is RPG sourcebooks from RPGs of various sorts, getting into an RPG is usually pretty easy for me. It’s basically a second language.
But Shadowrun has always vexed me.
What’s cool about Shadowrun?
Shadowrun is a cyberpunk-fantasy setting set in an alternate future earth where magic has reawakened and humans have transformed into “metahumanity”, including classic fantasy races like elves and dwarves, but technology has also rapidly advanced to include all sorts of cybernetics, holograms, and other cool bits. Players take on the roles of “shadowrunners”, dangerous and skilled operators living outside the law and making a life for themselves by doing all sorts of high-stakes things like corporate espionage and bounty hunting, all set against the backdrop of a dystopian future where megacorporations run the world, actual dragons runs the government, and the city of Redmond, Washington, was nuked into near-nonexistence (I lived there once). Major settings including Berlin, Hong Kong, New York, and Seattle, all of which feel wildly different and have tons of cool things going on.
The setting lore is pretty deep and really fun, and I’m sure I got much of that wrong, but it gets the points across.
Mechanically, Shadowrun is a dice pool system and characters are built using a class-based point system, so customization is massively deep and a lot of fun once you figure out how it works. There are sort of archetypal roles (decker, street samurai, mages, riggers, etc.) but with no class system you’re free to mix and match.
There’s a ton to love here. The art is amazing, the stories are great, and the setting is a ton of fun to inhabit.
State of the Game
Let’s start with a super basic question: What is the current edition of the Shadowrun tabletop RPG ruleset?
If you go to the official Shadowrun website… wait, what is the official Shadowrun website? It’s not Shadowrun.com apparently. That’s a dead site. The WhoIs registration lists Microsoft as the owner of the domain, which isn’t helpful.
So let’s Google it! Turns out that the Shadowrun tabletop RPG’s official site is the 5th result in the search, falling below two wikipedia pages and two pages on Steam. We finally find the site at ShadowrunTabletop.com. I’m not exactly an expert at search engine optimization, but oof. That is not what you want if you’re trying to sell something.
So we’re finally on the website, and it is a mess. The home page has a big graphic for what I think is the 30th Anniversary Edition which looks like this:
If you know what was up with Shadowrun, that’s cool. But if you don’t (I didn’t when I first saw the logo), that sure looks like a logo for a strip club. And while that would be a cool bit of art within the setting, it’s completely unhelpful if you want to market a tabletop RPG to new players.
So is the 30th Anniversary Edition the current edition of the RPG?
No, it isn’t.
I noticed a link on the site’s main nav menu labeled “FAQ“, which seems like a good place to start.
I was mostly wrong, but we did finally find out that 5th edition is the current edition of the rules.
Except that that’s not the right answer. Shadowrun is currently in its 6th edition, and it has a completely separate website! If you’re feeling exasperated, frustrated, vexed, or otherwise unhappy, I’m right there with you. This is a mess.
Shadowrun’s biggest consistent criticism (which I’ve heard repeated across numerous mediums from long-time players) has always been that the books are terribly organized, so they make awful reference documents. That’s a huge problem when the primary function of the rulebooks is to serve as a reference document. And apparently that massive flaw has carried over into their online presence.
TL;DR: We’re in the 6th edition, the current is shadowrunsixthworld.com, and finding any of that information is a pain unless you already know where to look.
How do I actually get into this game?
Great question, and surprisingly difficult to answer.
If you want physical books, expect to buy them online. I haven’t seen them in my FLGS, and the Shadowrun site doesn’t list a store finder. They’re available online from the Catalyst Games Store, and if your purchase physical copies they include PDFs for free. As of writing this post, Bundle of Holding is running a bundle for 6th edition which includes the Beginner Box, the Core Rulebook, and whole bunch of novels, all of which you’ll receive as PDFs. PDFs of previous editions are available on DriveThruRPG, but they apparently only have the 6th edition rulebooks in German. If you search “Shadowrun 6th World” on Amazon, the core rulebook doesn’t even make it onto the first page of results, but the books are there.
The Beginner Box (affiliate link) is nominally the best place to start, but I didn’t even know that they had a beginner box until I found out about the bundle, which tells you a lot on its own. After that, consider the Core Rulebook (affiliate link).
If you want more help getting into Shadowrun, check out Reddit’s /r/Shadowrun. They have a lot of good resources for several editions of the game, including a post a stickied post titled “Which edition of Shadowrun?” which really reinforces all of my above points about how difficult it is to get into the game, and their wiki is a great place for additional help.
I wanted to get into Shadowrun as well, it looked like such a unique setting, and funnily enough i thought Shadowrun was a d&d setting like Eberron or Greyhawk, so it took me even longer to figure it out, then I just gave up and decided if i wanted sci-fi i would use either a tweaked Eberron, or I found this cool star wars d&d 5e conversion: https://sw5e.com/
Shadowrun has my favorite magic system (in terms of lore) ever. Giving real world religions access to magic opened up some of the most dramatic, tense, and provocative story ideas I’ve ever had. It’s something that no other system really comes close to because nearly every other setting avoids religion and politics like the plague. What I wouldn’t give to explore Black Magic, Houdou, and Hindu more.
I myself have looked into 5E cyberpunk and sci-fi conversions, including Genefunk and the D&Destiny books. But none of them offer the pseudo-real world angst and moral quandaries that Shadowrun has. Sigh, my search continues.
Nice to hear it’s not just me that went through… well, pretty much this exact process when trying to get into Shadowrun. Feels like that game’s rules architects, book designers, and marketers are all strictly barred from talking to each other. If not for this blog post, I wouldn’t have even known that there was a 6th edition.
I am an old Shadowrun player, and can drop some knowledge here, if you want. I bought the 1st Ed core book on the day it released, and GM’d that afternoon, so I’ve been in on it about as long as possible without working on it.
The biggest barrier to entry is the fact that the metaplot of the game has never been reset in the entire 30+ year run. That’s right, the referenced plot in the newest book (published 2021) might actually be referring to a plot introduced in a book from 1st Ed (published 1989). To get a handle on this without having to literally everything ever published, I recommend listening to The Neo-Anarchist’s Podcast (https://neo-anarchist.com/) which is essentially a summary of it all, from a freelancer who worked on 5th Ed and knows his lore.
The game is crunchy as hell. Think D&D 3.5 in all it’s glory, maybe plus a little. Plan to grab a free character generator program, as it will save you a ton of math, and maybe a month figuring out to optimize your first street samurai.
The game has a persistent problem in design, which is that certain characters (your hacker and a mage using astral projection, riggers before 4th Ed) are essentially playing a separate game where the rest of the party is left frozen in time while you go sidebar with them on a separate adventure through astral/cyber space, and then come back to the rest of party to continue the game. There are a lot of ways to solve this, most of them clunky and a lot of GM work, but 4th Ed solved it for hackers and riggers (mostly) by making the Matrix wireless and making drones more common.
Edition-wise, 1st lasted a very short time, 2nd was basically the errata, and 3rd was the refinement of that version of the system. Those first 3 editions use a “dice pools” system to augment your basic Attribute + Skill pile o’ d6s, where in, based on your “class” (it’s technically a class-less point buy system system, but that not really true since certain character options are prohibitively expensive), you have a magic/astral/combat/hacking pool that you draw extra dice from. These pools were abandoned in 4th Ed, so there is a play style break there. 4th Ed also introduces the wireless matrix. These changes (no pools and wireless matrix) persist to the present 6th Ed, so you can think of 1-3 as the “old game”, and 4-6 as the “new game”. I would recommend either 3rd or 5th from a mechanical standpoint.
Warning: 6th Ed is widely considered a total shitshow (technical term). Really, look up any review on YouTube, it’s pretty universal. What do I mean by this? No playtesting, some tables you need to make a character were simply not printed in the book, reprints of entire sections from the 5th Ed rules, but half the referenced rules have been removed from that edition. Really, quite serious problems.
If you can get past all of that, you’re in for a real treat, as the game is just as cool as the book covers lead you to believe. Hope this helps you make some informed decisions and eases your way in. Enjoy!
Thank you! That was both concise and extremely informative!
Glad it helps! You’ve got to share what you love, as you’ve done with a whole site here. Least I can do is chip in. 🙂
To follow up on this – CGL has recently released the so called Seattle edition of the core rule book which contains all the errata and also cleared up some rules. Also a Companion book is comming. It seems 6th is actually shaping up to be a pretty ok edition.
(I am not in any way related with CGL 🙂 )
I hadn’t seen that! I’ll have to check it out.
It was weirdly impossible to find that on their site. I had to google the book by name.
Hey! The 6th ed bools in English can be found on Drivethru RPG here:
I would personally suggest getting the Core Rules (natch), the Neo Anarchists Streetpedia, and Cutting Black. That should get you solidly into the 6th edition lore, and help you decide where you want to go with the rules. 6e really has a lot to suggest it, so I hope this kimda takes that bitter taste out of your mouth a bit. I’ve been a fan since 1992, so feel free to email me if you’d like more help with any era of the game.
I love this article and feel like there are so many people that can relate to exactly this. The publisher is a mess, and it doesn’t help that the fan base is pretty segmented due to edition wars.
I’m here to present an unpopular opinion: go with 2nd Edition. Grab the CRB for $30 on eBay and that’s all you need. I grew up playing the Genesis game in the early 90s but after backing the SR Return game on Kickstarter I wanted to get into the ttrpg. I couldn’t get a clear answer on which edition was a good edition for newcomers, “they’re all broken” was the consensus. I was a special case because I knew the world and had been a long-time fan but didn’t know the tabletop game rules. Everyone suggested either 3rd or 5th edition. I played some 3rd edition because I like my wired Matrix, but something was missing to me. The tone was too dark, the game felt a little too simulationist.
But then one brilliant Redditor told me that 2nd Edition is the leanest CRB. So I gave it a shot and boy am I glad I did. Not only was the game MUCH easier for me to get my head around due to the leanness of the book, but it was also laid out in a way that made sense to newcomers (a few famous editing flubs notwithstanding). 3rd edition feels like a game made for people familiar to the Shadowrun ttrpg, something all later editions are guiltily of as well IMO. This leads to the famous saying: “in order to learn Shadowrun, one must first be an expert at Shadowrun.”
Also, the TONE in 2e was perfect to me. All the weird, rad 80s punk vibes were there that I felt when playing the Genesis game (I realized that 2nd was live when the game was made, go figure). 3e lost some of that in favor of more 90s gothic/grungy attitude.
I also respectfully disagree that 3e is the refinement of 1e and 2e, and would argue that instead it should be regarded as the most complete version of those systems. Other than initiative and dice pool rules, I believe 2e is nearly perfect. What 3e did do was it compiled all of the editional rules from the 2e sourcebooks, tweaked them a bit, and included them all in the 3e CRB. The result is a much larger and harder to digest book (a great value though!): three fully-fledged games rolled into one.
If you’re new: try 2e core. You can always buy sourcebooks to get more nitty gritty into Metamagic, matrix and rigging but by then you’ll have the core game down. 3e core comes off as ia much more simulationist game than 2e core because it’s got it all lumped into the main book. Because 2e core leaves that to the supplement books, it is a bit more abstract on specific rulings, and I like that.
If anyone wants to check out our Shadowrun Actual Play, we play 2nd edition but fast and loose!
If you are still interested in SR5, you absolutely must use Chummer to build a character, it makes CharGen infinitely easier. It is buggy as hell but it saves constantly by default which is very handy. You still need the books for detailed descriptions but stats for all the game elements available to use on a character are there and for the most part accurate. So, par for course lol