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.