A review of Catalyst Game Labs' Shadowrun: Anarchy.
(Originally published at Stuffer Shack, December 22, 2016)
It’s been a few months since Shadowrun: Anarchy’s release and now the hard copy is available as well. I got my hands on the PDF immediately, after much anticipation. The game, which is rules-light, narrative focused, and set in the same rich Shadowrun setting, was the game I had been waiting for (for 25 years).
This overview is going to be strange; it will be a scathing critique of the book whilst being a glowing recommendation of the game. Certain portions of the book are well-crafted, polished islands in a sea of unedited, mismanaged ambiguity. None of that matters. The only thing that matters is the experience at the gaming table, and the experience is exceptional…
BOOK: The Fluff
The context of the setting and the flavor of the Sixth World are contained in those aforementioned islands:
“Synchronicity” is an enjoyable, five-page, short narrative by Russell Zimmerman. It does an excellent job of showing you a run from the POV of some pre-gen characters without beating you over the head with, “This is Shadowrun!”
Bleeding on the Edge contains a very efficient overview of the setting. It continues the “Everything has a Price” themes of the current era and details important dates and players of the Sixth World. I highly recommend giving this section the time it deserves. If you haven’t been playing long, this section is arguably more important than the rest of the book.
The Secrets of Seattle narrows in on the quintessential Shadowrun city, granting even more insight into the culture of 2075-ish life. It breaks down individual city districts, describing them and “tagging” them for play. I can only hope that future Anarchy expansions provide the same treatment to more cities.
Happening World is an impressively large collection of 37 Contract Briefs (Shadowrun missions). Some of them are multi-part, but most are fully-encapsulated runs, separated into Scenes with suggested NPC opposition, suggested rewards, with a few fixed plot points that can be used to take the story any way the table needs. They act as great examples of how to build your own Contract Briefs.
My only issue with the Happening World section is that it contains bits of crunch that should be in the “How to Play” section called Rules of the Street. For instance, the stats for IC (a vital part of the Matrix) are in a Contract Brief, not in the Matrix section or the NPC section. But that is a failure of those sections, not this one.
BOOK: The Crunch
OK, big breath. We are in the sea. Don’t worry; everything is going to be fine.
Rules of the Street is a magnificently (disconcertingly?) short section for describing the ruleset of Shadowrun: Anarchy. Anarchy, the SYSTEM, at its core is very simple: go around the table and tell us what you are doing. If you might fail, roll some dice, get net hits. Everything that makes up a Shadowrunner is a Shadow Amp and either adds dice, re-rolls dice, adds damage, prevents damage, or acts upon the narrative. Then there are some fiddly-bits to mix in magic, Matrix, and vehicles.
Anarchy, the BOOK, suffers from the same infuriating editing failures as all other Catalyst games: cut/paste errors, references to rules and concepts that don’t exist, formatting oversights, poor grammar, scattered lists, and incomplete or incorrect examples. And like all Shadowrun editions, it is clearly written for people who have played Shadowrun before. Those are surmountable problems for experienced GMs but given all the grief that CGL is getting around rule book errata, I am disappointed that they did not give this first print a thrice over.
The end result is that all gaming groups will have to decide for themselves how a lot of the fiddly-bits of the game work. How much damage does a cybercombat attack do? What do spirit summoners roll against to summon? to banish? What are the effects of cover? What are the effects of fire? There are no answers to any of these seemingly basic questions. Does that mean that it is highly customizable or highly incomplete?
Street People, in the grand tradition of Shadowrun, contains errors in ALL of the 30 sample pre-gen characters. Because they were created at different stages of development, they were all legal at submission, but the evolving rules of Anarchy passed them by and they were never revisited. Still, they demonstrate the wide variety of archetypes available.
The cast of NPCs is extensive, of narrow use, and wildly unbalanced. There are 25 entries, of which less than ten will see common use. The rest are appropriate only for spotlight/contextual runs, like Bugs, Vampires, and Dragons. Drones and Spirits are dangerously overpowered. Sprites (added as an afterthought in the second printing) are humorously under-powered. These entries can, and should, simply act as inspiration for your own cast of NPC threats.
Forces of Chaos describes how to build your own character using Anarchy’s universal power system (Shadow Amps) and how to advance your character using Anarchy’s universal reward system (Karma). The interaction between Shadow Amps and Karma is an impressively simple method for balancing the archetypes against each other. Shadow Amps represent anything from cyberware to spells to drones to adept powers. Karma represents exactly what your character needs in order to develop, be it experience, Nuyen, power, practice, influence, or whatever. Refreshingly simple and surprisingly effective.
Anarchy and Shadowrun 5E describes the process of converting a 5E character to Anarchy and back. In practice, however, this will be a one way trip. After converting a dozen characters from 5E to Anarchy, I can already see that, given any amount of playtime in Anarchy, they are stuck there. Too much is invested in the balancing of Shadow Amps and Anarchy’s universal reward system that crossing back will cause power spikes and untold vagary.
As one way trips go, it was a pleasant experience. Pulling the essentials from a well-developed 5E character was easier than it sounded and the conversion felt not like a stripping away but like a distilling.
Index of Anarchy is an index… which exists. So…yay!
PLAY: The Experience
We’ve gotten through the book and we are at the table with our friends and frenemies. This is the hardest section to write about without being biased by the tremendous amount of fun that we had playing Anarchy.
Preparation: The GM needs drastically less preparation as Contract Briefs are one page, and generally consist of three Scenes. Each Scene simply describes where they are, what they might try to accomplish, and what their likely obstacles are. You are encouraged to speed up, change, eliminate, or add scenes as necessary to further the plot of whatever your players get up to. You could easily run a Scene knowing only 1-2 key pieces of information that you want to be discovered or encountered. The rest is built as you go.
When my groups converted to Anarchy, I also converted my current campaigns to Anarchy. GMing with only 1-2 fixed points in the plot (I am calling those Hard Points) was much easier. I just had a list of names ready and some funny accents. Because what is GMing other than alternating funny accents and attempted murder?
Players: Player investment is potentially higher because players help with every aspect of the game except tossing their own opposing dice for tests. With the GM, they decide power levels, character limits, scene pace, and plot advancement. They do this directly through their individual Narrations and indirectly through the meta-game built on top of the Anarchy system.
Plot Points: The meta-game of Anarchy is driven with Plot Points, which are rewards that allow a player to alter the plot in a way they see fit. Some players are going to want more danger and excitement, so they spend a Plot Point to add threats. Some players are going to spend them on more mechanical things like going first or attacking more. Some will spend them in the hopes of taking the game in an unexpected direction with Glitches and Exploits. Obviously the GM uses them for the same purposes.
Pacing: Here is a list of things I ain’t got time for: calculating initiative, Draining or Fading, calculating recoil, damage soaking, re-calculating initiative, calculating literally anything about grenades, All of that is gone, replaced by more story and more action. There is no book-diving for rules.
The pace of the game is easily twice as fast and is more streamlined than SR5. Each Turn—a round of Narrations roughly equivalent to an Initiative Pass—goes by faster because each character gets one action or attack (possibly two with a Shadow Amp). The action is also more equitable because those without Wired Reflexes are not pushed into the dark, useless corners of combat and it is just as exciting for them too.
Possibilities: Anarchy is largely modular. There are optional rules for a more traditional-style GM. Options for initiative. Options for more or less lethality. Options for easing limits on character builds. How you handle the rewarding of Plot Points is up to you. How you handle the RP aspects of Tags, Dispositions, and Cues is up to you. If you want a thing to be true, make it true as a group (including character concepts, scene narrations, house rules, etc.). These options show up in the Building Street Cred and Controlling Anarchy chapters along with advice on how to handle the improvisational aspects of the game. All these options allow each gaming table to fine tune their experience to their own requirements.
TL;DR — The Shadowrun setting is awesome. The Anarchy book is bipolar. The Anarchy system is simple. The Anarchy experience is exceptional. I cannot recommend it more.