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The Shadowrun game mechanics are based entirely on a 6-sided dice system.

The game is skill-based rather than class-based, but archetypes are presented in the main book to give players and gamemasters an idea of what is possible with the system.

Before the fourth edition, skill and ability checks worked like this: All actions in the game, from the use of skills to making attacks in combat, are first given a target number that reflects the difficulty of the action which is then raised or lowered by various modifying factors, such as environmental conditions, the condition of the character, the use of mechanical aids, and so forth. The character then rolls a number of dice equal to their level in the relevant skill, which then the number of dice rolled that meet or exceed the target number determines if the character is successful performing the action and to what degree of success the character has. As an example, a character with a high firearms skill not only has a better chance at hitting a target than someone with a lower ranked skill, but also is more likely to cause more damage to the target. Target numbers may exceed 6, in which case any dice that show a 6 have to be re-rolled (a target number of, e.g., 9 is reached by rolling a 6 followed by at least a 3; thus, a target number of 6 and one of 7 are identical). For even higher target numbers, this procedure has to be repeated; thus, an action with a target number of 20 (like attempting to procure military-degree weaponry) will only succeed if 3 successive dice rolls result in sixes, and the fourth gives at least a 2. This system allows great flexibility in setting the difficulty of an action.

In addition to this basic mechanic, players can use several task-specific dice pools to add bonus dice to certain tests, though dice that are used do not refresh until the end of a turn. This adds an extra tactical element, as the player must decide where best to spend these bonus dice. For example, combat pool dice could be spent to improve attacks or to improve defense, or some of each. Players also have Karma Pool that can be used to reroll any dice that failed to reach the target number. Karma Pool only refreshes according to the DM's approach - once per scene, when critical success occurs, durings acts of heroism, and so forth. The combination of Karma Pool and dice pools gives players a considerable amount of freedom to decide how important a task is to their character. Two characters with identical statistics could perform very differently on the same tasks depending on their priorities (and thus, allocation of dice pools and Karma pool).


Although the skill system is freeform, certain combinations of skills and equipment work well together. This combination of specialization in skill and equipment is known as an archetype. The most notable archetypes are Street Samurai, characters who have heavily augmented their bodies with cyberware and bioware and focus on physical combat; Adepts, characters who have magical abilities that increase their physical combat abilities; Deckers or Hackers who are experts at manipulating computer networks; Riggers who augment their brains to achieve fine control over vehicles and drones; and Magicians who cast spells and can view emotions and call spirits from astral space.

However, the archetypes are not character classes: the player is allowed to cross boundaries. Restrictions are not imposed by the system itself, but by the player's specializations. Because character-building resources are limited, the player has to weigh which game resource he wants to specialize in and which he has to neglect. This allows high character customization while still ensuring that characters are viable in the setting.

Character creation[]

The fourth edition of Shadowrun uses a point-based character creation system. Earlier editions used a priority-based system with point-based character creation as an advanced option.

Shadowrun characters are created with contacts, friends and acquaintances who will usually help the character out. The contacts system makes it quite easy for players to acquire the use of skills that their characters do not have, albeit at a price, a radical departure from most role-playing games.


Essence is a measure of a living being's lifeforce. Most humans and metahumans start with a value of six. It powers magic, and as essence fades, so does magical aptitude. Cyberware, bioware, nanotech implants, and other major changes to a being's body can damage its essence as well. Generally, if a being's essence ever reaches zero, it dies. Cybermancy allows metahumans to survive with an essence rating of less than zero.


In third edition and earlier, players were awarded Karma points as a game progressed. These points are usually added to a total called Good Karma, which can be used to boost attributes and skills. Skills that are already well-developed cost more Good Karma than skills which are undeveloped, which helps encourage specialized characters to become more flexible by spending Good Karma on weaker attributes. Karma also makes characters more powerful in general because every tenth (or twentieth for metahumans) point is added to the Karma Pool instead of Good Karma. The Karma Pool allows players to re-roll dice or "purchase" additional dice in certain situations. Karma can even be used to avoid certain death, at the cost of all Good Karma and Karma Pool points.

In fourth edition, Karma Pool is replaced by a new attribute called Edge which can be used in most of the same ways as the third edition Karma Pool. Experience and character advancement is still tracked with Karma, although Good was dropped from the name as it no longer needs to be distinguished from the old Karma Pool.

Fourth Edition changes[]

For this edition, major changes to the rules system were adopted.

Out of the original six attributes (Body, Quickness, Strength, Charisma, Intelligence, and Willpower), Quickness was split into Agility and Reaction, while Intelligence was broken into Intuition and Logic. A new attribute called Edge was introduced to replace Karma Pool. Instead of starting from a base, characters buy their Magic attribute like a normal attribute. The statistic originally called Reaction has had some of its functions taken over by the new attribute by the same name.

The initiative system was modified to only affect the order of actions, not the number of actions, during one turn. The number of actions taken by a character is determined by implants and magic but not rolling dice.

Several of the archetypes were modified. Deckers were merged with riggers and renamed hackers. Many distinctions between shamanic and hermetic magicians were removed, and the magic system was designed to allow many other variant traditions. Otaku - individuals who have the same roles and abilities as deckers, except without needing any cyber augmentation or technology - were renamed Technomancers.

Skills were changed from the target number system to a "hits" system. The target number is fixed at 5, and to complete a skill test, a player takes a number of six-sided dice equal to the skill and its linked Attribute, and rolls them, counting the number of dice that show 5 or 6 as "hits". The number of hits is compared to a pre-determined amount (or Threshold) set by the Gamemaster for the roll. If the number of hits equals or exceeds the threshold, the roll is a success. This mechanic, not coincidentally, happens to very closely match the new World of Darkness system. In addition, dice pools were removed, eliminating most of the tactical allocation of dice during combat, spellcasting, hacking, and other activities. These changes were intended to speed up the resolution of skill tests and combat.

The "Rule of One" of previous editions has been changed. A "glitch" is when at least half of the rolled dice come up 1s. A glitch results in a minor inconvenience or setback for the player, though it does not necessarily mean failure as long as enough hits were still scored. However, if a person rolls a glitch while scoring no hits at all, it is considered a "critical glitch", and is substantially more serious or potentially even fatal.

Rules for combat, magic, hacking, and other activities were changed to accommodate the new skill system. The modified rules are typically similar in outline, but the details are necessarily different.

Since the rules in the Fourth Edition are mechanically dissimilar to those in earlier editions, balance issues differ between editions. Characters from previous editions do not easily convert to the new edition with their strengths and weaknesses intact. There were a few changes to the fictional setting in the Fourth Edition. The main premises remained unchanged while the timeline advanced by five years. The largest change in setting was the addition of a global wireless matrix that allows people to have augmented reality displays: visual overlays on real-world scenes. This encourages hackers and technomancers to join their teammates physically rather than provide matrix backup from a remote location, a change designed to make coordinating and integrating online and real-world actions easier for the Gamemaster.

There were also other changes to Shadowrun society at large, as illustrated in the flavor text. For example, up to this point, cursing had been illustrated with a variety of colorful made-up words, such as "drek", "frag", and "slot". FanPro eschewed these in SR4 (to some player complaint, as many fans believed this added social color to the game) and decided to use their contemporary, real-world counterparts.


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