Fighting Styles in WFRP 4e

If you’re a follower of this blog, you know that I am fascinated by swordmanship and historical European martial arts (HEMA), and that I very much enjoy roleplaying games that demonstrate some knowledge, however abstracted, of the actual practicalities of melee combat. In that vein, I’m going to discuss in this article melee combat and fighting styles in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 4th Edition.

Whether by intent or happenstance, the designers of WFRP 4e managed to capture some of the feel (and advantages) of certain fighting styles in their mechanics. This article will be partly a review of those design choices and their effectiveness, but a good deal of space will also be devoted to some character build advice in light of various fighting styles.


The various incarnations of WFRP (for now, we’ll leave 3rd edition out–I very much liked what FFG was doing there, but it’s its own creature) have long erred toward deadly combat. The grittier feel, the pastiche of early 16th century Europe, and the incorporation of some of the less pleasant aspects of late medieval/Northern Renaissance life (treated, of course, with some humor) have always attracted me to this setting and ruleset over something like D&D (which has it’s own advantages and attractions, don’t get me wrong).

With regards to combat, there’s just enough of the feel of HEMA to sate desire, without something as complex and specifically focused on medieval combat as The Riddle of Steel. I have, years back, run a WFRP game using TRoS, with good result, and while that system will always have a fond place in my heart, my current mood does not need the full complexity (and time consumption) of that combat system in my already-tight gaming time.

The first thing that WFRP 4e gets right, I think, is opposed melee tests. Earlier editions first had the attacker make an attack test and, if successful, the defender could make a parry or dodge test to deflect. Omitting the additional step eases things along and captures more of the feel of HEMA, where combatants are not taking turns pounding on one another but involved in a complex and fast-paced set of test attacks, maneuvering, feints, parries, moves and countermoves. While it might be more “realistic” to have melee combat resolved by a single opposed test, winner scoring the hit, the attack roll vs. defense roll allows for additional mechanics (like certain Talents and weapon Qualities) that further deepen the choices available in the system.

The second point is the (optional) rule for bonuses and penalties for relative weapon length and In-fighting (WFRP 4e p. 297, hidden in the Consumer’s Guide and not the Combat section). These rules are simple enough not to slow combat while providing a greater significance for choice of weapon in particular circumstances. In fact, the In-Fighter and Enclosed Fighter Talents really aren’t of much use if the GM is not taking bonuses and/or penalties for weapon length into account. In my opinion, these rules should always be used.

Hit locations, critical hits by location, and piecemeal armor likewise add to verisimilitudinous combat. Wounds are visceral and specific, the choice of how much armor to wear–and where to wear it–matters. Again, this really only works to full advantage if the GM and players are paying attention to the Encumbrance rules. I realize that many GMs and players hate using all but the most abstracted of Encumbrance rules, but these really aren’t that bad and are worthwhile in the end.

Some players don’t like their characters to be permanently injured and/or disfigured, and I understand that, but the roleplaying opportunities that are opened up by these systems should also not be overlooked (the Physician career is an extremely valuable one in WFRP!). If necessary, allow means of reversing permanent injuries (Shallyan blessings or Jade magic) some additional prevalence and accessibility–give your players a few scenes or sessions to grapple with lasting injuries with the hope of undoing them in the long-run. Some groups, of course, are happy to retire characters who sustain significant injuries (and content with a high character death-rate to boot), and there’s nothing wrong with that either. Further methods of keeping visceral injury while softening the long-term effects would be to adopt a troupe-style play system (where each player has several different characters to choose from in each session) or to allow a greater carry-over of XP between characters than the rules-as-written provide for.

The Advantage system in the core book, though perhaps more narrative than realistic, does provide a method for mechanically mapping the fact that, once a fight hits a crucial turning point, it becomes more and more difficult for the underdog to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The Group Advantage system in the Up in Arms supplement provides a system more in line with Wrath in Wrath and Glory, which is mechanically satisfying and promotes teamwork amongst players (both in themselves admirable goals) but provides less verisimilitude than the core system. On the other hand, no one wants to watch their character get hit right out of the gate and then be locked into a long pummeling as the opponent gains ever more Advantage, so opinions may vary.

The last thing I’d like to point out here before moving to specifics is the use of weapon and armor Qualities. I don’t always agree with specific choices made by designers from a “realism” standpoint, but I find that they are well-written to provide for actually-different styles of fighting. I’ll mention some of these minor criticism and some ideas for “correcting” them below.

Fighting Styles and Builds

Combat Skills and Characters

Note that the Endeavors rules (WFRP 4e p. 195) make it relatively easy to learn the various Melee skills outside of a character’s career, but much more difficult to learn Talents from outside of one’s career. Therefore, if your character is not in the Warrior class, or one of the careers in other classes that contain combat Talents, err on the side of combat styles that require few or no Talents.

If your table has altered the way you treat the Unusual Learning endeavor for purposes of Talents, then the above may not apply. You may also plan to move between careers (and classes) to collect the skills and Talents you want for your character. Personally, though, I could drive myself mad in consideration of all the different possible career combinations focused on acquiring specific Skills and Talents, so I would also consider letting the narrative dictate your career choices and taking the below into account as a separate consideration.

Sword and Shield: The Go-To Style

The sword and shield (or buckler) fighting-style should be the go-to fighting-style for most characters, and particularly those without much skill in combat. This style offers good advantages without having any Talents dedicated to it and can become even more effective with just a few Talents.

Characters who do not intend to fight unless absolutely necessary should carry a sword and buckler. The first advantage of this is that a sword has only 1 Encumbrance and the buckler has no Encumbrance. The buckler provides both an armor bonus to all areas (with the Shield 1 Quality) and a bonus to defense (with the Defensive Quality) and they are, relatively speaking, easy to acquire and inexpensive. As a bonus, this follows historical precedent: in 16th century England, the sword and buckler were known as “the servingman’s weapons.” They were easy for retainers to carry (where weapons were allowed) and also allowed for shows of bravado in fighting the retainers of other nobles houses while minimizing (to the extend possible while swinging sharpened steel) of significant injury. (On the other hand, the earliest fighting manual of which I’m aware, the Royal Armouries Ms. I.33, a German sword-and-buckler manual from around the 1320’s, also demonstrates the complexity of sword-and-buckler fighting and its usefulness for skilled combatants).

Shields fall under the Melee (Basic) skill, meaning that your character may start with some skill in the style even in a non-combatant career, and the Unusual Learning Endeavor allows easy training in the skill even if it is not a career skill. Regardless of Talents, this weapon combination is strong one. As a side note, my read of the rules (particularly those regarding off-hand parrying weapons) leaves the possibility that defending with a shield in the off-hand (without the Ambidextrous Talent) imposes a -20 penalty on rolls. However, I believe that that would be a misreading of the rules as intended and that using a shield imposes no penalties to defense.

As a point of strategy, I would recommend that the sword-and-buckler fighter use the Fighting Defensively rules (WFRP 4e p. 158, upper sidebar) to first generate Advantage. If you’re using the Advantage rules from the core book, this allows you to potentially generate a significant bonus to your tests before going on the offensive. If using the Group Advantage rules from Up in Arms (p. 132-136), you don’t gain Advantage for winning defensive opposed rolls (the test must be one you initiated to gain Advantage). Still, for a character not intended for fighting, use of defensive fighting until you can get help from a more-skilled ally must be considered.

There are two Talents that may be of particular benefit to the sword-and-shield fighter: Reversal and Shieldsman. Both are somewhat contingent on which Advantage system you are using (Core or Up in Arms Group Advantage), so I’ll address them under each system:

Under the core Advantage system, Reversal allows you to take all of an opponent’s Advantage on a successful opposed melee test (including defense). That could potentially be a tide-changer. On the other hand, it’s usefulness is limited by the fact that, under the basic rules, your opponent would lose all Advantage and you would gain one Advantage anyway. Shieldsman is also of somewhat dubious use; the core description of the Talent gives you Advantage when you lose one the defensive side of opposed melee test. The cost for gaining the benefit of the Talent is high; I’d rank “don’t get hit” among the top rules of combat, so maybe pass on this one. The good news is that, under the core Advantage system, there’s not a strong reason to devote XP (or career choices) to specific combat Talents at all.

Both Talents become much more useful under the Group Advantage system: Reversal as revised in Up in Arms retains the benefit of gaining Advantage on successful opposed tests while defending with a shield. Shieldsman allows you to spend Advantage to deal damage when successfully defending (or to push your opponent). Since those careers that include Shieldsman do so at level two, this is one of the easiest Talents to achieve to increase damage output (through a pesudo-extra-attack)–but contrast with Two-Weapon fighting below.

The concepts above are equally applicable to sword and shield as to sword and buckler. The advantages of the larger shields are additional armor points and the ability to oppose ranged attack tests at the cost of increased Encumbrance. If you’re character is going to be at the forefront of the fighting, a larger shield makes more sense than the buckler.

As a last consideration in this style: the bonus armor points from shields are especially helpful if you are wearing light or no armor. But what about heavier armor? The Knight, Knight of the Blazing Sun, and Knight of the Panther careers all assume you’ll be donning heavy armor (see below) but also contain the Shieldsman Talent. I think that a shield is less useful when wearing heavier armors for several reasons: (1) you’re much likelier to be over your basic Encumbrance allotment, (2) there are better weapons to use when you already have high armor (such as polearms and two-handed weapons, see below), and (3) you hit somewhat diminishing returns on armor points by stacking in this way.

Fencing: The Masterclass

By “fencing” I mean the use of the rapier and parrying dagger (“main gauche”). This style offers some excellent benefits but requires a character who is devoting the majority of their XP to fighting. In fact, my personal view is that this method of fighting is too costly outside of the Duellist career. Some benefit may be seen by fighting with rapier and buckler for those outside of the Duellist career who do not want to spend too many resources on combat.

I’ll address the latter situation first: WFRP’s description of the rapier doesn’t actually fit the typical description of the mid-to-late 16th-century and early 17th-century rapier (which would have been a long thrusting weapon with a blade cross-section that doesn’t allow for strong cutting, if any at all). Instead, it describes the “cut-and-thrust” swords that began to focus on the thrust but retain strong cutting ability (the “espada ropera”). These begin to show up in the early 16th-century and continue alongside the development of the rapier. The confusion of terms is entirely forgivable, as the distinction is really a modern one and the contemporary terms used to describe sword types lacked hard categorizations that would be satisfactory to the 21st-century scholar. For ease, I’m going to follow the WFRP naming convention and use “rapier” generally.

The buckler was used with both types of weapons (the “cut-and-thrust” swords and the “true” rapier). In WFRP, you only need the Melee (Fencing) skill to gain the benefits of the rapier–you get the defensive benefits from the buckler without having to acquire the Melee (Parry) skill (see below). What are those benefits? The rapier has three potential advantages over the basic sword: the Fast and Impale Qualities and a long length rather than average (despite the description of the sword given, the mechanics of the weapon do seem to lean toward the “true” rapier intended particularly for thrusting). Again, with the weapon length rules, this can be a good additional advantage (though context matters, and tight spaces or in-fighting will make the weapon a liability, as was historically the case). Fast and Impale are the real attraction. Fast allows you to make attacks outside of the Initiative order and imposes a -10 penalty to defend for weapons that do not also have the Fast quality. Impale increases the likelihood of Critical Hits. If you want to spend some of your character resources on combat skill, but not too many, rapier and buckler is a strong choice, requiring only a single Melee skill and no Talents to get solid benefits.

The “true” fencer is the one who devotes great resources to combat with rapier and an off-hand weapon (cloak or parrying dagger, primarily). In such a case, both the Melee (Fencing) and Melee (Parrying) skills are required (the Parrying skill, not the Fencing skill is used for defending with the off-hand weapon, otherwise a -20 penalty is suffered, so the Defensive quality of the parrying weapon is useless without the proper skill). What are the benefits of the parrying dagger over the buckler? There are a few: first, the dagger gives you a backup weapon in the case of in-fighting, hedging some of the liability of the rapier. Second, the off-hand dagger does not have the Undamaging Quality (which shields do) in the case of dual-wielding attacks. The cloak offers the Entangling Quality rather than a significant attack, which may be a worthwhile exchange when fighting in a group.

I’ll also pick out the “hidden” advantage. As discussed below, the Ambidextrous and Dual Wielder Talents are requirements for the successful use of rapier-and-dagger in making two attacks per turn. Both Talents apply equally to ranged weapons and melee weapons, meaning a character can carry a brace of pistols, fire them both in the first round of combat (before others have a chance to react if you have the Fast Shot Talent), switching to sword-and-dagger to follow. That gives two high-damage attacks that may cause the Broken condition right out of the gate, an impressive opening move.

The rapier-and-off-hand fighting style needs several Talents to reach full potential. As mentioned above, Ambidextrous (two levels, for 300 XP in-career) and Dual Wielder remove all penalties to making attacks with both weapons in a turn. Levels in Riposte allow a character to deal damage while successfully defending with a Fast weapon (a number of times in a turn equal to the levels in Riposte). Combined with the two-weapon-fighting talents, a character using this style can put out a lot of damage in a turn, against multiple targets.

This combination of Talents is only found in the Duellist career, meaning only characters in that career are especially well-suited to this style of combat. Fortunately, that class is also full of other useful Talents: Combat Reflexes is of only some use given the Fast quality of the Rapier, but Beat Blade, Distract, Feint, Step Aside, Combat Master, Reaction Strike and Strike to Injure are all strong combat Talents (if somewhat contextual). Disarm seem to me to be a niche Talent; most of the time it will be a better choice to deal damage.

Two-Handed Fighting: The Damage-Dealer

The downside of the Two-Handed fighting style is that it requires a skill only a few careers have access to (though far more than the Fencing and Parrying skills). The upside is the Qualities available on two-handed weapons. I believe that this is a fighting-style worth considering even for characters outside of careers particularly suited to it (such as the Up in Arms Greatsword career.

I’m going to focus on swords here, as they have fewer downsides when compared to the Great Axe, Pick and Warhammer (which can be great weapons for tough and heavily-armored characters). The Zweihander gives you the Damaging and Hack abilities, which are both excellent. Damaging allows you to use the one’s place of the attack roll rather than the Success Level to calculate additional damage. That could mean up to 9 additional damage on a roll that barely hits–combine this with an already-high damage rating (SB+5), and you have the potential to drop many combatants in a single blow. Hack deals damage to armor, helping you win fights by attrition against heavily-armored opponents. Additionally, the high damage output can be an extremely efficient way to secure multiple attacks in a turn if using the Deathblow! optional rule (

The Bastard Sword trades out Hack for Defensive but retains Damaging; this is a very worthwhile trade in my mind.

Two-handed fighting lends itself to heavy armor, which I’ll address separately below. Aside from those Talents generally useful for combat, I find the Berserk Charge, Strike Mighty Blow, Strike to Injure, Very Strong, and Resolute Talents particularly useful for the two-handed fighter.

The knightly careers and Greatsword career are most suited to two-handed weapons as a style, though the basic Soldier career can be used, and, if willing not to worry too much about the Talents, any career could acquire the skill through the Unusual Learning Endeavor.

A brief aside for some rules modification changes: the Zweihander is a very specific Renaissance weapon, one designed for fighting pike formations and not general combat. It averages six feet in length, up to eight pounds or so (extremely heavy for a melee weapon), has a long grip, often hooks on the blade and a leather-wrapped ricasso (the portion of the blade that is not sharpened, closest to the hilt). The purpose was to swing the weapon like a big sword to knock long pikes out of the way (or potentially chop them up) and then to shift to holding the weapon like a spear (with one hand on the hilt and the other on the ricasso) upon closing with the enemy. The first technique allowed you to close in without being stabbed; the second shortened your weapon for closer combat while pikemen were struggle to drop their pikes and draw their swords. Outside of this situation, other two-handed swords were faster and more effective.

WFRP and Games Workshop seem to use the terms “Zweihander” and “Greatsword” interchangeably. A greatsword unlike a zweihander, was of a more modest length (closer to four feet, with plenty of variation either way in a matter of inches) and weight (three to four pounds). The greatsword was differentiated (or at least is now) from the longsword (a two-handed sword, despite what D&D tries to tell you) by its focus on the cut rather than having a blade shape more versatile between cutting and thrusting.

I believe that the weapon in WFRP really represents the greatsword rather than a zweihander. A zweihander write-up should have two entries: one for using the weapon like a huge sword, one for using it in a more spear-like manner.

While I’m nitpicking, I think WFRP’s “bastard sword” really represents a more traditional longsword. I’d changing that naming and I’d use the following for a true bastard sword (which often had a blade shorter than a longsword but could be wielded in one or two hands): I’d make damage SB+4, length Average, and give it the Defensive and Fast Qualities when used in two hands and no Qualities when used in one hand. Set cost and availability by reference to the two-handed weapons and the basic sword, leaning toward the former.

Polearm Fighting: The Versatile Choice

At face value, polearms are very similar to two-handed weapons. They have a dedicated skill (Melee (Polearms)), the weapons take two hands to use, seem to favor a heavier choice of armor, and even have similar stats (with polearms generally doing less damage than two-handed weapons).

The difference is that polearms offer versatility in a single weapon. For this article, I’m going to focus on the Bill, Halberd, Partizan/Glaive, and Pollaxe. Each of these weapons has the Defensive quality–if eschewing a shield in favor of a two-handed weapon, this offers some parity between the styles. Each then, based on the specific design of the weapon, offers some combination of Hack, Impale, Pummel, Slash (2A) and Trip. The specific choice of weapon should perhaps depend on your character’s Talents: Pummel is especially useful with Strike to Stun, but of limited use otherwise. Hack, Slash, Impale and Trip need no particular Talents. All but the partizan have Hack, making them useful for those times you need to wear down an armored foe. Impale is generally useful for increasing Critical Hits. Because Slash requires a Critical Hit, and the partizan gives you the choice between Impale and Slash, the combination is perhaps less effective than others. Trip can be an excellent Quality, particularly if used to set up strikes by teammates (or if using Group Advantage and spending for immediate follow-on attacks).

I would be comfortable saying that the choice between two-handed weapons and polearms is a toss-up and depends on your character’s (and your group’s) needs. I personally lean towards the two-handers.

Since I’ve made some suggestions for weapon changes in the categories above, I’ll do so here as well. Historically, there were two major styles of using a spear and/or quarterstaff (and these correspond somewhat with the use of other polearms). In the English style, the focus was on the thrust, making the weapon fast to strike and useful for maintaining distance. The German style wielded the weapon much like a longsword, focusing on strikes rather than thrusts and better able to defend against incoming attack. Switching between methods is not terribly difficult on the fly. That being the case, I would add Defensive or Fast to the spear (I’d also allow players to choose between Long and Very Long lengths) and change the quarterstaff’s Defensive to Defensive or Fast.

Cavalry: I’ll Take Swords for Five-Hundred

The lance and demi-lance are useful weapons…once. The Impact Quality makes them truly devastating, but outside of the battlefield, how often are you really going to use one? That leaves the Cavalry Hammer and the Sabre. Both use Melee (Cavalry) from horseback but a different skill (Melee (Two-Handed) and Melee (Basic), respectively) when on foot. The hammer has Pummel so, if your character also has the Two-handed skill (and Strike to Stun, preferably) it might be preferred. However, none of the Knight careers have the Talent (I might have thought the Knight of the White Wolf would), nor does Cavalryman or Light Cavalryman. Less than useful, then. On the other hand, the sabre uses a widely-available skill (all of the careers mentioned above get Melee (Basic), though Freelancer and Knight do not until Level 2). The sabre can be used in one-hand, allowing for the use of a shield and retains the Slash Quality (though it changes from 1A to 2A unless you use it with the Melee (Fencing) skill, but why bother), making it better than a basic sword.

The choice here is clear.

Armored Combat: Do You Even Lift, Bro?

Given the danger of combat in WFRP, armoring up as early and often as possible can be a useful choice. But it’s not necessarily an easy one. First, you need to look at the inherent penalties that accompany certain pieces of armor (particularly helmets and plate leggings, but bear in mind you suffer -10 to stealth if wearing any chain or plate). Then, you need to consider the Encumbrance penalties from lots of armor: you’re very likely to suffer -1 Movement and -10 Agility from your armor (And that’s before you consider your weapons and any traveling gear. Also, don’t travel in your heavy armor unless you’re expecting a fight).

A full suit of Plate Armor will give you 10-11 Encumbrance points from the get-go. You may want to wear some chain or leather under it (you can choose either or combine them). The relatively low ratings of armor (even plate) means that you either need to double up or accept that there’s a high cost and quickly diminishing returns for wearing lots of armor. But armor rating isn’t the only consideration: plate armor allows you to ignore half of Critical Hits, and that’s no small thing.

A fairly well-rounded set-up with some “oomph” to it would be a leather jack, leggings and skullcap under a breastplate and open helm. That gives you three points of armor on head and torso with one point on arms and legs and six points of Encumbrance. Add a shield and you get another one (buckler, no encumbrance) or two (shield, one additional Encumbrance). Even that, though, will put you into Encumbrance penalties unless you’ve specifically built your character in expectation of wearing armor.

Your basic Encumbrance level is Strength Bonus plus Toughness Bonus. You’ll want to get these stats into the forties as soon as possible. Very Strong and Very Resilient will be of significant benefit, if you can get them. Strong Back and Sturdy should also be acquired if you can. With the exception of the Knight of the Blazing Sun, all knight careers offer Sturdy at Level 1. Sturdy increases your Encumbrance rating by 2 x level, so picking up several levels before advancing would go a long way.

Bear in mind diminishing returns: assuming you get your Strength and Toughness up to at least forty and take four levels of Sturdy (a whopping 1,000XP), your Encumbrance maximum would be fourteen. You’ll have two to three points of Encumbrance for your weapon (assuming you’re not carrying several), leaving you eleven points for that full suit of plate with nothing underneath.

A durable set-up would be full plate (closed helm) with a mail shirt, a leather jack, leggings and skull cap. That’s fifteen encumbrance, plus three for your weapon. So, if you can get your Strength and Toughness into the forties and take one level of Sturdy, and tolerate the first level of Encumbrance penalties, you’re good to go. Take two levels of Sturdy and you can add a medium shield for even more protection. Without the shield, you’d have five AP on your torso and three AP everywhere else (while ignoring half of Critical Hits). With the shield and a Toughness bonus of four, you’re ignoring the first nine points of damage–that’s not too shabby.

Bear in mind, though, that the Robust Talent adds damage reduction per level of the Talent in a manner similar to Armor Points. You should strongly consider (if available to your character), adding this to the list of your character’s Talents if pursuing a front-line fighter, armored or not.

The Knifefighter: Close and Personal

This is not a mainline fighting style; it should be reserved for those characters who never intend to fight fair but may need to do some dirt from time to time–particularly when the victim–erm, opponent–is unawares.

Knives and daggers don’t do a whole lot of damage to begin with (and knives have the Undamaging Quality), so a high Melee skill and Strength bonus will be helpful. On the same lines, the Strike Mighty Blow Talent would be useful, as would the Stealth skill. The Combat Reflexes, In-Fighter, Enclosed Fighter and Disarm Talents would all be useful if you are unable to take down your target in the first strike.

There may also be times when a dagger or knife is all you have on you–the social or legal formalities may prevent the carrying of serious weapons in certain areas, or you may simply be caught traveling light. All of the above would help in such situations; as the goal when outgunned should be to break off the engagement and survive, the Flee! Talent may prove useful in such situations.

The Brawler: Back to Basics

The Brancalonia Roleplaying Game emphasizes as part of its genre that the law is unlikely to take much notice of the occasional bar brawl or streetfight where no weapons are produced and no “serious” injuries are inflicted (though unarmed combat can, of course, prove deadly). The same idea fits in WFRP: there are plenty of times when the Powers that Be simply have too much else going on (or simply don’t care) to deal with petty conflicts that do not involve anyone of importance. Further, there are some times when violence is a means to an end and not the end itself–the Protagonist and Racketeer careers are plenty evidence of this. You’ve always got your fists (almost always, anyway), and sometimes a knuckleduster is easier to carry into a restricted area than even a knife.

Then there’s the historical fact that all combatants were expected to have some skill in unarmed combat. Learning to brawl was a part of childhood, a fundamental that ought to be established before teaching skill in any weapon, and a common feature of melee combat even when weapons were involved. For all of these reasons, a character whose identity (read: career) involves combat ought to have some proficiency in the Melee (Brawling) skill. Most of the Talents applicable to knifefighting above, as well as the Dirty Fighter talent, make for good supplements. But, unless the character expects to do a lot of roughing people up without permanently injuring them, the Brawling skill is secondary to the armed-combat skills.


I hope this article has given some ideas of how the WFRP system captures the “feel” (to the extent that we can honestly reconstruct it) of medieval/early-modern combat without adhering to intricate and byzantine complexities. I hope also that it’s given you some solid build advice on choosing what kind of fighting techniques and equipment will best suit your character. On the other hand, there were a number of “masters of the art of defence” in the period, and a character whose ambitions lie in becoming one among them could be interesting to play and an effective member of a party. There are a number of ways such a character could go, moving between careers as necessary to represent different courses of study.

If I’ve missed something you see in the WFRP system, or if you’ve got other thoughts to contribute to mine above, I look forward to hearing from you!

Addendum – Shields and Melee (Parry)

It has been brought to my attention that the WFRP4e errata “clarifies” the use of shields. Despite the listing of shields as “basic” weapons, the errata states that a -20 penalty should be assessed to a character defending (or attacking) with a shield unless the Melee (Parry) skill is used, forcing a player to decide whether they want to trade AP for a -10 penalty on defense (as a shield adds its AP to all locations and the -20 penalty is partially offset by the +1 SL to defense tests granted by the “Defensive” quality) or whether they want to devote precious character resources to the Parry (Melee) skill. AP are nice, but not getting hit is better–especially in a system as deadly as WFRP!

From a mechanical standpoint, this makes very little sense. Instead of providing a solid (and marginally affordable) defense for characters less-skilled in combat it provides a nuanced and ultimately problematic choice. And, from a historical/practical perspective, this is not how shields work. I’ve never sparred with someone using a shield where the shield made them easier to hit. To my knowledge, none of my shield-wielding sparring partners were either ambidextrous or had any training in sword-and-dagger or rapier-and-dagger styles of fighting (I’m thinking here of situations that would translate to the mechanical reduction of the shield penalty described above under the WFRP rules). The use of a shield is instinctive and natural, while it may require training to fully master, it requires little or none to achieve basic proficiency. The nicest thing I can say about the errata is that it’s a headscratcher of a design choice.

Needless to say, if you give effect to the errata in adjudicating your game, almost all of the advice I’ve given above in the main article regarding shields goes out the window. I’m inclined to believe that that should not be the case. You are, of course, free to disagree.

So, how do we remedy this issue, should one be so inclined? The simplest thing to do is to just ignore the errata statement–there is no penalty to defending with a shield and it uses the Melee (Basic) skill. But, if you want to take a more moderated approach, remove the penalty and also remove the AP bonus or the + 1 SL to defense–I’d personally lean toward removing the former. Alternatively, you could remove the penalty but say that the Melee (Parry) skill must be used to get the additional +1 SL to defense tests. That would at least replace stick with carrot.

Addendum – Damage

Having now played a few sessions under the new rules, I must admit some shock at the particulars of attack and defense rolls. I had mistakenly taken for granted that attack and defense worked mostly like previous editions: i.e. (1) the attacker makes a test, (2) defender makes a test (which I viewed as a parry test in previous editions but now made automatic), and the attack fails if either the attacker fails at his roll or the defender succeeds at his. This is not the case. The current system has each side make their test and calculate their success/failure levels separately, with success levels represented by positive numbers and failure levels by negative. The difference between the two (assuming the difference is in the attacker’s favor) is added to damage dealt. In other words, the defender’s result is subtracted from the attacker’s result and, if the sum is a positive number, the attacker deals the sum as extra damage. The result is essentially the same as if we were using a roll-high system where each side rolls dice and adds applicable bonuses and then the defender’s result is subtracted from the attacker’s result to determine whether the attack was successful and, if so, how successful. It’s the fact that we’re using a roll-under system here that gives the approach some quirks. The foremost of these quirks is that the attacker can technically fail his roll and win–if the defender fails their roll by a greater number of levels. That situation “feels” odd but is mechanically effective.

Because the statistical effects of a mechanic and the “feel” of the mechanic do not always coincide (human perception and emotion being the odd thing that it is), player’s ought to be prepped for this potential result so that they are not blindsided by an attack they think has failed based on the attacker’s roll but that has not because of the sum of both rolls. Is that logical? Not really, but to effectively deal with another’s emotions, we must accept those emotions as they are rather than telling the person whether they “should” or “should not” feel that way. Be prepared.

At the same time, this system allows for some truly massive damage to be done in a single strike. That’s not necessarily a bug, you might well see it as a feature, especially given the reputation and intent that WFRP combat be lethal. I’m not particularly in favor of altering the “rules as written” in this case, but I do want to point this out so that individual tables can make sure the system is working for them and not vice versa.

If you don’t want your characters to be so susceptible to unlucky falls of the dice, you might consider altering this rule so that only the attacker’s positive success levels are added to attacks as additional damage. That makes characters slightly safer, but also drags out your fights, makes armor that much more effective, and probably has some additional effects I’m not thinking of, so proceed with caution.

“Fluff,” Lore and Mechanics

“What, drawn, and talk of peace! I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee, [fluff]!”

I absolutely hate the word “fluff” as it is applied to gaming worlds. If I understand correctly, the term was first used by wargamers to discuss the information given about the world in which their chosen wargame takes place (for me, it was first used in “Warhammer 40k fluff.” The word is, of course, derisive, with the connotation that “fluff” is not necessary, but only a nice addition to have. I understand why some wargamers might have coined and still use the term if they only carry about the actual game they’re playing itself (they want to know which options make for the best Tyranid warriors but don’t give a fig about Tyranid biology, for instance), and the word makes this plainly evident.

Even in the wargaming realm, though, I think the word does a disservice. Maybe I’m just not as competitive a wargamer as others (or maybe I think I’m not until I sit down to a game and take it overly seriously!), but the narrative of an unfolding combat is just as or more interesting than all of the rules themselves. Games overly based on the army you bring and the synergies between unit selections quickly bore me over games where on-the-field decision making and use of resources takes center stage. I want to know a reason the forces are fighting for me to be interested in outcomes more than winning and losing. I think that’s a more fun approach, too, as you can celebrate the sudden reversals in fortune for your opponent with them instead of lamenting as “unfair” every time the dice turn against you.

As a curious aside, I find in interesting that some fictitious settings get “lore” or a “legendarium” while others have only “fluff.” I’m not quite sure where the distinction lies, but I’d love to locate the line. It’s not simply that games have fluff and speculative fiction has “lore”–the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age worlds are often spoken of in terms of “lore” and not “fluff.” Maybe some of this is just a matter of how seriously a particular person takes a particular settings; almost certainly some of it is a matter of semiotic fluidity and carelessness with words.

But I do think it matters. Over the past fifty years, roleplaying games (and games based on fantasy and speculative fiction in general) have increased both in popular appeal and in the seriousness with which the writing of gamebooks and the playing of the game are taken as artistic and literary pursuits. Academia is studying and writing about roleplaying games more and more, and I think that’s an amazing thing; there may be more to learn about how humans examine and work through their own existence in the roleplaying game than in the solitary virtuoso’s classic novel.

When it comes to roleplaying games, I absolutely detest the word, “fluff.” I like a good set of mechanics for a game and I have a great interest in analyzing, modifying and creating RPG mechanics, as some of the posts on this blog demonstrate. I don’t want to fall into the trap of proclaiming the “one true way of roleplaying,” so take my opinions for just that: opinions. But I believe that the setting in which a roleplaying game takes place is not only just as (or more important than) the hard-coded rules, but that the setting and lore surrounding the game are part of the rules.

Those of you who read my RPG-related posts with some frequency know that I gravitate toward narratively-focused games, and especially Fate. But my posts on character-building for Shadowrun are probably the most-read posts on the entire site, so I’m not averse to rules-heavy games either. Still, the games I favor tend to explicitly incorporate setting as mechanics. Fate uses Aspects as a mechanism for those things that are narratively important to affect the dice resolutions, Cortex Plus and Prime do the same thing in a slightly different way. These rules are both focused on providing flexible mechanical systems to handle those points of narrative where randomness and insecurity of outcome is beneficial to the game, while keeping the narrative at the forefront. There are not rules for every case, nor do these rules get too bogged down in exceptions, combos, etc., leaving both Fate and Cortex as RPG toolkits for those gamemasters who like to tinker with and personalize their rules without having to start from scratch.

Forged in the Dark and Powered by the Apocalypse take a different, maybe even more direct, approach to setting as mechanics. They call this narrative or fictional “positioning,” and they don’t need hardcoded rules to do it. The premise is simple–when deciding how successful and effective an action is, we look at the context of the action to make the determination rather than resorting to a “margin of success” or other explicit rules. In a gunfight with a knife and you’ve out-rolled the opponent? Maybe you’re able to get a good slash on the opponent and disarm him. Had you been using a gun of your own, maybe the result would have been a John Wick-style headshot, since you’d have had a much better fictional possession relative to your opponent.

Both systems can use the “hardness” of a GM response, cost of success or degree of success or how many pieces of a clock are filled in for a more specific tracking system.

But neither of these system is necessary to use the “setting and situation as rules” approach. In fact, I think it’s fair to argue that all games to this to a greater or lesser extent. Even Dungeons and Dragons, where you might have a discrete dice roll for damage or to determine whether a condition is suffered, many tests (especially skill tests) are wide open to interpretation of result by the GM. Genre, setting and situation can be drawn upon to determine results in such cases.

A few notes on this:
(1) I think that this is part of what OSR gamers are looking for–greater acknowledgment of setting and situation for resolution rather than specific rules for every action authorizing what can and cannot be done. There’s an opportunity cost for writing rules for specific actions, one most evident in feats and abilities for characters, I think. If there’s a “Great Leap” ability that allows for a jump attack, there’s, at the very least, an implication that characters without this ability can never make (Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy-style) badass jumping attacks.
(2) Also with reference to D&D, the opposite situation–when mechanics are treated as the physics of the setting, even when that doesn’t make rational sense–occurs. I think that this is part of what drives me away from the D&D system as a whole (among other things). I think of Jake Norwood, writing in the preface of his awesome game The Riddle of Steel, when he states that part of the impetus for creating his game was a D&D experience where his character stood on the edge of a cliff, a horde of orcs rushing towards him, and he realized he’d take less damage jumping off the cliff than fighting the orcs. It’s okay to say, “if your character does this, he will die”–even if the rules say otherwise. Unless you’re trying to play a goofy slapstick game (power to you if that’s how you roll), everyone at the table should understand that logic trumps rules when they’re in conflict. A good example, I think, was how the Serenity RPG handled being thrown into space without protection. The rules state (in paraphrase): “The character dies. If you really need to, roll all the dice on the table and apply that much damage.” Note that I’m not saying that it’s inappropriate for a game to have a mechanism for resolving falling damage, only that that mechanism should give way to the fiat of death (perhaps modified by whatever “barely escape from death” points the system has) when it is logically appropriate.
(3) No rules system can cover all situations, nor can it possibly account for all of the minute variables that might factor into a resolution roll, so by necessity we resort to using setting and situation (as our form of internal consistency and logic) to structure resolution rolls in the first place. Is this a one-die penalty for difficulty or two?

And, of course, the lore of a setting tells us what types of things are likely to happen in that setting, what things are extremely unlikely, and how actions or events are likely to play out. You can, and sometimes should, homebrew and modify rules to reflect those realities, but the truth is that you don’t necessarily need to if the setting itself provides the North Star in guiding the structure and interpretation of rolls.

For all of these reasons, I’d argue that setting is a much a part of mechanics (or at least should be considered such) as everything that falls within the “rules” section of the books. When that’s the case, there’s no such thing as “fluff,” there’s only information about the setting that helps us understand how to position the mechanics we use when playing in that setting.

The Fate RPG “Control Panel” v0.5

I made a mention in a recent post about a project I’ve been working on. It’s far from finished, but I’ve grown too excited about it to wait until it’s finished before I post it for initial use, review and comment.

As I’ve also mentioned before, there’s just so much I like about the Fate RPG ruleset (in its various incarnations) and its adaptability that I intend to use it to run all the games I run for the foreseeable future (you can see my post on (Roleplaying) Gaming as an Adult). The Bronze Rule (or Fate Fractal, depending upon your preference) and general modularity of the system makes it a prime candidate for seamlessly running a wide-variety of game genres, from soap-opera drama to the farthest-flung speculative fiction and everything in between.

Having read a good number of Fate RPG settings and system tweaks (from the official toolkits to community-created content), I understood that this system is highly customizable while retaining its core fiction-first and efficient-play philosophies. Until I began this project, I did not fully understand just how customizable the system really is, Working on this project has given me an even more profound respect for the system and its writers, but has also really helped me to grok how things can (and should) fit together and how the rules may be manipulated–large scale or subtly–to accentuate different parts of the fiction being portrayed at the table.

The project itself is a responsive Excel spreadsheet that uses drop-down menus and stacked levels of questions to guide the user through customizing the Fate ruleset to a desired setting. This allows the user to efficiently make selections without having to sort through the (rather voluminous) books using the Fate System to find various systems and ideas that can be “borrowed” for your own game while keeping a high-level view of the overall ruleset in mind to avoid losing the fiction-first and relatively-light crunch of the core system (unless you want to turn Fate into a fiction-first, high-crunch system, which it can also do!).  Use of this system is likely to do for you what it has done for me–give you a profound respect for the innovations that make the Fate system so versatile and efficient while also being highly-evocative of setting and theme.

I think that the system is in shape to be very functional as it is, but I have a lot more in mind for it. Additionally, as I use it to build rules configurations for my own use, and as I post my own Fate rules concoctions on the blog, I’ll add presets to the selections to allow you to easily incorporate those same systems into your rules modifications. For existing settings, I do so only by general reference to the setting to avoid any copyright issues, but you’ll still end up with a set of configurations that will allow you to create a rules booklet particular to your setting more efficiently than collating everything by hand.

So, here it is in all its premature glory: what I’m calling the Fate RPG “Control Panel.” I very much look forward to hearing your reviews and criticisms, understanding how you’re using the Control Panel, and hearing your suggestions for modifications, expansions and improvements. Note that I have not yet added full explanatory notes, so you may have to guess a little at what certain selections mean. Additionally, not all Extra sheets, skill lists, weapon/armor lists etc. are complete.

Fate Control Panel v.5 Public

(N.B.: Please download a local copy of the spreadsheet before making selections or changes. Also, you will need to enable Macros for everything to work.)

My Favorite RPG Mechanics (That I’d Actually Use)

I’ve made a few attempts in the past to write my own roleplaying game rules, especially to suit my fantasy setting, Avar Narn. While that project is currently on hold while I work on others and I intend to rely mostly on the Fate and Cortex Prime/Plus systems for games in the near future, I’m sure I’ll return to the endeavor eventually.

In light of that, I thought it might be interesting to collate and describe some of my favorite mechanics from other rulesets I’ve played. Maybe this gives you some ideas to lift for your own design ambitions. Maybe it turns you on to same games you’ve never played before. Maybe it just gives you a chance to see some mechanics that make think, “oh yeah, that’s one of my favorites, too!”

Without further ado:

Fate Core – Bell Curve Mechanics
I’ve written elsewhere about my fondness for Gaussian distributions in RPG results; it allows players more predictability when planning a course of action and less fickleness of luck. Since I like my games gritty and dangerous, this is almost a necessity.

Fate Core – Aspects
Perhaps the core of Fate Core, Aspects as narrative descriptors with mechanical effects are a great innovation. To a certain extent, this is what we were doing previously with all of our situational modifiers without understanding it–and while limiting them to various canned possibilities.

The true brilliance here is in combining aspects into narrative fact, signalling descriptor, and opportunity to influence outcomes. In other words, what Aspects do is translate mere mechanical modifiers into narrative gold.

Fate Core – The “Fate Fractal” or “Bronze Rule”
Intuitive and adaptable subsystems that use the same core mechanics as the base game? Yes, please! This ability, along with the easy adaptability of aspects and the small list of skills in Fate Core, is what makes Fate Core such a toolkit and endlessly-hackable system. As I wrote about in my advice on tabletop gaming as an adult, this proves maintaining a single rule system for all of your games.

As an added bonus, it allows players to intuitively use new subsystems without the need for learning lots of nuanced rules.

Fate Accelerated – Approaches
As I’ve written on other posts, I love the idea of Approaches over Attributes. When a player uses an approach, he or she is signaling to you the nature of the action and therefore possible consequences and side effects. I think this adds to both sides of the table: for the players, a character’s approaches define more than just aptitude, they include personality, style, perspective and preference; for the GM, the narrative cues provided by Approaches (especially if combined with something like Apocalypse World’s “Discrete Fail Forward” Mechanics, discussed below) take some of the load off of the GM while enriching the story itself.

Dungeons and Dragons 5e – Advantage and Disadvantage
A brilliant alternative to tabulating lots of modifiers to address situational nuance, the Advantage/Disadvantage system in D&D5 is a brilliant streamlining mechanic. I’d love to see it employed effectively in more games. Unfortunately, there’s not much else from D&D that I like in terms of its mechanics.

Gumshoe – Investigation Rules
It seems to me that the Gumshoe rules were designed almost entirely to address a common problem in roleplaying games–how to make sure that players get the clues they need to effectively pursue and complete an investigation without getting stalled (and bored). Simply put, the GM is instructed to allow the PCs to find the necessary clues without having to roll, because a roll where success is necessary to the advancement of plot is not a roll that should be made. This is not to say that a good GM can’t or shouldn’t allow failure to be a thing, or that there’s something wrong where the players’ failure provides an important plot point–both of those can make for great games. But if there’s no contingency plan for what happens if the characters aren’t successful and you give them a chance to be unsuccessful, you’re shooting yourself in the foot as a GM.

Gumshoe manages its task without making skills or character abilities useless. A character may spend points from relevant skills to gain additional clues, further allowing the development of a theory and providing new opportunities for investigation. From a design perspective, this provides baked-in opportunities for each character to shine.

Apocalypse World – Discrete Fail Forward Mechanics
The core mechanic of Apocalypse World strips down the dice roll to its very essence–did you succeed or fail, or (the most common result) did you succeed at a cost? If you’re unfamiliar, “Powered by the Apocalypse” games run like this:

Roll 2d6 + Stat (which is not going to be higher than +3, typically):
-On 6 or less, you fail (and the GM should make a “move”)
-On a 7 through 9, you succeed at a cost (the “move” you’re making may indicate
particular costs, or the GM may need to create one on the fly)
-On a 10+, you get what you want (usually without cost)

This efficiency allows for interesting and quick-running games that support the GM with cues for how the plot should develop. Bear in mind that this is not a degrees of success mechanic (though abilities that grant Hold or other effects on a 12+ could rightly be seen as such). I will say that this can put a lot of pressure on the GM to constantly invent new twists and consequences for the story, but that’s something you can get used to.

Now, I will admit some reluctance regarding the static nature of PbtA difficulty numbers. I have no logical argument for this preference (or lack thereof, I suppose)–the explanation that the moves made by the GM in response to failure or a cost can be adjusted to represent the difficulty of the task makes perfect sense to me. I really do think that’s a brilliant take on RPG difficulties. But, I’m a child of the 80’s and 90’s who cut his teeth on the second and third editions of Shadowrun–the need for scalable difficulty is embedded deep in my bones.

Apocalypse World – Free-Form Combat
Another innovation from the Apocalypse: willful ignorance of initiative and turns. I think the best RPG combats work this way–we jump from character to character like the camera in a film or TV show, spending time where the drama is highest and shifting before anyone gets bored rather than becoming a slave to turn and initiative tracking. The tracking of initiative itself is more drudgery than benefit anyway, and a gaming group with established trust can handle things like holding and triggering actions without the need to maintain a count and do a lot of housekeeping.

Although they’re not running a PbtA game on the show, the HarmonQuest GM uses this style with great effect.

Cypher System – Burning Points
I’m not a big fan of the way the Cypher system plays, but I do love the idea of “burning” points from a pool to gain advantage. In Cypher, points may be spent from a pool to reduce the Difficulty number before rolling the dice.

While I don’t generally like games where characters must “spend” their skill points to be effective (this goes for both Cypher and Gumshoe), I do very much like the idea of characters having resources that must be managed but that can be spent for bonuses. This kind of risk/reward mechanic reinforces the drama in games, while giving those gamist players another mechanical aspect to strategize over. I just think that pools used for this purpose should be separated from the character’s base abilities–health, fatigue, willpower (like the World of Darkness games)–all of these can make good candidates (as can other things) without the necessity of diminishing returns over time for characters being a core mechanic.

I’d also note that the Fate Toolkit has a mod allowing you to spend Stress to do just this. That, I think, is the sweet spot for this kind of mechanic. Blades in the Dark also allows you to spend Stress for similar effects.

Apocalypse World – Play to Find Out
I very much appreciate the idea that the GM is playing to find out what happens as well, rather than chaperoning the players through the branches of a pre-planned adventure. This is where tabletop RPGs excel as a form of entertainment, and especially beat video games–story can develop organically and move in unexpected–and often more satisfying–directions.

This, of course, requires a GM willing and able to extemporize. This is an intimidating prospect, and one that takes practice and thought to do well, I think. But it also removes (for me, at least), some of the stress of having to meticulously plan a game session (and then fearing running it when I inevitably haven’t had the time to do all the planning I intended).

The “narrative sandbox,” which I’ve teased quite a bit now without writing a full post on (I will, I swear!) meshes perfectly with this idea by scaffolding the game with ready-made narrative elements (characters, events, locations, background, etc.) the GM can draw from without having to make things up whole clothe on the spot while maintaining the “anything can happen and you’re character can try anything” magic of RPGs at their best.

Traveler, Burning Wheel, Artesia: Adventures in the Known World RPG (Fuzion), etc. – Lifepaths
A lot of players struggle with creating a detailed background for their characters. A lifepath system gives a player a framework for thinking about her character by detailing familial relationships and important events, the origins of certain skills and abilities, and other life details that bring a character to life narratively at the same time it builds the character mechanically.

There are caveats here. A system that is too simple (Rogue Trader, for instance) doesn’t really satisfy and feels restrictive. A system that will kill your character during chargen (Traveler) will be talked about for years to come, but that’s not a criterion for being good. A system that is too complex (Burning Wheel…maybe) tends to intimidate players more than guide and help them.

There is also the question of whether the lifepath system should be random or each stage and determination should be willingly selected by the player. For games with an “old school” feel, random generation may be a good option. On the other hand, that requires a shared philosophy of gaming between GM and players, and no good GM should hold a player to a character they don’t want to play (so long as not wanting to play that character has a reasonable explanation).

Personally, I’m a fan of splitting the difference, with rewards for selecting a randomly generated result but no penalty for choosing a result instead. Your mileage may vary.

Blades in the Dark – Downtime Systems
I love giving the players the chance to describe what their characters spend their time doing when not adventuring/investigating occult occurrences/engaging in planned criminal conduct/whathaveyou. I like it even more when those choices can have later effects on the narrative.

Blades in the Dark takes this a step further, with chances to indulge a character’s vice to relieve stress, try to acquire equipment for later use, work on a long-term project, train skills or reduce a crew’s Heat. There are enough choices to give variety and enough competing demands on players to make the choices mean something.

Blades in the Dark – Progress Clocks
This idea is adapted, but broadened, from Apocalypse World’s “countdown clocks,” used there to track damage. These allow for easy tracking of obstacles, damage, and, yes, timing to an event. They provide simple mechanism for damage tracking and a visual marker of impending doom. I love that.

Cortex Plus/Prime – the Doom Pool
Like Fate Core, Cortex is an eminently hackable system. The system is a hack of the “basic” system wherein, instead of buying and immediately deploying the consequence dice the GM purchases from player rolls they get added to an increasing opposition pool to all tasks undertaken. This is admittedly a pretty clever way of mechanically representing the increased tension and danger as a group moves deeper into a dungeon, fights farther behind enemy lines or ventures nearer to the summoning of that elder thing.

This idea really shines when used as a “Crisis” pool. Instead of a single Doom pool, it’s split up into several smaller pools that each represent a discrete obstacle or threat to the players that must be overcome over time. Using the core mechanics of the Cortex system, players can attempt actions (supported by narrative, of course) to reduce the dice in the Crisis pool until there’re none left, at which point the obstacle has been overcome. If the GM buys dice back from player rolls to continue to fortify and reinforce the various Crisis pools, we get a back-and-forth struggle that can provide the entire basis for a narrative.

13th Age has a related mechanic to the Doom pool in its “escalation die.” The longer a fight lasts, the deadlier it gets. I tend to think that that’s realistic–or at worst a great narrative conceit–that should be used in more games, and not just for its propensity to speed up combat.

Torchbearer – Explicit Rules for Conflicts and Combat Where the Goal Isn’t “Kill Everything”
Most RPGs view combat as the time when everything else has failed and it’s time to kill and destroy everything. Sometimes that is the point of a combat, but things are often a bit more nuanced than that. Sometimes, the goal is to drive the enemy away without necessarily killing him, or to hold ground and delay the enemy, or to complete some secondary objective before the enemy does, or simply to escape alive.

While you don’t need mechanics to tell you the above, or even necessarily to model the situations I’ve described specifically, mechanics are often a cue as to what a game as about. So, when Torchbearer includes rules for “Capture,” “Drive Off,” and “Flee/Pursue”  in addition to “Kill,” it’s a signal that this game might be harder on PCs than say, D&D. Sometimes you’ll have to settle for less than completely overrunning your enemy, and you might want to think about clever options before brute ones.

And, to be fair, a number of the things I’ve mentioned don’t need mechanics to implement them–fail forward is a philosophy that can be applied to any game, and the Gumshoe approach to investigations needs no mechanics to be applied to another rule system. But the point is that these systems make a point of these ideas, not just setting them apart from other games but also pushing the industry forward for future games.

The Burning Wheel – Bloody Versus
Luke Crane’s The Burning Wheel is a thing of art from a design perspective–but in my mind, it’s a work of art more than an accessible roleplaying game. I know, there are plenty of people who have run successful campaigns with the system, and I freely admit I’m jealous of Luke Crane’s design genius. But there’s just so much there that I know I couldn’t convince my gaming friends to learn the system, nor do I have confidence that I can hold in mind at once all of its various parts to successfully run it. Every part of The Burning Wheel is well designed; the gestalt is just too much for me.

Actually, I do have one gripe with the system–the mechanic of scripting melee combat under the “standard” rules. Under this mechanic (assuming I completely remember correctly), each participant in a combat privately scripts three actions in sequence. Then, the scripts are revealed and the results worked out. This is time consuming, kind of annoying, and not very realistic–hand-to-hand fighting is a back-and-forth of action and reaction, of judging and decoding cues from the opponent’s body position and stance. Nothing happens in a vacuum or blind.

One the other hand, The Burning Wheel also gives us the “Bloody Versus” option. Bloody Versus streamlines an attack round into two rolls. Each of the two combatants divides his dice pool into attack and defense and then each attack pool is rolled against the corresponding defense pool. Overall, there are three potential results–one side hits, both sides hit, neither side hits. We don’t worry overmuch about positioning, timing, etc.; this is all abstracted into the single roll. It’s fast and relatively decisive–especially given The Burning Wheel’s steep death spiral.

I think there’s a lot to be said for roleplaying games that, at least upon occasion, treat a combat like most other tasks: we make a single roll and determine the results. This isn’t always appropriate, of course, and we have to make some consequential determinations as to whether such a test can kill a PC or not (I’d strongly recommend against that), but it does help us to readjust focus so that combat as a game aspect is more on par with all of the other typical aspects–exploration, intrigue, clever plans, sneaking around, etc.

WFRP 3rd Edition
As Fantasy Flight Games’ first release using its custom dice system (which would be followed by their Star Wars offering and now channeled into their generic GeneSys System), the 3rd Edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay rubbed a lot of people the wrong way–it completely redesigned the system and moved away from the percentile-based combination of “old school” and 80’s gritty realism that people loved.

FFG dove in headfirst, though, doing some fascinating work in combining board game elements with the RPG basis (in a far more successful combination than D&D 4e’s combination of MMO-style mechanics with RPG elements, in my opinion). Although the many tokens and character cards ultimately proved annoying and and more fiddly than helpful. Still, I applaud the creative experimentation, and I liked a lot of the innovations it made, with the dice providing cues that helped me narrate some of the most frantic combat scenes I ever have.

By far my favorite of these innovations, however, was stances. You could take a neutral stance, using the dice your stats gave you, or you could move so many spaces into a “reckless” stance (with more successes marked on the dice along with more negative effects compared to the “standard” dice) or a “cautious” stance, converting attribute dice into green dice marked with more side benefits (“boons”) but also more symbols indicating that the action required more time.

The custom dice made the ease of using stances possible, but the ability to incorporate a risk/reward dynamic into standard dice rolling by having a character adopt an aggressive or conservative stance is a really cool idea. In some of my own design experiments, I’ve come up with a few ways to implement the idea with standard core mechanics (dice pools in particular), but certainly not as smoothly as in WFRP3.

Okay, as usual, what I’d intended to be some brief notes turned into another verbose commentary, so let’s hang it up there for now. I hope some of you managed to stay with me all the way through, and I hope some of you found some mechanics and ideas you weren’t already familiar with.

Leave some comments–I’d love to hear what your favorite TTPRG mechanics are (and the games they’re from)!




FFF’s Guide to 6th Edition Shadowrun Characters, Part IV: Specific Build Advice

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Mystic Adepts

After being overpowered in the previous edition, mystic adepts have been returned to the role that suits them (and the rest of the rules) best—jacks of (many) trades, masters of none.

If you fall into the trap of trying to match the physical adept on one side or the full mage on the other (or, God forbid, both!), you’re going to spend a lot of time pouring over minute build details and never be satisfied. Don’t do it!

There are a few ways to build very effective mystic adepts, in my opinion, but the focus will always be on flexibility of approach rather than raw power. Right off the bat, don’t spend many resources on combat spells—with a Magic below 6, your damage output isn’t going to be worth the Drain. Stick to old-fashioned (or, more likely, new-fangled) firearms for dealing your damage.

Some sample character ideas:

  • The Stealthy Face – Particularly if you’re able to work with your GM to port over some of the adept abilities from 5th edition (Facial Sculpt, Melanin Control, Etc.) and you focus your spells on the Illusion and Detection categories (again, even more helpful if you’re able to port over the broader range of spells from previous editions), you can build a very solid character with a primary focus on social interaction or stealth and the other role in a secondary position. In my mind, this is the best role for a mystic adept, because good tradecraft is as much about unpredictability of approach and strong improvisational skills as anything else. The mystic adept gives you options, and that’s what a good spy needs.
  • The Arcane Defender – I’m not convinced that the mystic adept is better suited to this role than a full mage or physical adept, but this approach does seem fun to play. Take a specialization in Counterspelling, a high Conjuring skill, the Astral Perception power and other Adept Powers that will help you to bring the pain to enemy spirits.
  • The Asymmetrical Warrior – Again, perhaps not as powerful, straight-up, as a street samurai or physical adept, but if you can play cleverly, you can achieve things that neither of those archetypes can touch. For this approach, I would take only the Sorcery skill of the magical skills, with a specialization in Illusion. Take your spells from the illusion category and focus your Adept powers on combat-related powers. I’m of the opinion that you’re better off enhancing firearms abilities than hand-to-hand ones, but you can do just fine with either (or both, if you don’t mind the long haul of initiation to fully realize your character). Your focus here is on misdirection, ambushes, hit-and-runs and keeping your enemy off-balance. This is a great build if you’re new to a group that already has one or more pure-combat characters, or if you’re starting a new campaign with other players who want to focus their characters on combat—you can tee up a lot of things for them to knock out of the park.
  • The Wheelman – This one’s perhaps a little of a stretch, but follow me here. You use your Adept powers for Increased Reflexes and improving your Reaction and Piloting skill. You choose spells that constitute “dirty tricks” to use against other drivers. As always, you won’t have the raw power of the dedicated Rigger, but a Rigger can’t suddenly blind another driver or throw up a Physical Barrier behind himself!

Physical Adept

There are a lot of ways to build an interesting and effective Physical Adept, particularly once you port over the old adept abilities from SR5 (or wait for the new expansion books to come out). If you’re wondering, it took me less than 2 hours to sufficiently modify the adept powers from the old Street Grimoire to be used with SR6.

When you’re looking at the full gamut of abilities available to adepts, it can be a little daunting. If your GM will let you port over the Adept Ways into SR6 Qualities (also easy to do), then that can help you to think about your build.

The easiest thing to do, though (and which may always be the case), is to think about the two or three roles you want your character to be able to serve in and pick your abilities accordingly. Earlier, I talked about a Face needing some good defensive skills since he’s usually at the forefront of an ambush or sideways negotiation. The PhysAd is a great way to accomplish this, taking some socially-oriented powers (Voice Control, etc.) and supplementing with Mystic Armor and Improved Reflexes.

In modern close-combat doctrine using small-unit tactics, the SOP when confronted by an enemy at hand-to-hand range is not to engage him in hand-to-hand combat if avoidable—it’s to drop out of the way so your teammates can engage the target with their firearms. The PhysAd powers mentioned above take that approach—you’re focusing on surviving and getting out of the way so your supporting team members can fill the air with lead rather than trying to take out the targets single-handedly. You’re likely going to be outnumbered as well as being the primary target; unless you’ve got a mass of Edge ready to go, lay off the heroics.

As a former competitive shooter in tactical pistol, I love the idea of the Gunslinger Adept, especially since the John Wick films give us an excellent idea of what a Gunslinger Adept in action would be. Augmented characters may be able to scrape in more abilities for this role at character creation, but the PhsyAd arguably has more staying power in the long term. The other thing to bear in mind is that the PhysAd’s abilities are harder to detect before they’re used—no cyberware to be detected by a scanner, and abilities that make it possible to kill three men with a pencil. A pencil!

But it’s easy to fall into the belief that PhysAds should all be Wuxia kung-fu masters or action-hero gunslingers. With the full range of adept abilities from previous editions ported in, you can play a natural savant whose intelligence and insight makes him the consummate mastermind for the rest of the team, or many, many other options.

I’ve spent a lot of time on ways to build a PhysAd without a whole lot of practical advice, so let me shift gears a little. There is no reason not to have a Magic of 6 with a Physical Adept. In fact, you should strongly consider spending your Karma for the first level of initiation (11 Karma) and increasing your Magic to 7 from the get-go (35 Karma). That extra point of powers is probably the best expenditure of your “freeform” character creation points.

I recommend the following Priority array for Adepts: A- Skills, B – Attributes, C – Metatype, D – Magic, E – Resources. If you don’t spend any of your Metatype points on “standard” attributes, you still end up with Magic 6 and Edge 5. You’ll be pressed for equipment, but you won’t need augmentations, so the most expensive aspect is out of the way anyhow, and you can focus the rewards from your first few runs on correcting this deficiency with better Fake SINs, more weapons, and a vehicle, if desired. If it works with your Qualities, I highly recommend the Aptitude Positive Quality with this arrangement, for reasons previously discussed.


The first thing I’ll say about building a Magic-using character is: expect to be frustrated by how much you’ll feel like you need to stretch your character resources. That’s normal and part of the cost of playing a wizkid—full mages and shamans are supposed to be relatively rare, remember.

If you’re going to play an aspected mage, I recommend focusing on Conjuring over Sorcery. My natural inclination (for no discernible reason, mind you) is Sorcery, but Conjuring gives you much more flexibility with how you use your magic and requires fewer starting resources. And, I’ve seen far more memorable things done in-game with conjuration than with sorcery. In my upcoming game, I’ve added additional spell modifications and collapsed spells with multiple versions into a single, modifiable spell to bring Sorcery into better parity with Conjuring, but your GM might not do this.

If you’re playing a full mage, bear in mind that spells are one of the cheapest things to purchase with Karma. I recommend you prioritize your skills, attributes and metatype over your beginning magic rating. Again, with Priority C in metatype and Priority D in Magic, you can still have a full mage with a starting Magic of 6. You’ll only start with 2 spells before spending Karma, but if you devote all of your Karma to additional spells, that’s the best bang-for-your-nuyen you can get for Karma expenditures at character creation and you can still come out with 14 spells. If your GM has ported over spells from previous additions and collapsed spells in the same manner I have, you’ll end up with a lot of flexible mojo options. Even if they haven’t, 14 spells and Conjuring will give you a lot of options.

As your character progresses, Karma will be the thing you need most and, typically at least, Nuyen will be the thing you need least (though you’ll still need a fair amount). You’ll have foci to bond, initiation to…initiate, more spells to buy, etc. In terms of cash, you’ll need to maintain and improve your lodge, buy reagents and pay for your focus habit (whether creating yourself or purchasing).

If you are using the rules-as-written, I would avoid devoting too many resources to Artificing—the rules make it possible to lose Essence on an Artificing test that does not allow the expenditure of Edge! That’s not a risk worth taking for the average magic user and, if taken to be a fact about how magic works in the Sixth World, most Artificers should, statistically speaking, burn out after a while at their profession. That means two things: (1) only aspected magic-users unfortunate enough to only have skill in Enchanting are likely to be Artificers and, (2) under basic economic theory, this rarity and the risk of focus creation means foci should be extremely expensive. But, if using RAW without thinking too hard about the logic behind it, just buy your damn foci and be done with it.

I’m either going to ignore this rule altogether or at least allow Edge expenditure on this test for purposes of avoiding critical glitches. Even then, only high Edge characters should engage in Artificing.

An aside: As it stands, the Karma cost to increase Attributes is the same as it is to increase Skills. I think that this is likely an intentional design decision related to the consolidation of Skills that happened in this edition. Part of me, though, wonders if it is a typo or design mistake. Particularly with Agility being linked to so many different Skills, you’d think the cost to raise it would be higher, though if you make the cost to raise each Attribute different, you open up a whole can of worms in conflict with the design approach of the whole ruleset. It would take some statistical analysis far more complex than I am able (or care) to do to make a real determination of whether the benefits from each Attribute (and the benefits of Attributes compared to Skills) really supports the Karma costs given in the core rules. I imagine that this will be a point of contention for some gamers looking for reasons not to like the new edition (and, if that’s how they feel, I won’t begrudge them sticking to 5th edition, but my gameplay approach finds a lot more desirable in the new edition, thank you very much). Regardless, having made a lot of 6th edition characters in preparation for writing this guide (and because I’m the kind of nerd who finds that to be a fun exercise in and of itself), I don’t see a drastic effect on play from the Karma distribution.

It does mean, however, that you’re generally better off with higher Skills than higher Attributes at character creation, though the many demands for character resources at chargen will not always allow you to take this approach. To get the fullest use of your magical ability, there are four skills you need: Astral, Sorcery, Conjuring and Enchanting. If you’re strapped for points, I recommend dropping or reducing Enchanting first. You’ve probably gathered that I prefer characters (both mine and my players’) to have some basic competency in most aspects of being human (like social skills—I am loathe to play a street samurai with a Charisma of 2 and no social skills, leaving your only option in conflict the most instinctive of human reactions: fight, flight or freeze). So, think about having some points to spend on skills like Con, Influence, Stealth, Athletics or defensive skills as well as your magical skills.

It is harder, though far from impossible, for full mojo-makers to cover beyond their primary role because of the many resources that must be devoted to magical ability. I recommend one of two approaches here: pick one backup role and focus on it or use those character resources available as a backstop, not focusing on excelling in a secondary role but trying to limit your vulnerability when caught in situations outside your forte by having two or three points in a number of non-magical skills. As I mentioned before, specializations can be used to stretch points as necessary.

The Focused Concentration Quality was powerful in the previous edition, as it helped to resist Drain. The 6th edition version, allowing spell maintenance without penalty, is even moreso. It’s not a cheap Quality—technically you could achieve a similar (and actually more powerful but more expensive and less flexible) effect by spending Karma on Level 1 Initiation and taking the Quickening metamagic for one less Karma, but a Sustaining Focus will cost you almost twice as much Karma (between paying for the purchase of it and the Karma to bond it).

You’ve got a lot to spend your Karma on already, but if you can afford a level or two of initiation, I think that’s well worth it.

Riggers and Deckers

I must admit that I don’t build or play these types of characters as often as I do others, so take my thoughts here with a little more suspicion than in the other categories—and accept my apologies that my thoughts are not as deep and detailed as they are elsewhere.

Even more, perhaps, than Street Samurai and other highly-augged characters (and for similar reasons) Riggers and Deckers need a lot of Nuyen to be viable and the “buy once, cry once” axiom especially applies.

My opinion, if you’re running a Decker, is to take Priority A for Resources and buy the best cyberdeck and cyberjack you possibly can, making all other expenditures secondary. Who cares if you have to sleep on the street, VR is comfortable everywhere, amiright? Of course there’s the strong possibility of being shanked for your gear while you’re zoned out, but what’s the cyberpunk lifestyle without a little risk?

You’ll need a fair amount of skills, so that’s the best candidate for Priority B. Priority E, obvs, should be Mundane, with your choice of how you assign C and D. Karma will likely need to be spent on shoring up both Skills and Attributes.

Riggers have it just as tough, or tougher. You may not need a cyberdeck, but you probably still need a cyberjack for its protective qualities, and you’re not a Rigger without a control rig. You’ll need Piloting (duh), Engineering and Electronics, so you’ve already got a few important skills to think about. On the other hand, the Rigger is the character most insulated from other types of interactions, so your need to put lots of points into other skills for contingencies is somewhat reduced. But, if you have a GM like me, who’s read and taken John Wick’s (the 7th Sea John Wick, not the “bang bang” John Wick—unless they’re actually the same person) Play Dirty books to heart and who’s going to make sure you at least occasionally have to deal in meatspace, better to be safe than sorry.

A variety of drones will allow you to fulfill combat roles as well as surveillance and operational security with some ease, and your various viewpoints to the area of operations may put you in a good position to advise and direct team tactics.

Again, you’ll probably need Priority A to go to Resources, with Priority E at Mundane. I’d recommend prioritizing Attributes over Skills on this build for the secondary effects that you’ll get from your Attributes (Initiative, resisting biofeedback, Condition Monitor boxes, etc.)—with the understanding that a lot of your Karma is going to go to shoring up your skills (and some may still go to Resources!).

A few practical notes for your Rigger character:

  1. Your team will expect you to be the driver, so you should probably have a ground vehicle large enough to transport them all.
  2. Your team will expect you to be the mechanic and tech guy/girl for non-Matrix stuff (and maybe even for Matrix stuff!). You’ll have the Engineering skill by default (at least you should), but think about putting resources into kits and facilities as possible.
  3. Your role as driver and drone-manager will often mean your teammates see you as an overall logistics person. You might choose your Contacts accordingly.


This will be short and sweet: I haven’t yet read the 6th edition rules for Technomancers and I haven’t tried to build a Technomancer character yet. Those of you who want to play one are on your own for the time being.

Street Samurai

First, if you’re going to play this kind of character, a true Street Sam, do the character justice. Read some books about Bushido (A Book of Five Rings, Hagakure, etc.), watch Ghost Dog, etc. Don’t play a stereotype of a modern samurai, play a nuanced, believable warrior of the cyberpunk streets who believes that, while the technology and context of warfare has changed somewhat, the morality and ethics of the warrior should not have.

With that out of the way, there are several ways to build Street Sams, and none of them is wrong. You can play a generalist, buying those augs that seem interesting to you and hopefully constructing an augmentation gestalt that is more than its individual parts.

Or, you can specialize. Here, I tend to think of the old D20 Modern classes as a rough guide—you can be Tough, Fast, or Strong. You could focus on Smart or Charismatic, but they don’t so much fall into this category.

There are some augmentations I think are givens (for any augged character, really). Platelet Factories are cheap, both in Essence and Nuyen, and provide what is essentially three points of Body in resisting Physical damage. Second is the Sleep Regulator—this may not have a hugely obvious mechanical effect, but shadowrunners work odd hours and jobs that don’t exactly allow for regular sleep breaks. It’s also cheap in terms of Essence and Nuyen. As a third, I usually recommend cybereyes and cyberears before other augmentations. If your GM understands small-unit tactics and you expect to be up against trained security/law-enforcement/military forces, you should expect to see (and perhaps use) a lot of Stun (i.e. flashbang) grenades, making Damper and Flare-Compensation almost essential.

As a side note, it’s always bugged me that Damper isn’t included in the Audio Enhancements for earbuds and other non-aug audio devices—I’ve added it in as an option for my game.

If you’re going to do much shooting (and, if you’re a Street Sam, odds are good) then a Smartlink, and Vision Magnification are almost essential as well—as are low-light and thermographic vision for target identification. I imagine the spatial recognizer performing much like those red flashes at the corner of your screen when someone off-screen is shooting at you in a video game, giving you cues as to which way to turn to locate an attacking enemy. That’s not its only use, but being able to pinpoint the location of a sniper after he fires a few shots is a tactical gamechanger.

It’s tempting to take cyberlimbs for the “cool” factor; I get that. But I honestly thing they’re too expensive for the return in most cases and should be taken mostly under two circumstances—(1) it makes narrative sense for the character (she lost a limb sometime in the past), or (2) you’re going to install a cyberweapon. Just bear in mind that it’s not always an advantage to have a weapon you can’t leave behind in certain situations. Yes, it may be concealed, but corporations and shadow-actors are typically smart enough to keep scanners. Also, at least in my take on the Shadowrun world, expect for opponents to get Edge against you in high-society social situations if you’re rocking obvious cyberlimbs, you poor SoB who couldn’t afford to make his hand look like normal. I tend to think that there are far better augs before cyberlimbs to give you bang for buck. As a counterargument, though, Kristin Ortega’s cyberarm in the Netflix Altered Carbon is pretty badass. A Sam considering a focus on raw strength should consider muscle enhancers first, but paired cyberlimbs may be a viable option.

If you’re going to focus on close-combat, wired reflexes and other Reaction enhancers are a must. You need to avoid being shot while closing for that katana strike, after all. Other augs should focus on increasing strength and hand-to-hand damage.

Sams focusing on toughness (and I think you get a lot of bang-for-your-buck here, though its not as flashy as other approaches) can take Orthoskin, Bone Density or Bone Lacing enhancements, the Quick Healing Quality, Damage Compensators (and perhaps be a troll—actually, though the super-tough combatant who just refuses to go down is also a sort of metaphorical troll, I suppose).

Sams who want to truly focus on speed above all else are going to spend the majority of their resources (Nuyen and Essence) on the highest end of Wired Reflexes and Reaction Enhancers (compatible while wireless-enabled).

If your Street Samurai is going to be your team’s main combatant, then I would take a more generalist approach to your Skills (and therefore available fighting styles). Based on my experience in both martial arts and firearms training (with no combat experience to speak of, for which I’m thankful), I’m a believer that anyone who is going to carry or use a firearm also needs to be skilled in close-combat (unarmed at least) to deal with in-your-face situations and weapon retention.

If you’ve got multiple combat-focused characters in your team, you may want to think about specializing a little bit. Specialize in pistols and unarmed combat for a sort of John Wick combatant, or think about a focus in long-range weapons for a support-sniper role (which, honestly may be better suited to a non-Street Sam character who won’t need as many augs).

Note that the Specializations under Firearms in SR6 are extremely confused, having edges rougher than a mole that needs a biopsy—what’s the difference between “Rifles” and “Longarms” for instance? I recommend changing the specializations to match weapon types specifically—Pistols, SMGs, Shotguns, Assault Rifles, Semi-Auto Rifles (or something similar). Just check with your GM when choosing specializations here.

You’ll also want to take a thoughtful approach to your arsenal. It’s common for Street Sams to spend a lot of Nuyen on guns (and hand-to-hand weapons), and there’s nothing wrong with that, but do it with a purpose. You can only carry and use so many guns at once, and various permissive/non-permissive environments and run objectives are going to call for different approaches.

One of the main foci (in my mind) is having a set of weapons for covert work and a different set for overt combat. With covert weapons, suppressors are a must and concealment should be a concern. With overt weapons, you want mods that are not compatible with your covert weapons (like gas vent) to increase weapon effectiveness when you can maximize it without having to worry about balancing other concerns. The Ares Light Fire 75 has the best suppressor (at -3 to detection over the usual -2), but the Ares Viper Slivergun is a more powerful pistol with an integrated suppressor for improved concealment. The Ares Predator VI (which now competes with the Savalette Guardian for when you need a pistol that just does work) is an excellent choice for an overt weapon—especially when you add gas vent and a quick-draw holster.

I tend to recommend that you have both covert and overt pistols and one weapon in every other category; when building my own characters I tend to take a suppressed SMG like the HK-227, an overt assault rifle and shotgun (don’t get me started on silencing shotguns) and a covert long rifle.

Don’t forget less-lethal options—particularly if you’re focused on close-combat, your character is going to take point on those “Capture” missions. Tasers, stick-n-shock, the Super-squirt and other options should be considered.

It’s a Shadowrun trope for a Troll to lug around an assault cannon or minigun, but this honestly doesn’t make much sense to me. For one, this is a good way to make sure your opponents send an attack helicopter and a tank to respond to you. Two, collateral damage is a thing, guys. Unless you have a mission that specifically needs a launcher or autocannon, leave it at home.

Also, don’t forget grenades.

Other Characters
This is a very broad category that will include a lot of characters (in some ways, characters who don’t fall into a category above automatically fall into this category), so I’m going to treat it fairly generally.

If you’re not falling into one of the other categories, I recommend you prioritize Skills and Attributes above all else. Set Priority E to mundane and use C and D for Resources and Metatype, depending on how augged you’d like to be. See above under the Street Samurai heading for my personal “must-have augs.” Your mileage may vary.

The best thing about making this kind of character is that it becomes about the character’s background and narrative more than the mechanical or meta-game concerns. This is where you find some of the most interesting characters: those whom circumstances have recently forced into the shadowrunning life and who will struggle to turn their previous experiences into effective skills and knowledge for the professional criminal. Betrayed sararimen, disgruntled Lone Star officers, bored trust-fund kids, people who’ve never known a legitimate SIN and more can all be found in this category; when they’re played well, they’re a joy both to the player and to the GM—they truly fit into the “play to find out” approach of modern narrative games. Desperation and being ground down by oppressive and unjust societal systems is far more cyberpunk than any amount of chrome.

Honestly, the best advice I have for these kinds of characters is just to build them based on who they were before they became a shadowrunner, and have fun turning the narrative details into Attributes, Skills and Qualities. With VR games and instructional options, every character really has an excuse to have any Skill, so don’t be afraid to put some points into those skills that are necessary to shadowrunning at character creation, even if the character has never fired a gun in real life before. But if that’s the case, roleplay through the drama of that first firefight where life is actually on the line—there’s so much good stuff there, and an appreciative GM may throw some Karma your way for adding so much to the story. I sure would.


This post has not covered, and cannot cover, the very many types of characters you could build (which is a feature of the system, not a bug). Thinking back, the Shadowrun character creation system is probably a very large part against my bias against class-based and leveled systems (though I intellectually understand their great value for establishing genre tropes and significantly easing the character creation and leveling systems).

In the next post, we’ll look at the most important part of character creation: the character that isn’t represented by numbers on a page.



FFF’s Guide to 6th Edition Shadowrun Characters, Part III: General Advice

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Minimum Standards
An established (not necessarily starting) team of shadowrunners ought to make sure every member has at least a minimum competency in a few areas: at least one combat skill for self-defense, some ability in the Stealth skill (with a specialization in Sneaking if you want to go farther with a few points), and some ability in the Biotech skill (with a specialization in First Aid to stretch points). If your GM is going to enforce the rules (on Page 247) that you need the Electronics skill to figure out how to turn the Wireless effects of your gear on and off (I certainly won’t be enforcing it—that’s too important a thing to do to require a skill point for it!), then a character ought to have at least one point in that as well.

Essential Gear
Even the core Shadowrun book has enough equipment in it to make one’s head spin, and purchasing equipment is often the longest phase of character creation. The Sixth Edition is no different.

For new players especially, it’s easy to lose track of (or to never find) a good explanation of what gear is absolutely necessary for a person to function. Here’s what you need:

Fake System Identification Number(s) (SINs)

Every Runner should have at least one fake SIN (System Identification Number). A SIN is required to use public services—like riding the bus—and in nicer parts of town, corporate security or local law enforcement will make a beeline for anyone who doesn’t have a SIN when scanned.

Your runner may have been born with a SIN (which I’d assume her to adequately have distanced herself from aside from tissue matches or fingerprinting, unless the SINner Quality is taken), but remember that anonymity, privacy and security are essential for a runner to survive long enough to make it big.

If you want to carry a gun, drive a car, or not be arrested for having restricted cyberware (or being Awakened), you need to make sure that you have the proper fake licenses attached to your Fake SINs.

The lowest Resources rating on the Priority Chart gives you 8,000¥ (before you spend any Karma). The least expensive Fake SIN (Rating 1 with no licenses) costs 2,500¥ and will stand up to only the most cursory examination (automated public transportation scans, etc.). Plan accordingly.


The commlink is your phone, personal digital assistant, tablet and computer all rolled into one. You need to have one to survive in the modern age of the Sixth World. If all you can afford is a cheapie, by all means—but have one.


Because it’s found earlier in the book and not in the Gear section, it’s easy to forget that you need to have a Lifestyle, which represents your monthly payments for food, shelter and basic services. Under most circumstances, a runner probably wants to maintain a Low Lifestyle—saving money for those things that will keep her alive or for that magical future day when she can retire from the life and live comfortably ever after. Remember, it’s cyberpunk: high tech and low life. But don’t be a Squatter.

If your character is the paranoid type, comes from a background in tradecraft, or has the resources and understanding of the risks of shadowrunning such that he or she would have at least one bolthole somewhere that no-one knows about, purchase multiple Lifestyles. Just remember that they have to be maintained, too.

Image Link, Sound Link and Micro-Transceiver

If your character doesn’t have cybereyes and/or cyberears, you need to shell out for at least a visual device with image link (Rating 1 Contacts with just this feature are 75¥) and an aural device (which automatically has sound link—Rating 1 earbuds are 50¥). You need a micro-transceiver, too. This equipment allows you to keep in constant contact with the rest of your team and to share valuable information. Communication and information sharing can be more valuable than wired reflexes and a Panther assault cannon if you’re clever.

Trauma Patch

Every character should probably carry one of these. They’re expensive (500¥), but necessary in a desperate situation to prevent loss of life. A shadowrunner team is many things, but they’re sometimes a team of covert(-ish) combat operators—and they should think like it. Every soldier carries at a bare minimum an IFAK (individual first aid kit) to treat the commonest types of injuries. A trauma patch isn’t a substitute for all of the devices, materials and life-saving techniques your team should have access to, but it’ll do in a pinch.

The Mechanics of the Build

What follows is my personal advice (along with my personal biases) on creating Shadowrun characters in the Sixth Edition after spending several hours with the character creation system.

What Do You Need to Know?

Before you make a character, you should get a feel for the world of Shadowrun in 2080 (Page 14 on) and the basics of the game mechanics (“Game Concepts” Chapter starting on Page 34). If you’re going to play an Awakened character, I recommend also reading the Magic Chapter (at least the basics, starting on Page 127)

Lay of the Land

For ease of navigation, some “bookmarks” for you:

  • The Description of Attributes is on Page 37
  • The Priority Table is on Page 63
  • The Skills Chapter Starts on Page 92
  • Qualities Begin on Page 66
  • Adept Powers Start on Page 156
  • Spells Start on Page 130
  • Mentor Spirits on Page 162
  • The Gear Listing Starts on Page 244
  • Advancement Costs (for spending Karma) on Page 68
  • Rules for Contacts on Page 66-67


Yes, I complained about the Archetypes being min/max-ed, but there’s actually a distinction here. The Archetypes are min/max-ed as to their final ability ratings and all of that, with very specific foci and almost no character resources spent outside of that focus.

The min/max-ing I’m referring to is in the expenditure of the 50 Karma points you get at character creation. Choose the upgrades that you’ll spend on and allocate your attribute points, skill points, etc. from the Priority Table with that in mind so that you maximize the value you get from that beginning Karma.

An example: Going from Firearm’s 5 to Firearms 6 is worth thirty Karma. Purchasing Electronics at 2 requires 15 Karma. Where should you allocate your Priority-Table-Given Skill Points? To your higher-rated skills, spending Karma to fill in gaps for basic necessities. Likewise with Attribute Point distributions.

As a matter of good gaming etiquette, I’d check with your GM about his or her stance on this behavior. As hard as I intend to be on my players, though, I’m happy to let them have this benefit.

As a side note, the discrepancy/ambiguity created by loose design in the use of Karma points to round things out might be viewed as a problem, and I would agree that it is while I’m looking at Shadowrun from a designer’s perspective. As a practical matter, though, just decide on an approach and keep running.

Specializations Are Your Friends

Specializations are cheap to purchase with Karma. So, don’t use Priority Table Skill Points to buy Specializations unless you really need to spend the Karma elsewhere. That said, use Specializations to push your character resources farther at character generation. Most characters are only going to need Pilot (Ground Vehicle) for instance, or Biotech (First Aid). If your character does not have combat as a primary focus, consider using specializations (say in Pistols and/or Unarmed Combat) to get some basic competency without devoting a lot of Skill Points.

Augmentation: Buy Once, Cry Once

It used to be that you could only purchase base-grade cyberware and bioware at character generation, but this was further back in the timeline; by 2080, apparently, even Delta-grade cyberware isn’t too hard to find.

According to the rules as written, you cannot purchase Illegal gear with an Availability of 7 or higher. Check with your GM to see if they’re going to modify this (frankly, it probably should be). If used as written, at least some of the cyberware you want to get your grubby hands on can be purchased at Delta-grade, or at least Alpha or Beta.

Contrary to the Archetypes in the book, you’re better off buying the best grade of hardware you can reasonably afford rather than dumping in base-grade. Why?

First, the higher the grade of cyberware, the harder it is to detect. That’s definitely to your benefit. As or more important, the higher the grade of cyberware, the less Essence it costs. Yes, you could have more bonuses and benefits if you just pack in basic cyberware and bioware, but you never get more Essence.

You can remove old cyberware and replace it with a higher grade, which will never raise your Essence back to what it was, but will leave a “gap” to be taken up before it drops further.

Example: You’ve got an Essence of .4 after putting in all your (basic-grade) cyber. You’ve scraped together some nuyen and if you want to take on more cyber, you need to make some room, you you’re going to buy a Beta-grade version of something you already have to replace it. The basic version cost you 1 Essence point, so the Beta-version will cost you .7 Essence. Your Essence stays at .4 after the replacement, but your total Essence cost on your Cyber is now 5.3 instead of 5.6, so you have an extra .3 worth of Essence to use up before your Essence drops below .4.

If you follow the example above, you’ve now paid 2.5 times the value of that piece of cyberware (1 time when you first bought it, and another 1.5 times when you bought the Betaware version). That adds up to a massive drain on your character’s lifetime nuyen.

Don’t Skimp on Edge

Edge is central to the new edition of Shadowrun in ways it has never been. You start each session with an amount of Edge equal to your Attribute rating and, if you have more Edge at the end of an encounter than your Attribute, you lose the excess. An Edge of 5 means that you can hold enough Edge at once for an alpha-strike use of the highest level of Edge expenditure when you need the boost.

That doesn’t mean that you need to have an Edge of 5, but I certainly wouldn’t want to run a character with less than 3. If you have to, spend Karma to boost it. Even if you have no points from the Priority Table to allocate to Edge, it would only cost 25 Karma to get it up to 3.

My initial feeling is that Edge is the new Initiative Augmentation in Shadowrun—don’t leave home without it.

Understand Attack Value and Defensive Value

Particularly if you’ve come from a previous version of Shadowrun, there’s a learning curve to grokking how AV and DV work in awarding Edge during a fight. As you pick your weapons, armor and augmentations, pay attention to AV and DV—they are, along with the fundamental overhaul of Edge, the New Big Thing. Choosing between a weapon with a one-point damage bonus and a higher AV is something to carefully consider.

Consider Initiative Augmentations Carefully

It used to be that characters with initiative augmentations vastly outclassed those that didn’t in combat. This is no longer the case—it now takes a Level 3 initiative augmentation to gain a second attack (or second Major Action of any type) in combat, and that’s the most you’ll ever get.

This is a very welcome rebalance, in my opinion, and it makes it worth considering whether you need such an augmentation—despite the change in the rules, these augs remain very expensive in terms of Essence and Nuyen (in Cyber-/Bioware) or Power Points (for Adepts).

The Archetypes have overused initiative augs, with half of them having one, even when the assets spend on those augs would be much better spent elsewhere.

If you look at the NPCs section of the book, you don’t see any initiative augs until Professional Tier 4 and above. My advice is only to consider an initiative aug if your primary role in the group is combat. Even then, I wouldn’t say that wired reflexes or a synaptic booster are a necessary piece of kit.

The Aptitude Quality

The Aptitude Quality, for 12 Karma, lets you start with a skill at Rating 7 (rather than the usual max of 6) and level it up to 10 (instead of 9). This is not necessarily a Quality every player should take for their character, but it does have the potential to save you a lot of Karma (if your GM doesn’t have a problem with this, if you are not committing the sin of overspecialization, and if your end character is adaptable enough to survive long enough that it matters).

It would cost you 35 Karma to raise a skill from 6 to 7. You’ll pay 12 Karma for the Quality, but this still nets you 23 Karma in the long run (not accounting for paying the skill point).

Where this really makes a difference is that you can then have other skills at Rating 6, rather than only being able to have one at Rating 6 and the rest at 5. This opens up a lot (a lot!) of additional potential Karma.

To make real use of this Quality, though, I think you need to take Priority A in skills. If that doesn’t mesh with your character idea, look for more suitable Qualities.

In the next post, look for my advice on specific types of characters.

FFF’s Guide to 6th Edition Shadowrun Characters, Part II: Roles

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Few, if any, shadowrunner teams, have enough members (remember, the more members a team runs, the more conspicuous they are, and the capture of one may lead to the discovery of the rest) to dedicate a member to each role below.

‘Runners must always be prepared for a fight—the nature of the work and the non-permissive environments in which it takes place means that, even for those runs where violence is not an intended goal, any number of unfortunate events can spiral into chaos and bloodshed at a moment’s notice. While every ‘runner is expected to be able to carry his weight in a fight, every team needs at least one person dedicated to bringing the pain in the most direct way possible.

Trolls and Orks often gravitate to these roles, where their natural toughness and strength makes them terrifying combatants. Combat specialists from all metatypes are found however, with Elves often focusing on speed and grace over raw strength, Humans making good all-rounders, and Dwarfs having toughness of their own.

Combat-oriented team members may specialize in particular types of combat, the most common of which are close-combat specialists highly skilled in unarmed and armed hand-to-hand fighting as well as close-range firearms and long-range specialists providing sniper cover for the rest of the team.

The most often thought-of combat specialist is the Street Samurai, followed by the Physical Adept.

Weapons Specialists, who bring a wide-array of knowledge and experience in various forms of violence to create a highly-adaptive approach to combat, focus first on their skills and natural abilities, adding augmentations as they’re able to supplement their arsenal of weapons. Weapons Specialists often have high levels of skill with all firearms, all types of close combat, demolitions and explosives, and in heavy weapons.

Some shamans or mages prefer to focus on a combative role, summoning spirits and casting spells to wreak as much havoc on the enemy as possible. Their exposure to the consequences of Drain can deprive them of the sort of steady reliability or long-term staying power of other combat specialists, but, chummer, can they ever bring the hurt in sudden fits of overwhelming force!

Riggers may also serve in a combat role, directing one or more armed drones in place of meat bodies.

Of course, there are also plenty of combat specialists who defy any easy categorization.

Hacking and Technology

The Sixth World is a place of hyperconnectivity between devices—your refrigerator can order you groceries when supplies run low; your pistol will tell you the temperature of its barrel and the number of rounds remaining in the magazine; the flick of a (virtual) switch may change the color of your clothes (or even your hair!).

No shadowrunner team is complete without a specialist in modern tech, particularly one with the capability to hack in support of the team, whether opening locked doors and disabling security in a target facility or bricking a ganger’s Predator VI before he can open fire with it.

Modern computer systems, particularly those managed and protected by the megacorps, require both expensive equipment and high levels of skill to successfully hack, making this role one of the hardest for other team members to dabble in or cover for. Technomancers, still largely feared by society, also fill this role—their Awakened (or pseudo-Awakened) status means that they also require a large amount of resources devoted to their service in this role.

Magical Support

Threats to shadowrunners are rarely limited to the physical and technological worlds. Both mages and spirits are used to defend corporate assets, and even some street gangs are comprised entirely of wizkids. Gone are the days when junkyard dogs were the fiercest animal you might encounter when breaking and entering; these have been replaced where possible by Awakened alternatives—fire-breathing hellhounds and the like.

With magic, it usually takes fire to fight fire, and a good shadowrunner team needs at least one member well-equipped to deal with other spellslingers, summoned spirits, and all other manner of supernatural threat. Magic-users are “force multipliers” in many ways–there’s a good reason the advice “geek the mage first,” remains relevant.

Further, astral perception and/or projection can provide information about targets and enemies otherwise unavailable to the team.

Full magicians or shamans are typically preferred in this role, but their rarity means that substitutes must sometimes be made. Aspected magic users can address most threats (and often have the ability to cover in other roles), even if they don’t have the breadth of magical approaches of a full mage.

Physical adepts with the Astral Perception ability and other powers that cater to direct combat with spirits and other astral entities may also fulfill this role.

Mundanes with the right knowledge and equipment (which isn’t in the current book) can sometimes serve in this capacity, but the risk here is much higher than it would otherwise be.


There’s nothing more embarrassing than finishing a run and having to make your getaway on public transport—nor a more surefire way of getting caught.

Those who most excel in this role are Riggers; if a team doesn’t have a Rigger, this role is typically handled by one or more team-members as a secondary role to their other functions. By their very nature, a team’s Rigger is almost always required to run primary on this role, though the Rigger may also have substantial surveillance or combat duties fulfilled through the use of drones and is likely the team’s resident mechanic.

Face and Acquisitions

The nature of shadowrunning makes anonymity a difficult-to-achieve but highly-desired aspect of the life. Only under rare circumstances does a whole team want to meet a Mr. Johnson; everyone—especially the runners, are better off when the employer doesn’t have much information about those he’s hired.

Additionally, many runners are pretty sorry fraggers when it comes to social situations, and a good working relationship can mean the difference between being hired for multiple jobs or placed on a corporation’s “cleaner’s” list.

Those teams whose idea of professionalism means keeping a body count to a necessary minimum also find it useful to have someone who can finesse through certain situations rather than resorting to violence and direct action.

A team’s “Face” fulfills all of these functions. The Face is only as valuable as his social skills and network of connections, where a competent team member can drastically reduce the difficulty of legwork performed before a run.

Often, a Face also fulfills a role as a covert operator—add the ability to mimic others, blend in, and sneak past security systems and you have a versatile runner able to insinuate herself into situations and locations where she can do the team the most good.

Protection is also a concern for a Face. As the most forward member of the team, the Face is usually the first one to feel the brunt of an ambush or double-cross. Even with a team well-positioned to respond in the event of such a likelihood, a long-lived Face probably has some combat skills or good means of escape for when things don’t go well.

If any position on the team is likely to be relegated as a secondary role to one of the members with no runner having a primary responsibility for the role, it’s likely the Face. Such an approach is one of necessity, however, not one of best practices, because a good Face opens up possibilities, both for employment and for approaches to problems, unavailable to those who only dabble in the role.

Many faces rely on their natural social skills to serve in this function, but there are a number of augmentations highly attractive to those in this role, especially if the ability to disguise appearance when acting as the public representative of the group is highly desired.

Magic-users may sometimes find themselves well-suited to this role, particularly shamans who tend to be naturally charismatic anyway. But an over reliance on magical skills to serve in social functions often means a brute-force approach (using Mind Probe and Control Thoughts spells, for instance) over finesse. Even if successful, such strategies have a habit of making enemies.

Some Physical Adepts find that their magical abilities are especially suited to the role of Face—these often follow the Speaker’s Way.

Surveillance and Investigation

Rarely is something in the Sixth World what it seems, and even if a run isn’t primarily an investigation, it’s likely that some amount of investigation and surveillance will be a necessary part of the legwork for the run proper. Add to that that runners often find themselves in the midst of mysteries and conspiracies that threaten their lives, and it should be clear why a dedicated investigator and/or surveillance specialist is a great boon to a shadowrunner team.

The augmented, with their heightened senses and access to sensory apparatuses unavailable to the unenhanced, often make good investigators—but there is no substitute for tradecraft.

Awakened team members may also make excellent investigators, with magic-users having access to modes of inquiry unavailable to mundanes and physical adepts often possessing super(meta)human senses themselves.

Riggers, while sometimes overlooked, can provide an excellent source of investigation and surveillance, combining the use of drones for physical surveillance with electronics skills that naturally lend to signals intelligence.

Covert Operations and Security

Like combat skills, almost every runner is expected to have some ability to act stealthily. Rare is the run that does not involve tailing someone, infiltrating a secure facility, or otherwise evading detection.

But there is a difference between the person who can occasionally move without being noticed and the person who is well-versed in the fieldcraft of the spy, who knows how to use dead drops and brush passes, how to infiltrate a place without leaving a trace, and who knows what techniques to guard his fellows against.

Like the Face, some teams seem to think of this as a secondary role without any need for a primary member in its place.

The augmented, specifically with those enhancements decreasing visibility and increasing agility and speed, are well suited for such a role, as are Physical Adepts with similar abilities. Some infiltrations may be conducted by a decker or rigger without any team member getting “boots on the ground” in the target location, but modern security countermeasures make such scenarios rare, at least when dealing with governments and corporations of means.

Likewise, just as they can sometimes operate as adequate Faces, magic-users may also provide some options and approaches in such situations that their mundane counterparts are incapable of—particularly if the team member is also skilled in physical techniques of breaking and entering. Given the adaptability of the mystic adept, this may be an especially fitting role for them.


This catch-all term goes to the heart of those seemingly minor but essential tasks for a shadowrunner team—logistics. When possible, a team will use its network of contacts (and its Fixer(s)) to acquire new gear or necessary services that they cannot provide in-house, but the cost of looking outside the team for such assistance should not be underestimated.

When team members have their own networks for acquiring, repairing and modifying their gear, this allows the team to take innovative approaches to their runs, to avoid embarrassing equipment failures, and to maximize their profits.

Often, support tasks are tied to other roles rather than being made a role of its own—the combat specialists are expected to perform weapon maintenance, the rigger is expected to be able to repair vehicle damage, and the decker is expected to be able to modify everyone’s commlinks.

Thinking About Roles When Designing a Character
It is tempting, particularly if you’ve viewed the Archetypes in the book, to highly specialize your character into a particular role. Ignore the book’s Archetypes, both because they’re unreasonably min-maxed and don’t make for well-rounded characters.

The resources you’re given to build a character in Shadowrun are not sufficient to build a runner who’s at the top of his game. Even with the extra 50 Karma mentioned for creating “Prime Runners” (which, honestly, is a joke), you probably won’t be able to build a character who can single-handedly go toe-to-toe with the higher Professional Rating enemies (I’m looking at you, Tiers 6 and above—who knew DocWagon personnel were so hardcore?).

Your character is a runner who’s not been doing this for very long or who’s just entered the shadows. Knowing this, give yourself permission to (a) not stress about making a perfect character and (b) start with an interesting backstory and work forward with two or three roles in mind (preferably prioritized).

Allow yourself to build a character who will grow into his full potential over time, and who isn’t so min-maxed that he’ll actually survive long enough to realize that potential.

Shadowrun is fun when played as a cyberpunk version of D&D, but it reaches its full potential only when it takes into account the drama and grit of social systems that make shadowrunning seem like a better choice among alternatives and accentuates the difficulty of “the life.” The same goes for Shadowrun characters—the more real they feel, the better the idea you have as to how they got to where they are, the more fun they’ll be to play and the better your game will be—your GM will thank you!

Also, it’s nice to have a reason your character isn’t an expert in all forms of combat known to metahumanity from the get-go. Or stealth, or other aspects of breaking the law for a living. Unless your character came from a military background or was raised on the streets, in a gang or “in the life.”

For the next post in this series, with general advice on character builds, click here.

FFF’s Guide to 6th Edition Shadowrun Characters, Part I: Basics

I will be posting a full review of the Shadowrun, Sixth World rules. But, in the meantime, I’m gearing up to run a campaign using the rules, one which will include a number of players new to the setting and system. I’m working on my (extensive) notes to help them muddle through, and thought I’d share them with you as well.

The Very Basics

You are creating a character who has recently become a shadowrunner. A shadowrunner is a professional criminal who engages in illegal acts on behalf of others in exchange for pay. You are hired in part for your skills and in part because you are a deniable asset if something goes sideways.

Many of your jobs will be given by megacorporations or their smaller subsidiaries or competitors—these types of jobs often involve corporate espionage, asset destruction, the extraction of personnel or other dirty work that furthers the employer’s bottom line.

Other jobs may come from non-profit organizations willing to break the law for the greater good, private citizens with the means to hire shadowrunners to further their personal agendas, government entities running off-the-books operations, other members of the shadow community, or criminal organizations looking for specialty skills or to bolster their other assets.

A potential employer of a shadowrunner is euphemistically referred to as a “Mr. Johnson” (female employers use various honorifics, whether Ms., Mrs. or Mr.).

A shadowrunner team typically works with one or more Fixers; these go-betweens set up teams with Johnsons and often run procurement or other support roles for a team. The team’s Face may operate as a Fixer, but it is more common for their to be separation (both for efficiency and for operational security) between a team and its Fixer(s).

The Team
Too many skills and expertises are necessary to a successful shadowrun for a single person to handle most jobs alone. ‘Runners typically operate in close-knit teams, where they can share the responsibilities and cover for one another as necessary.

Bear in mind that you will be a team player, so create a character who can be loyal at least to those who have his back.

Good shadowrunner teams strike a balance between each member having a strong expertise and some secondary skills to fill additional roles in the case of a split group, injury to other team members, or other circumstances likely to occur once a perfect plan meets reality.

A Little Terminology

Augmented: A person who has cyberware, bioware, nanoware or some other technological device (usually many) installed in his or her body.

Awakened: When referring to people, this usually means a person with magical ability, whether a mage, a shaman, a physical adept or a mystic adept.

Decker: A hacker, so-called because of the cyberdeck used in hacking.

Mystic Adept: A magic-user who has some of the abilities of a shaman/mage and some of the abilities of a physical adept and, as a consequence of this split, matches neither group in full potency.

Physical Adept: A magic-user who, rather than summoning spirits and casting spells, channels magic (usually passively, but sometimes actively) to improve their physical, mental and social abilities.

Rigger: A user of an augmentation called a “control rig” that allows the user to “jump in” to a vehicle in virtual reality, physically experiencing the operation and function of the vehicle and operating it at the speed of thought. Any properly-equipped vehicle or drone may be jumped into.

Street Samurai: the highly-augmented warrior who adheres to the ancient code of Bushido, slightly modified, of course, for the streets and shadows. Poseurs abound, and true Street Sams are actually rather rare, whatever the trids and games seem to think.

For the next post in the series, with advice on team roles, click here.

A Short(ish) Note on Rolling Dice (in RPGs)

This morning, I’m re-reading through the Sixth World Beginner’s Box for Shadowrun 6th Edition to write a short review as a prelude to a full review when the core book releases. As I’m reading through, comparing to other roleplaying games, and thinking about the mechanics and systems that make our games run, a thought occurs to me.

We need a paradigm shift on dice rolling. For some of you, particularly those who play more narratively-styled games, this is likely already part of your repertoire, and a number of games that have been out for quite some time make a point of this explicitly, or at least imply it heavily. Others may say, “yeah, that’s not necessarily in the rules, but it’s the heart of ‘Old School’ gaming.” But I think that the approach I’m about to describe (wait for it!) should apply to all roleplaying games, because it’s fundamental and universal to the way stories are told.

Dice should only be rolled with the result increases drama and drives the story forward. Seems simple, right? But if it’s so simple, why do games keep using a different formulation, one that goes something like this: “Easy, mundane or routine tasks do not require a roll. Complex or more difficult actions do.”

If you want to lean heavy on the simulationist side of the GNS theory (and if that’s what’s fun for you, I’m not going to say you’re doing it wrong!), then this formulation does make some sense.

But from the standpoint of telling a story–even if aspects of that story are governed by intricate and complex systems to govern outcomes–the difficulty of a task is not the standard by which we should determine whether to pick up the dice. Novels and short stories often compress into tiny fractions of the narrative those tasks which, while difficult, are necessary to the story but not terribly interesting to focus on. Perhaps the epitome of this approach is the oft-maligned (and oftener-used) “montage” of film fame. The training or preparation depicted in the montage is crucial to understanding where the narrative goes next (or explaining why it goes where it goes), but it’s not where we want to spend our time. Rocky immediately comes to mind, right? All that training that the eponymous character does provides context and justification for everything that comes after, but if the film had two hours of watching Stallone work out as “character development,” many of us would never make it to the story’s climax.

Dice rolling should be treated similarly, and the best example I can give in practice is the Gumshoe system and its treatment of investigation. In an investigation adventure arc, the discovery of the clues to move the plot forward is essential and integral to the success of the story (unless the investigation is a side-story which will turn up again whether or not the characters are successful). Therefore, the characters must succeed at discovering the crucial facts, though it’s just fine if they don’t discover all of the available clues.

If you predicate the discovery of clues on successful dice rolls placing difficulty as the first concern, you get a realistic approach to be sure–but plenty of mysteries are never solved, and that’s just not interesting in a roleplaying game when the mystery serves as the main plot! So, as Gumshoe suggests, don’t roll the dice–just give the players the core clues in ways that match the particular characters’ skills and backgrounds. Sure, you can let them roll (or, as in Gumshoe, let them spend character resources) to gather additional helpful but non-essential clues, but we don’t want to hide the narrative ball (as it were) or put our foot on it to stop it altogether.

This goes well beyond investigation, though, and applies to all types of actions and scenes. Do the characters need to scale that castle wall–no matter how difficult–for the next central plot point to occur? Then success cannot be predicated on a roll of the dice, and the GM shouldn’t put himself in the situation where s/he must fudge the roll or the story hits an impasse.

There are plenty of narrative ways to keep these challenges interesting to the players (and GM), and we can return to the montage for one example. In our scaling the castle wall, maybe the characters need some manner of assistance to do it, so it’s not about a roll of the dice but the proper preparation. This may be as simple as having the players come up with a feasible strategy and concomitant preparation and having that influence the description of the ascent. The obstacle could simply require the expenditure of some character resource (to represent the difficulty) without being predicated on a dice roll. Or, you could make them do the legwork of the preparation as dedicated scenes in the adventure (if interesting), and have these subtasks involve dice-rolling, so long as the last feasible strategy available to the characters automatically succeeds (otherwise you’ve just move the same problem to a different location in the narrative).

Whether in the GM’s section of an RPG book, or in the growing number of books about the craft of GMing, it’s an axiom that a good GM will give each character (and therefore player) a chance to “shine” and take center-stage in the narrative for a bit of awesomeness. If there’s a challenging task in the characters’ way that must be successfully resolved, consider dictating that one of your player characters is able to accomplish it readily because of particular skills, backgrounds, or other character traits that make the character especially suited to success.

You could also use the “failure at a cost” principle on rolls that must succeed to drive the story forward. Rolling the dice isn’t about the success of the roll, but about the severity of the cost of that success. See the Powered by the Apocalypse games for an example of this principle writ mechanically. Like Gumshoe, though, the principle can be applied to any roleplaying game whether or not codified in the mechanics.

My key concern in this rant (which is already longer than I’d originally intended) is to decide when to roll the dice based on when doing so pushes the players toward the edge of their seats, not the objective/realistic difficulty of a task at hand. Choosing when to roll the dice is like zooming in the camera–you’re telling the players, “here’s where the story gets interesting.” Always make good on that promise!

There’s a corollary to that–always have a back-up plan when you roll the dice. If you’ve asked your players to roll, there ought to be an interesting result no matter how the dice fall. If there’s not, consider avoiding the roll altogether and simply dictating the interesting result.

At this point, if you’re working out in your head some criticism about player agency, let me address you specifically (I’m tempted to put a random name here in hopes of blowing the mind of some fortuitous reader, but I’ll not). Player agency is not an absolute in a roleplaying game (just as it’s not in real life); it ebbs and flows and is often a “negotiation” between player and GM. Sometimes the characters have more ability (and therefore agency) to freely respond to a situation than others. And the dice are not the only mechanism of player agency–far from it. On top of those points, most players intuitively understand the idea that their character’s agency changes from scene to scene and will accept that without complaint. Problems arise when (the lack of) player agency gets pushed beyond the breaking point and players feel “railroaded” or as (unwilling) participants in a story told solely by the GM. There is a great distance between dictating the occasional outcome without resort to the dice and reaching this point. If you’re basing dice rolls on drama anyway, you’re going to blow past the dictated results to focus on the times when the players have the greatest amount of agency in the story (and thus drama is at its peak). That’s the whole point.

I’m going back to my reread of the Beginner’s Box to hopefully get my pre-review up this morning as well. Rant over.