Catalyst Labs released Shadowrun: Anarchy this past week, and naturally I picked up a nice PDF copy. I then printed out that copy and stuck it in a binder. And then I read it. And let me tell you, I liked what I saw. Shadowrun is notorious at this point for having an overly complex system of dice pools, character creation, and in fifth edition, matrix and astral plane actions in addition to everything that happens on the physical plane. Trapped in a musty cellar? You can alter players’ dice pools on the conditions. Need to hack into some club’s server for a mission? Get out your dice. It’s no surprise that most GMs, myself included, offload some of these things to their players. You wanna register this sprite? Do your tests. Be honest if you glitched.
Shadowrun: Anarchy (or just Anarchy from here on out) seeks to correct some of these things. Most notably, it emphasizes the fact that it’s a collaborative storytelling effort. The GM is there to guide the story along with the help of the players, not so much create a world that players inhabit. From the get-go I can see Anarchy being great for one-off campaigns where people don’t have a lot of time to sit down and plan a run.
That being said, Anarchy gives players and GMs a lot to work with when it comes to character resources. NPCs and player characters have a dedicated chapter which includes a smattering of 60 fully-realized, fully-playable characters in every species, race, gender, and archetype imaginable. It’s incredible how many are in the book. In addition, Anarchy gives GMs a variety of goons to throw at their players. These range from large rats to small dragons and everything in between.
Playing the Game
Anarchy’s character creation process is pretty straightforward. Characters pick their metatype, helps and hindrances, and character-defining cues. This is what’s new to Shadowrun in this version. As opposed to a dedicated GM running a sandbox that players get to experience, the GM acts as that one guy in an improv play that knows what they’re doing. In fact, most of Anarchy is like an improv play: there’s a lot more responsibility on the players to keep the story moving. Turns of gameplay are broken up into narrations, and players can expend plot points to make the story go where they want it to or keep their characters… you know, alive. Which is something I appreciate.
The cue system, as it’s called, gives players plot points to start out with and at the GM’s discretion, gives them more for exceptional narrations. Players do cool things, players get rewarded. Players have a say in the story. If they don’t like it, they can change it. It’s an engaging, fast-paced change from the typical tabletop model where decisions can come back to haunt players. In long-term campaigns, that still persists, though in shorter one-offs, it’s a lot more hands on.
Playing the game this past week went about as smoothly as I’d hoped. The premade characters helped out a lot. (GM Tip: Put character sheets in page sleeves so that players can use dry-erase markers on them. Pencils can tear paper and it keeps the sheets in pretty good condition.) The three players I had picked out characters with ease and we got down to running. We poked fun at the dad-joke cues that some of the characters had, and I led them on a run.
Quirks and Overall Adaptability
I think the hardest thing about running a game of Anarchy was letting go of a lot of the control you have as GM. As a fiction writer primarily, I have set places I want my stories to go and I spend a lot of time building the world they take place in. I’ve been worldbuilding for our upcoming Shadowrun show for weeks, and I still have a fair bit to go. I want things to be as realized and intricate to my players as they are to me. Anarchy takes a bit of that away because players can change things so easily. It’s not something I was really prepared for at first.
Another thing is some places in the book that haven’t exactly been proofread. Some paragraphs reference the alpha test version of Anarchy, which is pretty funny to look at now. Then again, every first-edition has its quirks.
There are other things that just come with the nature of Shadowrun. There are still a lot of rules, and some of them aren’t explained so well. I still have no idea how to orchestrate matrix or astral combat, let alone meatspace combat. Even though skills have been greatly simplified, it’ll take some getting used to.
Also: players get three plot points to start each game session. I mistakenly gave them none. (Sorry guys.) Other than the fact that getting used to a different version of pen and paper RPGs takes time, I didn’t see a problem with it. Catalyst Labs also included a guide on how to convert Shadowrun 5E to Anarchy and vice-versa. Which is incredible. The cues system really exists as something that can be removed, as well, so adapting it to a different setting wouldn’t be a stretch by any means.
While I enjoy the finer details of Shadowrun’s vanilla 5th edition, I find myself wanting to use Anarchy in more and more campaigns. It’s good news for my players, it offloads some of the nitty-gritty things that GMs go through, and it makes for a really nice experience overall. It’s interesting to see a pen-and-paper RPG styled more like a board game than anything else, and I like the direction Catalyst Labs went with Anarchy. To me, it’s a kind of party trick to keep in my back pocket. Anarchy makes it quick and easy to get a few friends together and run a session. It’s an incredible introduction to some of the conventions of tabletop RPGs, and Anarchy presents it in an easy-to-learn format. 10/10, Catalyst Labs. Well done.
Overall, I’m super in love with this release. Can you tell?