The Shadowrun world is cross-genre, incorporating elements of both cyberpunk and urban fantasy. The game is set approximately 60 years in the future of present-day Earth, and includes an account of important events from now until the time of the game. As in many near-future cyberpunk settings, Shadowrun includes advanced computer technology and sophisticated cybernetic implants. Unlike in a purely cyberpunk game, in the Shadowrun world, magic returns in 2011. Among other things, this causes some humankind to split into subtypes, and some people take the form of elves, dwarves, orks or trolls. Likewise, some animals turn into the familiar monsters of fantasy, and both monsters and human magicians gain supernatural powers. By the second half of the 21st century, when the game is set, these events are accepted as commonplace.
To create a character for Shadowrun, the player selects whether the character will be human or one of the human subtypes, and makes choices regarding body augmentation (cyberware), magic abilities, skills and gear. During play the players roll 6-sided dice to decide the outcome of their efforts, be it talking their way past a security guard, hacking their way into a corporate network or shooting their way out of a gang war. Upon completion of an adventure the GM awards points, called Karma, that allow the character to improve their attributes or abilities.
The Shadowrun role-playing game has spawned a Shadowrun collectible card game, a Shadowrun action figure game, four video games, two magazines, an art book and more than 75 novels. In addition to the main rule book (now in its fourth edition) there have been over 100 supplemental books published with adventures and expansions to both the rules and the game setting.
The Shadowrun role-playing game, various expansions, and a Shadowrun collectible card game have won Origins Awards. The fourth edition also won the prestigious independent Ennie Awards for Best Rules as well as for Best Product in 2006.
Shadowrun's fourth and current edition was released at GenCon in August, 2005, and brought significant changes to the game's system and setting. The new system caused some controversy among fans, although third-party reviews were positive. FanPro USA had some problems with their production schedule and the game was out of print from December 2006 to April 2007. In April it was announced that production and development of the game was changing hands to the aforementioned Catalyst Games, and publishing of the core game and new supplements has resumed.
Two of the metahuman races have fictional languages. Many elves speak Sperethiel which some of them, being immortal, remember from the last age of magic. Some orks speak Or'zet, which was forgotten until the will of an assassinated dragon released the Or’zet Codex to the public.
Additionally, a virus known as Human Meta-Human Vampiric Virus (HMHVV), with many variant strains, has been known to cause further change, frequently resulting in fierce abominations that are no longer human and sometimes no longer even sentient—bandersnatches, banshees, dzoo-noo-quas, goblins, ghouls, nosferatus, vampires, Wendigos, wild Fomorians, and other creatures, depending on the victim's original race.
The emergence of magic, the outbreak of the VITAS plagues (Virally Induced Toxic Allergy Syndrome), the Computer Crash of 2029 (caused by a complex and nearly unstoppable computer virus called "The Crash Entity"), the Euro-Wars, in which the western-European countries once fought off an invasion from neo-communist Russia and then a pan-Islamic invasion like that of 800 years ago, and the fevers for independence of Amerindian tribes, Chinese provinces, etc. left the world's governments tumbling and falling. With the fall of the existing political structures, mega-corporations emerged as the new superpowers.
In Shadowrun, corporations are effectively "ranked" by the amount of assets under their control, including material, personnel, and property, as well as profit. These ranks are A, AA, and AAA; AAA corporations are top tier. Most corporations in the AA and AAA level are immune to domestic law, responsible only to themselves, and regulated only by the Corporate Court, an assembly of the ten AAA-rated corporations.
All AAA-rated and most AA-rated corporations exhibit a privilege known as “extraterritoriality”, meaning that any land owned by the corp is sovereign territory only to the corp and immune to any laws of the country within. Corporate territory is not foreign soil but corporate soil, just like its employees are corporate citizens, though dual citizenship in a corporation and a nation is common.
The AAA corps, as well as numerous minor corporations, fight each other not only in the boardroom or during high-level business negotiations but also with physical destruction, clandestine operations, hostile extraction or elimination of vital personnel, and other means of sabotage. Because no corporation wants to be held liable for damages, it has to be done by deniable assets, or shadowrunners, invisible to the system where every citizen is tagged with a System Identification Number (SIN).
Shadowrunners fall outside the structured corporate world. Many are outcasts, having risen from the streets or fallen from corporate or government ranks. Their ranks include idealists and pragmatists, professionals and amateurs, disillusioned ex-corp/government/military personnel who have thrown off the shackles of corp society to achieve freedom and those who have never known any life outside the shadows. The one thing they have in common is that through necessity or by choice, they work in the shadows cast by the gigantic corporate buildings. Players of Shadowrun most commonly assume the role of these shadowrunners.
Shadowrunners are likely to have frequent contact with one non-AAA corporation, Lone Star Security Services. Lone Star is a corporation that has taken over majority of law enforcement services in the UCAS. Lone Star tends to avoid unprofitably dangerous areas such as the Seattle barrens (Puyallup and Redmond).
Dunkelzahn first appeared on 12 January 2012 (having been in hibernation during the magical downcycle pre-2011) at Cherry Creek Lake, Denver in the United Canadian and American States (UCAS). At this time he gave a 12-hour interview to reporter Holly Brighton.
Dunkelzahn became fascinated with the media and hosted the occasional talkshow Wyrm Talk for many years (often on whatever subject interested him at the time). As draconic communication is telepathic, and this is not receivable by technology in the Shadowrun universe, he used a translator (or 'voice') who would repeat his words to the camera.
In 2056 he became a citizen of UCAS and in 2057 he ran for the Presidency as an Independent. In an unexpected victory Dunkelzahn became the first non-human President of the UCAS. He was seemingly assassinated on 9 August 2057 — the night of his inauguration — by a magical attack on his limousine outside the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.. This resulted in an 'Astral Rift' at the site of his death; every mage who attempted to study it either died or was driven insane.
His last voice, an Eastern European elven woman named Nadja Daviar, was subsequently made Vice President of UCAS and CEO of a new corporation set up according to his will to administer his estate, the Draco Foundation.
Ghostwalker, another dragon strangely similar to Dunkelzahn, appeared several years after his death in 2061.
It would subsequently be revealed in the Dragon Heart Saga books that Dunkelzahn committed suicide in order to power a magical artifact called The Dragon Heart which would be used to keep humanity safe from a great enemy from another plane of existence.
The name "Dunkelzahn" is German for "Dark Tooth". It was, however, just the name he used in public in the 21st century. His draconic name (and/or title) was "Far Scholar". This was a private term and never used outside the company of other dragons. The character's nickname, both in the fictional worlds and out of it, was "The Big D". This was occasionally used as his username in fictional online discussions.
There is a major dragon in the RPG series Earthdawn—originally produced by the same publisher as Shadowrun—by the name of Mountainshadow. One of Mountainshadow's agents or alter-egos is called "Dark Tooth" (the English translation of the German "Dunkelzahn"), implying that Dunkelzahn and Mountainshadow are the same dragon at different points in history.
If this is true, then Dunkelzahn is the brother of Ghostwalker, the great dragon that emerged from the Dunkelzahn Rift during the Year of The Comet. According to Earthdawn lore, Mountainshadow and Icewing (aka Ghostwalker) were borne of 'All-Wings' last clutch before her destruction.
In Shadowrun 4th edition, the Matrix rules have changed, thanks to the setting's constant evolution and a drive to match real world technological developments. After the second Matrix crash in 2064, Matrix technology was moved away from the wired network and led into a wireless technology. This technology was originally proposed in the early 2060s by Transys Neuronet and Erika, now part of NeoNET.
The most noticeable difference between the Matrix in the 2070s and the earlier editions is that wireless technology has become completely ubiquitous. Communications and Matrix access is provided through wi-fi nodes placed throughout the infrastructure of just about every city on Earth, fulfilling a service similar to contemporary cell towers - but as these nodes are as numerous as telephone poles, only a tiny percentage of their range is necessary. The nodes of all electronic devices a person carries are connected in a similar manner, creating a Personal Area Network (PAN). People access their PAN with their Commlink, a combination personal computer/cell phone/PDA/wireless device available either as an implant or a head-mounted display. This access can be the total sensory immersion common to cyberpunk fiction, or a sensory enhancement by which the virtual features of one's physical surroundings can be perceived and manipulated. The Matrix of the 2070s is thus not only a virtual reality, but an augmented or mixed reality.
Cyberdecks are obsolete, so "deckers" have once again become "hackers". In turn, the otaku of previous versions (deckers who did not need decks to access the Matrix) have evolved into technomancers, gifted individuals who possess an innate connection to the Matrix that permits them to access the wireless network without hardware.
The use of the term 'Matrix' in the Shadowrun game to refer to an immersive virtual world predates its use in the popular feature film The Matrix. In Shadowrun, the Matrix is not just a simulation of reality but is also the global communications and information network that is the successor to the internet.
Hermetic magic is a "logical" approach to magic in which the magician studies theories of the nature of magic and how to harness it as an individual. It is one part chemistry, one part philosophy, one part mathematics, and yet none of them at the same time. Users of hermetic magic are called "mages".
Shamans are magicians who live in accordance with the natural world. Most of them feel especially bonded to a specific mentor spirit who they call a totem. It is this spirit that gives the shaman their magic, teaches them their spells, and gives their lives purpose. A shaman can fight against his/her totem, but in the end, it is fighting against oneself.
Most of these types of magic cause a phenomenon known as "Drain", mental or sometimes physical fatigue. The more powerful the magic, the more serious the drain. In extreme cases the drain may even be lethal.
The game is skill-based rather than class-based, but archetypes are presented in the main book to give players and gamemasters an idea of what is possible with the system.
Before the fourth edition, skill and ability checks worked like this: All actions in the game, from the use of skills to making attacks in combat, are first given a target number that reflects the difficulty of the action which is then raised or lowered by various modifying factors, such as environmental conditions, the condition of the character, the use of mechanical aids, and so forth. The character then rolls a number of dice equal to their level in the relevant skill, and the number of dice rolled that meet or exceed the target number determines if the character is successful performing the action and the degree of success the character has. As an example, a character with a high firearms skill not only has a better chance at hitting a target than someone with a lower ranked skill, but also is more likely to cause more damage to the target. Target numbers may exceed 6, in which case any dice that show a 6 have to be re-rolled (a target number of, e.g., 9 is reached by rolling a 6 followed by at least a 3; thus, a target number of 6 and one of 7 are identical). For even higher target numbers, this procedure has to be repeated; thus, an action with a target number of 20 (like attempting to procure military-grade weaponry) will only succeed if 3 successive dice rolls result in sixes, and the fourth gives at least a 2. This system allows great flexibility in setting the difficulty of an action.
In addition to this basic mechanic, players can use several task-specific dice pools to add bonus dice to certain tests, though dice that are used do not refresh until the end of a turn. This adds an extra tactical element, as the player must decide where best to spend these bonus dice. For example, combat pool dice could be spent to improve attacks or to improve defense, or some of each. Players also have Karma Pool that can be used to reroll any dice that failed to reach the target number. Karma Pool refreshes rarely, typically once per scene or less, at the GM's discretion. The combination of Karma Pool and dice pools gives players a considerable amount of freedom to decide how important a task is to their character. Two characters with identical statistics could perform very differently on the same tasks depending on their priorities (and thus, allocation of dice pools and Karma Pool).
However, the archetypes are not character classes: the player is allowed to cross boundaries. Restrictions are not imposed by the system itself, but by the player's specializations. Because character-building resources are limited, the player has to weigh which game resource he wants to specialize in and which he has to neglect. This allows high character customization while still ensuring that characters are viable in the setting.
The fourth edition of Shadowrun uses a point-based character creation system. Earlier editions used a priority-based system with point-based character creation as an advanced option. Priorities are divided into race, magic, attributes, skills, and resources. All things that do not explicitly fall under the first four classifications, including contacts in third and earlier editions of Shadowrun, are given cash-equivalent values to be bought with resources.
Shadowrun characters are created with contacts, friends and acquaintances who serve as key nodes in the character's social network and who will often help the character out. Through the contacts system, players may uncover information that their characters cannot independently acquire. Additionally, players can often negotiate for the use of skills that their characters do not themselves have, a radical departure from most role-playing games.
In fourth edition, Karma Pool is replaced by a new attribute called Edge which can be used in most of the same ways as the third edition Karma Pool. Experience and character advancement is still tracked with Karma, although Good was dropped from the name as it no longer needs to be distinguished from the old Karma Pool.
Out of the original six attributes (Body, Quickness, Strength, Charisma, Intelligence, and Willpower), Quickness was split into Agility and Reaction, while Intelligence was broken into Intuition and Logic. A new attribute called Edge was introduced to replace Karma Pool. Instead of starting from a base, characters buy their Magic attribute like a normal attribute. The statistic originally called Reaction has had some of its functions taken over by the new attribute by the same name.
The initiative system was modified to affect only the order of actions, not the number of initiative passes. The number of initiative passes taken by a character is now determined solely by external influences, like implants, magic, and drugs. It is no longer possible for an unmodified character who is not under the influence of magic or drugs to have more than a single initiative pass, except through the use of Edge.
Several of the archetypes were modified. Deckers were merged with riggers and renamed hackers. Many distinctions between shamanic and hermetic magicians were removed, and the magic system was designed to allow many other variant traditions. Otaku - individuals who have the same roles and abilities as deckers, except without needing any cyber augmentation or technology - were renamed Technomancers.
Skills were changed from the target number system to a "hits" system. The target number is fixed at 5, and to complete a skill test, a player takes a number of six-sided dice equal to the skill and its linked Attribute, and rolls them, counting the number of dice that show 5 or 6 as "hits". The number of hits is compared to a pre-determined amount (or Threshold) set by the GM for the roll. If the number of hits equals or exceeds the threshold, the roll is a success. This mechanic, not coincidentally, happens to very closely match the new World of Darkness system. In addition, dice pools were removed, eliminating most of the tactical allocation of dice during combat, spellcasting, hacking, and other activities. These changes were intended to speed up the resolution of skill tests and combat.
The "Rule of One" of previous editions has been changed. A "glitch" is when at least half of the rolled dice come up 1s. A glitch results in a minor inconvenience or setback for the player, though it does not necessarily mean failure as long as enough hits were still scored. However, if a person rolls a glitch while scoring no hits at all, it is considered a "critical glitch", and is substantially more serious or potentially even fatal.
Rules for combat, magic, hacking, and other activities were changed to accommodate the new skill system. The modified rules are typically similar in outline, but the details are necessarily different.
Since the rules in the Fourth Edition are mechanically dissimilar to those in earlier editions, balance issues differ between editions. Characters from previous editions do not easily convert to the new edition with their strengths and weaknesses intact. There were a few changes to the fictional setting in the Fourth Edition. The main premises remained unchanged while the timeline advanced by five years. The largest change in setting was the addition of a global wireless matrix that allows people to have augmented reality displays: visual overlays on real-world scenes. This encourages hackers and technomancers to join their teammates physically rather than provide matrix backup from a remote location, a change designed to make coordinating and integrating online and real-world actions easier for the GM.
There were also other changes to Shadowrun society at large, as illustrated in the flavor text. For example, up to this point, cursing had been illustrated with a variety of colorful made-up words, such as "drek", "frag", and "slot". FanPro eschewed these in SR4 (to some player complaint, as many fans believed this added social color to the game) and decided to use their contemporary, real-world counterparts.
In December 2005 Robert Boyd from Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland robbed a lingerie shop at knifepoint in Belfast while wearing a blonde ladies wig. During his trial Boyd stated he was playing Shadowrun, specifically the role of criminal elf Buho, at the time and may have "blurred reality and fantasy". Two jurors believed his story, but ten did not and he was convicted of robbery in March 2007.
In 2005, WizKids began publishing new Shadowrun novels, again through the Roc imprint of the New American Library. Six novels were released in the new series.
In 2008, Catalyst Game Labs (An InMediaRes Productions, LLC company) announces the return of novels for Classic BattleTech, MechWarrior, and Shadowrun. The announcement states that the first of the all-new Shadowrun novels will appear tentatively by early 2009.
Several additional novels were published in foreign languages only. More than 30 novels have been written in German, by German and Austrian authors published by Heyne (since 1991) and FanPro (since 1997).
The fourth and latest game released is a first-person shooter for the Xbox 360 and Windows Vista and is titled Shadowrun. It was developed by FASA Interactive, owned by the Microsoft Corporation, which is also producing the title. This latest title is the very first game that allows cross-platform play between Xbox 360 and Windows Vista users on the Live for Windows service. Despite sharing the same name as the RPG, the video game has sizable differences from it; as the publishers of the Shadowrun role-playing game stated at the time of the video game's release, "Microsoft rewrote the timeline and setting for this game, so it is not in continuity with the tabletop RPG. It may be more accurately described as a game loosely based on Shadowrun."
In September 2007 Microsoft closed FASA Studios (and the FPS official forum), and licensed the Shadowrun electronic entertainment rights to Smith & Tinker, a company owned by Jordan Weisman, an original creator of Shadowrun. Details at Smith & Tinker's website hint at the development of a MMO.