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The Shadowrun Primer

This primer is not intended to replace or supplement the books of Shadowrun. Instead, it's intended to help explain and clarify some points for new players who may have difficulty figuring out the information in the books. It's intended to help our new players gain an understanding of the Shadowrun rules more quickly and ease them into playing this great game.

All players are strongly encouraged to purchase at least Shadowrun, 3rd Edition from Wizkids, LLC, as soon as possible. See the section on our Getting Started page.

Because we want to see people buying the books, the information below is by no means complete. The sourcebooks always have the most authoritative rules, and they are a good investment for any Shadowrun player. Plus, they help support the good people at Wizkids who have created this game that we all enjoy.

There will be no real reference below as to how to accomplish character generation, or how these stats are derived. The code and help files within the game provide enough information to do most of the math for you. Also, these rules are written according to the house rules of Shadowrun Denver and may vary from the official rules of Shadowrun.

Part 1: Dice and Stats


How do Dice Work in Shadowrun?

Shadowrun uses nothing but normal six-sided dice for all rolls. In general, when you roll a die, you take the number that shows up for that die's result. However, if you roll a six, you get to reroll and add the result. You get to keep doing this if you re-roll another six.

Let's say you have five dice. You roll them and get:

1   3   5   6   6

You may then reroll the two sixes. They come up a 3 and a 6:

1   3   5   3   6

However, you get to add the previous six that you rolled. So the totals are:

1   3   5   9   12

Next, since that last die rolled a second six, you get to reroll it. It comes up a 4:

1   3   5   9   4

Since you get to keep adding, you add the previous 12 to it, and wind up with:

1   3   5   9   16


How do you Make Tests?

Almost all die rolls are part of a test: you are, in other words, attempting to succeed at some task. In a typical test, you are rolling one of your stats in an attempt to perform some operation. You might be rolling your Pistols skill in an attempt to shoot someone, or rolling your Sorcery skill to cast a spell. Or rolling your Quickness attribute to try to avoid falling off that ledge.

When making a test, there are three basic variables:

  • What kind of test is it? The three types are Open, Targeted, and Contested.
  • How many dice are you rolling? Usually, you will be rolling a base attribute or skill, but dice can be added from pools or from other augmentations. For example, when making certain kinds of Body tests, trolls receive an additional die to use for resisting damage.
  • What is your target number? For targeted tests, there is a base target number; for open tests, there isn't. Nonetheless, you may still experience target number modifiers. For open tests, these raise or lower your highest roll; for targeted tests, they lower or raise your target number. Target number modifiers are very important in Shadowrun -- in many cases, they have more to do with how successful you will be than your number of dice. For example, a piece of cyberware called the Smartlink-II subtracts two from all your target numbers when shooting somebody.

There are three basic types of tests.

  • Open Tests. This is the simplest kind of test. Essentially, you roll your number of dice, with no specified target number. You're just trying to roll as high as you can. The highest result of any one die is the result of your roll. You then subtract out any target number penalties. Let's say you're rolling five dice on a Intelligence test for perception, to spot something. You have a +2 TN penalty from lack of light. You roll your five dice and get:

    2   4   5   8   11

    Good roll. Your highest result is that 11. However, you must subtract that TN penalty of 2 from it, meaning your effective roll is a 9.

  • Targeted Tests. This is the most common type of test. You will have a target number that indicates the difficulty of your task. You roll your number of dice; each die whose roll is greater than or equal to your target number is considered a success; each die whose roll is less than or equal to your target number is a failure. A roll of 1 is always considered a failure. Target number modifiers add to or subtract from your target number. Let's say your base target number is a four, but you have wound penalties of +2. Your target number is now, effectively, a 6. You have 10 dice to roll for this test.

    1   1   2   3   4   4   5   8   10   11

    Since the 8, the 10, and the 11 are all above the target number of 6, then this roll scored three successes.

  • Opposed Tests. During a contest, both you and your opponent will make a roll. The target number for the roll will usually be based on a stat of your opponent. The person with the most successes will win. For example, to decide the price for a piece of gear, you make a Negotiation test versus a target number of your fixer's Intelligence. Your fixer rolls his Negotiation against a target number equal to your Intelligence. If you get more successes, the price is lowered by five percent for each success. If your fixer gets more successes, the price is raised by five percent for each success.

A roll of all ones on a test is considered a botch. It's generally a bad thing to have happen.


What are Dice Pools?

Shadowrun has a whole series of dice pools available. Most of these are derived from other stats on the game. You can't buy dice pools, or increase them directly with karma. You can only increase the stats to which they are linked, or in some cases purchase Cyberware in order to increase them.

A dice pool is basically a reserve of dice. You can use these dice to add to any roll of the appropriate type for that pool, effectively 'spending' the dice. Once spent, they are gone until that pool refreshes (typically at the start of each combat turn). Karma pool is a special case, and is discussed in the next section.

As a general rule, you may not spend more dice from a given pool than you have of the basic skill. For example, if your Pistols skill is 3, then you may use at most three dice from your combat pool, regardless of how many you have left at that point. Using those 3 dice would give you a total of 6 dice to roll for the test. Once spent, those three dice are gone until the start of the next combat turn.

The following is a listing of pools, and a brief description of what they can be used for. As a general rule, you cannot use dice from more than one pool on a single roll (Except Karma Pool, discussed later).

  • Combat Pool: Used to add to attack rolls (melee, unarmed and ranged); dodging; and resisting damage from ranged, melee, and unarmed attacks.
  • Task Pool: Used to add dice to certain intelligence-related operations, such as build/repair tasks. Given only by certain pieces of cyberware.
  • Control Pool: Used by Riggers only. Control Pool can be added to driving tests, dodge tests used while rigging, and other activities involving use of vehicles.
  • Hacking Pool: Used by Deckers when performing matrix operations and hacking into things.
  • Spell Pool: Also called 'Sorcery Pool'. Usable by mages when casting spells and resisting drain from spells. Also used during spell defense.
  • Astral Pool: Only available to initiated mages while astrally projecting. You can't start the game with an initiated character. It can only be done after you accumulate karma and experience.


What is Karma Pool? What's it used for?

Karma Pool is a somewhat special case. In Shadowrun terms, Karma is equivalent to the concept of 'Experience Points' in other game systems. On Shadowrun: Denver, you get it for good roleplaying, running plots, participating in plots, or other miscellaneous things the admins wish to reward. You can spend your karma points to raise attributes and skills, learn spells (if awakened), and many other useful things.

Your karma stat has two values. The first represents the number of unspent points of karma your character has. As you earn points, this stat goes up. As you spend them, it goes down. The second value represents the total number of karma points you have earned since being created (your "total karma"). This stat goes up, but never down.

Permanent Karma pool is earned automatically as you accumulate total karma. For humans, permanent karma pool is earned at a rate of one permanent karma pool point per ten points of total karma you earn. For metahumans, it's earned at the rate of one permanent karma pool point per fifteen points of total karma you earn. This rate continues until you have a total of eleven points of karma pool. After that point, the number of total karma it takes to earn another karma pool point doubles to 20 for humans, 30 for metahumans. These rules are different from the standard Shadowrun rules.

As its name implies, permanent karma pool, once earned, is not usually spent. When you normally spend karma pool points, you are spending them from the temporary pool. This pool refreshes at the end of a scene, defined as whenever the characters have time to catch their breath, the end of a mission or run, or basically when the GM says so.

Karma pool is the only pool that does not refresh each combat turn. When a pool refreshes, it means that all points are considered unspent once again, and the temporary pool is back equal to the permanent pool.

Karma pool can be used for the following:

  • You may spend a point of karma pool to reroll all failures from your previous targeted or opposed test. In other words, if your target number is 4 and you roll 6 dice and get:

    1   2   3   4   5   8

    You may spend a point of karma pool and reroll the 1, the 2, and the 3. Any successes you get on the reroll add to your total number of successes.

    You may do this as many times as you wish. However, the second reroll costs 2 more karma pool points. The third reroll costs 3 more karma pool points. To roll a total of four times, for example, costs a total of 6 karma pool points.

  • You may spend a point of karma pool to reroll all dice from an open test. In choosing to do so, however, your highest die result from the first roll is lost. As above, the first reroll costs 1 point. The second reroll costs 2 points. The third reroll costs 3 points, and so forth. To roll a total of four times costs a total of 6 karma pool points. This rule is different from the standard Shadowrun rules.
  • You may spend karma pool points for extra dice on any single test, at one point of karma pool per additional die. Each additional die may be rolled and, potentially, rerolled with the others by the expendature of the appropriate amount of karma pool above. You may 'buy' a number of extra dice in this manner equal to your base skill or attribute only. This rule varies from the standard Shadowrun rules.
  • If you roll a botch, you may immediately spend a single temporary karma pool point to avoid the botch. You may not, however, use karma pool to reroll dice from the botched test.

In certain rare circumstances, you may actually wish to spend permanent karma pool points. This is very seldom done except in life-or-death situations, because karma pool points spent in this manner can only be regained by earning more karma. However, the following options are available:

  • You may purchase additional successes on a roll by burning one permanent karma pool point per success. Karma pool points spent in this manner are gone forever. You must roll at least one success naturally before performing this.
  • The Hooper-Nelson Rule: You may spend permanent karma pool dice in order to lower the target number of an action. Each karma pool die burned permanently in this manner reduces the target number of the test by one. This must be declared before the roll is made. Karma pool points spent in this manner are gone forever.
  • Hand of God. In some situations, your character may choose to spend all of his/her karma pool dice to receive the 'Hand of God'. In other words, even though your character would have died, instead he/she miraculously survives through nothing more than game-master fiat. Characters may perform this action only once during their lifetime, and the gamemaster is by no means obligated to allow it.


Combat Turns, Initiative, and Initiative Passes

In Shadowrun, combat time is broken down into a series of combat turns or rounds. Each combat turn is three seconds in length. During this time, each character involved in the combat will get to act at least once, under normal circumstances.

Your initiative roll determines when you go, and how many times you get to go, during the round. The round is broken up into initiative passes. Initiative passes have no fixed quantity of time; instead, they're a stat-based abstraction.

Each time your turn comes up during the combat turn, you will receive a full action. A full action consists of one free action plus either two simple actions or one complex action.

The flow of actions in the combat turn is simple. First, you roll initiative. In most cases, this can be done with the '+init' command. Look at your sheet, in the Attributes section. Under Initiative, it will show a format like "4+1D6" or "11+4D6". To roll initiative, you will roll the number of dice indicated, then add the number at the beginning. So in the first case, if you roll a 6 on your one die, then your initiative for that combat turn is 10. In the second case, if you roll 1~3~5~6 for your dice, your total initiative score will be 26. Unlike other rolls, sixes rolled on your initiative roll do not get re-rolled and added.

At the beginning of the combat turn, each character rolls initiative. During the first initiative pass, everyone gets to go, in order of decreasing initiative. The highest initiative roll goes first, followed by the next highest, and so forth. During the second pass, all characters with initiatives above 10 (non-inclusive) get to go, again with the highest first, the lowest last. In the tird pass, all with initiatives higher than 20 get to go. And so forth.

The following tables should help clarify. Suppose the characters involved in a scene roll the following initiative scores:

John 25
Jill 13
Buttcracker 32
Goon #1 16
Goon #2 10
Mageboy 8

In this example, the full actions would be awarded in the following sequence:

First Initiative Pass
Buttcracker 32
John 25
Goon #1 16
Jill 13
Goon #2 10
Mageboy 8
Second Initiative Pass
Buttcracker 32
John 25
Goon #1 16
Jill 13
Third Initiative Pass
Buttcracker 32
John 25
Fourth Initiative Pass
Buttcracker 32

In the above table, Buttcracker gets to go four times because his initiative is above 30. Mageboy and Goon #2 only get to go once, because their initiatives are 10 or below. Once all initiative passes have been completed, a new combat turn begins.

Your initiative result is also modified by wound penalties. It is, in fact, possible to end up with a negative result for your initiative score after subtracting out wound penalties. If that's the case, you don't get to go at all that round.


Damage and Wound Penalties

Every character in Shadowrun can handle exactly ten points of damage of a given type. No more, no less. No matter how badass you are, you have only ten effective 'hit points' of damage you can take.

There are two types of damage in Shadowrun: stun damage and physical damage. Stun damage is recovered fairly quickly; time and rest will cause you to recover it without too much difficulty. Physical damage must be healed, either naturally (over the course of a long period of time), with medical attention (which still takes a while), or through the use of magic. Stun damage typically results from some drugs, dump shock for riggers and deckers, some spells, damage from some weapons, or damage from fists and hand-to-hand combat. Just about everything else is physical.

The damage system in Shadowrun is somewhat abstracted. Wounds are classified into only four levels, each of which corresponds to a certain number of boxes of damage.

TypeDamageWound Penalty
L Light Wound1 box+1
M Moderate Wound3 boxes+2
S Serious Wound6 boxes+3
D Deadly Wound10 boxes+4

The wound type determines the amount of damage it represents. If you take an L wound, followed by an S wound, you have a total of 7 boxes of damage on your sheet. If you take two M wounds, then you have 6 boxes of damage -- the equivalent of an S wound.

Each character has two 'tracks' for keeping track of damage. Stun damage is tracked separately from physical. If you take an S stun wound and an S physical wound, then those do not add together. Instead, they are tracked separately; you have, in effect, two different wounds. If both of them were physical, or both were stun, on the other hand, you would be unconscious or dying, depending on the type.

The only crossover between the tracks occurs if the stun track overflows into the physical track. For example, assume you took two S stun wounds. That would be twelve boxes of stun. Since this is enough to fill your stun track, you will go unconscious. In addition, the extra two points will overflow and result in physical damage. Stun damage can kill if the target is already badly wounded.

If you reach a total of 10 boxes of damage in your physical track, you are unconscious and bleeding. Without medical attention, you will die. A character does not instantly die, however, until filling the physical track and taking an additional number of boxes of damage greater than or equal to his/her Body attribute.

In the table above, there is a column labelled Wound Penalty. If you have sustained a number of boxes of damage in a given track equal to the damage for that level, then you will be subject to the corresponding wound penalty. For example, if you have taken 6 boxes or more of damage, whether those came from two M wounds or one S wound, then you will be subject to a wound penalty of +3. If you have only taken one box of damage, then your wound penalty will be +1.

Wound penalties from the stun and physical tracks are cumulative with one another. If you have taken 5 boxes of stun damage, and 7 boxes of physical damage, then your total wound penalty will be +2 plus +3, or +5.

Wound penalties apply to every roll you make, with the exception of damage resistance rolls (not counting spell resistance rolls). Even your initiative result will be reduced by the amount of your wound penalty. A wound penalty acts to increase the target number of your roll. So if you have wound penalty of +5, then a test that would normally occur versus target number 4 is now made against target number 9.


Staging Damage

Whenever one character attacks another, the intent is, of course, to do damage of one form or another, stun or physical. The amount of damage that is done is a function of various factors.

First, every weapon, spell, or attack form that can do damage has a damage code. The damage code consists of a number followed by one of the damage levels (L, M, S, or , D. For example, most heavy pistols have a damage code of , 9M, while a narcoject dart has a damage code of 6D. This is called the 'base damage' of the attack.

As a general rule, the character making the attack will make some kind of roll. For shooting someone, it will be a Pistols test. For casting a spell, a Sorcery test. For blowing something up, a Demolitions test. In each case, the attacking character must gain at least one success on the roll, or the attack fails.

Once the attack is made, the attacker has an opportunity to resist the damage. In some cases, it is handled with a dodge test, followed by a damage resistance test. In other cases, the character must resist the effects of a spell or suffer the damage. In other cases, the damage resistance test is the only recourse open to a character. The base target number for the damage resistance test is the power of the attack -- the number in front of the letter.

In almost all cases, these resistance tests subtract from the number of successes that the attacker achieved on the initial roll. The attacker's successes on the roll are subtracted from the defender's successes in resisting the damage. The result of this subtraction yield the number of net successes on the attack.

In general, the number of net successes is used to scale or stage how much damage is actually inflicted. Every two net successes in the attacker's favor stages the damage up one level (from L to M, from S to D, etc). Every two net successes in the defender's favor stage the damage down one level (from D to S, from M to L, from L to nothing.

Your successes when making an attack stage the damage up, making it more powerful. Your successes when resisting damage stage the damage down, making it less powerful. It takes 4 net successes to fully resist M damage, but 8 net successes to fully resist D damage.

Let's take an example. Johnny Sammie decides he wants to shoot Bob. Because it's close range, with no other mitigating factors, Johnny's target number for the attack is only a 2. He rolls 5 dice for his Pistols skill, plus another 5 dice from his Combat Pool. He scores a total of 8 successes. Ouch.

Bob can spend some of his combat pool to dodge, but he chooses not to. He's got lots of armor. Six points of it, in fact. Ballistic armor subtracts its rating from the power of the attack, so that 9M becomes only 3M. Nonetheless, Bob has his work cut out for him. In order to take no damage at all, he must negate Johnnie's 8 successes, plus get 4 more successes to stage the M damage of the weapon down to nothing: a total of 12 successes. Tough order.

Bob has a Body attribute of 4, and he chooses to spend all of his combat pool in this attempt to soak damage. He rolls a total of 16 dice, but gets only 11 successes. Bob's 11 successes are subtracted from Johnny's 8 successes, giving a net total of 3 successes in Bob's favor. That stages the damage from the pistol of M down one level, to L. Bob takes only one box of physical damage, which now gives him a +1 penalty to all die rolls he makes from this point forward.

This page Copyright ©2001 by Joel E. Ricketts and Craig G. Rickel. All Rights Reserved. Some information and content Copyright ©1999 by FASA Corporation and/or Wizkids, LLC, and its use or reference here is not intended as any sort of challenge to those Copyrights. Shadowrun is a Registered Trademark of FASA Corporation.