The tabletop RPG community is full of players who were brought up learning the classic d20 system. Popularized by Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, this system was adopted by many new tabletop RPGs, as Wizards of the Coast released the d20 rule-set for fair use under the open gaming license. However, there are a handful of games that predate this rule-set, but also greatly benefit from a unique system all their own. One such game is Shadowrun. Created in 1989, Shadowrun was the first time many had heard the term; Science Fantasy. Combining cyberpunk, magic, and crime heists, one can see the influence Shadowrun has had on the tabletop community in games such as, Spell Jammers or Starfinder. The setting is objectively cool, and the art continues to inspire new stories in this future setting, but what is it about the rule-set that enables such play that the d20 system couldn’t?
In the world of Shadowrun, your character will have a number of specialties. From hacking to spell-casting, you will be asked to make a skill check to determine your success or failure. This is where Shadowrun takes a different path in terms of design, as the game works off a d6 system referred to as the Dice Pool. The player will roll a number of d6 equal to their Skill Rank + Stat Rank. Any dice that come up a 5 or 6 will be counted as Hits. The GM will set a threshold (DC for D&D players), and the player will need to roll a number of hits equal to or greater than the threshold set. So, at its core, you are simply using a number of d6 rather than a single d20. This doesn’t sound dramatically different, right? Well, the difference, and why I think it works well for Shadowrun, comes from the ability characters have to specialize in a given skill. We all know the d20 can cover a large range, and a fighter swinging his sword with a +5 can end with a result of anything from 6-25. This variance causes even the most experienced adventure to miss or fail checks routinely. A numerical discrepancy such as this wouldn’t feel natural in a world where hackers specialize in their trade, however due to a poor roll, fail to complete the simplest of tasks. Shadowrun instead rewards the specialist by utilizing the dice pool system. Let’s look at an example:
The hacker is trying to gain access to a terminal. The GM determines that this terminal has rather low security protocols, causing the threshold to be average (2). The hacker then looks at his skills and finds he has a Skill Rank (Int) of 5 and a Stat Rank (Hacking) of 4 = 9d6. The hacker rolls the 9d6, but only needs two hits.
In addition to this example, the player can also Buy Hits. For every 4 dice in the player’s dice pool, they are able to buy 1 hit. In our example, the hacker doesn’t even need to roll, because with 9 dice he/she can simply buy the 2 hits needed to complete the skill check. What I enjoy about this mechanic is the feeling that your character is a true expert in their given role. Our hacker is so skilled, they won’t be truly tested until presented with a Hard or Extreme challenge. In turn, this means there is little chance of a completely untrained party member passing a check that the specialist couldn’t complete. The dice pool system still keeps the randomness factor found in all tabletop RPGs, and by no means are all checks guaranteed. Shadowrun simply takes the excitement of rolling dice to determine the outcome, while still recognizing the experience and specialization of the character. Also, I’m not going to lie, it feels really damn good to roll a ton of d6s!
Shadowrun is a classic tabletop RPG that I hope more players check out. So, if you want more content covering Shadowrun or other RPGs on the website, drop comment and let us know!