Shadowrun System Analysis: Part Two

In the last post I talked about the core resolution mechanics in Shadowrun Fifth Edition. At the end of that post I talked about three questions that are useful for designing games.

  1. What is your game about?
  2. How is your game about that?
  3. How does your game reward players for engaging the things your game is about?

When you are designing a game it helps to answer those questions in order. Each question leads into the next and together they focus your game's mechanisms to deliver on the specific experience that you want players to have. Those questions can be generalized and applied to the design of almost any system.

  1. What is this system intended to do?
  2. How does this system work to deliver that?
  3. How does the system incentivize users to engage in the system as intended?

Any system that a person can interact with is made up of intent, mechanisms, and incentives. A system's intent can also be interpreted as the goals or results of the system. Designers sometimes misrepresent a system's intent, or more often have a one-sided view of the results of that system.

We are going to figure out what Shadowrun is about by working backwards. We are going to examine Shadowrun's rewards and the mechanisms that players have to pursue them, and we are going to see what Shadowrun is about.


Rewards and incentives are perhaps the most interesting element of system design. The rewards that you offer players contextualize the mechanisms that they have been presented with. This interaction occurs in real world systems as well as game systems. Before we dig into Shadowrun I am going to talk about a couple of other game systems.


Adam Koebel's multi-award winning tabletop roleplaying game Dungeon World featuring Sage LaTorra on drums[1] is a game about going on adventuring with people you are at least loosely associated with, exploring the world, killing monsters, and collecting treasure. All of the moves Dungeon World provides are focused on enabling player characters to do those things. Dungeon World rewards players for this at the end of a session.

When you reach the end of a session, choose one your bonds that you feel is resolved (completely explored, no longer relevant, or otherwise). Ask the player of the character you have the bond with if they agree. If they do, mark XP and write a new bond with whomever you wish.

Once bonds have been updated look at your alignment. If you fulfilled that alignment at least once this session, mark XP. Then answer these three questions as a group:

  • Did we learn something new and important about the world?
  • Did we overcome a notable monster or enemy?
  • Did we loot a memorable treasure?

For each “yes” answer everyone marks XP.

At the end of every session of play, players have the opportunity to earn up to five experience. Each point of experience lines up with something that one of the game's designers has stated the game is about. A player also gets to mark experience when they fail a roll.

Each move will tell you what happens on a 10+ and a 7–9. Most moves won’t say what happens on a 6-, that’s up to The GM but you also always mark XP.

This point of experience lessens the blow of failure. When you make a move you either succeed, partially succeed, or fail and get experience. This encourages players take narratively exciting risks because there is always an incentive to act. When you engage in the Dungeon World's themes and mechanics your character gets better.


Blades in the Dark is a tabletop role-playing game about a crew of daring scoundrels seeking their fortunes on the haunted streets of an industrial-fantasy city. That line come directly the cover of the book and on the game's web page. Like Dungeon World, Blades in the Dark rewards players for engaging the game's themes.

Players are rewarded for making desperate (read: exciting) actions, for expressing their beliefs, heritage or background, and for struggling with their vices or traumas. The player's crew advances for contending with challenges above their station, bolstering their reputation, and expressing inner conflict or the essential nature of the crew. Each playbook and crew type has a personalized experience trigger to incentivize players towards specific things. Cutters, who are fighters and leaders, get experience for addressing problems with violence or coercion. Hawkers, crews of drug dealers and vice purveyors, get experience for procuring better product and for pulling in richer clients.

There are only twelve actions that a player can make such as Attune, Consort, Prowl, Skirmish, and Wreck. These are deliberate choices that restrict the ways that characters can approach problems. The name of each action was chosen to invoke a specific tone to shape how players think. Every problem looks like a corpse-to-be when you have four dice in Skirmish. Cutters will lean towards Skirmishing with foes over attempting to Consort with them because picking a fight will earn them experience.


Dungeon World and Blades in the Dark align the tools players have with rewards for engaging in the themes and mechanisms of the game.

Shadowrun rewards player characters for completing shadowruns. This is the entirety of Shadowrun Fifth Edition's reward structure: Do the job. Characters are awarded currency and Karma.

Characters are paid a base amount plus some extra for each net hit on an opposed Negotiation test. The base is then multiplied based on a number of factors involved in the run. Examples of these factors include the largest dice pool rolled against a player and how outnumbered the players were in combat. On a list of about eight possible modifiers only one is affected by decisions that the players make: Runners accomplished the task with impressive speed and/or subtlety.

Karma is Shadowrun's experience analog and is used for character progression. Karma is spent on things such as learning new spells and advancing skill ratings. Characters receive Karma at the end of a run for surviving the run, for completing some or all of the objectives, and some karma based off a calculation involving the largest dice pool rolled against a character.

Characters only receive rewards when they complete a run. In order to complete the run they must have completed some or all of the objectives of the run. Characters can only receive rewards if they are alive to collect them. The first two triggers are little more than an attendance award for the player, and players have no ability to affect the third trigger.

Since none of Shadowrun's rewards are based on choices that the players make, Shadowrun offers no incentives to the players to do anything. The reward structure is based almost entirely off of decisions that the gamemaster makes before anyone sits at the table to play. The way that players advance their characters is by showing up to play Shadowrun.


There are a set of monetary and karmic rewards based on whether the run is about killing and oppressing people, or about helping out the little guy. This is Shadowrun's threadbare attempt at expressing ethics or alignment mechanically. They fail at this dramatically due to the lack of player agency in the reward system.

The gamemaster comes to play with everything planned out including whether or not the mission makes the runners bad people or good people. The only agency the characters have is to not take runs that oppose their own ethics. At the table this leaves players without choice due to the inherent social pressure. Nobody gets to play Shadowrun if you decline the run that the gamemaster prepared.


Blades in the Dark and Dungeon World's reward structures are connected directly to choices that the players make. These games reward players for engaging in the type of fiction that those games want to create. Blades in the Dark and Dungeon World do not explicitly require that you to engage the mechanisms in order to earn rewards, but the mechanisms are such that they become a natural part of working towards those rewards.

Shadowrun's core mechanics and intricate web of systems are not incentivized. The complete disconnect between player actions and incentives leave Shadowrun feeling over-designed. Why do I have a entirely separate, well designed, vehicular combat system? Without a clear reason to engage mechanics, those mechanics end up detracting from the game. A system with no clear use is dead weight.

And that was the whole point of this post. Shadowrun tells us what Shadowrun is about by way of its reward system. Shadowrun is about showing up to play Shadowrun. There is a monetary reward for engaging notable elements of Shadowrun lore, but it is another thing that the gamemaster decides will or won't happen before a session.


The next post will explore the gamemasting chapter of Shadowrun's core rulebook. We will see how the game intends for gamemasters to prepare for and run a game. I will continue to compare Shadowrun to other game systems as we explore the gamemaster-facing systems.

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Devon Taylor (They/Them) is a Canadian network architect, security consultant, and blogger. They have experience developing secure network and active directory implementations in low-budget and low-personnel environments. Their blog offers a unique and detailed perspective on security and game design, and they tweet about technology, security, games, and social issues. You can support their work via Patreon (USD), or directly via ko-fi.

  1. The explanation for this joke is here: ↩︎