I play Shadowrun now and then but ignore magic, hacking, and rigging in my games. Every time I mention this to others they tell me that I should just play Cyberpunk or d20 Spycraft. I ask why, and the only real answer I've gotten is that it's a balance issue.

Riggers seem ludicrously overpowered, when they can reasonably deploy their vehicles. (Hilarious side quote:"I have the troll throw my phone-booth-impersonation-bot into the straw hut. ...what? It has a machine gun.") Hackers seem to play entirely on their own realm. And I honestly don't have much experience with magic either as a DM or a player.

Is magic, hacking, or rigging vital for balance in SR4?

Are there any others reasons not to simply cut out these portions of the game? Other then, you know, you have a game with a narrower focus.

Sorry if I wasn't clear about this. When I cut them, the concept of hacking, magic, and rigging doesn't exist. People can't hotsim, and drones aren't prevalent. Magic simply never came back, there are no wizards, no elves, no dwarves, no dragons, none of that fantasy portion. And like magic, Shadowrun matrix hacking revolves around a fantastical presumption, a bending of the rules of reality. In the Shadowrun universe there is no such thing as hard encryption, and therefore everything is hackable. And that's simply fantasy. As DM I retcon that there simply isn't any such thing as a matrix hacker. There's still pen-testers, sql-injection, and backdoors, but that sort of hacking is usually dependent on IT being stupid. Botnets and zero-day vulnerabilities work even less well with Shadowrun gameplay.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "...other than, you know, playing a different game." I jest. :D I have not played SR since SR1 (and some SR2), which dates me. However, I recall there being loose balance in SR1 as Magic, in general, was powerful. One can imagine that counterbalances to such a world changing element (in game) being immature or non-existent. I do recall however the setting intending to balance magic, hacking and rigging in ways that might not have been explicitly stated by designers. Your opinion may vary. \$\endgroup\$
    – javafueled
    Feb 23, 2012 at 22:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not having a lot of SR4 stuff and not really having played it live I'll just add a comment: the Matrix 2.0 is virtually omnipresent and has learned so many new tricks that a runner team without a hacker is at a serious disadvantage (serious as in "the enemy hacker disables all of the street samurai's cyberware" serious). However, removing a certain rule element from the game could work quite well depending on your game style (e.g. running a street gang campaign without a hacker can easily work because the issue of computer warfare will likely never show up). \$\endgroup\$
    – user2862
    Feb 23, 2012 at 23:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ I know that in my Shadowrun 3rd edition games we could have removed it and it would have gone fine, I've heard a lot of people go without it. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 24, 2012 at 0:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @arotter "..the enemy hacker..." Not an issue when there's no hacking. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philip
    Feb 24, 2012 at 15:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Philip: sure, but no enemy hacker usually equals a game that does not include the typical "runner vs. corporation" aspect, since - as I mentioned - trained Matrix specialists and combatants are so easy to come by that virtually every corporation can easily have at least one operator per facility online at all times. I did say that it heavily depends on the type of campaign whether or not removing those elements creates a break in immersion or not. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2862
    Feb 25, 2012 at 0:38

4 Answers 4


While this answer is based on my experience with SR2, based on my reading of SR4 I think the version doesn't make much of a difference.

I ran a SR2 campaign that was essentially rigger-free for much of the time, with no ill effects. We also had plenty of sessions in which the party's resident spell-slinger was absent, and I minimized the use of hacking primarily because it made game management more difficult. I kept hacking, rigging, and magic in the game, but when necessary handled them in an abstract fashion.

For example, since there were no hacker PCs, the hacker NPC would handle those duties. I'd assign difficulty levels as straight roles. The NPC has to make a roll to get into the system, another to defeat the IC, and a third to get the target data (or open the blast doors, or whatever). That sort of approach works if you want hacking/rigging/magic "lite", but it sounds like you're more interested in stripping them out entirely.

If what you really want to do is excise hacking/rigging/magic from the game, it seems you could simply make them far less routine. While there are hackers, riggers, and users of magic, they are so rare that they never interact with your PCs. I think the biggest problem wouldn't be PC to NPC interactions, but rather things like security systems (how do you get into Dr. Maybe's underground lair if you can't bypass his remote drones?) and magic-oriented organizations (what are Tir defenses like if they can't use all those nifty spells?). It seems like you'd have to take out a lot of the nifty details that make the Shadowrun world so interesting.

Then again, you could go whole hog and make your own world history, one in which hackers, riggers, and magic don't exist.

  • \$\begingroup\$ While magic is incredibly rare and rigging can get quite expensive and space intensive (setting up workshops, keeping the vehicles around, etc) hacking is incredibly cheap and easy to come by and stupidly powerful. The enemy team isn't encrypting their comm-links? Awesome! The enemy cyber-guy didn't disable the wifi diagnostics interface on his cyberlegs? Awesome! The enemy heavy weapons guy is using wifi triggered grenades? Awesome! Depending on the campaign and game style it is virtually impossible to not run into a digital warfare encounter/opportunity on a run. [continued...] \$\endgroup\$
    – user2862
    Feb 24, 2012 at 1:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ [...continued] Pretty much every company that is single-A or bigger will heavily invest in matrix security and countermeasures. For me it would be a pretty big break of immersion if my character was on a run against Evo Corp or Saeder-Krupp and didn't encounter any matrix security or company hackers. The problem that magic/hacking/rigging are effectively games inside the game and thus break the flow of the game is a completely different question and you're right that the game will probably run much smoother without them. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2862
    Feb 24, 2012 at 1:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like the idea of handling them all abstractly. You pay a wheel man to pick you up. You pay a hacker to dink around on the net from miles away. You pay a magician to... do whatever it is they do. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philip
    Feb 24, 2012 at 16:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @arotter Magic isn't incredibly rare if it's 50 build points away from all players. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philip
    Feb 24, 2012 at 16:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ One fun side effect of abstracting these things out is that it can make life easier for the GM. You can surprise players: "Hey, I didn't know riggers could do that!" and you can fudge results to help move gameplay along: "You're battered and bloody, but that Death Blast from Necros wiped out the guards, and you're finally into the inner sanctum." \$\endgroup\$ Feb 24, 2012 at 17:28

There is nothing stopping you from running a Shadowrun game with no magic or matrix. It is your game and you can choose what to add. The Shadowrun game itself is filled with a lot of rules for everything and I've run into two people that run SR games that have honestly dropped the whole Matrix and Magic systems, relying on other people (me) to know the rules when it comes up. They just don't introduce that element to the game.


But that's talking about he game. If you're talking about the story of the Shadowrun universe, then you are missing key elements of the setting by not putting those things in as flavor. They are almost a staple of what makes Shadowrun it's own unique setting. There's a lot that has to do with Magic, mana cycles, the Great Ghost Dance, Dragons, and Horrors (but that's kinda above anything a normal Shadowrun needs to understand). It might not be common for someone to have magical talent, but it's not rare and it's not unheard of. Hell, they have a character in trid movies named Karl Kombat Mage. They have magic. It's a thing. A dragon runs one of the Big Ten and Ghostwalker kind of runs Denver right now. It's not something you can just gloss over.

And the Matrix is much the same way. The Matrix was something that could have killed everyone if it tried. The first Crash that Echo Mirage had to stop before it got out of hand, the Archology Shutdown and rogue AI, and the Crash 2.0 when everything got reset and the wired Matrix as we know it changed. Now we have technomancers, a wireless Matrix that anyone can access from their commlink, and the Resonance. It's something, again, that's vital to the telling of the story.

All of this is, again, story and flavor. It gives Shadowrun, in my opinion, that little bit of edge that puts it up over d20 or Cyberpunk. And it's OK if you don't want to use it in the challenges and it's ok if you want to limit your characters. You can do just fine with a few mundanes or some cybered up guys. You're not always going to find a hacker with enough skill and good magic skill is hard to come back. But from a story perspective, you can't just get rid of those elements.


Now, if we're talking about pure balance, that's another story. The game makes it possible for people to play hackers, riggers, and mages. I think they do a good job of balancing them and how they're built at character gen, so I wouldn't worry too much. But I can see your concerns about some character types, so if you need help on dealing with them, allow me to give you my impression on them.


Magic is a tricky business. On one hand, they're soft squishies that stay in the back and keep out of the fire fights. On the other hand, many people think of mages as super-powered gods that can sling mojo around and generally ruin someone's day without blinking. This is entirely possible in the 5th World, so that's why corporations and the police enlist the best and brightest of mages to patrol areas with their own magic, spirits, and magical assets. A good counter to a mage is another mage. Liberal use of counterspell, stealth, and a summoned spirit or two can be more then a match for most beginning mages. Don't make it too lethal the first time, but use things like that as a reminder that a mage is only as good as the friends he brings with him to a fight. He can't do everything himself and sooner or later, drain will hit him. And then he'll be useless.

If it's an adept, you are honestly dealing with a street samurai (cybered up character) with the same focus, just with a different flavor to how they do what they do. They cost more then a street sam in terms of character gen, but they don't have the draw back of cyberware and maintenance.


Hacking is slow. Let's face it. If you don't have very experienced players that know what they have to roll, when, and why, you're going to be sitting there for a good 30 minutes as a storyteller runs through a 5 second hacking scene. It's a problem with the system that some people just add as flavor and try not to have PCs made for it. Given that, however, hacking is vital to a group. It's hard to bypass security and computer systems in 2072 and you will come across challenges that a hacker could easily bypass or work around. If you don't like having a PC doing the hacking, set up an NPC hacker and story-book what they do.


Now, I love me some riggers. They are the ultimate support role, in my opinion. They're your wheelman, your overwatch, your network security, and the hammer you drop when you need someone's day ruined from far away. But, a rigger is not a one-man-show. He can do a lot of cool things, but he can't do it all. Drones can only get you so much, and there are enemy hackers and riggers out there that can and will jack your ride, your drones, and your ware if you're not careful. If you have problems with a rigger, again, throw a corp spider at them, or maybe someone with good device hacking. Have the rigger contend with someone trying to jack his drones and he won't hav time for much more.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not too concerned about missing portions of the story. Most of my players need to have the background explained to them. It's other other DMs who seem to read the rulebook like a story. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philip
    Feb 24, 2012 at 16:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ Like I say, it's your game and you chose the world. If you want it as written, there's a lot that you might be missing by removing those elements from the game. Thematically, they should be there. But it's your world and you can do what you like. Again, it's completely viable to use only mundane and cyber characters. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 24, 2012 at 17:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Interesting take. My recollection (from earlier versions) is that while magic meshed in quite well with normal play (ie firefights and legwork, alternately), both riggers and deckers were unmatchable when their specialities were needed and almost useless otherwise; not much fun either way, even if the GM was skilled enough to keep the elements balanced. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 24, 2012 at 22:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ There's a theme when playing a hacker or rigger. The downside to hacking is that it takes too long and usually only one person is doing it, which gives the illusion that the hacker is a god in their own arena. However, give a mundane without a datajack a good commlink and some decent agents and programs and they can usually stand up to a hacker even without VR. A hacker just has the added bonus of VR and having the skills rather then relying on a program to do it for them. Technomancers and sprites...that's a different ballgame altogether. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 27, 2012 at 13:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TimLymington - that's exactly my experience. Magic meshes well (although the right magic can be way overpowering), the other two were very hit or miss. \$\endgroup\$
    – Bobson
    Apr 24, 2012 at 23:07

CrystalBlue's answer is absolutely fantastic, and I second everything said. But I think I can expand on it in a useful way (which won't fit in comments).

I think Shadowrun does a fairly good job of balancing the elements in terms of power. Unfortunately (and later edditions are much better at this then the earlier editions), you can wind up with situations where one character is the center and the others are just sitting around waiting for them to finish their lengthy segment, this especially comes up with deckers who can really steal the show for an extended period, but mages and even riggers do it to. For that matter a street sam or thief can do it, but that is much less common as they tend to run with the pack more. So...

Riggers I think these can integrate quite well with the Street Sam types, but then most of my campaigns have not had a rigger at all just becuase of lack of people that want to play them. Leaving them out has simply never been an issue in my campaings.

Deckers As CrystalBlue said, its hard to keep the flavor of Shadowrun if you get rid of deckers entirely. But Deckers can end up completely stealing the show at some points and just sitting idle at others. The newer eddition rules help encourage the decker to run around with the group more than the older edditions did though.

But if that still isn't enough, there are a couple of things I used to do that helped avoid the "everyone waits till the decker finishes his long segment, and then he waits for a long time" syndrome. First and easiest is provide an NPC decker. They can help in all the ways a PC decker would, but the GM can just declare their results by fiat or single dice role instead of a played out mission.

Second is to use house rules to simplify it ruthlessly and create story reasons the decker needs to be physically present with the team. In older edditions, I would compress the deckers intel gathering to a single dice role and then have something like a security system that had to be bypassed in person with high electronics knowledge or a non-networked system that had to be hacked to force the decker to go along with the others.

Mages To echo CrystalBlue, you can't get rid of mages without radically altering the flavor. That doesn't mean you need a PC mage though.

Obviously, there are lots of different magic using builds available in shadowrun, but the one I saw the most was a type of "jack-of-most-trades-master-of-none". They could heal, they could create barriers, throw nice area effect spells, and use illusions to help with stealth, etc.

Definitely a useful guy to have around. But there was nothing at all a mage could do that couldn't be replicated by a diversified team without a mage. A well equiped medic could heal almost as well and pack traditional firearms and cyber to go with it. The area effect spells could be matched by someone with a variety of grenades. Stealth and disguise could take the place of illusions. A group without a mage can easily deal with one with a mage, as long as they planned for it and diversified their other skills.

The one thing that a group with no mage would have a hard time dealing with is spirits. Of course if you just happen to never have them encounter a spirit, that is no problem at all. But having a mage to deal with spirits is really helpful. Still, fighters can handle a spirit as long as they know what they are doing and plan ahead a bit.


"Is magic, hacking, or rigging vital for balance in SR4?"

No, but magic, in particular, may be vital in order to claim that you're actually playing "shadowrun". Not that your characters have to have it, but the world sortof does.

Note that there's nothing wrong with playing a cyberpunk world, with many of the shadowrun rules... but I'd hesitate to call it the same game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm ok with advertising my games as "shadyrun" \$\endgroup\$
    – Philip
    Feb 28, 2012 at 15:43

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