I've recently picked up my SR4 20th anniversary edition rulebook and I'm interested in running a game for some of my friends. The issue I'm facing is that....well, I don't want to spoil my players too soon with anything too fancy.

I have a strong leaning towards making players I GM for 'heroes', having them face down enemies that I've customized to be 'special' and shying away from anything 'standard', typically I engineer choices to be bigger that life, and world changing from session #1. Think of it as the RPG equivalent of purple prose; I tend to give my games a little unneeded flourish.

Contrast this with the fact that I know some of the appeal and character of the Shadowrun setting is that the runners aren't anything special, and should be afraid of large corporations, gangs and so on and so forth.

From what I've read, Shadowrun has enough flavour by itself. I'm worried I'm either going to spoil my players by having them take down a corporation/gang in the first few sessions, or I'll bore my players because it will just be fairly 'standard' runs for the first while.

How can I run games without going overboard?

  • \$\begingroup\$ What do you mean by mundane? Do you mean the PCs are low-level powered or do you mean vanilla game play? As a side note, dragons and Horrors are a good source of plots. \$\endgroup\$ May 20, 2013 at 8:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ What I mean is, @Sardathrion, is that I don't want my players to be saving the world in the first session, or doing anything else world changing.... just yet. \$\endgroup\$ May 20, 2013 at 11:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Sardathrion But I don't want to bore them either. \$\endgroup\$ May 20, 2013 at 11:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ The game mechanics don't really support invulnerability a la AD&D. Even an incredibly high-end runner team isn't going to take down anything large and well-protected like a gang or corporation of significant size without an immense amount of planning and preparation and a good deal of luck. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ichoran
    May 20, 2013 at 18:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ If your players are able to change the world quickly in any way other than by littering it with their rotting corpses, you aren't playing Shadowrun right. Your players should be scared, always on the edge of failure, constantly planning for every possible contingency and only if they have really really planned things well should they succeed. If you have not killed a PC in a session, you probably aren't being hard enough, IMHO. \$\endgroup\$
    – DampeS8N
    May 20, 2013 at 20:26

7 Answers 7


Mundane is a pretty tricky word for Shadowrun. I'm writing with the assumption that you're asking for the elements of a "baseline" game of SR.

I. Don't try anything fancy.

Simple as that, keep to the core book for a while - meaning less options to manage. You'll have plenty on your hands already anyway. An interesting run will include varied elements from the different "worlds" of Shadowrun (Magics, Matrix & Metals). So to avoid being overwhelmed by the possibilities, keep on the low end of the power scale. Don't initiate your Mage too early. Keep the shiny implants in the drawer. And stay the Frag away from the AAA corpos.

II. It's a sick, sad world.

It doesn't have to be all dark and gritty (though things tend to be when you're lurking in the Barrens). For every level there are threats your PCs should be able to take on confidently with enough preparation. But remember the first words of the book : the scariest words to a shadowrunner should be "This'll be easy". Whether they wanted it or not, the PCs are now in a Dangerous world. Capital D. Runs turn sour. Backs get stabbed. Information is power, so mis/disinformation is a massive threat. Not everything goes wrong all the time, but it should be keping the players and PCs on their toes. Think "Noir".

III. The times, they are a-changin'

While the ideas of Magic, the Matrix or Cyberstuff are now well ingrained in the people's minds, the whole implications are still relatively unknown. Most people haven't even heard of a Resonance Realm. Thanks to popular trids, they think a Combat Mage is a living fireball-slinging font of arcane fury. For your beginning runners, there are lots of unknown even in the fields they have specialized in. And they'll learn things the hard way. The Hacker thinks it's all fun and games until he runs into his first Black-IC. The Mage thought Spirits were weaksauce before he met an actual Summoner. The Samurai still swears by his twin SMGs but now knows better than to let the Troll Adept get up close...

It's a world literally full of Magic. Let your players (and yourself) gradually learn about it, and have fun making mistakes and discovering new ways to get hurt.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 pour the III. The Emergence supplement is a campaign where PCs will discover technomancers and AI. It can be very interesting for them if there's into campaign setting exploration. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trajan
    May 20, 2013 at 13:51

Keep it in setting.

Shadowrun is not a happy place; if you forget this it'll be way too easy. If you've ever played the video game Deus Ex, that's how a Shadowrun campaign should be running; perhaps not even visibly to the players, but behind the scenes. The bad guys are impossibly more powerful than the players (who may themselves also be bad guys), and as such the players are really at the mercy of the guy bigger than them. The only reason they're not being crushed into powder by an airstrike (if they're lucky it'll just be an airstrike) is because they aren't worth wasting the resources on.

Here are some of my suggestions for this:

  • Introduce consequences.

    My first game started out small back in 3rd Edition, but the lessons are the same-let players accomplish something, but make sure that it's partial-they won't hit the whole gang at once; they'll take out the ones who were at the hideout on Tuesday. Any action has a consequence.

  • Add mystery.

    As someone who's familiar with Earthdawn, I have much more lore of the setting than my players do when it comes to dragons, artifacts, magical theory, and such, and I make sure to transfer that between the two. My first campaign revolved around finding and grabbing a powerful magical armor from the Fourth World, and then activating it before realizing that even the mage had no clue how to remove it, and there were guys with big guns who wanted it back. You can do this handily with anything-the bloodpebble armor I gave my characters was a practical magical item, but you could also give them something that was similarly technologically advanced-if you don't want to take time for hacking, for instance, you could give them a commlink with a top-secret hacker agent built in that not only obsoleted the hacker but was an incredibly valuable object to whoever was looking for it.

  • Keep the players low.

    This is the only real thing you absolutely must remember in Shadowrun is that characters shouldn't be getting 15 karma and several thousand nuyen a session. This is what I consider the carnal sin of Shadowrun, because it both encourages players to dump into metagamish things (Shadowrun: Shopping Edition could be on any of the books' covers), but also means that they escalate incredibly quickly-dragons should be the end stop for power levels, not the midpoint. The catch to this is not to escalate faster than the players-if you're working with the 20th Anniversary Edition and the Runner's Companion (I forget which has the exact rules, but they're in there between the two) you can easily create a lot of NPCs that remain in power level for the players (above or below, depending on how you build). I played a campaign once where I had a character go to Ghostwalker for protection-my GM should never have allowed a lowly Shadowrunner to do this, but he did-and still got killed by an initiated mage (in one hit) projecting from Seattle to Denver despite the dragon's protection. In short, if you ever see more than twenty dice on a character as a GM, step away and get some fresh air and come back to start from scratch.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Basically, for the last part here, what I'm trying to say is "Don't blow stuff up too quickly." Start characters slow; my players have learned to appreciate 3 Karma a session as a nice treat. At a certain point characters go "godmode"; I've found this to be about 450 Karma-when you reach this point the only possible answer is to escalate well outside the boundaries that Shadowrun handles well. \$\endgroup\$ May 20, 2013 at 17:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ About over-rewarding : I'm completely down with carnal sin, but isn't it actually a cardinal sin ? :P \$\endgroup\$
    – Nigralbus
    May 21, 2013 at 9:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Nope, carnal sin is a distinct category as well. \$\endgroup\$ May 21, 2013 at 15:04

It sounds like you're viewing "saving the world" and "boring routine missions" as diametric opposites, and you're worried that if you try to avoid the former extreme you'll fall into the latter.

However, these two things are not really opposites at all. It's quite possible to have a boring routine world-saving mission ("Collect the 37 Lost Plot Tokens and return them to the Shrine of World-Saving in order to banish the Sealed Evil in a Can back into the Nasty Place.") and it's also possible to have non-boring missions where the players don't get to save the world (again).

In particular, remember that, even if the players aren't (yet) capable of saving the world, that doesn't mean the world around them isn't going to hell in a handbasket. It need not be obvious yet (because if it is obvious at that stage, then it becomes a survival horror type of game, and I don't think that's what you want in this case), but the world-destroying evil (or several of them!) can be lurking there in the background even in the first session.

Instead of starting your players off on a routine mission of no real consequence (which can work, but doesn't seem to be your style), you can have their very first task already be in some peripheral way linked to the great struggle which it will (hopefully!) eventually be their destiny to bring to an end. Just make their role at that point a minor (but, possibly, crucial) part of the overall scheme, and, to keep things from being too straightforward, make sure they're also beset by difficulties related to their low status, poor circumstances and lack of experience that they'll need to overcome.

For example, you could start your campaign at the point where the players learn that there's a massive high-level conspiracy that threatens to destroy everything they care about, and an equally secretive and widespread counter-conspiracy to which they've just been initiated at a low level. (Or is it really the other way around? How can they tell?) Of course, they won't know all, or even most, of this at first, and what little they do know will always be suspect, but, crucially, they do know that what they're doing will be part of something important — assuming that they can survive all their other problems and actually do it.

That should provide the kind of "sense of global importance" that you seem to want, while avoiding the escalation in power levels that putting the players at the center of the conflict from the beginning would require.

I'm not very familiar with Shadowrun, but from what I know of it, I understand the setting should be full of hooks for this kind of stuff. That said, all I've said above should really work more or less the same way in any system or setting.


PC's that want to do good in SR are a GM's dream-come-true. If you are aiming for heroic-style PCs that are trying to be good, but not allow them to fix all of the setting's problems, there's a bunch of options.

  • You can present the PC's with an option that seems good on the surface, but actually makes things much worse - and the group is then faced with cleaning-up the mess.

  • The PC's discover some sort of wrong-doing, resolve the issue, celebrate their success, but then realize the problem is much, much larger than what they first thought. (E.g. a gang of drug-runners is eliminated, but it's actually a mob-supported group, and now the drugs are still flowing, and there's a well-armed gang now running things)

And other variations on that theme. The 'Do-Gooder' thing is a great plot-hook to get them into the story.


Quite simply: They're runners. Your first few sessions should run like a heist movie. Shadowrun is a nonstop heist movie - that's its goal. If you've seen "Leverage", that's some perfect inspiration right there. That's a modern-era Shadowrun team. If they stick to runs for corps, that means that the corps will blame the other corps.

But let's say they take Leverage too seriously. Instead of being hired by corps, they wanna go hooding it. That means they don't have the protection of their sponsor... and all the retribution will fall on them.

Your biggest threat is probably going to be YOU underestimating the corps. Triple-A corp execs are gonna have some serious nuyen they're slinging around... and any corp boss who's not packin' a couple of caster suits for bodyguards plus a whole score of mundane guys with guns right around the corner doesn't deserve his world-dominating Triple-A title. Remember that one of the 12 triple-A megacorps is run by a DRAGON.

And that's just for what's immediately around them. Let's say get stupidly lucky or clever. They have magical, cyber, and physical oomph. They go ahead, assassinate a triple-A corp exec, and the next guy in line steps up to the plate. Well... they didn't change anything. Let's say they wipe out a whole group of execs, and do some sort of cyber-run that completely messes up their bank records... this should be nigh-impossible, but still... let's say they manage it.

OK... what remains of the corp sends assassins out after them. They're just riding their bikes through the street one day when... (BOOM) from half a mile away, the sniper takes off the mage's head. That's when the two fire elementals and the trash elemental looms up around them to attack... and they don't have anything that can even hurt an elemental anymore... And if that doesn't work, the other triple-A corps all realize you're a ridiculously powerful threat, so they all team up to send an army of assassins after you.

That'll make for a real short game. And when you roll up a new group, they'll have new respect for the system.

  • \$\begingroup\$ You are taking this from the perspective that I am very familiar with the system, and that the players may be at fault. Really, no one is going to be familiar with the system. I can't forget about AAA-Corps that which I don't already know. Whilst some of the background info you have is useful, it ends up a little off target towards the end. But thanks! \$\endgroup\$ May 21, 2013 at 19:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hey, good to know. In the rulebook, you should read the first part of the book. At least 'History Lesson for the Reality Impaired'. That should really help give you a feel for the world, and is quite a vital part of getting the right feel for things. I wouldn't stop there, though - on page 46, you get a list of the top ten Triple-A megacorps. That's rather vital to understanding the system, too. Remember that this is a world where the magic of the Native American tribes enabled them to secede from the USA, and where the megacorps are more powerful than first-world governments. \$\endgroup\$ May 21, 2013 at 19:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Once you understand the history and the scope of what we're looking at here... and just how vast a difference in power scale we're looking at ... you should be better aware of what you have in your reservoir of dirty GM tricks, and what you'll need to stress to your players in order to make sure they understand the gravity of their situation. \$\endgroup\$ May 21, 2013 at 19:10

You may want to scale up slowly by making the impact level high throughout, while growing the size of the world in which the players operate.

Player characters who start out as small-time operators in a specific part of the Sprawl are known within their community, and from time to time they get hired for various fairly straightforward missions for relatively small clients. The stakes are not huge in the global sense, but they are important for the people and organizations in that part of the Sprawl. For example, when a small company owned by friends of the PCs is getting squeezed by a corrupt Lone Star lieutenant for protection money, they go to the PCs. If the PCs are successful, their actions have a big effect in their community. Their reputation increases, and they see the effects of their work. The company flourishes, there are more local jobs, and things get just a bit less bleak.

Because of their increased rep, the PCs get more local jobs, each of which has a noticeable effect on their little world. The ramifications of their efforts are important; the more tangible they are, the more important those missions will seem.

Slowly they start getting jobs outside their normal geographic range. Then they get noticed by someone at Aztech. Her go-to Runner team isn't available, and she needs a task done quickly. She sends a Johnson to hire the PCs, and suddenly they're running a mission downtown, for a lot more money than they've ever seen. Now the stakes are different. It's not about big big fish in a little pond; it's about surviving in the big leagues.

After a while, they'll realize they're capable enough to make it in the big leagues, but by that point they'll have far bigger enemies than they could have contemplated when they were upstart Runners. With those bigger enemies come larger ramifications. If the PCs thwart a major Ares power play, that will be a huge win for them that affects the machinations of a megacorp. It will also guarantee that they'll tangle with Ares again, and that corps opposed to Ares will be looking to hire them for important, potentially world-changing ops.


It sounds as if you want your first few games not to contain anything unusual. Nothing wrong with that, though it's the opposite of what most GMs worry about. I suggest you distinguish between what, in your campaign, can be introduced later (say paranormal animals and initiation), and what will be in from the beginning; the interplay of firearms, computers and magic (you could leave one element out, but I don't recommend it). Another factor in most campaigns is the constant betrayal and suspicion, shading into paranoia; one good way to introduce this is to start with a mentor figure the characters have known and trusted for years, who suggests employment or hires the team for a few jobs. One day he's not available any more, and his secretary denies she ever worked for him (or perhaps the kindly wizard was killed by an elemental); the team will presumably want to find out why and take steps.


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