Thinking about running a Shadowrun game. I'm a 2E vet. Have not played any other editions, but have 5E core rulebook. I'd like to know which edition is most streamlined. You'd assume the most recent edition would be most stream-lined, but 5E is actually quite daunting. I know Shadowrun is not a rules-lite game, just looking for the simplest version of it to introduce new players to.

By streamlined I mean:

  • Has the fewest core rules that I must remember. It's OK if there are a lot of optional sub-systems. For the record, I don't consider decking to be an optional sub-system.
  • The core mechanic is quick to resolve. 5E looks like it has this one over 2E, but I think 4E uses the same core mechanic as 5E.
  • Is least over-whelming to players who are new to the system, i.e. will let them participate in character creation without spending all night on it, and without forcing us to use pre-gens to avoid the hassle.
  • Has (reasonably) logically organized content. There are a lot of complaints on the inter-webs about poorly organized content in 5E.
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ This will probably not be that much help for you, but it is worth noting for other people coming across this question: The german 5e books are in many cases a lot better when it comes to organizing content. At least compared to the original english books. \$\endgroup\$
    – Patta
    Mar 7, 2016 at 15:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Worth noting for posterity's sake, but if learning German is easier than grokking the book in English, then 5E has some serious problems, lol ;P \$\endgroup\$ Mar 7, 2016 at 15:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would not go that far, but in some cases its close :D \$\endgroup\$
    – Patta
    Mar 7, 2016 at 15:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Would you be interested in answers that are Shadowrun hacks of other systems? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 7, 2016 at 21:45
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the offer. As written, this question pertains only to the editions of the game released by the publishers. While I'm curious about hacks of the game, it isn't fair to answerers to change the basis of the question to include hacks at this point. Also, to include hacks in the list of Shadowrun editions makes the question impossibly broad. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 7, 2016 at 21:55

3 Answers 3


I've played and run a couple of sessions using 4E anniversary edition, and I've bought, read and planned sessions for 5e but never got to actually playing it.

With that said, I've found 4e to be less of a hassle to run in general, but more complicated to build characters for because it is entirely modular using a build point system rather than the priority system that is back in 5e. To answer your question point by point

  • You only need the core book in either 4e or 5e, there are not a lot of optional systems in it but all the rules are in one book.
  • The core mechanic to resolve is the same, but in 5e you have to keep track of limits which adds some hassle to the game. The matrix also seems easier to follow at first in 5e, but then technomancers have changed and use different powers than hackers, you have to keep track of your matrix "heat" score and your marks. In the end, to me at least, the matrix was as complicated as 4e, just a different kind of complicated.
  • 5e is definitely easier to build characters for because you have easy choices with the priority system. 4e does showcases archetypes in the books and how to build them, but the characters do not fit perfectly the system and are suboptimal. There is no easy starting point or gauge for your character until you know the system a little bit
  • In both edition I found the rules parts of the game to be spread throughout several chapters, intertwined with fluff and easy to miss.

In this light, and with the experience I had, I would definitely go with 4e more than 5e. Considering you have zero experience with either, and you want players to build characters quickly and participate quickly, 5e seems a little better suited for you.


The most streamlined edition by far, is Shadowrun: Anarchy. It's explicitly a light-weight system that doesn't try to simulate everything in detail the way the regular Shadowrun editions do.

Of the regular editions, I hear good things about the SR4 20th Anniversary Edition, which is apparently a lot better organised than the original SR4 core book or SR5. Sadly, I don't have it.

I'm not familiar with decking in SR4, but I've heard that decking in SR5 is a lot smoother. In other areas, I think SR4 is slightly smoother, even if only due to the lack of limits.

The advantage SR4 and SR5 have over older editions, is that they got rid of variable target numbers. That was certainly an interesting mechanic, but lead to weird results sometimes.

Ultimately, though, every edition of Shadowrun is monstrously complex. Character creation is greatly helped by software. Herolab, for example, makes it really easy to fiddle with your priorities and compare the results. It's quite expensive, though. But if you can afford it, it's a good investment.


I'd also second Shadowrun 20th Anniversary Edition (AKA SR4A). It is a refinement and reorganising of SR4 (and looks a thousand times better), and both "editions" use the same books.

I think SR4A feels the most accessible. It's less chaotic on the page, brighter and cleaner design-wise, has better and clearer writing, has much stronger editing, and is generally not quite as full of side cases and exceptions as SR5 (or SR3).

I prefer point-buy to priority chargen, but both options are available in SR4 if you get the Runner's Companion. The default priority chargen of SR123/56 has trap builds in it, which I despise on principle, as it means some players start the game worse off just because they don't know how to play the chargen minigame.

I also find the optional rule to use a target number of 4+ rather than 5+ means you can let players diversify their character sheets more. They don't need to stack dice pools quite as high, as a dice pool of 10 will reasonably handle even "extreme" difficulties. Most characters will only need 8 dice in their core areas of competence. Priority chargen exacerbates that issue, IMO.

The Matrix in SR4/SR4A gets slated, but I'm not sure SR5 is any better. The core of SR5's Matrix rules is slightly easier to grok, but they've layered so much faff on top that it's actually much harder to track in practice. All of the extra "noise" (that's a pun, but you'll see why later) interferes with comprehension and the at-the-table experience.

SR4A is the opposite -- you feel like you can stick with the simple stuff and only need to add in the complexity if you want it.

First you use Matrix Perception to see if you can find/detect things in the Matrix (if they're hidden/non-obvious), then you acquire user access (user, admin or security level), then you do what you want to do. It roughly works out the same as breaking and entering for mundanes: observe, infiltrate, then attack/steal/whatever.

(If you really need an entire SR4A Matrix rewrite, Google "Ends of the Matrix Frank Trollman", and you'll find something that works but is long-winded.)

Note that SR4/SR4A also has some nice "Tweaking the Rules" sidebars that give you some neat options (SR5 and SR6 does this to a lesser extent, too). Those help a lot with cutting back on the crunch. E.g., you can ditch Damage Resistance (soak) rolls, and make it a static damage reduction instead (I'd make it DR/3).

More recently, there's Shadowrun Sixth World (SR6 or SR6W, I guess), which looks a lot simpler at first, but suffers from the editing issues of SR5 dialled up to 11. Design-wise, it looks great on the inside, although the covers don't really do it for me like SR4A or SR5's did.

There are also currently two different SR6 core rulebooks out. There's the first printing with errors, and then the Seattle Edition (third printing, I think) which has some errata and a section on Seattle.

There is a third CRB one on its way (the Berlin Edition), which aims to add setting info on Berlin. Although, if you get the PDF, I think you get access to all three versions.

SR6 is definitely interesting, but I feel like it needs an SR6.5/35th Anniversary Edition to be smooth rather than merely functional. It's easy to get into, though -- most of the problems emerge in play, rather than being obvious upfront.

Shadowrun Anarchy is my current favourite as a GM, but that also suffers from poor editing. On the plus side, the system is simple enough that even a newbie won't be intimidated, and that makes it relatively easy to cobble together any holes or gaps in the rules.

The biggest issue, for me, is that the core rulebook assumes familiarity with the world (though you've got several wikis to draw upon).

The Anarchy CRB also suggests a narrative style of play most people won't use by default, but that can also be ignored with minimal effort.

We're playing Anarchy and it's both fast and incredibly fun. If I were to go back to SR5 or SR4A, I think I would port in the unified karma/nuyen rewards of Anarchy, plus the rebalanced "amp" system, and use those to replace the entirety of the fiddly gear/cyber/resources part of the game.

In the meantime, I will probably introduce a couple of house rules, but it doesn't need much and it's easy enough to port things in from the other editions. surprisethreats.com offers lots of new advanced and fixed rules for free.

SR4A especially feels good and complete, and has all the gear porn, kooky metatypes and so on that draws people to Shadowrun in the first place. Many people will point out that it's also the last edition to have many of the "older" Shadowrunner writers on it, as most (all?) of them left in the latter half of that edition's cycle.


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