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The rules say that a summoner can have a maximum of bound spirits equal to his charisma score. But how many unbound spirits can a summoner have at a time? Do the rules set a limit, or can I have as many as I want?

I've noticed the rules say I "can only summon one spirit at a time", but that sounds to me like it means I summon them one by one (e.g. I can't summon two at a time), and like it doesn't place a limit on the total number of spirits I can have present.

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You can only have one unbound spirit summoned at a time

While the text on the book is vague about wether you can summon only one at once or control only one at once (core rulebook, page 300):

You can only summon one spirit at a time, and it only hangs around for a limited time

There is no mention about how many summoned spirits you can have at once, but there is about how many bound spirits you can have. Binding a spirit is much harder than summoning one, so why there would be a restriction on bound spirits but not on summoned ones?

Once the spirit is bound, then the spirit and its services do not expire at the next sunrise or sunset. A spirit’s service ends when it has no more services owed to the magician. The bound spirit can be called or dismissed with a Simple Action as they appear next to the magician from the metaplane, awaiting further instructions on the astral. A magician can bind up to his Charisma attribute in spirits.

This is enforced by the Additional Purchases and Resitrictions table (page 98), which says:

Bound Spirits

1 Karma per service (Force of spirit is equal to Character’s Magic Attribute rating)

Can only have a number of bound spirits equal to Charisma

Previous Editions

This was the text on 4th edition (core rulebook, page 188) and it was crystal clear on how they are supposed to work:

A magician may only have one unbound spirit summoned at any given time, and no more bound spirits than her Charisma attribute. Spirits on remote service and on standby count toward this total.

The term unbound spirit isn't even used on the 5th edition core rulebook. But refers to spirits not bound to your character and there is no reason to believe this has changed between editions, as what is a bound spirit has the same definition (see the Binding skill).

Historically, this ruling has been the same on the 3rd, 2nd and 1st edition of the game. Shamans could summon nature spirits, while mages could summon elementals. Both also had limits, but they were mechanically different.

Nature spirits couldnt be bound to your character, their services had to be used while they were summoned and they would vanished on sunrise or sunset (similar to summoning spirits in 4th and 5th edition). While elementals had to be bound in order to be used, which took some hours and money (similarl to binding spirits in 4th and 5th edition), but would not disapear until all services were consumed.

The limitations were similar to what we got on 5th edition:

A shaman can summon only one nature spirit or have one in service to him at one time.

A mage can bind, at once time, a number of elementals equal to his Charisma.

The significant differences were that nature spirits didn't require any preparation and could be used quickly, while elementals were stronger due to being on standby and materialize when needed, and had the option to follow more complex orders (Aid Sorcery, Aid Study, Remote Services, sustain spells, etc).

What actually happened on the 4th edition was that these rules were combined into a single subsystem that works for shamans and mages without major mechanical differences other than the type of spirits available and the flavor on how each tradition handles spirits.

Shadowrun Missions FAQ

This is also explicitly covered in the Missions FAQ (no official link yet, as their messageboards are offline, but here is an unofficial mirror):

How many Unbound Spirits can you have at one time? The text (SR5, pg. 300) isn’t very clear.

You may only have one unbound spirit at any given moment

As for the validity of the missions FAQ:

These changes are Errata for Missions only, and are subject to change when the official Errata gets released.

Among other mistakes, this is just one more example of the designers being lazy and not properly describing mechanics that hasn't changed between editions. The 5th edition core rulebook is full of information that were previously on splatbooks, but basic mechanics suffered, leading to a lot of errata removing leftover text from the 4ed core rulebook.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your argument is based on an older edition. I do not think that this is valid. "You can only summon one spirit at a time" is not "A magician may only have one unbound spirit summoned at any given time". This also seems the issue OP has. They chose the words "you can only summon one at a time" instead of "you can only have one summoned at any given time" \$\endgroup\$ – Thyzer Jun 5 '17 at 21:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Thyzer it might still be all we can get out of the rules, because as mentioned in the answer, this is not the only place in the rules where this happens... a ton of stuff is even copied directly from 4e, so ShadowKras is not that far off here. \$\endgroup\$ – Patta Jun 6 '17 at 6:01
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My understanding is that you can only have one spirit in action at a time. pg300 says:

You can only summon one spirit at a time, and it only hangs around for a limited time

Granted, for every spirit you try to summon, there is the Drain, and the chance for a roll to go sour costing you edge or reagents. It seems that the bound spirits are just a pool of spirits that you can summon more than once, and have an easier time of it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I think that one means that you can only summon spirit per try, not two at once. That is how I interpret it, at least. \$\endgroup\$ – Patta Jul 31 '16 at 13:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would too, except the wording links how long it lasts. Instead of "you can only summon one spirit at a time, and have X spirits summoned total", they say one at a time and it has a time limit. \$\endgroup\$ – CatLord Aug 1 '16 at 10:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ yes, but it still does not say I can't summon any more. Sure, the ONE spirit you summon AT A TIME will not stay around forever, but this would then be true for the next one too. I don't see that beeing linked to the sentence as relevant in any form ;) \$\endgroup\$ – Patta Aug 1 '16 at 12:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ True, but almost everything in the section speaks in the singular. As of yet, I find nothing specific, but arguably as long as you can stand the Drain you can chug them out until sunrise/-set \$\endgroup\$ – CatLord Aug 1 '16 at 14:57
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You may only have one unbound spirit active at a time.

This is referenced on page 300 under Summoning.

You can only summon one spirit at a time, and it only hangs around for a limited time

To address the concern over wording Patta expressed

I think that one means that you can only summon spirit per try, not two at once. That is how I interpret it, at least. – Patta

Summoning is a complex action. You do not have an option to do it twice at once. The reference to "only one at a time" it very unlikely to be referring to how many complex actions you can take at once, and is more likely referring to how many unbound spirits you are allowed to have at a time.

I would also point out that a technomancer compiled sprite (which closely mirrors the mages summon rules) states on page 254

You can only have one compiled sprite at any given time.

This to me reinforces the idea that you are only supposed to have one active unbound spirit at any given time.

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