Basic Shadowrun Rules and Concepts

This text was compiled and edited from an SR3 overview put out by FASA as well as the Game Concepts section of the Shadowrun, Fourth Edition basic rulebook.


A character in Shadowrun is much like a character in a novel or film, except that the player controls his or her actions. Composed of a collection of Attributes and skills, the character has the personality that the player injects into it. Without that personality, the character remains an it. Only when fleshed out can a character become minimally he or she, and, with good characterization, someone memorable.

Characters in Shadowrun may be of one of the five subgroups of Homo sapiens: the predominant human (Homo sapiens sapiens), elf (Homo sapiens nobilis), dwarf (Homo sapiens pumilionis), ork (Homo sapiens robustus), and troll (Homo sapiens ingentis). Non-humans are known as metahumans, while the five subgroups as a whole (including humans) are known as metahumanity. As described in the fictional points of view beginning on p. 47, all are human beings, at least according to the geneticists. Racists say differently.

In the early 2060s, humans are still the most numerous race populating the planet. Each of the other races are represented about equally, but are scattered unevenly across the globe. In some places, humans form an extreme minority, but those tend to be areas where the other races have gathered for safety, protection and isolation. Humans make up the standard. As characters, they receive no special Attribute or ability modifications.

Dwarfs are hardier (slightly higher Body), stronger (higher Strength),and more willful (higher Willpower) than humans. They also have thermographic vision, which allows them to see radiated infrared (heat) energy as well as the normal light spectrum (simultaneously). They have a slower movement rate than other races, but are also more resistant to disease. And yes, they are short.

Elves are more agile (higher Quickness) and more charismatic (higher Charisma) than humans. They also have low-light vision, which enables them to see clearly in near-total darkness.

Orks are much tougher (much higher Body), stronger (higher Strength), less charismatic (lower Charisma), and less acute (lower Intelligence) than humans. They too have low-light vision.

Trolls are big and nasty. They are a lot tougher (much higher Body), slower (lower Quickness), much stronger (higher Strength), less charismatic (lower Charisma), less acute (lower Intelligence), and less willful (lower Willpower) than humans. They too have thermographic vision, really long arms that give them an advantage in melee combat, and extremely tough skin with bony deposits that makes them more resistant to damage.

A player does not have to pay extra to create a human character. Players who want to play a metahuman (dwarf, elf, ork, or troll) must pay a little extra for the privilege.


In Shadowrun, there are twelve attributes, although how many each character has depends on his or her chosen profession. There are four Physical Attributes, four Mental Attributes, and five Special Attributes. A character can have only four of the five Special Attributes, though.

Attributes come into play for various tests, and your Attribute Rating is the number of dice you roll when making such a test.

A character’s Attributes—Body, Agility, Reaction, Strength, Charisma, Intution, Logic and Willpower—represent the raw material that makes up every person: his or her body, what the character has done with that body, and what’s inside the person that makes him or her unique. Because Attributes can be improved during the course of a character’s life, they represent something more than genetics.


The Body Attribute determines a character’s resistance to outside forces. It represents the character’s cardiovascular fitness and endurance, immune system, how well he heals, how well he adjusts to bioware, his tolerance for drugs and alcohol, and, to some extent, his muscle and bone structure and weight. Low Body could mean a character is skinny and frail-boned, or has bad eating and health habits. A character recovering from a nasty disease or extensive cyberware surgery might have low Body as well. High Body means a character is better fed, tough as nails, has strong bones with some spring to them and an immune system that won’t quit.

Agility represents fine motor control — manual dexterity, flexibility, balance, and coordination. A character with a low Agility may be someone with an inner-ear problem, one leg that is shorter than the other, or a simple klutz. Higher Agility ratings may belong to character that are "natural" athletes.

A character's Reaction is, quite simply, her physical reflexes - how quickly she can react to a changing situation, and how well she can dodge the physical slings and arrows that shadowrunning brings. A character with a high Reaction is more likely to be on top of a situation and will be in a better position to react to danger, while low-Reaction characters will lag behind.

Strength denotes what a character’s muscles can do. Strength is somewhat dependent on a character’s size and metatype. If your character is a 5-foot-tall, 115-pound human girl, she’s unlikely to possess an unaugmented Strength Attribute of 6. On the other hand, dwarfs have a muscle density that rivals that of reptiles (to reflect this, starting dwarf characters receive a +2 Strength bonus). Characters with low Strength may be small, skinny or slight, or simply too busy to work out. A high-Strength character may be tough and wiry, know how to use her body to her best advantage, work out every day, or simply be fraggin’ BIG.


Charisma is a nebulous attribute. More than just looks, Charisma represents a character’s personal aura, self-image, ego, willingness to find out what people want and give it to them, and ability to recognize what he can and can’t get out of people. A whiny demeanor, a me-first attitude, or an inability to read body language or subtle hints are just a few traits that can give a character low Charisma. A character with high Charisma might simply enjoy entertaining others, may honestly want to help people and develop friendships, or may be all flash and fun with whomever is it today. A high-Charisma character might deliver jokes at the right moment, have a sexy way of carrying herself, or command respect because her timing is always impeccable.

Intuition covers "mental alertness" - the ability to take in and process information, to read a crowd, to assess a situation for danger or opportunity. A character with little Intuition may be unobservant, may rarely think things fully through, or could simply be "slow". A character with a high Intuition is adept at making the best of a bad situation, knowing when to leave before an encounter escalates, noting small clues and working from instinct.

Logic represents a character's memorizing ability and raw brainpower. It denotes how fast a character learns, how much she can remember, and how well she can execute pre-planned sequences. A Logic-lacking character might get overwhelmed when confronted with a lot of details and may have a poor memory - especially for facts and figures. Character with a high Logic rating will likely be excellent book-earners, able to deal with computer and magic theory with ease, and capable of building (and tearing down!) machinery and electronics.

Willpower keeps a character going when he wants to give up, or enables him to control his habits and emotions. Willpower determines whether or not a character is going to take charge of his life. A character with low Willpower might defer to other people when big decisions are being made, for example. A high-Willpower character is more assured and possesses a never-say-die streak. Such characters go down to the monowire because that’s exactly the fragging point. Willpower also represents a character's cool under fire, her ability to resist intimidation and manipulation, and her resolve to stick to her guns when the pressure is on.


A character's Edge represents that special something that can turn the tide and save the day - a successful gut check, a moment of brilliant inspiration or creativity, or a once-in-a-lifetime physical feat. Edge is a combination of luck, timing, and the favor of the gods. Characters with low Edge are unlikely to get unexpected breaks in life, much less win the lottery. A high-Edge character, however, is graced with good fortune and has an uncanny ability to succeed despite the odds.

Essence is a measure of life force, of a body’s wholeness. It represents the body’s cohesiveness and holistic strength. Things that are invasive to the body, such as cyberware, reduce Essence. If a character abuses his body repeatedly with chemicals, toxins or even just negligence over a long period of time, he may lose Essence as well. Long-time drug addicts and chipheads who have done permanent damage to their system have lost Essence. When Essence declines, Magic declines by the same amount.

A derived attribute, Initiative is the sum of Reaction and Intuition, plus any additional dice from implanted or magical reflex enhancers. As it sounds, Initiative is used to determine the character's initiative score from a Combat Turn.

Magic is a measure of the ability to use magic, and of the body’s attunement to the mana that flows through our plane. Those with strong Magic Ratings are able to handle powerful magic and mana manipulation. Those with weak Magic Ratings are more sensitive, and more easily drained by the use of magic. Those with no Magic Rating have no magical capabilities and are tuned out from the magical realms. Serious damage to the body and invasive additions such as cyberware reduce Magic Rating.

Resonance is a special attribute for technomancers, characters able to manipulate the matrix with their mind alone. Resonance is an attunement to the echoes and transmissions that permeate the electronic world, an alignment with the wired gestalt. The exact nature of Resonance is even more controversial than magic - some claim that Resonance is a form of magic hat has adapted to the virtual and augmented realities of the modern world, others claim that Resonance is some new stage in the evolution of metahuman consciousness - but no one knows for sure. Resonance and Magic are mutually exclusive attributes.

Attribute Ratings

Care must be made to distinguish between natural, unmodified attribute ratings and those augmented by cyberware, bioware, adept powers, and magic. Generally, augmented ratings are listed in parentheses after the natural rating, such as: 4 (6). The standard range of natural human attributes is rated on a scale of 1 to 6, with 3 being average. Physical and Mental attributes have a maximum natural rating of 6 plus or minus metatype modifiers, depending on metatype. The maximum augmented attribute value for each metatype is equal to 1.5 times this figure, rounded down. This also applies to Initiative. During gameplay, players can spend Karma to improve character attributes. Improving an attribute increases both the natural and augmented ratings.



Rating Description
1 Weak
2 Underdeveloped
3 Typical
4 Improved
5 Superior
6 Maximum unmodified human

Special Attribute Ratings

All characters have a starting Essence attribute of 6. Cyberware and bioware implants reduce this rating. No character may start with an Essence greater than 6. Under basic Shadowrun rules, characters can never have an Essence of 0 or less. If they do, they die. Characters with Magic or Resonance attributes are subject to penalties if they have an Essence lower than 6. For each point or partial point of Essence below 6, the character loses 1 full point from her Magic or Resonance and the maximum for that attribute is reduced by 1. The maximum rating for Magic is 6 + initiation grade; for Resonance the maximum rating is 6 + submersion grade. The maximum natural rating for Edge is 6 (7 for humans).


There are few who would argue that any single event in the known history of Earth is more significant than the return of magic. One morning the world woke up and the rules were different. The boundaries of existence changed and life had to be relearned. The world had Awakened. Some people have the ability to tap into the powers of the Awakened world and use them to do magic. In Shadowrun, Awakened characters must purchase either the Adept, Magician, or Mystic Adept quality during character creation in order to have magical ability. Those with no magical ability are known as mundanes. Awakened characters who use magical skills are called magicians. Awakened characters who focus their power inward to enhance their bodies are known as adepts. Mystic adepts are a hybrid between adepts and magicians. Magicians frequently use Sorcery to manipulate mana and form spells and Conjuring to summon spirits. Both spellcasting and conjuring, as well as other magical activities, cause a type of fatigue to magicians called Drain. Each type of spell or spirit has a Force rating that begins at 1 and increases as its power increases, chosen by the magician and limited by her abilities, time, and money.


In Shadowrun, each magician follows a particular magic tradition. Traditions are the different ways in which magicians conceptualize and understand their magic—they are their paradigms, or personal outlooks. Whatever path the player chooses for her character, it is for life. There is no going back. The path of magic the character follows affects how she learns spells and what kinds of spirits she can summon. It may also impose requirements on how the character acts. The choice colors the character’s outlook, relationships, and motives in studying magic. Two traditions are presented in these core rules, but characters can also invent their own. A character who chooses the shamanic tradition is a shaman. Shamanic magic is fueled through a link with the outer world of nature and the inner world of emotion, will, and faith. A character who chooses the hermetic tradition is a mage. Mages see the universe as patterns of force and energy they can control with complex symbols and formulae of power. Hermetic magic is more intellectual, relying on observation, theory, practice, and precise execution, rather than intuition and improvisation. Mages are scholars and often have elaborate libraries and equipment to assist their work. Adepts have their own unique path, known as the somatic tradition. Adepts are concerned with the harmony and perfection of body and mind, focusing magical power toward that end. Some adepts take a hermetic-like approach to magic, while others follow the principles of shamanism.

A magician’s link to magic may be personified by a spirit figure or totem, called a mentor spirit, which exemplifies her beliefs. Mentor spirits provide certain advantages and disadvantages.


Characters possess knowledge and techniques known as skills, which have ratings that are used to carry out tests. Skills define what a character knows and can do. They range from Active Skills such as Unarmed Combat to certain sets of Knowledge Skills such as Biology. All skills have a predetermined linked attribute—the attribute that applies when the skill is used. The rating of the attribute plus the rating of the skill combined make up the dice pool for skill tests.

Skill Ratings

Skills are rated on a scale of 1 to 6, similar to attributes. A rating of 3 represents professional competency in a particular skill. Beginning characters can only start the game with either a single skill at a rating of 6 (and all others 4 or less) or only two skills with a rating of 5 (and all the rest 4 or less). The maximum natural rating available for a skill is 6, or 7 with the Aptitude quality. Adept powers, implants or magic may provide bonus dice to a skill, creating a modified skill rating, but this does not change the base skill rating. The maximum modified rating allowed is 1.5 times the natural rating (making 9 the maximum achievable, or 10 with the Aptitude quality).


A specialization represents a focused field of training or education in one aspect of a base skill. For example, a character with Pistols skill can specialize in Semi-Automatics, improving her ability when firing any semi-automatic pistol. A specialization grants the character 2 extra dice on tests using that skill when the particular specialty applies. This is noted on the character sheet by adding “(+2)” after the skill rating. Only one specialization can be taken per skill.

Skill Groups

Skill groups are sets of related skills that can be purchased and upgraded at the same time for a reduced cost per skill. The individual skills inside a group function identically to skills purchased separately. Starting characters cannot have a skill group higher than Rating 4.


Beyond skills and attributes, characters have qualities—both positive and negative—that affect them in specific game terms. Qualities range from Magician (which provides a character access to magic in the Sixth World) to Bad Luck (which turns her own Edge against her). Positive qualities must be purchased during character creation, whereas negative qualities provide more points to be used during character generation. Characters may not purchase more than 35 BP worth of Positive qualities or take more than 35 BP worth of Negative qualities.


Gear is stuff the character owns. Gear includes a runner’s trusted sidearm, her nightclub clothes and corporate drone disguise, her micro-transceiver tuned to the team’s encrypted frequency, her battered Eurocar that she bought hot from the local gangbangers for use as a getaway vehicle, her ancient Celtic wristband made of orichalcum that serves as a spell focus, and the commlink that wirelessly connects her to the augmented Matrix. Beginning characters purchase gear with a pool of resources available only during character creation. Once the game starts, anything a character wants to buy, she’ll have to buy with money she earns. Welcome to real life, omae. As with attributes and skills, let your character’s background suggest appropriate gear when allocating resources. Characters should not be able to pull money and gear out of thin air—they should only possess items they can plausibly pay for and obtain, based on their backgrounds. Resources spent during character generation, however, do not necessarily reflect actual nuyen spent—if a character has something that would normally be out of her price range, it could be justified as a gift from a mysterious benefactor, something implanted against her will (perhaps with some sort of tracking device attached … ), or something she earned “in trade” for services rendered.


One piece of gear that almost every character in Shadowrun has is a commlink. Commlinks are what everyone uses to get online, and thanks to the wireless Matrix, characters are usually online all of the time. Commlinks are also the interface characters use to experience the augmented reality of the Matrix. There are drawbacks to having commlinks (and other wireless devices), however.

Gear Ratings

Some gear has ratings, beginning at 1 and increasing with the capability and sophistication of the item. In addition to cost, gear usually has an Availability, which determines how readily and quickly the item can be obtained. Weapons have a Damage Value that tells the player how much damage they do. The code consists of a number and a letter. The number indicates the base number of damage boxes the weapon inflicts. The letter indicates whether the weapon inflicts Physical (P) or Stun (S) damage. Some weapons also have an AP rating, which stands for armor penetration. The AP modifies the value of any armor used to resist the attack.

Body Modifications

In basic Shadowrun, characters may choose to have cyberware (technological devices) and bioware (modified organs) implanted into their body.


Various technological implants, chemical modifications, and structural enhancements to the metahuman body, collectively known as cyberware, can improve a character’s attributes and abilities. Certain cyberware makes it possible for a character to accomplish extraordinary feats, such as acting three times as often as an unaugmented person (wired reflexes), recording a conversation across the room in a crowded bar (cyberear with select sound filter), or sending mental commands via wireless link to electronic devices. Implanting cyberware in the body is an invasive procedure, so cyberware has an Essence Cost. The (meta)human body has limits—only a certain amount of cyberware can be installed before the body runs out of Essence and dies. Cyberware is particularly damaging to the magically active, because their Magic attribute is dependent on their Essence. Some burned-out mages, who have lost a bit of their Magic from accidents, drugs, or other abuses to their bodies, attempt to compensate for their weakened magical ability with more cyberware. This path is a rapid downward spiral, and more than one such runner has found himself unable to cast anything but the most weakened spells. The more cyberware a character has installed, the more “inhuman” she becomes. Overly-cybered characters tend to become a bit detached, and the empathy between them and other metahumans suffers for it. While some cyberware is so common that it can be implanted during lunch break at a corner bodyshop and is no longer remarkable to the general public (especially cybereyes and datajacks), heavy amounts of visible cyberware can still have a startling effect on many people. Implants are also an impediment to magical healing. Many pieces of cyberware are considered to be dangerous and are either restricted to licensed security personnel or are outright illegal. This includes most cyber-implant weaponry, high level wired reflexes, and so forth. Sporting ’ware like this can get a character heavily fined, jailed, or worse. This tends to make travel difficult for some, as most airports and border checkpoints scan for cyberware. Security companies have invented several methods of forcibly restraining people from using various implants. Cyberware can be quite expensive, especially if it is illegal. Black clinics operate in the shadows, providing ’ware and installation services for hefty fees. Many of them offer used cyberware, and will pay for bodies that sport still-useful implants. Corporations and governments operate their own high-level clinics, far from prying eyes. Depending on a character’s background, there should be some explanation as to how the character obtained the cyberware she has, what she had to do to get it, and perhaps who she still owes for it. It should be noted that many employers are not against removing ’ware installed in former employees.


Whereas cyberware is mechanical and alien to the body, bioware is of the flesh. Bioware implants usually enhance the body’s existing functions by replacing old organs and organic systems with new and improved organs and systems. Bioware is harder to detect and easier on the body than cyberware, but it is typically harder to acquire and more expensive. Bioware can allow characters to do extraordinary things such as see in the dark (cat’s eyes), sleep only three hours per night (sleep regulator), or move with more agility (enhanced articulation). While it’s true that bioware is less invasive to the body that cyberware, it still has an unbalancing effect on the character’s holistic systems. Bioware also has an Essence Cost, just like cyberware.

Implant Grades

Higher grades of cyberware and bioware known as alphaware, betaware, and deltaware are available. Alphaware is more Essence friendly than standard cyberware, but is more costly as well. Betaware and deltaware are even more Essence friendly and expensive, but are also harder to acquire and are not available to starting characters. Additionally, there is a higher grade of bioware that has been grown from the recipient’s own cloned cells, known as cultured bioware. Cultured bioware is more Essence friendly than standard bioware, but is more costly as well.


Contacts are non-player characters (NPCs) that gamemasters can use to make Shadowrun games richer, more unpredictable, and more exciting for players. Contacts are vital in Shadowrun. These are the people a character knows who can reveal information important to the character’s work, legitimate or not. Contacts are the purveyors of perhaps the most vital commodity of the 2070s: information. Need to know who’s doing what to whom? What the latest street rumor is? Where a special piece of gear can be found? Ask a contact. Contacts are not necessarily friends—many of them expect to be paid or to receive favors in turn. Contacts have their own lives and their own needs, so they may occasionally turn to the character for help (providing a new scenario basis). Contacts also vary in their dependability and trustworthiness—presumably if a character treats her contacts well and plays them straight, they can be trusted. A character will not get anywhere in the dicey world of Shadowrun if she doesn’t trust anyone. To represent these factors, each contact has two ratings: Loyalty (indicating the depth of the relationship) and Connection (how networked they are), both described below. Player characters start off with contacts acquired during character creation. These are contacts the character has established a working relationship with based on past legwork and social interactions. It is also possible to acquire contacts during the game, but only through roleplaying. Characters cannot “buy” contacts once the game begins; they have to earn them the hard way.

Loyalty Rating

This is the contact’s level of loyalty towards the character—how much the contact will inconvenience himself, protect the character, or put himself at risk for the character.

Connection Rating

A contact’s Connection rating indicates how useful he is in terms of his own network of contacts and influence. Connection is rated from 1 to 6, with higher-rated contacts having a better chance of providing favors, acquiring swag, or getting the information needed.


During character creation, the player must “purchase” the character’s starting lifestyle. Lifestyle determines how well the character lives, and it eliminates the worry of daily expenses like food, laundry, phone bills, and so on. To maintain a lifestyle once the game begins, the character must pay a certain amount of money (based on the lifestyle) per month.

Condition Monitors

An important part of the record sheet is the Condition Monitor, consisting of two tracks. The Physical Damage Track displays wound damage and shows when the character dies. The Stun Damage Track shows fatigue and stun damage and indicates when a character falls unconscious. The Physical Damage Track has a number of boxes equal to 8 plus half a character’s Body attribute (round up). The Stun Damage Track has a number of boxes equal to 8 plus half a character’s Willpower attribute (round up). Some pieces of equipment, such as vehicles, also have a Condition Monitor to track the amount of damage the object has taken.


Karma is the numerical representation of a character’s accomplishments. It is the equivalent of experience, awarded to characters at the end of adventures.