Building Shadowrun characters

How to build a character for Shadowrun 5e

tip gm rpg shadowrun

If you've ever played the Shadowrun Returns, Shadowrun Dragonfall, or Shadowrun Hong Kong video games, then you may have developed an interest in the Sixth World.

Building an RPG character is complex. While Shadowrun's character build process is explained well in the 5th Edition Core Rulebook, there's a lot to filter out because there are so many possibilities. This post describes a linear build process for a Shadowrun character, and is designed to help new players.

Note that this post is for Shadowrun 5th Edition, even though at the time of this writing 6th Edition has been out for a few years. I haven't switched to 6th Edition, and I'm just writing for what I play (and more importantly, what people I invite to my games can use.)

The build process I describe in this post is intentionally restrictive. It's not meant to explain every detail, and it's not meant to open every possibility. It's meant to get you through character creation and ready for your first game.

No class

Shadowrun isn't a class-based system. You build your character by selecting skills, and your character's "job" in the game is more or less determined by those skills. You do what you're good at.

Still, like a good heist movie, there are a few different roles typical for a group of shadowrunners working together:

  • The face does most of the talking for the group, thanks to high charisma or a charming personality.
  • Ranging from street samurai to tank to a covert ops specialist, some members of a team are just there for protection, intimidation, coercion, and brute force destruction.
  • The decker is a hacker.
  • The rigger uses drones for all of the above.

Most of these are considered archetypes and pregenerated builds for these (and more) are on page 112. I sometimes look at these for ideas, and sometimes I just copy one over to a character sheet and start playing. However, I think there's value in distilling the Core Rulebook down in case for when you want to build your own, so grab your rulebook for reference and a blank character sheet.

1. Pick a metatype (species)

Your "metatype" in Shadowrun is your species. Pick a metatype from the Metatype attribute table on page 66. On your character sheet, add the low number (before the slash) to its corresponding attribute. There are 8 attributes:

  • Body
  • Agility
  • Reaction
  • Strength
  • Willpower
  • Logic
  • Intuition
  • Charisma

There are also two special attributes listed in the table:

  • Edge
  • Essence

Ignore the INI column. For now, leave the Initiative box on your character sheet blank.

2. Boost your special attributes

Turn to the Priority table on page 65. This table is tricky at first, but it makes sense after you've used it a few times. The Priority table is a sliding scale for character your traits. For each column, you choose one and only one cell from rows A to E.

For example, if you wanted to be really really rich, then you'd choose row A for column Resources. But that means you can't use row A for any other column.

A different example: Maybe you don't care about material wealth, but you want to have lots of skill points. In that case, you'd choose row A for column Skills and row B (or C or D or E) for Resources.

By the end of the process, you'll have chosen exactly one cell for each row and column intersection, but never the same cell twice.

To keep things simple for you, I recommend choosing cells that give you the least choice. This means you have less to choose from, but when you're just starting out that can be a good thing. It's hard to choose stuff when you don't yet have any context for what a good or a bad choice is.

2a. Boost your special attributes

For the Metatype column of the Priorities table on page 65, choose row B.

Unless you're playing as a troll, this column grants your metatype a number of special attribute points (it's the number in parentheses after the metatype, for example Human (7).)

On your character sheet, use these points to boost these values in the Attributes section:

  • Edge: Think of it as luck, maximum of 6 (unless you're human, which has a maximum of 7)
  • Magic/Resonance: How magical you are, maximum of 6

3. Boost your physical and mental attributes

For the Attributes column on page 65, choose C.

This grants you 16 points to spend of your physical (Body, Agility, Reaction, Strength) and mental (Willpower, Logic, Intuition, Charisma) attributes, found in the Attributes section of your character sheet. No attribute score may exceed its maximum (the number after the slash in the Metatype attribute table on page 66) and only one may meet its maximum.

4. Choose your Magic/Resonance rating

For the Magic or resonance column, choose E. You're not playing a magical character. I've got a separate post for building a magical character (such as a physical adept, mystic adept, aspected magician, and magician.)

5. Skills

Choose D for the Skills column. Turn to page 130 to read through the skills available.

Each skill, at rating 1, costs 1 point. If you spend 4 skill points on a skill, you get that skill at rating 4. A skill rating dictates how many dice you add to your dice pool when rolling a skill test. Buy a few skills that are important to you, and put at least 4 points into each.

If a skill has a Specialization listing, then you can spend another skill point to gain +2 dice for skill tests that involve your area of specialization. For example, the Blades skill costs 1 point to add to your character sheet's Skills section. Were you to take that skill, you'd write Blades 1 on your character sheet to indicate that you have the Blades skill at rating 1. You might append another point, though, to specialize in Knives. In that case, you write Blades (Knives) 1 (+2) on your character sheet.

6. Resources

For the Resources column, choose A. This gives you 450,000 nuyen (that's money). It sounds like a lot, but it goes fast.

The Gear checklist side bar on page 94 can help you focus on what's essential, but if you happen to have the Run Faster source book shopping is even easier. Run Faster has pre-made packs of gear on page 228, lifestyle kits, magic packos, and much more.

Assuming you're just using the Core Rulebook, though, here's a basic Shadowrunner pack costing 20,000 nuyen:

  • Fake SIN (rating 1) [page 443]
  • Meta Link commlink [page 439]
  • Colt America L36 light pistol with 2 spare clips [page 426]
  • 100 rounds ammo [page 433]
  • Knife [page 423]
  • Armor clothing or vest [page 436]
  • Glasses with image link [page 444]
  • Mapsoft of campaign city [page 442]
  • Standard credstick [page 443]
  • Flashlight [page 449]
  • Respirator (rating 1) [page 449]
  • Backpack

That leaves lots of nuyen to spend on these important additions:

  • Vehicle
  • Cyberware
  • DocWagon contract [page 450]
  • Lifestyle [page 95]

Spend every last nuyen you have, because you can't take any into the game. The nuyen you start with in the game is derived from your lifestyle. Spend money on a lifestyle, and then roll the die listed by that lifestyle to find out how much nuyen you get for in-game pocket money.

7. Spend karma and make contacts

In Shadowrun, you don't earn experience points, you earn karma. At character creation, you start with 25 karma to spend. Turn to page 73 and look at the Positive qualities and Negative qualities tables. Positive qualities cost karma points and grant you some game benefit. Negative qualities give you karma points, but they impose some game penalty.

This is my favourite part of the Shadowrun build. Read over the qualities and choose some positive and negative qualities for your character. You can only have 25 points worth of positive qualities, and 25 points worth of negative, so don't feel like you have to hit 0 karma

After you've recorded your qualities, turn to page 98 to learn what you can do with any leftover karma points you might have. A shadowrunner thrives on contacts. It's a little bit of a unique system, although you can equate it to henchmen in 2nd Edition AD&D, or even to some NPCs in D&D 5e. Shadowrun contacts drive the story, fill in the gaps your party doesn't have, and sometimes they even provide or serve as nonplayer party members. If you have any leftover karma, absolutely get at least one contact. In case you need help coming up with a contact, there are sample ones on page 390.

The Additional purchases & Restrictions table on page 98 provides six different ways you can spend excess karma, along with associated restrictions.

You can choose to save up to 7 points to carry into the game. This can be useful because in the game, you can use karma points to improve skill ratings, which is the closest equivalent Shadowrun has to a "level up."

8. Initiative and limits

Time for some final calculations. Turn to page 101 and use the Final calculations table to determine the value for the empty fields remaining on your character sheet.

If you purchased a commlink, then your Dataprocessing score is the rating of your commlink. If you didn't get a commlink, you can ignore Matrix values altogether.

You have a character now

Shadowrun 5th Edition is a complex system, so this character build is intentionally limiting. You might not understand everything on your character sheet at first, but playing the game is the best way to learn how to play.

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

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