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 magic user 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.
Shadowrun isn't a class-based system, but there are nevertheless general categories that characters might fall into, especially around the use of magic. In Shadowrun 5e, there are four different expressions of magic users:
Unlike my quick D&D and Pathfinder 2e builds, I don't have the Shadowrun build process down to 12-15 minutes. However, I think there's value in distilling the Core Rulebook down, so grab your rulebook for reference and a blank character sheet.
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:
There are also two special attributes listed in the table:
Ignore the INI column. For now, leave the Initiative box on your character sheet blank.
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 want to be really really rich, then 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 skills. In that case, 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.
For the Metatype column of the Priorities table on page 65, choose row A.
This column grants your metatype a number of special attribute points (it's the number in parentheses after the metatype, for example
On your character sheet, use these points to boost these values in the Attributes section:
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.
For the Magic or resonance column, choose B, and choose what kind of magic user you want to play. Don't choose Technomancer. Even though Technomancers are listed, they don't use Magic but Resonance, and I cover that in a separate post.
Each magic user type grants you a magic rating, so boost your Magic/Resonance score on your character sheet (maximum is 6.)
Your magic user type may also grant you some number of magic skills, spells, or spell group.
If your magic user type grants you magical skills or magical skill groups, turn to page 90 to see your choices. The magical skill groups are:
If your magic user type grants you a group, then you get all the spells in that group. If your magic user type grants you individual magic skills, then you can take spells from those groups. Turn to page 142 for a description of each skill.
Write your choices in the Skills section of your character sheet. The RTG column stands for "rating," so fill in the rating provided by your magic user type.
If your magic user type grants you spells, turn to page 284. Read through the spells and take what you think might be useful.
Write your spells in the Spells/Preparations/Rituals/Complex Forms section of your character sheet.
Back at the Priority table on page 65, choose E for the Skills column. Turn to page 130 to read through the skills available.
Each skill, at rating 1, costs 1 point.
If a skill has a Specialization listing, then you can spend another 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.
For the Resources column, choose D. This gives you 50,000 nuyen (that's money). Don't get too excited. 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:
That leaves 30,000 nuyen to spend on these important additions:
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.
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. For example, a magician or mystic adept build as described in this post gets a magic rating of 4 along with 7 spells from the Priorities table on page 65. According to the Additional purchases & Restrictions table on page 98, you're allowed your Magic Rating × 2 spells at character creation, so you could spend 5 karma to take an eighth spell.
In the game, karma points are what allow you to improve skill ratings, and you can keep up to 7 points to carry into the game.
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.
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.