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.
If you don't have time to read this post right now, you can also view this article on Youtube.
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. Some magic users only have access to specific kinds of spells, but this post demonstrates how to build a Magician, which is a general-purpose magic user. As a Magician, you have no restrictions on what form of magic you have access to.
This post is not meant to explain every detail about Shadowrun character creation or its magic system, 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 usually fall into, especially when it comes to 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 your character 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 you'd choose row A for the column labelled 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, 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 from each row for each column, but never the same row twice.
To keep things simple for your first build, 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 B.
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:
If you chose the Human or Elf metatype, you may have a point left over at the end. That's just because this build is flexible (anything lower that row B excludes Trolls, and I wanted all metatypes to be available to you.) Next time you build a character, you can choose different rows so that you're not wasting any points. This is the way of Shadowrun, though. There's always a choice to be made, and everything has a cost!
For the Attributes column on page 65, choose row 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. There are two attributes to focus on as a magic user:
For the Magic or resonance column, choose A.
Your magic user type grants you a Magic Rating of 6. Write that in your Magic/Resonance score on your character sheet (the maximum is 6.)
According to row A, Magicians get:
As a magic user, you follow either the Hermetic or Shamanic tradition. Hermetic mages use Logic + Willpower, while Shamans use Charisma + Willpower.
Choose the tradition that's best for you based on your attribute scores.
Write your choice of Magical skills in the Skills section of your character sheet. The RTG column stands for "rating." The rating of your Magic Skills is 5 (because Row A says so.)
To choose spells, you need to know the basics of how magic works.
When you cast a spell, you choose how much energy you want to use when casting it. This is the spell's Force. It can be as low as 2, or as high as your Magic Rating (which is 6 in this case) times 2. In other words, you can cast using Force anywhere from 2 to 12.
When you roll to cast a spell, you can only count a number of hits equal to the spell's Force.
After you've cast a spell, you take stun damage equal to the spell's Drain. The good news is that Hermetic mages get to roll Logic + Willpower dice to resist Drain damage, and Shamans get to roll Charisma + Willpower. Every successful hit prevents 1 point of Drain damage.
You don't have a maximum number of spells per day. You're limited only by your Magic rating and your ability to resist Drain.
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. After you have a skill, each point spent on that skill raises its rating by 1. If you spend 3 points on Negotiation, then you have Negotiation (3).
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 Navigation skill costs 1 point to add to your character sheet's Skills section. Were you to take that skill, you'd write Navigation 1 on your character sheet to indicate that you have the Navigation skill at rating 1.
You might append another point, though, to specialize in Celestial. In that case, you write Navigation (Celestial) 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.
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.
Ignore the Living Persona section. It's just for Technomancers.
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.