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Review – Shadowrun: Data Trails

24 June, 2015

Shadowrun: Data Trails provides information, tools and background for the Matrix, the successor of the web in the Shadowrun future. Is it vital to your Shadowrun game?  Yes, immediately, if you are a GM running a Matrix focused game, and at some point otherwise as it has enough useful information on the Matrix and deckers to be widely useful for any Shadowrun campaign.  The product could have been better organized and the GM’s section deserved to be much larger but still a useful addition to the Shadowrun range.

Shadowrun: Data Trails, is the core matrix handbook for the 5th edition of Shadowrun providing information on the matrix, the global computer network that ties everything together.  There should be something for just about everyone (but especially the GM).

The book begins with one of the ubiquitous fiction sections, then an (in game world) discussion on the new Matrix (the global computer network of the Shadowrun universe), how it has changed
and how it works now.  It provides a useful overview of the various Matrices, as each major Megacorps has their own overlay as do most governments and then there is the baseline public matrix (the PubGrid) for those who cannot access something better.  A brief description of the appearance and feel Megacorp grids and some others are provided to allow for better description of such environments.

The next section deals with the people who use the Matrix, focusing in the hackers, with notes on the hacker underground, slang, and some of the hacker and technomancer groups you can find (or fight or join).  Next there is a short section of new positive and negative qualities mostly, but not exclusively, for hackers and technomancers and including such gems as “online fame,” everyone knows the online you, and “data liberator” where you are so convinced that data wants to be free that you give it away every chance you get.  The “Born to Hack” section provides life modules to use with the module-based character creation system of Run Faster, but might suggest some builds for characters even if not using that system.  Then the work moves into new apps, programs and forms providing new options for hackers and technomancers both.  Following new software is new hardware, commlinks, cyberdecks and more for the discerning hacker.

It then veers back to how the new Matrix works with an overview of how the various corporate grids are patrolled and defended including new IC and NPC stats for some of the security personnel one might encounter.  Next, hosts are discussed, which is good as they are the major subsystems that hackers are going to be dealing with.  Different types of hosts are discussed, government, retail, R&D and so on, with examples for each type presented both in game terms and a full description of how there appear and why they were shaped that way.  A brief run on a host is also given as an example of such things which is useful but it could have been a bit more detailed and explicit references to the rules (and rolls) and where to find them would have made it more useful.  But the host section is solidly useful and provides good information for GMs, and things to worry about for PCs.  Beneath hosts, indeed underlying the entire new matrix, is the Foundation a realm of deep programming that follows its own dreamlike rules.  From there you can manipulate the host on a major level, if you can understand the weird dream logic of each realm and, on the bright side, it is a great place to bring your whole team into to solve problems.  Two example Foundation realms: Gnome factory, a 1950s-ish cartoon factory run by garden gnomes for a quick adventure, and Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice (really) as an exercise in roleplaying and intrigue (though it is only minimally fleshed out).

Next is “The Principles of Insanity” which talks about AI of several different types, including e-ghosts, technomancers that have fallen to the dissonance (the toxic shamans of the technomancer set) and a little bit more on the realm of Matrix and UV hosts.  Embedded within this chapter are some new rules, the most major of which is playable AI-types, which I think would have been considerably helped by having a few example characters to better understand how the designers were thinking of the various AI-types and how they could function as characters.  Additionally some notes on what sorts of additional abilities dissonance technomancers may manifest and how UV hosts affect those jacked into them.  There are lots of good ideas and hooks in this section yet everything feels unfinished with just enough information to get started    and then the rest will have to be sorted out on the fly.

Lastly there is a section on Mastering the Matrix, which is advice for the GM on how to use the Matrix in a Shadowrun game.  Advice on structuring the use of the Matrix for various scenario types, advice on linking the action between deckers and everyone else, ways to present the Matrix to convey different story metaphors and some basic reminders on how combat in the Matrix works along with an example combat.  This should have been the first or second section as it help GMs (and players) frame the information in the other sections and it should have been larger.  The Matrix and linking adventure in it to the action of the rest of the characters is by far one of the hardest things a Shadowrun GM has to do in game.

Overall a useful work if oddly organized, I cannot help but think that it would have been better if all of the rules information was gathered in one place rather than being scattered about.  Also a chart collecting all of the Matrix actions, old and new, would have been helpful.

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