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Shadowrun Survival Tips

by Alan De Smet

(This article is about the table-top role-playing game, not the video game.)

Shadowrun, like many gritty cyberpunk role-playing games, can be very lethal. A simple mistake can kill a character. The last thing you want to hear in the middle of a run is "we should probably remember that for next time." I've found myself saying that far too often, so I've assembled this list of reminders for myself and anyone else looking for tips.

Shadowrun is very sensitive to how the GM chooses to run the game, and which books are being used. While hopefully these tips are of use in many games, you'll need to adapt them to your own situation.

This was originally written for third edition Shadowrun, but I believe the majority of the tips apply to any edition.

For some worst-case examples what can go wrong during a Shadowrun game and some laughs, check out the CLUE Files.

Despite all of my planning, I still suck at Shadowrun, so if you have any suggestions for survival tips, let me know.

Stick to a plan

A well implemented but faulty plan is better than changing your plan constantly or wasting time trying to find the perfect plan. Unless the initial plan is fundamentally no longer possible, stick to it.

Check for tails

Is someone tailing you physically? Have you been electronically tagged? (Buy and use a jammer.) Is there a magical tail? (Search for one astrally. Have a mage chase off awakened pursuit. Shaman spirits can be ditched by changing domain (City to hearth or visa versa). Elementals can be ditched by fulfilling their task (good luck guessing) or be destroyed.) Is the person or thing you grabbed tagged in any of these ways?

Maintain a disposable hideout

You will eventually be tailed, bugged, or otherwise followed. When you are, you'll be happy your hideout is disposable.

Everyone should kick in for a low lifestyle apartment. Keep it lightly stocked with the below supplies. When in doubt for someplace to regroup, lay low, or whatever you need, use the hideout. When you're found, you can easily cut your loses and flee.

Since you might be trailed to your hideout and not realize it for several missions, change your hideout every single mission.

Be well equipped

Every team should have:

Communications Devices. Cell phones or radios for everyone. You will eventually get separated, and these can be a lifesaver.

Medical Supplies. Stim patches and Trauma patches are a good start. You're Shadowrunners, you're going to be shot at, you're going to get hurt. Be ready for it. Even if you've got magical healing, sometimes it isn't enough. Have these available. And remember to avoid slapping a Trauma or Stim patch on an Awakened character if at all possible, they will not thank you for it.

Lots of Ammunition. Conserving ammo is a joke. You can always drop it later if you don't need it.

Fire or Acid. You're going to bleed in a fight. That blood can be used to target ritual magic on you. If someone has a ritual component for you, you're screwed. Before leaving any fight scene, burn the area. This also helps remove evidence that might lead to you. (This one really depends on your GM. Check if he thinks blood on the ground splattered during a fight is a reasonable ritual component before bothering with this.)

Provide Plausible Explainations

People want to see normal, boring things. Guards generally don't want to find shadowrunners. So if something odd happens, if they can possibly believe that something mundane happened they'll believe that.

For example, if you're slowly moving an outdoor security camera's point of view, bring a bird and a partial bird nest with you. If you're successful, put the nest on top of the camera. A guard curious about the shift in angle will see the partial nest and assume that the bird pushed it out of alignment. If you accidentally jerk the camera, stun the bird and leave it near the camera. The guard will assume that the bird smacked into the camera. Neither case is terribly plausible, but to the security guard it's more comforting than the thought that armed killers are wandering the premises.

Free Will Is the Weakest Link

No matter how much technology you throw at a problem, creatures with free will are the weakest link. Historically this meant just humans, but these days it includes meta-humans, spirits, and artificial intelligences. Beings with free will are suspectible to bribery, are lazy, become bored. Look for where humans enter the security system and you'll typically be looking at the weakest link.

Exploit Play

Locks have "play," a small amount of theoretically unnecessary movement. However, if you remove the play, the lock is so tight that it won't rotate at all, even for the legit key. This play is what allows lock picking to work.

Most systems have play. Without some play systems typically break down. You absolutely, positively need ID to enter the building? What happens when someone steals your ID? How can you get into the building to get a new ID issued? Heck, how can you get in in the first place to get the ID? Any motion in the yard triggers an alarm? What about squirrels and birds? Absolutely uncrackable safe that can only be opened by a password memorized by the company's CEO? What happens when the CEO gets run over by a truck?

Seek out the edge cases and determine where a system needs play to cope with the real world. Then arrange exactly those circumstances.

Exploit Interactions

Security is a set of procedures and technologies. All of these taken together form a system. Typically a system's weakest point is where different procedures or technologies intersect. This is where you should strike. In particular, what happens when the procedure for dealing with shadowrunners intersects with other procedures.

For example, a corporation with a policy of clearing the building during a bomb threat has provided a handy way to clear the building. How would they respond to a shadowrun during a fire? During a gang war? A chemical spell?

Similarly, the autogun systems might be set up to not fire on authorized people, but to fire on unknown people. What happens with you use an authorized person as a body shield?

Create the worst possible set of circumstances for your opponents during a run. Most runners instinctively know this, but you'll be even more successful if you actively seek out opportunities.

It's worth considering that Identification, Authentication, and Authorization are actually separate problems and often represent separate procedures that with loopholes between them. Identification is usually the easiest to fake. Authentication might be as foolish as just looking at the (faked) ID badge, or might involve a cross check in a database (better have a decker). How are you authorized? Again, examination of credentials you can abuse, or a database check? Look to these weaknesses. Perhaps an ID from a contracted janitorial services company is the ID. The local business doesn't have direct access to the janitorial company's database, so they authenticate by examining the ID. Access to various parts of the building is encoded on the ID. You can make a fake ID to get access and encode it with bogus permissions to get where you want to be.

For way more on this, check out Beyond Fear by Bruce Schneier.

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

Be aware of your surroundings. Pay attention to a number of details. How thick and strong are the walls? If a grenade goes off, will you blow a hole in the wall or end up with chunky salsa. Either case has advantages and disadvantages. How may escape routes are there? Can you create new escape routes?

Rest Safely

It's not uncommon for a team to need to hole up somewhere. When you do, be sure to plan your sleep schedule in shifts in advance. Ideally have two team members awake at any given time, but always have someone awake and alert.

Find multiple escape routes, ideally inluding some unexpected ones. A window you can break open and toss a rope ladder out of on high floor is a good option. If the walls are thin enough, you may be able to blow a new entrance into an unexpected location.

Of course, every exit is an entrance you may need to defend. Set up cover to use if an entrance is used to attack you. Reinforce entrances. Cover windows so you're harder to snipe.

Confirm What the Johnson is Providing

Nail down every possible detail with your Johnson; you don't want to discover different expectations mid-run. Is the Johnson providing a safehouse? If you're guarding an event, did the Johnson vet the kitchen staff and guards, and how well did he do it? Can you be sure no one has joined the staff, possibly sneaking in since then?

Check the Weather

Runners don't generally get much of a window of opportunity for their runs. still, check the weather to ensure you're prepared for it. If you're lucky the weather might give you some advantages.

Truck Bombs

Truck bombs built on fertilizer are cheap, simple, and effective. They can be potent distractions, effective weapons for wetwork, or a way to create a new entrance into a building.

A cheap van can simply be stolen, but be careful to do your run before it is reported stolen. Airport long-term parking, especially in the cheap, distant, less secured area, is a traditional place to steal cars that won't be reported for a while; look for cars that arrived recently. You can check for recent arrivals by visiting twice and checking for new cars, or checking for dust, or checking the parking ticket if someone left it in the window.

The fertilizer will likely be harder, but fortunately it's needed in vast quantities making theft easy and a black market easy.

(Wow, that's probably going to get me on a federal watch list.)

Loot Your Victims

If you have time, grab valuable items from your victims, even accidental or unexpected ones. In particular, corporate security may have high end weapons and armor that you can keep or sell. If you're in a CEO's office, grab any files or data disks you can; you might get lucky and get something you can resell.

Unsorted notes and ideas


Updated 2007-07-09: A bunch of clairifiations, expanded notes into proper sections, a bunch of grammatical fixes.

2008-09-22: A few more as yet untested ideas added to the unsorted notes.

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