Shadowrun has the pleasure of being an incredibly engaging setting married to one of the most aggravating RPG rules systems I've ever encountered, published (at least as of 5th edition) in a book which has editing I could describe--at best--as "aggressively bad".
People love Shadowrun. Hell, I love Shadowrun. I ran a weekly game of SR5 for something like a year and a half. One of the most common questions I find when reading about the game online, though, is "How can I play Shadowrun without using the actual Shadowrun rule system?"
The sempiternal /srg/ threads on /tg/ will advise you to play a different, better edition of Shadowrun--usually whichever edition the poster is currently playing. The r/Shadowrun subreddit will suggest... well, they'll probably suggest Fate first, and then start arguing about that.
But sometimes you'll get a useful suggestion from either of those places, because people ask the question often enough that some signal is bound to get through the noise. Viable options (depending on one's preference for fluff, crunch, and design patterns) include hacks for Blades in the Dark, GURPS, The Sprawl, Apocalypse World, Dungeon Crawl Classics ("Cyber Sprawl Classics"), d20 Modern/d20 Future... Feel free to tell me which replacements I've missed out on in the comments.
Today, though, I want to talk about why my group is going to try Stars Without Number (Revised Edition).
TL;DR: Yes, you can use SWN plus a supplement or two to play Shadowrun without much trouble.
My current D&D 5e group got a bit sick of Dungeon of the Mad Mage and wanted something new. Our DM shares my opinions on both the novelty of the setting and non-viability of the ruleset, so the group debated what other systems might work. I suggested SWN, and it was left to me to prove it out. Our DM said we'd start it in about a month, so we all had plenty of time to consider our options.
Because I have brain problems, I spent six straight hours the next day reading SWN's core rules and two or three supplements to figure out if it would work for our purposes.
What does a game of Shadowrun require?
Elements like the alt-future Earth setting, the big ten megacorporations, and the major threats of the setting (Great Dragons, Knight Errant kill squads, Eagle Warriors, Bug Spirits, etc.) could each be fit in through description and fictional positioning. My bigger concern was the mechanics--we still want the game to feel like Shadowrun. Game mechanics absolutely communicate player experience, so I wanted to make sure that certain elements were going to be present:
- Guns and grenades, katanas and nanowires. Gear porn.
- High-risk combat
- Magic spells and spirit summoning
- Core Player Archetypes - Street Samurai, Deckers, etc.
- Cyberware/Body Augmentation
- Drones and Robots
- Edge/Luck mechanics
Here's what I found.
Gear Porn: Yes. Futuristic weaponry is almost purely descriptive, aside from specific gear rules like the "chunky salsa" effects of grenades in confined spaces. The relatively brief weapon and gear tables in SWN cover this adequately, with further differentiation coming from the existing rules for installing gear modifications, and GM-sourced small changes to ranges or ammo capacities and the like. A random table of manufacturers and model names can finish rounding this out; something that can produce results like "Shiawase Arms "Hyperion" MK IV Linear Accelerator Projectile System".
High-Risk Combat: Yes, moreso than actual Shadowrun. Deadly combat is a function of attack accuracy and HP values relative to weapon/spell/effect damage values. Thin margins make combat more dangerous, and SWN's OSR genes offer low HP values and high damge output. A 1st level Warrior with a Constitution of 18 has, at best, 10 HP, and a basic rifle--shooting normal bullets and everything--does 1d10+2 damage (plus the shooter's Dexterity modifier). That same Warrior at 10th level is still only going to have 75 HP on average. Shadowrun's combat tended to either be a fruitless exchange of entirely-resisted small arms fire between heavily cyberarmored gunmen, or single rounds of 30+ dicepool rocket tag.
As an additional bonus, melee combat remains a viable choice in SWN compared to an afterthought at best in Shadowrun, further enabling you to play the Ninja Elf With a Monomolecular Katana of your dreams.
Magic spells and spirit summoning: Yes, Sort Of. SWN's core "magic" is Psionics. The powers are divided into six disciplines, but one of them is Teleportation, which is impossible in Shadowrun lore (along with raising the dead and time travel). While SWN's psionics could be crammed into the same role as magic in Shadowrun, it's not a great fit and it doesn't cover the summoning of spirits. Even the appendix in the SWN Revised Edition's core rules covering "Space Magic" is only a guideline to adapting the spell lists from other OSR/retroclone games to a space wizard class.
Instead, I turned to The Codex of the Black Sun, a supplement dedicated to implementing Space Magic. While I didn't read it cover to cover, I did skim it for concepts that'd be useful. The book contains a "Pacter" class, which summons and bargains with Shadows. If we use it to cover the older idea of Shadowrun street shamans that exclusively deal with spirits rather than cast spells, we can cover the archetype, albeit with some significant reflavoring of the visual descriptions. We also lose out on the ability for someone to burn themselves out for a day (or forever!) by summoning something too big to handle. Still, better any access to the concept than nothing at all, so I'll call this a half-win. The supplement also contains a number of other magic-related classes that can stand in for Shadowrun archetypes like PhysAds and MystAds, so that's enough to make it worthwhile. The actual writing in the book seems pretty interesting, too--I bought a hardcopy and look forward to reading it on its own merit.
Core Archetypes for Player Characters: Enthusiastic Yes! Let's go through the list:
- Street Samurai/PhysAdept/MystAdept - You can get there through Warriors + Cyberware; the Adept class options (steal from D&D Monks and Warlocks, basically) and the Codex of the Black Sun stuff.
- Infiltrator/Face - The Expert class + SWN focus options + specific gear enables this.
- Decker/Technomancer - The core SWN hacking rules are perfectly functional for this, including on-site requirements, although no full-immersion VR options exist. Which, honestly, is fine. The whole SWN hacking system is streamlined down to the same pacing/resolution as everything else. I'll talk more about hacking and Technomancers below, but yeah, it works as a core character competency.
- Mage/Shaman - Yes; see the writeup on Magic above. The "Adventurer" baseline multiclass options even cover limited/restricted spellcasting options from Shadowrun.
- Weird crap, like a PhysAd with all their points in Hacking - Yes, surprisingly, if you take, like... Arcane Expert as a class and then pick up one of the focus options that gives you the thing you want. It's janky, but so was pulling off something like that in Shadowrun.
Hacking: Yes, and smoothly, too. The core rules cover the most common hacking tasks, and the Polychrome supplement offers more details beyond subverting local security systems, including creating identities, stealing or counterfeiting money (it creates temporary cash called "joss" that vanishes after a set time!), acquiring information from various sources, and changing existing records.
But seriously, it's one skill check against a difficulty modified by location, circumstance, and speed-of-execution. Bless Kevin Crawford's heart--I don't know if he's solved The Hacker Problem, but it's a long step toward better than SR's resolution mechanics. I should know--I made a hacking quickref sheet for myself back when I was playing one, and it's nonsense.
Cyberware/Body augmentation - Yes. Extensive cyberware options in both the core SWN book and Polychrome, including replacement rules for Essence loss: System Shock, which limits pieces installed and make it gradually harder to be healed through magic or biotech if you have a boatload of metal in you. One downside (?) is that it doesn't reduce one's magic stat, so there's no reason for magic-types to avoid cyberware. Personally, I'm fine with that, as the cyberware available offers options rather than straight numeric upgrades.
Drones and robots: Yes! Plenty of options exist in the core rules allowing you to play a competent rigger, including all the lonely fun of mathing out drone modifications and hardpoint customization. Playing a rigger medic is entirely plausible and doesn't require a PhD in symbolic logic.
Edge/Luck Mechanics: Not present. This one was a bummer--there's no hero point/luck/Edge mechanic in the base game. It wouldn't be too hard to lift one from somewhere else or invent one wholesale, but it does dull the edge (ha) on SWN as a 1:1 replacement for SR's ruleset.
All told: SWN is an A- rules replacement for Shadowrun, and I don't regret any of those six hours spent in a fugue state.