Tabletop Review: Shadowrun: Digital Tools Box (Beginner Box Set/Runner’s Tool Kit Alphaware)

Shadowrun: Digital Tools Box (Beginner Box Set/Runner’s Tool Kit Alphaware)
Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs
Cost: $19.99 (PDF)/TBD (physical)
Page Count: Special
Release Date: 01/30/2014
Get it Here:

January was an excellent month for tabletop releases. Numenera gave us The Ninth World Bestiary, Castles & Crusades gave us The Book of Familiars and Dungeon Crawl Classics released Intrigue at the Court of Chaos. However, not to be outdone, Catalyst Game Labs has released both the Beginner Box Set and the Runner’s Tool Kit Alphaware as a single PDF. The cost? Only $19.99. That’s a decent price, but made all the better when you realize that the purchase nets you three different coupons: $5 off a physical copy of the Beginner Box Set, $10 off a physical copy of Alphaware or $20 off both! Of course, the preorders for the physical copies haven’t gone live yet, so you still have a long wait for those, but at least the digital copy practically pays for itself if you’re thinking about the physical copy.

Originally, both of these Shadowrun starter kits were meant to be one package and it was supposed to be released in mid to late 2013. Obviously, the dates for the sets were pushed back for various reasons (It’s rare for ANY tabletop product to be released according to its originally scheduled date.) and I’m not really sure why the two were separated out, as it does feel like they could have stayed one big set. For those curious about how much you’ll have to spend on the physical copies – it looks to be between fifty and eighty dollars. has the Beginner Box Set for $14.12 with a MSRP of $19.99 and Alphaware for $36.05 and a MSRP of $59.99. While eighty dollars sounds like an insane amount of nuyen to be dropping on starter kit when you can get the Fifth Edition Quick Start Rules for free, the only way to be sure is to take a look at the contents, which is the whole point of this review. Remember though, this is a review and recommendation of the digital versions, which are all that are currently available.

First up – The Beginner Box Set!

  • A one page set of Instructions on how to use the box. Simple and straightforward enough.

  • Quick Start Rules. These are similar to the set that was released in the summer of 2013 for free (mentioned earlier in this review). This new set has the same amount of pages, but is missing the original set of pregenerated characters and has different artwork (to reflect the separate new pregenerated characters). The pregen pages have been replaced with some DM oriented content and a host of NPCs. It’s also better formatted – at least in my opinion. It also contains a very different “Food Fight” adventure. So don’t worry, you are not paying for something you used to get for free. Just something very similar.

  • Five Character Sheets. These are the new pregens and each are two pages long. One page is devoted to stats and one to art and a bio. You have Coydog the Elven Street Shaman (no listing of her totem though), Gentry the Human Decker, Hardpoint the Dwarven Rigger, Sledge the Ork Street Samurai and Ms. Myth the Troll Face. So you get a nice mix of roles and races.

  • Ms. Myth Booklet. This eight page document goes into detail about the Troll Face’s background, including who she is, her general tactics and how to play her. I’m of mixed feelings about this part, because players really should be allowed to develop the character themselves, even for a pre-gen. Otherwise you’re just following a script. Although perhaps a good idea for someone completely new to tabletop gaming, the downside is that a booklet of this nature can also give the wrong impression that a player SHOULD/MUST have a multipage dossier on every facet of their character. We’re not talking a Vampire: The Masquerade LARP after all. Even worse, a brand new GM could halt the game and say, “You’re not playing your character right,” which of course is wrong on multiple levels that should be obvious to anyone reading this. It’s a character – there should be no right and wrong. So while the idea behind the booklet is sound and well-intentioned (as well as nicely written), there is the potential for more harm than good to be done with it. The booklet also contains a five stage solo adventure for a DM to run with Ms. Myth. It’s very sparsely detailed, but there’s enough here than both a newbie GM and fledging player can run it and find fun in the piece.

  • Edge of Now. A twenty-six page overview of the Sixth World (primarily on Seattle) and a short piece of fiction using the pregenerated characters. Really well done and will help more than anything else in this box to explain Shadowrun‘s mood and themes.

  • Fire and Frost Excerpt. This is a forty-two page sample of an upcoming Shadowrun novel. I can’t say I cared for the plot or the writing here, and I usually really like the Shadowrun fiction that has been released. I honestly can say the excerpt ensured I wouldn’t buy the book… but I would review it if a copy came in, you know, like everything else Shadowrun we get. It does sound like Clockwork is going to be a supporting character in the novel, which does tempt me though, because it’s interesting to see him taking center stage. I would have preferred Neat or Another Rainy Night in the set, as they were plugged in it, are better written and are far easier for a newcomer to digest.

    So, that was the Beginner Box Set. It’s probably not too impressive to longtime Shadowrun gamers, but what is here is decent enough. I don’t know if I’d pay twenty bucks for the physical copy, as everything here has a free equivalent on the web, either through CGL directly (QSRs and pregens) or can be learned from friends or websites (Edge of Now). Still, if I knew a group of people interested in Shadowrun, perhaps due to the recent video game, Shadowrun Returns, this box might be a better investment than the Core Rulebook for getting one’s feet wet. Now, let’s look at Runner’s Tool Kit Alphaware. For newcomers, be careful, because there is a Runner’s Toolkit out there for Fourth Edition. Make sure you don’t buy the wrong one. The Fifth Edition version has Alphaware in the title, which is why I’m trying to refer to it as such in this review.

  • Alphaware Instruction Sheet. A one page briefing of what is in the box.

  • Edge of Now. Same as in the Beginner Box Set. The digital version only contains one PDF, but the physical copies of the BB and Alphaware will each contain one.

  • Five Character Sheets. These are the same pregenerated characters from the Beginner Box Set, but in a different style. These are more traditional SR character sheets, although whoever chose the fake handwriting font for these needs a good talking to. It’s pretty terrible, and you have to increase the PDF to 150% of its original size for the numbers to fully show up or for the “handwriting” to look legible. Even then, this is pretty terrible. You’d be better off recopying these onto regular paper for new players or using the ones from the Beginner Box Set.

  • Four Character Dossiers. These are similar booklets to the Ms. Myth one found in the Beginner Box Set. I’m going to assume the physical copy would have Ms. Myth’s, similar to how it would have the “Edge of Now” booklet as well. If not, that’s another terrible oversight by whoever cut this original project in twain. Again, each of these booklets has some well fleshed out information about the character, some tactics to use, a solo adventure and a character sheet. Again, great intentions and these dossiers are really well done – just make sure new players or GMs know these are guidelines and not hard and fast rules about how you have to play your characters. Newcomers should be encouraged to be creative and create their own backstory if they want to.

  • Alphaware Cards. I’m not a fan of print and play products for newcomers, but what else could CGL do to convert this to a digital format without doing one card on a page? Well, that’s EXACTLY what they did, and it was such a smart move on their part. The last thing new gamers need is to see if they have card stock or a double sided printer and other print and play issues. You get 110 cards divided into spells, weapons, armor, comlinks, cyberdecks, cyberwear, programs, gear, vehicles and drones. There are multiples of some cards (the spell ones) which makes sense in case you have more than one Awakened character being played. These cards make for a nice reference set, and even long time Sixth World fans should get a lot of use out of these.

  • Sixteen Maps. There are eight different maps, but two versions of each. You have one without any descriptions for players and one with a key code for GMs. Usefulness of these will vary, but it’s always handy to have maps just in case. This is especially true for new players, as they get a visual to work with and an idea of what is around them.

  • Poster and Map. Pretty cut and dry here. You get a map of what North America looks like in the 2070s and a Shadowrun poster. I love both, but I do wish that the borders of the different countries had different colours so that newcomers could make things out easier.

  • GM Screen. This has rules and character reference pieces. It’s not a double sided stand up piece like most GM screens though.

  • Rules of the Street. This is a ninety page document that contains all the Shadowrun rules you need to play the game, save character creation. This is like Quick Start Rules on steroids. This goes into all sorts of details about the different type of sourcebooks you can get, plugs for the card game, board game, video game, MMO, and miniatures skirmish sets. You get a ton of details here with Rules of the Street, and I love everything about it. It will probably intimidate the hell out of people completely new to tabletop games, so give them the QSR first and then give them this. I look at the differences between the Quick Start Rules and “Rules of the Street” similar to the Basic and Advanced versions of TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes RPG. Am I dating myself with that ancient reference? Regardless, “Rules of the Street” is so well written. It’s easy to follow and newcomers should be able to get through it, although there are so many things to keep track of I’d be surprised if they didn’t forget SOMETHING. This is definitely the highlight of the beginner box. There’s just so much content here, it’ll be all newcomers need to run and/or play Shadowrun for some time.

  • Plots and Paydata. This is for the Gamemaster only. It’s eighty-two pages on how to run Shadowrun with nice easy handholding steps. You get some nice advice, a breakdown of how a piece of fiction holds up under mechanics and rules (awesome idea!), a fine essay on how to read/run adventures, a reprint of “Food Fight,” a second adventure in “Milk Run,” a third adventure in “Steppin’ Up” a FOURTH adventure in “Workin’ the Streets,” a FIFTH adventure in “Going Inside” and a sixth and final adventure entitled “Snatch and Grab.” Yes, you’re getting a whopping six adventures in this booklet. Holy crap, that’s awesome. All six adventures use the Shadowrun Missions layout, which is a very smart decision. The first four are pretty straight forward linear affairs, while “Going Inside” is a little more free form with room for PCs to explore. “Snatch and Grab” is a direct sequel to “Going Inside” and gives players their first taste of story continuity. After that, you’re given some advice on how to put your own adventures together, how to use all the maps included in Alphaware and whole host of NPCs.

    There you go. That’s the Runner’s Toolkit Alphaware. It’s got a lot of great stuff in it, although charging sixty dollars for this as the MSRP is probably going to put too high a dollar mark on something that is meant for newcomers. After all, the price should be cheap enough to entice people to try Shadowrun. God knows in this age of fifty and sixty dollar core rulebooks, sticker shock for tabletop games is common.

    So while I’m hesitant to recommend the physical copies of the Beginner Box Set and Alphaware for their MSRP prices, I can’t emphasize enough how amazing of a deal it is to get the digital two pack for only $19.99. You get all the rules you will need to play this game for some time, six adventures, pregenerated characters so new players don’t have to deal with building their own and the entire package is exceptionally newcomer friendly. One of the biggest complaints I hear about Shadowrun is that it’s one of the least newcomer friendly games on the market due to the constant referencing of other books. That and the sometimes indiscernible metaplot that assumes you have read and own every supplement and sourcebook to come out for the system. Well, this one two punch of the Beginner Box Set and Alphaware answer all those problems by making this the most new player friendly set I’ve seen the game since the days of Second Edition. This is a pretty awesome package. Plus it’s 2014, so most new players should be fine with digital copies rather than physical pieces that can get lost, stolen, wet, burned or eaten by pets.

    Although long time Shadowrun gamers probably won’t get much use out of either set, guess what? THESE AREN’T MEANT FOR US! These are for either people new to the mechanics and concepts of Shadowrun or, more likely, totally new to tabletop gaming entirely! I would honestly give either of these sets (preferably both, in order) to someone totally new who has shown interest in Shadowrun where in the past, I’d have nothing but my own explanations and walkthroughs to help them out. There was a time when I’d hand someone the Sega Genesis game, as it did a better job of introducing Shadowrun to newcomers than the tabletop game. Now, I can actually give out dollops of the Beginner Box Set or Alphaware based on what their experience with the core product or tabletop games. I honestly think both of these packages are finally going to draw in a lot of new gamers to the Sixth World – although much of it is going to come from people buying the digital version. The physical prices are still a bit too steep for what you are getting. Still, this is a review of the digital two pack, and getting both of these for $19.99 with a twenty dollar coupon towards the physical releases is such an amazing deal I can’t recommend this release highly enough. Interested in Shadowrun even an teeny tiny bit? YOU NEED THIS. Is it perfect? No. Is it awesome? Pretty much, yeah.

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    3 responses to “Tabletop Review: Shadowrun: Digital Tools Box (Beginner Box Set/Runner’s Tool Kit Alphaware)”

    1. Steve Fisher Avatar

      Very cool.

      I pretty much fell in love with the SR4 runner’s toolkit and was hoping to see some updated stuff from the PACKS, contacts books, etc. I still use some of the stuff for SR5.

      My only real complaint is the SR5 map apparently not clarifying any of the North American border changes mentioned in Stormfront without showing the new boundaries anywhere.

      I mean, it’s been more than a year now.

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