The Shadowrun rules are dense, and building a mage sure can be intimidating! I learned a lot from both building and playing Mordecai and I’m happy to share whatever lessons I can in this blog post, and peel back the curtain a bit on just how Mordecai was conceived.
Generally my advice is going to steer you towards building a more versatile and stronger character. You need to decide how important that is to you on the roleplaying spectrum. I will often say things like “unless you are going for a specific concept”, implying that you may want to have a significantly less powerful or more limited character because there’s a particular kind of story you want to roleplay. You are always welcome to do this! But I think first-time players will struggle if they choose to limit themselves too much with their concept.
First, here are some generic tips to building characters in Shadowrun, not specific to mages:
- Invest in Hero Lab. Nothing worth having ever came free, and calling Shadowrun complicated is a bit like calling corporations impersonal. Hero Lab licenses the original source material for inclusion in their app, and lets you tinker with your character, keeping track of the bounteous ruleset and letting you know if you are violating anything. The UI is a bit arcane but there’s nothing out there that does as solid of a job. And at the end it prints you a nice character sheet with all your dice rolls on it that you can use. You can add the supplements as well but you’ll need to buy them in separate add-on packages. I would buy them in Hero Lab before purchasing the rulebooks, personally.
- Do some basic min-maxing. I will write more about this in another blog post (UPDATE: it’s here!), but unless you’re going for a concept that works against it you want your character to be reasonably successful at the things they’re supposed to be good at. You don’t need to get heavy into math, but applying a few basic principles to how you build your character will go a long way towards you having fun with them down the line.
- Know the make-up of your party, i.e. what the other runners are going to be doing. Your role will probably be a lot different if you’re the only mage in the group, versus if you’re a party entirely made up of magic users.
Now we get into the nuts and bolts of building a mage.
Before you Begin
Invest in the supplements. You don’t want buyer’s remorse when you get into your game and realize you’re cut off from a bunch of essential abilities. At the very least you want Street Grimoire. Here’s my rundown of the supplements:
- Street Grimoire: The extra spells in here aren’t super useful for the most part, but you need this one for fetishes, as well as the possibility of Intuition/Possession traditions.
- Shadow Spells: This has a few cool and useful spells and Adept powers in it, but you can get away without it.
- Run Faster: Nothing specific to magic here, but if you want to build a Centaur or a Pixie or a Gnome instead of your standard five choices for metahumans then this is the book that gives you those options. It also gives you a couple of alternatives for character generation that are nice, like the sum-to-ten system.
- Hard Targets: Adds only a few magical options but they are some neat ones, including Spellblades (basically magical lightsabers if you want to play a Jedi).
Choosing a Mage Type
Here are my thoughts on the four options you have:
Adepts are fun if you want to be up close and personal in combat without having to put too much extra effort into building your character. It’s basically the magic equivalent of Cyberware or Bioware: you can mostly just choose the powers you want and go, and most of them are fairly straightforward in how they work. You don’t have to worry about spells, spirits, or the vast majority of what’s described in the Magic section of the rulebook. You don’t get much of a gameplay benefit for choosing an Adept over a Mystic Adept, though, and since Mystic Adepts can do everything Adepts can do you’re limiting your development in the long run.
Aspected Magicians are hard to make a case for in Shadowrun. They get only one slice of the pie of abilities available to full Magicians, and as such may be easier to build, but are cut off from a vast swath of powers without much benefit. They are far more interesting from a roleplaying perspective than they are from a gameplay perspective. If you want to go Aspected you need to choose from the following:
- Sorcery: This is the easiest to take if you just want to be able to cast spells. There are tons of spells and they can do almost anything. You are cut off from summoning spirits, however, which is easily the most effective thing a magician can do to support the team in battle.
- Conjuring: Summoning and binding spirits definitely gives you the most bang for the buck in combat. For every spirit you have out on the playing field, that’s another character on your side in battle and another target that isn’t you for the enemy to go after. Many spirit powers also serve as effective replacements for spells (e.g. a spirit’s Concealment power is arguably even more useful than an Invisibility or Stealth spell). But spirits are generally a lot less convenient than spells, and if you’re caught by surprise they take precious time to get rolling – by the time you have a spirit summoned, commanded and materialized ready to do battle you could’ve fired several bolts of lightning from your fingertips.
- Enchanting: Aspected Magician is the least recommended type of mage, and Enchanting is the least recommended type of Aspected Magician. Alchemy is both complicated to perform and just really hard to make effective in Shadowrun combat. There are some appealing aspects to alchemy but I would still recommend going full Magician over Aspected if you wanted to play with it, and if you’re new to Shadowrun you should definitely stay away from it.
Magicians and Mystic Adepts are the remaining two types and are very similar to each other. They can both learn any spells they want and they can both summon spirits, as well as do the full range of normal activities available to magic users. The main differences are:
- Magicians can astrally project. (No other type of Mage can astrally project, including Aspected Magicians.)
- Mystic Adepts can buy Power Points to take Adept abilities.
There are a couple of other small differences, e.g. they initiate with different skills and the “Witness My Hate” quality from Street Grimoire is only available to Magicians. But that’s your main consideration: do you want to astrally project, or do you want to have the ability to take Adept powers?
- Astral projection is incredibly useful, allowing you to scout out entire locations in seconds, find all the life forms, and quickly explore and communicate over great distances (although there’s not much you can do to affect the physical world while projecting.)
- Adept powers allow you to enhance your abilities with a vast array of choices.
It probably comes down to the makeup of your team; e.g. if there is no other Magician on your team then it may be a good idea to have someone who can project. Otherwise I would tend to go for Mystic Adept just because the Adept powers are so fun and useful, and whatever concept you have for your character there’s likely an Adept power or two that goes well with it.
My experience: when I designed Mordecai I already knew we would have an Adept on our team and I would be the only other magic-user, so it made sense to choose Magician so that we could have someone on the team capable of astral projection and to represent the “plain old magic” side of roleplay as a counterpoint to the “physical magic” of Adepts.
Going forward I’m assuming you picked either Magician or Mystic Adept. If you picked Adept then most of what I have to say doesn’t really apply since you just need to allocate your Power Points. If you picked Aspected then there may still be some useful ideas but your path is going to be mostly dictated by that choice.
The Four Key Stats of Magic
If you’re building a mage there are four statistics (well, three attributes and a clump of skills) you need to worry about investing in, for the two things you do as a mage:
- Make the magic happen: this dicepool consists of your Magic attribute and an Active Skill (such as Spellcasting, Summoning, Binding, etc.)
- Resist the drain: this dicepool consists of your Willpower attribute and another Mental attribute dictated by your tradition.
The former is how you exercise your talent, the latter is how you keep from dying as a result of it. They are two sides of the same coin and it does you no good to have one without the other. In order to do things and survive, you want to invest as much as possible into these four elements (three attributes and a set of Active Skills).
Choosing Your Tradition
The core rulebook only gives you two choices: Hermetic and Shamanic. The supplements offer a bunch more (which is why you want at the very least Street Grimoire; Shadow Spells also offers a few additional ones). Choosing your tradition is potentially very significant for how you roleplay your character, but mechanics-wise there are three things it determines:
- Your non-Willpower drain stat
- What spirits you can summon (and if you Bind them, what school they help you out in with Aid Alchemy, Sorcery and Study)
- Whether you summon spirits to materialize or to possess.
The drain stat is a big deal; this is a stat you’re going to want to invest a lot in since it combines with Willpower to keep you alive after doing anything magical. The possibilities are:
- Logic is the stat used by the Hermetic tradition. Useful if you don’t want your character to be inept with technology. Mage/Decker and Mage/Rigger builds are also possible, but if you already have a Decker or Rigger on your team then make sure you aren’t just signing up for a job they’ve already got taken care of. Logic is used to resist some types of magic, resist mental addiction and for defense against Astral Combat attacks, but outside of that isn’t an attribute that’s used much in magic.
- Charisma is the stat used by the Shamanic tradition. A Charisma Mage can double as a Face in a pinch (but again be careful if you already have a Face that you aren’t there just to try and do their job for them). In addition, Charisma determines how many spirits you can bind and how well you deal with mana barriers and astral intersections, so it’s a pretty useful stat.
- Intuition is used by some traditions from the supplements. Intuition is your primary stat for initiative, defending and perceiving, so is a pretty useful choice for a combat mage. For magic, it affects your ability to initiate and learn new spells.
The spirits you can summon are slightly less important. Hermetic and Shamanic trade off Spirit of Fire for Spirit of Beasts; of the two, Spirit of Fire is excellent for combat and Spirit of Beasts (ironically) is pretty terrible at combat, but has the Animal Control power which is sometimes useful. Street Grimoire introduced some very powerful new types, including Guardian Spirit (basically a fighter that can equip weapons) and Task Spirit (who can be endowed with any Technical or Physical skill, so you can just summon a spirit to hack that computer for you); you will need a tradition from that book if you want access to those spirit types.
Finally, Possesion traditions were added in Street Grimoire. Spirits summoned by these traditions cannot materialize but instead must possess a person, creature or object, which introduces a new set of rules that are kind of complicated but also pretty neat. (Newcomers to Shadowrun might want to stay away from Possession traditions at first.)
My experience: Mordecai is a close-combat Magician so an Intuition tradition would’ve been very appropriate for him. I didn’t have any of the supplements though, so between Hermetic and Shamanic I chose Shamanic for the focus on Charisma, thinking I could give him more Face-like infiltration skills. I backpedaled on that, though, because I wanted to shore up his magical ability (specifically Counterspelling) and since our group already has a Face I didn’t want to dump points into skills that wouldn’t be necessary for me.
Choosing Your Magical Skills
Two main skills are pretty much essential to a Magician or Mystic Adept:
- Spellcasting: This is your basic ability to sling spells both in battle and outside of battle.
- Summoning: Spirits are both incredibly useful in battle and to supplement and plug the holes in spells you don’t have.
Then you have some secondary skills. A well-equipped Magician/Mystic Adept will have all of these, but you can maybe let one go if it’s less important to you:
- Binding: You can only summon one spirit at a time and they disappear daily; Binding lets you have multiple spirits on the go at once, with no time limit.
- Counterspelling: Your job on the team is to deal with magical threats, and Counterspelling is a big part of how you do it.
- Assensing: The way you examine things on the Astral Plane. (Note that general astral perception just uses the Perception skill; Assensing is for examining in detail. Mystic Adepts must purchase the Astral Perception power if they want to use Assensing.)
Unless you’re going for something specific in your character concept, you can probably do without these:
- Alchemy: As mentioned earlier, alchemy just isn’t very easy to make practical in Shadowrun. Furthermore, any spells you want to use in Alchemy need to be re-learned as alchemical formulae; you can’t just take your regular spells and make preparations from them. This makes it pretty untenable unless you’re specializing in Alchemy at the expense of Spellcasting or Summoning from the get-go.
- Arcana: Other than initiating, there are almost no practical uses for Arcana in the game. (And you can gain the skill inexpensively when you’re ready to initiate.) There are no rules provided for writing your own spell formulae, and coming up with Foci formulae is something best left to your talismonger. There are a couple other uses in Street Grimoire but it’s all incredibly esoteric.
- Artificing: Making your own Foci is both an incredibly advanced thing to do, and almost impossible to do without teamwork from other artificers. This is good for talismongers but bad for shadowrunners.
- Astral Combat: A direct-damage Mana spell is going to be just about as effective as Astral Combat in most situations. A Weapon Focus is even better if you can get your hands on one. It’s hard to justify training this skill just so you can do a certain kind of battle on the Astral.
- Banishing: Spells you cast and spirits you summon are just as effective at getting rid of enemy spirits as Banishing is. What’s worse is that you will suffer drain from your banishing attempts, and in the case of bound spirits this drain can be crippling. (Banishing does let you “steal” spirits of traditions other than your own before they disappear, but this is extremely difficult to arrange in initiative passes and generally not worth it.)
- Disenchanting: Most shadowrunners are more apt to kill the thing wielding an enchantment than they are to take the time, effort and drain dealing with the enchantment itself.
- Ritual Spellcasting: There’s some interesting stuff in rituals but it’s almost all very special-case, and as a shadowrunner you’re usually the one busting through the ward instead of setting it up. Rituals require a lot of time, can only be performed inside a magical lodge (and are limited by the lodge’s Force) and most of them are difficult to do without teamwork. There are a couple exceptions (e.g. Watchers can be useful if you don’t have Binding) but, like Alchemy, you need to learn the Ritual spells you want to cast individually and there’s just not a lot of meat on the bone to justify investing in this skill.
My perspective: In the priority system I put skills near the bottom, so Mordecai had to pick and choose very carefully what skills he had. In the spirit of min-maxing I got rid of many of his single point social and athletic skills just so I could have Counterspelling 6. He only learned Binding well after chargen took place.
Choosing Your Spells
So you’re gonna be a spell-slinger. How do you decide what spells to take? A lot of it depends on what kind of coverage you’ve got from your group. If you’ve only got one Street Sam then you probably want some Combat spells, but if your group is all muscle and no Face you’ll want more Illusion and Manipulation. Here are some considerations for each of the schools of spells:
Everyone wants to hail magical fire on their enemies, but pound-for-pound you get more mileage out of manipulating and deceiving your enemy than you do with direct combat. Still, combat is fun. There are several considerations when looking at combat spells:
- Direct or Indirect? Direct magic bypasses armor, which is great for taking down a tanking Street Sam, but it does much less damage on the whole than indirect magic so you aren’t likely to one-shot anybody. Indirect magic, on the other hand, adds its Force to the damage value (it doesn’t bypass armor but has AP of -Force) so it does a lot more damage at high Force.
- Physical or Mana?
- Mana spells can be cast on the Physical or Astral Plane. The latter is significant as it’s the only way to deal damage other than Astral Combat if you’re up against an astrally-projecting mage, a spirit that hasn’t materialized, or a Mana Barrier that’s exclusively on the astral.
- Mana spells can only target living things. Physical spells can target whatever you want, so long as it’s on the physical plane.
- Physical spells can only be cast while on the physical plane (so you can’t cast a Physical spell while astrally projecting).
- All Indirect spells are Physical spells, so don’t bother searching for that one Mana spell you can cast on the Astral Plane that does elemental damage and adds its Force to the damage value. It doesn’t exist.
- Most Direct spells are Mana spells, but there are a few Physical ones as well.
- Touch, LOS or AOE? Touch spells cause less drain than line-of-sight spells, and line-of-sights spells cause less drain than area-of-effect spells. Touch spells expose your mage to danger (the first rule of Shadowrun is “geek the mage” and your enemies know it) and require the ability to make contact through Unarmed Combat tests to pull off, so make sure you know what you’re getting into. LOS spells are a lot safer. AOE spells let you target groups, but not indiscriminately, so watch out for where your teammates are.
- Elements? Indirect spells often have elemental damage. Make sure you understand the benefits and drawbacks to that damage (i.e. maybe don’t throw a Fireball inside a fireworks factory).
If you want to be a combat mage, it’s hard to beat the benefits of spells like Increase Reflexes and Increase Attribute. It’s also pretty much a given that someone on your team should know Heal, and Resist Pain should be a close second to keep your team functioning while taking damage on the mission. Sustaining buffs will be the real challenge; I’ll talk about that later.
I don’t personally have much experience with Detection spells. If you’re a Magician who can astrally project then you’ve already got some good tools in this arena, and spirits can also help with searching. The ability to do things like read minds or communicate telepathically are compelling, and Combat Sense is a great buffing spell. Make sure you understand how normal and extended ranges work before going for these.
Most illusion spells can be useful for tricks, distractions and staying hidden. It’d be a good idea to determine what kind of coverage your team has (e.g. if you have a Face who has a disguise kit then maybe you don’t need a Mask spell, and most spirits can already Conceal you pretty effectively). There’s a lot of very clever and fun stuff you can do with Illusion magic but I tend to prioritize it behind Manipulation spells.
Ah, here we go. Want to levitate to the top of building, puppet inanimate objects, alter a person’s memory, even fix a flat tire? Manipulation spells are for you. They’re also the hardest to cast without a large dice pool, so they’re a payoff that comes with more investment in your character. Manipulation spells are definitely where Shadowrun gets interesting and fun. Be sure to talk with your GM before taking spells like Control Thoughts or Control Actions, as these kinds of most invasive spells will get you a bad reputation if abused and are not to be used lightly.
My experience: Since Mordecai was going to be the only magic user on our team I wanted good coverage of the fundamentals. He should be able to fight, buff, heal, and work improvisationally in various shadowrunning scenarios. I also really liked the concept of going for a mage that uses Touch spells for quick knockouts. As a result, for someone who isn’t an Adept, Mordecai is built to be like one. He has three Increase Attribute spells and Increase Reflexes to buff himself, and he’s in particular built around using his Punch spell in close quarters to one-hit goons. Since I wanted good coverage I gave him Combat spells that would cover a range of uses, so he has Punch for up close, Stunbolt for ranged and fighting on the Astral, and Ball Lightning for bringing the hurt to groups and damaging vehicles, etc. As I played with him I started leaning more towards Manipulation spells, as levitation, barriers, mind control, etc. are all where the most interesting stuff happens in Shadowrun.
The general consensus is that a mentor spirit is a good investment of your starting karma if you can find one that aligns well with your character, and they also provide some great roleplaying opportunities. The Magician powers tend to be a better value than the Adept powers (since you can also get a Power Point for 5 karma, and most mentor spirits provide Adept powers worth about 0.5 PP).
My experience: Well, if you know who Mordecai is then you probably have some idea who Sharky is. (It is a narrative contrivance of mine that Mordecai actually summons his mentor spirit; strictly speaking this isn’t something that usually happens in Shadowrun.) The Shark mentor spirit was chosen around the Punch-mage concept, because Shark adds 2 dice to Unarmed Combat rolls (necessary for making contact with the Punch spell) and 2 dice to Combat spells, which for 5 karma is a pretty good deal.
Fetishes are covered in Street Grimoire. For 2000 nuyen, you get an object that you can attune your spells to that decreases the drain you take by 2 when casting the spell, but you can also only cast the spell while the fetish is in contact with your skin. This is a great tradeoff to make for spells with high drain value or that benefit from casting at a higher Force, with the understanding that your GM will throw you into situations where your fetishes are suddenly unavailable. So ask yourself what you would do if you were stuck in a prison somewhere unable to access the spells linked to your fetishes. (The rules aren’t very well written, but based on previous editions it seems that individual fetishes are attuned to a category of magic, and lost fetishes may be replaced, so you don’t waste karma on spells if you lose your fetish permanently.)
My experience: Our GM let me do a re-spec of some of Mordecai’s characteristics that weren’t yet established as canon after we’d started, and switching some of his spells over to fetishes was definitely a huge boon for me. I tried to choose intelligently and carefully about which spells would give me the greatest benefit with the reduced drain, and which he could live without temporarily if his fetishes were taken from him, how could spirits fill the gap, etc. (His fetishes are colored beads that hold the braids in his beard together, in case you’re curious.)
Planning to Sustain Spells
One of the big challenges with playing a Mage is that the majority of spells need to be sustained while you want them to remain active, at a cost of 2 dice to just about everything you do (except resist damage/drain). Even so-called Permanent spells require Force combat turns of sustaining before they become permanent. So if you cast a Force-4 Heal spell on your partner you’re taking that penalty for 4 combat turns, which depending on your initiative may be 8 to 12 initiative passes! (Combat in Shadowrun is fast and brutal, and barely lasts more than a few turns.)
Start casting a few spells and those penalties quickly add up. So when building your character you should plan for how many spells they’re going to be able to keep active at once, and how you want to mitigate those penalties (when you can). Here are some of the ways to mitigate those penalties:
- Foci: Sustaining Foci let you sustain spells cast with Force up to the rating of the Focus. You can also sometimes use reagents or Edge when casting to sustain a stronger spell with a Focus, e.g. cast Increase Reflexes at Force 1 but with a limit of 6 set with reagents can be sustained by a Force 1 focus.
- Focused Concentration: This Positive Quality allows you to sustain a single spell of Force up to the rating of the Quality without penalty. The reagents/Edge method can be used here as well. If you’re a spellcaster, it’s hard to go wrong investing as much as you can afford into this Quality.
- Spirit of Man: A Spirit of Man can take spells you know as optional powers, and if instructed to cast them as a service will sustain them on their own, until the service ends (i.e. at sundown or sunup).
- Bound spirits: Bounds spirits can sustain spells that you cast either for a handful of combat turns (acceptable) or a handful of days (be prepared for some backlash from the spirit world).
- Long-term Binding: This option explained in Street Grimoire lets you spend Karma to have a spirit perform a set of services (including casting spells if they are a Spirit of Man) for “a year and a day”. This is somewhat similar to Quickening in principle (you are spending Karma to make an ability effectively permanent).
- Quickening: This metamagic lets you spend as little as 1 Karma to make sustained spells permanent. Because you can’t toggle the spell off and on there are risks and challenges associated with this if you use it for buffs, such as it making you very visible on the astral and making it harder to press through barriers.
Mystic Adepts also have access to Adept Centering and (from the supplements) the Heightened Concentration power (“Concern” as misprinted in the book) which let them mitigate dice penalties.
My experience: Mordecai usually has four buffs going on him at any one time: Increase Agility (for his Unarmed Combat and stealth), Increase Intuition (for his defense, initiative and perception), Increase Charisma (for his drain) and Increase Reflexes (for his initiative). To deal with these he has a Force 4 focus, a Force 1 focus (for Increase Reflexes with reagents), Focused Concentration 5, and then the fourth buff would either be paid for with a penalty or be cast by a Spirit of Man. (He also has a Force 1 focus for Manipulation spells that’s primarily used for levitation.) One of the early things he did was learn the Quickening metamagic so that he could make the spells permanent instead. This came at a price: it’s very hard for him to press through barriers and he needs to use the Manascape spell if he wants to be at all stealthy on the astral plane. Quickening in particular is dangerous because it can lead to an arms race with the GM if you aren’t careful with it, which is why I don’t quicken a Force 12 Increase Reflexes spell with Edge used to get initiative rolls consistently in the 40s and 50s.
Playing a mage in Shadowrun is a lot of fun, but there’s a ton of material to digest! Don’t be intimidated by it and take the time you need with Hero Lab (or whatever you use) to tinker around with your options. Remember that in Shadowrun it’s better to be really good at one or two things than mediocre at a whole bunch of things. Good luck and have fun, and feel free to ask any questions you may have in the comments!