What is this about exactly?
When talking about creating a character in an RPG like Shadowrun, min-maxing is the process of minimizing the things you don’t need while maximizing the things you do need, so that your character can excel in the areas that are important to them.
Why do it?
Or more rudely, isn’t the game supposed to be about the roleplaying and not about reducing your character to the best numbers you can put on a sheet of paper?
On the one hand: sure, the roleplaying should always be at the forefront of your decision-making process. On the other hand, though, Shadowrun is a game and you’re playing as part of a team, and it’s not a lot of fun if you get in there and find you’re no good at doing the things your character is supposed to be good at. In fact, some basic min-maxing allows you to be a better teammate because it lets you focus on the one or two things your character is meant to be best at while leaving room for the rest of your team to shine at what they do, rather than just being average at everything.
Isn’t it hard/time-consuming?
Depends on what you’re going for. This is not an in-depth guide on how to use the Point-Buy system to carefully maximize your use of Karma in making the perfect runner. (If that’s what you’re looking for then I invite you to Google “shadowrun min max”.) But there are a few basic principles that are easy to follow when creating your character that will lead you to a much more practical build in general than if you just try to spread things out evenly, and may in fact take you less time than building without a guide because you can better navigate through the myriad of options that Shadowrun gives you.
As I mentioned in my other post about building a mage, you should get Hero Lab. Shadowrun is insanely complicated and Hero Lab organizes it all for you, making it easy to tweak your character and see what the results are. They also license the source material so you can see excerpts from the book in popups, etc. It is an incredibly useful tool, and worth every penny.
It’s also a good idea to invest in supplements appropriate to your character. If you’re a mage, that means Street Grimoire and possibly Shadow Spells. If you’re a Decker, you’ll want Data Trails. Riggers will want Rigger 5.0, and Street Sams will want Run & Gun. Run Faster is a great supplement regardless of your type, and Hard Targets will probably have a few things you can use as well. If you’re using Hero Lab then you can purchase these as expansions to the app, and it’s cheaper than buying the rulebook PDFs (although then you don’t get the context for a lot of these things).
There are three resources you get to spend during character creation:
- Points: these are “free” points allocated to you based on what priorities you choose. For instance, if I set Attributes to Priority A, I get 24 free attribute points to allocate how I like. If I set it to Priority B, I only get 20 free points. At C I get 16 points, at D I get 14 points, and at E I get 12 points.
- Karma: this is the “experience” you earn towards upgrades during the game. Much of min-maxing is based on making it possible to use your Karma more efficiently later on in the game, so you don’t have to save up as much for the things you want. You begin with 25 Karma you can allocate, and can get another 25 by taking on optional Negative Qualities.
- Nuyen: this is money for gear and augments. The amount you get at chargen is decided by the Priority you select for it. You must use up most of this at chargen; you can only carry a small amount over.
Most of min-maxing concerns how you allocate your points and Karma. There are some simple principles you can follow:
The basic idea behind min-maxing when it comes to points is that it’s always better to allocate your points to make high stats higher than it is to increase low stats. To understand why, imagine your character currently has the following attributes:
Free attribute points left: 1
You have 1 attribute point to spend on either Agility or Intuition. If you spend it on raising your Agility to 3 and later on want to raise your Intuition from 5 to 6, it’s going to take 6 weeks of downtime and cost 30 Karma. On the other hand, if you spend it on raising your Intuition from 5 to 6 and later on want to raise your Agility from 2 to 3, it’s going to take only 3 weeks of downtime and cost 15 Karma. So you’re getting the biggest bang for your buck out of that free attribute point by spending it on the stat that’s already high.
You’ve only got 25 to 50 points of Karma to spend at chargen, so use it wisely. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Negative Qualities are a great way to get more Karma to spend at chargen, but they should be qualities you want to live with for quite some time, because it costs double Karma to get them removed later on. It’s either something you want to make and keep as part of your character, or it’s a “loan” on Karma at a really high interest rate.
- As many Positive Qualities as you can afford (up to 25 Karma) should be purchased at chargen, because they cost twice as much after chargen.
- Everything else including Attributes, Skills, Spells, Complex Forms, binding Foci, etc. all cost the same Karma after chargen that they do at chargen, so the only benefit to raising things early is if it would take prohibitively long downtime to do it in the game.
- Mystic Adepts should spend Karma at chargen for their Power Points because the only way they can get them after the fact is by initiating.
The first thing you need to do when creating a Shadowrunner is assign priorities, from A to E. There’s no magic rule for this, and you may build your runner and realize you want more skill points at the expense of attributes and decide to switch it up (which Hero Lab makes easy). What’s important to understand is that when you prioritize something higher you get the benefit of that only at the expense of something else, so make sure the things you prioritize highest are the things you can’t do without.
- Attributes: These are the core of your character. Everything you roll will involve at least one attribute, so it makes sense to prioritize these relatively high.
- Prioritizing Attributes higher just gets you more free attribute points, so it’s hard to go wrong with that.
- Skills: These are the individual things your character can do. From a min-maxing perspective, you want to focus on a few core things and maximize those values.
- Prioritizing Skills higher gets you increasingly more skill points, but it also starts funneling value into Skill Groups, which are typically a bad way to invest your points unless you think you’re honestly going to be making use of all the skills in the group.
- Individual skills can be purchased to level 1 for 2 Karma each, so consider using Karma to purchase skills you just don’t want to default on. Likewise, using a free skill point just to train a skill to 1 is a big waste of that point.
- Magic: It’s easy to set this to E if you’re not playing a mage or technomancer. Otherwise, you need to base this decision on what kind of mage you want to play and how high you want your Magic skill to be.
- Prioritizing this higher increases your Magic stat (which is valuable), gives you free Skill points (also valuable) and free Spells (worth 5 Karma each).
- Metatype: Choosing anything other than Human means you get both benefits (typically free attribute points and increased maximums, as well as a few innate abilities) and drawbacks (fewer free “special” points for Edge and Magic/Resonance, increased lifestyle cost).
- Prioritizing Metatype higher is necessary if you want to play anything other than Human. Make sure you understand the benefits and drawbacks, and get the right amount of “special” points to have both the Edge and Magic/Resonance level you want.
- Resources: Your prioritization here will depend highly on what kind of character you’re building. If it’s a Street Samurai who’s teched out or a Rigger with a bunch of drones you’re going to need the nuyen to pull it off more than almost anything else.
One of the key concepts to min-maxing is to minimize the things you do least frequently and maximize the things you do most frequently. What’s the point in training Pilot Watercraft if you don’t own a boat and are unlikely to encounter one? Having all those skills on your sheet sure make your character look well-rounded, but as far as the game is concerned a skill only matters when you need to roll the dice for it. For most character types, you’ll probably spend 90% of your dice rolls in the span of just a few skills. If you tug on this thread then some considerations will come out of it:
- Skill Groups, as mentioned earlier, are more often than not a bad deal. Even if you use only two out of three of the skills, it costs less Karma to just train two skills. (Some Skill Groups have four skills in them, but the same reasoning applies: if you aren’t ever likely to use the third or fourth skill, then what’s the point of spending extra Karma?)
- Specializations also tend not to be a great use of skill points. They cost 7 Karma, so are valued somewhere between the training of a skill to 3 or 4. Specializations can still be useful if you know you’ll be using them most of the time, but if you can you should use your skill points to get your primary skills up to 6.
- Remember that you can default in most skills, by rolling the associated Attribute minus one. In many cases, having a higher Attribute is therefore going to be more valuable than training the associated Skill. If your Agility is already high because you focus on weapons, then for the once-in-a-thousand rolls you might actually need to roll Escape Artist, would it be so bad to roll Agility minus one, and maybe use a point of Edge if you have to?
- Going from untrained to level 1 in a skill (thereby increasing it by 2 dice) costs only 2 Karma and a single day to train. Or you can jump from untrained all the way to level 4 for 20 Karma in 10 days. So the skills you exit chargen with don’t need to be the final word on what your character can do. It’s generally a lot less expensive in both time and Karma to train a skill than it is to raise an Attribute.
This doesn’t mean you should let skills fall by the wayside, but it’s something to consider. What’s important is to not invest heavily in Skills you’re unlikely ever to use. The same logic applies to other areas of the game, such as spells, ‘ware and Adept powers: don’t spend 5 Karma to learn a spell that could be incredibly useful in a scenario that you’re unlikely to ever find yourself in!
The other side to the min-max coin is that you want to make sure you’re invested heavily in skills you’ll use all the time. These are the things your character rolls for more than anything else, and you want them to be sixes across the board. If you’re playing a mage, that’s magical skills like Spellcasting and Summoning. If you’re a Street Sam, it’s whatever one or two weapons you use the most. If you have any leftover skill points, Perception and Sneaking are something every Shadowrunner is likely to be doing fairly frequently.
I’ve read other guides that mention “one-point wonders” like Gymnastics, Escape Artist, Con and Survival. Keep in mind that most of these you can default on. How often do you think you’re actually going to have to roll for Survival in the wilderness? Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t train them, but if you do, make sure you’re doing it with 2 Karma and not wasting any of your free skill points on them.
If you’re playing around and are frustrated that you can’t have two choices at the same priority, Run Faster introduced the Sum-To-Ten system, which adds only a bit more complexity to the Priority system but lets you prioritize things equally so long as everything balances out (so you can have two items at Priority A and two at Priority E, for instance). Hero Lab supports this by going into you hero’s Configuration page, but you need to have purchased the Run Faster supplement.
Case Study: Mordecai Schultz
Now for the first time ever here on the Internet you are welcome to download Mordecai’s character sheet as it existed at chargen. Note that this isn’t the original original, but rather the result of a re-spec (only of things that weren’t already established canon!) that was permitted by our GM after we got our hands on some of the supplements.
Mordecai’s priorities are:
A. Magician (Magic 6, 2 rating 5 magical skills, 10 spells)
B. Attributes (20 attribute points)
C. Dwarf (1 special attribute point)
D. Resources (50,000 nuyen)
E. Skills (18 skill points/0 skill groups)
Some considerations that went into this:
- Being a Dwarf was a roleplaying decision that some other decisions pivoted around.
- Magic was made Priority A for a few reasons:
- It was important for Mordecai to have maxed-out Magic, and this would be difficult to achieve otherwise without Sum-To-Ten.
- Prioritizing it at A also granted 2 rating magical 5 skills, which helped offset Skills being at Priority E.
- Edge isn’t important to Mordecai, so prioritizing his metatype higher wouldn’t have been a good investment.
- Attributes came next because they see some of the greatest benefit of free points.
- Priority C is the lowest priority metatype can be for a Dwarf, so that was where that went.
- Resources were put higher than you might expect, mostly because Mordecai wanted Foci to help him sustain his spells.
- Skills came in last, and as you can see from the character sheet they are threadbare.
Even though Mordecai doesn’t have high skills, his ability to sustain Increase XXX spells on himself allows him to default well on many things.
What could I have done differently?
There are definitely some changes I would consider if I were rolling Mordecai new again.
- I would probably try to pick an Intuition tradition from Street Grimoire or Shadow Spells (although that’s not really germane to the subject of min-maxing).
- I would try to find a way to cope with fewer resources in exchange for more free skill points, since 50k nuyen comes quickly enough in Shadowrun but nothing replaces the value of those free points. (Not having those Foci would also free up more Karma to invest in min-maxing attributes and skills.)
- The specializations on Spellcasting, Sneaking and Unarmed Combat are not as valuable a use of skill points as, say, raising Unarmed Combat from 5 to 6 would have been.
- As a Dwarf, I had an opportunity to min-max his Body stat more than I wound up doing, at the expense of stats that could have started lower and been raised after chargen. (I also spent 10 Karma on two extra spells that could have been learned after chargen to help with this.)
Basic min-maxing isn’t very hard to do in Shadowrun. Here are the main things you need to remember:
- Use your free points (attribute points, special attribute points, skill points) to raise the stats you care about towards their maximum rather than improving low stats.
- Spend your Karma up-front on Positive Qualities so you don’t have to pay double if you want them later on.
- Focus on doing one or two things well rather than trying to be good at everything.
- Don’t optimize too heavily for chargen. Remember that you can still learn skills, raise attributes, purchase gear, learn spells/complex forms, etc. once you’ve had some time in the game. Save the more esoteric stuff for when you’re likely to need it.
Feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments!