Shadowrun, Howling Shadows, Core Critter Handbook, 5th Edition

6 Overall Score
Rules Clarity: 6/10
Usefulness: 7/10
Production: 5/10

An array of animals and ways to use them in your Shadowrun campaign.

Bad editing, bad game design reduce the book's utilities.

Shadowrun, Howling Shadows, Core Critter Handbook, 5th Edition
Catalyst Games

Howling Shadows is the dog in the kennel that nobody cleans out. You want to rescue it, clean it up, and feed it some meat, but that’s going to be a lot of work.

This is the critter sourcebook for Shadowrun, 5th edition. It reintroduces a lot of classic paranormal animals to the game – the Behemoth; the Abrams Lobster; the Bandit, an Awakened raccoon that will steal anything it can get its clever little paws on. It also has extensive rules for enhancing animals with genetics, cybernetics, and biotechnology; also rules for training animals, a chapter on what happens when just about anything becomes infected with the Human/Metahuman Vampiric Virus, and one on unique spirits.

SR cat

That is the good stuff. The bad stuff is sloppy editing and some instances of very bad game design that feel like Catalyst Game Labs is trying to extend the dystopian, dysfunctional themes of the 6th World right into their mechanics.

Shadowrun is a game of equipment lists stacked on equipment lists, and what runner wouldn’t instantly want a Rottweiler with reinforced jaws and low light vision? Shadowrunners buy, borrow, steal, trade, fence and sell valuables all the time. But for reasons surpassing understanding, Howling Shadows lists no prices and no availabilities for any animals except biodrones. The designers of this book have apparently never played Shadowrun.

So the GM will inevitably be forced to make up costs and availabilities for many of these animals. But I buy a book to reduce my GM workload, not multiply it.

More in the bad game design category: this book includes the chapter “Technocritters”, which is about animals that have evolved an instinctive wireless connection, allowing them to manipulate computers. Animal technomancers, basically.

But they are still only animals. Mostly they just “eat” computer code, or use their abilities to open the door to the pantry. In spite of these low stakes, the rules governing them are extremely complex. They are a template you add to the base animal statistics, and that template includes a list of paranormal animal powers, detailed in this book, and complex forms, detailed in another book. This is a lot of work to find out that the bug in your system is the cat in the alley.

Can critters talk? The definition of the critter power Sapience on pg. 400 of Shadowrun, 5th Edition Core Rulebook doesn’t address language specifically, and the entries for sapient critters in Howling Shadows often don’t. The animal might be smart, but is it physically capable of metahuman language? This is where the sloppy editing is indistinguishable from bad game design. Nagas can speak, HS says so. But Shadowrun, 5th Edition Core Rulebook, pg. 150, says that they have their own native language. Howling Shadows doesn’t mention it.

The Volleying Porcupine, which is named for its ability to shoot its quills, has no Natural Ranged Weapon skill. The Cybertooth Tiger, a 600,000 nuyen biodrone combination of cloned Bengal and street samurai, has no attack statistic.

The names of the animals are listed at the top of the entries, but are not repeated in the stat block at the bottom of the entry. Repeating the name there would have made the document much easier to reference, especially in the popular PDF format.

The entries in the “Mutant & Toxic Critters” chapter are mostly bad. The Amphorae Mite, for example, is another strong contestant for first place in the Overly Complex category. Amphorae Mites are mutant bedbugs. They bite you in your sleep and poison you. But for some reason, this minor critter has the only variable size condition monitor in Shadowrun, and the only variable effect venom, requiring a random roll on a table. That’s a lot of trouble to get nipped by bedbugs.

Another criticism is that the book is light on art. I accept that decisions have to be made – I don’t need an illustration of the cockroach. But the Merrow and the Naga are both sapient races that live in tribal groups; the former dwell in coastal waters, the latter are giant snakes. Neither of them get illustrations.

Finally, both the Naga (the poor Naga! Do they have hands? Shadowrun will not say) and Centaurs are simultaneously listed in Howling Shadows as critters, and in another book, Run Faster, as PC races. This is a sloppy and confusing redundancy.

Howling Shadows feels like a book where they either fired everyone abruptly, or just fed them a handful of what Bam Bam down by the Dollar Store said was Vicodin. Either way, they published the results as a PDF the next day.



Author: Brian Downes View all posts by
Brian Downes is a writer who lives in Orlando, Florida. His novel, The Berlin Fraternity, about a man who hunts vampires for the Third Reich, is available on the Kindle and through He enjoys pen and paper roleplaying games and geek culture. He clearly remembers waiting for The Empire Strikes Back to hit theaters, and vindicate his opinion that of course Vader was not Luke's father. You can't trust Vader's word!

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