Learning Without Running

One of the problems with the Shadowrun system is that, like almost all role-playing games (with the notable exception of Ars Magica), there is no system for characters to learn anything without going out and risking their lives on adventures. Given the existing rules, you can spend a year being tutored in martial arts by an expert and gain not a single level of skill. This system attempts to address this problem.

Naturally, with a system for learning in place, runners are going to want to take advantage of it as well. Let them. While a mage is holed up in their laboratory for 28 days manufacturing orichalcum, the street samurai is laid up in the hospital recuperating from the surgery to put in that new piece of cyberware, and the decker is busily coding away to stay ahead of the merciless State Of The Art, the other runners can be gaining advantages as well. (Of course, this system also addresses why it’s good to take vacations.)

And, of course, employment in the shadows doesn’t wait for the convenience of a group’s schedule. A Johnson might turn up with a new run that can take them out of the country for three weeks, just when the Physical Adept has lined up some time with that very expensive sensei, the shaman is being taught Inner Secrets of Magic by the aged wizard they have quested so long to find, and the street sam has the Virtual Battle Arena reserved for a month of practice against the latest simulated opponents. Some of that money might get refunded, but if someone else already rearranged their schedule for the players, they’re likely to be displeased if they suddenly call to cancel and want their nuyen back. The players could turn down the job, of course, but if they’re off the market too much, the jobs may dry up. Johnsons don’t wait on a runner’s convenience.

Note that what this system gives characters is “experience points”. Experience points are not karma points by any stretch of the imagination. They can only be used to improve skills and to learn spells: they cannot be used to bond foci, summon Allies, Initiate, or increase your Attributes, and they never increase your karma pool.

Who and what can you learn from?

How hard do I have to work at it?

Work is mostly a matter of how much time you put into things. “Work smarter, not harder” is just one of those empty phrases managers use. For purposes of building a reasonable, not-too-complicated system, I’m dividing the day into six four-hour blocks.

In general, you need two blocks for sleep and one for maintenance (showering, meals, chores, exercise, commuting). You only short yourself these when you’re involved in boot camp or alchemical refining or some similar activity, and shorting yourself on any of these for long is courting burnout.

Two blocks are generally used for actual work, and one more for relaxation (reading books, watching trid, playing games). On weekends, relaxation usually accounts for two to three blocks. Working on a given project for more than two blocks a day is, again, courting burnout, and tends to require vacation afterward.

As a convenient abstraction, assume that a person can maintain perfect health and sanity at 10 blocks per week or 40 blocks per month spent working. Working more than this at a single project qualifies as “overwork”, as does working in such a way that it cuts into your leisure time.
Minimum skill
for reliable success
Nearly Impossible10+18+
Efficiency of training
Training method1 xp per...
Boot camp8 blocks
One-on-one tutoring (human or tutorsoft)13 blocks
Taking classes, interactive tutorials20 blocks
Guided research20 blocks
Unguided research30 blocks
Practicing at or above reliable skill TN40 blocks
Performing tasks below reliable skill TN(no gain)
Infotainment40 blocks

Note that boot camp-style training works on a related group of skills, rather than a single one. “Reliable skill TN” is the the target number corresponding to the user’s skill level on the chart at the right. (Thus, a Challenging (5) task will provide 1 xp per 40 blocks of practice for a person with skill 6, while it would do nothing at all for someone with skill 9.) Guided research requires having someone to talk to briefly on a regular basis to get pointers on your research and verifying your conclusions. Unguided research means the character is just reading straight out of a library or a stack of books acquired at a bookstore.

This does mean that a decker working on their decking utilities is slowly earning experience for the work they do, as long as they’re coding up something that’s an actual challenge. The same goes for enchanters working at enchanting, and so on. Note that experience gained by doing a particular thing only counts toward that specialization: a decker who gets their experience from writing matrix software can only spend the experience on the Matrix Software specialization. However, karma earned on adventures when decking can be used to fill out the experience into a Software concentration. Similarly, street samurai training up their Firearms need to use more than just a pistol, and enchanters doing nothing but refining orichalcum aren’t going to get better at anything but refining.

Learning spells

Spell Learning Base Time
Drain CodeTime
Light32 blocks
Moderate56 blocks
Serious80 blocks
Deadly140 blocks

Learning spells by burning karma on it works as given in the sourcebooks. However, it’s possible to take a good deal more time to learn a spell without needing to actually spend karma at it, if you have the formula. Roll Sorcery + Magic Theory against a target number of twice the Force you want to learn the spell at, modified by any drain modifiers of the spell. Divide the base time on the chart to the right by the number of successes. (Yes, this means that to learn a Serious spell at force 6 with Sorcery + Magic Theory 9, you’re spending six weeks, on average.) You may only attempt to learn a spell at a given Force (and set of force modifiers) from a given formula once. After that, you must have someone teach it to you while you spend karma, try an easier combination of Force and modifiers, or get a re-researched formula.


For every 20 blocks of sleep a character misses, lower their Willpower by 1. Each point can only be regained by spending five days in pure vacation: no chores, no practicing anything. For every 20 blocks of overwork, mark off a fatigue box on their condition monitor. Each box can only be restored by two days of vacation.

Example: Lightfoot is refining orichalcum in preparation for building himself a Power Focus: this means 28 days of obsessive work in the enchantment lab. Assuming he gets 6 hours of sleep a night and is working for 4 blocks a day, by the end of the 28 days he’s racked up 80 blocks of overwork from the weekdays and 32 from the weekends, and 14 blocks of missed sleep. When he finishes the lab work, he’s on Moderate fatigue (just short of Serious) and getting close to losing a point of Willpower. He’s going to need about two weeks of vacation after this before he’s ready to shadowrun again.
If his target number for this enchantment was high enough relative to his Enchanting skill, he would’ve gained (28 days)×(4 blocks/day)÷(40 blocks/xp) = 2 xp in the Refining concentration of Enchanting.

How do I earn karma without shadowrunning?

Well, obviously there are plenty of wage mages who have managed to bond their foci without going out and running against corps. In general, karma is about making a difference. If your character does things that make a difference in the world, they earn karma. (The important thing is making a difference; whether that difference is good or bad doesn’t enter into it.)

Some examples:

How can I pull down the big nuyen for teaching?

Yes, this is a good way for shadowrunners to retire— though people may be regularly wanting to pull you out of retirement or trying to save money on the tutoring by giving you some other form of incentive, often involving threats. You probably want the Instruction skill. Instruction is a Social skill. Applicable Concentrations are the different skill categories (Combat, Physical, Technical and B/R, Magical, Social, Vehicle, Knowledge), and they can be specialized in an individual skill. Instruction makes it possible to teach up to the square of your skill in students, and makes individual tutoring easier.

For a student to get the most efficient learning, the student must roll their Int and their teacher must roll their Instruction against a target number of (6 - (the difference between the skill ratings of the teacher and the student)), summing the successes. If no successes are achieved, the instruction quality goes down by one category, so one-on-one tutoring only works at the level of taking a class, and taking a class descends to the quality of unguided research.

Instruction is one spot away from Leadership on the Skill Web.

Example: Barry is teaching his Street Kid contact some elementary aikido moves; he has no Instruction skill, and a Charisma of 4. The kid gets to roll his Intelligence of 3 against a target number of 6 – Barry’s Aikido skill of 5 + the kid’s Aikido skill of 0 = 1. Barry gets to roll his Charisma against the same target number, plus 4, since he has no skill in teaching. It’s pretty easy for an expert to teach a single beginner, even if they haven’t spent time learning how to teach.
After four months of teaching the kid Aikido for an hour each day after school, Barry has earned a karma point for his selfless dedication to helping another kid out of the slums, and the kid has gained a point of Aikido. Barry wisely chooses to invest the karma point in starting his Instruction skill, with some pointers from Violet (who actually has the skill). The kid now rolls his Intelligence of 3 against a target number of 2 (since his skill went up), and Barry gets to roll one die against the same target number (since he has the Instruction skill now) and three more (from his Charisma) against a target number of 6.
After another four months of this, Barry will get another experience point toward his Instruction skill, since he’s been practicing a skill of 1 at a challenging task. If he sticks with only one student at this rate, it’ll take him more than a year to get his Instruction skill to 2— which is the only way he can handle a larger class size. Maybe he should get some more students in different time slots...

Expected skill levels for professionals

Professional levelExpected lifestyle
(Annual salary)
Tutoring costs
(per block)
1Grade schoolApprenticeWhite beltDependent
2High schoolApprenticeBelt color variesLow (12,000¥)25¥
3Associate’s degreeJourneymanBelt color variesLow (24,000¥)50¥
4Bachelor’s degreeJourneymanBelt color variesLow (36,000¥)75¥
5Master’s degreeJourneymanBlack belt, 1st danLow (48,000¥)100¥
6PhDMasterBlack belt, 2nd danMiddle (60,000¥)125¥
7Black belt, 3rd danMiddle (80,000¥)175¥
8PostdocBlack belt, 4th danMiddle (100,000¥)225¥
9Cutting-edge researcherBlack belt, 5th danHigh (120,000¥)300¥
10Black belt, 6th danHigh (400,000¥)1000¥
11Black belt, 7th danHigh (900,000¥)2000¥
12World-class expertBlack belt, 8th danLuxury (1.2M¥)5000¥
13Black belt, 9th danLuxury (lotsa ¥)
14Black belt, 10th danLuxury (gonzo ¥)

World-class experts are almost always specialized in their discipline; in that specialization, there are likely to only be 1-6 individuals on the planet with that level of skill. Different martial arts schools use different progressions for their belt colors, but generally start with white and move to black. An example progression is white, yellow, orange, green, purple, brown, black. Note that some skills are less salable in an ordinary professional arena, and may need to show up on the black market to command the kind of salaries given here. (A scientist with skill 12 in their chosen field is well worth the luxury lifestyle to the corporation employing them, and tends to be a prime target for extractions. A mercenary with Firearms 12 can probably afford a similar Luxury lifestyle, but probably as an assassin, while the 10th dan black belt probably heads up a franchise and does endorsements while participating in exhibitions and tournaments. Naturally, someone with principles may be forced to sacrifice a great deal of lifestyle, which might make them a bargain for a runner who can demonstrate principles they would approve of.)

Another interesting thing this brings up is the utility of certain bodmods in Shadowtech. A level 4 Encephalon and a Cerebral Booster 2 can bring someone’s effective technical, knowledge, or B/R skill level up by 4, taking a cutting-edge researcher into the world-class expert territory and making a world-class expert truly terrifying. Reflex recorders will work on many other skills, bringing them up by one level, which is often what it takes to afford a substantial salary increase. Physical Adepts buying extra dice with a skill can do similar things.

In general, one block of a tutor’s time costs 1/40 of their monthly lifestyle cost, though the best tutors tend to cost even more than this. Classes are mostly a matter of splitting the cost amongst a group of people and putting in about 25% overhead for training facilities.

If you wish to slow down characters spending vast amounts of karma on skills, apply these training rates, but also reduce the time in these rules by the instruction/skill system in the Shadowrun Companion (p51). Alternatively, force characters to spend at most one karma from any particular run on any skill they used during that run. This will cause gradual improvement in a number of skills rather than instant improvement in one.