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Background Count in Shadowrun Fifth Edition

(Edit: several of the ideas presented have changed as I have worked on the ramifications of certain ideas presented in the literature. I have posted some changes in other articles while others are being cleaned up but these were my original ideas)


(Notice: Here is the finished version of my Overhaul of how Mana is handled in Shadowrun: Primer on Mana)


Interesting enough the core rule book for fifth edition at least for the pdf I have has only one mention of background count under the ‘Home Ground’ quality.

I really didn’t like fourth editions penalty for background especially for adepts as it was just too much paperwork and pissed off players. No one wants to lose key abilities because they happened to enter a church or visit a crime scene and no one wants to bother with that kind of paperwork constantly. I doubt most people followed the rules listed in street magic for adepts at least for they would otherwise be at a minus 1 to their magic every time they entered a room where an heated argument or a passionate affair happened.

Another factor with background count is that it doesn’t differentiate between how much mana is in an area and whether there is a polluting factor or if there is an inimical domain. Presumably mana level rose and fell during the comet and mana has risen since 2011 so a “0” of today is different from a 0 of yesterday. A skilled elderly sorceror has presumably handled magic of differing levels without great difficulty throughout their life from the heady days of 2020 to the comet to today. If there is to be a penalty for mana level it should have a different mechanic then astral pollution at a Nazi camp.

To make background count useful and more importantly interesting as a complication I propose a couple of ideas.

First ask yourself why there is a background count. A grisly series of ritual murders on cultists who willing allowed themselves to be sacrificed? In that case any magic dealing with entropy, death, and sacrifice as a goal would get a bonus and anything contrary as a goal would be penalized. Did the cultists follow a particular brand of a twisted tradition such as the ‘fallen knights of gilles de rais’? Then those practitioners would get a bonus at the site if they had used it long. Thus, a fallen knight using entropy magic at the power site would gain from both aspects of the site while the same fallen knight would gain for the magic aspect while being penalized for healing his comrade’s wounds by the emotional and experiential resonance the the site.

To breakdown generic cases of BC:

1. Strong emotions, dreams and experiences. (Song)
2. Nature. Places of natural beauty or unusual appearance, structure, or energy. Damage to nature such as from pollution or mining. (Dragon)
3. Strong and long history of magic use often by a particular mage or tradition. (Ley)

It is possible to have all three forces in play at a given location though usually one is dominant.

Parageologists, geomancers, and geomasons, describe these three types of background count as song grooves and pools, dragon paths and nests, and ley lines and power sites. Skilled practitioners can create or encourage the development and manipulate in general these places of power while most minor locations are created accidentally.

Any of the above can be in effect at the same location and it is common for ley lines to follow song grooves.

Aborigines say the great song grooves tell the tales of ancient sky heroes and their triumphs and defeats at the hands of terrible monsters if you listen closely enough.

The trail of tears is now celebrated by NAN shamans who walk parts of the song groove and consecrate the story and aspect the ley line that follows the groove to their tradition as they also do at the sites of the great ghost dance.

Dragon Paths are often strongest at places of tectonic activity and thus are strong throughout the pacific rim. All dragon paths are aspected to a type of spirit that exemplifies the nest or line. Tectonic might be earth or fire while an urban nest might be spirits of man, and a place thriving with life might be plant, wood, or beasts.

Druids in the UK are very careful to maintain the ancient ley lines and power sites and aspect the sites to their tradition.

Cathedrals are often song pools and power sites protected by the order of st Sylvester.

Powerful locations of background count often have more than one line flowing from them connecting to other locations and are called a nexus which can be aspected by more than one source depending on the strength of the sources which leads to lots of runs as organizations prefer complete control over their network of sites.

Aspects can be towards traditions, types of magic, individuals, emotions, elements, sorcery in general, enchanting in general, or conjury in general. Some places are easy to summon spirits or summon particular spirits while others make it difficult to perform a simple binding or banishment.

Song pools are often aspected and connected somehow to the metaplanes. A pool might be linked to the place of battle if it witnessed St George defeating a dragon while another pool formed at the presidential debate between douglas and lincoln would link to the place of charisma. Types: battle, charisma, destiny, fear, knowledge, magic, and spirits. Spirits covers many metaplanes from the home of the shedim to the homes of the insect queens.

Toxic shamans often rule over a confluence of all three places of power. Dragon for the massive damage to the environment, Song for the emotional response to such devastation, and Ley by practicing their magic and aspecting it towards their tradition or just to themselves making them extremely dangerous on their home turf.

Game mechanics:

Dragon paths and nests: BC gives an extra die per rating to all magic rolls but since the increased power is unruly and difficult to channel it also increases drain by the BC. Opposing spirits have their force lessened by the BC of the nest or path.

With the Ceremonial metamagic a ritual spell can have BC provide a free bonus to the force of the ritual up to the grade of the initiate; this force can be exchanged for replacing lacking ingredients at GM discretion. Also, with ceremonial metamagic a conjuration of a spirit aligned to the nest receives a bonus to its force equal to the BC but takes twice as long to conjure.

Song grooves and pools: BC grants a bonus die or a penalty die to certain magic rolls depending on the bias of the aspect, the emotional resonance, and the history of the location.

Spirits contrary to the Legend of the locale have their force diminished by the BC.

With the Storytelling metamagic an initiate can invest an item with the Legend of the pool or groove, enchanter, or wielder and in some cases reveal the Legend within the item already allowing for more powerful enchanting, creation of unique enchantments, lessening of karma costs by the BC (always requiring at least 1 karma), or replacement of key ingredients. (See Storytelling Metamagic )

Ley lines and power sites: BC grants bonus dice and lowers drain by half the rating rounding up to all if unaspected and if aspected to those aligned with it. Those opposing the aspect receive a penalty to their dice pool equal to the BC and their drain increases by half the rating rounding up. Neutrals may receive a small bonus at strong sites but otherwise as long as their intent is neutral and their tradition is somewhat compatible receive no bonus or penalties at gm discretion.

Geomancers and Geomasons can wrest control of a power site or ‘pollute’ it by connecting a differing aspect to the power site. Powerful magic groups, corporations, immortal elves, and dragons are always on the lookout to coopt power sites. They can temporarily amplify or diminish a line or power site by their initiate grade but this takes time and can backlash at the location and all connected ley lines which is likely to draw the ire of many powerful beings.

Spirits inimical to the master/s of the site find their Force diminished by the BC of the site.

Background Count and rarity of places of power.

Rating 1: A dozen or two in each sprawl for each type. Thousands continent wide. Small cathedrals, temples, a magical group’s home, and locally famous sites.

Rating 2: A couple in a sprawl for each type. Large cathedrals, corporate headquarters, toxic waste dumps, and regionally famous sites. Hundreds continent wide.

Rating 3: Maybe one in a sprawl. A couple dozen continent wide. One of a kind places and wonders of the world.

Rating 4: Less than an handful continent wide. Nexus of many places of power and an unique location often world famous like stone henge, the Cahokia mounds or mount Shasta.

Rating 5: Less than an handful of each type worldwide. The pyramids, Tunguska, Mt Fuji, the Washington monument, the Denver lair of Ghostwalker and Zebulon.

For the powerful locations often only a small area gets the full power of the BC with nearby areas getting some of the spilloff often looking similar to a topographical map of a mountain.

Metahuman or draconic manipulation and environmental factors can cause temporary spikes and dips in the BC rating but the above ratings show the typical ground state of locale.

Below are some updated rules. I will be editing this post and making new posts on elements covered in this post.

Game Mechanics
Schwartzkopf Scale of Ambient Mana works much like the Richter Scale does for earthquakes except it has a baseline of 0 and that baseline is recalibrated each year as the mana levels rise and fall.

A Background Count as stated above is usually weighted to one realm and usually disappears once the source of the aggravation is removed. A terrible plane crash caused by a rogue air spirit might have a point or two of BC and whether it was more physical or astral would depend on if the passengers had been toyed with and had time to build up some fear and terror. If not and death was quick and painless then an ephemeral BC of 1 in the physical would be common as the site of mass death. As soon as rescue operations and forensics put out all the fires and take the bodies away the BC would start to deteriorate and within an hour fade away. Should the reaction to the plane crash have intense emotions involved into it then it is possible that an Astral realm BC can develop and be maintained as long as the news cycles are rabidly focused on it.

Whether an area’s mana becomes polluted or not in a long term sense depends on if there is some sort of continual pressure to maintain the mana distortion. This can sometimes be beneficial. A necromancer could take advantage of a graveyard’s BC by using the Metamagical Ritual of Create Domain to transform that mana pollution to an aspected domain for his magic which would then provide a bonus to his magic and oppose his enemies by providing a penalty for theirs. Typically a BC of 1 translates into a Schwartzkopf Rating of 1 and so on. An alert mage can parlay his knowledge of areas with strong background counts and what kind of aspect they would likely support with many individuals and groups. Typically since the flow of mana between realms is cleaner and stronger at power sites the mana level is the same in both realms even if the area used to only have a physical BC.

This makes toxic shamans particularly dangerous as heavily polluted land tends to have a bad mana distortion and thus strong BC which makes for powerful power sites for them.


One response to “Background Count in Shadowrun Fifth Edition

  1. Pingback: Shadowrun Overhaul: Background Count Official Rules and Commentary | Scion and Shadowrun House Rules

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