With Shadowrun, a debate I’ve seen come up repeatedly is about Quickening. Quickening is a metamagic that helps you permanize sustained spells without penalties. It costs 1 karma per spell (more if you really want to), so it’s rather cheap once you have the metamagic.
Now when not overused, it’s not a big problem. However, Quickening mechanics encourage player abuse as counter against the balancing measures. This can lead to insane situations. So after the first few debates I designed some houserules, which I gave a significant write-up last year. Below is the exact text I wrote back then. The only changes since then is that I now have a second mage, who has 3 spells quickened and follows the houserules.
By the way, since we’re getting into GM territory here, don’t forget the following: An armsrace between players and GM is, like I note below, a race without winners. Try to balance out your game to avoid that, and don’t be afraid to set your foot down and outlaw something if it means you avoid an armsrace. Do communicate that that is why you do it, though. Nobody likes an ‘Idunwanna’ argument.
As every Mage knows, Sustained spells come with multiple downsides. If you sustain it yourself, your offense and defense suffers from the Sustaining Penalty. Psyche reduces it but you may risk addiction and there’s still a penalty. If you let a Spirit sustain the spell, it uses their dicepool to cast and requires services, plus now the Spirit is penalized in combat. Focused Concentration is limited to only 1 spell.
If you use Sustaining Foci, it costs a significant amount of karma to bind them, plus you risk Focus Addiction if you overuse. And if you use Force 1 Foci and Reagents, each cast costs money, you cannot boost Attributes and Background Count becomes your worst nightmare.
Meanwhile, there is Quickening. It has a few downsides. It requires a metamagic, and then 1+ karma per Quickened Spell. Still far cheaper than decent-Force Sustaining Foci though, and it avoids Focus Addiction. You also are walking around with multiple spells on you all the time, which unless masked will quickly get you legal attention. And Wards are now a big problem because you cannot simply recast on the other side, requiring you to either Slip through, break down the Barrier or hope your spells survive the Astral Intersection. And dispelling is really harmful.
But even then, this metamagic is hard to balance out. Especially since said countermeasures will also make life harder for your non-Quickening players, and unfortunately also because it encourages abuse. The more pressure you put on a Quickening character, the more tempted they are to abuse things to ‘win’ an armsrace that will not have any real winners. So the following houserules are designed to solve some forms of abuse, making Quickening more balanced and preventing said abusive armsrace.
Rule: Quickened Spells cannot be overcast
Dispelling and Astral Intersection have something really important in common: The higher the Force of your spell, the tougher they are to do. Not only does the spell have a higher defensive dicepool, in the case of Dispelling it also raises the drain the dispeller has to resist.
In other words, if you often throw Wards and Dispellers at your player, you’re encouraging them to overcast. While during a run this is dangerous, in downtime there’s no real problem with casting a Buff spell at Force 12 (or even 14), since it won’t kill you. Do so in a Valkyrie Module with a friendly player on standby and you’ll be fine even if you screw up so badly (that’s what, ~1% chance?) that you go unconscious.
Wards are a popular defense mechanism against Quickened Spells, not only because it means the player has to pay attention and will either have to slip through or set off alarms, but also because if they do not pay attention they may lose the spell and thus the karma they put into it. A Force 4 Ward has roughly 1/3 odds to take down a Force 6 spell, while a Force 6 ward is at ~60%. Note that this kinda is per spell: Each side rolls at the same time, so a single ward can cost you multiple spells even if the first spell disrupts it.
However, a Force 6 Ward versus a Force 12 spell has only 10% odds. Which means that even if a player with 5 Quickened Spells runs into one, without noticing it(!), twice per run, it costs them only 1 karma. And given how players will soon figure out how not to get completely ambushed by high-quality wards, such astral intersections will be extremely rare.
Meanwhile, the dispeller would probably have 12~15 dice versus 19 for the Quickened Spell, which gives them bad odds and the drain soak would then cripple them for the coming fight.
Short version: While Wards + Dispelling may seem like decent balance methods against Quickeners, they risk pushing the Quickener into Overcasting his Quickened Spells, setting off a hostile arms race.
So to prevent that arms race, one can simply disallow Quickening Overcast spells. Leaving potential fluff explanations aside (every GM should be able to come up with some rubbish about astral balance), this means that the GM weapons are still viable tactics. And if your weapons are viable threats, it means you don’t have to constantly throw them at the player but can just use them occasionally instead.
Rule: Quickened Spells must buy hits
Aside from overcasting, one other thing unbalances Quickening, namely the amount of hits. We all know that an average roll cannot be counted on to happen all the time. Bad spellcasting rolls happen and usually players will risk the drain to try again. But they also get good rolls, and sometimes even miraculous rolls. For example, 12 hits on Increase Reflexes for +12+4d6 Initiative. This is how a player of mine managed to break 40 on his Initiative. That’s 4 IPs even if he Full Defenses, so a guaranteed slaughter of the enemy team.
Since that’s only around for a short time, it doesn’t matter that much in the long-term, and during a run you won’t be able to hunt for high rolls because the drain risks crippling you during the fights. However, a Quickener can easily make that miraculous roll permanent, and they can even afford to hunt for it during their downtime. It doesn’t matter much for Increase Attribute spells, but spells such as Combat Sense, Deflection and Increase Reflexes quickly change the balance permanently if the player hunts for the perfect roll.
Let’s assume the player has 18 dice due to specializations and what-not. We’re not even taking Aid Sorcery in mind here. Their odds at 10+ hits are 1/23. Their odds at 9+ hits are 1/10. So all a player has to do is keep casting his Force 6 spell until he hits 9+ hits, then he Pushes The Limit and rolls a few more exploding dice, and bam. Quite doable in downtime, where a bad Drain roll simply means a 1h break without consequences.
So for a 5-Reaction, 5-Intuition player it’s quite doable to quickly hit 20+5d6 Initiative and 30 defensive dice. Even if you limit their Edge use in downtime to 1 point, as some people do, it would still only take them 3 downtimes to get that far.
There’s multiple ways of dealing with this, but the best probably is going the Missions way: Buying Hits. The same kind of fluff-explanations would apply here, so let’s ignore that and get to the consequences:
Under this rule, Quickened Spells are weaker than normally-cast Sustained Spells. 12 dice would only get you +3+1d6 Initiative, whereas during a run you’d have 60% odds to score at the least +4+2d6. But those Sustained Spells have downsides over Quickened Spells, so that helps balance it out. You get a smaller bonus in return for
It also highly benefits Conjurers and specializers. Using various boosts, including Aid Sorcery, 20 dice is easy and 24 dice is possible but expensive, so 6 hits bought is doable at a price. Hunting a miracle would be easier for such specialized players but the outcome would be the same, a massive bonus. In this case, however, they will always have a significantly better Quickened result than an unbuffed 12-dicer.
So players who try their best expenditure-wise get rewarded for their effort without the reward completely unbalancing the game, plus even their best results are no different from what they can normally hit with recasting during a run. It will also cost them dearly every time they lose a Quickened Spell, rather than it being easy to replace with yet another miraculous result in downtime.
This houserule prevents the search for a massive success that the normal Quickening rules encourage, which once more means the GM has less need to throw their GM-weapons at Quickened Spells to help balance out the game. It grants players permanency and a lack of Addiction and Sustaining penalties, but for a price, making it something other than the only way to go without forcing the GM to get characters arrested and thrown in jail.
Rule: A character may only have their Initiation Grade in spells Quickened
To compensate for the massive boost Quickened Spells can give a player, one way to balance it out is to limit the amount of Quickened Spells a character can have. While their Initiation Grade already is a limitation as far as Extended Masking the spells is concerned, unmasked spells are unlimited and will only increase the average karma-loss and chances the cops arrest you for walking around Downtown with enough quickened spells on you to start a war.
For a GM who is uncomfortable with bringing in law enforcement like that, they may instead explicitly limit the amount of spells a character has Quickened. This makes Quickening less of an instant-massive-boost, making it less likely and less powerful as the first Metamagic a player picks. By the time they can have several active, they already have enough notches in their belt to deserve it.
Let me note my own personal opinion and experiences here.
Disclaimer: My current only Mage player has decided to avoid Quickening for now, because I frequently (0~2 per run) use Wards, so I have not yet implemented any of these rules. I also suspect he’d avoid the cheesy tricks these houserules prevent, as to not set off an arms race. However, all NPCs I design that employ Quickening, are already using the first two rules. I also apply the third rule to them, though more as a rule of thumb for a reasonable maximum. Corpsec with a single Initiation may still have 2~3 Quickened Spells for me, since I will not explicitly limit them like that.
While I heavily encourage using the first two rules, I suspect the third may not be necessary. If a player goes for multiple Quickened Spells from the get-go, they’ll still face the astral consequences and have a bigger average karma-loss if they run into a ward by accident. The Extended Masking limitation already serves as a limit regarding astral consequences, and by the time they have both they’re already at Initiation Grade 3 so it’s not that important anymore.
However, as noted if the GM is uncomfortable with having to frequently assense the player as a consequence, limiting the amount of Quickened spells may be a good call. So I would advise to always use the first two rules, and put some thought into whether the third is needed. And keep in mind that you should apply the same rules to your NPCs.