Disclosure – Rolling Boxcars received a complimentary copy of this game for review purposes.
It’s been gratifying to see R. Talsorian showing signs of a renaissance over the past several years. They were one of my favorite gaming companies in the 1990s – I loved Cyberpunk 2020 and Castle Falkenstein back in the day. With CD Projekt Red having the video game license to the Cyberpunk RPG, R. Talsorian has taken the opportunity to update their venerable Cyberpunk RPG. They first gave a preview of it in their Jumpstart Kit (reviewed here), and now the full game has been released.
It is worth noting that this is a continuation of the earlier Cyberpunk RPGs – it is not a reboot of the timeline or a totally new game system. If you are familiar with the previous Cyberpunk RPGs from R. Talsorian, you will recognize both the setting and the game system. Both have been adjusted and modernized. The new game takes place in the year 2045, 25 years after Cyberpunk 2020. There was the 3rd edition of Cyberpunk set in the 2030s – there were many things I liked about it, but it was met with a so-so reception. I do see some of the elements from that incarnation have found their way to Cyberpunk Red– but at its core, Cyberpunk Red is more of a continuation of the 2013/2020 versions of the game. If you’ve never played one of them, it is worth keeping in mind that the Cyberpunk timeline diverges from our own starting in the 1990s. Some of the things worth noting about this setting, for fans old and new:
- In the 1990s, a great economic crash ended the United States as we know it. It still exists, but its ability to fully control its territory is limited.
- The 4th Corporate War of the early to mid-2020s was a world-changing tragedy. A nuke went off in Night City, causing extensive damage to the city. The years after the war were known as the Time of the Red, so named because the Night City nuke, orbital strikes, and the burning of both agricultural and urban areas caused the skies to glow red for years. (Your author nervously thinks about the red skies on the west coast this summer…)
- There was once a worldwide computer network called the NET. Concurrent with the 4th Corporate War, it was effectively wiped out by an event known as the DataKrash. In its aftermath are more isolated CitiNets, with minimal and controlled interfaces between them. This trend of isolated networks has gaming implications, with Netrunners (hackers who enter into virtual reality as in novels like Neuromancer) can’t sit at home while the rest of the group infiltrates a building. They have to do their hacking on-site.
I can’t speak to the quality of the physical book, as I have it just digitally. It is a lengthy book, with the PDF weighing in at 458 pages long. It makes good use of digital bookmarks to make navigation easy. Most of the artwork is similar to what you might see in the media for the Cyberpunk 2077 video game. There are many flowcharts related to character generation, and the color red is very dominant (hardly surprising given the title of the game).
This has the potential to be a huge review, and I’d like to avoid that. I’ll give a brief walkthrough of the game, but I’ll start with some brief overall impressions.
Overall, I liked the game quite a bit. Organizationally I did find myself occasionally flipping through the book in search of some reference. Still, for the most part, it makes for both a good read and a good reference at the gaming table. The game doesn’t hide from its long history, but neither does it hold you captive to it, rather using it as an effective background. The Interlock system used to power the game is still very much intact, though the rules have been tightened and streamlined in many places.
The chapters of the book have titles but not numbers, so I’ll refer to them accordingly.
Never Fade Away
After a one-page introduction to the game by creator Mike Pondsmith, the game opens with a work of fiction called “Never Fade Away,” described as taking place in 2013, 32 years ago. This same fiction appeared in previous versions of the game and showed an insane 24 hours in the life of Rockerboy Johnny Silverhand. It sets the stage for the universe, introducing us to the setting, many of its major organizations, and the types of adventures characters might go on. It also fits in with the video game Cyberpunk 2077, which features Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand.
View From the Edge
This chapter introduces the setting and genre, is a primer on RPGs, and a glossary of street slang. The world of 2045 is one with world governments and borders in constant flux. With many people living on the Street, some packed 16 to an apartment, and the wealthiest living lives of luxury in arcologies. Where “ripper docs” are willing to hook you up with the latest in cybernetic enhancements, where style is everything. If you’re going to get gunned down on a job, at least get gunned down looking good.
Soul and the New Machine
This is the first of several chapters on character generation. It begins with a few guiding principles that are worth summarizing here as they greatly influence the game’s style.
First discussed is the idea that “it’s always personal.” The characters are heroes of a sort – morally compromised heroes in bad situations – rebels with causes…
There are three things to keep in mind when playing Cyberpunk – style over substance, attitude is everything, and live on the edge.
Characters in Cyberpunk Red belong to one of ten roles. Page 29 of the game has a summary of them; I’ll reproduce verbatim:
- Rockerboys – Rock-and-roll rebels who use performance, art, and rhetoric to fight authority.
- Solos – Assassins, bodyguards, killers, and soldiers-for-hire in a lawless new world.
- Netrunners – Cybernetic master hackers of the post-NET world and brain-burning secret stealers.
- Techs – Renegade mechanics and supertech inventors; the people who make the Dark Future run.
- Medtechs – Unsanctioned street doctors and cyberware medics, patching up meat and metal alike.
- Medias – Reporters, media stars, and social influencers risking it all for the truth—or glory.
- Execs – Corporate power brokers and business raiders fight- ing to restore the rule of the Megacorps.
- Lawmen – Maximum law enforcers patrolling the mean streets and barbarian warrior highways beyond.
- Fixers – Dealmakers, organizers, and information brokers in the post-War Midnight Markets of The Street.
- Nomads – Transport experts, ultimate road warriors, pirates, and smugglers who keep the world connected.
While roles, for the most part, do not restrict what a character can do, each role has a Role Ability, something only characters of that role can do. A Netrunner has an Interface ability used when hacking, while Nomads excel at vehicle operation and access.
Cyberpunk Red has three ways of generating characters. There are a set of flowcharts to help guide you through the process – rather handy given the information is spread across many chapters.
The character generation methods are:
- Streetrats – you use a series of templates at each step – a single die roll generates all your stats, your skills are hardcoded, your equipment and cyberwar are predefined (or with a choice or two). This is essentially the character generation method found in the Jumpstart Kit.
- Edgerunner – Ups the customization a bit – stats will be more random, you have more choices for skills, but your equipment and cyberwar still use templates.
- Complete Packages – You have full customization – points to spend for stats and skills, Eurodollars to spend on cyberwar and other equipment.
The street rat method was surprisingly satisfying – my group used a combination of that with a touch of edgerunner, and it worked rather well. I imagine as we get more experience, the complete package version will become more appealing. Throughout the book, various tags indicate if a certain section applies to only one or two of the character generation methods.
Tales From the Street
All the incarnations of Cyberpunk have made use of a concept known as Lifepath. It is a way of seeing where your character came from – where they were born, how they grew up, what sort of tragedy befell their family, what they value, tragic love affairs, enemies they made, etc. Everything can be generated randomly, or players can choose. We had the interesting experience of rolling all the characters in our game hailing from either the Middle East/North Africa or sub-Saharan Africa. Our group had fun seeing where the random tables took us, but all the randomness is optional. Each role has its own set of tables as well for finishing off the character, providing a chance to see what sort of Nomad, Netrunner, Rockerboy, etc., you are.
This is one of my favorite aspects of the game. If you’ve played earlier versions of Cyberpunk, you’ll find many similarities with those versions. However, Cyberpunk Red gets away from making a year-by-year tally of your history, seeing more value in determining past lovers, enemies, etc., and letting you weave them together.
Fitted For the Future
This chapter discusses the core parts of your character, stats, skills, and equipment.
Each character has 10 stats that typically range from 1 to 8, though they can go higher.
The stats are broken into four groups: Mental, Combat, Fortune, and Physical:
- Technique (ability to manipulate tools or instruments – not sure why that’s combat…)
- Reflexes (aiming, showing, juggling, etc.)
- Luck (a pool of points that can be used to adjust die rolls, resets every session) –
- Body (size/toughness)
- Dexterity (balancing, leaping, etc. – used for melee combat and dodging)
- Movement (speed)
Characters have two derived stats, hit points and humanity. Hit points are calculated by adding 10 to 5 times the average of Will and Body. Humanity is 10 times your empathy. It is lowered through trauma and the use of cybernetics (though only cyberwar which boosts your character – a cybernetic eye which simply replaces a regular eye incurs no humanity loss, though one that could see outside the visible light spectrum would). As your Humanity decreases, your Empathy will slowly go down as well.
There are a lot of skills. Every character begins with a standard set of skills that default to 4 (unarmed combat, your native language, local area knowledge, etc.). Beyond those, your additional skills are chosen as part of character generation, depending on the method you are using.
Characters next acquire their equipment. Weapons are handled fairly generically – rather than lots of specific weapons, there are broad categories like light pistol, medium pistol, heavy melee weapon, etc. Characters have armor to protect them. Rather than the complicated set of hit locations from earlier versions of the game, armor covers either the head or the body.
The templates have their own preselected set of armor, weapons, outfit (general gear), and fashion. As is fitting for a game where style is key, what you wear gets a surprising amount of detail, though there is no massive impact on game mechanics. Characters tend to be very mobile- often carrying all their possessions with them.
Putting the Cyber Into The Punk
Cyberware gets an entire chapter. There are a variety of types of cyberwar, ranging from fashion to neural interfaces to cybernetic limbs. Cyberware, for the sake of fashion or for medical purposes, is safe to use; others incur a loss to their humanity stat and become vulnerable to cyberpsychosis.
The Fall Of The Towers
Another piece of fiction, set in 2022, some 23 years ago. It features Johnny Silverhand and others involved in a job that eventually resulted in a nuke going off in Night City in California.
Getting It Done
The core mechanic of Cyberpunk Red is you roll a d10, add the relevant stat and skill rating, and try to beat a difficulty. Sometimes this will involve trying to beat a defender’s roll (defender always win ties); other times, it will be trying to beat a static difficulty value or DV (I’m a little unclear what happens when you match a DV, the rules seem to suggest that is a failure, I couldn’t see that spelled out explicitly).
The skills a character might have are detailed and qualitative descriptions of what the total of stat and skill might represent.
The various role abilities are described. These abilities tend to be very special skills, though they never have a stat associated with them. For example, a Rockerboy can manipulate/inspire fans to do things not always in their best interests – ranging from buying merchandise to rioting.
Friday Night Firefight
Combat is given its own chapter, building on the previous one. If you’re familiar with previous incarnations of Cyberpunk– you’ll find the rules have been simplified a bit. Combat is broken into turns of approximately three seconds. When it’s your turn to act, you get a move action and “other” action – often weapon use.
There are rules for the normal things one would expect – auto fire, unarmed combat, ever, etc. From our brief game recently, taking cover seems quite advisable when the gunfire starts.
Damage is inflicted on a character’s hit points, either hitting the body or the head – with the head only being hit if you specifically aim for it. Any damage that penetrates head protection is doubled. Each weapon does a certain number of d6s worth of damage, typically 1d6 to 5d6, with a few weapons doing more damage. Two or more sixes showing on the dice inflicts a critical hit, incurring a roll on the critical tables.
Beyond physical combat, there are rules for vehicular combat and reputation “combat,” useful in facedowns.
My group had fairly straightforward combat, turning their apartment building into a Home Alone / Saw chamber of horrors. The combat definitely had an old school vibe – much more tactical than narrative.
I’ve known so many groups that run like crazy from netrunning in cyberpunk games. Typically, netrunning winds up being its own subgame. Often the netrunner will be “sitting at home” while the rest of the group is physically participating in a job. Netrunning often involves exploring a sort of “dungeon” that the netrunner must infiltrate solo with their own set of rules.
Cyberpunk Red has made several changes to netrunning that separate it from the traditional cyberpunk genre.
The most important thing is netrunners can no longer “jack in” from the comfort of their own home. The DataKrash destroyed the worldwide internet, the NET, in the early 2020s. Networks tend to be much more isolated, with extreme limits placed on entering a network from outside. To hack, a Netrunner (capitalizing to indicate the game role as opposed to the generic cyberpunk term) must be physically close to the physical network. Instead of the full immersion into virtual reality, the Netrunner typically wears augmented reality goggles to see both the network they have entered and the physical world around them (“meatspace”). It reminds me of games where a character can interact with the astral plane and the material world – and be affected by them.
The dungeon crawl of other cyberpunk games has been replaced with an “elevator” layout – a Netrunner can be viewed as riding an elevator to different network levels, each of which must be overcome in order. In the network, characters will use their own skills and programs to defeat both the network and other Netrunners.
I did find the rules a lot easier to run than other cyberpunk games, though, in our first run, we were flipping through the rules a lot. This is an area where having some sort of a “cheat sheet” for players would prove invaluable, as while the context shift has been greatly reduced, it is still there – more akin to a wizard in a group of warriors.
One of the things that threw me about the original Cyberpunk 2013/2020 games when I recently revisited them is I think they underestimated the cost of medical care in the “dystopian future” (at least in the United States – other countries feel free to shake your heads sadly…)
This chapter has two purposes. First, it has rules for injuries and treatment. One thing I noticed is some of the tables here are also found in the combat chapter. I noticed a few instances of this. While I can see how one could view this as a waste of space, I was grateful I didn’t need to go flipping back and forth in play.
Rather than detailed hit locations, Cyberpunk Red uses critical injuries to represent broken bones, concussions, etc. Once you go below 1 hit point, you need to make a Death Save every turn – rolling below your Body on a d10 (10s always fail), your character dies – with a penalty to the save accruing every turn. Characters can avoid this by receiving medical aid to stabilize them.
In addition to the treatment of injuries by other characters, the game makes use of Trauma Teams – elite combat medics who arrive in their flying cars with covering fire to rescue anyone who pays for their services – and they have security personnel who will open fire to clear a path to injured parties. Mechanically it works awesome, and I love the image it brings (and I know of people who have run entire Trauma Team-based campaigns, and there is a comic book series centered around that).
Welcome To The Dark Future
This is a difficult chapter to do justice to in a review, as it presents the campaign world in a fair amount of detail, taking us from the 1990s (which were not our own 1990s) to the early 2020s. If you’re familiar with previous versions of this setting, you’ll find everything is intact, with the next chapter detailing what’s happened since then (note the game never assumes familiarity with those versions – you never find yourself being beaten over the head with various meta plot ideas).
This period ends with the 4th Corporate War, a war fought on land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. By its end, the worldwide NET is no more, a pocket nuke is detonated in Night City, and the legendary Johnny Silverhand is believed dead.
The Time of the Red
This chapter gives us a tour of the world in the aftermath of the 4th Corporate War. While the time before it was dominated by megacorporations, there is more of a balance between nations and non-governmental organizations. The United States is no longer a superpower (and its control west of the Mississippi is quite limited), though no nation is in superb shape. NeoCorporations can still be quite powerful, but they must now have a “Face” – someone who can be held personally accountable for crimes the company might commit.
There’s a lot here – some of the things that caught my eye included Drift Nations (small floating nation-states), AIs, undersea cities, the Highrider Confederation in space, the Oan-African Alliance dominating space, and a Neo-Soviet state (in this setting, the Soviet Union never broke up).
The chapter ends with details of the major corporations in the setting. Veterans of the Cyberpunk RPG will see some familiar faces, with Arasaka, Militech, and Network 54 still around.
Welcome To Night City
The fictional Night City, located in California, is the game’s default setting, though adapting to suit your campaign’s needs or making up your own setting is encouraged.
Night City is slowly being rebuilt after a pocket nuke went off over twenty years ago. We are given its history, emphasizing its rebuilding, basic maps of the city, interesting locations and neighborhoods, interesting characters and organizations, etc. The nuke put an end to the subway – as someone who as a kid loved the New York City subway, that might have to change in my Night City.
Apparently, not everyone in the Cyberpunk Red setting routinely breaks into buildings and hacks computer networks – people have normal lives (less stable than ours), entertainment, etc. This chapter details how people live, work, and play. We learn about technology, transportation, law enforcement, and media.
In place of the NET of past incarnations of the RPG – or our internet – is the Data Pool, “a Citywide LAN network that links the Red world together in lieu of the old NET … each City has its own version of a Data Pool, requiring the user to set up an account in order to log on and use its facilities.”
Much of the casual commerce is handling via vending machines (“vendits”) and bodegas.
While it’s not explicitly stated, I did get the impression that the world is far less dependent on cloud computing than ours. There’s tons of data in the Data Pool, but each city has its own version of it; hacking into corporate networks requires you to be on-site. I find it a reasonable break from our own world – both for gaming purposes and a reasonable precaution in the aftermath of the DataKrash. It does make me suspect remote work is a bit trickier…
The New Street Economy
This chapter is dominated by details of various forms of equipment – weapons, cyberware, etc. However, it also details how people get their goods and how they make money (including money the characters make when not going out on various jobs).
So what do you do with all this stuff? That’s what this chapter seeks to answer, giving advice on the cyberpunk genre (including book and movie recommendations) and lots of details on crafting adventures – with every adventure something that could be considered a career.
Adventures are described as being broken up into beats – each assumed to be around thirty minutes of real-time. A game should start with a hook and end with a climax and resolution. In between can be multiple cliffhangers and resolutions.
Characters improve via Improvement Points. In addition to granting them for how well characters did in accomplishing their mission, it also encourages advancement based on the type of player – I.e., warrior, socializer, explorer, or roleplayer.
The chapter includes stats for a variety of NPCs – I wound this very useful in playing a game without a ton of prep. It also has tables for random encounters in Night City and finally ends with a series of “screamsheets” – custom newspapers either printed or downloaded onto an Agent (I.e., a smartphone). These sheets serve as adventure ideas – after each screamsheet is a page dedicated to using that sheet for a game.
The book ends with a fiction set in the present day of 2045, much of it centered around a dangerous convoy. The characters in the story are from the Cyber6, a group the book describes as real-life cyberpunks, five of whom have prosthetic limbs.
Overall I was very impressed by this newest incarnation of Cyberpunk. The authors stayed true to a setting that diverged from the real world while still making it feel relevant. Good science fiction reflects the time it comes from, and Cyberpunk Red manages to reflect our real-world concerns – the gig economy, gaps between rich and poor, the war over ideas, etc.
Cyberpunk Red takes a setting that stops short of being post-apocalyptic and fills it with characters full of style and flash. It’s a dangerous world where the characters start low but can become major players.
The rules are an evolution of a game from the 1980s. A fantastic game from the 1980s and greatly streamlined and polished, but the original game’s core is still visible – much like how D&D 5th edition clearly shows its heritage. While there are some narrative tweaks (the use of Luck, many of the Roles special abilities), it is definitely not a narrative game. It’s what I would consider medium-crunch – very easy to explain the core mechanic, but there are a lot of permutations.
If you’re unfamiliar with cyberpunk as a genre, the game itself serves as a great introduction. If you’re looking for a great cyberpunk game without elves, this is where I think you want to be.
~ Daniel Stack
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