With a big video game adaptation on the way, the venerable Cyberpunk tabletop roleplaying game is getting a new edition for a new decade. With Cyberpunk 2020 no longer seeming so futuristic, Cyberpunk Red moves the tabletop setting out to 2045 (so several decades before digital RPG Cyberpunk 2077), presenting a dystopian vision of the fragmented near-future. Right now, Cyberpunk Red is available in the form of the Jumpstart Kit, cyberpunk version of your beginner box or starter set.
I’m kind of tempted to just phone this one in. What sort of setting is the Cyberpunk roleplaying game? The snide part of me wants to point out that the answer is right there in the title, and move on. But let’s climb a little bit down off of my grumpy old person perch and give a more useful answer instead.
Cyberpunk is a science fiction subgenre that presents a (usually) near future with more advanced technology but enhanced social problems, usually from the point of view of those dealing day-to-day with poverty, crime, isolation, and other social ills (there is usually an elite who live in unreachable enclaves; these folks are not the protagonists). Notable early exemplars of the subgenre include William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer and the 1982 film Blade Runner (based on the 1968 short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick). The term cyberpunk itself was coined in between those two releases, and the Cyberpunk roleplaying game was released in 1988 (written by Mike Pondsmith, who is still the lead designer for the game, and published by R. Talsorian Games, which is also the publisher for Cyberpunk Red). The subgenre continues, from the seminal Matrix to the recently-turned-into-a-Netflix-show Altered Carbon.
Cyberpunk Red stays true to that vision, although as with much science fiction the rapid real-world development of communications technology has had the effect of making some of the in-game high-tech seem less advanced. In Cyberpunk Red, the players are members of a team who operates in the high-crime, high-tech streets of 2045. At least in my experience, the most common sort of teams are boostergangs and mercenaries (the characters, either way, having at least some concern for the well-being of the random people on the street, rather than just being indiscriminate thugs). The pregenerated characters used in the introductory mission in the Jumpstart Kit, for example, control an apartment building, and have to defend their turf and (at least somewhat) look out for their tenants. The team will have members who work contacts, hack computers (netrunners), keep the gear working, and (of course) shoot stuff (or slice stuff, if you’re a good old street samurai … yes, I know that’s actually from Shadowrun). Look good, stay alive, make some cash, and stick it to ‘the man’ – maybe not in that order.
To introduce to the new Cyberpunk, the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit comes with two booklets, one for rules and one for the GM (which also includes an introductory mission), that total about 100 pages between them. There are also pregenerated character sheets, maps for the GM, a couple of handouts, some character and vehicle standees, and dice. It dropped in August 2019, and is available physically and as a PDF product on DriveThru.
The World and How It Has Changed
The Cyberpunk RPG has its own world and history, helped along by several iterations of the game since 1988 (plus the original Netrunner CCG). Cyberpunk Red continues this world, which means that Cyberpunk history diverges from real-world history in 1990. I’m not going to try to go through the precise history of the world from an in-game or out-of-game perspective, but one emphasis point is that fragmentation I mentioned earlier. This is important in two respects. First, the era of mega-corp domination is over – they’re no longer the globe-spanning boogeymen that they used to be. Instead, both the corporations and the nation-states are, in general, splintered and limited. Sure, Araska Corp is still out there, but it doesn’t just control all of Japan, the western U.S., etc. Or, rather, what used to be the western U.S., because the government in D.C. doesn’t really control things west of the Mississippi anymore. The default setting for Cyberpunk Red is Night City, which is situated in what used to be northern California, and is now basically self-governing. Well, maybe ‘governing’ isn’t the right word … it isn’t controlled by anyone external, and whoever has control (whether they are local or from elsewhere) only exercises limited control over certain aspects of the city.
Fragmentation also applies to the internet. While the characters are hyper-connected, that hyperconnectivity only extends in their local area (the city, basically). In-universe, this is the result of a massive virus attack – anyone who plugs back in to the world wide web will quickly find their systems compromised. But it also has a significant effect in the way the game plays. One of the perpetual issues with games like Cyberpunk, where some characters can engage in extended virtual-reality sessions, is giving everyone else something to do while that’s going on. The fragmentation of Cyberpunk Red tackles this by eliminating long-distance hacking. The familiar decks, ICE programs, and such) is still there, but now the netrunner has to be physically proximate to the system they’re hacking. Deep dives into virtual reality have been replaced with augmented reality goggles, the better to see the bullets flying in meatspace while the netrunner is digging for electronic secrets.
On a day-to-day level, Characters in Cyberpunk Red get their emergency services (police, ambulances) through a private contract – or not at all. Their clothing has integrated digital circuitry that might allow it to emit sounds or smells, adjust itself for different weather, change color or texture, provide power to small electronic devices, or automatically detect when it’s damaged and order a new garment. They use reinforced ‘Vendits’ stations with 3D printers to make most day-to-day purchases. Their food is highly processed or a paste that consists primarily of kelp and soy proteins – unless they can afford to splurge on something fresh that day. It might rain a lot, or maybe things tend to happen at night, but the action usually takes place against a dark backdrop – the better to be illuminated by a cacophony of neon signs.
Characters have statistics (rated from 1 to 10) and skills (also rated from 1 to 10). The basic roll is stat + skill + 1d10. Meet or beat a target number (or opposing roll) to succeed. Descriptively, a target number of 14 is something people do everyday, a target number of 18 requires trained competence, while a ‘heroic’ task is a 22. For reference, the best skill/stat combinations for the pregens clock in from 14-17. So a starting character who’s good at what they’re good at will pretty much automatically succeed at ‘normal’ sorts of rolls and have a 50/50 shot at tough tasks.
In combat there’s a typical ‘basic action + move action’ economy, which usually means move + attack. Combat has a moderate amount of tactical options. There’s more than just ‘attack,’ (some grappling, aiming for the head, three round bursts), but it isn’t overly detailed (although it still requires tracking damage to armor and, I have to say, that’s a level of bookkeeping I basically never want in an RPG anymore). This is a conscious move away from prior versions of Cyberpunk, and the combat system is referred to as Thursday Night Throwdown instead of the original, very detailed Friday Night Firefight.
There is a narrow social combat system presented as well, which provides mechanics for facedowns based on characters’ Cool and Reputation.
The Jumpstart Kit does not have full character creation, but many of the character basics are there. This template method will be available in the core book as well, but I imagine that most players will want use the ‘Complete Package’ method where they have full control (there will also be an intermediate ‘fast and dirty’ option that gives some control, but doesn’t require crunching all of the numbers).
There are nine roles (character classes) in Cyberpunk Red, with six included in the Jumpstart Kit – rockerboys (performers who, contrary to the name, do not have to be male), solos (combat), netrunners (the signature hacker class), techs (patch up machines), fixers (social connections), and nomads (drive, baby, drive). For reference, three classes not included in the Jumpstart Kit are Medias (social influencers, journalists, actors, etc.), lawmen, and exces (corporate types).
Characters have seven standard statistics (Intelligence, Willpower, Cool, Empathy, Technique, Reflexes, and Dexterity) and three distinctive ones (Luck, Body, and Movement). The seven standard stats are used for stat/skill roles. The other three each have their own function – Body provides health, movement lets you, well, move, and luck can be spent to add to individual rolls.
All characters have at least some basic skills at a minimum level (Perception, Concentration, Education, Persuasion, Athletics, Teaching, Local, Brawling, Evasion). Other available skills include Melee Weapons, Marksmanship, Tracking, Driving, Stealth, Bribery, Conversation, Human Perception (reading people), Interrogation, Basic Tech, Cybertech, First Aid, and Play Instrument.
In addition, each role gets a role ability (which works like a potent, specialized skill), but only the Netrunner’s interface ability is included in the Jumpstart Kit.
It’s pretty standard for characters in Cyberpunk to have cybernetic modifications, and all of the pregenerated characters do. Standard sorts of enhancements include enhanced hearing and/or vision, interface plugs to mentally interact with machines, reflex boosters, cybernetic limbs (with mods life jump jets or a hidden gun), and hand-installed weaponry (razor claws, a monofilament wire hidden in a finger).
As noted above, netrunning now requires the Netrunner to be physically present at an interface point, with the idea being that the Netrunner will be hacking using an augmented reality viewpoint, still able to move around in meatspace, while the rest of the Netrunner’s team will have some activity going on (probably a firefight). The Netrunner essentially trades their standard action for a number of NET actions that’s based on their Interface ability. The Netrunner is still mostly doing their own thing and probably taking taking three NET actions for every basic action the other characters get (because what netrunner isn’t going to start with the 7+ Interface needed to have three net actions, when every single roll in NETspace uses that skill?). So the Netrunner is still probably going to be very much the focus of the scene when a run is taking place. But (if the scene is well-designed) there shouldn’t be situations where it’s just the Netrunner on an extended netrun while the other players just go get snacks and a drink.
Netrunners have a cyberdeck, which has a certain amount of space to store the Netrunner’s programs. The three program types are boosters (which improve the Runner’s abilities in some way), attackers (which are used to break through other programs), and defenders (which protect the Runner in various ways, such as preventing a cyberattack from doing brain damage).
Once the Netrunner is jacked in to the system, their progress in the system is presented using the metaphor of an elevator. The Runner starts out on the top (first) level, and then moves down, encountering various elements of the system. A Level in the system may have password wall (or other barrier), data, a control module for a meatspace system, or ICE (intrusion countermeasures electronics; including Black ICE, which can physically damage the Runner).
The NET actions available relate to navigating and dealing with this structure. The Netrunner can scan the upcoming levels to see what’s there. If they’ve found a password wall, they can try to break it (if the Runner happens to know the password, this doesn’t require a roll or an action). If there’s ICE floating around, they can attack or evade it. If they found a datafile, they can eye-dee it in order to figure out what it is. If they found a control module they can try to take over. And once they’re satisfied with their run, they can try to leave a virus behind and/or hide traces of their presence. They Netrunner cannot, however, simply physically wander away from the access point or otherwise jack out at will – this will result in the Netrunner being attacked by ICE in the system that they have not yet dealt with.
Wrapping It Up
It’s pretty exciting to see an updated Cyberpunk making its way to the tabletop. The original game was a classic of the 1980s, and the settings use for the 1990s CCG Netrunner spread Cyberpunk lingo further into the gaming community (FFG’s Android: Netrunner, while it did not use the Cyberpunk setting, gave that terminology a bit of a revival). Of course, the Netrunner has been (to my mind, at least) simultaneously both the most iconic part of Cyberpunk and, from a session management perspective, the most problematic – there was so much cool stuff on a run, and so little for all of the other characters to do. Cyberpunk Red tackles that problem, and pulls the game back from its hyper-detailed combat roots. I can see an old school player not liking change, but it’s definitely a more modern design aesthetic that I think is more what we want out of tabletop roleplaying games these days (it will, frankly, probably also work better for anyone coming from Cyberpunk 2077 over to Cyberpunk Red). And it’s still essentially the classic Interlock system, so there should overall be a ton of consistency. I’m looking forward to that full-bore character creation with all the nitty-gritty details that, understandably, can’t be crammed into a starter kit product.