Review – Cyberpunk Red

The big video game adaptation has arrived, and with it we finally get the big core book for the new edition of the Cyberpunk tabletop roleplaying game that inspired said video game – Cyberpunk Red. 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.

The Basics

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 1980s releases (which, yes, means that cyberpunk is retroactively applied to writings that existed before the punk subculture emerged and acquired that label), a fusion of technology and attitude, and the Cyberpunk roleplaying game was first published 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 has continued, 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 Night City in 2045 (the same city as Cyberpunk 2077). High-tech is relative, however. Sure, there’s neon and chrome down on the streets, but mostly there’s dirty and run-down. There’s a part of the city where the streets are regularly patrolled and everything is shiny and new – but the characters are rarely welcome in such places. And they’re surely not getting an invitation to live on one of those space stations in orbit anytime soon. At least in my experience, the characters are usually mercenaries of some sort, selling their services to – if not the highest bidder – then to someone who pays enough while also being somewhat trustworthy and not quite as morally problematic as the other side of the conflict. The player characters may or may not have much concern for their compatriots – they probably have some level of trust, but at first it’s usually the work that keeps them together, not longstanding friendships.

Stay alive, make some cash, stick it to ‘the man’ and look good doing it – maybe not in that order. That’s the cyberpunk way.

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 (which is when Cyberpunk 2020 was released). 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. This is important in two respects. First, the era of mega-corp domination is over – they are 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, Arasaka Corp is still out there, but it doesn’t just control all of Japan, the western U.S., and such. 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. 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. The ‘red’ of Cyberpunk Red ostensibly refers to the color of the sky in the decade after the detonation of a small nuke in the Arasaka tower in downtime Night City …. but I’m going to assume that it’s a shoehorned homage to CD Projekt Red (the publisher of Cyberpunk 2077) [editor’s note – R. Talsorian says this assumption of mine is in error].

Fragmentation also applies to the internet. While the characters are hyper-connected, that hyper-connectivity 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 what’s left of 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 digital 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.

The setting gets a lot of attention in Cyberpunk Red, which is a far longer tome than any prior Cyberpunk core rulebook, with 100 pages devoted just to the history of the world and Night City, everyday life, and a gazetteer of Night City. Cyberpunk Red is also more modern from a production quality point of view, with glossy pages and art that far surpasses the industry standard for the time of Cyberpunk 2020.

Cyberpunk Red art from Richard Bagnall
by Richard Bagnall, source: Cyberpunk Red

Core Mechanics

Overall, the mechanics have an old-school aesthetic – a revamp, not a redo, of Cyberpunk 2020. They are crunchy and relatively granular, even though they’re stripped down a bit from prior editions. The biggest difference (for me) in how the mechanics feel in Cyberpunk Red is hacking, which is get a big overhaul to better integrate netrunners into the game.

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 13 is something people do everyday, a target number of 17 requires trained competence, and a ‘heroic’ task is a 21. Starting characters probably have stat of 8 and a skill of 6 in something they’re good at, so expect anything below heroic to be readily accomplished. A more typical combination might be an 6 in the stat and a 4 in the skill, making anything above difficult (a 15) a chancy proposition).

The combat system is the full Friday Night Firefight, not the stripped-down “Thursday Night Throwdown” system from the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit. In combat there’s a typical ‘basic action + move action’ economy, which usually means move + attack. Combat has a relative plethora of tactical options. There are, for example, different rules for shotguns as compared to other guns, in addition to things like aiming and different rules for different rates of fire. Similarly, there are differences between grabbing, throwing, and choking, and that’s before you get into specialty moves that come from knowing specific martial arts. Critical injuries are a thing, and the location of damage matters.

There is a very narrow social combat system presented as well, which provides mechanics for facedowns based on characters’ Cool and Reputation.

Character Basics

There are ten roles (character classes, basically) in Cyberpunk Red – rockerboys (performers who, contrary to the name, do not have to be male), solos (combat), netrunners (the signature hacker class), techs (patch up machines), medtechs (patch up people), fixers (social connections), nomads (drive, baby, drive). medias (social influencers, journalists, actors, etc.), lawmen, and execs (corporate types). However, not all of these are likely to come up in ‘standard’ Cyberpunk play. There’s a reason, I think, why solos, netrunners, techs, fixers, nomads, and rockerboys showed up in the Jumpstart Kit. Medias, lawmen, and execs are focused around external groups that are outside the traditional activities of Cyberpunk teams. Lawmen and execs, in particular, are usually part of the power structure that the players are denied access to. Surgery, meanwhile, is usually the sort of thing one calls on one’s Trauma Team contract for. Nomads have an increased role in Cyberpunk Red as compared to prior editions, possibly because they feature significantly in Cyberpunk 2077. So your classic crew would probably feature a solo for combat, a netrunner for hacking, a rockerboy for attitude (Johnny Silverhand, long one of the marquee Cyberpunk NPCs and played by Keanu Reeves in Cyberpunk 2077, is a rockerboy), and then after that mix to flavor.

Each role gets a role ability. Rockerboys can call on their fans. Solos gain combat boosts. Netrunners get the ability to, you know, be netrunners. Techs can repair and invent items. Medtechs can perform surgery. Medias can acquire and broadcast information. Execs can call on their subordinates, while lawmen can call for backup. Fixers have connections. Nomads have vehicles.

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.

There are a massive number of skills available (86), so there’s a lot of granularity in the skill selection. For example, there are four different ‘vehicle’ skills – land, air, sea, and animals. Riding animals is a different skill from animal handling. Guns are broken down into multiple categories (handguns, should arms, heavy weapons), with an additional skill needed to use the autofire setting. Style is a different skill from personal grooming. Security tech is distinct from lock picking is distinct from sleight of hand. Medical knowledge is split into multiple skills. Persuading people is different from conversationally getting information out of someone is different from interrogating them. There are seven different tech skills. Some of them can probably be safely ignored because they’ll never come up (until the GM asks you to ride a horse so you can get to the boat to fix its engine, anyway). Frankly, it’s too many. Yes, in many ways the skill list is actually reduced from prior editions (for example, there used to be four different skills for flying an air vehicle). But it’s still too many.

Acquiring stats and skills can be accomplished with one of three methods, referred to as streetrat, edgerunner, and complete package. Templates are what you’d think – a prepackaged set of stats and skills based on the character’s role. For stats, edgerunning means randomness. The random ranges are different for different roles, but it’s still possible to have some characters with stats that are much better than others. Longtime readers may recall that I strongly dislike randomness during character creation, so you won’t be surprised to know that I find this method less than interesting. For skills, edgerunning could be handy for first-time players who want some control, but don’t want to deal with the enormous skill list. It allots 20 skills to each role, and you then just spend your skill points on those skills (it amounts to an average of around 4 in each of those skills). Unsurprisingly, the complete package is just getting an allotment of points and doing what you want. Average stat ends up being a 6 (maximum 8), and skill average will vary depending on how much they’re spread around. The maximum allowed in any skill is a six, and starting characters do tend to have multiple skills at that level. Additionally, complete package characters are required to invest in 13 basic skills – athletics, brawling, concentration, conversation, education, evasion, first aid, human perception, language: streetslang, local expert, perception, persuasion, and stealth.

Similarly, characters can either spend a fixed amount of cash on their starting gear/cyberware, or can take a package. I really like that characters get an extra budget for fashion (or fashionware; purely cosmetic cybernetic enhancements). Style really is a thing in Cyberpunk; options include bohemian, bag lady, nomad leathers, Asia pop, urban flash, high fashion, and businesswear. Mirrorshades are their own category of gear, which is delightful. The things on which one can spend one’s money – gear, cyberware, programs, lifestyle – occupy about 50 pages. Cyberpunk is a game where money matters, as characters need to make sure to get paid so they can get patched up, get better gear, and try to avoid living in a box and eating kibble for every meal.

It’s pretty standard for characters in Cyberpunk to have cybernetic modifications (putting the cyber into the punk, as the chapter is called), although it is not required. Player characters tend not to be too heavily cybered up, at least at first. First, because it’s just too expensive. Second, because cyberware slows drains a character of empathy and humanity, possibly resulting in cyberpsychosis. Non-player characters with full cyber conversions often take on the role of exotica or combat monsters, drawing a contrast with the still mostly human player characters. Standard sorts of enhancements include enhanced hearing and/or vision, interface plugs to mentally interact with machines, reflex boosters, hand-installed weaponry (e.g., Wolverine-style razor claws), and toxin filters. More exotic cyberware (that players are less likely to start with) include things like a neural implant that lets you ignore pain, vampyre teeth, subdermal armor, full limb replacements, jump boosters or popup guns installed in said limb replacements, extra limbs, and skeletal upgrades.

If you know Cyberpunk, you may have noticed that I haven’t even mentioned the Lifepath so far. If you don’t know Cyberpunk, the Lifepath is a method of filling out character backstory. If you have difficulty rounding out a character beyond “I like big guns and I cannot lie (or use any other social skill),” then the Lifepath will force you to round them out anyway. But there’s nothing mechanical to it, and if you’re capable of coming up with a backstory, there isn’t much use for it beyond inspiration.

Cyberpunk Red art by Neil Branquinho
by Neil Branquinho, source: Cyberpunk Red

Netrunning

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 run 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 exciting to see an updated Cyberpunk making its way to the tabletop. The original game was a mainstay of the 1980s and 1990s, and the use of the setting for classic 1990s CCG Netrunner spread Cyberpunk lingo further into the gaming community – ICE (and black ICE and icebreakers), meat damage, running, cyberdecks, braindance, rezzing, jacking in, and so on. FFG’s Android: Netrunner, while it did not use the Cyberpunk setting, later gave that terminology and ethos a revival. Of course, the netrunner has been (to my mind, at least) simultaneously both the most iconic part of Cyberpunk and, from a game 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 by making the runner be physically present with the rest of the team, interacting through virtual reality goggles instead of full virtual immersion. 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).

Beyond netrunning, the feel of the system has not changed much, at least to my eye. It’s still essentially the classic Interlock system, so overall there’s a lot of consistency. The explosion of skills, the detailed combat system, the focus on gear – all of these are elements and their classic feel are things that Cyberpunk holds onto. After netrunning, the most memorable aspect of Cyberpunk for me is the array of cyberware, and the classics are still there. I get a kick out of seeing Trauma Team (and their much-less-successful competitor, REO Meatwagon). For those who are looking to recapture that old school experience (or experience for the first time), Cyberpunk Red is going to do that.

The game will be a bit on the crunchy side for some. That includes me. I like Cyberpunk. It’s got a style that manages to be both genre-defining and distinctive. But I don’t really want to track something like armor damage, I don’t need things like special rules for shotguns or different martial arts forms, and I don’t need different critical hit tables for different body parts (you will note that all of those examples are found in combat; the bulk of the rules in Cyberpunk are either combat or netrunning). It’s notably more streamlined than Cyberpunk 2020, but still pretty detailed. But maybe streamlining that much would make this feel too far from Cyberpunk, and I’ll grant that changing an existing formula is always risky. In some sense then, Cyberpunk itself embodies the style-first ethos is espouses for the characters and the setting. Maybe things don’t run as smoothly as they could under the hood, but it’s still a fine machine. Cyberpunk Red is Cyberpunk. The rough edges are polished a bit. The chrome is mighty shiny. It’s a good time to chip in again, choomba!

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