Cyberpunk Red has managed to hit the streets, an RPG with about as long a development time as the videogame adaptation it was married to. With both Cybergeneration and (probably more justifiably) Cyberpunk V3.0 both punted down the memory hole, this is the third attempt by Mike Pondsmith and the team at R. Talsorian games to produce a followup to Cyberpunk 2020, the edition of the Cyberpunk RPG which they’d rolled back to as a result of the commercial failure of V3.0.
Set in the “Time of the Red” – so called because of a haze of pollution mingled with nuclear fallout from the nuke which took out the core of Night City at the end of the Cyberpunk 2020 timeline – the game advances the timeline to 2045, a midway point between the first two editions of the game (set in 2013 and 2020 respectively) and the CD Projekt Red videogame.
In some respects, significant changes have occurred to the setting; the balkanisation of the global network into local airgapped VPNs as a result of rampaging AIs making the old Net absurdly dangerous to explore is the big one. That doesn’t mean there’s any less daring hacking exploits – but it does mean that netrunning works a little differently in this iteration of the setting.
Actually, since both this and Cyberpunk 2020 use the Interlock system, the changes to netrunning are arguably the most radical departure here in system terms. To do netrunning properly in Cyberpunk 2020 often involved mapping out little network architectures like a dungeon to be solo-explored by the netrunner and their programs whilst their comrades did other stuff. Things have been much more streamlined. Any particular exploration of network architecture needs to take place within suitably close proximity to an access port, due to the previously-mentioned fragmentation; good guidelines are given to allow GMs to quickly plan out plausible architectures on the fly, and the architectures in question are essentially linear series of “stuff you encounter as you plumb the depths of a system”. Maybe you just want to dip in, turn on the sprinkler systems, and then zap out before the ICE has even had an opportunity to act – or maybe you want to find the bottommost layer of the architecture and, having obtained root access, place a virus there to make a fundamental and permanent change to how that particular system works.
A Netrunner can undertake meatspace actions and net-based actions in their turn, in part because they interface with things through augmented reality rather than full-immersion VR, which means that your Netrunner isn’t just a defenceless lump when they are hacking, but netrunning actions can be dealt with quickly and simply so they shouldn’t dominate situations where they are happening.
Pointers on how things worked “old school style” are provided, so if you want to run a Cyberpunk RED campaign in a setting with a global internet and hackers who stay at home in effective unconsciousness in VR simulations while their buds go do the meatspace stuff, it’d be wholly possible to do that – but if you leave the setting tweaks in place it really does a lot to help justify having a Netrunner stick with the party rather than staying behind.
Other changes include scaling back the power of the megacorporations a bit. Not that they are irrelevant – in fact, they are still a huge deal – but they aren’t the all-powerful lords of the world any more. National governments are not exactly strong, but they ain’t nothing either; the world is more multilateral and chaotic. This not only kind of helps pivot things back to the visions of, say, William Gibson (remember, in Neuromancer the military computer systems were depicted as being orders of magnitude bigger and more powerful and more inaccessible than corporate systems; the daring hack at the end of the book is accomplished with Chinese government ICE-breaker software), but also kind of helps play down the cartoonish, bowdlerised version of cyberpunk which older editions of Cyberpunk sometimes unintentionally fostered and shameless imitators like Shadowrun mimiced thoughtlessly.
Specifically, it means that the fallback assumption that PCs in a Cyberpunk game will largely be working for one corporation or another is very much mitigated against. To be fair, I don’t think that was necessarily ever the intention of Pondsmith and crew: they were well-read on the cyberpunk literature, after all. Again, to use Neuromancer as a touchstone, they aren’t working for a corporation in that book: they are ripping off a corporation.
But Shadowrun‘s default mission structure of “Mr. Johnson, a generic mission-giver working for a shadowy backer who is almost certainly a megacorp, gives you a mission” seems to have become a default assumption of cyberpunk genre RPGs in general, which is a bit of a shame because it rather undermines the “punk” part of the equation – the defiance of authority and the boot to the head of entrenched privilege.
Sure, the heist that Neuromancer revolves around is not, at the end of the day, a particularly revolutionary act in terms of destroying the entrenched corporate power structures of that world, or even making life a bit better for everyone else. But it’s a blow against an orderly system, and being able to subvert the tools of a system to strike a blow against it – even if that blow is the collateral damage of what you were doing and you just wanted to rip some rich bastard off and get rich – still undermines that system.
Philip K. Dick, in his speech The Android and the Human, made a case that random acts of criminality are a bigger problem for a futuristic system of oppression than organised ideological opposition: the opposition is, precisely because it has an ideology and an organisation and a goal, predictable in some respects, whereas random mayhem is much harder to account for. You may or may not agree with Dick – but the original wave of cyberpunk authors were largely getting at the same idea.
Thus, Cyberpunk RED assumes that your PCs are going to be doing hardscrabble, morally dubious, physically dangerous things for the sake of surviving and maybe making a buck. Cyberpunk 2020 was much the same. However, the shift in the power balance in Cyberpunk RED not only makes it seem less likely that you will automatically be working for hire for the megacorps – it also makes specifically working to rip off the megacorps feel much more viable.
In a similar welcome clarification, Cyberpunk RED goes out of its way to make it clear that what does and does not give rise the condition of “cyberpsychosis”, as part of what reads to me like a good faith attempt to steer away from some of the more unfortunate implications people have taken away from the presentation in Cyberpunk 2020 (including the designers of more or less every edition of Shadowrun).
The term “cyberpsychosis” itself is kind of unfortunate because psychosis is an actual medical condition which people suffer from, and despite lurid media portrayals and scaremongering headlines people in the grip of it are usually in more danger from others than they are to others. Nonetheless, Cyberpunk RED makes it more explicit that the condition is meant to be the result of pre-existing conditions (or PTSD obtained in play through traumatic events) being exacerbated by the dissociative effects of having lots of cyberware grafted onto you.
Most welcomely, it is no longer the case that you do not suffer a Humanity lost (Humanity being the currency which, if you lose too much of it, wears down your Empathy stat and eventually causes you to succumb to cyberpsychosisis) for cybernetic or bodysculpting treatments which are solely for the sake of fashion, or which are used for prosthetic or therapeutic purposes.
The former is a nice touch – why punish players for wanting their characters to look cool when the game overtly encourages them to want their character to look cool? – but the latter is the really valuable change. It takes away the absurd idea that, say, that character who got a replacement arm or organ because they lost their previous one or were born with out it, or the trans character who has used Bodysculpting to obtain a body which matches their gender identity, has lost no Humanity because of it – which is good, because otherwise the game loads in an unfortunate implication that the player at your table who has a prosthetic limb, an artificial heart, or has undergone gender transition has “lost Humanity” as a result.
No, in this new edition Humanity lost is explicitly connected to cyberware that takes your capabilities beyond the human baseline – or gives you capabilities outside of ordinary human experience altogether. Getting a prosthetic arm to replace an arm you lost to accident, violence, or were born without is wholly rational (and the closing fiction here includes a cast of characters inspired by and developed in conjunction with Cyberpunk fans who have prostheses of their own to reaffirm this). Hacking off a perfectly functional arm so you can build some fancy toys into your own body rather than just carrying them around? That’s a bit more radical.
In a way it’s a real shame that, along with the infamous bugs and the horribly implemented PS4/XBox One versions, Cyberpunk 2077 was also dragged down by generally shabby corporate behaviour on the part of CD Projekt Red, weird nonsense around customisable genitalia (and how penises seemed to get way more options there than vaginas – if you are going to implement basically game-irrelevant CGI genitals and include extensive customisation, why not share the love?), epileptic fit-inducing cut scenes based off actual epileptic fit-inducing devices, clumsy fetishisation of trans people, and other controversies. Pondsmith and his team, conversely, have done a much better job here of looking at aspects of Cyberpunk 2020 which didn’t exactly age well and coming up with a take on them which is more nuanced, avoiding a lot of the unfortunate implications whilst still engaging with the settings’ overarching themes.
And to reiterate, this is very much an update of Cyberpunk 2020, setting changes be damned. The book has a very similar chapter structure (and even shares many of the same chapter titles) as Cyberpunk 2020, especially in the system chapters (naturally the setting sections are going to diverge more), and great swathes of text have simply been lifted from the original and then edited either to add clarity and readability, make adjustments to the baseline assumptions (like the cyberpsychosis stuff) or to adapt the text to the new context of 2045.
The fact that such edits are often very light – particularly in the introductory View From the Edge section – feels like a tacit admission that at its heart, when it comes to core themes, rather than specific names, faces, and organisations, the Time of the Red is a restatement and update to the setting of Cyberpunk 2020 rather than an abandonment of it.
I don’t mind this recycling of text. Why make your job harder? Why change up punchy prose which already did the job pretty well back in 1990? (The original Cyberpunk 2020 rulebook’s distinctive voice – conversational without getting waffley, direct, to the point, adamantly clear about what the game was and was not about, and keen to show you what’s fun about it – was one of the best aspects of it.) It also makes tweaks jump out, especially if you do the exercise of comparing the two texts.
Both books lead off by presenting you with the various archetypal Roles that Cyberpunk starting characters get. The same roles from 2020 return in RED, which is about a definitive a sign as you can hope for that the basic themes of the game have not changed in this edition (if they had, it’d call for new archetypes). That said, a number of interesting changes have been made, largely for the better:
- Some of the special abilities for Roles have had adjustments to their names; the Rockerboy’s Charismatic Leadership is now Charismatic Impact, the Solo now has Combat Awareness rather than Combat Senses, the Fixer has Operative instead of Streetdeal. By and large these new terms are better at giving an intuitive idea of what they are about; Fixer less so, though I think pivoting away from the inadvertent implication that they are necessarily out there dealing on the street when they exercise this ability is useful.
- Some of those special abilities have changed, sometimes radically. Whereas in 2020 a Solo’s Combat Sense stat got added to their initiative every combat turn – simple, but boring, and not always that useful – Solos now have a range of combat abilities they can activate by assigning their Combat Awareness points to them when combat begins. Boom – instantly the straight-ahead fighter type becomes more interesting!
- The Netrunner’s Interface ability has, of course, been extensively amended to suit the new Netrunning system.
- Techies are now Techs and rather than the Jury-Rig ability which allows them to repair or alter something for a temporary period of time, they get the much more exciting Maker ability – covering repairs and alterations, but also manufacturing and inventing new shit.
- The Medtech Role – previously a subset of the Techie Role – has been parcelled out into a Role of its own, with the Medicine ability (naturally). Good to have someone who can restart your Netrunner’s heart when the black ICE zaps them!
- Corporates are now Execs, and instead of a “call on corporate Resources with a Persuade role” ability, they have a team of functionaries working with them as assistants who can go and do legwork as needed.
- Cops are now Lawmen, and instead of having the Authority ability which let them demand others Respect Their Authoritah (nothing more “punk” than a society where people respect the police!) they have the hilarious Backup ability, which does exactly what it implies.
- Nomads no longer have the Family ability, which previously let them call on other members of their roving motorcycle clan to help them out. (After all, the Family’s probably moved on whilst the Nomad’s stayed behind with the party, after all.) Instead, they have the Moto ability – an ability to drive more or less any vehicle, as well as a measure of what vehicles they can borrow from the Family stock.
(Incidentally, the character illustrations for Rockerboys and Lawmen both seem to be women or femme-coded, so there’s that.)
Later in the book, the different Role Abilities also have significantly more detailed breakdowns and guidance on how to use them in play than they had in Cyberpunk 2020. This is really helpful to ensure that these abilities remain central to play, and to help make each of them meaningful; in 2020 some of them gave clear, concrete bonuses whilst others were much more hand-wavey.
Character generation does indeed still use the lifepath system, favoured by the Interlock games since Mekton times. Whereas Cyberpunk 2020 had the full-fat character generation process and a super-fast generator for when you need a quick throwaway character (more intended for NPC goons than PCs), RED does away with the latter (a set of generic stats for various types of stock character your PCs might meet over and over again is provided, and is probably more useful) and instead has three character generation routes: Streetrat, Edgerunner, and the Complete Package.
As you might imagine, the Complete Package gives you the full customisation – character points, equipment and cyberware bought à la carte, and so on. The Streetrat route still gives you a range of fun choices, but preloads a lot of stuff – you get prepackaged sets of equipment and cyberware, you will get one of ten randomised statlines, you will get a set block of skills, and so on. The Edgerunner option takes a middle route, giving you more choices and flexibility at points but still giving you preloaded equipment and cyberware loadouts.
All the character generation options, nicely, start the same way: you pick a role, you set your Role Ability to 4, and you run the lifepath. I like this because it means that you get stuck in arguably the most famous (and for my money the most fun) part of the Interlock character creation system nice and early.
In addition, the lifepaths have been appreciably increased in scope, as well as adjusted. The generic set of lifepath tables everyone uses is largely based on the ones from Cyberpunk 2020, with some tweaks. The Ethnic Origins table, already admirably diverse, has been replaced with Cultural Origins (but still has a broadly similar scope), the Clothing Style table has been adjusted (“Nude” is no longer an option), the What Do You Value Most? table now has “Family” instead of “Having a good time” (probably sensible for providing a player character who wants to get involved in shit rather than sitting back and taking it easy).
The Family Background and Childhood Environment tables have been tweaked to suit the 2045 setting (but not all that much). There’s no longer rolls for parental status, siblings, or bad shit that happened to your parents specifically – everyone now just rolls on the Childhood Environment and Family Tragedy tables (the latter renamed Family Crisis), due to the massive social disruption of the past 25 years or so.
Everyone now has 1D10-7 Friends, Enemies, and Tragic Love Affairs (rather than rolling a bunch on the Life Events table to see which of those tables you roll on) rather than only going to those tables on a random roll; rolling Friends and Enemies no longer requires you to come up with rolled styles and motivations for them, and the Enemies generation process has had some sections removed and has been boiled down to three rolls (who’s the enemy, what’s caused the enmity, what can they throw at you), with the “What can they throw at you?” table being substantially polished. The Romantic Life tables from Cyberpunk 2020 has been reduced to just the Tragic Love Affairs, because frankly those are the ones which have the most story potential to begin with.
Perhaps the biggest change is the removal of the Big Problems, Big Wins section, which would often throw up significant problems (some of which of a scale to derail a planned campaign before you start play!) or big scores which gave you system-based bonuses – Lifepath here is unambiguously about fleshing out your background fluff, not boosting system bits. (Plus it’s now always “roll 1D6 or choose one” so having randomised bonuses or penalties makes less sense.) In its place is a Life Goals table, to offer your PC’s major motivation as of the start of the campaign.
Like I said, once you get beyond these tweaks and simplifications the generic lifepath is very much like the Cyberpunk 2020 one. Where RED really adds new flair is in providing new role-specific lifepath sections, so for instance you can figure out whether your Rockerboy was always a solo act or whether they used to be in a band – and, in the latter case, why you left. This provides some useful customisation, and should really help make everyone’s backgrounds feel different and have plenty of features in them specific to their Role.
Beyond this, character generation is basically Interlock as we’ve always known it. The Attractiveness is gone; the charisma-based stuff it used to cover is now covered by Cool, and the willpower-based stuff that Cool used to cover is now covered by Willpower; these relabeling seem sensible and intuitive to me. Reflexes has now been split into Reflexes (reaction time, essentially) and Dexterity (the other stuff that Reflexes used to cover). The skill list has been somewhat rationalised. But it’s still stat plus skill plus 1D10 against a difficulty modifier (or the other person’s roll).
The gear porn factor has been dialled back; rather than having lots of different brand versions of weapons and armour types and whatnot, you just have generic statlines for each broad category of melee weapon, each general type of armour, each category of gun, and so on. You can pay more to get nicer versions, you can come up with a brand name for it if you want, but the days of agonising over which medium pistol with very slightly different stats from the other medium pistols to get are over. (A table of exotic weapons of more specific type and brand origin is also provided to tackle weapon types which don’t fit nicely into a broad category.)
Likewise, the cyberware listings have been tightened up. In addition, an important change has been made to the system for getting a loan at game start to pay for some of that cyberware. In Cyberpunk 2020, you could get that money by agreeing to be employed by some military, corporate, or organised crime force. In RED, you can only take this option if everyone else at the table wants to take advantage of the same opportunity. This is useful because it means that groups needn’t get dragged into doing, say, organised crime stuff when the intended focus of the campaign wasn’t that because someone made that pick during character creation, and emphasises that if you are going to take this option, you’re going to make the early phases of the campaign about paying off your group debts.
Perhaps the biggest addition to RED is a greatly expanded background section over Cyberpunk 2020 – including a bunch of detail on the 2020 version of the setting too. It’s not got everything the 2020 core book had – but it’s got enough that I feel like the setting section has been nicely calibrated so that if you want to run the 2013 or 2020 versions of the Cyberpunk setting using the Cyberpunk RED rules, you can do it. Like I said, the major difference is in some of the underlying assumptions of how Netrunning works, but it really wouldn’t be hard to patch some of the old features of the Net back into the game. And, indeed, there’s some setting details which suggest that reconquering the old Net might be a viable long-term theme for a campaign.
That said, I kind of like the fragmented, balkanised Net of Cyberpunk RED. It adds another dystopian feature to the setting, and reinforces the idea of a world where the major powers can always find new ways to fuck everything up and make things kind of worse for everyone. By and large, the new edition of the game is a substantial and welcome improvement over the original, and most important provides a set of rules for cyberpunk roleplaying which are eminently transferable to the cyberpunk setting of your choice – a major virtue of the original version of the game.