You have to give it to Mike Pondsmith. Yes, recent designs of his have included serious misfires like Cyberpunk v3, a terrible mess of doll-based artwork and paper-eating viruses and continued flogging of the dead horse that was the Fuzion system that resulted in a game that nobody actually wanted. Sure, that game was so poorly received that Pondsmith’s R. Talsorian Games has effectively disowned it, reverting to promoting the previous edition of Cyberpunk instead.
But when Pondsmith does get a grip on the zeitgeist – as he did with Cyberpunk 2020 – he’s a real master at getting you fired up for what he’s offering. One of the things I respect most about the game – and something which makes it still a viable choice for cyberpunk-themed gaming despite many of its baseline assumptions either no longer being science fiction or clearly having been rendered nonsensical by the passage of time – is that in the first chapter, when it’s laying out the baseline axioms of life in the cyberpunk future, it declares that number one is “Style over substance”, and for the rest of the book it takes that attitude to heart, making what would have been a point of criticism a badge of pride.
There’s a place for games with a sense of, if not realism, at least a rigorously thought-out setting with a strong sense of verisimilitude – that was the dominant mode when the first edition of Cyberpunk came out, after all – but Cyberpunk really blazed a trail for games where you don’t sweat the setting details so long as they arrive at the aesthetic you want. Shadowrun thrived on this, Vampire and its successors work much better if you take this approach to them, and numerous other games (especially during the 1990s) also took this route, and it’s largely thanks to Cyberpunk.
Which isn’t to say that the book is insubstantial – in fact you get a heck of a lot in here. You get character generation, combat, netrunning and all the other rules you’d expect from a cyberpunk game, plus a sample setting (Night City) with sufficient detail to get you rolling straight away. You also have some fairly reasonable advice for running the game – like “choose a concept for the PC team and have the players make characters with an eye to that rather than going full sandbox” – though this is also mixed in with a somewhat adversarial GM-vs.-players attitude.
(Though it’s actually more reasonable if you dig into the details than some of the adversarial advice in currency during the era; in particular, in the character generation section the game points out that it’s not going to bother writing in any safeguards against min-maxing and doesn’t suggest that the GM overrule such character builds, because the GM can always just kill off a PC who’s becoming a game-wrecking issue anyway. I’d prefer that the referee talk to the player whose character is becoming an issue rather than using GM fiat to punish them for their success, but it’s at least nice that the game doesn’t arbitrarily limit character builds just because some of them can end up quite good.)
Cyberpunk runs off the Interlock system, first aired by R. Talsorian in the Mekton II mecha anime-inspired RPG. This largely means you are dealing with skill plus stat plus 1D10 against a difficulty number (or the other fellow’s roll), along with a fun lifepath system which gives your character a bit of a genre-appropriate backstory. The two major things people cite as issues in cyberpunk games of this vintage definitely exist, but at the same time aren’t actually as big of problems in this context as they are made out to be.
The first is the whole cyberpsychosis thing, where the more cyberware you install the more your Empathy stat goes down. Yes, this is transparently a brake to stop you installing every bit of cyberware you can and becoming a flat-out superhuman. However, each item in question doesn’t yield a direct Empathy loss, but gives you a certain number of humanity loss points – and your Empathy only goes down when you get ten of those. The actual costings of items are actually quite modest by comparison, especially when it comes to things which realistically speaking shouldn’t mess with your sense of who you are and what your personal capabilities are like prosthetic limbs.
You only get the really serious hits when you start installing a bunch of stuff which puts your capabilities well beyond the human norm, which realistically speaking you should expect would put you at risk of a certain amount of hubris. And because you can install up to 9 points’ worth of cyberware before your Empathy even drops by a single, solitary point, that can actually account for a fair bit of cyberware – and if you buy up Empathy specifically to allow for more purchases, you can really go to town. When you combine this with a reminder that this is meant to be a very stylised game, which only goes to the realism well when doing so makes sense for the aesthetic it’s going for, and this really isn’t that much of a problem.
The other major problem people run into with cyberpunk gaming is the whole netrunning thing, which can devolve into the referee running a one-on-one side game for the party’s netrunner. That can totally happen here for when you are going deep into a hacking session, but actually the party’s netrunner has ample reason to stay awake and not jack into the matrix when the party is on an actual mission – if they stay present they can use their deck to detect nearby devices and attempt to take them over, giving them something solid they can do during the thick of the action and allowing you to save the netrunning process so it’s not taking up the game time of the other players. (Of course, the netrunning process also involves the netrunner invoking various autonomous programs, and you could have the other players play those for netrunning purposes to give them a reason to be invested in those.)
Really, the only major thumbs down I have with the core Cyberpunk 2020 book is the art. Partly this is because whenever a woman is depicted she is usually in a skimpy and/or figure-hugging costume and is doing a boobbutt pose, which is tiresome. But mostly, it’s because the artwork isn’t anime enough.
This is the hidden secret of R. Talsorian Games: as far as their major in-house projects go, they’re the original anime RPG company. Not in the Big Eyes, Small Mouth sense, because they’re smart enough to realise that anime is a medium and not a genre and there’s distinct genres within that field, but think about it: the Mekton games are overtly based on mecha anime. Whilst Cyberpunk pushes the various cyberpunk novels of the era as inspirations, there was also a strong cyberpunk strand in 1980s anime. Even Castle Falkenstein feels in some ways reminiscent of the not-really-Europe that anime sometimes resorts to as the settings of material like Howl’s Moving Castle or The Castle of Cagiostro.
We know from history that major leaps forward happen in the RPG field when people find useful ways to tap into other fandoms. Playing At the World makes a very convincing case that whilst Dungeons & Dragons emerged from the wargaming community, its rapid early spread came about because of it being adopted by the science fiction and fantasy fan community. (This was a factor in the early RPG scene having a much healthier gender balance than the extremely male-dominated wargaming community of the day.) Vampire famously spearheaded a boom by bridging gamers and goths.
Pondsmith, for his part, got his start in the RPG publishing field effectively by standing with one foot in anime and one foot in gaming, and whilst this isn’t commonly declared as being a moment when substantial numbers of new people came into the hobby, a case can be made that Pondsmith’s particular take on RPG design, which would be so influential for much of the 1990s, would in part be inspired by that mix of interests.
(And really, don’t Shadowrun and Vampire feel like they’d make so much more sense if they were animes?)