Looking Back At The Dark Future Of Cyberpunk 2020
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  • Looking Back At The Dark Future Of Cyberpunk 2020

    While I often spread the links to the Bundle of Holding site across my social media whenever there is a new bundle up, I don't talk very often about the bundles in my columns here at EN World. I talked about the Champions 4E bundle that was at the site recently, because the release of so much classic Champions material in legal PDF for the first time was a big deal for fans of the Hero System and Champions. Today I am going to talk about a bundle up at the site because it features my all-time favorite RPG, R. Talsorian Games' role-playing game of the dark future Cyberpunk 2020.

    Much like everyone who is a Doctor Who fan has "their Doctor," typically the version of the character featured on the show when they started to watch and with whom they identify the program, I think that people also have "their" role-playing game. It might not be the first game they played, or the best, but it is the game that holds the most meaning for them. It could be the game that caused the activity of role-playing to click for them. It could be the game that brought them into the hobby. I think that it is something that we all have. For me, there are a couple of games that hold that slot: the classic Marvel Super-Heroes game from TSR and Cyberpunk 2020.

    When I flew off to attend college I picked up a paperback with a weird, almost holographic cover to read on the airplane. I had read a couple of articles about this novel in places like Rolling Stone, and they were talking about how the book filled out this relatively new genre that many of us saw for the first time when we went to see the movie Bladerunner. This book was Neuromancer by William Gibson and this was 1987. I know for a good number of people around my age group, that movie and this book was an aesthetical one-two punch that caught us off guard, and opened up our eyes.

    Cyberpunk, this genre with a weird name, was like the world of now (the now of 1987, at least) but so much more vivid and writ large. It was a political genre, a genre of protest, and for those of us whose political sensibilities were awakening, books like Neuromancer, Hardwired by Walter Jon Williams, John Shirley's Eclipse, Pat Cadigan's Synners, Islands In The Net by Bruce Sterling and so many, many more would push and poke those sensibilities into new directions.
    As important as the genre was I, of course, wanted to find a role-playing game that would allow my friends and I to play in these cyberpunk worlds. It was college, and a time of experimentation, so we flitted around games as I could find them. These pre-ubiquitous internet days made finding games like this harder, but they were out there. We tried SpaceTime from the Blacksburg Tactical Research Center and Cyberspace from Iron Crown Enterprises. Neither of these games were really a great fit for our group, so after a few sessions we moved back to our Marvel Super-Heroes games. Eventually, I discovered a review of the first edition of R. Talsorian's game, then called Cyberpunk 2013, in a gaming magazine. The magazine now escapes me, but the game sounded good so I tracked down a copy of it.

    We played Cyberpunk 2013, and while it wasn't a perfect fit for us (thankfully we had all already learned that there was no such thing as a perfect game), but it was close enough for us to have a good time. A little bit later, the second edition (now called Cyberpunk 2020 due to an advance in the time line) came out and we gave it a try. The game was a lot better for us, and due to supplements like the ones for Walter Jon Williams' Hardwired novel and When Gravity Fails (based on the books by George Alec Effinger), we were able to enter into worlds like the ones that we read about.

    By the way, if you haven't read Effinger's Budayeen stories, I whole-heartedly recommend them. They were one of the first introductions to Middle Eastern culture for this Midwestern-born boy, outside of watching Lawrence of Arabia as a kid. There are worse fictional entries.

    So, why was this game important to me as a gamer? In part it had to do with being a fan of the genre. I have never been much of a fan of fantasy, outside of enjoying a few books by Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard, so despite the popularity of games like Dungeons & Dragons, they never really grabbed me because the source material didn't. This is why I glommed on to games like Marvel Super-Heroes or Call of Cthulhu, these were the genres that I was a fan of, and wanted to role-play. While I have enjoyed various science fiction books and movies, as a whole, the genre didn't impact me the way that the sub-genre of cyberpunk did. Getting to create our own worlds where "high tech low lifes" rebelled against governmental and corporate control of those worlds was a huge selling point.

    While the core concept of "kill them and take their stuff" can be existent in cyberpunk gaming, there is also that important element of wanting to change the world, hopefully for the better. This is an aesthetic that cyberpunk gaming and super-hero gaming share, despite their dramatically different genre surface elements. The cyberpunk/super-hero fusion role-playing game Underground by Ray Winninger represents mechanizing the idea of that characters can implement change within the fictional world of a role-playing campaign.

    I won't deny that the punk sensibility of "fighting the man" played into my interest in cyberpunk as a genre, both in fiction and in role-playing games. Bands like Siouxsie and The Banshees, The Cure, The Clash and Elvis Costello and the Attraction were more of an influence on my burgeoning music sensibilities than the safer corporate, or "progressive" rock. One element after another lined up behind the cyberpunk genre for me.

    Mechanically the game also appealed to me. Cyberpunk 2020 drew upon the innovations of earlier games like Traveller and Call of Cthulhu to create a character creation sub-system that utilizes class-like roles that give characters a bit more mechanical flexibility than many of the class-based games of the time. Each role is built around a cluster of skills, for example a Solo (the fighter-type character) receives a number of combat-oriented skills. The niche of each role is then reinforced with a special ability that is available only to that role. The Solo, for example again, gets a bonus to initiative and awareness rolls that give those characters a sizeable advantage in combat. Honestly, this is the way that it should be. A fight with a highly trained combatant and a thief should look like someone fed the thief into a meat grinder, by the time the fight is done.

    Cybernetics in the game varied from simple modifiers to rolls, to give special abilities or rules special cases to a character. The "cybersnake" from Hardwired started out in the supplement adapting that book, and eventually migrated to the main rules of the game. If you aren't familiar, this is probably one of the creepier pieces of cyberware created within the cyberpunk genre, moreso because of who had the cybersnake in the original book. Most of the cybernetics in the Cyberpunk 2020 book are a lot less prosaic than this, with a lot of combat useful devices like cybernetic arms and legs, and sundry built-in weapons.

    System-wise, Cyberpunk 2020 uses a fairly simple attribute plus skill plus modifiers plus a die roll for task resolution. There are a few things that can give modifiers to rolls, from a role's special ability to cybernetics to situational modifiers. The game has a tendency to "get out of the way" with its simplicity, with combat and other interactions getting resolved fairly quickly. There aren't a lot of quirks to the system, and results can be fairly predictable, but that really isn't unique to this game.

    But all of this comes together to make a game, and an experience, that was formative for me, as well as for the many other fans of cyberpunk literature and the Cyberpunk 2020 role-playing game. I still hold that the Cyberpunk 2020 supplement Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads is one of the better guides to GMing made for role-playing, and its discussions on genre and player relations are some of the best published within the industry. Yes, there is a humorous bit by the game's creator Mike Pondsmith that can be construed as fostering an adversarial relationship between players and game masters, but that section of the book was intended as an over the top joke.

    There aren't a lot of role-playing games that I suggest that all gamers should try out at some point or another, but I do think that Cyberpunk 2020 is on that list. I think that if you haven't yet, and give the game a chance that it will be on your list as well. Having run the game over the last couple of years, I won't say that there aren't any issues with how well the game has aged. Computer and wireless technology went in a much different direction than the game thought that it would, but I don't think there are any futurists with a 100% success rate. As long as you look at Cyberpunk 2020​ as being more like a "retro future" these days, you should be able to get over that speed bump.
    Comments 10 Comments
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Neuromancer was an eye-opener, that’s for sure. Sadly I didn’t discover Hardwired until recently, which is a real shame. I’d never even heard of When Gravity Fails, but now I’m curious.

      Being mostly fantasy gamers back then, we only dabbled in Cyberpunk 2020, though Shadowrun’s blend hooked us in. I keep meaning to revisit Cyberpunk 2020 and the near future of the 80s.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      Did you ever play the Neuromancer computer game? It was awesome! (by 1988 standards)
    1. Desh-Rae-Halra's Avatar
      Desh-Rae-Halra -
      Wasn't there talk a while back about a Kickstarter relaunch of this?
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      There is a beauty to Cyberpunk that I don't think folks fully appreciated. There are not many RPGs where there are absolutely no supernatural or super science elements. Cyberpunk is one of those. I have always felt that in terms of aesthetic and source material, that Cyberpunk was the first real "American" rpg. With nods to Delta Force (Task Force Games) and Boot Hill. That is not meant as an overly patriotic statement, but just the feel of the game eschews much of the traditional myths behind RPGs.

      Plus Mike Pondsmith's quote "Cyberpunk isn't about saving the world, it's about saving yourself." is maybe the best marketing pitch to play a game ever.
    1. MH13outlaw's Avatar
      MH13outlaw -
      absolutely loved 2020..probably my second fave game behind D&D 2nd edition...Cybergen was also enjoyable
    1. R_Chance's Avatar
      R_Chance -
      This was a great game, and yes their was / is a computer game in the works. Cyberpunk 2077 from CD Projekt iirc. Not sure where they are at on it. Lots of drama / delays / theft (not kidding). Cyberpunk and Mekton Zeta, my favorites in the respective genres. *sigh* Time to dig through some boxes and get nostalgic...
    1. Jhaelen -
      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      Did you ever play the Neuromancer computer game? It was awesome! (by 1988 standards)
      I think even by today's standards it's still a great game. Of course it could use a graphics update, but apart from that? Its great mix between a graphical adventure and the 'action-sequences' in the matrix where you're hacking systems using different kinds of ICE-breakers and encounter AIs that can only be 'defeated' by debating about arts or humanities with them was - and is - genius.

      I've often thought about applying the game's concept of diminishing returns when using ICE-breakers in RPGs or board games.

      The Neuromancer trilogy is one of the few novels I consider worth reading twice. On first reading it can be hard to unravel the story because of the multiple parallel narrative threads. I'm still a fan of Gibson's novels, although he's no longer really in the Cyberpunk genre. Instead, they're contemporary, highlighting and extrapolating the possibilities of recent technological advancements.

      P.S.: Thanks for the tips about novels in the article. I hadn't heard about some of them.
    1. VengerSatanis -
      The cyberpunk/super-hero fusion role-playing game Underground by Ray Winninger represents mechanizing the idea of that characters can implement change within the fictional world of a role-playing campaign.
      I'd be interested in hearing more about this.
    1. dropbear8mybaby's Avatar
      dropbear8mybaby -
      I still have this book!

      Only ever managed to run a game once using it though. It was so confusing for all of us that we never delved deeper to try and nut out the issues we were having.
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      After the massive success and critical acclaim of The Witcher III, expectations are super-high for this. The development saga is getting increasingly convoluted, though.

      Quote Originally Posted by R_Chance View Post
      Cyberpunk 2077 from CD Projekt iirc. Not sure where they are at on it. Lots of drama / delays / theft (not kidding). Cyberpunk and Mekton Zeta, my favorites in the respective genres. *sigh* Time to dig through some boxes and get nostalgic...
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