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Cyberpunk Red: One Year Later

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Of the two big releases in the Cyberpunk setting late last year, the tabletop one seems to have had the better time of it. Cyberpunk Red sparked some nostalgia in old players while introducing a new generation of players to one of the definitive settings in the genre. Surprisingly, that included me, as I spent my youth (and early parts of my career) over on the other side of the fence in Shadowrun’s Seattle. I was lucky enough to run a few games as part of my duties as host of Theatre of the Mind Players both from the original Jumpstart Kit and the full book. To celebrate the release of some supplementary materials provided by R. Talsorian Games (those mini-reviews will pop up toward the end), I decided to look back at the game now that I have a few runs under my belt.

Cyberpunk Red Core Rulebook​

Cyberpunk Red is an advancement of the timeline between Cyberpunk 2020 and Cyberpunk 2077. It takes place in roughly 2045 and overwrites the materials seen in Cyberpunk 3.0 and Cybergeneration. Cyberpunk Red is not a radical revision of the original game. Think of it more like a remastered version that cleans up a few cosmetics and gameplay elements, but leaves the original system in place for better or worse. Seeing this late 80s/early 90s style of game design was jarring on my initial read, but after running it I’ve come to love much of it. The basic stat+skill+d10 roll works pretty well on its own and plays a lot more simply than other games of the time. The exploding possibility on both ends also offers a way to mix in some narrative twists as needed. The wide skills also inspired my players to think creatively. How can I use my Personal Grooming and Style here?

One of the areas that was streamlined well was the lifepath generation system The original game generated a lot of history for characters, while Cyberpunk Red’s version generated just enough. My players loved this part of character creation and didn’t need much prodding to mix each other up in their stories.

The Roles were also improved in Cyberpunk Red. Each skill works in a slightly different way, from the combat analysis of the Solo allowing shifts in attack profiles to the Nomad’s ability to borrow family vehicles for specific runs. I’m usually a fan of unified mechanics but the different Role skills really help give each archetype a distinct flavor.

Cyberpunk Netrunner Deck​

One of the big challenges of the cyberpunk genre is the hacker problem. Games are set up to emulate the fiction, which features hackers dashing through a cool VR dungeon to get the important information. In play, however, that often meant the hacker player monopolizing the GM’s time while everyone else watched.

Cyberpunk Red streamlined this process by giving Netrunners multiple actions based on their Netrunning skill and simplifying data fortress construction to a single path of risk and reward. My initial read on this was that they went too far in the easy direction but in play it felt like just enough spotlight was given to the netrunner during a job. It feels like the netrunner does all the exploration while the game shifts back into the meat world and now we’re just at the challenge points of the run. It’s also easier to add complexity back into a table’s taste than remove it.

As Netrunners are the closest thing to wizards in this setting, the Cyberpunk Red Netrunner Deck is more or less a spell deck for the Netrunner player featuring all the programs featured in the core book. It also includes the ICE programs they might face as well as a small mini deck of nodes that can be used to generate a hack on the fly. Pick this up if netrunning is a focus of your Cyberpunk Red games.

Cyberpunk Red Data Screen​

We didn’t get into much combat during our game, but the moments where we did felt fast and brutal. Things really turn on the critical hit mechanics which ends fights quickly. Beware; if players can’t hit matching sixes, it can be a while to put down an opponent.

The key question for a GM screen for me is always “Does this have useful charts that I will use during play?” The Cyberpunk Red Data Screen fits all the things I wanted for combat in one area, though I think the Jumpstart Kit still has good reference charts for other things like Netrunning. If you only buy one GM aid, get this one because it’s freshly filled with errata, but if you can afford both, this combined with the Jumpstart Kit makes a deluxe suite of GM data.

Cyberpunk Red Data Pack​

This product recalls another relic of 90s game releases: the book of materials that barely missed the cut for the corebook paired with a less sexy accessory. In this case, the Data Pack comes with a stack of double sided character sheets for those folks who don’t want to use their precious printer juice.

There are also battle maps included. Given the dearth of modern battle grids, that alone makes Cyberpunk Red Data Pack a worthy purchase, even if the maps are printed on glossy pages rather than wet/dry erase material. They also look like they could be useful for the upcoming mini combat game.

The real value in this release comes from the booklet which includes a few one-page screamsheet adventures as well as a series of 20 entry tables of everything ranging from contacts to pocket contents. Each of these works as a lovely story hook or as a bit of color to fill out Night City.

Upon my first reading of Cyberpunk Red my thoughts were mixed but after playing it I find that the rules are a solid base refined just enough to appeal to more modern tastes. It’s a great entry point into the Cyberpunk universe, regardless of one’s opinion of its videogame big brother.

This post contains affiliate links to the products mentioned within. If you found the review useful, please consider buying the products via the link to help support the reviewer.
 

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Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland

lyle.spade

Adventurer
I am torn over Red. I played CP2020 a ton way back when, and loved the system, setting, and tone of the books. Only Vampire: the Masquerade matched the degree to which CP's authors presented their world through the tone and wording of their supplements and rulebooks. I remember the combat system working well, and even quickly, when everyone knew the rules and their characters. I also remember Netrunning never being part of the game at the table, and our group never having Netrunners as PCs, for the reasons you cited.

Red does offer some improvements over the old system, particularly in the area of character special abilities, and right after that the Netrunning system, which is nicely tied as a set of mechanics to the 'new normal' of computer networks in the era of Red. These are clear improvements over CP2020.

And yet...Red feels flat. I've run it several times and the system just feels stale, stuck in time, ignorant of 20+ years of game design evolution. That, and the smart-mouth tone that was throughout the 2020 has been replaced by a somewhat self-conscious, muted cynicism that lacks the 'twinkle in the eye' vibe of the old stuff. Sure, society was a mess and the world was falling apart...but you look good and the kid behind the counter at the 7-11 is almost out of ammo, so you might live through the night. There was a grimness to it all, but that sat behind a youthful excitement about living life to the fullest. At least that's how I remember it.

Red, on the other hand, is just grim, coupled with a vanilla system that does what it must, but provides nothing to help invoke or support the supposed feel of the world. It might as well be Savage Worlds - just a task resolution mechanic.
 

And yet...Red feels flat. I've run it several times and the system just feels stale, stuck in time, ignorant of 20+ years of game design evolution. That, and the smart-mouth tone that was throughout the 2020 has been replaced by a somewhat self-conscious, muted cynicism that lacks the 'twinkle in the eye' vibe of the old stuff. Sure, society was a mess and the world was falling apart...but you look good and the kid behind the counter at the 7-11 is almost out of ammo, so you might live through the night. There was a grimness to it all, but that sat behind a youthful excitement about living life to the fullest. At least that's how I remember it.

Red, on the other hand, is just grim, coupled with a vanilla system that does what it must, but provides nothing to help invoke or support the supposed feel of the world. It might as well be Savage Worlds - just a task resolution mechanic.

Is there another system/game that you think handles the same genre better? I'm not defending Cyberpunk Red--my read of it lines up exactly with what you're describing--but I'm also wondering if the cyberpunk genre and aesthetic isn't as timeless and robust as some think it is. Is there a game that's pushed those well-worn tropes in a new direction, in terms of setting and mechanics?
 

Bayushi_seikuro

Adventurer
Is there another system/game that you think handles the same genre better? I'm not defending Cyberpunk Red--my read of it lines up exactly with what you're describing--but I'm also wondering if the cyberpunk genre and aesthetic isn't as timeless and robust as some think it is. Is there a game that's pushed those well-worn tropes in a new direction, in terms of setting and mechanics?
I wonder if some of the setting is an issue nowadays. When I was playing Shadowrun when it first came out, all the technology felt like magic, felt farther off than it ended up being. Currently, we're in an era where your smartphones can do so much, we're not quite at cloning but we've got to be pretty close to where DocWagon was in SR with vat-grown replacement organs. Maybe the fluff is harder for people because it doesn't feel as scifi and otherworldly? I'm rambling. :)
 

I wonder if some of the setting is an issue nowadays. When I was playing Shadowrun when it first came out, all the technology felt like magic, felt farther off than it ended up being. Currently, we're in an era where your smartphones can do so much, we're not quite at cloning but we've got to be pretty close to where DocWagon was in SR with vat-grown replacement organs. Maybe the fluff is harder for people because it doesn't feel as scifi and otherworldly? I'm rambling. :)
Having written the kinds of articles that gushed over research into stuff like 3D-printed organs and brain-computer interfaces, and now 15 years later none of it is any closer to reality (research is research, applications are another thing entirely), I'm not quite as optimistic about the state of our tech. But I do think there's a musty quality to traditional cyberpunk, especially the way it handles computer networks, combined with a kind of grim sense that as we look down the barrel of environmental collapse--including the rolling, ever-present pandemics still to come--maybe dancing around with cyberclaws and cyberdecks in the dark near future isn't quite as nifty anymore.
 

MGibster

Legend
I haven't had an opportunity to run Cyberpunk Red yet, but it's on my list. The PDF was on sale recently for something like $15, so I suggested my players pick it up because I'm interested in running it. I don't expect any system to be perfect, even my go-to system, Savage Worlds, has flaws I readily admit, and I have some misgivings about Cyberpunk Red.

Skills - Most of the skills seem okay. Concentration is an odd skill in that I'm not sure when it'll be used. It's supposed to be used for recalling facts from memory and keeping your cool in a firefight. So I know you can use it to resist suppressing fire, but when use would you use it? In the midst of a firefight, could I have a player make a Concentration check to remember which hallway to go down to complete their mission? It's just not super clear to me. I also dislike having both an Autofire skill and a Shoulder Arms skill. It just seems needless to have players get both skills just so they can fire their rifle on full auto.

One issue I have with almost every cyberpunk type game I've played is how to make money. Quite frankly, in most games within the genre, making money was stupid and Cyberpunk Red is no different. In Red, you sell goods for what they're worth in the book. A group of edgerunners are going to make a lot more boosting cars for a living than they are running missions for anyone.
 

lyle.spade

Adventurer
Is there another system/game that you think handles the same genre better? I'm not defending Cyberpunk Red--my read of it lines up exactly with what you're describing--but I'm also wondering if the cyberpunk genre and aesthetic isn't as timeless and robust as some think it is. Is there a game that's pushed those well-worn tropes in a new direction, in terms of setting and mechanics?
That's a really good point about the genre. Perhaps so much of its allure was because of not only what is was/is, but also of when it came out, and what was going on then (late 80s to mid-90s). The mood of the times + technological possibilities as dreamed of at that time + the cheekiness of CP2020 and the gonzo side of Shadowrun made it work. But not we're supposed to play in Red where smartphones aren't a thing...sort of...and the net as we know it is gone, to say nothing of the net that was in CP2020...yeah, I wonder if those interpretations of the genre are just stuck in time, too rooted in a real era's viewpoint to translate well to 25+ years later.

I'm not a fan of transhuman fiction and games, but I think that might be the most logical successor of the original CP genre. Modiphius' Infinity does a fine job of wedding that type of setting/genre with contemporary mechanics (heavy on narrative control and options by players; flexible task resolution options to reflect different approaches to solving problems, etc. and so on).

I don't know of any others, and although I've neither run nor played Infinity, I own it (got it for sci fi ideas with the 2d20 system) and I'm really familiar with several versions of 2d20, so maybe that one. Maybe.
 

MGibster

Legend
Is there another system/game that you think handles the same genre better? I'm not defending Cyberpunk Red--my read of it lines up exactly with what you're describing--but I'm also wondering if the cyberpunk genre and aesthetic isn't as timeless and robust as some think it is. Is there a game that's pushed those well-worn tropes in a new direction, in terms of setting and mechanics?
"The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel." -- William Gibson Neuromancer

From the movie Poltergeist (1982), we see what a dead television channel looked like. For someone born in 2002, a dead television channel probably just looks like a blue screen. So a line that readers would have interpreted to show a bleak sky would instead show a nice lovely blue sky for younger people. (Though I know younger people are intelligent enough to interpret the opening line correctly just from context.) This is low hanging fruit, of course technology has changed in the nearly 40 years that's passed since Neuromancer was published.

Poltergeist.JPG


One area that's changed is the idea of gaining cyberware someone lowering one's "Humanity" is distasteful for many people. In Red, it's only cyberware that enhances human performance that lowers Humanity and not a simple limb replacement to restore functionality. But it's a change in attitudes that the authors felt needed to be addressed.

But in other ways, Cyberpunk still seems relevant. Environmental disaster looms ever closer, the middle class is shrinking, the gulf between the haves and have nots is increasing, and even the basic infrastructure is falling apart or long past its expected life.
 

and even the basic infrastructure is falling apart or long past its expected life.
That's one aspect we should see more of in cyberpunk media - bridges, highways and left-behind towns where everything still looks like it did in the 1970s, except more run-down rather than upgraded for the future. There are places like that in the U.S. but I'm also thinking of the small villages in ageing countries like Japan where they have just become nearly abandoned... these are interesting places for outlaws in cyberpunk to hide out and lie low...
 

pming

Legend
Hiya!

Admittedly I have no real knowledge of CP Red other than it exists. I bought Cyberpunk 2013 when it came out in '88. Like, the DAY it came out; friends and I had driven down to Los Angeles for fun a year before graduation. We hit up a "hobby shop" and the guy told us of the cool new game that he JUST put on the shelf that morning; nice, flat-black box of Cyberpunk 2013.

Anyway, we played it a handful of times. Loved it, but man was it deadly! Not the type of RPG we were used to other than, perhaps, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play (1e, obviously; which we bought a year before when it made it up to our neck of the woods here in Whitehorse, Yukon).

I am currently using CP2013/20 with a handful of supplements to craft a future campaign...set in the year 2165'ish...using DOOM Eternal as the setting. 😁 I've always wanted to run a "DOOM RPG", but never found the right fit. Even one or two fan-made DOOM RPG's...didn't quite 'do it' for me. I tried to use other systems over the years, but nothing, as I said, 'fit'. Then, for some reason, I realized I was looking at the system RIGHT in the face! Cyberpunk! How I didn't see it I'll never know. I think it's because of the "aesthetics" of the DOOM games...always made me thing "dark, grim, gritty, rough". It wasn't until DOOM Eternal was released and I saw it's visuals (lots of sleek tech, stores with neon signs, corporations omnipresent marks, etc) that it just slapped me in the face.

So now, bit by bit, I have crafted a "believable" continuation of the "Cyberpunk setting" into the DOOM Eternal setting. I've got enough down on the fluff that I now get to work on the mechanics of it all. Hopefully it won't be too difficult!

Does anyone with experience with Cyberpunk Red and DOOM Eternal (and DOOM franchise in general) think CP Red might be a better fit? CP2020 has a couple books, a tech one, mech one and space one, that I was hoping to use as a base and then just advance it 150 years or so.

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

I'm not a fan of transhuman fiction and games, but I think that might be the most logical successor of the original CP genre. Modiphius' Infinity does a fine job of wedding that type of setting/genre with contemporary mechanics (heavy on narrative control and options by players; flexible task resolution options to reflect different approaches to solving problems, etc. and so on).

I don't know of any others, and although I've neither run nor played Infinity, I own it (got it for sci fi ideas with the 2d20 system) and I'm really familiar with several versions of 2d20, so maybe that one. Maybe.

Eclipse Phase comes to mind.
 

MGibster

Legend
That's one aspect we should see more of in cyberpunk media - bridges, highways and left-behind towns where everything still looks like it did in the 1970s, except more run-down rather than upgraded for the future. There are places like that in the U.S. but I'm also thinking of the small villages in ageing countries like Japan where they have just become nearly abandoned... these are interesting places for outlaws in cyberpunk to hide out and lie low...
In Cyberpunk 2020, that's pretty much how they described the areas outside of the big cities these days. Poorly maintained roads, no law enforcements, and ghost towns.
 

Ravenbrook

Explorer
I feel that the entire Cyberpunk genre is a kind of "retro future". This isn't necessarily bad, since Traveller, for example, is basically retro sci-fi. A really hard sci-fi setting of how our future might realistically be like would probably make for a rather dull game. Mega infrastructure projects, including those in space, might be interesting in a video game, but probably less so in a TTRPG.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
Traveller isn’t retro-sci-fi. Traveller written in the 1970s is retro-sci-fi, because it is limited by what existed at the time, but that was 40+ years ago. Traveller these days has been modernized accordingly.

Traveller is basically a generic sci-fi game, with a generic default setting that incorporates all sorts of science fiction tales at differing technological levels across a span of a diverse galaxy of planets and cultures.

Cyberpunk is fundamentally an attitude applied to science fiction, and an attempt to show how high tech affects low life, that other science fiction settings sometimes forget.
 

One area that's changed is the idea of gaining cyberware someone lowering one's "Humanity" is distasteful for many people. In Red, it's only cyberware that enhances human performance that lowers Humanity and not a simple limb replacement to restore functionality. But it's a change in attitudes that the authors felt needed to be addressed.

But in other ways, Cyberpunk still seems relevant. Environmental disaster looms ever closer, the middle class is shrinking, the gulf between the haves and have nots is increasing, and even the basic infrastructure is falling apart or long past its expected life.
I wanted to like Red. And as you say, it does have interesting connections to modern problems. But the area in which it has lagged behind is in (IMO) the core concept that cyberware and its associated surgical support is cheap, problem-free, and permanent. And that the ruthless mega-corps, who build the gear, produce reliable, simple, and backdoor-free gear.

I mean, a ruthless corporation ready to use murder and more for its profit margin would certainly figure ways to force cyber-users to have to regularly buy better year (what are the users going to do? Go back to living with a stump, or non-functional eye), and pack the soft and hard ware to the hilt. Look at what has been done today with phones, game platforms, smart TVs, and online data mining.
 

Ravenbrook

Explorer
Although Traveller wasn't retro sci-fi when it was written it certainly is so today, even in its current edition. As for cyberpunk, it is also a child of its time, of course. Some of its conventions are downright quaint, especially given the comprehensive surveillance possibilities that exist today, let alone those that will be available 50 years from now. However, it probably doesn't make for a very fun game if the characters' movements and actions are tracked and monitored 24/7.
 

Although Traveller wasn't retro sci-fi when it was written it certainly is so today, even in its current edition. As for cyberpunk, it is also a child of its time, of course. Some of its conventions are downright quaint, especially given the comprehensive surveillance possibilities that exist today, let alone those that will be available 50 years from now. However, it probably doesn't make for a very fun game if the characters' movements and actions are tracked and monitored 24/7.
True. But it is still jarring, trying to envision a campaign setting which largely ignores the very real privacy issues of today.

I had hoped that Red would work to resolve that contradiction.
 

MGibster

Legend
I mean, a ruthless corporation ready to use murder and more for its profit margin would certainly figure ways to force cyber-users to have to regularly buy better year (what are the users going to do? Go back to living with a stump, or non-functional eye), and pack the soft and hard ware to the hilt. Look at what has been done today with phones, game platforms, smart TVs, and online data mining.
You've got me thinking of the concept of right of repair. Many farmers do all they can to save money and will repair their own tractors whenever possible, but John Deere has made it difficult for them to actually repair the tractors they own, forcing them to go to an authorized John Deere dealership/facility. Back in the 80s and early 90s, I doubt many of us could imagine such a thing as not being able to repair your own car or the endless software updates that come with devices these days. I suppose it's something they could have addressed in the game, but I don't know how fun that would be.

One of the Shadowrun editions made it fairly easy for the decker (hacker) to hack your cyberware. It didn't quite make sense to me though. If I'm a street samurai, I am not going to keep my wireless network open so some jerk can hack my system and turn off my limbs.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
Although Traveller wasn't retro sci-fi when it was written it certainly is so today, even in its current edition. As for cyberpunk, it is also a child of its time, of course. Some of its conventions are downright quaint, especially given the comprehensive surveillance possibilities that exist today, let alone those that will be available 50 years from now. However, it probably doesn't make for a very fun game if the characters' movements and actions are tracked and monitored 24/7.
Well, I think you need to be more specific - because the current Traveller game has all the tech that cyberpunk games do and more. On certain planets, with high tech levels, the level of surveillance is whatever you want it to be. The game and setting is deliberately diverse.

Next year, Mongoose Traveller is about to release a major campaign centred on A.I., called Singularity Overdrive so that is worth noting in itself.

So the tech levels in Traveller do, in fact incorporate the technologies available in Cyberpunk. However, as I said, what Cyberpunk fundamentally incorporates is a different attitude to the science fiction genre.
 
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Ravenbrook

Explorer
Well, I think you need to be more specific - because the current Traveller game has all the tech that cyberpunk games do and more. On certain planets, with high tech levels, the level of surveillance is whatever you want it to be. The game and setting is deliberately diverse.

Next year, Mongoose Traveller is about to release a major campaign centred on A.I., called Singularity Overdrive so that is worth noting in itself.

So the tech levels in Traveller do, in fact incorporate the technologies available in Cyberpunk. However, as I said, what Cyberpunk fundamentally incorporates is a different attitude to the science fiction genre.
I didn't try to compare or combine Traveller and cyberpunk. I merely mentioned Traveller as an example of a sci-fi system that, because of its age, has a retro flavor.
 

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