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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

Ravenbrook

Explorer
It has gone through more editions than D&D has, and has updated and modernized its approach to rules each time it has done so. It had a new update released only a few weeks ago.

It’s a generic science fiction mix from an ecclectic range of sources, and not retro-flavour at all. It is like claiming that Star Trek is retro-flavour, because that is even older! And rolling 2D6 never gets old.
It just goes to show that our views on this matter completely differ.
 

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Ravenbrook

Explorer
I think that inexpensive cybergear would be an environmental nightmare. If millions or even billions of people have such enhancements, the existing electronic waste problem would get a whole lot worse since there's no way all of the cyberware would be be recyclable and even if it were, it would simply put an additional strain on the recycling infrastructure.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
Cyberpunk Red was released in 2020 (I think). We've had returning soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs or scars many years since 2002. I can't help but think that might have changed some attitudes over the years. Though, even back in the early 90s, I know my friends and I wondered cyberware meant for people who got into accidents or were born with limbs that didn't work. If someone is in a wheelchair, is that a Humanity loss? Artificial heart?
There's a point where this veers pretty strongly into overthinking it. The themes in Cyberpunk literature and the game aren't about basic prosthetics, wheelchairs, artificial hearts, and other implants with a purely therapeutic function. There's no humanity loss for them because they're not what Cyberpunk is about and never have been. While a PC might end up with a cyberlimb because of an injury they received, let's face it, they're not going to stop with simple replacement function if they can afford it. They're going to get something better than the meat they had - and that's what the humanity loss is about.
 



I think that inexpensive cybergear would be an environmental nightmare. If millions or even billions of people have such enhancements, the existing electronic waste problem would get a whole lot worse since there's no way all of the cyberware would be be recyclable and even if it were, it would simply put an additional strain on the recycling infrastructure.
Given that the setting is dominated by completely unregulated megacorps immune to civil liability, I would say that that would be the environment's least worry. No emission controls, no requirements to process sewage into safer states...and healthy profits to be made selling clean water, clean air, uncontaminated food.

A quick review of The Jungle would be handy.
 



Having said that, I think Hard Wired Island is probably the best cyberpunk RPG I've seen in a while. Not much for those who're in it for the gear porn, but I think it works really well for a game that focuses on the humanity of a cyberpunk setting. I've read Cyberpunk RED (and have a player that really wants me to run it), but I don't know if it's the game for me right now.

I dismissed Hard Wired Island because of a single preview image that felt like it wasn't the tone I was looking for. But looking at the description on Drivethru it seems very cool. And this rundown on how it approaches cyberpunk is great:

  • Capitalism? No thanks. Good cyberpunk is anti-capitalist. It's about how technology without ethics can make social inequality worse. The wealthy use it to cement their power and perpetuate the status quo, while marginalized communities are kept that way. The PCs want to use it to break the current system. They work against their enemies, not for them.
  • Cyberpunk should be relevant. It is a study of where our society could go in the coming years. The issues faced by people in a cyberpunk setting should have some relevance to issues faced by the audience, even if they're not the same. Retro future, present problems.
  • Cybernetics are not inherently good or bad. Like most tech, what matters is how it's used. In Hard Wired Island, the problem is that cybernetics often serves the needs of capital rather than people; Any alienating or dysphoric effects come from being reshaped into some corporation's property. There is no mechanic that suggests wearing a prosthetic makes you less human, or prone to mental illness; instead, the tradeoff of augments is adding to your financial burdens.
  • Cyberpunk is not just an aesthetic. Cyberpunk shouldn't just be about the neon-lit adventures of a group of trenchcoat futurists as they amass wealth and power through violence. Hard Wired Island is about a group of marginalized people using technology to try to change the status quo.
  • Many perspectives. Good cyberpunk examines how technology and power intersect in many different communities. As an orbital space station, the city of Grand Cross can and should include perspectives from all over the world. The setting includes cyborgs and androids, but they're not stand-ins for minorities; they have their own identities and issues, which can change depending on how they intersect with other things.


If anything, that breakdown just reinforces my sense that cyberpunk is sort of a time capsule subgenre without a ton of fresh gameplay options. But clearly HWI gets what it's about. Definitely going to check it out. Thanks @BrokenTwin !
 

There's a point where this veers pretty strongly into overthinking it. The themes in Cyberpunk literature and the game aren't about basic prosthetics, wheelchairs, artificial hearts, and other implants with a purely therapeutic function. There's no humanity loss for them because they're not what Cyberpunk is about and never have been. While a PC might end up with a cyberlimb because of an injury they received, let's face it, they're not going to stop with simple replacement function if they can afford it. They're going to get something better than the meat they had - and that's what the humanity loss is about.

I hear you, but I think--apologies in advance if this seems aggressive--you might doing a tiny bit of overthinking yourself. Should humanity loss really be about intent? What happens if someone gets a prosthetic that isn't all that great, but has a compartment for a pistol? Should that trigger less humanity loss than a super-chromed-up monstrosity with a pop-out spur and jump-jets? By your framing--which, again, makes a lot of sense--I'd say yes, but then would you regain some of that lost humanity by later downgrading? Does that still make sense?

I also get that, mechanically, Humanity loss (and similar stuff in other games) is about reigning in PCs. But when I think about the cyberpunk fiction I've really loved, cyberpsychosis isn't really a factor. Is the Major in Ghost in the Shell, with her full body replacement, on a razor's edge between sanity and psychosis? Is Batou? They seem deeply human and almost unnaturally level-headed, to me. And is the cop who refuses to get any mods more human, and less disordered? Or in Neuromancer, is Molly's personality a product of her being modded, or her life experiences, which were rough throughout and include what sounds like a pretty brutal recovery from the procedure?

I feel like there are smarter ways of handling PCs' mods now. Could just treat the body like equipment slots, and where you're full, you're full, no need to moralize the decision. A game where all the players are full-body borgs seems totally fine to me. There could still be a ton of variety in what different PCs get, whether they all start fully modded or work toward it.
 

Norade

Villager
A big loss of the appeal of Cyberpunk for me is that it kinda happened, but without all of the cool parts? Corporations causing massive environmental devastation in pursuit of profits, tech being used to spy on us in ways that cyberpunk never dreamed of, the free open net has become a series of walled gardens, and the idea of a bunch of guttersnipes pulling themselves up by their entrepreneurial bootstraps to live a flashy violent life filled with shiny life-changing chrome seems even more implausible than the D&D fantasy superhero lifestyle does.
Cyberpunk stopped being a dark mirror of our potential future and started looking more like a reflection of our present. Except we're not the daredevil live-free-or-die-hard mercs, we're corpo slave #2357.

Having said that, I think Hard Wired Island is probably the best cyberpunk RPG I've seen in a while. Not much for those who're in it for the gear porn, but I think it works really well for a game that focuses on the humanity of a cyberpunk setting. I've read Cyberpunk RED (and have a player that really wants me to run it), but I don't know if it's the game for me right now.
I second HWI. It's very rules-light as far as games in this genre go, has mechanics that can serve to put pressure on your team without being oppressive, and has a hard focus on activism and community improvement rather than the pure looking out for #1 of the genre's classic works.
 
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Doctor Futurity

Adventurer
It sounds like you haven't actually played Traveller in a very long time. Also, I think you and trippyhippy are using retro in different contexts.

EDIT: example: if you think Traveller is retro because it evokes ideas of SF space opera that really took off in the late sixties and early seventies I think you could make a case that Traveller's core universal concepts are derived from there, but so is about 70% of all science fiction currently in print today; that's not so much retro as a continuum along which SF percolates. But if your argument is Traveller is retro in the sense that someone who learns Mongoose's edition of the game today might find it suspiciously easy to pick up the original edition of Classic Traveller and play with minimal adjustment, then yeah, Traveller is totally retro or OSR in that sense. It's retained its core identify as a game system quite well, despite how many weird side iterations it's gone through at times (TNE, D20 edition, maybe Traveller 5 arguably).
 
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Doctor Futurity

Adventurer
My thoughts on Cyberpunk Red (and 2020, which I played to death) with regards to cyberware, humanity and cyberpsychosis is that back in 1991 these were very clearly hypotheticals. In medicine today we are manufacturing prosthetics which work well, and some even pick up brain signals based on what I have read. None of this existed in 1991 when I played the 2020 edition. It's not where the proposed cyberware of the future might lie, but it is where, roughly, Cyberpunk predicted we'd have much more advanced prosthetics and augmentations, and it was basically right. But it's ideas on how this affects our humanity are not out of date yet because we haven't even gotten close to the world CP2020 predicted.

So in 1991 this was all hypothetical science fiction. Now we're a lot closer to that future, but still very far away, and the reality puts greater odds on gene editing and modification through technology like CRISPR, but prosthetics are most definitely a nascent reality. The question becomes, and I think there's till plenty of room for speculation on this without misconstruing the question as being ableist: what happens to our sense of humanity and our behavior when we are able to cheaply and efficiently augment ourselves to the point where we are effectively weapons of war? What happens when someone with diagnosed psychopathy seeks such augmentations? What happens to society in general with the introduction of cheap, efficient and non-rejectable body modifications that can include largely unregulated lethal weaponry?

Controversy about the video game aside, there are some really chilling depictions in that game as to what sort of body modifications could happen in the proposed future of Cyberpunk Red and I think there's plenty of evidence in the current era that even without body modifications that include lethal weapons that just the way our internet functions has had an impact on humanity and empathy. Cyberpunk is, from my perspective, more relevant now than it ever has been.
 
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Doctor Futurity

Adventurer
I hear you, but I think--apologies in advance if this seems aggressive--you might doing a tiny bit of overthinking yourself. Should humanity loss really be about intent? What happens if someone gets a prosthetic that isn't all that great, but has a compartment for a pistol? Should that trigger less humanity loss than a super-chromed-up monstrosity with a pop-out spur and jump-jets? By your framing--which, again, makes a lot of sense--I'd say yes, but then would you regain some of that lost humanity by later downgrading? Does that still make sense?

I also get that, mechanically, Humanity loss (and similar stuff in other games) is about reigning in PCs. But when I think about the cyberpunk fiction I've really loved, cyberpsychosis isn't really a factor. Is the Major in Ghost in the Shell, with her full body replacement, on a razor's edge between sanity and psychosis? Is Batou? They seem deeply human and almost unnaturally level-headed, to me. And is the cop who refuses to get any mods more human, and less disordered? Or in Neuromancer, is Molly's personality a product of her being modded, or her life experiences, which were rough throughout and include what sounds like a pretty brutal recovery from the procedure?

I feel like there are smarter ways of handling PCs' mods now. Could just treat the body like equipment slots, and where you're full, you're full, no need to moralize the decision. A game where all the players are full-body borgs seems totally fine to me. There could still be a ton of variety in what different PCs get, whether they all start fully modded or work toward it.
You make an important point that the notion of humanity loss and cyberpsychosis is not something that appears universally in Cybperunk fiction and film. I think it is better to consider that the notion of humanity loss is specific to how Cyberpunk 2020 and CP Red model the possible future, by proposing that extremely invasive and sometimes lethal augmentation actually does have an erosive impact on humanity. It is definitely not the only way to model a cyberpunk future, and one which thinks we will be able to handle such modifications may be looked at as a more optimistic version of the genre....but I think Cyberpunk Red is very deliberately choosing to view the future in a more pessimistic light.

From a real world perspective I think I can summarize it like this: if someone loses a limb as a soldier or in an accident and gains a prosthetic replacement, we have clear evidence that this is a good thing, and a great benefit to the person suffering the loss to help them return to a normal life. But the cyberpunk future is about people who live in a world where a sense of ownership of your own eyes, limbs, even your brain has already been culturally desensitized through corporate marketing and a cultural sea change to the point where you will go have a ripperdoc cut out the natural body part and replace it, willingly, with artificial parts purely for aesthetic/style reasons....and that's before even considering this is a society in which modding yourself into a lethal weapon is already considered a smart move by many for survival purposes. Cyberpunk Red depicts a universe in which the entire culture of thought has shifted to the idea that we're really all just "meat" and that removing the meat to replace it with something more lasting is both acceptable and makes you a smart consumer. That is nowhere near the world we live in today, but I can easily see how we could end up in that future.
 

From a real world perspective I think I can summarize it like this: if someone loses a limb as a soldier or in an accident and gains a prosthetic replacement, we have clear evidence that this is a good thing, and a great benefit to the person suffering the loss to help them return to a normal life. But the cyberpunk future is about people who live in a world where a sense of ownership of your own eyes, limbs, even your brain has already been culturally desensitized through corporate marketing and a cultural sea change to the point where you will go have a ripperdoc cut out the natural body part and replace it, willingly, with artificial parts purely for aesthetic/style reasons....and that's before even considering this is a society in which modding yourself into a lethal weapon is already considered a smart move by many for survival purposes. Cyberpunk Red depicts a universe in which the entire culture of thought has shifted to the idea that we're really all just "meat" and that removing the meat to replace it with something more lasting is both acceptable and makes you a smart consumer. That is nowhere near the world we live in today, but I can easily see how we could end up in that future.

I like your interpretation a lot. I might disagree about it being all that feasible--if we've learned one thing since Neuromancer came out it's that digital innovation is insanely rapid, but mechanical innovation, whether for prosthetics, space travel, or personal jet packs, creeps forward at a snail's pace--but I think you're totally right about how humanity loss fits into CPR's premise and tone.
 

Well, it doesn't help that, much as there's still a lot of complexities in play there, we've probably learned in the last few years that while it might not be impossible to get cyberpunk style cyberware to work, the technology to make biological modifications will likely beat that to the finish line by quite a gap even with the difficulties there. And while cyberpunk style fiction hasn't ignored biomods, its been generally a minority element of what you see there.
 

Well, it doesn't help that, much as there's still a lot of complexities in play there, we've probably learned in the last few years that while it might not be impossible to get cyberpunk style cyberware to work, the technology to make biological modifications will likely beat that to the finish line by quite a gap even with the difficulties there. And while cyberpunk style fiction hasn't ignored biomods, its been generally a minority element of what you see there.

Definitely. This might already be out there in TTRPG form, and I just don't know about it, but I could see a truly evolved/updated/recontextualized cyberpunk game ditching all things chrome and leaning all the way into bioware, custom viruses, clones and replicants instead of robots, even a more biotech version of hacking and the net. More eXistenZ than Elysium.

(And no offense to Genefunk 2090, but I don't think it's going far enough to reframe or reinvent the genre in that way)
 

Definitely. This might already be out there in TTRPG form, and I just don't know about it, but I could see a truly evolved/updated/recontextualized cyberpunk game ditching all things chrome and leaning all the way into bioware, custom viruses, clones and replicants instead of robots, even a more biotech version of hacking and the net. More eXistenZ than Elysium.

They aren't super well-known; you had things like the game you mentioned and the Amazing Engine game Kromosome, but they don't have the visibility of a Cyberpunk Red or Shadowrun, or honestly, even something like Interface Zero.
 

They aren't super well-known; you had things like the game you mentioned and the Amazing Engine game Kromosome, but they don't have the visibility of a Cyberpunk Red or Shadowrun, or honestly, even something like Interface Zero.

I hadn't heard about Kromosome! This disclaimer on the Drivethru listing is interesting--kinda wonder if a whole lot of older cyberpunk games should have something similar:


We (Wizards) recognize that some of the legacy content available on this website does not reflect the values of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise today. Some older content may reflect ethnic, racial, and gender prejudice that were commonplace in American society at that time. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. This content is presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. Dungeons & Dragons teaches that diversity is a strength, and we strive to make our D&D products as welcoming and inclusive as possible. This part of our work will never end.


EDIT: Whoops. Realizing now that's just their boilerplate disclaimer for all older Wizards content, not unique to Kromosome or anything in particular. Still, knowing cyberpunk tropes, I have a feeling it applies...
 
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I hadn't heard about Kromosome! This disclaimer on the Drivethru listing is interesting--kinda wonder if a whole lot of older cyberpunk games should have something similar:


We (Wizards) recognize that some of the legacy content available on this website does not reflect the values of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise today. Some older content may reflect ethnic, racial, and gender prejudice that were commonplace in American society at that time. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. This content is presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. Dungeons & Dragons teaches that diversity is a strength, and we strive to make our D&D products as welcoming and inclusive as possible. This part of our work will never end.


EDIT: Whoops. Realizing now that's just their boilerplate disclaimer for all older Wizards content, not unique to Kromosome or anything in particular. Still, knowing cyberpunk tropes, I have a feeling it applies...

I don't recall a lot of it there, honestly, but its been a while and being a white het man it might have cruised by me if it wasn't super egregious.

But yeah, that boilerplate comes from the reaction to some republished older D&D material mostly.
 

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