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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

gamerprinter

Adventurer
While I do play sci-fi, was never really a cyberpunk fan... that said, the publisher had purchased my Flying Cars map object set I sell at DrivethruRPG, and contacted me, asking if he could use one of the flying cars and a flying bike from that set to include as cardboard pawns in the Cyberpunk Red Starter Kit. So while I've never played their game, I did contribute something directly, by invitation, and got a free starter kit! ;)
 

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I wish there were mechanics in Cyberpunk Red for a character's reputation. "Uh, actually MGibster, Reputation can be gained or loss through the characters' actions. And, you're right, but what I would have liked to see was some sort of social currency introduced. As it stands, there's a lot of pressure to make end's meet so they can keep on paying for that shipping container, those fancy threads, and that new Kawasaki Blitzkrieg motorcycle they've had their eye on. Which is fine. There's a reason these people became cyberpunks in the first place.

What I'd like is some mechanical support encouraging PCs to be a little less mercenary at times. One of the best things about Cyberpunk 2077 are the relationships V has with other people such as Jackie Wells, Viktor Vektor, Judy Alvarez, and others. He wasn't always motivated by money. I know as the GM I can just reward players with new contacts, discounts, and assistance from NPCs, I just would have liked some mechanics for it.
This is something I thought Shadowrun 5e did well although it was unfortunately most often lost behind all the sub-systems going on.

You could spend Karma/XP on contacts based on their influence in society and their loyalty to you.

It was a great and simple way to quantify useful connections and tied you to the world more. You could be the guy that kinda knows a bunch of people, or maybe you k ow just a couple of people, but one of them is very high up in the chain.

It also embeds a social network with the characters as those some contacts can be used to give jobs and ask favours for the PCs, or they can be put in peril. You could make a whole campaign on that.
 

MGibster

Legend
CP shares a great weakness with 5e: it is all about the gear. Magic items or cyber implants, the focus is on hardware, whereas the king of the written genre, Gibson, focused upon the people. That has always been my stumbling block: I read LotR before D&D, and Gibson before CP.
I was surprised by how little cyberware Mollie had. At least in Cyberpunk Red, they kind of acknowledge that that the PCs are somewhat shallow caring more for style over substance. But where's that supported in the mechanics? Is there any reason for my players to have their characters spend their hard earned euros living like rock stars instead of dumping it all into better armor, weapons, and cyber gear? If they're successful enough to live well they should probably get some benefit from that. If they live in some tiny shipping container in the combat zone, maybe they don't get as many good jobs. If they were any good they wouldn't be dressing like bums and living in a crummy neighborhood.
It was a great and simple way to quantify useful connections and tied you to the world more. You could be the guy that kinda knows a bunch of people, or maybe you k ow just a couple of people, but one of them is very high up in the chain.
I think I'm just going to assume that the PCs know people based in part on their skill. For example, if they have decent ranks in martial arts, odds are good that they practice regularly and know other martial artists. These contacts might not go out on a limb for the PC, but they might be able to make use of them in some way. "Yeah, I know a guy who can get you the type of sword you want.
 

I was surprised by how little cyberware Mollie had. At least in Cyberpunk Red, they kind of acknowledge that that the PCs are somewhat shallow caring more for style over substance. But where's that supported in the mechanics? Is there any reason for my players to have their characters spend their hard earned euros living like rock stars instead of dumping it all into better armor, weapons, and cyber gear? If they're successful enough to live well they should probably get some benefit from that. If they live in some tiny shipping container in the combat zone, maybe they don't get as many good jobs. If they were any good they wouldn't be dressing like bums and living in a crummy neighborhood.
That, in a nutshell, is what my issue with CP is: there is nothing in the setting or mechanics to counter what you have just described. There is no reason that the PCs, who make big bucks ripping off powerful people, should not live lives of conspicuous consumer consumption.

As a GM, my first thought is: why are the powerful people whose losses are fueling said lifestyle not taking the golden opportunity of such highly visible targets to extract revenge?

A key point of Gibson's work often revolved around the face that in his setting, much like the real world, getting the big payday was only the middle of an operation; surviving to enjoy it was as much a concern as getting it.

CP seems to be based on the concept of evil but basically powerless corporations at the mercy of the PCs
 

I think I'm just going to assume that the PCs know people based in part on their skill. For example, if they have decent ranks in martial arts, odds are good that they practice regularly and know other martial artists. These contacts might not go out on a limb for the PC, but they might be able to make use of them in some way. "Yeah, I know a guy who can get you the type of sword you want.
You do you.

I like the 5e system because i could have a samurai who knows and is known to a tonne of club owners superficially and another who is really close to a high level corpo and the two would have a different feel to me, different capabilities and different motivations.

I find myself gravitating towards social networks in games now and I encourage my pcs to outline at least one NPC they know. It tells me a lot about the kind of game they want to play.

At least it works for me.
 

That, in a nutshell, is what my issue with CP is: there is nothing in the setting or mechanics to counter what you have just described. There is no reason that the PCs, who make big bucks ripping off powerful people, should not live lives of conspicuous consumer consumption.

As a GM, my first thought is: why are the powerful people whose losses are fueling said lifestyle not taking the golden opportunity of such highly visible targets to extract revenge?

A key point of Gibson's work often revolved around the face that in his setting, much like the real world, getting the big payday was only the middle of an operation; surviving to enjoy it was as much a concern as getting it.

CP seems to be based on the concept of evil but basically powerless corporations at the mercy of the PCs
I've got The Sprawl on my bucket list to run. One thing in particular I like is that you create the megacorps as you go along with your character.

Have top end gear or cyberware? Chances are you owe a corpo big time, or at the least they are looking for whoever "liberated" their stuff.

Every job you do almost inevitably ticks a progress clock towards one corpo or another into turning you into their #1 enemy.

There looks like a constant trade off of ability and gear vs corpo opposition that feels cyberpunk to me - you either scum on by in life or you try to burn bright short in this life - i hope that's what it's like in play.
 

I was surprised by how little cyberware Mollie had. At least in Cyberpunk Red, they kind of acknowledge that that the PCs are somewhat shallow caring more for style over substance. But where's that supported in the mechanics? Is there any reason for my players to have their characters spend their hard earned euros living like rock stars instead of dumping it all into better armor, weapons, and cyber gear? If they're successful enough to live well they should probably get some benefit from that. If they live in some tiny shipping container in the combat zone, maybe they don't get as many good jobs. If they were any good they wouldn't be dressing like bums and living in a crummy neighborhood.

This is true of adventuring PCs in a lot of settings, though; for players its always easier to pump everything back into tools to keep them alive and successful (which is very visible on a player level) than stuff that makes what they're doing worthwhile. Even if you abstract it into "lifestyle", you'll have a tendency for people to lowball it. I'm not sure in the end there's much to do about it; maybe just tell people that you assume they're spending some on it and that the rewards you give out are only about the part they'll reinvest in gear, give out less, and move on, but even that might get pushback.
 

MGibster

Legend
This is true of adventuring PCs in a lot of settings, though; for players its always easier to pump everything back into tools to keep them alive and successful (which is very visible on a player level) than stuff that makes what they're doing worthwhile. Even if you abstract it into "lifestyle", you'll have a tendency for people to lowball it. I'm not sure in the end there's much to do about it; maybe just tell people that you assume they're spending some on it and that the rewards you give out are only about the part they'll reinvest in gear, give out less, and move on, but even that might get pushback.
And to be fair, the G in RPG stands for game. It makes sense for a player to focus on what makes their character more effective when it comes to playing the game. And if a fancy car, sweet threads, and a Mr. Studd isn't going to accomplish that then I can't really fault them for not opting for those.
 

MGibster

Legend
That, in a nutshell, is what my issue with CP is: there is nothing in the setting or mechanics to counter what you have just described. There is no reason that the PCs, who make big bucks ripping off powerful people, should not live lives of conspicuous consumer consumption.
In some of the source material for 2020, I think they mention Arasaka has a reputation for going after Edgerunners who hit their facilities. And I think in just about every cyberpunk type game I've played, there has been a problem in how much jobs pay versus the risk. Earlier editions of Shadowrun were particularly egregious from what I can recall. It's true that in real life criminals aren't very good at risk/reward analysis and they get put away for many years for crimes that wouldn't have netted them all that much cash. But the PCs are supposed to be professionals.
 

In some of the source material for 2020, I think they mention Arasaka has a reputation for going after Edgerunners who hit their facilities. And I think in just about every cyberpunk type game I've played, there has been a problem in how much jobs pay versus the risk. Earlier editions of Shadowrun were particularly egregious from what I can recall. It's true that in real life criminals aren't very good at risk/reward analysis and they get put away for many years for crimes that wouldn't have netted them all that much cash. But the PCs are supposed to be professionals.
What I meant was that conspicuous consumption made it easy for the PCs to be found, and retaliated against.
 

And to be fair, the G in RPG stands for game. It makes sense for a player to focus on what makes their character more effective when it comes to playing the game. And if a fancy car, sweet threads, and a Mr. Studd isn't going to accomplish that then I can't really fault them for not opting for those.

Yeah. Its a place where the game elements of the experience work against the role-playing elements, and people shouldn't be surprised that the former often wins.
 

In some of the source material for 2020, I think they mention Arasaka has a reputation for going after Edgerunners who hit their facilities. And I think in just about every cyberpunk type game I've played, there has been a problem in how much jobs pay versus the risk. Earlier editions of Shadowrun were particularly egregious from what I can recall. It's true that in real life criminals aren't very good at risk/reward analysis and they get put away for many years for crimes that wouldn't have netted them all that much cash. But the PCs are supposed to be professionals.

Some of the criminals that do that are professionals, too, and still do it. Look at the case of professional bank robbers.

In cyberpunk settings, you can write some of it off to "My alternative is working for the worst incarnations of The Man, and **** that!" in at least a lot of cases.

(Though there's a conceit that the degree of effort most corps put into chasing down edgerunners and their kin is constrained by the fact they also want to use their services when convenient; in other words that the whole edgerunner culture is, in the end, part of the corporate ecology even if its not acknowledged as such).
 

MGibster

Legend
Yeah. Its a place where the game elements of the experience work against the role-playing elements, and people shouldn't be surprised that the former often wins.
I really prefer it when creators include mechanics supporting whatever style they're aiming for. If the game emphasizes style over substance then make sure you include mechanics that rewards players for living the life.

In cyberpunk settings, you can write some of it off to "My alternative is working for the worst incarnations of The Man, and **** that!" in at least a lot of cases.
In so many settings, Shadowrun especially, the PCs really just end up doing the bidding of the corporations. i.e. While they end up hurting the interest of one corporation, they're often doing so for the benefit of another corporation.
 

I really prefer it when creators include mechanics supporting whatever style they're aiming for. If the game emphasizes style over substance then make sure you include mechanics that rewards players for living the life.

Can't disagree.

In so many settings, Shadowrun especially, the PCs really just end up doing the bidding of the corporations. i.e. While they end up hurting the interest of one corporation, they're often doing so for the benefit of another corporation.

Yeah, but there's two things here:

1. First off, not all of them think it that far through; they just know they can be their own man or directly work for a corp (or a government); there's not much other use for their skills.

2. There's always the view that when you're being the villain's knife, you're still stabbing another villain, and on the whole expediting that sort of thing is better than them just letting those groups come to a mutual aggreement.
 

One of the great problems with Cyberpunk as a game is the varied expectations of the setting by the players...
Merc action like Hard Wired? Decking l;ike Neuromancer? Posthumanism like Armor? New eemergent subpopulations like in Gundam? Superdrugs like a dozen short stories? Genentic creations like Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Surgical alters and genetic mods, so you wind up with a protagonist looking like Tony the Tiger and a built in brainmod? Or the whole kit and cabooddle as an incoherent mess?

Interface was no help on that score... it only supported a small subset of the genre spread of the CP2013 or CP2020 rules.

Looking back, I think of 2013 and 2020 and their own thing in the same way that D&D is its own thing. Inspired by multiple sources but not really emulating most of the literature that inspired it.
I agree, the game grew into it's own subgenre. As did shadowrun.
And not quite the same ones.

Still, the expectations can ruin the experience.

CP shares a great weakness with 5e: it is all about the gear. Magic items or cyber implants, the focus is on hardware, whereas the king of the written genre, Gibson, focused upon the people. That has always been my stumbling block: I read LotR before D&D, and Gibson before CP.
D&D 5E is far less about the gear than CP2020 is.
 


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