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Cyberpunk Red Review (It's Only Three Years Old)


The long and the short of it is that I have some mixed feelings about the game. On one hand, it's Cyberpunk and was a staple for my group during the 1990s. On the other hand, I don't think I like the setting of Red as much as I like the setting of Cyberpunk 2020 or the video game Cybepunk 2077 so that's a problem. Despite coming out three years ago, thanks to COVID, I've only now gotten around to playing Red recently. This review is long and will be posted in multiple parts.

Cyberpunk is a literary sub-genre of science fiction characterized by settings with dystopian futures where corporations rule in all but name, grinding poverty is juxtaposed against advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and cybernetics, and the protagonist are typically part of the underclass flouting the system to accomplish their goals. Named after the literary sub-genre that inspired its creation, with 1982’s Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford being a major influence, the first edition of Cyberpunk was released in in 1988 and has multiple editions published over the last three decades. Cyberpunk Red is the latest edition of the game having been released in 2019.

The default setting is Night City, located in the Free State of California between Los Angeles and San Francisco, in the year 2045. It is the Time of the Red, so named because of the red skies present in the aftermath of the 4th Corporate War, and the gulf between the haves and the have nots has never been greater as the economy is still recovering. Player characters are cyberpunks, also known as edgerunners, described as “survivors in a tough, grim world…committing crimes, defying authority, or even outright revolution.” There are four things to remember when making a Cyberpunk character.

  1. Style Over Substance: It doesn’t matter how well you do something if you don’t look good doing it.
  2. Attitude is Everything: You may have a big stick but that won’t matter if there’s no swagger in your step.
  3. Live on the Edge: If you aren’t living dangerously are you even an edgerunner, choom?
  4. Break the Rules: Put the punk into cyberpunk, color outside the lines.
While Cyberpunk has been available as a tabletop RPG for nearly thirty years now, many new players have recently been introduced to the setting after playing CD Projeck Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 video game or watching the Netflix anime series Cyberpunk Edgerunners. Both 2077 and Edgerunners are set in Night City, thirty-two later than the default setting of Red. Fans of the video game and the anime are in for a rude awakening when they come to Red and find out you can’t hack someone’s cyberware, the net as they understand it doesn’t exist, and the economy is so messed up that automobile and motorcycles are nearly unattainable for player characters. It’s similar enough to be familiar, but different enough that disappointment might be found when expectations are not met.

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As you might expect of a modern role-playing game, the book looks great. The text is easy to read, the artwork looks fantastic, and there is an impressive amount of background information providing players a good idea of what the world looks like at the time of the Red. While the art looks nice, I wish there was a bit more showing us the fashion. There are many styles of clothing for PCs to wear including bag lady chic, nomad leathers, urban flash, high fashion, and others, but there are no pictures showing us what that looks like. I would have liked to have seen more examples of gear, weapons, and cyberware depicted in the art. What do rippers look like? How about a cyber snake? Mercifully they did not include any photos of the Mr. Studd or Midnight Lady implants.

A bigger problem with the art is that it’s rather generic. The illustrated scenes depicting the streets of Night City look like they would fit right into Cyberpunk 2013, Cyberpunk 2020, or as concept art for the Cyberpunk 2077 video game, but nothing about it screams Cyberpunk Red. The Time of the Red is a period where people are struggling, driving beaters because they can’t afford new automobiles, where millions of people eat kibble, and it’s only now that society is finally recovering and rebuilding in the aftermath of the 4th Corporate War. But very little of that is depicted in the art and it’s a shame.

But the worst part of the book is how it’s organized. There are near identical tables for cyberware, weapons, clothing, and gear located in the character generation chapters and again later in the book in the chapter detailing the economy. These aren’t identical tables, so players might find themselves flipping to one and then another to find all the information they need. Consolidating all of these tables would have saved a significant amount of space that could have been put to better use. Perhaps providing game masters with more example NPCS, a more in-depth look at Night City, perhaps highlighting a particular neighborhood or a few key locations, or maybe better explaining how the internet works now that the old net is off limits.


The Rules​

The only dice you need for Cyberpunk Red is a d10 and no more than five six-sided dice. Task resolution is simple, with the player rolling a single d10 and adding the result to the Skill Level plus the linked Attribute. The GM assigns the task a Difficulty Value, and if the results are higher than the DV then the character’s actions are successful.

Skill Level + Attribute +1d10 ≥ Difficult Number = Success.

The Difficulty Value is determined by the GM based on how, ahem, difficult the task is supposed to be. A DV of 9 would be for a simple task that most people can do without thinking, while a DV of 29 would be for a task most people would say was impossible and if successful would be the subject of stories from witness for years to come.

If a player rolls a 10 on a skill check, they immediately roll another d10 and add both to their Skill Leve and Attribute to get final number. But if a player rolls a 1 they get a critical failure and must immediately roll another d10 and subtract the number rolled from their Skill Level and Attribute to get the final result. Rolling a 1 or a 10 on a d10 is fairly common, and you can expect to see a lot of critical successes and failures in the game. (Technically, the DV is low enough, it’s possible a player might roll a critical failure and still be successful.)

There are a myriad of skills a player may select from, and each one is available to every character regardless of their Role. However, the player should check with the GM to make sure the skill might be useful during the game. In many campaigns, the ability to audit financial records, ride a horse, or set up traps to catch small animals for food might never come up so avoid the Accounting, Riding, and Wilderness Survival skills. It’s best to check with the GM and make sure a skill will be useful.

The Soloist

I've never played Cyberpunk before. I created my first character last night.

I found the text graphic design very basic and serviceable. I had no problem finding the info needed and was never confused.

The book offers three ways to create a character. No choices except for selecting packages. A semi-autonomous system and a full freedom-of-choice system. I found that very clever.

The Life Path system was a fun way to add flesh to the character's background.

Fraye is a Nomad biker, with low-light cyberoptics, a cyberdog, and a neural link cable that connects to machines. She is part of a family that owns a small travelling circus.

Let the show begin!
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