Cyberpunk is on a lot of minds right now. The two largest franchises in the genre, Shadowrun and Cyberpunk, recently released new editions to great fanfare. For fans of the genre who aren’t enamored with the backstory connections or the old school flavor of those editions, Peril Press released a small cyberpunk game called Neon City Overdrive that offers the same slick style of its predecessors while updating the mechanics and technological elements. I picked up the core book on sale from DriveThruRPG, read it and then immediately picked up the other small supplements in the line. Let’s jack into the game and see what makes this little neon ditty glow.
The core system of Neon City Overdrive will look familiar to fans of Blades In The Dark or fans of PbtA games. Players assemble a small d6 dice pool of action dice. The success of their roll comes out of the highest die rolled. A 6 means the player does what they want, a 4-5 means success with some sort of cost or complication, and a 1-3 means failure, a very complicated success or worse. The main wrinkle introduced by designer Nathan Russell is the introduction of danger dice. They are either rolled by the GM or in the same pool as the player as a different colored die. The result is the same: any danger dice that roll the same number as an action dice cancels it out.
Characters gain action dice for a role through their traits. Characters are defined by their trademarks and their edges which are designed to be broad competency with specializations. Gutter scum, for example might be able to pick pockets. The trademarks also suggest character flaws which can add danger dice to a roll. Our gutter scum might be always filthy which could hinder an attempt to say, talk their way into an elite nightclub. These flaws also suggest ways for the GM to interpret the dice; if the gutter scum rolls a 4 as their highest because one of the danger dice takes away their 6 they get into the club, but someone in the client’s entourage notices their broken cybernails and decides to insult them wherever they can during the negotiations.
One of the big sticking points in narrative cyberpunk games is the gear element. There’s a certain amount of joy in spending future bucks for slick gadgets and Neon City Overdrive comes up with an excellent compromise. Unless gear is a trademark, like a favorite weapon, a trusty cyberdeck or deadly chrome cyberclaws, it needs to be procured during the job. It is assumed players can get their hands on basic gear to do the job like guns and cars. But if a player wants something special, like a Hamato Kobretta 67 Cyberlink Sub Machine Gun, they need to acquire it by using a gear roll. Gear can have multiple tags and the more tags it has, the more difficult the roll is to get it. These tags also add multiple dice to a roll if they are relevant in the narrative. If there’s a vital piece of equipment needed for the job, like a Boeing-Microsoft-Amazon VTOL Drone, players can burn their other rolls for a bonus to get the big piece of gear. The process scratches that shopping itch nicely for fans of older cyberpunk games while not bogging down the session with flipping through books full of gear lists.
Combat and hacking use extended task rolls where a player needs a certain amount of successes. Bad guys and hostile systems can take 1-3 hits depending on their importance to the story. Partial successes advance the overall flow of the challenge while creating complications, like running out of ammo or altering the in-house hacker to the intrusion. When a player runs out of hits, they gain trauma traits that give them danger dice that linger until the end of the job. Stunt points let the players tilt their roll in their favor, like bumping a die roll or soaking hits with a last bit of luck.
The game has three expansions which, in addition to offering new trademarks, gear, threats and adventures, also break the game out into broader elements of cyberpunk. Skinjobs adds a transhuman element to the game by expanding the game into full-body cyborg conversions, resleeving and ghost chips which contain the digital copy of a human personality. Psions has rules for psychic powers, magic and nonhuman characters that want a little fantasy with their cyberpunk. It makes a Shadowrun conversion very easy but the two worlds presented in the book are compelling little mini settings on their own. The Grid expands the game into cyberspace and battlehacking cyberware wirelessly, with rules for player AI characters and more in depth hacking. Neon City Overdrive works well as a stand alone game, but each of the supplements is densely packed with great ideas. The whole line can be had on PDF for less than half of what you might pay for a AAA video game recently released on the same subject.
Neon City Overdrive is a fantastic small RPG that offers a good balance between traditional rules and a fiction forward design. I’ve used it to run previously established cyberpunk settings and ones based off of the sample settings included with the book. If you’re looking for a lean design that cuts like a monofilament whip and runs as fast as a Fairlight Excalibur, give this game a try.
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