At times I find myself struggling to accept the two books, the full RPG and the relatively expensive first teasing but functional quickstart glance at it, are related. The core Cyberpunk Red rules, layout and vibe are worlds apart.
Cyberpunk Red is not just the prequel to the much anticipated and sometimes delayed CD Projekt Red Cyberpunk 2077 computer game even if the moniker “Red” is a nod to the studio. Cyberpunk Red is, first and foremost to old tabletop gamers like me, the sequel to Mike Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk RPG masterpiece. One with dice.
Embracing the legacy is one of the many decisions Cyberpunk Red gets right. There’s no attempt from this RPG to re-write the game’s timeline so that it fits our real-world history more closely than where Cyberpunk 2020 leaves off. We’re safely in the alternative timeline here, and I think that’s the better option.
Capitalist consumerism and the rampant onslaught of technology pushed culture to the brink. The importance of governments waned, and the mega-corporations took control. The game is set in Night City, the epitome of this failed evolution, with more people than space and tremendous inequality.
As Mike Pondsmith reminded us in the wake of the George Floyd shooting; cyberpunk is a warning, not an aspiration.
A brutal war between two of the biggest megacorps resulted in a nuke going off in Night City. The sky is still red as a result, and that’s where the phrase “Time of the Red” and the titular colour come from.
It is also why the internet, as we know it, no longer exists. In its place are local networks, often only as large as a building, sometimes more extensive.
The core RPG details netrunning back into the game, the culture and rules for the hackers that brave the cyber AIs that patrol these nets. No longer can your cyberpunk hacker stay at home, safely locked away, now she must venture out into the dangerous streets and beyond to jack into these invested local networks.
A Pondsmith magnum opus
Cyberpunk Red is a fat book, flirting with 500 pages. Why? Because Mike, Cody, James Hutt, Jay Parker, J Gray, David Ackerman and Jaye Kovach of R. Talsorian Games could make the RPG as long as they wanted. They could; so they did.
The opening Johnny Silverhand story-scene-setter is 12 pages long.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Mike Pondsmith, no matter how much of a cool cucumber he appears in public speaking, must have been under a truck of pressure for Cyberpunk Red. It had to be good, but it could also be a Pondsmith magnum opus; the best of the Cyberpunks.
So, there was no editor motivated to ask “Do we need 12 pages?” after reviewing the page count and looking at the opening story. Instead, I think the question asked was “What would make it even better?”
After all, this is the tabletop RPG in which the in-game rule is that it’s always personal. Survival in the time of the red is a personal challenge.
As a player in the Cyberpunk Red world, you’re given three concepts to master;
- Style Over Substance – it doesn’t matter how well you do a thing provided you look good doing it.
- Attitude is Everything – think dangerous; be dangerous.
- Live on the Edge – desire action, start the rebellion and light the fire.
There are also three ways to create a Cyberpunk Red character; with templates, with a fast and dirty approach and with precisely placed points.
There are a lot of tables here, but get used to them now as if tables aren’t your thing then you’re going to struggle with the rules.
The quick and dirty approach to character generation in Cyberpunk Red often means rolling one dice to pick and assign a whole bunch of points and skills. The template approach has that already done for you and with the full-on point buy you craft every dot of your character’s development.
All characters in Cyberpunk Red use lifepaths and this means your roll or pick from tables to flesh your character out.
On the plus side, this creates characters with depth and complexity. If you roll, for example, there’s only a 10% chance of your cyberpunk being North American. There’s a 30% chance they are Asian.
On the negative side, if you stick to the tables, then there are a plethora of character traits taken away from you. You’ll never have a paranoid street punk because that simply isn’t an option. Nor will you have a cyberpunk who’s most valued possession is a customised historic vape-pipe because the “Most Valued Possession You Own?” table doesn’t include electronics.
Somewhere in the middle and quirks like your entire party of cyberpunks all having tragic love affairs.
The love of my life was kidnapped!
Points, though, for a tender lesbian illustration by Huntang beside that Your Tragic Love Affair(s) table, though.
Pleasingly, Cyberpunk Red bristles with attitude without becoming edgelord. The RPG brings to life the dreadfulness of a world on the brink of utter collapse without resorting to layering on sexual violence, evoking real-world atrocities or other such techniques.
All this makes the decision to gender some of the ten roles inexplicably out of place. Why “Rockerboy” and not just “Rocker”? Why “Lawman”
As with most RPGs, your character’s role is essential in determining where and how they fit in the group but also their background and on-going behaviour. Cyberpunk Red’s ten roles are;
- Rockerboy – charismatic street poets with a social conscience, rebels.
- Solo – natural born and artificially enhanced killers.
- Netrunner – hackers and cyber experts.
- Tech – hardware and corporate (counter) espionage specialists.
- MedTech – flesh artists, doctors, paramedics.
- Media – investigators, reporters and influencers.
- Exec – connected, affluent members of the megacorp class.
- Lawman – heavily armoured targets.
- Fixer – Fences, deal-makers (or breakers) and smugglers.
- Nomad – Wanderers, convoy members and travellers.
There are lifepath tables for each of these roles.
What’s cyberpunk without the cyberware necessary to turn people into armoured hackers, cyborgs with hidden blades or utility assassins?
An evolved development in Cyberpunk Red is the balance of humanity and machine. Characters will have to practice safe cyber. Cyberpsychosis is a problem in the red-tinted dark future.
The more heavily you become a machine, the more trama that does to your brain and messes you up. There are eight types of cyberware, and they range in impact.
- Fashionware – pesonal adorments.
- Neuralware – enhaned reflexes and mental capabilities.
- Cyberoptics – improved sight.
- Cyberaudio – improved hearing.
- Internal Body Cyberware – replaced or improved organs.
- External Body Cyberware – hardware installed in or over skin.
- Cyberlimbs – cybernetic arms or legs.
- Borgware – hardware that replaces the majority of your body.
At a glance, as a GM, you can see whether any given bit of cyberware is something the characters can get installed at a mall, or whether they’d need to attend a specialist clinic or a heavy-hitting hospital.
Characters don’t get endless upgrades either. No punk gets to become a fat Swiss Army knife of options. You have to pick and upgrade when you can.
There’s an important exception. As reality heads quickly towards actual cybernetic limbs Cyberpunk Red gives itself a vital out. Cyberware that’s medical in nature, that’s therapeutic in use, does not cost humanity. This RPG is not saying that if, in real life, if you have a cybernetic arm that you’re less human.
This blogger has a (sometimes) crippling condition. Would I swap the offending body parts for the pain-free comfort of cyberparts? You betcha. I’d take that therapy, and it wouldn’t make me less than I was before.
Would I find it therapeutic to stun all the drunks who stagger out of the neighbourhood pub at 2am and start singing on the way home? Also, you betcha? Would that make me less humane… well, maybe. Yes, I think this caveat to the humanity rules might create some at-table debates and might try to be abused by min-maxers, but I think it’s worth it.
Cyberpunk Red’s System
Cyberpunk Red does not lean as heavily into simulationist RPGs as I expected. The writers certainly favour that approach to “pull and interpret a tarot card” style abstractionist systems.
Every turn, your character gets a move action and one other action.
Attack, choke, grab and throw are all different actions, though. On my first read-through, barely more than browse, I was initially worried. I later found those concerns to be unfounded, so please do keep that in mind if you find yourself flicking through the pages of the RPG in your local gaming store.
At first, what I didn’t like was the apparent presence of fairly detailed formula to work out combat. For example, ranged combat is;
Attacker’s REF + Relevant Weapon Skill + 1d10 vs Defender’s DV Determiend by Range to Target and Weapon or Defender’s DEX + Evasion Skill + 1d10*
*A Defender with REF 8 or higher can choose to attempt to doge a Ranged Attack instead of using the range table to determine the DV.
I can’t even say all that in one breath.
I thought the fact that R. Talsorian Games had given 2/3rds of a whole page to some of these formulae, putting an illustration in the remaining space, was evidence of the struggle.
Let me tell you why I was wrong; it takes just one session zero to practice a few of these rules, and they immediately make sense—the algorithms for resolution flip from impregnable to logical.
I now think the apparent complexity comes from lots of playtesting, from digging into to situations that Cyberpunk Red players might find themselves in and which more vanilla rules might suck. For example, the exception that gives characters with a Ref of 8 a chance to try and dodge a ranged shot simply makes sense.
The pages dedicated to presenting these formulae just make it easier to find the formula in the large book.
Just keep in mind, though, that Cyberpunk Red does lean into simulationist more than D&D 5e does and therefore might be very different to what many of your players are used to. In Cyberpunk Red, there are rules for being on fire, for example, and there are rules for different intensity of the flame.
The netrunning rules are a hefty subset which governs hacking and traversing the fragmented cyberspace of the Time of the Red.
The retro-futuristic appearance of Cyberpunk Red’s net is due, in-game terms, to the language META. In the game world history, META is developed in 2035 and is so good that most systems update to use it, but it’s not great at graphics so old NET graphical interfaces (Cyberpunk 2020) are no longer supported.
So, Netrunners in the Time of the Red use goggles rather than plugging in all their senses, and that means while they’re in cyberspace they can take either a Meat Action or a NET action and then a move action.
A core perk and challenge of Cyberpunk Red is all that Netrunning. You can’t just “design a dungeon” in this RPG.
There are almost always more dimensions than that to consider; the NET being one of them, the sometimes superhuman ability of hi-tech cyberpunks being another.
Fortunately, there’s a whole chapter of help for GMs called “Running Cyberpunk” which does exactly that.
One of the standouts features here is the Beat Charts technique. We’ve seen this before on Geek Native. Beats comes from R. Talsorian Games’ Dream Park RPG and the Beats rules have previously been given away for free. At the time of writing; that Dream Park Beats preview is still available.
Despite being over 450 pages long, or perhaps because the game creates such a vivid world, there still seems to be plenty of scope for more rules and help for GMs. For examples, drones barely get a mention. Perhaps they’re not a prominent feature during the Time of Red, but I think they fit Tech roles very well, and I’d like some more help before adding them to my game.
Cyberpunk Red’s Look and Feel
Cyberpunk Red reads a bit like a magazine. In part that’s due to the generous quantity of art, the blending in of lengthy short stories to set the scene and layout. The presence of in-world adverts is an unexpected but pleasantly successful feature too!
Something is satisfying about pausing to read an ad, noting the haulage mech known as Graf3 (because I assume, it looks like a giraffe) only then to see a Graf3 later on in the foreground of an illustration.
For the most part, Cyberpunk Red uses two columns, lots of bold and heavy use of red dividers. The plain white background for most pages, compared to aged parchment that is so popular with fantasy RPGs, feels clean and crisp. It works.
I’m using the Kindle App on a somewhat powerful Windows 10 PC to read and browse the PDF. I get no lag what so ever but due to the sheer size of the PDF it’s not always straight forward flicking back and forth, and some of the bookmarks are incorrect. I know, yes, those will be fixed quickly in updates, and the size can’t be helped. Perhaps I’m just talking myself into buying the hardback.
Throughout the whole book, the art is standout awesome.
I enjoyed Cyberpunk Red far more than I thought I would. I used the word “promising” in my Cyberpunk Red Quickstart review. That’s to say it looks good but hasn’t fully delivered yet. Well, the full rulebook fully delivers. It’s the real deal.
Want more crunch in your game than you’ve been getting with the world’s most popular RPG? Go cyberpunk.
Cyberpunk Red is due out on DriveThruRPG on the 14th November, and in stores in the United States on the 19th. My copy was provided for review.
Comment and share your thoughts on this article in the section below.