Carbon 2185 is a cyberpunk RPG powered by Dungeon & Dragons 5th edition. It had a very successful crowdfunding campaign and raised a whopping £143, 738 (against a £10, 000 goal). It made Kickstarter’s featured list.
It’s a really competitive time to be a cyberpunk game. Hunters Entertainment is working on an Altered Carbon RPG for next year. I’m going to talk about what Altered Carbon and Carbon 2185 have in common in just a second. First, though, it’s worth noting that the original cyberpunk RPG is getting a big relaunch and new edition with Cyberpunk Red. That tabletop RPG is the prequel the huge Cyberpunk 2077 computer game.
It’s not even the case that Carbon 2185 is the only 5e powered cyberpunk game. Any publisher who sticks to the 5e license can have a go, as Entromancy proves, and they did a good job.
So, what do Carbon 2185 and Altered Carbon have in common? A tiny cog of Trek tech.
I don’t usually think of Star Trek levels of technology when I imagine cyberpunk. Yes, I know the opening lines of Blade Runner are all about Replicants being on Earth and not one of the off-world colonies. It’s what happens next in Blade Runner that defines my visuals for the genre. I think of neon, rain, punks, leather jacket, blades, synthetic humans, technology, drugs and dystopia.
There’s a critical event in the Carbon 2185 timeline known as The Scramble. There are only a few pages on The Scramble in the RPG, that’s all you need, and they’re hugely important. Carbon 2185 follows our real-world timeline up until 2019, and then climate change hits the planet hard, and we spiral downhill. The Scramble happens after a corporation with privately funded space travel finds a wormhole to a bunch of empty but Earth-like planets. Around those planets are more wormholes to even more worlds.
The Scramble is the start of a new space race, but it’s not between nations. It’s between corporations, and it gives birth to the megacorporations that will eventually oust most national governments.
Altered Carbon and Carbon 2185 are the only two cyberpunk settings I’m aware of that flirt with this level of advanced technology. Despite The Scramble, mechs and even the Wormers (people from beyond a wormhole) as a playable character, Carbon 2185 doesn’t feel like a Star Trek level sci-fi game. It’s a cyberpunk one.
Carbon 2185 doesn’t have the same body-hopping element that Altered Carbon does. It does have life-extending technology, but it’s less effective.
Even more importantly, Carbon 2185 is not an RPG about space travel or battles on other planets. We don’t read about The Scramble until we’re about halfway through the book and we never hear about it again. Carbon 2185 is about life on an overcrowded, overworked and nearly broken Earth. In particular, it has a laser focus on San Francisco.
Carbon 2185 feels cyberpunk in a way (dare I say) that Altered Carbon often does not. This RPG is more like Blade Runner, it looks down from the heavens and up close at the dirty city streets and focuses there. This is no Trek tech RPG. This is a wonderfully gritty cyberpunk game where blood toxicity can kill you.
Characters in Carbon 2018
Characters in Carbon 2018 have origins instead of the fantasy RPG troupe of ‘races’. You can select from;
- Badlander – born in the wastelands outside the cities; fast and can see in the dark.
- Gutter Punk – inspired by the punk rockers of history, anti-social slum dwellers.
- Korporate Kid – brought up/trained/worked in a for-profit orphanage. Smart and well educated.
- Regular Joe – the woman next door.
- Synth – manufactured from robotics and biological components. Tough.
- Wormer – from the otherside of the wormholes and a low gravity colony.
There are sub-choices for each origin and big considerations around stats and your character’s age. A wormer is middle-aged at 30 whereas a regular Joe can expect to live to 80 and beyond.
There are six classes in the RPG. They’re not careers, backgrounds or training. Instead, classes in Carbon 2185 are more like tasks people take on in their group of fellow cyberpunks.
There’s the tough and burly natural leaders in the ‘Daimyo’, ‘Docs’ who might be able to patch you up, the classic backbone of any gang in the ‘Enforcers’, the necessary more often than not ‘Hackers’, ‘Investigators’ who’ll likely be needed for any successful group and lastly the sneaky ‘Scoundrels’.
The next significant step in character creation gives me pause for thought. I prefer crafting my characters from points, for game balance, and to fit the story that I want to tell for them. In Carbon 2185, education is compulsory, and then you get a job, of some sorts, and you’ll roll to see how long you maintained that job before getting injured and come crashing out. You can pick from Corporate Drone, Criminal, Entertainer, Explorer, Laborer, Law Enforcement, Merchant, Military, Technical and Unskilled Worker. Your stats impact the chances of getting injured while at work, as does the career you pick. For each ‘term’ you manage to hold a job down for the more Wonlong (cash) your character starts with and the older they are.
Those 10 careers are broad groups for you to pick something from. For example, if you worked a corporate drone before becoming a cyberpunk, you might have been a facility manager, in IT support or just an office worker. I’m sure most GMs will cooperate with players at this phase if the dice threaten to ruin a character concept.
Lastly, backgrounds give all characters some sort of vice. It could be a weakness for deep-friend snacks or being an alcoholic. There’s a separate section on addictions in the book. It’s short but effective.
There are six abilities in this 5e powered game, but they’re not your usual D&D set. Carbon 2185 characters have;
- Strength – physical power.
- Dexterity – agility.
- Constitution – endurance.
- Intelligence – reasoning and memory.
- Technology – skill with technology.
- People – social ability.
They work for me. Characters only go up to level 10, and that keeps power levels relatively low, but we’ve ability score charts up to 20 (cybernetics and drugs offer boosts, of course).
It absolutely helps if you’ve played D&D or some other 5e game before. I speculate making your way through chargen as a rookie might be tough.
The ‘cyber’ in Carbon 2185
I really like the rules for cybernetic augmentation in Carbon 2185. Game designers have to be careful with this sort of tech as they can quickly destroy the game balance, but Dragon Turtle Games have built in some safety checks.
For a start, augmentation is costly, and 99.5% of people of Earth are destitute.
Blood Toxicity is a big deal too. A cyberpunk can only withstand twice their constitution modifier (with a minimum of 2) in blood toxicity. The augmentation causes damage within the body, there’s chemicals, radiation and strain. The bigger, more powerful, augmentations cause more blood toxicity.
Tier 0 augmentations, the stuff that everyday people might have, cause 0 blood toxicity and level 1 augmentations cause 1 point of bloody toxicity each. This isn’t a system that stops cyberpunks being cyber, but tier 4 augments cause blood toxicity and tier 5 (illegal) cause 8 levels in blood toxicity.
As Carbon 2185 is good at doing; there are drugs to help deal with blood toxicity, different types, so players have a choice, but they’re expensive. The cheapest costs 1, 000 Wonlongs and will last for an hour.
There’s not a huge number of augmentations in the core rules. I wish there were more, but this sort of thing is prime fodder for supplements an expansion. There’s enough. For each tier of augments available, your players will be able to find something to tempt them.
The ‘punk’ in Carbon 2185
It’s strange what sometimes stands out to you as you read an RPG. For me, Carbon 2185 made me think of the economy. It’s doomed.
In San Francisco, the default setting, the minimum day rate is 200 Wonlongs. You don’t even get into the ‘poor’ social status if you can’t make 6,000 Wonlongs a month. This means working without a weekend or a day off, ever. At that level, after food, taxes and the bare minimum, you’ll lose 200 Wonlongs a month from your savings.
No wonder so many people have turned their back on society. It seems entirely broken.
I mentioned there are drugs to try and keep blood toxicity at bay? The cheapest costs 1,000 Wonlongs. That’s 5 days of work for an hour of relief if you don’t pay rent, eat or do anything else.
A hammer costs 2,000 Wonlongs. A smoke grenade cots 75,000 Wonlongs. That’s expensive smoke!
In Carbon 2185 there are a couple of pages on the gangs of the city of San Francisco. There’s the Snakehead Tong, Aiutachi Yakuza, Diablos Electrico, Bratva, 16K Triad, Sons of Chaos and El Liberado. Not only do the gangs contribute to the punk aspect of the setting, but it also seems inevitable that the PCs will encounter them. Heck, it seems unavoidable the PCs will have to turn to crime to fund their hijinks. The retirement package they got as they left their background career won’t last long.
I’m not sure why the game focuses on San Francisco. An iconic cyberpunk city, is it? There are pros and cons to doing so. I don’t image all the 19 megacorps are equally as important there which might limit GMs options. On the other hand, picking a city means we can do things like details the gangs active there. Which, as we’ve seen, is what Carbon 2185 does.
It also means the book can linger a bit on the descriptions of the urban landscape. San Francisco is divided into five districts. District 4 is where the seedy nightlife is and District 1, where the rich people live in comfort. We’ve random encounters for each. I guess each adds to the flavour of ‘punk’ in the city. Crime happens even in District 1.
Is it all good?
I really like Carbon 2185. It’s a well put together cyberpunk game. Some people say “there’s a genre that doesn’t need a 5e conversion” and Carbon 2185 is the rebuttal to that. It makes good use of the 5e system to craft a good cyberpunk RPG.
It’s good but not perfect. I’m eager to see what the queue of rivals will do.
I imagine reading Carbon 2185 if you didn’t know 5e very well would be a less pleasant experience. Maybe Dragon Turtle can’t do anything about that.
The illustrations dry up. After the combat section, we’ve illustrated chapter separators but little else. I don’t get to see what the robots and threats in the “Enemies and Villains” look like. Except for a weird ‘cyber-vampire’ and one mech. I worry about the layout too. It’s okay, and perhaps better in print rather than my PDF, but it feels a bit dated.
Hacking is woefully underrepresented in the game. There’s no sense of wonder or mystery to it, and that’s a shame as there’s a whole class based on it. In fact, it barely gets a mention.
I’m really not sure how people are supposed to respond to Synths. I guess it’s up to the GM.
Carbon 2185 is a welcome addition to my RPG collection. It proves naysayers wrong – 5e can be adapted to make a good cyberpunk game.
The strength of this game is its versatility. I think you can use this to tell pretty much whatever cyberpunk story you want. Fancy doing an Altered Carbon about waring elites and the battle of off-planet wealth? You can do that there. Want to do a Shadowrun-esq urban crawl against rival gangs each equipped with some nasty surprises? No problem. Want to do a Blade Runner style game of where investigations lead to emotionally and physically dangerous encounters? Carbon 2185 has you covered.
I hope the game does well enough to give us a world book and a supplement full of augmentations. I think it could.
Overall? If you’re a D&D 5e player looking to broaden your horizons for the first time and even suspect you’ll like cyberpunk then give Carbon 2185 a shot. Are you a cyberpunk fan? Yeah? Carbon 2185 is worth checking out.
Has it preemptively blown the incoming competitors out of the water? No. In fact, the big guns pointing at Carbon 2185 have editorial teams of many years experience, many editions to test and try things, and established fanbases to work with. Carbon 2185 is good, but it’s in for a rough ride.
Geek Native was given a pre-release copy of the Carbon 2185 PDF to review from. There may be some final tweaks between this review and publication.
Have you had a chance to play Carbon 2185? What did you make of the game?