Cyberpunk (role-playing game)
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Cyberpunk is a dystopian tabletop role-playing game written by Mike Pondsmith and published by R. Talsorian Games. It is typically referred to by its second or fourth edition names, Cyberpunk 2020 and Cyberpunk Red, in order to distinguish it from the genre after which it is named.
Cyberpunk 2020 version 2.00 cover
|Publisher(s)||R. Talsorian Games|
|Publication date||1988 (First edition)|
1990 (Cyberpunk 2020)
2005 (Cyberpunk V3.0)
2020 (expected) (Cyberpunk Red)
|Genre(s)||Science fiction role-playing game, Cyberpunk|
Cyberpunk exists within its own fictional timeline, which splits from the real world in 1990. The timeline has been extended with each major edition of the game, from the first edition set in 2013 to Cyberpunk Red set in 2045.
Major events have included the collapse of the global superpowers, and the rise of Megacorporations that fight amongst themselves for dominance. Food blights have caused disastrous famines, and the Middle East is a radioactive desert. Bioengineering, against a backdrop of warfare, has resulted in the rapid development of cybernetic prosthetics and direct human-machine interfaces. With the lack of government and police, casual violence is endemic. Many also suffer from "technoshock", an inability to cope with a world of synthetic muscle tissue, organic circuits and designer drugs.
The main location for Cyberpunk is the fictional Night City, situated on the west coast of the United States between Los Angeles and San Francisco. With a population of five million people, it presents a stratified society of gang warfare, corporate rivalries and political machinations in which the players have to survive.
The rules of Cyberpunk are built on R. Talsorian's Interlock system.
A core game mechanic is the concept of Difficulty Values, used to gauge whether a player succeeds or fails at any given task. A player takes the value of their most appropriate character attribute, adds the values of any relevant skills or modifiers, and then finally adds the value of a ten-sided dice roll. In order to succeed, they must beat the Difficulty Value assigned to the task by the gamemaster. Cyberpunk was one of the first tabletop games to use this concept.
As cyberpunks, the players embrace body modification, cybertech and bioengineering. They live by three tenets:
- Style over substance.
- Attitude is everything.
- Always take it to the Edge.
- (Break the rules.)
There are ten key roles, each with their own special abilities. These include charismatic musicians ('rockerboys'), bodyguards and assassins ('solos'), computer hackers ('netrunners'), road warriors ('nomads'), street experts ('fixers'), investigative journalists and reporters ('medias'), mechanics ('techs' or 'techies'), doctors ('medtechs'), corporate executives, and police officers.
A choice of rules are provided for character creation, either by assigning points to purchase skills or by rolling d10s for a more random outcome. A system called Lifepath is provided to develop each character further, by generating goals, motivations, and events from their past. Finally, they gain money, cyberware, weapons and other equipment, including fashion and lifestyle goods.
Further character development is skill-based rather than level-based; for successful play, players are awarded points to be spent on improving their characters' skill sets.
The combat system is called Friday Night Firefight (FNFF), and emphasizes lethality. Unlike other role-playing systems where characters amass higher hit points as they progress, allowing them to survive higher amounts of combat damage, the amount of damage a character can sustain in Cyberpunk does not increase as the character develops.
There are also rules for cybernetic hacking, called Netrunning. When characters "jack in", they can interpret the NET in several different ways, including as a classic Dungeons & Dragons maze, or perhaps as a star-filled galaxy.
Netrunners engage in the virtual world with interface plugs, cyberdecks, and the Interface special ability. Cyberdecks include slots to contain Programs, selected ahead of time by Netrunners to assist in tasks such as evasion, decryption and detection. Combat and other actions in the NET are fast, taking place second-by-second, as opposed to three second combat rounds in the physical world.
The destruction of the global NET in later editions of Cyberpunk turns the attention of Netrunners to local private networks. The effect on gameplay is that Netrunning is no longer a remote activity; Netrunners are embedded within their team, and with equipment such as virtuality goggles can alternate actions between both physical and virtual space. Closer integration with other activities was a game design choice to ensure all characters have a part to play during a hacking scene.
Empathy and cyberpsychosisEdit
The acquisition of cyberware—cyberweapons, cyberoptics and other implants—carries a Humanity Cost. Every ten points of Humanity Cost causes the loss of an Empathy point, the character attribute that measures how well they relate to other people. An Empathy level of zero represents a complete loss of humanity, a state known as cyberpsychosis; in the case of players, their character becomes a non-player character controlled by the gamemaster.
Cyberpunk was designed by Mike Pondsmith as an attempt to replicate the gritty realism of 1980s cyberpunk science fiction. In particular, Walter Jon Williams' novel Hardwired was an inspiration, and Williams helped playtest the game. Another key influence was the film Blade Runner. Many also assume William Gibson's Neuromancer was an influence, however Pondsmith did not read the novel until a later date.
The original version of Cyberpunk was published in 1988 by R. Talsorian Games. The game components of the boxed set consist of a 44-page Handbook, a 38-page Sourcebook, a 20-page Combat Book, four pages of game aids and two ten-sided dice.
A number of rules supplements were subsequently published in 1989:
- Rockerboy (sourcebook for the Rockerboy character class)
- Solo of Fortune (sourcebook for the Solo character class)
- Hardwired, based on the Walter Jon Williams novel
- Near Orbit: Space Supplement, with rules for space travel
This edition of the game retrospectively became known as Cyberpunk 2013.
Second edition: Cyberpunk 2020Edit
In 1990, R. Talsorian Games released the second edition of the game, titled Cyberpunk 2020, which featured updated rules for combat, Netrunning, and character generation. The game's timeline was also retconned to accommodate the German reunification in 1990. It was released as a boxed set that contained a 222-page softcover book, and a 24-page reference guide and adventure.
R. Talsorian Games released two revised versions: Cyberpunk 2020 version 2.00 (1992), and Cyberpunk 2020 version 2.01 (1993).
A total of 28 rules supplements and sourcebooks, and 6 adventures were also published by R. Talsorian Games between 1993 and 1996. In addition, Atlas Games published twelve adventures under license between 1991 and 1993.
Six novels set in the Cyberpunk 2020 world were also published between 1993 and 1994.
Dream Pod 9 released Night's Edge in 1992, taking the Cyberpunk 2020 setting and adding a horror theme, including vampires and werewolves. Dream Pod 9 published ten other supplements and adventures in this setting between 1992 and 1995.
An alternate world sourcebook, Cybergeneration, was published in 1993; it centers around teenagers with unusual, superhuman skills gained from a nanotech virus epidemic. The first version of Cybergeneration required the Cyberpunk 2020 rulebook, but a second version became a standalone game.
Third edition: Cyberpunk V3.0Edit
Cyberpunk V3.0 is set in the 2030s, and was published in 2005. It takes Cyberpunk into a transhumanist setting in the aftermath of a fourth Corporate War. The global NET has been corrupted and rendered unusable, as has much hardcopied data, throwing human history into doubt. Six new subcultures have emerged, known as Altcults; one such group are the Edgerunners, successors to the cyberpunks of previous editions.
From 2007-2008, two sourcebooks were published to accompany this edition.
Fourth edition: Cyberpunk RedEdit
The fourth edition of Cyberpunk, titled Cyberpunk Red, is set in 2045, following the events of Cyberpunk 2020 and serving as a prequel to the video game Cyberpunk 2077. The game is set after a fourth Corporate War; however, the events differ from Cyberpunk V3.0, which is considered to be a separate timeline.
A simplified boxed set, the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit, was initially scheduled for release at Gen Con in August 2019, with the core rulebook to be released alongside it. However, though the Jumpstart Kit was released as scheduled, the core rulebook's release was tentatively delayed until June 2020 to allow R. Talsorian Games to work with CD Projekt Red to ensure that the lore of Cyberpunk Red aligned with that of Cyberpunk 2077. In May 2020, R. Talsorian Games announced that the release date would be pushed back further due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that they hoped to release the core rulebook by "summer's end".
Collectible card gamesEdit
Two different, independent collectible card games have been licensed and produced based on the Cyberpunk setting. The first, called Netrunner, was designed by Richard Garfield, and released by Wizards of the Coast in 1996 (the game has since been re-released as Android: Netrunner but is no longer associated with the fictional Cyberpunk universe). The second was called Cyberpunk CCG, released in 2003, designed by Peter Wacks and published by Social Games.
In the September 1989 edition of Dragon (Issue 149), Jim Bambra liked the production values of the original edition, but found many typos in the various books as well as a missing encounter table. Bambra found the setting "does a superb job of capturing the flavor and atmosphere of a disturbingly plausible and realistic future. The development and presentation of the Net is stunning and can be used as a basis for countless numbers of adventures. No other game has succeeded in portraying computer hacking in such a vibrant and absorbing way." He concluded that this was not for everyone: "Gamers brought up on heroic-fantasy or shiny science-fiction games may find the gritty realism of the Cyberpunk game not to their liking... To decide if this is the game for you, read a few of the Cyberpunk style novels. If you like them, don’t waste any time — rush out and buy the Cyberpunk game. Welcome to life on the edge."
In the September 1992 edition of Dragon (Issue 185), Allen Varney found Cyberpunk 2020 just as stylish as its first-edition predecessor, but he found even more typos in this edition than in the first edition. Varney liked the new streamlined combat system, but criticized the duality of modern combat, where "Unarmored characters become pools of blood in 10 seconds of combat, but those in flak armor can shrug off submachine-gun fire." Varney also felt that the Netrunning system was much improved, calling the rules system "elegant and original." Varney thought the second edition's biggest flaw was lack of an index, but he also criticized the dichotomy of a system where "you can break into Eurobank and embezzle five million bucks, but you better pay your phone bill on time or you’re in big trouble." He accused the game of being "in the curious position of advocating rebellion, but only in socially acceptable ways." Nonetheless, Varney concluded that "The Cyberpunk game’s second edition surpasses its first edition on every count. With its smooth action, 'pure' cyberpunk atmosphere, easily accessible setting, and medium-low complexity, this game tops my list as the field's best route to dark near-future adventure." 
In a 1996 reader poll undertaken by Arcane magazine to determine the 50 most popular roleplaying games of all time, Cyberpunk was ranked 10th. Editor Paul Pettengale commented: "Cyberpunk was the first of the 'straight' cyberpunk RPGs, and is still the best. The difference between cyberpunk and other sci-fi is a matter of style and attitude. Everything about the Cyberpunk game, from the background to the rules system, is designed to create this vital atmosphere. Cyberpunk is set in an unforgiving world where betrayal and double-crosses are common, trust is hard to find and paranoia is a useful survival trait."
- Hall, Charlie (2019-08-07). "Cyberpunk Red review: This pen-and-paper game is the key to understanding Cyberpunk 2077". Polygon. Retrieved 2020-05-16.
The year is 2045, and CD Projekt’s next game doesn’t kick off for another 32 years. It’s an awful lot of space to fill, and I’m looking forward to getting on with it.
- Bambra, Jim (September 1989). "Roleplaying Reviews". Dragon. TSR, Inc. (149): 85–86.
- Peter (18 May 2012). "A Thorough and Objective Review [Night City]". RPGGeek. RPGGeek. Archived from the original on 13 July 2020. Retrieved 23 May 2020.
- Gibson, Than (28 Mar 2018). "Welcome to the first article of Retro RPG Reviews!". Meeple Mountain. Meeple Mountain. Archived from the original on 13 May 2020. Retrieved 23 May 2020.
- Elsam, Sara (5 Mar 2020). "Here's an exclusive first look at character creation, abilities, Lifepaths and the new Medtech role in the Cyberpunk Red tabletop RPG". Dicebreaker. Dicebreaker. Archived from the original on 13 July 2020. Retrieved 23 May 2020.
- Lafayette, Lev (31 Dec 2010). "Review of Cyberpunk 2020". RPGnet. RPGnet. Retrieved 25 May 2020.
- Girdwood, Andrew (23 Jul 2019). "So, you wanna be a cyberpunk? A review of the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit". Geek Native. Geek Native. Archived from the original on 14 July 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.
- Allison, Peter Ray (26 February 2020). "'Making Cyberpunk Red almost killed us': Mike Pondsmith on the return of the tabletop RPG, catching up with 2020's future and Cyberpunk 2077". Dicebreaker. Dicebreaker. Archived from the original on 13 July 2020. Retrieved 23 May 2020.
Although many assume William Gibson’s Neuromancer was a source of inspiration for Cyberpunk, it was only much later that Pondsmith read Gibson’s groundbreaking novel. Instead, the designer cites his own key reference points for the game as the film Blade Runner and the novel Hardwired by Walter John Williams, who also helped playtest the RPG.
- Cowen, Richard (1 February 2010). "Review of Cyberpunk v3". RPGnet. Retrieved 16 May 2020.
See, Cyberpunk v3.0 isn’t actually a cyberpunk setting, in the same sense that the previous editions where. It’s more or less a post-human setting these days. And that’s where the setting falls apart. You see, v3.0 can’t decide what it wants to be, and exemplifies its inability to decide by splitting society into six ‘alt-cults’, each latching onto a particular ideology...
- Peter (16 June 2011). "A Thorough and Objective Review [Cyberpunk v3.0]". BoardGameGeek. Archived from the original on 13 July 2020. Retrieved 16 May 2020.
On a personal level, Cyberpunk v3.0 was a let down on every level. The art, rules, setting, even the system wasn’t used to its full potential in my opinion...
- Hall, Charlie (2019-06-24). "Cyberpunk 2077 prequel, a tabletop RPG starter kit, will be out this August". Polygon. Retrieved 2019-07-20.
- Garrett, Eric (2019-05-12). "Cyberpunk 2077 Shares Same Timeline With the Tabletop Game, Says Mike Pondsmith". ComicBook.com. Archived from the original on 2020-07-13. Retrieved 2020-05-16.
... Pondsmith himself cleared the air surrounding the subject, noting how there has been an interview going around the Internet that is not correct. "There's still an incorrect interview floating around the interwebs that states that Cyberpunk 2077 and Cyberpunk 2020 are separate timelines," he said. "To clear this up, I am posting RIGHT HERE AND NOW that the timeline is unified, with the path moving from Cyberpunk 2013 thru Cyberpunk 2020, then through Cyberpunk RED and up to Cyberpunk 2077."
- "Cyberpunk Red in June?". R. Talsorian Games. 2020-02-16. Archived from the original on 2020-06-19. Retrieved 2020-06-26.
- Purslow, Matt (2020-05-19). "Cyberpunk Red Tabletop Game Delayed". IGN. Retrieved 2020-06-26.
- "Cyberpunk Red Update". R. Talsorian Games. 2020-05-15. Archived from the original on 2020-06-13. Retrieved 2020-06-26.
- "Cyberpunk: The Arasaka's Plot for J2ME (2007)". MobyGames. Retrieved 18 June 2019.
- Wieck, Stewart (February 1989). "Review: Cyberpunk". White Wolf Magazine. No. 14. p. 58.
- Varney, Allen (September 1992). "Roleplaying Reviews II". Dragon. TSR, Inc. (185): 83–84.
- Pettengale, Paul (Christmas 1996). "Arcane Presents the Top 50 Roleplaying Games 1996". Arcane. Future Publishing (14): 25–35.