Level One Wonk: Playing Old Games with Cyberpunk 2020

Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. This week we talk about Cyberpunk 2020, and enjoying older games out there.

For about a decade, Cyberpunk 2020 was my favorite role-playing game. Originally written in 1987, Cyberpunk was a gritty take on its eponymous genre, but was also written to encourage broader storytelling from the typically combat-centric games of the time. The game was innovative in many ways, and put its publisher, R. Talsorian, on the map. Cyberpunk really started the interest in its genre in the gaming space, even bringing on a couple well known authors (George Alec Effinger and Walter Jon Williams) to write supplements.

In 1987, Cyberpunk’s Friday Night Firefight combat system was very slick. When I picked up the core book for the first time in 2003, it was no longer unique, though still eminently playable. By the time I ran my last long-running campaign using the system in 2010, I was painfully aware of the system’s flaws. Incidentally, 2010 was also the year that Interface Zero was first released for Savage Worlds, the first in a new generation of Cyberpunk games that viewed the genre through a 21st century lens.

At this point a reader may assume that I’m talking about the obsolescence of Cyberpunk 2020. No! Cyberpunk 2020 is still awesome. The things that made the game fun haven’t disappeared simply because games have come after it. There are people all over the world still playing games that are 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years old because those are the games they want to play. What we’re talking about today is how to, as either a GM or a player, jump into a campaign in a ‘new to you’ system that may have some years under its belt.

Know your group

The biggest theme that comes up in running older games is that houserules were de rigueur for a very long time. Newer games tend to be more informed by previous writing, as well as playtested more than many games that came out in the 80s. As such, when gaming groups ran into problems with older systems, they’d just write an alternate approach which solved the issue. Cyberpunk 2020 is no exception here; the GM’s guide, Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads, included an essentially houseruled version of the game’s armor system in response to player complaints.

There’s two things you need to know about your group when running older games. First, are they amenable to some trial and error? Things may not work as intended, but that can be fixed if people can accept changes being done on the fly (and hopefully with consensus). Second, are there already houserules for the system? Whether they’re home in a binder somewhere or a publicly available modification of the ruleset (Cyberpunk has one, it’s called Interlock Unlimited), knowing what the other players know will save time and may help you identify roadblocks earlier.

Know the quirks

In the first Cyberpunk 2020 campaign I ran, the party was at one point ambushed in the alleyway outside the rockerboy’s concert venue. The rocker went for his gun. The rocker’s player rolled a 1 on the attack, which was a fumble. I rolled on the fumble table, and the result was that the gun had gone off and wounded the character. I declared that as he was pulling out the gun it went off, shooting himself in the leg. The player rolled damage and, because he had decided to buy one of the most powerful guns in the game (and really, who wouldn’t), the fumble blew his leg clean off. This particular encounter illustrates a couple quirks of the Cyberpunk system: first, limb loss is possible, even likely with high-caliber weapons, and second, you fumble a full 10% of the time, making mishaps frequent. This example also shows how important GM rulings can be: if the damage had been calculated rules as written, the player would have had to roll for hit location…that would have given a 10% chance for a head hit, which would have been instant death before combat even started!

The craziness that comes with some of the design choices like those in the example can be a lot of fun, but they’re also going to impact the feel of the game dramatically. When I run Cyberpunk 2020 now, it’s with full awareness of these over-the-top aspects, and I’ll even write scenarios to highlight them and make the play session a bit zany. This is another place where reading up a bit on the system can help, that way you aren’t caught by surprise when the dice produce a really extreme result from what seemed like a routine roll. And of course, if the game isn’t operating the way you want to, houserules are always an option.

Know your options

This is true any time you’re interested in writing and running a game, but especially if you’re looking at the whole history of a genre or even a game line. The best known discussion of this sort is one happening in game stores all over the country about 5th and 4th edition D&D. 4th edition is heavily tactical, relying on grid-based movement. 5th edition is much more fast and loose, relying more on “theater of the mind” while being more constrained statistically than either of its two most recent predecessors. 4th edition, more than any other edition of D&D, broke away from the game’s traditional mold, while 5th edition is the most recent refinement of a game that had more direct lineage from the original.

In the case of Cyberpunk, you can look at both its contemporaries and its successors. One contemporary was the original Shadowrun, released a year or so after Cyberpunk. Shadowrun, while being of the “cyberpunk” genre, was very different in that it had magic and demi-human races (think elves, orcs, etc.) in the setting. For many people, that distinction made the decision to play one or the other easy. The other contemporary of Cyberpunk 2020 was a game called Cyberspace. A bit more detailed, Cyberspace was based off of the Rolemaster system and was much more math-intensive than 2020. Having read Cyberspace, the benefits it has over 2020 aren’t worth the pages and pages of tables and more byzantine rules.

For successors, things get slightly more interesting. First, Shadowrun still exists! Now on its Fifth Edition, the new game is still more system-heavy than Cyberpunk, and still has elves, orcs, and magic. There’s also Interface Zero, which is based on Savage Worlds and has some neat world assumptions behind it that add in psionics and player-character races like cyborgs and androids. In addition, there’s the (often mentioned by me) PbtA game The Sprawl, which is in some ways heavily inspired by Cyberpunk 2020; many of its playbooks follow the mold of classes in Cyberpunk 2020. The Sprawl would be near the top of my list if I wanted a 2020-like experience, and would probably win if I wanted a game that was lighter than Cyberpunk, or more narrative…but if you want a traditional RPG or your group doesn’t like PbtA, this is out. Interface Zero has tighter rules than 2020, but its Savage Worlds core is built on “character-as-protagonist” mechanics. As an example, every PC in a Savage Worlds game gets an extra die to roll for every check, called a “wild die” to represent their station as the main characters in the story. This is great for pulp and larger-than-life games (both of which are things Cyberpunk games can be), but if you wanted a grittier, “street level” experience, Interface Zero won’t deliver that as easily. So if you want a gritty and grounded Cyberpunk game that has a robust combat system, Cyberpunk 2020 may still be the first choice after all of these years.

For most people, the game that will deliver the experience you are looking for has already been written. That said, it could have been written in 1974 or 1988 or 2016, or any year in between. The increasing amounts of institutional knowledge in role-playing game design have led to a lot of innovative games and incremental improvements, but this doesn’t mean that older games are suddenly worthless. Many games from 10 or 20 or more years ago are still excellent, and many more can shine with the system knowledge gleaned by the players who are already out there. If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, there are many gems from every era of RPGs, just waiting to be rediscovered.

Cyberpunk 2020 is available on DriveThruRPG. Additionally, check out Datafortress 2020, the current home of the excellent houserule conversion, Interlock Unlimited.

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