System Hack: Cyberpunk Chimera Design Goals

Something funny happens when you spend a lot of time reading and reviewing games. At a certain point you reflect on all the games you’ve read and all the mechanics you’ve studied, and say to yourself “I bet I could design a game”. You see it a lot over here. Site founder Seamus is the co-author of the recently released Transit: The Spaceship RPG, and newest contributor Jason wrote Blessed Engines for the Emotional Mecha Jam. There’s design chops floating around in this blogger soup, and I suppose it should be no surprise that on the tails of the first System Hack, Genesys Mecha, I’d be throwing my hat into the ring.

My plan is a bit more ambitious than Genesys Mecha, an addition to FFG’s Genesys and some game modifications which help slot it in. What I want to do instead of create an expansion to a game is to create a whole new game. The idea is to take the gameplay elements of Cyberpunk 2020 and attempt to recast them into something different. I am calling this project the Cyberpunk Chimera, taking ideas from all different parts of the game design space and creating a tribute to Cyberpunk 2020 out of the mismatched parts from different species.

So why Cyberpunk 2020, anyway? Well, it is one of my favorite games, but it’s also a game with a lot of history, a lot of great ideas…and a lot of years under its belt. I have before gone into both the fun and the heartache of playing Cyberpunk 2020, and after house-ruling the game in one way or another for over 15 years, I’ve finally decided to see if there are other ways to get the parts of the Cyberpunk experience which I enjoy.

This isn’t intended to be an update of Cyberpunk 2020, or even a hack of Cyberpunk 2020, really. Cyberpunk Red is expected soon, and based on my experiences with The Witcher I truly believe the R. Talsorian team is going to make a great update. Instead, what I’m trying to do is figure out how to build the game that I wanted Cyberpunk 2020 to be. These design goals reflect a player who loved the feel of the system, loved the character spread which was intended, and loved the mechanically-enabled setting elements. This is also a player who was indifferent to the metaplot, frustrated by the game balance, and who spent literally years trying to figure out how to remove the “arms race” aspects of Cyberpunk advancement.

Emulate the best aspects of Cyberpunk 2020

So the first goal of this project, clearly, is to take all the parts of Cyberpunk 2020 I loved and get them into a new game context. This doesn’t necessarily mean using the same mechanics, but rather taking a good hard look at those old mechanics and figuring out why they work and feel the way they do.

Character Roles

This was the thing about Cyberpunk 2020 that blew me away when I first read the core rulebook in 2003 after two years of playing nothing but Dungeons and Dragons. Roles in Cyberpunk aren’t focused around combat, excepting of course the Solo. The most evocative roles in my mind are ones like Media and Corporate, which put you in a position with a lot more going on than just shooting at people. This is also an element of Cyberpunk 2020 which was not fully backed up by the mechanics, so I’m going to have to consider how best to incorporate a spread of character ideas and archetypes.

Combat

While I was clearly thrilled by the non-combat options in the game, the combat system always felt great to me as well. Mike Pondsmith has said time and time again that the combat system is tuned through actual police statistics and firearms statistics, and it shows. While the procedure of combat is a little drawn out (roll to hit, roll hit location, roll damage, resolve BTM, roll stun/shock and/or death save), it does make getting a gunshot wound an event, which is something I would want to keep in any game intended for a modern or near-future setting.

Lifepath

There is a yawning gap between what was considered de rigueur for character generation in 1988 and the range of options available now, but back in ‘88 Cyberpunk was only the second or third system to use a Lifepath and the first to make it about the character’s backstory exclusively (Traveller’s system provided backstory, but it was more about the betting game of getting more skills and abilities). A game inspired by Cyberpunk would have to provide color around where a character has been, and likely where they’re going.

Build Usable and Accessible Mechanics

The second big goal for the project is to make a set of mechanics which are easy to use and encourage the playstyle I intend. On the side of elements of Cyberpunk 2020 which I thought were good, this is going to mean trying to achieve a similar feel (or an improved feel) with fewer rolls or rules lookups. On the side of things which needed improvement I’m going to be trying to incorporate elements which resolve issues or better hew to the intended playstyle of the game.

One of my most central beliefs around gameplay mechanics is that your rules should indicate what you want the players to spend the most time on. In Dungeons and Dragons, the combat rules are written in significantly more detail than other rules, so it stands to reason that your players will spend more time in combat. This works on both micro and macro levels. If, like Cyberpunk 2020, your game emphasizes positioning, tactics, and ambushes, reflect the importance of that with a robust initiative system, good rules for cover and line of sight, and a punishing damage mechanic. If you want your game to be more broad than combat, include rules for activities other than combat that are just as robust and (more importantly) just as much fun.

Design for a Sandbox Playstyle

This last goal is where I diverge from Cyberpunk 2020 almost entirely. Cyberpunk 2020 as a game had a strong setting, focusing on Night City and the dozen or so corporations which were most influential there. You then added to that a rich alternate history including four Corporate Wars and some wild characters. I have no interest in emulating any of that IP; Mike Pondsmith is going to do Night City way better than I ever could. Instead, I want to build out a set of GM tools which could, conceivably, let a player build their own Night City, fill it with their own corporations, and run rampant through a world filled with plot hooks and intriguing characters. This is somewhat of an OSR approach…in fact I’m very much basing my ideas on some of the gameplay philosophies espoused by Kevin Crawford and seen in his games like Stars Without Number.


So we have some goals, we have a basic concept. What is different about this game, though? I am a Cyberpunk fan, and the Cyberpunk RPG genre has been seeing a Renaissance since the mid-2010s after a decade of quiet spurred by both the d20 crash and the missteps of Cyberpunk v3. When you look at Cyberpunk, though, there are a couple of paradigms into which the vast majority of games can be categorized. First, there’s building out a traditional RPG and then setting it in a detailed ‘dark future’ of your own invention. This was how Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun started everything off; in terms of modern games, this is how Interface Zero, Shadowrun, Carbon 2185, Identeco, and soon Cyberpunk Red all work. Second, there’s building a PbtA game designed to emulate and play with Cyberpunk narrative tropes from games, books, or other media. This is how you get The Sprawl, The Veil, and Headspace. The major exceptions to these options are Technoir (which is designed somewhat similarly to the second category but isn’t PbtA) and generic games capable of running Cyberpunk (GURPS and Genesys are both strongly positioned for Cyberpunk but aren’t focused on it). In terms of building a sandbox for Cyberpunk, there isn’t much out there. Stars Without Number has the Polychrome supplement, but it’s more of a setting splat than its own sandbox ruleset; this is great for flexing the capabilities of Stars Without Number but I don’t necessarily consider it a Cyberpunk sandbox. And Cyberpunk sandbox is exactly what I want to build. Cyberpunk as a genre is not defined by Night City, Seattle, or Chiba, it’s defined by the high-density urban environments of the future. Cyberpunk is not defined by Arasaka or Tessier-Ashpool, it’s defined by the corporation as an entity, and the allegorical bleed of corporate soft power into hard power. And while Cyberpunk is in part defined by computer hacking, cybernetic enhancement, and the continuing tendency of technology to blur the line between man and machine, Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun, Altered Carbon, and even Neuromancer hold no monopoly on what that looks like or how it plays out.

At the end of the day, this game will be inspired by Cyberpunk 2020. Like 2020, the game will be arguably “traditional”, using emulation as a basis for modeling characters and their actions. Unlike 2020, this game will be a sandbox, employing mechanical elements to help play groups generate their own cities, corporations, and intrigue. While some of this will look quite a bit like Cyberpunk (character lifepaths), other parts of it will look nothing like Cyberpunk, informed by my own experiences running indie games, PbtA games, and a big hexcrawl. In 2003, three years after I started playing any RPGs at all, discovering Cyberpunk 2020 was my first step towards finding games I wanted to play and figuring out what was out there. This project is arguably the next step after years of reading, playing, and reviewing games. Through the subsequent articles in this System Hack, I’m going to be taking a deep look at Cyberpunk 2020, figuring out what works about the mechanics, what doesn’t work, and how best to change them. After all that, I’m going to try to knit together something which feels like a Cyberpunk game I love, while still enabling more of what I personally have looked for in Cyberpunk and other games but never found all in one place. If I do this well, I’ll create my own personal platonic ideal of a Cyberpunk game. And along the way, hopefully these articles will show the process needed to design a love letter to your favorite game without falling into a heartbreaker trap.

Header image by Geni!

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