The Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit made a splash at GenCon, selling out huge stacks of the black and red box set in what seemed like no time at all. Given the hype of Cyberpunk 2077, it’s important to step back and look at both what this means for Cyberpunk fans as well as what we can honestly expect out of a product which is still just a Beginner Box.
Personally, I’ve been waiting for this moment in one way or another since 2005. 2005 was, for those of us who remember, the release of Cyberpunk v3. Without casting (too many) aspersions at that product, I can say that it was not what Cyberpunk fans expected or wanted, and was disappointing to many, including myself. After making my peace with the fact that Cyberpunk 2020 was the last edition of the line that I’d play, the announcement of Cyberpunk Red split me between side-eyed skepticism and bouncing off my chair like, well, a nerdy teenager.
So what do we have in our first look at the new edition of Cyberpunk? Well, for one thing, someone has collected the notes from years of online fandom. Combat is cleaned up and better balanced, netrunning actually works, and character attributes are way less lopsided. On the other hand, some things were fixed that weren’t broken, and the combat system took away too much in perceived lethality compared to what it gave in user-friendliness. Finally, while the product is slickly laid out and the add-ins like the maps and minis look great, this is definitely a beginner box, and Cyberpunk fans are going to see it merely as an appetizer before the core rulebook main course.
The Jumpstart Kit is designed to include everything you need to start playing, including a rulebook, worldbook, pre-generated characters, some maps, and even some character standees. Now, there are two liabilities to my experience with the kit, and the first is that for the game I ran (which will be detailed a little later), we used the PDF version of the kit. Now, the maps and standees still look good as PDFs, and I have no reason to doubt the production quality of the physical versions or the dice that were included. That said, having not experienced them directly, I will keep my comments to a minimum. The second liability is that I did not run the adventure included in the worldbook. There were two reasons for this.
First one is that I didn’t realize the adventure was there until I had already started my prep, and the second one is that the adventure is “The Apartment”, a more detailed version of a con scenario Mike Pondsmith has described and run many times. So many, in fact, that I ran my own version at a con earlier this year. As such, I can’t speak to this specific version in play, though I’ve both read it and run it now in one form or another and can assure you that it’s a good time. There are also Screamsheets, three smaller adventure hooks that a GM can mix, match, and adjust fairly easily. Designer drugs, police VR training, and armored car heists (with a twist of course) all fit the milieu nicely, and show some breadth with the relatively small number of opponent stats which are provided.
The one other thing to note about the kit is what you end up getting and not getting in terms of the rules. The system of Cyberpunk Red deserves its own analysis, but the kit is notable by just how much of the character rules are left out. While there are six pregens, there’s only one character class with special ability rules, the Netrunner. Assuming Cyberpunk Red is structured like Cyberpunk 2020 (and The Witcher RPG for that matter), that means that the core rules around every other character role are, for now, absent.
Knowing what we are and aren’t getting with the kit, let’s take a look at the rules that we do get. Cyberpunk Red is most certainly a revised version of Cyberpunk 2020; it looks like the reception of Cyberpunk v3 taught a harsh lesson. I am reserving judgment as to whether or not the new edition change was too conservative; since most of the interesting rules aren’t in the Jumpstart Kit, all you do really get to sink your teeth into are a core resolution and skill mechanic, combat, and netrunning.
The core mechanic is very familiar, in fact it’s basically the same as Cyberpunk 2020: 1d10+stat+skill. This is where you need familiarity to appreciate the fact that a lot of work went into what looks like the same system. For one, the skill list, which I directly bemoaned when baselining my Cyberpunk Chimera project, has been reduced to around a third of its size. That’s awesome, and helps a fair amount with character differentiation. I don’t know if the skill list will increase in the core game, but I hope that it either doesn’t or doesn’t by much. There are some neat changes to make traditionally underutilized skills hit harder. First is the education skill. The game has a mechanic where your education skill modifies your bonus to untrained rolls, which I really like. Also worth noting is the local knowledge skill. What made area knowledge useless is that people never wanted to put points into it, making the GM roll their eyes and ignore it because a rank of zero didn’t really make sense.
So here, everyone gets local knowledge to start, in addition to some of the other skills which represent abilities that everyone can be expected to have. Good move, and it means that those local knowledge rolls can be made without as much suspension of disbelief needed. Less dramatically changed but still different are stats. Reflex, the former god stat of the game, has been split into Reflex and Dexterity. This is a good move, though Reflex still being used for initiative and ranged attack rolls makes it a heavy statistical hitter. I reserve judgment on the consequences of this mostly because the mechanics around most intellectual and social actions in the game aren’t detailed out in the kit. Most of the refinements so far went to the physical side; the Body stat is now much more valuable than it was in 2020 both because of the potential of Brawling for a high Body character as well as its new role in combat longevity. That role, though, didn’t quite sit well with me.
The combat system is in some ways completely the same and in others completely different. It’s the same basic mechanics, though from rolling initiative to wrapping up the changes begin to snowball. Initiative is now only rolled once per combat instead of every round, which both speeds things up dramatically and loses some of the chaotic nature of 2020 combat. High reflex characters now have the option to dodge ranged attacks, something that was alluded to but never well developed in 2020. When it comes to trading damage, though, things have changed. Gone is the static track, replaced by a hit point total equal to Body times five. This makes your Body stat really valuable for staying up; consider that a Body 5 character can be one-shotted by an assault rifle while a Body 10 character can’t (at least not without a headshot).
This should allude to the fact though that much of the danger and lethality are gone from the combat system. We lost the danger when stun/shock rolls went away; they dramatically increased the risk of a character being out of the combat and also the overall tension level. We lost lethality with the hit point system; an average character needs to take 25 points of damage to start making death saves while in Cyberpunk 2020 that number was half that. And before you ask, yes, weapon damage is scaled almost the same in both games. Assault rifles in both systems do 5d6 damage. Armor has been scaled back a bit to match the less vulnerable characters, and the infamous layering rules are gone, at least for the time being. The new system is faster and easier to understand, but this is the one point in the game where I pull out my grognard card and say I liked the old way better.
So we’re one for two so far: skills and stats are greatly improved, while combat did not strike my fancy. What about netrunning? You’ll be happy to know that netrunning is much, much better than it ever was in 2020. First, the setting-driven contrivance requiring a netrunner to be within six meters of most of their targets is a boon for party cohesion, even if it’s more of a setting detail than a rules one. Second, the realization that netrunners needed to act at least proportionally to their other teammates was realized (about two editions too late) and executed well here, with the pre-gen netrunner getting three actions per turn in the net while the other characters could move and make either one (ranged) or two (melee) attacks. Third, I actually really like the elevator. Having one item per “floor” lets you make some considerations about what a given system does, and that “virus” action for the bottom “floor” is both a great reward for netrunners who push their luck as well as a great excuse to make them sitting ducks while they implant their viruses. The kit could have probably chosen their sample programs a bit better (the only defensive program provided is ineffective against the only ICE provided), but I think this preview bodes well for the full game.
Ultimately, though, I knew all my spitballing would only coalesce if I actually ran a game of Cyberpunk Red for my friends, most of whom were introduced to Cyberpunk about 13 years ago by, well, me. Although I passed over the pre-generated scenario in favor of an inside baseball reference to one of our existing 2020 campaigns, I still had an opportunity to give the system a good shake and see what fell off.
Our story begins on the roof of the headquarters of the North American Management Consulting Association, 40 stories above Del Coronado, a corporate suburb several miles south of Night City. In Cannibal Halfling Red (for lack of a better term), the Fourth Corporate War equivalent was fought between this shadowy group and none other than Internet itself, which in this continuity was a conglomerate, led in 2020 by the youngest and most ambitious leader of one of its subsidiaries. Thanks to some shenanigans involving EMPs and a shooting war on the Western seaboard, the Net was still crippled in this continuity very much in the same way that it is in the “actual” Cyberpunk Red continuity. As such, immediately after our team fast-ropes onto the roof, the Netrunner Redeye taps into a communication station on the roof to compromise the local wireless network. Comms are up.
Down in the lobby, wearing formal duds provided to them by a corporate patron, Forty and Grease are moving through a corporate gala put on by the North American Management Consulting Association to celebrate their return to corporate America after thirty years of silence. Grease notices something interesting about the crowd almost immediately after they walk through the door: there are actually a lot of edgerunners here for this sort of event. Almost as if the guest list was weighted that way.
After Redeye compromises the comms, they check in with Grease downstairs and survey the scene. There is a secured section in the middle of the building which is accessible on the 25th floor. The hack into the communications node also revealed a direct connection to another node on the tenth floor. The teams decides to go down to the tenth floor, seeing if they can bring down more of the building’s security and comms before trying for the secured entrance. The elevators have all been restricted to the ballrooms and meeting rooms on the first three floors, to the team is able to zip down the elevator shafts safely. Upon opening the door to the tenth floor, though, they are greeted with a large placard that reveals the purpose of the node they discovered: “Security Office”. Cyberpunk is go big or go home, so the characters (and their players) press forward.
Forty and Grease were able to gather one key piece of intel before entering the party. The head of security for the building and the event is a man named Merritt, and he’s apparently eyeing a way to be seen by either his superiors at the Consulting Association or, barring that, Arasaka. Grease considers this valuable, but not enough to feel comfortable about what’s waiting for his teammates upstairs. He spots another fixer he knows, who goes by the nickname of The Spread. The Spread doesn’t necessarily have a gambling problem, at least not the type that causes you to lose money. But what The Spread does have is an idiosyncratic way of describing everything in terms of betting odds. Still, he and Grease are on cordial terms.
“Interesting crowd here, tonight. What are the odds they invited all these street types?”
“Well, Grease, you’re a smart guy, so I’d put it at least 2:1 that you’re here placing bets instead of hooked up with anyone trying to make an entrance.” Grease bit his tongue. Indeed, using his Agent to scan the compromised wireless network showed at least two other groups trying to piggyback off the network like they were. And according to The Spread, the existence of teams breaking into this objective was not exactly a secret.
Things went immediately haywire up on the tenth floor. Two guards came out of the office, and everyone started shooting. Redeye was trying to hack into the security network, but having a bit of trouble dealing with the Hellhounds guarding the control systems. They were able, however, to get access to the cameras, which revealed the truth of what Grease had warned them about. There were two other teams in the building, converging on the same objective. Mover and Racer were able to dispatch the guards, while Torch used the little access they did have to stop the elevators. One of the teams was deposited onto a floor with a waiting security team. The other made it to the 25th floor, but at around that time Redeye catastrophically failed an attempt to plant a virus in the security system (thanks to a natural one and the new fumble rules, the final dice total for Redeye’s player was -1. Ouch). The alarms kicked off, locking the rival team out of the secured area (locking every team out of the secured area, in fact), and putting them face to face with another security team.
Down on the ballroom floor, the party was going on like nothing had happened. The alarms were all silent, and nothing was separating the guests from the open bar. Well, except for one. Grease was able to spot Merritt easily, he was the one sweating bullets. Redeye had patched Grease into the camera feed which showed an Arasaka clean-up crew stuck in an elevator. They were there because Merritt had failed. Of course, thanks to the tip Grease got from The Spread, he knew that Merritt had been set up. Grease sidled over to the bar, and recounted the situation, showing Merritt a security feed, which Merritt was now locked out from, on his Agent. Merritt grabbed, Grease pulled the phone away.
“You know what all these teams were sent to get. You can either help us get it, or compensate us for the trouble we’re going to bring back to our employer.” Merritt sighed dejectedly, then pulled Grease away from the bar and led him down a maintenance corridor. He waved away a number of armed guards and walked to the podium in the main ballroom. He tapped at the AV computer, and ejected a small disk.
“It’s part of the festivities tonight, though I’d reckon none of your teams thought about that (if only Grease had rolled better on his attempt to scout out the mission). Take it, and leave. But here’s the deal: when I call, you answer. You owe me.” Grease nodded. He sent the team a quick missive to get out, and advised they take the stairs. When he and Forty stepped out onto the street, Racer’s car pulled around the corner.
It was no more than twenty minutes into the drive inland from Morro Bay that Grease got the call. Merritt sounded different. More cool, way more collected. Grease knew immediately that something was up.
“Now that we’re out of that situation, let me more properly introduce myself. The full name is Daniel Merritt, and I’m a managing partner at Arasaka Consulting. We knew we needed to get the software out of the Consulting Association’s hands, but I needed plausible deniability, as well as a reliable team. You’ve provided me with both, Mr…Grease, was it? I’m going to be wiring your payment, but expect a call from me soon. I look forward to a long and fruitful working relationship.” The Agent went silent. Grease was frozen in his seat. Arasaka…Consulting. They’d been tricked.
“Uh, so guys…”
Let’s recap. Cyberpunk Red takes the bones of Cyberpunk 2020 and makes some much needed changes. Across the board, the game runs faster and rules are generally easier. My group took umbrage at some of the changes, namely the reduction in combat lethality. Overall, the system is tightened up. It’s also only a preview. While there are six pregens there’s only one special ability, which for an Interlock game means you only really get one full class. Given that, I think it’ll be hard to play a game with just the Jumpstart Kit for more than a few sessions. That said, it still serves two critical purposes. First, this is a good intro to Cyberpunk for the uninitiated. Second, for those of us with a longer history with the franchise, the Jumpstart Kit is the proof of concept we’ve been looking for. For those of us who were hyped and then burned by v3, this shows that we won’t be burned again. Cyberpunk Red is real, and while this isn’t the full game, this illustrates what the full game is going to look like. A lot of changes for the better, some arguably for the worse, but overall a solid stake in the ground for a new edition. While I was glad to see the Jumpstart Kit and play with it, my overall takeaway should be unsurprising: I can’t wait for the core rulebook.
Thanks to R. Talsorian for sending us a digital copy to review! The Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit is available at DriveThruRPG. The physical version of the kit has had limited availability since GenCon, but to find news on its release, check out the Talsorian website or follow them on Twitter at @RTalsorianGames.