Carbon 2185 Review

There’s a wide world of RPGs out there. In that world, Dungeons and Dragons represents a small sliver of the gameplay experiences and stories that are possible, but a disproportionately large slice of the games that are actually played. It’s from this juxtaposition that comes the frequent and often irksome question “how do I hack D&D to play [insert genre]?” However, when you mix D&D mechanics with a designer who has actually played other games and given thought to how the mechanics must change, you can get something rather good. Carbon 2185 has taken 5th Edition D&D mechanics, given them a solid restoration to work better in the Cyberpunk genre, and then added some bolt-on systems which take inspiration from the best of sci-fi roleplaying.

Carbon 2185’s version of D&D is essentially the same at the touchpoints, which is where you gain the most benefit from adapting a familiar set of mechanics. You of course roll a d20 for resolution, and the difficulty classes (DCs) of most rolls are scaled similarly to Fifth Edition. When creating characters, the players will choose a race and a class, just like D&D (though here races are called origins). There are a few straight-up changes that will be noticed immediately. First, the ability scores, while there are still six of them, have changed. There’s strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence…technology…and people. ‘People’ is clearly meant to be charisma, the name change is essentially to deflect some of the problems from D&D about what charisma means (if you’ve ever had a player talk about their character’s ‘hotness’ based on their charisma, I’m terribly sorry). Technology is an appropriate shift from Wisdom for the genre, but it’s also the one change that will make converting stat blocks from D&D more difficult.

Another major change is that the level arc for this game goes from one to ten instead of one to twenty. This is a relatively popular shift; 13th Age did something similar when it built off of the Third Edition rules. This change both makes the implied arc of the game shorter and also condenses the power level spread a little. The amount of XP to reach each level has also increased, though the proficiency bonuses for each level remain the same. There are a few other tweaks; at character creation the most noticeable is the directive to roll 2d6+5 instead of 4d6 drop lowest. This results in a slightly lower mean stat, but a significantly lower standard deviation.

Character creation in particular is most interesting when the game steps away from D&D completely. While the race/class paradigm is still there, the game adds two significant chunks of characterization in the form of backgrounds and vices. Vices are fairly straightforward; you roll on a d100 table of problems that your character could have. Addictions, trademarks, odious personal habits, they’re all there, and give a nice little swatch of flavor to figuring out who your character is. They’re not exactly balanced (“the only way I can relax is by getting into barfights” is a bit more of an issue than “I make small origami animals and leave them everywhere I go”), but a GM can have their players choose their vice as well as roll for them.

Backgrounds are much more interesting. In essence, Carbon 2185 uses a simplified version of the Lifepath system from Traveller. Starting from age 18, each character chooses from one of ten career paths which they work in for five year terms. Each term provides the character with income and a skill proficiency. After a character completes a term, the player can choose to have the character complete another, switch careers, or stop and start their freelance career. Much like Traveller, the only upper limit to how many terms you can take is the aging penalties the character will start to take. In Carbon 2185, while there aren’t skill rolls for successfully completing a term, there is an injury roll the player must roll for each term. If the player fails the injury roll, the character ends their term prematurely and cannot take any more. The difficulty of this roll varies depending on career path; military and exploration careers have higher difficulties, corporate drone and entertainment careers have lower difficulties. This adds a lot of flavor to character creation, without being as confusing as the version used in Traveller. While there aren’t exactly optimal strategies for backgrounds, one could see a character either staying in one path to get more money, or jumping around to pick and choose some skills. The decisions are meaningful but not ultimately weighty enough to be unbalancing.

When it comes to core mechanics, Carbon 2185 really is just D&D 5th Edition. There are treatments of gear which depart pretty greatly from those in D&D (as well there should be), but the actual meat of the rules is very much the same. A few interesting things were done with armor and weapons. First, almost all armor grants some degree of damage resistance to the ‘ballistic’ damage type, i.e. firearms. This has two consequences. First, it has the ‘feel’ of armor stopping or slowing bullets, which feels good modern and sci-fi games. Second, it implies that weapon types other than bullets have a degree of benefit against armor. Weapons see more significant changes. For one thing, the most modest pistol starts at 2d4 damage and the weapons quickly go up from there; a typical assault rifle does 2d8. As a point of comparison, greatswords and mauls are the most powerful mundane weapons in D&D, each doing 2d6 damage. Another neat addition is the “spray” maneuver; a character shoots an automatic weapon in a cone and everyone in the cone must roll a Reflex save or take damage. Similar to the Cyberpunk 2020 suppressive fire rules, and another tactical option to reflect the modern weapons in the game.

Tactical options…I should back up. So character creation is spiced up, and the mechanics are at their core the same. Where the differences really come out is in the character options, specifically the classes. The origins are a fairly dramatic departure from D&D races in implication, but in mechanics they’re pretty similar. For the most part the origins are not races, instead reflecting different potential upbringings, from the post-apocalyptic badlands to corporate orphanages to other planets. The one exception is the synth, where as is typical the artificial human gets better stats in exchange for second class citizenship, a shorter lifespan, and some wicked potential plot threads. While the origins play to the typical D&D smattering of somewhat interesting “racial abilities” and stat increases, the classes depart from their D&D equivalents fairly dramatically.

The two strict combat classes, the Enforcer and the Daimyo could, if you squinted, appear to be ports of the fighter and the barbarian, respectively. This may be true to a degree, and that’s one place where I’m willing to say that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The other four classes don’t resemble your classic D&D classes at all, and the game is better for it. The Doc is role-wise a cleric, yes, but with no magic in the game they instead get nano-healing agents and surgery skills. The hacker is a classic Cyberpunk trope, but here hacking is modeled as class abilities instead of a subsystem, which is a good move. The Scoundrel is also likely a port (of the rogue), though with the hacker bearing some of the technical weight the class has a bit more breadth. My favorite class is the one with essentially no parallel, the Investigator. While there were likely some rules skimmed off the Bard here, the Investigator makes for a very interesting intellect-driven class with some intriguing (though I don’t know if exactly potent) in-combat uses for their abilities.

It’s important to emphasize again that Carbon 2185 has downplayed the use of subsystems in the game, save combat. There is no magic equivalent here and that’s a good thing; the attempt that was made in Interface Zero to bulk up the sprite and hacking mechanics for its Pathfinder/Starfinder edition was, while not poorly done, at least questionable in intent. The subsystem that was tacked on is one I really like, and it affects all characters equally. Influence is a score that each character has on two tracks: Corporate and Street. Influence enables the character to sell goods, find jobs, get cyberware installed, and a whole other slew of benefits. This is something which I’ve been trying to mechanize for years…there needs to be a quantitative way to illustrate in your campaign world that the characters can’t just sell off military weapons without having a buyer, and that getting illegal cyberware installed isn’t easy. Influence is a great way to do this because not only does it show your players if they can gain access to the things they need, it shows them how to get there as well. In a particularly intrigue-heavy game, it would be easy to houserule this into a separate influence track for each individual organization; two tracks is the right weight for typical campaigns, though.

I did mention illegal cyberware, and I suppose we should talk about how cybernetics work in this game. There are two limits to what sort of augmentations a character can have implanted. First, there are seven slots in which an augmentation can be implanted, and there is a limit of one augmentation per slot, with only small exceptions. Second, similar to Interface Zero’s strain mechanic (though as we’ll see a little more interesting), each augmentation has a blood toxicity score. The idea here is that in 2185, cybernetics are powered by internal power cells. Based on the statement that they “leak toxins and radiation”, these are likely thermoelectric cells similar to those used in satellites today. Point is, each character has a blood toxicity limit equal to four times their Constitution modifier. This means that at the highest your Constitution can go (21, which assumes a maximum roll of 17 plus spending both of your full ability improvements on it), your blood toxicity limit is 20. That’s enough for two and a half tier 5 augmentations. Of course, that’s if you’re willing to take the ‘poisoned’ condition. There are drugs to relieve this, but ultimately the actual limits are quite low. Even the hardiest character is only able to take one tier 5 augmentation with no ill effects, and many characters will be able to take none.

Fortunately for most characters, the majority of your typical genre favorites are at fairly low tiers. Your HUD is tier 0, meaning it has no impact on your blood toxicity. Implanted armor and high-mobility cyberlegs are tier 1. Every character is able to bolt in at least some cool stuff. Cool stuff gets significantly cooler at higher tiers though. Pop-up guns and gecko climbing show up at tier 3. Skinweave and auto-healing units are tier 4. At tier 5, you can literally fly, or implant a second set of arms. Tier 5 may require a high constitution, but that’s where the wild things are.

Let’s recap. Carbon 2185 takes the rules of D&D, takes away the unnecessary stuff (magic), adds some cool new stuff (augmentations, influence, character backgrounds), and then rewrites all of the implied setting material for a Cyberpunk world. This is all plopped down into a future San Francisco which is fleshed out well, though not remarkably. The five sectors of the city are built out in such a way that it seems natural to go from one to the next to the next…there are ten levels to get through, after all. To further help you with this the game also has random encounter tables, a ton of enemy stat blocks, and treasure tables, even. It’s easy to forget that while D&D comes with tons of generators and tools, most games outside of the fantasy genre do not. Though I’m reserving my judgment on how these enemies actually work and how the combats actually feel, the fact that the resources are there means that any GM who has run even a session of D&D can chip into Carbon 2185 quite easily. With such accessibility to a large player base, it’s no wonder that as of this writing Carbon 2185 has been the top seller on DriveThruRPG since it was released.

I’m a picky Cyberpunk, and I did not go into reading Carbon 2185 with what an outside observer would call an open mind. That said, Carbon 2185 won me over with its willingness to rewrite rules, add new ones, and the fact that the designer understood that the game needed to be Cyberpunk first and OGL second. The game doesn’t push the genre, but realistically it doesn’t need to. Much better thought out than a hack but conservative enough to be recognizable, Carbon 2185 is the vehicle with which you can bring the message of the dark future to all of your D&D-playing friends.

Carbon 2185 is available at DriveThruRPG. Header image is copyright Dragon Turtle Games.

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