Cyberpunk Red Review

A review is, at the end of the day, an opinion. Good reviewers call upon their experience, their expertise, and their effort to make their reviews relevant and useful, but no matter how well-researched the writing, how polished and considered the perspective, reviews are always subjective. A hallmark of good writing is not to attempt and claim objectivity, but rather to list your biases as comprehensively as you can in an effort to help a reader understand and gain value from your perspective. This is why you all need to know that I’m an in-the-tank seventeen years running serious fan of R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk.

In 2005, while I was still in high school, Cyberpunk v3 landed with a resounding thud. I had discovered Cyberpunk 2020 only a couple years previous and was excited by the notion of a new edition coming out. Like many fans who had been with the game longer, though, I was disappointed, both by the change in thematic direction and also in the game’s editing, game design, and art direction. This review, though, is not about Cyberpunk v3, nor is it about Fuzion, nor is it about Mike Pondsmith’s extensive action figure collection. It’s about the edition of Cyberpunk that, years ago, many fans resigned themselves to never getting. It’s about Cyberpunk Red.

Cyberpunk Red is the fourth and newest edition of the Cyberpunk tabletop RPG, and its existence is a testament to the vagaries of the tabletop industry. While Mike Pondsmith began to design Cyberpunk Red prior to the deal with CD Projekt Red (CDPR) which would lead to the video game Cyberpunk 2077, that deal almost certainly enabled Red to happen (because, you know, money). At the same time, Cyberpunk Red, basically from page one, wears “once bitten, twice shy” on its sleeve in regards to how it advances the timeline and updates the mechanics. This is a game designed for fans of Cyberpunk 2020, because the previous edition, which did something different, failed.

Cyberpunk is not unique in this…hell, the largest RPG ever, D&D 5th Edition, is the exact same sort of retrenchment from fan backlash. Traveller did it, and Warhammer Fantasy did it. It’s not a bad thing to give your fans what they want, and it looks like Cyberpunk Red is doing just that. Knowing this does give needed perspective to the game, though, and should tell newcomers what to expect. As a fan, I’m not going to try and give an ‘unbiased’ review…instead, I’m going to pull out my dog-eared copy of Cyberpunk 2020, take a long hard look at this new version, and see if I think that Red is a solid go at pulling Cyberpunk into the non-fictional 21st century.

Artist: Darius Kalinauskus

The World of Cyberpunk

The setting of Cyberpunk is an alternate history that starts with the Collapse, an apocalyptic economic event which occurred in 1994. The timeline, which is provided in detail in both Cyberpunk Red and earlier editions, traces a persistent collapse of norms within primarily the United States that leads up to 2020. As the timeline continues past 2020 in Red, it shifts in focus to the Fourth Corporate War, a worldwide conflict that ended with a backpack nuke being detonated in Night City, the game’s core setting. After roughly 2023, the extension to the timeline explains the shift in setting assumptions from 2020 to Red: in short, the Net (the classic 1980s VR goggles internet) is destroyed, nation-states begin to wrest power back from the megacorporations, and much of the infrastructure abandoned or ruined in the Fourth Corporate War is reclaimed, either by groups of individuals or small, new corporations. This era extends to 2045, present day in the game, and is known as “The Time of the Red”.

The timeline and setting info is a great way to see how the core conflicts of Cyberpunk have shifted over the years. Early editions of Cyberpunk were informed by the issues of the 80s: the demonization of the inner city and white flight, fears of Asian economic dominance, and to a degree the last gasps of the Cold War creating anxiety about the fate of the former Soviet Union and a strengthened European Economic Community. The new events change the lens of Cyberpunk Red, but they represent responses to our real-world timeline more than anything else. The threat of the ‘megacorporation’ has been tempered, though the nationalization of Militech is a pointed allusion to our current military-industrial complex. The destruction of the Net is a tech-level reset, ironically pulling the Cyberpunk tech level back so it could be brought forward again with tech we’d recognize, like smartphones, social networking, and the internet of things. The Fourth Corporate War ending the Arasaka/Militech tension which made up the majority of the Cyberpunk 2020 metaplot is an attempt to cut off the ‘Asian Tiger’ plot which, while front of mind in the 1980s, is not particularly relevant now.

In reading and rereading the setting chapters and the timeline, I’m uncertain if the setting material is too ‘inside baseball’ or not. Being a Cyberpunk 2020 fan, I was never going to open this book and be confused about who Arasaka is or who Biotechnica is. That said, I’m concerned that too much of my reading was helped along by my pre-existing knowledge. The story of Arasaka especially, favorite villain of 2020 campaigns and probably the most well-known corporation in the game, seems to not be entirely clear. In the Time of the Red, Arasaka ends up splitting into three factions as a succession war starts brewing. This is explained partially in the section on the Fourth Corporate War and partially in the corporate profile section, and while all the information is there, it creates a question: why is Arasaka so important? While Arasaka plays a big role in the setting’s history, the real answer is that it stays important because it was important in Cyberpunk 2020. With as many big shifts in setting focus as this edition has, there are some loose ends.

Not included among those loose ends is Night City. Still the default setting of the game, Night City has significant page count dedicated to it, including its own full narrative from its founding to what it looked like in 2020 all the way through to what it looks like in 2045. Night City is full of plot hooks, and bringing in the old city map as a baseline for “urban archaeology” was inspired. Everything you’d expect in Night City is there and then some, showing the same flair that the setting did originally when first introduced over three decades ago. The setting section also puts a lot more context around elements that are slated to show up in Cyberpunk 2077. Knowing that things like gangs are presented better in this book doesn’t exactly absolve gaffes from CDPR’s marketing (it might make them look a little worse, honestly), but I take comfort in knowing that Talsorian’s re-execution of the setting is at least better than many feared after watching 2077 promos.

The elephant in the room of the Cyberpunk Red setting is lowercase-c cyberpunk. This game is a new edition of an RPG from the 80s, but you get a lot of attention if you name yourself after your genre. The Talsorian team has not shied away from the fact that they’re keeping the timeline of earlier editions intact and making Cyberpunk Red distinctly retro-futurist. That said, I think the game does a decent job of being thematically on-point. Cyberpunk borrowed from hardboiled, a genre where the characters are subject to the whims of events around them and are often cursed to win hollow victories. This was a great match for the nihilism and excess of the 80s, but less so now. The dynamic shifted, and we saw said dynamic shift in Cyberpunk 2020 supplements right around the era that literary critics often call the end of cyberpunk, the early to mid 90s. In Cyberpunk Red, we’re faced with a world that was irrevocably changed by individuals who were intended to essentially be player characters, Rache Bartmoss and Johnny Silverhand (among others, but especially those two). The entire timbre of the setting is shifted, where instead of massive, unchanging and untouchable corporations, there’s a mutable landscape of powerful but vulnerable entities, and a lot of opportunities for motivated individuals. Like later Cyberpunk-adjacent works (I’m thinking of authors like Cory Doctorow and Malka Older), the power structures aren’t invincible, and anyone can build a coalition to take them on. This stands in contrast even to Cyberpunk 2077, where it’s been implied that the monoliths are built back up again. I guess that’s the difference between advancing the timeline in Cyberpunk 2020 and making a video game that is arguably based on Cyberpunk 2020. The game I care about, though, is on the tabletop.

Artist: Adrian Marc

The Game of Cyberpunk

While the setting has shifted, mechanically speaking Cyberpunk Red is the next edition of Cyberpunk 2020. It looks like Cyberpunk, uses rules like Cyberpunk, and is designed to play like Cyberpunk. For a lot of people put off by Cyberpunk v3 back in 2005, this is a good thing. For people who throw around the words “modern mechanics” uncritically, this might be a little disappointing. For the vast majority of people, this is a mix of good and bad, with how much good and how much bad dependent mostly on how much you liked Cyberpunk 2020. To start, Cyberpunk is still 1d10 plus an attribute and a skill. There are ten attributes, which is a lot. There are 65 skills, which means that the skill list has ballooned back up from what it was in the Jumpstart Kit, though that’s still a nearly 30% reduction from Cyberpunk 2020. Looking at actions and broad resolution, there’s not much mechanical change here, although there is significantly more clarification. One massive set of mechanical changes, though, shifts the balance of what playing Cyberpunk is going to look like, and this is a very good thing.

The Roles were what drew me into Cyberpunk 2020 way back when, ten different character types and ways to play the game. The actual diversity of playstyles fell a bit short of what was advertised, at least in a mechanical sense. Now, Cyberpunk Red has Role Abilities that actually make every Role interesting. While Solos still have the option of the killer Combat Sense initiative bonus, they can shift their “loadout” of ability points between a number of options, including attack bonuses and damage reduction. Netrunners have of course had their entire ability rewritten, and the expansion here of the rules previewed in the Jumpstart Kit maintains the streamlining while adding some cool stuff, including rules to let characters build their own Net Architectures (the systems that you would otherwise be hacking into). Fixers have more detailed abilities, including setting up deals, acquiring certain grades of items without rolls, and running Night Markets, illicit bazaars for acquiring new gear. Medias pick up on rumors and the stories they publish have established impact. Techs can fabricate and invent items, Execs (formerly Corps) have a personal staff, and Nomads can access a motor pool. It’s not that the intent of the abilities is that different…Fixers and Techs, as two examples, are doing the same sorts of things they were doing in Cyberpunk 2020, but now they have mechanical backup for it. The updates for the Exec and Media, though, really help to make those characters useful where before they just weren’t. Adding to all the Roles is that now there’s a section of the Lifepath which is Role-based, a great way to flesh out characters and give the GM tons of ideas.

Character creation in Cyberpunk Red has both changed completely and also changed very little. Similar to Cyberpunk 2020, there are three modes of character creation. Unlike Cyberpunk 2020, none of them are terrible. The three methods are called Street Rats, Edgerunners, and Complete Packages. Street Rat is a template-driven character creation system; a player rolls to select one of ten preset stat arrays, gets a skill array based on their role, and is given starting gear and cyberware. Edgerunner is a constrained character creation system; a player rolls each stat individually but from the previously mentioned arrays, gets 20 skills they can choose to put points into, and have the same starting gear and cyberware choices as the Street Rat. The Complete Package is point buy from start to end, with stats, skills, and gear bought freeform. As much as many players will likely gravitate to the Complete Package system, I don’t particularly like it. Fact is, Cyberpunk’s ten stats are not  going to be of equal importance to any player, and as much as the stat balance is improved from 2020 there are still dump stats for many, many builds. If I was going to run Cyberpunk Red tomorrow, I’d probably go for the Street Rat stat method, the Edgerunner skill method, and then let players choose between a gear package and buying gear themselves. Cyberpunk Red does get rid of the Role Ability-based ‘salary’ method of determining starting money and, even better, freezes starting Role Ability rank at 4 for every starting character. Simple fixes, but they needed to be done. Another few small elements in character creation that I particularly like: all three of the character generation methods use the full Lifepath, which helps to make sure that the more templated characters don’t feel cookie-cutter. Also, the old standby character option, “sell your soul for more cyberware”, is now a neat little game theory exercise: The option still exists, but either all of the characters get it or none of the characters do. That’s a great way to make the players weigh their options as a group, and also to make sure that the GM gives full weight to the consequences of the decision.

Following on from there, the GMing section of Cyberpunk Red is completely rewritten and includes significantly more guidance on how to actually run Cyberpunk. A lot of the good things from 2020 were kept, like random encounter tables and Screamsheets, a collection of small pre-built adventures. Some things were enhanced; across the book are a number of tables to help you throw in setting elements and setpieces (my favorite is probably the random vending machine generator). Some things are completely new: The Beat Chart section is an excellent guide for scripting scenes and sessions, including both a short list of broad scene types (cliffhanger, development, climax, and resolution) and then a much longer list of suggested scene subtypes. The one exception I take to this is the decision to call the intro to this chapter “Scripting the Game” and then holding any notes about improv until the end. The notes on improv are about right, discussing how you aren’t going to literally ‘script’ anything and that the exact structure of your session will likely change without notice depending on player actions. I don’t mean to imply that the Beat Chart tool promotes railroading; I think it’s really useful for prep even if you can’t actually make a script. That said, especially for new gamers, there are likely expectations which need to be set here and they should have been set upfront.

In the back of the book is the section on Improvement Points, which is the clearest example of an, ahem, improvement to the Cyberpunk 2020 rules that players had been houseruling for years before. The advancement rules have been changed from a vague skill-by-skill method which no one ever actually used to a less specific but better written milestone system. There are five methods given to determine milestones, one based on ingame mission goals and four based on different playstyles. This is a neat idea and the guidance is well-done; that said, awarding players different amounts of IP session-by-session isn’t really going to happen in most groups. Still, both condensing the system and encouraging GMs to award the highest applicable award out of the five do a lot to improve the underwritten and slow advancement system from Cyberpunk 2020. It’s also been codified how much Role Abilities cost to advance, which was sorely needed in previous editions.

I discussed a lot of things here which help define how the game is played, like the roles, character creation, and GM advice. I didn’t get into the nitty-gritty of the mechanics. Cyberpunk Red benefits from a solid foundation, and most of the changes from Cyberpunk 2020 are additive; Lifepath is streamlined and improved, Cost of Living rules and inventory mechanics are modernized. There’s a lot of things that, like those examples, are changed incrementally, and a few areas that are significantly revamped. Let’s talk about the revamps.

Artist: Anselm Zielonka

The Update of Cyberpunk

There are a few things everyone was worried about when it came to a new edition of Cyberpunk. Netrunning was one, and as discussed above, that was resolved satisfactorily by the time we saw the Jumpstart Kit. Cybernetics was another…Humanity Loss and Cyberpsychosis were always kind of nonsensical game balance mechanics, but their broader implications are a bit more problematic. And while combat was generally considered one of the highlights of the original Cyberpunk 2020 design, the changes seen in the Jumpstart Kit gave pause to a lot of fans.

Cyberpsychosis is still a mechanic in Cyberpunk Red, and I’m not exactly enthused by that. It is better, for what that’s worth. The mechanic’s application and balancing have been adjusted quite extensively, in ways that make it clear that the designers heard at least some of the criticisms that have been leveled over the past few decades. As before, implanting cybernetic enhancements causes Humanity loss, which reduces your Empathy stat. Similar to Cyberpunk 2020, there are ten points of Humanity per point of Empathy. If your Empathy is reduced enough, your character enters cyberpsychosis. Here’s where things change. The game now defines cyberpsychosis more narrowly, as a dissociative disorder. There is some risk in inventing your own mental illness (as shown by the last three editions of Cyberpunk), but a lot more effort was put in here to explain why cyberpsychosis works the way it does. More effort was also put into establishing what cyberpsychosis isn’t. Baseline prosthetics don’t cause Humanity loss. Medical devices don’t cause Humanity loss. Cosmetic surgery and cosmetic body modifications don’t cause Humanity loss. Low-level fashion augmentations like skinwatches and color changing hair no longer cause Humanity loss. The items which cause Humanity loss are those which push your capabilities outside of the human norm, which is both more reasonable and a convenient standard for a game balance mechanic. The new version of the mechanic meets the low bar of not being ableist, and fortunately the writing indicates that the designers understand why it makes more sense that way. In Cyberpunk Red the rules also apply Humanity loss to trauma, which…might work? It’s no worse than the mental mechanics in Eclipse Phase, but it highlights why, at the very least, they’ve got to come up with a better stat name than “Humanity”. From a more game-centric perspective, the cyberpsychosis rules were toned down to stop scaring players away from cybering up their characters, which was its own contradiction I never understood. Humanity values for cyberware are brought down across the board, with only the most intense “borg” modifications like a second set of shoulder joints or replacing your face with five camera lenses getting particularly high point costs. In addition to that, rules for therapy have been codified, making it possible (but expensive) to gain back almost all your Humanity lost from cyberware. Every time I type it out, I’m more convinced that ‘Humanity’ is just a bad name with bad implications. Anyways. One of the options for therapy is addiction therapy, which highlights that in addition to cyberware, drugs have been rebalanced and they’re no longer universally awful! Drugs now have positive effects which are significant enough that your players might actually consider using them (except for Blue Glass, which seems to follow the trend from Shadow of the Beanstalk of throwing a mechanically useless hallucinogen in there to show you’re “with it” or “cool” or whatever).

So why take these drugs? For combat, of course. My main concern with combat when trying the Jumpstart Kit was that characters seemed more durable, in some cases a lot more durable. While that did have the positive side effect of ensuring that Body is no longer a dump stat, it made me worry that the short, destructive combats of yesteryear were going to disappear. I will not call my fears assuaged until I run the game, but seeing the mechanics in their entirety made me feel a bit better. The mechanic which is missing from the Jumpstart Kit is the critical injury rules, and those definitely put some hurt back in. Critical injury rules replace the limb loss thresholds from 2020 and ensure that big hits always matter, no matter how armored you are. A critical injury is triggered whenever two sixes are rolled in a damage roll, or for any damage roll made against a mortally wounded character. Critical injuries automatically inflict five extra points of damage which bypass armor. Additionally, they occur regardless of whether or not the original attack penetrated armor. The injuries themselves are par for the course: lost extremities, stat penalties, and the like. Their application, though, seems intended to make high damage attacks maintain their danger, regardless of armor. Armor itself seems to be the other balancing element in making these numbers work. A light armor jacket in Cyberpunk 2020 had a stopping power (SP) value of 14, while the equivalent in Red has an SP of 11. Similarly, the medium and heavy armor jackets were 18 and 20 in Cyberpunk 2020, and are 12 and 13 in Red. The reduction of armor’s SP value by a third does kind of balance the doubling (or more) of hit points…kind of. This is where the statistical truth to what the designers have said so far about combat comes out: you’re less likely to be one-shotted by some lucky street punk, but you’re still going down against a corporate hit squad. By increasing the durability of characters but decreasing the amount of protection they have access to, it both gives that lower level luck insulation but also forces the game to be more about tactics when it comes to evenly matched opponents. This also tracks with the decision to take out hit locations but keep the granularity of resource management basically the same; the designers had a vision of what needed to stay in order to make the game Cyberpunk, and they pared down a lot of other things to keep it moving quickly. The changes in combat are a microcosm of how fans will react to most of the game; while many of us adored hit locations in our 2020 games, I don’t doubt we’ll find the game is little diminished by their absence.

So after reading, digesting, and rereading, what do I think? As a Cyberpunk 2020 fan, I’m pretty happy. Talsorian took one of my favorite RPGs and made it better, updating and improving both the mechanics and the setting (to say nothing of the book, which is a significant upgrade in both graphic design and usability). Pretty much every major houserule across thirty years of fandom is accounted for, including multiclassing, character creation limits, simplified armor rules, and better random character generation. I think a newcomer to Cyberpunk will find this book pretty easy to pick up: The rules are both simpler and better laid out than D&D 5e (which, for better or worse, is the only standard for ‘first RPG’ that matters), and the book uses ample inline and sidebar references to make it easy to find dependencies when you’re looking up rules. It’s worth noting also that Cyberpunk Red is a noticeable step up in layout from Talsorian’s first modern product, The Witcher, which shows they’re both improving and responding to feedback. 

That all said, I don’t know what makes Cyberpunk Red different or better than any other update of an 80s RPG, other than it’s ‘my’ update of ‘my’ game that I played during my adolescence. Games like Mongoose Traveller, Runequest Glorantha and Savage Rifts were much-needed shots in the arm to games that had started to creak under revisions, redirections, and just straight-up age. Cyberpunk Red is a triumphant return…for a game that’s not had a new edition in 15 years. Beyond that, Cyberpunk Red was borne out of Cyberpunk 2077, even if just in a financial sense. I’m still not sure how the fanbase or the hobby is going to react to *that* game, especially given some of the missteps already made by CDPR in the lead-up. It’s quite possibly both the best and worst time to be a Cyberpunk fan. No matter what happens with the video game, though, the tabletop RPG has a worthy successor. Cyberpunk Red is not a tie-in game, it’s the next edition of Cyberpunk 2020. This means mixing new layout with old rules, and 2020s social awareness with 1980s cheese. I’m not going to say it’s the next big thing in tabletop. I am, however, going to play the hell out of it.

Header Image from Cyberpunk Red, by Eve Ventrue.

Cyberpunk Red is available on DriveThruRPG, and will arrive on November 19th as a hardcover book at your local gaming store. If you purchase a hardcover through a participating store, you’ll be eligible for a free PDF through Bits And Mortar!

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