System Hack In Practice: Cyberpunk Red House Rules

Welcome back to System Hack! In the past, System Hack has been about new games and experiences, either building out mechanics for a generic system (Genesys Mecha) or using an existing game as inspiration to create something new (Cyberpunk Chimera). This new System Hack series, In Practice, is about looking at common hacks and modifications that can be used when your group brings a new system to your table. For this we’ll be using the new system that my group is bringing to our table: Cyberpunk Red.

Cyberpunk Red has been out barely more than a month and already the internet is on fire with rules critiques and adjustments. Being the successor to a popular game, Cyberpunk Red was always going to get compared to its previous edition, Cyberpunk 2020, and many of the changes between the two fall in the crosshairs of enthusiastic gamers, especially if they don’t appear to work the way fans wanted or expected from the previous game. Given the age of the game and the number of sessions people have played so far, though, it’s likely that we’re all jumping the gun a little bit.

As I discussed last month in my article about House Rules, understanding the intent of the rule being changed is key to implementing a House Rule that improves the experience, as is doing the math on what your rule will change. Given that, I thought that it would be useful to examine a few elements of Cyberpunk Red and see what would happen if we used House Rules to change them. As noted in the earlier article, House Rules can be ‘for fun’ or to fix something, so I’ve provided examples of both. Our fun house rule takes an older modification to Cyberpunk 2020 and advances it to the new rules, providing a minor tweak that adds some randomness and fun at the table. Our house rule with intent examines the common complaint of Cyberpunk Red’s lethality, and illustrates that even simple adjustments can seriously affect the intended balance of the game.

Examining Cyberpunk Red Combat

Cyberpunk Red and Cyberpunk 2020 use similar combat systems with a few key changes. The rules around cover are clarified, rules around autofire have been changed, hit locations have been simplified, critical injuries have been added, and weapons and armor have been rebalanced. We won’t be touching any of those. Also, a static wound track has been replaced with hit points, and the stun/shock mechanic has been eliminated. These are the places where, more than others, the system has been rebalanced in favor of less lethality. Less lethality tends to make combat more interesting, but also, as one RPGnet poster so eloquently complained, shooting someone in the face with a 9mm pistol is no longer statistically likely to kill them. As lethality in an RPG system is a preference, I wanted to see if there were some small changes that could make Red feel a bit more like 2020 without losing the other mechanical improvements.

Let’s start with hit points. While armor has been rebalanced in the game, weapon damage is, if not the same, built around the same rough scale. The typical day-ruiner in a Cyberpunk game is an assault rifle, and in both 2020 and Red a baseline assault rifle does 5d6 damage. Hit points on the other hand have changed. Cyberpunk 2020 has a static wound track, with each damage tier having four points each. Cyberpunk Red gives each character hit points equal to ten plus the average of their Body and Will times 5. This means that an average character, who per the ‘Complete Package’ character creation has 6 in every stat, has 40 hit points. As ‘mortally wounded’ is defined as when those hit points reach zero, we have a point of comparison for 2020. Prior to being mortally wounded, a Cyberpunk 2020 character would go through Light, Serious, and Critical wound states; given that each state had four points associated with them it means that an average Cyberpunk 2020 character could suffer a mere 12 points of damage before being mortally wounded. Of course, there’s another mechanic which makes this slightly more complicated than just multiplying all the wound numbers by ⅜. In Cyberpunk 2020 each character had a Body Type Modifier (BTM), which reduced damage depending on the character’s Body Score. An average character had a BTM of -2. This means for the ‘shot with a 9mm’ test, they’d probably have to take 14-16 points of damage to get to mortal instead of 12.

The other numerical factor here is armor. Although the exact fraction varies, armor in Cyberpunk Red has about ⅔ the numerical stopping power of armor in Cyberpunk 2020. While this doesn’t alter our ‘9mm to the face’ scenario, it does mean that Cyberpunk Red hit points shouldn’t be seen as directly translating to a Cyberpunk 2020 wound track without some additional work.

Let’s talk about the ‘9mm to the face’ scenario for a moment. In Cyberpunk Red and Cyberpunk 2020, a 9mm pistol does 2d6 damage. In both cases headshots double damage, so the average damage roll for a ‘9mm to the face’ is 14 points. That means based on damage alone, a Cyberpunk 2020 character will survive being shot in the face with a 9mm pistol about 40% of the time (more once you factor in death saves). However, Cyberpunk 2020 had damage-based limb loss rules; if you suffered more than 8 points of damage to a limb the limb would be rendered useless or blown off; suffer eight points of damage to the head and it’s instant death. So based on math Cyberpunk 2020 also fails the ‘9mm to the face’ scenario until you use the situational limb loss rule, which of course Cyberpunk Red eliminated.

Through some analysis, we can see that the hypotheticals used to complain about realism in Cyberpunk Red were handled mostly through exception-based mechanics in Cyberpunk 2020. Combining this with the fairly broad-spectrum balancing of Red, and there’s no easy way to ‘increase the lethality’ satisfactorily without throwing something out of whack. The limb-loss rules from 2020 were replaced with critical injuries, and I’m not exactly enthusiastic about turning that clock back; since armor and everything else was rebalanced in addition to hit points, changing the scaling of just HP doesn’t accomplish much save for quieting the one guy on the internet complaining about the edge case of shooting an unarmored target in the head. Let’s talk about another changed mechanic, the stun/shock rules. Stun/shock made combats more dangerous by taking combatants out of the fight early, and also made combats somewhat more survivable by dropping weaker player characters before they had the chance to be mortally wounded. The stun/shock rules were also rough on table participation; getting taken out of the fight early due to one bad roll always kind of sucked, and their existence helped to force characters to put at least some points in Body if they didn’t want to get dropped in one hit every time. Ultimately, Stun/Shock saves were part of what I felt made Cyberpunk 2020 combat ‘realistic’, and I could imagine wanting to see them back in the game if applied a bit more carefully. Here’s how I’d do a Stun/Shock houserule: If a character becomes Seriously Wounded, Mortally Wounded, or takes a Critical Injury which increases their Death State Penalty, they must make a stun/shock save, rolling under their Will. The Stun/Shock Penalty is equal to the Death State Penalty and applied to the roll in the same way. This way, Stun/Shock saves are frequent enough that a hard hit might put the character on the ground, but not so frequent that they could stub their toe and be out of the combat. Of course, there are caveats. A significant unintended consequence here is that with this rule, low-Will minion opponents will likely drop fast, making player-characters, paradoxically, *more powerful* against low-level threats. On the flipside this makes heavily armored and robotically controlled threats more dangerous, since the PCs will now drop faster due to a mechanic which doesn’t affect their enemies in those scenarios.

Examining Cyberpunk Red’s combat and its perceived lethality is a great cautionary tale about houserules; messing with the hit point math easily causes cascading changes and doesn’t even address the ‘realism’ being complained about. Adding in exception-based mechanics is a good way to make streamlined rules into a huge mess, especially when they were mechanics already removed from the game intentionally. The stun/shock rules are much easier to adjust and reinsert, but when examining their mathematical consequences it appears that they make the threat of low-level NPCs even weaker, which does the opposite of what we’d want if we’re trying to ‘increase lethality’. As much as ‘play it rules-as-written first’ seems unsatisfactory, especially to RPG fans who spent years tweaking their favorite systems, it is the best advice I currently have to give. I may return to this drawing board after I have some more sessions under my belt, but I think I’d be more likely to try and port some of the new mechanics back into 2020 than to try and hybridize the combat system again.

The Luck Deck

The Luck Deck for Cyberpunk 2020 was a house rule developed to try and encourage players to use their Luck points instead of hoarding them. The calculus of Luck hasn’t changed much from 2020 to Red; while there are more long-shot roll scenarios which lend themselves to Luck expenditure in Red, you still get the same number of points and players still tend to either forget about them or hoard them because ‘the next roll could be more important’. In both 2020 and Red, the use of a mechanic like the Luck Deck simply favors the players; most of the Luck cards are either the same or better than a rules-as-written luck point expenditure, and those that aren’t necessarily reward the player for using them by giving them more cards. If you’re trying to run a hard-as-nails campaign where your characters must fight for every scrap, the Luck Deck won’t work with the feel of that game. If you’re running a game that’s a bit more over the top, a bit more ‘Style over Substance’, though, it works perfectly. I made a new Luck Deck using most of the cards from the original version, though I rewrote the mechanical effects to match Red and I scaled the entire thing down from 200 cards so you can use a standard deck of playing cards (with the caveat that the deck needs two distinct Jokers). Like the original Luck Deck, it’s a little modification that injects a bit more randomness and a little bit of player empowerment in a fun way. The whole thing is available as a PDF here.

As the RPG hobby continues to grow, we’re blessed with a much larger portion of games that actually work out of the box; while most gamers aren’t old enough to remember this was not necessarily a given if you bought a game in the 70s and early 80s. Despite this improvement in clarity and usability, house rules are as popular as ever. Cyberpunk Red both works well as written and also makes writing house rules difficult; the game was not only balanced very carefully but also built out of, among other things, the complaints, criticisms, and yes, house rules of three decades of Cyberpunk 2020 fans. Where house rules are still likely to exist are in modifications like the Luck Deck, which don’t fundamentally alter most game mechanics but instead offer a way to spice up the table experience of a game without disrupting core rules. These examples roughly approximate the process you should go through incorporating any house rule into your home game, though going further than I did or implementing more significant changes may require both more analysis and some playtesting of your own.

House rules are the tip of the iceberg for creating a System Hack that works for your table. In the future, we’ll take a look at another rules hybridization technique, and see if we can port some of Cyberpunk Red’s best mechanics back into Cyberpunk 2020. Then, we’ll take a look at adapting Cyberpunk Red to a completely different ruleset. By walking through these processes, my hope is that you the reader can gain some guidance on how to tweak games on your own…or even just appreciate the challenge of game balance and game design as we look into the consequences of our hacks. Either way, I’ll be back next month with another System Hack In Practice!

Like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? First, you can follow me @LevelOneWonk on Twitter for RPG commentary, relevant retweets, and maybe some rambling. You can also find our Discord channel and drop in to chat with our authors and get every new post as it comes out. You can travel to DriveThruRPG through one of our fine and elegantly-crafted links, which generates credit that lets us get more games to work with! Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!

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