System Hack In Practice: Painting Cyberpunk 2020 Red

Welcome back to another System Hack in Practice! Last time, we made some considerations around Cyberpunk Red, and looked at potential ways to address early complaints from Cyberpunk 2020 fans (or not). This time, we’re looking at everything the other way around: How can we take the best parts of Cyberpunk Red and bring them into our Cyberpunk 2020 game?

As noted last time, Cyberpunk 2020 and Cyberpunk Red were built and balanced to be their own games, and you can’t necessarily crossbreed them willy-nilly. That said, there are certainly areas where Cyberpunk Red really improved on Cyberpunk 2020. We’re going to talk about combat, and while much of my advice here is similar but in reverse (i.e. don’t cross the streams and treat each game as its own thing), I am going to bring in some broader discussion about existing hacks and official supplements and what they do to the Cyberpunk 2020 combat experience. We’re going to talk about skills, and how to, even if not change the skill system, use lessons learned from Cyberpunk Red to make some tweaks. But before all that, we’re going to start with a section of the rules where I will absolutely say just grab the new rules from Red and stick them right in there. Given the marked improvement in Role Abilities from 2020 to Red, using Red’s Role Abilities in 2020 is a great place to start system hacking.

Roles and Special Abilities

The Special Ability rules are one place where I would wholesale replace the Cyberpunk 2020 rules with what’s in Cyberpunk Red. All of the new Role Abilities are better defined than the ones in 2020, and changes to some (i.e. Solos) significantly improve game balance. We will have to make some tweaks. One of the elements of the Fixer’s Operator Role Ability, Reach, is heavily based on price tiers, both because all item prices in Cyberpunk Red are defined by these tiers but also to reflect a setting where the global supply chain has broken down. As such, a 2020 version of Operator would need to be slightly different. There is a rarity marker for weapons in Cyberpunk 2020, breaking them down into Excellent, Common, Poor, and Rare Availability. There’s another four-step scale of item availability from Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads (p. 26) where items are divided into Legal, Grey Market, Black Market, and Custom. While these tiers are mostly qualitative and not tied to specific items, they do indicate a price premium based on availability, which we can also use. Between these two scales, we should be able to cobble together an alternative 2020 version of the Fixer’s Reach ability.

Operator RankCyberpunk Red ReachCyberpunk 2020 Reach
0All items, even Cheap and Everyday (10-20eb) might not be availableLegal items always available
1 and 2Cheap and Everyday items always availableGrey Market items up to 1000eb always available
3 and 4Expensive items (500eb) always availableAvailability ‘E’ Weapons, Grey Market items up to 10,000eb, Black Market items up to 1000eb
5 and 6Super Luxury Items (10,000eb) available only while at a Night Market you helped organizeAvailability ‘C’ Weapons, Grey Market items available at sticker price, Black Market items up to 10,000eb
7 and 8Very Expensive items (1000eb) always availableAvailability ‘P’ Weapons, Black Market items up to 100,000eb
9Luxury items (5000eb) always availableAvailability ‘R’ Weapons, Can always find sellers of Custom items
10Super Luxury items (10,000eb) always availableBlack Market items at sticker price, Custom items up to 10,000eb

While there isn’t really an equivalent to Night Markets in 2020, this version of Reach is more powerful than the one in Red if you use the Primitive Screwheads legality tiers as written…in those suggested rules, black market items sell for 300% of list price or more, and even grey market items could have a 150-200% markup. This makes the sticker price abilities at levels 5 and 10 very powerful indeed. In both games, the Reach ability wouldn’t indicate that a Fixer or other character couldn’t acquire the items in question, just that it would require an ingame adventure or mission to do so. 

When it comes to the other Role Abilities…there’s very little I’d change, at least initially. There are a few abilities which hit differently because of their modelling as skills, namely those for the Tech and Medtech. While the abilities themselves wouldn’t require alterations, the numerical values of the abilities may need to be tweaked to keep things in balance. These issues, as well as the bigger issue of how Role Ability progression should work in 2020, are more closely aligned with how we’re going to adjust the skill mechanics.

The Skill Rules

The core skill mechanic of Cyberpunk 2020 did not change going into Cyberpunk Red. However, there are some changes to ancillary mechanics which we should consider. First, skill multipliers. The use of skill multipliers was significantly reduced for Cyberpunk Red, one of a couple elements used to fix the speed of the progression mechanics. If we’re going back to Cyberpunk 2020, though, we should be careful when just removing something.

There are two major areas where skill multipliers affect character build choices and progression. First is tech skills. The multipliers for tech skills in 2020 are much higher than in Red, with even Basic Tech having a x2 multiplier and many of the more sophisticated skills having a x3. If we leave these unchanged, the Tech’s Role Ability becomes incredibly valuable, as a solid number of tech skills get bonuses. While this may cause characters to consider ‘dips’ into the Tech Role Ability (assuming, as I do, that the multiclass rules from Red are ported along with the Role Abilities), is that such a bad thing? The Solo Role Ability has the same level 1 utility, and as tech skill difficulties for big projects can get quite high, having multiple ways to increase tech skills isn’t necessarily a negative.

The other place that skill multipliers have a significant impact is in Martial Arts. From a numerical perspective, Martial Arts in Cyberpunk 2020 is a mess. Mixing Boxing and Wrestling, two martial arts without multipliers, is more effective than many of the martial arts with x3 modifiers. The Red version of Martial Arts is better written, but as we aren’t using Critical Injuries we can’t very easily port it back. I have a compromise which, while not perfect, is a decent mix of something resembling balance and a minimum of new rules. ‘Brawling’ and ‘Martial Arts’ are combined into one skill, maybe called ‘Hand-to-Hand’. For each point in the skill, a player may choose to add a martial arts form onto their Hand to Hand skill. Every form they add increases the multiplier by one, and a new form costs as many additional IP as it would have taken to buy the skill with the modifier. So, if a character has Hand to Hand at 2 and wants to add a martial arts form, it would cost 30 IP, the difference between buying the skill without a modifier (30 IP, 10 IP for level 1 and 20 IP for level 2), and buying the skill with a x2 modifier (60 IP, 20 IP for level 1 and 40 IP for level 2). Additionally, the bonuses of the forms the player chooses don’t stack (so if one form has a +2 to blocking and another has a +3, the character gets +3, not +5).

Outside of those two sticky areas, most of the skills can be left as-is. There are a couple skills, Pharmaceuticals and Cryotank Operation, which are now completely superseded by the Medical Tech Role Ability, so we can go ahead and remove them from the broader skill list. 

There’s one more key skill mechanic to examine, which is the use of class skill lists. In Cyberpunk 2020, class skills were as significant a part of class differentiation as the Special Abilities. In Red, class skills were removed, replaced with an optional class skill list used as part of the Edgerunner character creation method. I’m inclined to follow this path. There is a bit of difference between the 86 skill points doled out in Cyberpunk Red and the 55 to 60 skill points that a typical Cyberpunk 2020 character would start with, but a lot of this ends up accounted for by the mandatory skills in Red (indeed, after the mandatory skills you’re left with 60 skill points to spend). I’d go ahead and use both 86 points and mandatory skills, noting that you’ll actually need to spend more points on mandatory skills if applying the list to 2020; some mandatory skills, namely Stealth, have multipliers in 2020. Speaking of modifiers, you’re going to want to give some thought to progression speed. Regardless of what the books say and regardless of whether you actually use any of the tweaks in this article, doling out between 50 and 100 IP a session is probably a good place to aim for tangible but not fast progression. If you want the characters to feel like they’re ‘levelling’ as if this was D&D, double that and make sure the cash rewards match. Before you do that, though, know that you’ll have to dig deep into Blackhand’s Street Weapons to bring those characters down in a fair fight (or Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads if unfair fights are more your style). One other thing? If we’re doing default starting skills, go ahead and pair that with the skill and stat ceilings (6 and 8 respectively), default Role Ability of 4, and the 2550eb starting cash. Although I thought cash rates might be different, it turns out if you average the first column of the starting salary table in Cyberpunk 2020 and then assume everyone gets two months salary, you come out to almost the exact same number. 

While we’re talking about Skills and Role Abilities, we can go ahead and preserve the Role Ability modifier at x3 like it is in Cyberpunk Red. As there are more multipliers in 2020 than Red this is something that may be worth increasing, but there are both game balance and verisimilitude arguments for leaving it alone as well. A x3 multiplier still makes more sense than the original Special Ability progression, which used no multiplier at all. Though there’s a lot of arguments to be had over the skill list and even stats, the core idea of these modifications is to make as few changes as possible while still gaining some of the streamlining from Red. This will be totally central to how we approach tweaking the combat mechanics.


We don’t want to turn Cyberpunk 2020 into Cyberpunk Red. The long weapon lists, the hit locations, the lethality, these are all features, and the character of Cyberpunk 2020 combat is one of the big reasons it will stand next to its little brother Red rather than being left in the dust by it. That said, there are some things we can do to make sure combat runs smoothly, even while we’re maintaining some of the classic elements.

First, cover. The SP rules for cover in 2020 didn’t work very well, with certain heavy objects becoming, as written, bullet sponges. While later supplements like Maximum Metal attempted to use a split SP/SDP system, this ended up being confusing and not always well applied. Cover is one of the places where you can grab the rules from Red, apply them to 2020, and go. One observation is that some of the beefier items described as cover (looking at those bank vault doors and boulders) might be a little weak as described; you can fix this by applying the existing rule on Red page 162 (Steel cover can’t be damaged by Martial Arts or Brawling attacks unless the character has BOD 10 or higher) to any attacks that deal less damage than a BOD 10 character (i.e. less than 3d6). Alternatively if you want more resolution, take the SP/SDP rules from Maximum Metal but don’t worry about overpenetration until the cover is destroyed.

A lot of the detailed changes between 2020 and Red when it comes to combat rules are a matter of preference; just like in our previous examination of Cyberpunk Red’s combat mechanics, I’m going to recommend against mixing and matching. Ultimately, if you want a more streamlined system just stick with Red, and if you want more detail stick with 2020. There are intermediate rule variants, like High-Noon Shootout in Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads, but in a lot of ways they’re more trouble than they’re worth. Using the basic to-hit and modifier rules in 2020 is going to get you the best results, as long as you follow a few basic tips. First, follow the supplemental armor rules (p. 101 in Cyberpunk 2020) to the letter. The Maximum Armor rule was written in a confusing way, but can be simplified thus: Characters are allowed 3 layers of armor, and only one of these can be hard armor. Don’t worry about the callouts regarding the cybernetic armor, all of them count as layers (and body plating is hard armor). There is one idea from High-Noon Shootout I would like to borrow, which is blunt trauma. In High-Noon Shootout, certain tiers of damage dice begin dealing damage even if they fail to penetrate armor. Since we’re leaving the armor rules as-written and we know an enterprising edgerunner can get up to SP30 on their chest if they don’t care about encumbrance (subdermal armor + heavy armor jacket + Metalgear), let’s throw a blunt trauma rule in there. For every 6 you roll on a d6 damage die, you deal one point of blunt trauma. For every d10 of damage you roll you deal one point of blunt trauma, and for every 10 you roll on a d10 you instead deal two. Of course, if the weapon penetrates, deal the penetrating damage instead of blunt trauma. And for consistency’s sake, adopt the Cyberpunk Red ablation rule: all armor layers get ablated simultaneously by each hit that penetrates. Because this is maintaining the differences between layered armors, net SP should just decline by one until the weakest layer is destroyed. Also, just to make it fun: if you’re OK with doing a bit more math, have ablation occur whenever damage exceeds the value of the best layer, even if that damage didn’t penetrate. It’s a minor difference (that three-layered nonsense example above is only 5 SP better than the Metalgear alone) but it helps take armor down a peg, which improves game balance. You can also look at the alternate armor/clothing rules in Chromebook 4, which give much more flexibility in armor choices but are harder on layering, adding an additional encumbrance penalty for a third layer of clothing or too heavy clothing.

When it comes to the modifier game in combat, best to leave it alone. Having weapon type differences baked into the range table instead of the weapon stats makes the core rolls from 2020 and Red hard to mix, and either alone work decently well as long as you don’t poke at them too much. That said, the one exception I would strongly consider is doubling the Cyberpunk 2020 called shot penalty from -4 to the Cyberpunk Red -8. Called shots are still going to be easier in 2020 thanks to the ability to stack aim bonuses up to +3 and the existence of smartlinked sniper rifles with up to +5 in innate accuracy bonuses. Additionally, I’d port the Move + Action turn limits of Cyberpunk Red, and apply the -3 “firing while running” and -2 “shoulder arm from hip” penalties liberally. These modifiers were often forgotten and, honestly, the wholesale increase of difficulties in Cyberpunk Red were in part meant to bake these properties in instead of forcing the GM to remember.

There are a few other updates from Cyberpunk Red I’d just steal for your 2020 game. Netrunning in Red is simply better, use it. You can nix the six-foot rule and still use Long Distance Links (LDLs) if you want, but definitely use the elevator structure instead of datafortresses. Steal therapy for cybernetics and drugs, maybe also steal the drug mechanics to make Black Lace and the like less of trap options (rebalancing the drug creation rules from 2020 may also be worth doing, but is somewhat beyond the wordcount I’ve allocated myself). Other than that, though, Cyberpunk 2020 doesn’t need that much rework. Although the Special Abilities leave much to be desired for any player when compared to the Role Abilities of Cyberpunk Red, the combat, with the possible exception of the called shot penalty, works perfectly well for any group which wishes to engage with that level of detail.

The takeaway here should be that players need not do too much work to find a balance between the systems they liked from Cyberpunk 2020 and the areas of the rules in Cyberpunk Red which were clear and obvious improvements. Whereas Cyberpunk Red comes with an admonition to try the rules as written before mucking about with them, many groups playing Cyberpunk 2020 have been doing so long enough that they should know just from reading the article whether the changes will improve their group’s game. I’d encourage Cyberpunk 2020 play groups out there to consider the changes I propose here, maybe even giving them a test drive alongside your own existing house rules. For those of you who like the Cyberpunk setting’s “style” over its “substance”, I have a treat for you coming up next month; we’re going to convert the classic Cyberpunk roles to another ruleset entirely. Until then, Take it to the Edge and keep hacking the system!

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One thought on “System Hack In Practice: Painting Cyberpunk 2020 Red”

  1. One of the house rules we have for the move state, is to break up the turn via actions. So after initiative players need to declare what they are doing. (lowest states first) ” I’m going to shoot the punk then run back down the hall to cover” Say the player won initiative they then get to roll their attack normally….. they miss!… Then before they move the punk then get their action which was to shoot the player in the head (can you tell I’m GM?) The punk shoots hitting them in shoulder but not putting them down. After that the character completes the move they made and are now in cover as the punk moves out into hall way for the next round.


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