Cyberpunk RED: Black Chrome Review

We don’t review a lot of supplements here at Cannibal Halfling Gaming. From a pragmatic standpoint, there’s a lot less that a review can tell you about a supplement that will affect your purchasing decision than with a full game. For today’s subject, Black Chrome for Cyberpunk Red, that’s certainly true. We all knew Black Chrome would be the ‘stuff’ supplement, and even if there hadn’t been some grumbling about the ‘stuff’ or lack thereof in the core rules the ‘stuff’ supplement in a Cyberpunk game is almost always a must-buy, if only due to the association of the cyberpunk genre with gear porn. On the other hand, in some cases there’s a bit more to say about supplements. Cyberpunk Red is slowly working up to being a full-on RPG ecosystem just like Cyberpunk 2020 was; the earlier game had supplements from gear catalogs to corporate profiles to location gazetteers to big plot books like the Firestorm series. One consequence of this, perhaps an unintended one, is that Cyberpunk 2020 played quite differently when all the supplements were in play than when it was just the core book. While that’s neither unique to Cyberpunk nor particularly unexpected, it had a significant role in the reception of Cyberpunk Red, where the game in its early single book state was being judged against a Cyberpunk 2020 which already had literally dozens of supplements released. It stands to reason, then, that Black Chrome would be the first full-sized rules supplement for Cyberpunk Red. Black Chrome is an homage to the supplements which changed Cyberpunk 2020 the most and the fastest, the Chromebooks.

Released between 1991 and 1996, the Chromebooks were a series of four supplements meant to mimic in-world catalogs and just throw tons of gear at players. Chromebook 1 started off very strong with the original modular cyberfingers as well as the Malorian Arms 3516, better known as Johnny Silverhand’s gun and made famous a second time in Cyberpunk 2077 nearly 30 years later. Between all four books, the additions of armored clothing, full-body cyborg conversions, railguns, and augmented attack animals (the ‘Cyberpred’) took the power level of Cyberpunk 2020 on an escalator ride that no player will ever forget. It’s with that historical context that we now turn to Black Chrome.

Although updated for modern sensibilities, Black Chrome is absolutely supposed to be the same sort of goodies guide that the original Chromebooks were. In most important ways, it succeeds. The items are evocative, unique, and will make most games more interesting by their inclusion. Beyond the items, the additional guidance and setting material is excellent and well-aligned to the book: Focus on the economics rules helps ground the toybox a bit, and the Night Markets section gives some great characters and hooks to help work all of the items into the game, as well as provide a bit more context on Night Markets that, after running a Cyberpunk Red campaign with a fixer in it, I can say was needed.

The nitty-gritty design of the items I’m a little more hesitant about, but given the context above I’m not certain what my final takeaway is. In the design of Cyberpunk Red, significant attention was paid to the notion of mechanical balance, for the reason that (at least to outside observers) Cyberpunk 2020 really didn’t have any. On one hand, this is a significant reason the Roles were overhauled, and that is one of if not the best improvement that Cyberpunk Red made over 2020. These Role improvements are visible in Black Chrome as well, with Techs and Fixers being given a lot to do through the items and hooks in this book. What suffers, though, is the gun porn.

The Stuff

Two of the primary precepts of Cyberpunk are “Style over Substance” and “Attitude is Everything”, and Black Chrome advances these handily. A lot of the sections in the book are exactly the ones you’d expect: Cyberware, Weapons, Vehicles, Armor. To me, the General Gear chapter is the right place to check the vibe on the whole book. “Gear” can get really boring in many games, especially ones where everything you’re carrying is taken very seriously (looking at you, Torchbearer). So when you crack open Black Chrome and land on the “Drink Master 3000”, you immediately get a good idea of what sort of feel the designers are going for (I also appreciate the Va11-Hall-A reference in the description there). To be fair most of these items are intended for more than window dressing (a garment bag that can repair clothing and armor? Nice), but there’s still a lot of fun in the design.

Where fun can give way to goofiness is in the weapons, of all places. There are a lot of combo guns in here. Shotgun/net gun. Pistol with an underbarrel shotgun. Assault Rifle/Crossbow. Assault Rifle with a train horn on it for crowd control. The vehicles chapter continues this trend too: A gyrocopter you can fold into a suitcase? A literal hoverboard? The Grundy? The point is kind of to be weird and wild, and some of the wackiness of the design makes sense in a way from a sort of gilded age perspective. In setting, you can’t actually buy any of this stuff, not the normal way at least. The only customers for most of this kit are corporates who basically don’t exist on the material plane anymore. From that perspective, half of the stuff is truly weird, sold to customers who don’t really exist, and the other half is bizarre, cobbled-together street trash.

Highlighting the street trash element of Black Chrome is the triumphant return of vending machine and convenience store guns. My favorite is absolutely the stupidest one: the GunMart Engage. The GunMart Engage is an extremely cheap rocket launcher. Now, if you were to think that a cheap rocket launcher is a bad idea, you’d be right! The Engage malfunctions on 10% of attack rolls, detonating inside the launcher and dealing 8d6 damage to the shooter and anyone in the blast radius. Willingly equipping your character with one? Beyond stupid. GMing a game where you force your players into a corner with several of these things? Inspired.

There is a significant focus on weird, wacky, and desperate in the item catalog, and it’s pretty clear that that’s intentional. Weapons typically don’t get upgrades to their core damage or rate of fire, though things like magazine size and ammo type compatibility are changed around. This is the most obvious place where the Balance Town mantra that started in the design of Cyberpunk Red is carried through. Though there are some very interesting weapons and weird form factors (cyber-boomerang? Air gun that literally shoots rocks?), there is no adjustment to the damage levels of the weapon types from the core rulebook. While I’m not saying they had to add a recoilless rifle that did 6d10+12 damage (the Militech AM-3 “Anti-matter Rifle” from Chromebook 2), there is a bit of a lack of ‘oomph’ to some of the guns. Take the Arasaka AVAR, a secret assault rifle prototype that converts to a railgun. Conceptually, I love this. The prototypes are typically missing the conversion parts, writing an instant quest to find an Arasaka cache with weird railgun tech in it. That’s awesome. Once you get the railgun, though…meh? The ‘power’ of the railgun is that it can ignore armor SP7 and below. No PC will ever wear SP7 armor because the light armorjack is SP11 and has no encumbrance penalties, and of course the ability as-written is binary, so against that light armorjack (and all of the several armors which are heavier) it has no particular effect. The only thing a railgun does, then, is gain an advantage over armor the assault rifle is already beefy enough to chew through? Not particularly exciting, especially when you consider the extra cost for batteries. The linear frames have similar design constraints. The new linear frames all look pretty cool, but they have the capabilities of one of the linear frames from the core rules, plus an additional piece of cyberware and maybe one bonus. Less underwhelming than the railgun, mind you, but not particularly inspired.

Like I said above, I get it. The Chromebooks were a huge power level distortion in Cyberpunk 2020, so much so that Chromebooks 3 and 4 had no weapons at all. I fully appreciate trying to avoid that. At the same time, there are places to flex. If you’re going to bother putting a railgun in your game, make it a damn railgun. The Rhinemetall railgun which was referenced in the AVAR description was originally from Chromebook 2 and did 5d10+10 damage. I’m not asking for that, but it’s OK to include one more weapon template if you’re going to bother including a railgun at all.

The Ephemeral Stuff

Black Chrome has a couple extended discussions which don’t fit into the catalog template. I call them discussions because they don’t have much in the way of rules, though there are clarifications, worked examples, and some new NPC stat blocks to crib from. Economics 101 dives deeper into the Cyberpunk setting in 2045, and it serves more than anything else as a further emphasis of how the setting of Cyberpunk Red differs from that of Cyberpunk 2020 (or Cyberpunk 2077). Cyberpunk Red is centered around the fallout of the Fourth Corporate War, which includes (among other things) a total supply chain collapse. This means that buying things is not routine, and that Fixers and Techs are essential to getting what you need when you need it. This is a bit different than 2020, and not all players like that. It does make sense that there’s an emphasis here in Black Chrome that you can’t just go shopping, as the book is set up to look like a catalog and make you think you can in fact go shopping. That, though, is where Night Markets come in.

While Night Markets were explained mechanically in the core rules fairly well, the example Night City Night Markets in Black Chrome are a great resource for understanding how a Night Market should fit into the setting, as well as into your game. In addition to descriptions and plot hooks, the NPC fixers are a solid resource too; I appreciate both that they’re above starting PC level as well as the fact that they’re equipped like edgerunners, with various Tech upgrades in addition to off the shelf equipment. Overall, these more setting-driven sections help bulk up Black Chrome as a supplement for fixers as well as a general gear book.

Black Chrome carries the torch from the Cyberpunk 2020 Chromebooks, at least as much as the folks at R. Talsorian wanted it to. I cannot fault the desire to keep the game away from a supplement arms race, but I also think there was some room to give here, especially for truly new and limited items. It’s a tough line to toe, and while I’m not completely in agreement with taking the conservative approach I also can’t fault it. Beyond power creep curtailment, though, I was pretty happy with the variety of items on display in Black Chrome. The fashion and attitude of the Cyberpunk setting seeps through on every page, successfully hammering home the gulf between a corporate wearing nothing but holo-clothes and a nomad who can’t afford ammo and has to figure out how to shoot rocks. Black Chrome is a good introduction to what Cyberpunk Red will look like as the product line unfolds; even if I’m not quite on board with the degree of restraint shown, I’m hoping that that restraint means we’ll have many supplements to come.

Black Chrome is available at DriveThruRPG and from the Talsorian Webstore.

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