We are here yet again with System Hack! Cyberpunk Chimera is a construction project that’s really gotten off the ground; all the important parts that turn a series of articles into a game have at least been sketched out or brainstormed. There are some key elements, though, that shift the focus of the game in the direction that I’m most interested in. There are two parts of the Cyberpunk genre which are often overlooked in RPG mechanics, either because they’re considered “setting elements” or because they aren’t part of what makes the genre science fiction. These are the cities and the corporations, and their centrality is just as true in games as it is in literature and film.
Welcome back to System Hack! Now that the real timeline has caught up with Cyberpunk 2020, it’s time to start pinning the Cyberpunk Chimera down. We have attributes and skills, we have ideas about a combat system, and there’s some hacking, some cyberware, and even some meta-mechanics. What don’t we have yet? Oh. Right. Characters.
Welcome back to System Hack! Over the last few months I’ve been slowly but surely building out elements of a Cyberpunk game, inspired by but not really based on Cyberpunk 2020. At this point, we get into the weeds. Until now, the articles published so far have all dealt with simulationist aspects of the game. That is to say, when a character in the game wants to do something, what happens? At this point, we’re going to pivot away from the characters and focus instead on the players.
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.
Cyberpunk as a literary genre has many touchstones, like the role of corporations in society and humanity’s relationship with technology. These have trickled down to tabletop games in different ways, but certain tropes keep coming up. Cybernetic enhancement is *the* subsystem for cyberpunk games, and has generally succeeded in early cyberpunk games where hacking, a complementary subsystem, often failed. Cyberware stands in for magic in most cyberpunk games, giving the characters access to superhuman power, though at a cost. In addition to cyberware, there is usually a digital world aspect of cyberpunk games, adjacent to but not always overlapping with the hacking rules. In early works this was a completely separate virtual world, while in modern games, there is much more focus on augmented reality, and the digital commingling with the real.
Old games never die, they just get new editions. Some games take big design steps and then walk them back (D&D, WFRP), while others start forking out into multiple, concurrent editions (Traveller and RuneQuest). Others still just revise every concurrent edition, walking a tight balance between satisfying the fanboys and making the game accessible to those who couldn’t or wouldn’t buy it the last time around. No game is better suited to tell this perilous story than Shadowrun. Shadowrun was born in the late 80s around the same time as Cyberpunk, but took to that genre with its own twist, adding in magic and Tolkienesque “metahuman” races. Originally developed by FASA, the same design studio behind Battletech, Shadowrun has always had wargaming roots show through by virtue of its complexity and level of detail. This both gained it many fans as well as an intimidating reputation, especially when we’re talking about the first three editions of the game.
Tabletop RPGs evolved from wargames, which has somewhat stunted their growth with regards to most conflicts which don’t involve killing things. As board games show us, though, we can easily develop satisfying mechanics for a whole range of things other than combat. For the Cyberpunk Chimera, we’re envisioning a world that, while potentially violent and dystopic, doesn’t center around monsters or a national enemy or anything else that assumes that the majority of problems can be solved by killing.
The Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit made a splash at GenCon, selling out huge stacks of the black and red box set in what seemed like no time at all. Given the hype of Cyberpunk 2077, it’s important to step back and look at both what this means for Cyberpunk fans as well as what we can honestly expect out of a product which is still just a Beginner Box.
Personally, I’ve been waiting for this moment in one way or another since 2005. 2005 was, for those of us who remember, the release of Cyberpunk v3. Without casting (too many) aspersions at that product, I can say that it was not what Cyberpunk fans expected or wanted, and was disappointing to many, including myself. After making my peace with the fact that Cyberpunk 2020 was the last edition of the line that I’d play, the announcement of Cyberpunk Red split me between side-eyed skepticism and bouncing off my chair like, well, a nerdy teenager.
The one subsystem that all traditional RPGs bolt onto their core resolution mechanics is a conflict system and, like it or not, the most popular iteration of a conflict system is one for physical combat. Cyberpunk 2020 had a combat system designed with realism in mind, and, thanks to a statistical basis in actual criminal activity using guns, did very well in terms of combat verisimilitude. This did mean that some of the “imbalance” in the system, namely the overwhelming power of a high initiative roll and the destabilizing impact of armor, were based on reality. Quirks aside, what made ‘realistic’ fun was that the system played quickly and had enough detail to mean that player choices in terms of tactics and weapons mattered. The issue with Cyberpunk’s conflict systems, really, is that combat is much more ‘baked’ than the other conflict system, netrunning, and the only semblance of a social conflict system is the ‘facedown’ mechanic, which is one die roll for one specific situation.
So we’ve stated some design goals, and we’ve set a baseline with an in-depth review of Cyberpunk 2020. Now, it’s time to get into the weeds. As I stated in the design goals, I want to create a game inspired by Cyberpunk 2020. As such, most of these articles will revisit one or more mechanics from that game. That said, after considering the implications of these mechanics, I will more often than not rip them apart. Want to see us journey from nine stats and a d10-based resolution mechanic to three stats and a dice pool? Read on.