It’s the dark future and everything’s gone to hell.
That’s the most apt description for Cyberpunk Red, the latest edition of the Cyberpunk tabletop RPG created by Mike Pondsmith through his company R. Talsorian Games. I have to admit that I was only vaguely aware of the game line before the announcement of the Cyberpunk 2077 video game that releases on December 10th, 2020. Having purchased the latest edition of the role-playing game, here are my impressions.
Cyberpunk Red, like the previous iterations of the game, makes use of the Interlock System, a proprietary gaming system developed by R. Talsorian Games for use in the game setting. The easiest way I can describe it is a d10 (a ten-sided dice) plus bonuses pulled from the character sheet. In this way, it’s not all that different from the d20 system (a twenty-sided dice) used in games like Dungeons and Dragons (which I’ve written about before), where you roll the d20 and add your skill modifiers to the die roll for the result. It’s a fluid system which rewards you for focusing on specific skills based on the build of your character.
Your stats and skills are built based on the background and profession you decide to play (which represent the more traditional Classes from other gaming systems). Each of the professions available, from Solo to Rockerboy to Exec, have a unique feel to them and a specialization that makes each one stand apart from the other. For example, as a Rockerboy, you have the ability to rally others to your cause and create some havoc through your preferred performance method (which could range from being the rock star of your dreams to a firebrand community organizer). In the completely opposite direction, an Exec can use their Teamwork ability to get access to favors from the Corporate elite of the setting. The builds are Profession-based for ease of use and to prevent min-maxing (the practice of a player to create a powerful character that really only serves a singular function within the game).
Where Cyberpunk Red really shines is the customization aspects available through Cyberware, cybernetic enhancements that are available for a pretty penny within game. As a Cyberpunk setting (and the originator of many tropes we now see of futuristic RPGs like Deus Ex), you can graft or replace body parts with machine parts that can provide a wide array of nifty abilities. But the downside you have to watch out for is Cyberpsychosis, a loss of humanity as you become more machine than human.
The setting creating by Mike Pondsmith over the last 30+ years has a remarkable amount of depth and cohesion to it. The universe built is one that is a sharp divergence from our own, particularly since we’ve reached the year of the original setting, Cyberpunk 2020. This isn’t a traditional RPG setting where there are clear-cut heroes and villains. Everyone is out for themselves and no one should be trusted. The system encourages Gamemasters to play for keeps when running the game. It’s not a completely adversarial system, which is a good thing. As someone who has played the role of an adversarial gamemaster in the past, I prefer running games where everyone at the table can contribute to the story being told during the session. But this system makes it a point to say that character death and bad situations should happen with some degree of frequency and that’s just the way the world works. It’s a bleak universe that only occasionally has moments of sunshine and joy.
The current setting of Cyberpunk Red is called the Time of the Red and is set in 2045, 25 years after the last version of the game was set. The new edition is meant to bridge the gap between Cyberpunk 2020 (the tabletop game) and Cyberpunk 2077 (the video game released by CD Project Red). Players will find themselves in a world of scarcity after a massive war between two mega-corporations left the world in tatters. The main setting, Night City, as nuclear wasteland after someone (and the game takes great pains to not reveal who) let off a suitcase nuke in the city’s Corporate center. This is a game where the gulf between the have’s and have-not’s is wider than Atlantic Ocean. Rather than dashing heroes out to save towns and countries from nefarious monsters (which is a lot of fun in DnD), this is a game about survival at all costs, up to and including your own sense of morality. Now, this doesn’t mean that the game encourages amorality or being a complete monster but it does give players the freedom to explore what they would do in a place where you have few options for any kind of meaningful change.
I’ve been gushing enough over the game system at this point, so let me point out some of the things I’m not too fond of. The Netrunning system (which is used for interacting in cyberspace) sometimes feels like a completely different game from the rest of the setting, which I feel is by design. There’s also not a lot of pre-generated content available in the core rulebook, which will seem daunting to first-time gamemasters. There will more than likely be more supplements released for the new edition in the coming years. Since the Interlock System hasn’t changed too much over the various iterations of the game, it shouldn’t be difficult to translate older supplements to use the newer ruleset. If you’ve never played in this system before and your only experience has been with d20 systems like Dungeons and Dragons, this game will probably be more difficult to pick up and play since it is departure from what you’re used to.
Despite all this, Cyberpunk Red is definitely worth purchasing and pursuing if you’re a fan of the Cyberpunk genre and role-playing games. The opportunities available for telling deep, conflicted stories about protagonists that aren’t squeaky-clean good guys are immense with this setting. I highly recommend picking it up if you’re looking for a new game system to try out with your friends and family.