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Of all the Roles available in R. Talsorian Games Cyberpunk Red, the Netrunner is perhaps the most unique archetype. Pulling from sources as disparate as Neuromancer by William Gibson to The Matrix by the Wachowskis, Netrunners are the hackers of the Dark Future, the only ones who can connect their brains directly to digital cyberspace and interact with the various simulacrum that exist in that space. And the Net in the Time of the Red isn’t a nice, safe playground anymore.
In the original iteration of this game setting, Cyberpunk 2020, Netrunners were almost completely disconnected from their team on the ground. This was due to the presence of what the setting calls “the Old Net”, which is close to cyberspace as we understand it. Netrunning in 2020 was as simple as putting yourself on a comfortable couch or chair (with insulation to ensure your body didn’t overheat) and jacking into the web to remotely access the computer systems and servers for the physical location the rest of the team was heading to. This disconnection from the boots-on-the-ground gameplay left a Gamemaster to essentially run two different games at the same time: one for the party at the location and one for the Netrunner in cyberspace.
Cyberpunk Red does away with that completely, and it’s a welcome change as far as I can see it. In the Time of the Red setting, the 4th Corporate War has decimated much of the world. Add into that the nearly complete collapse of the Old Net due to the actions of a particular Netrunner (more on that in a moment), the massive world wide web of the Cyperpunk setting is now hidden behind the Blackwall, a protective layer of code that prevents extremely powerful and deadly Rogue AI’s (Artificial Intelligences) from crashing what remains of the Net.
What this means for Gamemasters and Netrunner players is that the Runner now has to be on-site with the rest of the group to connect to the servers and systems at a given site, putting them in harm’s way just the same as the rest of the party. From a gameplay standpoint, this adds extra layers of tension to potential encounters, particularly if the group is under fire while the Netrunner is jacked in to the Net architecture of the location.
The game mechanic Netrunners utilize is called Interface, which is what allows them to connect their brains directly to electronic mind-modems, which are referred to as cyberdecks. Think of cyberdecks like miniaturized hard-drives that store programs and save files found on systems they connect to. The abilities built in to Interface are really a separate, sub-game within Cyberpunk Red. It can seem daunting at first to delve into this side of the game. It certainly seemed that way to me as I was building the game I wanted to play with friends. It’ll take some getting used to but I’ve found that so far, it’s well worth including it in your game sessions because of the added dimensions and gameplay opportunities it presents.
From a character standpoint, building a Netrunner isn’t as straight-forward as one would think. You could certainly go with a classic desk jockey-style of hacker: someone with poor social interaction skills who is more accustomed to the simplicity of computer coding and machines. Or you can make them gregarious freelancers who just happen to enjoy riding the lightning in cyberspace. From the lore of the Cyberpunk universe, there are two good example characters that players can use for inspiration.
The first of these is Alt Cunningham, the on-again/off-again girlfriend of the Rockerboy Johnny Silverhand. Alt isn’t a saint by any stretch (because there aren’t any angels in Cyberpunk, just less severe demons) but she’s as close to an altruistic character as this setting can get to. Against her will, Alt was forced to created a program called Soulkiller, which is designed to disconnect the digital mind of a Netrunner from their physical body, killing the person but saving their digitized self as an engram (a computer psyche, if you will). Alt can best be described as someone who understands the dangers of the unrestricted Net when she was still alive and works to mitigate some of the more dangerous elements.
The flip side of that coin is Rache Bartmoss, the most prominent Netrunner character in the lore of this game setting. I mentioned above that someone unleashed all kinds of havoc onto the Old Net. Rache Bartmoss is the runner who did that. As a fail-safe in the event of his untimely death, Rache unleashed crippling viruses and AIs into the old Net, destroying much of the world wide web in the process and making what was left over not even remotely safe for human beings jacked into the system. The result of Bartmoss’ actions is why Netrunners in the Time of the Red can’t just connect from remote locations but have to be on-site. It’s also the reason the Net in the Time of the Red isn’t as powerful as it was in the 2020 setting. Bartmoss represents Netrunners as anarchists without a cause, cyberspace Jokers intent on wreaking havoc simply for the fun of it.
From a Gamemaster’s standpoint, having a Netrunner in the party opens up a lot of opportunities for planting seeds in the game for future jobs and story arcs. Netrunners are in high demand by the corporations that still exist in the Time of the Red, so a Netrunner in the party might find themselves being forcibly contracted to working for a given megacorp. Or they could uncover secrets from the 4th Corporate War that no one wants out there for public consumption. Any way you decide to run it, Netrunners are an integral part of the Cyberpunk Red setting and one of the most unique aspects of the game.
Jack in and enjoy the chaos.