I’ve been posting review essays on R. Talsorian Games’ “Cyberpunk Red” tabletop role-playing game. This is the latest essay in the series. If you’re interested in checking out Cyberpunk Red, the book is available here (Amazon Affiliate link)
When the streets of the Dark Future are overrun with shell casings and bodies, the police are just as often there to protect the community as they are to exploit the community. The Lawman Role in Cyberpunk Red presents an interesting conundrum similar to the Exec Role: the moral landscape of the Role provides for rich storytelling opportunities but can go into some truly dark places. When you have the law behind you, it’s far too easy to slip into your worst instincts.
From a mechanics standpoint, the Lawman Role is similar to the Solo in that it’s meant to be a martial class. The Role Ability Backup provides a Lawman character with the ability to call in NPCs (non-player characters) controlled by the Gamemaster that can provide assistance when necessary. The game mechanic works like this: when the Lawman character decides to call for Backup, they roll a ten-sided dice. If the number on the dice ends up being equal to or less than the player’s Rank in Backup, the dispatcher picks up the call and sends a unit of NPCs to assist the player. The player then rolls a six-sided dice to determine how much time it takes for that unit to arrive, in Rounds (which are typically 3 to 5 seconds when in combat).
It would be easy to abuse this gameplay mechanic and the rules encourage Gamemasters to penalize a Lawman character for frivolously using the mechanic when they aren’t in a life-threatening situation. As the Lawman character increases their Rank in Backup, the power level of the NPCs that are summoned increases, showing that this character is able to call in favors from increasingly more powerful government agencies. At the lower levels, a player would receive backup from local beat cops or corporate security, capable of helping out but not heavy hitters. At the higher levels, SWAT units arrive wearing arms and armor that would be useful in a military engagement.
The base build for a Lawman emphasizes their dual role within a group: providing physical muscle while also able to assist during interpersonal or investigative activities. Using the Street Rat Template (where the Skills for the character are already assigned), Lawman start off with higher ranks in Skills like Brawling, Handgun, Shoulder Arms, and Evasion. They also start off with higher ranks in Skills like Conversation, Interrogation, Deduction, and Criminology. Most tellingly, though, they start off with low ranks in Perception and Human Perception, which would indicate that while they’re meant to start off being closer to detectives and fighters, they aren’t that great at reading the room or people.
From a storytelling and gameplay standpoint, it would entirely possible to build a Cyberpunk Red campaign entirely around a group of players who choose Lawman as their Roles. If you’re using the default setting of Night City (which is the living embodiment of the Star Wars line “a wretched hive of scum and villainy”), Lawman characters would most likely start off as part of the Night City Police Department. The Lifepath options that are specific to Lawman help to determine where in the hierarchy of the police force the character is starting out, from being a beat cop to being part of the SWAT team. The most telling aspect of the Lifepath specific to Lawman is the Corruption section. This section helps to determine if the Lawman is part of a group that seeks to uphold the law or subvert the law for their own personal gain.
Given the default setting, it’s easy for a Gamemaster to use a Lawman player character to examine the hazards and pitfalls of law enforcement. In a setting where everyone is packing some kind of firearm, not to mention cyberware enhancements that make them lethal in the extreme, it’s not difficult to see the badges (a slang term for Lawmen) taking the law into their own hands. Pulling from real world examples to craft stories is part of what makes tabletop role-playing games one of the best mediums to explore current events and that is no different with the Lawman Role. The opportunities available can go into some dark places and this is another one of those situations where the Gamemaster needs to communicate with their players to find out what they are and are not comfortable with at the table. In a setting like Cyberpunk Red, where good and bad are not the determining factor for behavior, playing a Lawman presents moral questions that some players may not be comfortable exploring.