Cyberpunk (role-playing game)
|The Roleplaying Game of the Dark Future|
|Publishers||R. Talsorian Games|
|Genres||Science fiction role-playing game, Cyberpunk|
Cyberpunk is a tabletop role-playing game in the dystopian science fiction genre, written by Mike Pondsmith and first published by R. Talsorian Games in 1988. It is typically referred to by its second or fourth edition names, Cyberpunk 2020 and Cyberpunk Red, in order to distinguish it from the genre after which it is named.
Cyberpunk exists within its own fictional timeline, which splits from the real world in 1990. The timeline has been extended with each major edition of the game, from the first edition set in 2013 to Cyberpunk Red set in 2045.
The backstory begins with the USA becoming embroiled in a major conflict in Central America in the 1980s causing a significant economic collapse ending in a military coup resulting in the European Common Market and Japan as superpowers and the Soviet Union not collapsing. This is coupled with the development of orbital habitats that become independent states and the rise of Megacorporations that fight amongst themselves for dominance. Other disasters have included food blights causing disastrous famines, and by the late 1990s the Middle East is a radioactive desert after a nuclear conflict. Bioengineering, against a backdrop of warfare, has resulted in the rapid development of cybernetic prosthetics and direct human-machine interfaces. With the lack of government and police due to the Central America wars and economic situation, casual violence is endemic. Many also suffer from "technoshock", an inability to cope with a world of synthetic muscle tissue, organic circuits and designer drugs.
The main location for Cyberpunk is the fictional Night City, situated on the west coast of the United States between Los Angeles and San Francisco. With a population of five million people, it presents a stratified society of gang warfare, corporate rivalries and political machinations in which the players have to survive.
The rules of Cyberpunk are built on R. Talsorian's Interlock system.
A core game mechanic is the concept of Difficulty Values, used to gauge whether a player succeeds or fails at any given task. A player takes the value of their most appropriate character attribute, adds the values of any relevant skills or modifiers, and then finally adds the value of a ten-sided die roll. In order to succeed, they must beat the Difficulty Value assigned to the task by the gamemaster. Cyberpunk was one of the first tabletop games to use this concept.
As cyberpunks, the players embrace body modification, cybertech and bioengineering. They live by four tenets:
- Style over substance.
- Attitude is everything.
- Always take it to the Edge.
- (Break) the rules.
There are ten key roles, each with their own special abilities. These include charismatic musicians ('rockerboys'), bodyguards and assassins ('solos'), computer hackers ('netrunners'), road warriors ('nomads'), street experts ('fixers'), investigative journalists and reporters ('medias'), mechanics ('techs' or 'techies'), doctors ('medtechs'), corporate executives, and police officers.
A choice of rules are provided for character creation, either by assigning points to purchase skills or by rolling d10s for a more random outcome. A system called Lifepath is provided to develop each character further, by generating goals, motivations, and events from their past. Finally, they gain money, cyberware, weapons and other equipment, including fashion and lifestyle goods.
Further character development is skill-based rather than level-based; for successful play, players are awarded points to be spent on improving their characters' skill sets.
The combat system is called Friday Night Firefight (FNFF), and emphasizes lethality. Unlike other role-playing systems where characters amass higher hit points as they progress, allowing them to survive higher amounts of combat damage, the amount of damage a character can sustain in Cyberpunk does not generally increase as the character develops.
Each round, characters are permitted to take one move action and one other action. There are rules governing the use of autofire, armor, and cover, including specific instructions for using people as shields. Alternative ammunition types for weapons are available, for example a shotgun can be fired with buckshot instead of slugs. Character skills can be used to improve both ranged and melee combat.
Additionally, there are rules covering other forms of damage such as drowning and asphyxiation, electrocution, and being set on fire.
There are also rules for cybernetic hacking, called Netrunning. When characters "jack in", they can interpret the NET in several different ways, including as a classic Dungeons & Dragons maze, or perhaps as a star-filled galaxy.
Netrunners engage in the virtual world with interface plugs, cyberdecks, and the Interface special ability. Cyberdecks include slots to contain Programs, selected ahead of time by Netrunners to assist in tasks such as evasion, decryption and detection. Combat and other actions in the NET are fast, taking place second-by-second, as opposed to three second combat rounds in the physical world.
The destruction of the global NET in later editions of Cyberpunk turns the attention of Netrunners to local private networks. The effect on gameplay is that Netrunning is no longer a remote activity; Netrunners are embedded within their team and, with equipment such as virtuality goggles, can alternate their actions between both physical and virtual space. Closer integration with other activities was a game design choice to ensure all characters have a part to play during a hacking scene.
Empathy and cyberpsychosis
The acquisition of cyberware—cyberweapons, cyberoptics and other implants—carries a Humanity Cost. Every ten points of Humanity Cost causes the loss of an Empathy point, the character attribute that measures how well they relate to other people. An Empathy level of zero represents a complete loss of humanity, a state known as cyberpsychosis; in the case of players, their character becomes a non-player character controlled by the gamemaster.
Cyberpunk was designed by Mike Pondsmith as an attempt to replicate the gritty realism of 1980s cyberpunk science fiction. In particular, Walter Jon Williams' novel Hardwired was an inspiration, and Williams helped playtest the game. Another key influence was the film Blade Runner. Many also assume William Gibson's Neuromancer was an influence; however, Pondsmith did not read the novel until a later date. Other sources included the film Streets of Fire and the anime Bubblegum Crisis.
The original version of Cyberpunk was published in 1988 by R. Talsorian Games. The game components of the boxed set consist of a 44-page Handbook, a 38-page Sourcebook, a 20-page Combat Book, four pages of game aids and two ten-sided dice.
A number of rules supplements were subsequently published in 1989:
- Rockerboy (sourcebook for the Rockerboy character class)
- Solo of Fortune (sourcebook for the Solo character class)
- Hardwired, based on the Walter Jon Williams novel
- Near Orbit: Space Supplement, with rules for space travel
This edition of the game retrospectively became known as Cyberpunk 2013.
Second edition: Cyberpunk 2020
In 1990, R. Talsorian Games released the second edition of the game, titled Cyberpunk 2020, which featured updated rules for combat, Netrunning, and character generation. The game's timeline was also retconned to accommodate the German reunification in 1990. It was released as a boxed set that contained a 222-page softcover book, and a 24-page reference guide and adventure.
R. Talsorian Games released two revised versions: Cyberpunk 2020 version 2.00 (1992), and Cyberpunk 2020 version 2.01 (1993).
A total of 28 rules supplements and sourcebooks, and 6 adventures were also published by R. Talsorian Games between 1993 and 1996. In addition, Atlas Games published twelve adventures under license between 1991 and 1994.
Dream Pod 9 released Night's Edge in 1992, taking the Cyberpunk 2020 setting and adding a horror theme, including vampires and werewolves. Dream Pod 9 published ten other supplements and adventures in this setting between 1992 and 1995.
An alternate world sourcebook, Cybergeneration, was published in 1993; it centers around teenagers with unusual, superhuman skills gained from a nanotech virus epidemic. The first version of Cybergeneration required the Cyberpunk 2020 rulebook, but a second version became a standalone game.
Two Cyberpunk 2020 novels were published, in 1995 and 1996.
Third edition: Cyberpunk V3.0
Cyberpunk V3.0 is set in the 2030s, and was published in 2005. It takes Cyberpunk into a transhumanist setting in the aftermath of a fourth Corporate War. The global NET has been corrupted and rendered unusable, as has much hardcopied data, throwing human history into doubt. Six new subcultures have emerged, known as Altcults; one such group are the Edgerunners, successors to the cyberpunks of previous editions.
From 2007 to 2008, two sourcebooks were published to accompany this edition.
Fourth edition: Cyberpunk Red
The fourth edition of Cyberpunk, titled Cyberpunk Red, is set in 2045, following the events of Cyberpunk 2020 and serving as a prequel to the video game Cyberpunk 2077. The game is set after a fourth Corporate War; however, the events differ from Cyberpunk V3.0, which is considered to be a separate timeline.
The Cyberpunk Red core rulebook was released in November 2020. It was preceded by the release of a simplified boxed set, known as the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit, at Gen Con in August 2019. The core rulebook was delayed from a planned release alongside the Jumpstart Kit, initially to allow Cyberpunk Red game lore to be better aligned with Cyberpunk 2077, and later due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Collectible card games
Two different, independent collectible card games have been licensed and produced based on the Cyberpunk setting. The first, called Netrunner, was designed by Richard Garfield, and released by Wizards of the Coast in 1996 (the game has since been re-released as Android: Netrunner but is no longer associated with the fictional Cyberpunk universe). The second was called Cyberpunk CCG, released in 2003, designed by Peter Wacks and published by Social Games.
- In 2007, Mayhem Studio released the 2D platformer Cyberpunk: Arasaka's Plot for the J2ME platform.
- In 2020, CD Projekt Red, the developer of The Witcher series, released an open world action-adventure game Cyberpunk 2077.
In the May 1989 edition of Games International (Issue 5), Paul Mason found the rules disorganized and lacked an index. He also found lots of typos, "the sign of a rushed production." Although Mason found the concept behind the game "quite appealing," he thought that the combat system, which was supposed to be an improvement on the usual non-descriptive hit point system, was too constricted by data tables to be very descriptive. He concluded by giving this game an average rating of 3 out of 5, saying, "All in all, Cyberpunk does the job. If you want to run a game in this genre and you want a single source of rules and background, then this game will be adequate to the task [...] It doesn't contain any ideas radically new to rolegaming, however, and so won't be much use to anyone else except inveterate collectors."
In the September 1989 edition of Dragon (Issue 149), Jim Bambra liked the production values of the original edition, but found many typos in the various books as well as a missing encounter table. Bambra found the setting "does a superb job of capturing the flavor and atmosphere of a disturbingly plausible and realistic future. The development and presentation of the Net is stunning and can be used as a basis for countless numbers of adventures. No other game has succeeded in portraying computer hacking in such a vibrant and absorbing way." He concluded that this was not for everyone: "Gamers brought up on heroic-fantasy or shiny science-fiction games may find the gritty realism of the Cyberpunk game not to their liking... To decide if this is the game for you, read a few of the Cyberpunk style novels. If you like them, don’t waste any time — rush out and buy the Cyberpunk game. Welcome to life on the edge."
In the September 1992 edition of Dragon (Issue 185), Allen Varney found Cyberpunk 2020 just as stylish as its first-edition predecessor, but he found even more typos in this edition than in the first edition. Varney liked the new streamlined combat system, but criticized the duality of modern combat, where "unarmored characters become pools of blood in 10 seconds of combat, but those in flak armor can shrug off submachine-gun fire." Varney also felt that the Netrunning system was much improved, calling the rules system "elegant and original." Varney thought the second edition's biggest flaw was lack of an index, but he also criticized the dichotomy of a system where "you can break into Eurobank and embezzle five million bucks, but you better pay your phone bill on time or you’re in big trouble." He accused the game of being "in the curious position of advocating rebellion, but only in socially acceptable ways." Nonetheless, Varney concluded that "The Cyberpunk game’s second edition surpasses its first edition on every count. With its smooth action, 'pure' cyberpunk atmosphere, easily accessible setting, and medium-low complexity, this game tops my list as the field's best route to dark near-future adventure."
In a 1996 reader poll undertaken by Arcane magazine to determine the 50 most popular roleplaying games of all time, Cyberpunk was ranked 10th. Editor Paul Pettengale commented: "Cyberpunk was the first of the 'straight' cyberpunk RPGs, and is still the best. The difference between cyberpunk and other sci-fi is a matter of style and attitude. Everything about the Cyberpunk game, from the background to the rules system, is designed to create this vital atmosphere. Cyberpunk is set in an unforgiving world where betrayal and double-crosses are common, trust is hard to find and paranoia is a useful survival trait."
In November 2020, Forbes found Cyberpunk Red to be a consistent continuation of the themes from Cyberpunk 2020. Contributor Rob Wieland praised the system for character generation, stating, "One of the signature elements of the game, lifepaths, went through a great refinement. Lifepath is a chart where players roll to determine elements of their character’s history. It creates lovers, friends, rivals and more for GMs to hang plot hooks on. Cyberpunk thrives on the personal connections between characters. Lifepath makes player buy-in easier; players are going to be much more interested in a job given to them by an old flame than a random NPC."
- Hall, Charlie (2019-08-07). "Cyberpunk Red review: This pen-and-paper game is the key to understanding Cyberpunk 2077". Polygon. Retrieved 2020-05-16.
The year is 2045, and CD Projekt’s next game doesn’t kick off for another 32 years. It’s an awful lot of space to fill, and I’m looking forward to getting on with it.
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Although many assume William Gibson’s Neuromancer was a source of inspiration for Cyberpunk, it was only much later that Pondsmith read Gibson’s groundbreaking novel. Instead, the designer cites his own key reference points for the game as the film Blade Runner and the novel Hardwired by Walter John Williams, who also helped playtest the RPG.
- Wayne’s Books (16 June 2019). "Cyberpunk 2020 box set (1990)". Wayne’s Books. Wayne’s Books. Retrieved 9 March 2021.
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See, Cyberpunk v3.0 isn’t actually a cyberpunk setting, in the same sense that the previous editions where. It’s more or less a post-human setting these days. And that’s where the setting falls apart. You see, v3.0 can’t decide what it wants to be, and exemplifies its inability to decide by splitting society into six ‘alt-cults’, each latching onto a particular ideology...
- Peter (16 June 2011). "A Thorough and Objective Review [Cyberpunk v3.0]". BoardGameGeek. Archived from the original on 13 July 2020. Retrieved 16 May 2020.
On a personal level, Cyberpunk v3.0 was a let down on every level. The art, rules, setting, even the system wasn’t used to its full potential in my opinion...
- Hall, Charlie (2019-06-24). "Cyberpunk 2077 prequel, a tabletop RPG starter kit, will be out this August". Polygon. Retrieved 2019-07-20.
- Garrett, Eric (2019-05-12). "Cyberpunk 2077 Shares Same Timeline With the Tabletop Game, Says Mike Pondsmith". ComicBook.com. Archived from the original on 2020-07-13. Retrieved 2020-05-16.
... Pondsmith himself cleared the air surrounding the subject, noting how there has been an interview going around the Internet that is not correct. "There's still an incorrect interview floating around the interwebs that states that Cyberpunk 2077 and Cyberpunk 2020 are separate timelines," he said. "To clear this up, I am posting RIGHT HERE AND NOW that the timeline is unified, with the path moving from Cyberpunk 2013 thru Cyberpunk 2020, then through Cyberpunk RED and up to Cyberpunk 2077."
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- Michael Pondsmith (1993). Cyberpunk: The Roleplaying Game of the Dark Future. Talsorian Games, Incorporated. ISBN 0-937279-13-7.
- Will Moss; Mike Pondsmith; Lisa Pondsmith. Cyberpunk v3.0. R. Talsorian. ISBN 1-891933-03-5.