Tabletop Review: Cyberpunk RED – The Better Dystopia

All right, we’ve had six months or so to let the shock grow numb when it comes to the trainwreck that is Cyberpunk 2077. There’s been ink spilled all over the place, the Internet is still up in arms, and we’re heartily sick of new revelations about how much of a debacle CD Projekt RED has created. This is not about that game. It’s about the much better tabletop game it helped bring about, Cyberpunk RED.

Art by Santiago Betancur, courtesy of R. Talsorian Games
“Yeah, call me V, choomba. See how long you last with a severed carotid.”

If you’ve followed our coverage leading up to Cyberpunk 2077‘s release, you know that it was (very) loosely adapted from the Cyberpunk 2020 tabletop RPG published by R. Talsorian Games, a setting which hadn’t gotten a new version since the early 2000’s. But here in the real 2020, R. Talsorian came out with the 4th edition of the setting, titled Cyberpunk RED. The setting updates a lot of the rules from the seminal Cyberpunk 2020, but also advances the world (and the larger meta-storylines) in ways which are both sensible and plausible, a big plus for any sci-fi related setting.

First, the backstory so far. The meta-narrative of Cyberpunk 2020 ended in the “Firestorm” adventure arc. It saw the megacorporations Arasaka and Militech slugging it out in what became known as the Fourth Corporate War. It culminated in a nuclear detonation at the top of Arasaka’s Night City headquarters as rockerboy Johnny Silverhand, along with his friends, staged a raid on the building to try and rescue his girlfriend Alt Cunningham. This isn’t particularly different from what was used as backstory in Cyberpunk 2077. But where they jumped way ahead in the video game, the tabletop game has taken a more restrained approach, putting players in the year 2045. Well, as restrained as one can get when talking about a dystopia where everything is slowly falling apart.

The NET which was so integral to the world, the full dive parallel reality in which so many Netrunners would rather have lived their lives instead of “meatspace,” is no more. Effectively rendered inhospitable by the dead man’s switch release of hostile AIs created by hacker elite Rache Bartmoss, Netrunning now is far less immersive for the console cowboys. Night City’s old city center is an irradiated Chernobyl-esque hot zone, full of emptied out ruins which still hold plenty of goodies for the bold and the crazed. The megacorps have been humbled, but not exactly broken. Nomad clans, once despised as drifters and highwaymen, have created a certain scruffy respectability as the only reliable logistical providers in the world. Law enforcement has “democratized” in the worst way, with very little in the way of municipal oversight and far too often partial to whoever has the bigger bank account. It’s a crapsack world of chrome, glass, and neon which is still a wonderfully warped funhouse mirror of our own.

Art by Angelina Stroganova, courtesy of R. Talsorian Games
“I don’t care if it’s two hundred stories to the ground, I want that gun!”

Because Cyberpunk RED came out in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a little harder than normal to get people together to try and review it. After all, tabletop games generally require a tabletop. Virtual tabletops like Roll20 (which I used for the games making up our Cyberpunk RED: Nephilim Echo podcasts) make that more feasible, but sometimes, you just have to roll the dice in meatspace to really get a feel for a game. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to run a real world game to get a better idea of how things run. For players who’ve cut their teeth on Dungeons & Dragons, Cyberpunk RED turned out to be something of a culture shock. Rather than a d20 for skill checks and attacks, along with a myriad of polyhedrals for damage, Cyberpunk RED relies on a d10 for checks and d6s (lots of d6s in some cases) for damage. I found that using a VTT with Cyberpunk RED was a little more cumbersome than a physical setting, but that may be due to the fact that VTT support is more on the fans getting the character sheets (and their background calculations) right than any official releases.

If there’s one area which Cyberpunk RED excels compared to its predecessors, it’s in the character creation process. In Cyberpunk 2020, character creation was something of a slog, since you were doing a lot of year-by-year background loops. With Cyberpunk RED, the process has been greatly simplified. You can use templates to get a character put together in less than half an hour once you’re familiar with the steps. Of course, if you’re wanting to customize your character to a fare-thee-well, there are more detailed mechanics which will take you longer to go through, but allow you a far more granular control of how your character shapes up. However, your character is not immortal. Life is cheap, firepower is overwhelming, and bad rolls can render a character into a slurry of hamburger and scrap metal in a couple of rounds. It seems like a dichotomy, in a way, but Cyberpunk RED‘s easy character creation manages to avoid the ho-hum sameness which made 4th Edition D&D such a terrible bore. Even if you roll the same background points on a new character, there’s enough room and flex in the system to make them completely different from a narrative perspective. The only limits are your imagination and the GM’s guidance.

Art by Eve Ventrue, courtesy of R. Talsorian Games
“How’d you buy it this time, Yorik?”

The other major improvement (which might be a touch controversial) centers around Netrunning. Any RPG set in the genre up to this point has hewn to William Gibson’s vision of cyberspace as an entire reality on its own, one which moves at its own time scale and has its own activities which might impinge on the real world but is not directly affected by it. That separation definitely caused a stumbling block in the flow of gameplay of Cyberpunk 2020, where a Netrunner character might be doing things which only took a few minutes in “meatspace,” but might take a couple hours at the real world table, leading to boredom for the rest of the players. Cyberpunk RED takes Netrunning in a different direction by making the New NET an augmented reality overlay. Netrunners can still take actions that are exclusive to the NET, but they’re going to be right alongside their buddies when breaking in to systems rather than safely removed from the big guards with lots of bullets.

While Night City is the default setting for Cyberpunk RED, there’s nothing which says you have to stay there, or even start there. Some GMs and players will undoubtedly do so if only for the sake of familiarity. But the current lack of official supplements covering things like Europe, the amputated United States, Asia, or even cis-Earth space allows for a certain degree of freedom for GMs. To paraphrase Gibson, you can find your own uses for Cyberpunk RED if you want to get away from Night City. Mike Pondsmith and his crew have given players and GMs enough background to let them cook up their own ideas about the world beyond the one city they’ve detailed without getting bogged down in minutiae. Right now, there are no official “splatbooks” involving different regions of the world or the sort of overarching stories that the “Firestorm” adventures provided. There are smaller offerings, currently free for download, which provide everything from buffed up enemies to one shot adventures to a “fantasy MMO” using the basic framework of the rules which you could use to help ease players into the setting if they’re coming from something like D&D or Pathfinder.

Art by Neil Branquinho, courtesy of R. Talsorian Games
Or just toss’em in the deep end, let their murderhobo tendencies run wild. Your call.

As a sci-fi setting, Cyberpunk RED does what good sci-fi usually does. It presents a world seemingly more advanced than our own, but one which is all too familiar in many respects, exaggerated but not oppressively so. More importantly, it has plenty of room for GMs to tell a wide range of stories and for players to explore a broad array of characters, in every conceivable combination of tone and style. For all the advice, suggested media resources, and detailed explanations, Cyberpunk RED doesn’t dictate the outcome of everything. It’s up to you to find your own use for it.

This review was primarily based off a digital copy of the game provided by the company.

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