RPG Reviews – Cyberpunk Red

Cyberpunk Red (R. Talsorian Games)

Like with many of us, it started with Neuromancer and a sky the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. My original copy is staring at me from my bookshelf as I type this. When my father handed me the slim paperback and I cracked it’s spine, I entered a world of digital cowboys, razorgirls, and advanced AI scheming for its own independence. You changed jobs through corporate extraction executed by mercenaries and attitude was everything. I loved its counter-culture nature, its examination of how we interact with our technology, and how it told stories of people living on the fringe of this corporate-dominated world.

I never played the original Cyberpunk rpg or the other editions. I admit to possibly overlooking it in favor of something that also included magic and elves… As a result, I don’t know what I missed at the time. Good things were always written about it and it sounded excellent, but I never took the dive. That’s ok though, because now I’m not about to miss out on the Dark Future of Cyberpunk Red.

Disclaimer: this copy was provided to me for purpose of review.

Art by Eve Ventrue

You may be reading this as a newcomer to the franchise, like me. Maybe your interest was piqued by the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077, or you like R.Talsorian’s excellent library of games, or you’re just in the mood for a gritty, violent, atmospheric game where you fight the system, fight for what you believe (or cash), and fade away in a hail of bullets.

We Write Warnings, Not Blueprints

The world of Cyberpunk Red begins in our 1980s and it’s arguable that it follows a similar thematic path, only deviating to include more awesome cybertechnology and to become dark science-fiction much more quickly. The scary part of the cyberpunk genre are that, of course, it really closely resembles our world. There is rampant capitalism that controls government, mass-marketing and surveillance culture aims to pacify the masses, and the disenfranchised grow with each day.

Visually, Cyberpunk Red resembles a slightly more hi-tech version of 80s and 90s action/thriller movies, “Like Escape From New York”, “Strange Days”, and “Johnny Mnemonic”, or video games like the “Deus Ex” series. Despite all the shiny, sleek chrome, it’s a steel future, not a plastic and glass iFuture. It rains (not all the time), people crowd the cramped streets, the wealthy look down on the population from their enclaves and attempt to recapture their power.

There’s a deep history section leading up to the “present day” of 2045. If you’re an old fan I imagine much of it will be familiar, either from the previous editions or from the adventures and sourcebooks that moved the timeline along to Cyberpunk Red. Much of the background focuses on the Americas, with some overview of the rest of the world at various points in time. I wasn’t sure how to take the history at first, but since it’s only been 25 years since Cyberpunk 2020, for example, not much time has passed in the grand scheme of things, so the history is perfect for pulling plots and antagonists: “Team Strike Force? I remember them, didn’t they go dark after this failed operation? What do you mean they’re back??”

Since I won’t get too deep into the history, here are the main points for someone new to the game, to help set you up for Cyberpunk Red. America collapses, beginning in the 90s, as infrastructure falls apart and self-serving psychopaths take control of the U.S. government. Free States split off and global warming damages the Midwest. Megacorporations have already been dominating the economy and they then step in to control manufacturing and agriculture on the continent, further cementing their control. Plagues hit, cybernetics rise in popularity and are in turn controlled by the Corps and governments, who use them to enhance their thugs and soldiers. This works out well for so many people. What brings us to Cyberpunk Red is the result of Corporate conflict. After three previous “Corporate Wars”, where they, now political entities unto themselves, war with each other, the Fourth Corporate War ends with a pocket nuke detonating in the west coast city-state of Night City, causing massive devastation. The current U.S. government steps in to nationalize one of the Corps and banish another, and the Time of The Red (named after the red skies in the years following the detonation) begin. One of the other consequences of the war is the damage caused to the NET. Due to the actions of one particular Netrunner, the NET crashes and what remains is infested with swarms of killer programs. In the years of the Time of the Red, the rebuilding means networks become much more localized and power bases are no longer quite as spread out. It’s a perfect time to start a new game, as the influence of all the previous power blocks has reduced significantly, and ambitious go-getters can…go get their slice of the pie.

Art by Adrian Marc

Heroes of Chrome

Before getting into the mechanics of character creation, we’re given a few brief notes on what kinds of characters are intended for the game. What I feel helps make a game stand out is when it’s clear about its intent, so a section like this is very valuable. It communicates theme and style and helps avoid character types that will throw off the vibe of the game. Cyberpunk characters are not necessarily shining paragons of virtue – they’re the best we have in a time that needs heroes. They are survivors and antiheroes, digging deep into the noir roots of the genre. Three concepts are presented as being essential to portraying a Cyberpunk character:

  1. Style Over Substance: Be cool and if you’re going to do something, look good while doing it.
  2. Attitude Is Everything: Think you are, therefore you are. Act like a player to be a player – if you don’t communicate you are a force to be reckoned with, nobody will take you seriously.
  3. Live on the Edge: You’re not a wallflower, so live big. Risk everything, because a big chance equals a big payoff. Whether it’s for a cause, your own reputation, or cash, commit to it – you can make the difference.

PCs in Cyberpunk Red belong to one of ten Roles. Roles are occupations that reinforce the playstyle of the game, but they’re not restrictive – they’re more “areas of specialization” and concept. While you have the expected types like Solos (combat-oriented), Netrunners (hackers), Techs and Medtechs (mechanics and inventors and doctors), and Fixers (Faces, information brokers), you also have some other interesting choices. These include Rockerboys (performance artists and rabble-rousers), Medias (reporters and social influencers), Execs (Corporate power brokers), Lawmen (law enforcement), and Nomads (drivers and vehicle experts). Not all of these types may fit every group: a hardcore anti-corporate team probably wouldn’t have an Exec or Lawman among them, as there’d be a lot of internal conflict, but you could still make it work. While they’re all interesting, I think the Media and Rockerboy are the most innovative (I’m aware they were in the original Cyberpunk) as their focus is outside the “shoot and stab ’em” solutions and actually work for lasting change.

Each Role has a unique ability, tracked like a Skill, that will allow them certain advantages that suit their concept. The Solo has increased combat effectiveness, the Exec gains material goods and corporate influence, the Rockerboy can influence crowds and rile up their fans, the Netrunner (obviously) has the ability to interface with the NET and perform some 1ee7 hacking, and so on. Characters aren’t fully restricted to one Role either. As their initial Role Ability increases they can eventually shift their focus into the domain of other Roles and pick up their Ability too. Because the game is Skill-based rather than power-based, there doesn’t seem to be a massive mechanical disadvantage to doing that, since you can still raise your initial Role Ability anyway.

Character creation itself is a delight. It uses a Lifepath system for character background, and you can roll on the tables or choose options, ending up with a character with a full personality, history, friends and enemies, etc. On the numbers-side, there are 3 different methods of character generation. Streetrats works from Templates, allowing you to quickly build a character by rolling on a few tables and is perfect for first-timers. Edgerunners is equally fast, makes more choices for you, but allows you more flexibility in how you distribute Skill points, for example. The third, Complete Package, allots points to each stage, allowing players to distribute them as they see fit and make exactly the character they want. All three methods also apply to gear and cyberware, so only the Complete Package allows you absolute freedom with the numbers. They’re all great methods and I think it was really smart to include them. The first two are helpful for new players or players who just want a suitable character based off their archetype, eventually moving on to the third when they’re comfortable with the game. Equally, experienced gamers will be happy with the third option.

Rules and statistics for material goods (gear, housing, etc) is looped into the Character Creation sections. This is actually pretty useful, because it means you’re not jumping around the book looking in those sections when it comes time to make your character. It’s also fitting since your gear is representative of your PC – after all, your fashion style and housing say something about who your character is, so in a way, that is a key part of character development. While weapons and gear may be in this section, cyberware gets its own chapter since the game needs to discuss a variety of concepts surrounding technology – so let’s talk cyberware!

Art by Anselm Zielonka

In the Dark Future, anyone who is anyone is modded. It’s cool and stylish to have enhancements, even if it’s just essentially implanting a smartphone in your head. If you live on the Edge, they’re critical to keeping your…well, edge. The best Runners have the best cyberware to keep ahead of the game. That right there can be a baked-in motivator for PCs to take on jobs. There is a danger inherent in installing cyberware. This is a mechanic known as “Cyberpsychosis”, which in older editions kicked in the more characters modified themselves. Mods reduced your Humanity rating, causing the character to become disconnected from their humanity and more inclined to behave like a psychotic killer robot. However, Cyberpunk Red now presents Cyberpsychosis in a way that doesn’t make you less human for having any changes made. They do this in a couple of ways: first, by clearly stating that not all cyberware and augmentation contribute to cyberpsychosis. Medical-grade cyberware that functions as a replacement has no Humanity cost, nor do medical implants, gender affirmation surgery, or “other forms of therapeutic body modifications.” The only time cyberware can (not will) cost Humanity is when it is used to “replace perfectly functional body parts or enhance the body beyond the human baseline”. That’s the deeper explanation of Cyberpsychosis. What’s nice is that the authors precede that by flatly stating that it only occurs in people with “preexisting psychopathic tendencies”, so all of the above will only apply in those circumstances. That means you can leave it for antagonists and no player has to worry about what an integral part of the game suggests about the real world.

When I say integral I mean integral, if that wasn’t already communicated. Cyberware can be purchased from chain stores in shopping malls, walk-in medical centers, or on the street. It includes style and fashion modifications, sensory enhancements, internal or external body modifications like gills, antibodies, subdermal pockets, standard limb replacements that can be further modified with tools and weapons, skeletal support enhancements, recording devices, there’s a whole wealth of options for both civilians and Edgerunners. The rules for how they work and affect play are very brief and clear, which I really like.

Running the Edge

The rules and mechanics for Cyberpunk Red follow a traditional method, which is nice and straightforward, giving it the ability to cover all required gameplay circumstances. Characters are made up of STATS (innate abilities like Reflexes, Will, Body, Empathy, and others) and Skills (learned abilities like Business, Tactics, Bribery, combat skills, etc.). When required to make a roll to determine success in a task, players make a Skill Check, where they roll 1d10 + the appropriate Skill Base (the sum of the relevant STAT + Skill). This is compared to a Difficulty Value (for static checks), or the opponent’s Check result (when the action is opposed). The text is very clear about what can be done during a scene of conflict or combat round – how many actions are allowed, what actions are allowed, how quickly players can move, circumstantial modifiers for Skill Checks, etc. I really like that each Skill gives a description of what a character is capable of at various Skill Bases: at 10 Pick Pocket they can make good money if they’re careful, at 14 they could work a Corporate Zone and pick up ID badges without problem. It really helps with the narrative and establishes norms for characters. It’s also nice that Netrunners receive more “NET actions” each turn than regular actions, to better represent their “speed-of-thought” abilities.

Combat works off the same mechanic and players are warned that it is particularly deadly. In fact, there’s a whole section on healing, recovery, and trauma that opens with a sidebar on “what to do when a character inevitably dies.” All rolls “pop”, meaning a roll of 10 is rolled again once and added to the total, and 1s rerolled once and subtracted from the total. This means you have a 2 in 10 chance of something horrible (or fantastic) happening. Damage inflicted sends characters into different Wound States which apply penalties to future rolls, so wear armor and use cover (including Human Shields – no really, there’s an action with specific rules on putting another person between you and harm’s way.) There’s a robust set of Vehicle Combat rules that are straightforward and intuitive, perfect for your Road Warrior highway scenes or downtown chases. They’ll get especially cool when the drivers have implants that let them drive without hands, freeing them up for guns and swords.

It’s worth noting that not all characters need to be equally combat-focused regarding their character sheet. They might have some capability in the area, but are talkers, not fighters. That’s where Reputation comes in. A character’s actual Reputation Level is assigned by the GM when they feel the character has done something noteworthy (good or bad). This modifies first meetings with NPCs and helps reinforce the importance of attitude in Cyberpunk Red. Mechanically it’s used in Facedowns, where characters square off and roll an opposed check, making use of their Reputation. If the loser doesn’t back down they’ll have penalties on actions against their opponent until certain criteria are met.

If you’re an old-school Cyberpunk player, Netrunning will look a little different to you. Due to the in-setting worldwide crash of the NET and destruction of its infrastructure, networks are now much more localized, presented as Augmented Reality networks. Netrunners use a cyberdeck and Virtuality Goggles to interact with the AR, though can still plug their complete consciousness into the NET. That’s not a great idea however, as the requirement to be in the physical vicinity of the network means they’ll want to be able to observe their surroundings too. This is a great solution to leaving the Netrunner at home and having the party automatically split and updates the technology to more closely resemble our own.

Netrunning looks tense and exciting, with pulse-pounding action as the user navigates through an “elevator-like” Architecture, uncovering files, control nodes, and deadly Black ICE programs. The GM gets excellent guidelines for building the Architecture and populating it with threats to provide a challenge for the Netrunners in your group.

Art by Darius Kalinauskus

Your Dark Future

Some gamemaster sections are good, some cover the basics, some excel. Cyberpunk Red excels. There’s so much guidance on building atmosphere, including sensory aids like music and lighting. GMs are encouraged to heighten the paranoia of the setting, of never knowing who is on your side or who is about to double-cross you, to play fast and harsh and only occasionally give the characters a chance to breathe. Coupled with the danger of combat it could result in a particularly intense experience, so remember your safety tools.

Because of the aforementioned paranoia, it’s understandably difficult to make sure the team is even willing to work together, so a decent amount of content is given to framing a Cyberpunk game around specific team concepts.

One of the most helpful parts is the section on story beats. The Beat Chart is a step-by-step method of “scripting” your game, helping establish the hook, the conflict, the resolution, and all that comes between. There are so many examples for each that you’re really spoiled for choice. Among those choices you’re given advice on timing and challenge levels to help the game flow and to not kill the team too quickly. Of course, it is acknowledged that “scripting” a session ultimately comes down to improvising while the players run totally off-course, so it encourages flexibility around the intended events. This is content that could easily be applied to other games and is a section I really enjoyed reading. To assist the GM, a few “Screamsheets” – short pre-made plots – are presented. They exemplify the earlier advice and provide some archetypal scenarios for your use.

Art by Pedram Mohammadi

To provide even further assistance, a good chunk of the book is used to describe the setting of Night City and day-to-day life in Cyberpunk Red. With world history and events already covered, this gives players and GMs a ready-made, iconic home base bursting with genre tropes. Night City was manufactured on the site of Morro Bay, California, by corporate tycoon Richard Night, who built it as an example of the “new capitalism.” It’s a massive Free State sprawl that has been the site of numerous stories throughout the Cyberpunk franchise and was the location of the bomb that brought about the Time of the Red. It’s been rebuilt by its government and Edgerunner allies, by Nomad families and other corporations. It’s a mix of ruined city terrain, dangerous Combat Zones, cramped suburbs and high-end Executive Zones. The geography and factions are well-covered and GMs will have answers for players looking for transportation services, key locales, how law & order is handled, media – everything you need to bring the setting to life. Random tables help you create Night Markets, where your players can find food, the latest fashion, cyberware and gear. Detailed charts list out available gear and how to manage your Lifestyle and Housing and how to make a living. There’s some overlap in the gear information with the Character Creation section, but it also expands on it, describing the items and their function in more detail.

The Fixin’s

The actual book (or digital copy, as I’m experiencing it) is really nicely done. The art is great and really communicates the atmosphere and the design & layout makes it very easy to absorb the content. Sidebars elaborate on the content of the text and it’s been presented in a way to minimize flipping. For example, the Autofire rules reference the weapon’s maximum Autofire rating, then just tells you, rather than making you check the weapon table again. The Intro chapter is especially good at positioning you to be ready to dive right into the game and includes “Want to know about…” tiles that direct you right to where you need to be to learn about Food, Drugs, Entertainment, Neocorps, Netrunning – all the major topics. Very nice inclusion that.

Cyberpunk Red is perfect for those who want a gritty, post-collapse neo-noir cyberpunk game, full of tense action and attitude. It rests on a simple mechanic which is applicable across all facets of play, allowing all character types equal impact on the narrative. The text and rules support the intended style of play and it’s written as if someone is carefully explaining the setting to you. In The Witcher, I thought it was great how the book was ordered to walk players through everything, introducing each element without being overwhelming. Here it’s much the same – it starts with a primer to position you in the world, goes through the character types, then creation, then applies that to the core resolution mechanics, combat, cyberware, netrunning, and then gets deep into the setting, first with broad strokes, then more focused. It means by the time you’re “walking” around 2045, you have an avatar in mind. It’s a very smart method of organizing the book.

You can jack in to the world of the Dark Future and pick up Cyberpunk Red from the below affiliate link to help support this site!

DriveThruRPG (PDF)

Noble Knight (Print + PDF through Bits & Mortar)

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