Cyberpunk 2077 is due to be released in 2020, and the video game developed by CD Projekt Red is based on the creation of an RPG named Cyberpunk 2020 (they’ve moved the timeline a bit since then), created by Mike Pondsmith during the heyday of Cyberpunk and still published by his company R. Talsorian Games to this day. Cyberpunk Red is just the latest release in that series, due to launch later this year. The Jumpstart Kit (which I’m reviewing here) comes with a pre-built campaign to start, sample characters, ten classes to choose from, and more. The physical version has all of this as physical pages, plus character standees, vehicles, and a special set of dice.
But is it any good?
The quick and dirty disclaimer is, mileage varies for everyone. Cyberpunk as a concept is a dark and dingy future where nations are corporations and capitalistic exploitation is at its absolute worst. In the world of Cyberpunk Red, America is now a fascist state, run by a “president” but managed by corporate overlords who employ everyone from janitors to cops.
If you pause and say, hey, wait a minute, that sounds familiar, it’s because the science fiction postulate of the 80s is the actual future we’re now living in. But with less neon.
The tabletop RPG comes with its own detailed history dating back to the early nineties. The timeline is littered with violent corporate wars, singularity events, and more. It’s rich ground to grow characters.
So how do those characters look?
There are classes broadly similar to DnD; the Rockerboy is the Bard, the Solo is a tanky barbarian or fighter type, the fixer is a rogue, Nomad pairs with the Ranger, etc.
Each character comes with base stats, some armor, and some basic equipment like a heavy pistol or an SMG.
Weapons have effective range, falloff damage, etc.
On the surface it’s an easy-to-pick up RPG game with tons, and TONS, of flavor.
I’m a fan of cyberpunk, the neon, the aesthetic, the corporate future where you have to fight for your right to exist in a world that demands nothing but conformity and violent exploitation is all any child has to look forward to, growing up.
Some of the stats translate differently. Charisma is replaced with Cool (which is very cool), for example.
Because of the technical nature of this future, abilities like hacking, seeing in low-light, and more, are now cybernetic abilities, and take up slots in your character’s body.
Which means that if you start with an augmentation that boosts hearing to give you the power to eavesdrop, you can choose to later swap it out for something that gives you better vision in low-light.
Cyberpunk Red takes place in Night City, an urban sprawl built out of the space between LA and San Francisco. The city is diverse as far as biomes, landmarks, and attitudes. You can find slums, penthouses, factories, and everything in between.
If you don’t want to play specifically IN Night City, you don’t have to. The world-building is global, and there’s tidbits to tell what the rest of the world looks like in this nightmarish future.
And of course, you can make it up as you go along. One of the dedicated rules of playing Cyberpunk Red is to, in fact, break the rules.
It also says that Style is paramount over EVERYTHING else including Substance.
The Jumpstart Kit comes with its own campaign starter. It’s a basic game that takes place in a block around a privately owned apartment building.
It’s simple and interesting and introduces the core concepts of Cyberpunk fluidly. Everything is violence, no one can be trusted, and everyone’s under some sort of pressure from above. No one’s allegiances belong to themselves.
However; some of the descriptions in the world-building book are just needlessly edgy. It recommends that players be under pressure All The Time. Which; a good game master will keep challenging their players but telling the GM reading the rule book, “if your players can’t handle the pressure, they shouldn’t be playing Cyberpunk,” is just stupid to be quite honest. The point is to have fun, and feel cool, and maybe write a campaign that gives a sense of power to you and your players, all of whom are living in a world ever-increasingly manipulated by unstoppable corporations and never-ending wars.
And that’s the atmosphere IN GAME, too.
The game does come with cutouts for characters, some pre-built recommendations for a diverse party of six, player icons, and even some maps for the pre-built campaign.
It’s cool, and there’s deep potential to build something fascinating within this game. No two GMs are going to run the same campaign, and no two rockerboys are going to be similar.
The rules seem outwardly simple. If you want to do something, the GM will challenge that with a similar ability. If you’re hacking, it’ll involve either skill-checks or using an ability, and then rolling some dice to see how well it works.
Let’s Break It Down
Setting: Some of the details seem a little wonky like maybe the writers aren’t sure about population density and things like that. Night City looks and feels like a hybrid between LA and New York but only has five million people in it. LA, by itself, has more than thirteen million in real life. Twenty-two million live in New York City and its surrounding area. But that might be nit-picky.
Gameplay: If you like RPGs, then you’ll like this. Everyone wants to be Neo in the Matrix and you can do that here. Or be Shakespeare with a guitar. Or a hacker of such repute that computers divulge their data involuntarily rather than have you plug into them. If you like role-playing, you’ll enjoy the neon.
Character building: There are suggestions about how to put your character together, but as in cooking, you don’t make characters according to dice rolls and statistical analysis. You cook that shit up with your heart. The framework is simple to use and efficient.
World-building: Cyberpunk as a genre and as a gameplay system is incredibly dear to me. I love it, I’ve played it for years, I write my own stories in worlds like this, so on the whole I take it a little more seriously than most. And some of the “edgier” pieces of the world building rub me the wrong way. The slang-sheet for flavor especially, feels inauthentic. To me that sort of reeks of something made by a marketing committee. But in all things with RPGs: Your Mileage Will Vary.
Overall: I like cyberpunk, I feel like the systems here offer a good starting ground to build an adventure. I, personally, would revise some things before I dropped my players into it as a GM. The slang, especially.
As with all tabletop RPGs, it’s less about what the game looks like and more about what you build together with your players and the kind of work you put into presenting the world. There’s a lot here to play with no matter if you want a simple game night, or a campaign that takes months to complete with your party.
You can do it with Cyberpunk Red, and look cool while it happens.
You can pick up the digital version Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit on DriveThruRPG, where it’s currently on sale for $10.00. R.Talsorian has run out of the physical boxes, but you can keep an eye on their website for when they get restocked.