GameCentral takes a look at the new version of the tabletop RPG that inspired Cyberpunk 2077 and how it differs from CD Projekt’s game.
Did you play the Scottish cyberpunk tabletop role-playing game SLA (pronounced ‘slay’) Industries in the 1990s? No? Perhaps it’s more likely you’ve enjoyed watching Blade Runner or read Neuromancer by William Gibson? If so the forthcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077 should already be on your radar. But, as you might already know, it’s based on an existing tabletop game, which just so happens to have released a new edition this month.
R. Talsorian Games, with the help of the creators of the original 1988 game, including Mike Pondsmith, have released an ‘onramp’ to the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 video game. It’s called Cyberpunk Red and now, all concerned are hoping, would be the perfect time to play this newly streamlined game before immersing yourself into the video game version.
The inspiration for Cyberpunk 2020, as it was back then, was the book Hardwired by Walter Jon Williams and the original Blade Runner movie. Mike Pondsmith loved the idea of a balanced story but one where no one ever wins and there are no superheroes. And so he created the original Cyberpunk, which exists within its own fictional timeline, that splits from the real world in 1990.
The backdrop is Night City, somewhere on the west coast of the USA, close to L.A. and San Francisco. Cyberpunk Red is the fourth edition of the game and set in 2045 after the Fourth Corporate War and a nuke has laid waste to parts of the city. The sky is fallout red and the game really wants to make it clear you’re not in the Forgotten Realms anymore.
Before you start to play, remember there’s nothing flashy or shiny about Cyberpunk. The game master should make sure there’s an atmosphere of grunginess and persistent paranoia heavy in the air, so turn down the lights and pour yourself a Samurai Cola.
Just like Dungeons & Dragons, you’ll need a suitable room or a zoom meeting with several friends to play, friends who are keen on spending more than a few hours creating characters and being part of a story. One person has to be the game master (it’s not a dungeon master because there are no dungeons) who manages the storytelling and how the dice roles are interpreted in terms of the rules.
Just like a video game role-player your characters’ stats determine what they can and cannot do, with the dice roles adding a random element in terms of whether they’re able to use their skills effectively at any given time. Compared to other tabletop role-players It’s pretty easy to die in Cyberpunk Red, so you’ll want to make sure you invest in combat skills and use your minions as cannon fodder while you stay out of range.
Cyberpunk Red features 10 roles (essentially classes): Rockerboys, Solos, Techs, Medtechs, Medias, Execs, Lawmen, Fixers, and Nomads – which will all soon become familiar from the video game. Each of these character roles has a massive pool of abilities you can put skill points into, including a special role ability which differentiates them from one another. For example, there’s the Lawman role of calling for back-up in sticky situations or the Media role ability of credibility for finding out sensitive information.
Cyberpunk Red has simplified things for beginners and allows you to choose from one of three packages to create a character. The Street Rat package gets you started the quickest by giving you a pre-rolled group of stats (basically a template character) that doesn’t need changing. The Edgerunner package allows you to add a small amount of customisation, while the Complete Package is the classic, complex but rewarding method of complete custom character creation.
The common choice for new players is to roll a Rockerboy character, so you can be just like Keanu Reeves’ character Johnny Sliverhand and become one of Night City’s desperate and disillusioned. Rockerboys have the ability to recruit fans and depending on your rank, starting at 4, they will help complete tasks for you. However, you need rank 5 to 6 for the interesting things, like having your own gang and getting people to commit crimes for you.
Your back story and lifepath opens up not just new pathways but new styles for how you can play, and since attitude is everything don’t forget to put some of your points in the Cool stat.
Also, don’t forget your cyberwear before heading out on The Street! Enhancements allow you to customise your character with internal and external damage, healing, exotics, and/or straightforward fashionable upgrades. However, everything will cost you some of your humanity and could easily push you into cyberpsychosis, which again is something the video game will try to reflect.
Friday Night Firefight is the exhaustive combat system for Cyberpunk Red and the rule book comes with plenty of sheets and tables to allow your game master to guide you through any street battle, even one including an AV4 – which is basically a heavily armed flying riot van. These rules cover all manner of combat with small arms, rocket launchers, and melee weapons. There are also rules for critical injuries, rules for destructible terrain, and rules for fighting from and with vehicles.
There are three starting scenarios included at the back of the book and these begin with Screamsheets, which offer the start of a story that characters can jump into. These are intended to be given out like a free newspaper, to build some hype for the new edition. Cyberpunk Red also ends with a novella called Black Dog, which introduces characters created and inspired by some of the writers’ real-life friends with prosthetic limbs.
Black Dog helps to reinforce the lore of Cyberpunk with nuance and emotion. There is a richness and depth to the fiction of a tabletop role-playing game that doesn’t compare to a video game, book or a movie – which will often just show you a vertical slice of a world. The beauty of the Cyberpunk franchise – with its history, wealth, and depth of lore – is that it allows you a huge palette to work with as you play.
Cyberpunk Red has plenty of stat tables to tackle but overall, it’s an accessible, well laid out and visually compelling book, offering you your chance to explore Night City the way you want to, before having to follow a level designer’s quest chain.
It’s been suggested that role-playing video games are getting too predictable, but this should never happen with a tabletop role-player because they give almost limitless player choice. Hopefully in CD Projekt Red, the developers of Cyberpunk 2077, R. Talsorian Games have found the best team to take the dark future of Night City forward, but if you want to see where it all began then Cyberpunk Red is a surprisingly accessible way to do so.
The digital version of Cyberpunk Red was released on November 14, 2020, with the physical edition due out on November 19, 2020.
By Lucy Orr
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