We were first introduced to the world of Cyberpunk* with Cyberpunk 2020, back in 1988.
Writer and Designer Mike Pondsmith presented a game where you take on the role of the eponymous ‘Cyberpunks’- outcasts and rebels whose bodies are a fusion of flesh and technology, who use style, music and tech to fight back against a world of corporate greed and espionage.
In 2019, the world is primed for a triumphant return of Cyberpunk**.
Published by R. Talsorian Games, known most recently for their RPG set in the world of The Witcher, Cyberpunk Red advances the setting of it’s predecessor, and takes us into “The Time of the Red”, so named for the nuclear particles that hung in the air for this period, tinting the sky a bloody colour.
While the 2020’s of Cyberpunk presented a boom-town setting where megacorporations where at constant war, The Time of the Red is the United states after three decades of corrupt government and corporate greed. The nation is divided by class, race and economics.
As a platform for emotional and meaningful storytelling, Cyberpunk Red is perfect for players who want to explore something on a deep level, which often begins with what it means to be human, and ends with what it means to exist in the world that we do.
The Cyberpunk Red Jumpstark Kit was a smash hit at GenCon 2019, with stock selling out within hours of the exhibit hall opening on each day of the con.
I was lucky enough to get my hands on one of these piping hot boxes, and devoured it on the plane home from Indianapolis.
Like most RPG Beginner Boxes, the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit comes with everything you need to start playing right out of the box.
One of the most impressive things about the product is how it handles the premade characters, of which there are six.
While most introductory RPG products contain ready-to-play characters, the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit actually has customisation, allowing you to use the same character several times and have them feel different, or even customise the same character in multiple ways to allow two players to both play as a Rockerboy (one of the game’s classes), for example.
Mechanically, this customisation is not difficult, so if your group is new to RPG’s, or new to systems outside of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, you’re by no means about to be swallowed into a pit of complex numbers you do not understand.
Primarily, you’ll customise your character by randomly selecting one of six pre-generated core statistics lines (making your skill rolls have different modifiers depending on the stats you end up with).
Secondly, -and arguably more excitingly-, you’ll customise your character by defining their personality. From their background, motivation and goals, to their romantic life and their enemies. This means that if you want to play as the Netrunner but aren’t super thrilled with the character that’s been prepared, you can scrap them and make up you own fresh and unique Cyberpunk before diving into your first story.
While the box does contain a fully pre-written adventure, I was more drawn to the “Screamsheets”, several scenario seeds presented as adventure outlines for the GM to colour how they will, each of which accompanied by a player-handout that takes the form of a news page they might access on one of their character’s computer screens.
While the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit doesn’t contain rules for character advancement (which isn’t uncommon for an introductory product), it has enough content between the pre-written adventure and the Screamsheet scenarios to keep you going for several sessions- and then using the information contained in the World Book, you can start penning your own adventures in the world of Cyberpunk.
Mechanically, Cyberpunk Red is not complicated. Almost everything in the game is resolved in a similar fashion: You roll a single ten-sided dice, add your character’s relevant stat and skill, and see if that number beats the difficulty value set by the GM (or in the case of contested rolls, higher than your opponent’s roll).
This simple and easy-to-teach resolution system allows for more complex systems when it comes to cyberware, combat damage and, of course, Netrunning.
While the numbers and mechanics of Cyberpunk Red will never overwhelm you, they are still gracefully designed to add a good level of tactical depth and clear character individuality- particularly once you start modding yourself with cyberware by amping your hearing or putting three-inch carbo-glass claws into the tips of your fingers.
The original combat system from Cyberpunk 2020, Friday Night Firefight, has been replaced with the updated and streamlined Thursday Night Throw Down- a system that, like the rest of the mechanics of Cyberpunk Red, is designed to sustain the flow of play while still remaining tactically interesting.
While some devotees of older editions of Cyberpunk may miss some of the deeper and more complex combat mechanics of the Friday Night Firefight system, Thursday Night Throwdown will pair excellently with what new roleplayers in 2019 are comfortable with- and ultimately will result in more people playing Cyberpunk Red.
One of the stellar innovations of Cyberpunk Red is how the rules for Netrunning have been re-worked both mechanically and narratively to better work at the gaming table.
In many other games that feature ‘hacking’ or like-skills, players are often forced to sit on their hands while the computer-genius interfaces with a complex and indeed interesting system deisgned specifically for Netrunners. In the world of Cyberpunk Red, hackers can no longer jack-in to the Net from the comfort of their underwear in their lounge room- they have to be near an access point, and they need to hack in real-time.
This means that the Netrunner player has to come along physicaly with everyone else. The combat initiative system isn’t a far departure from what you’ll be familiar with if you’ve played D&D, but to represent the speed and talent of your Netrunner, they will be able to take multiple ‘Net Actions’ on each of their combat turns.
This is a nice compromise that keeps Netrunning happening in tandem with all the action, but doesn’t make the Netrunner feel less powerful or important.
Cyberpunk Red is an excellent experience that is now truly begging me to get my hands on the full rulebook (and I cannot wait!)
Thankfully, there are heaps of sessions and dozens of hours worth of content pouring out of this box, and I can’t wait to continue to explore Night City with my group!
*To be clear, when I refer to Cyberpunk, I’m explicitly talking about the game and world created by Mike Pondsmith and published by R. Talsorian Games. “Cyberpunk” as a genre is far-reaching and well explored, and what’s presented in Cyberpunk Red and Cyberpunk 2020 is by no means the definitive Cyberpunk. But it is a good one.
**Cyberpunk Red shares a world with the upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077, but is set 50 years prior to the title coming from developer CD Projekt Red.