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Thursday, 1 August 2019

The Cyberpunk IV Starter

Cyberpunk returns in 2019. The original roleplaying game which drew from Cyberpunk literary subgenre—of which William Gibson’s Neuromancer was a leading example—was first published by R. Talsorian Games Inc. in 1988 as Cyberpunk (now known as Cyberpunk 2013) before being given as a second edition as Cyberpunk 2.0.2.0. in 1990. Putting aside the less than well-received Cyberpunk V3.0 of 2005, what is in effect the fourth edition of the roleplaying game—Cyberpunk Red—comes out ahead of the highly anticipated computer roleplaying game, Cyberpunk 2077, but is itself given a preview in the form of the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit. This is a quick-start for the roleplaying game, which introduces both the new rules and the updated background, both of which will be familiar to veteran Game Masters and players of previous versions of Cyberpunk, as well as providing a full scenario to play and several hooks for the Game Master to develop. The Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit comes with both a Jumpstart Rulebook and a Jumpstart Worldbook, plus a Rules Reference, four battle maps, a set of character and vehicle standees, and six pre-generated characters. This is all included in both the physical and PDF versions—the version being reviewed here—of the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit and the only major difference between the two is the inclusion of dice in the physical version.

Cyberpunk Red takes place in the Time of the Red. The Golden Age of Cyberpunk, of freewheeling embrace of technology, acceptance of cyberware as a way of life, of easy access to the NET where Netrunning console cowboys and cowgirls jockeyed for prestige as raided corporate networks, of the massive growth of corporations as extraterritorial entities, all radically dividing the future into one of extreme haves and havenots. That ended on August 20th, 2023, when a ‘pocket nuke’ was detonated in the Arasaka headquarters in the west coast metroplex of Night City. It ended the Fourth Corporate War between Arasaka and Militech, devastated Night City, and brought economic and environmental devastation to the world, causing a depression which continues two decades on... It ended corporate domination, reducing corporations to being local and international; turned much of the USA into a new Wild West where safe travel could often be promised by the Nomad tribes. For years after the nuclear detonation, the sky was red and still is at dawn dusk, leading the new age to be known as the Time of the Red.

Night City is a frontier town, an independent city state rebuilding after the effects of the bomb. Services, supplies, and law enforcement are what you pay for. The reduced corporations still supply and provide almost everything, from power to food to medical services to media, often brought in by Nomad tribes that run transport in the new North America, independents do grow real food though, and whilst the corporations have their own security, freelancers and bodyguards are available for hire, though the city maintains a Maximum Force Tactical Division or ‘Psycho Squad’ or ‘MAX–TAC’ which handles cybernetic criminals or anyone suffering from Cyberpsychosis. As inhabitants of Night City, you get your information from city wide freestanding dataterms and news from screamsheets downloaded to a personal agent helps you with your daily life from phone calls to shopping; you wear clothing able to emit sounds and video, even monitor your condition; you do your shopping at self-contained, armed and armoured Vendits; you eat kibble or good prepack food if you can; and you go armed. Either a Polymer One-shot easily bought or printed, or something bigger purchased from a Fixer after it has been scavenged from the Fourth Corporate War or smuggled into the city. The same goes for Cyberware... 

In terms of what you can play, Cyberpunk Red offers nine roles or Edgerunners—Execs, Fixers, Lawmen, Medias, Nomads, Netrunners, Rockerboys, Solos, and Techs. In the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit, just six of these are provided as pre-generated characters. They are a Fixer, a Netrunner, a Nomad, a Rockerboy, a Solo, and a Tech. Fixers are dealmakers smugglers, organisers, and information brokers; Netrunners are the cybernetic master hackers of the post-NET world and brain burning secret stealers; Nomads are transportation experts and the ultimate road warriors; Rockerboys are rock and roll rebels who use performance and rhetoric to fight authority; Solos are assassins bodyguards, killers, and soldiers for hire in a lawless new world; and Techs are renegade mechanics and doctors patching up meat and metal alike. Each pre-generated Edgerunner is given a two-page character sheet. On the front is an illustration and some background, whilst on the reverse are the stats, skills, armour, weapons, cyberware and gear, and life path. Skills, armour, weapons, cyberware, and gear are all fixed, but stats and lifepath are not. So the Rockerboy wears Kevlar armour on her head and body, is armed with a heavy pistol, and has Cyberaudio and a Slice & Dice monowire cyberware installed, but like all of the pre-generated Edgerunners, she has a table of stat arrays to roll on and blank spaces on the lifepath. Before play, a player simply rolls on the table of stat arrays to get his character’s stats and then rolls on the Lifepath table—a feature of Cyberpunk going all the way back to Cyberpunk 2013 and replicated in a stripped back version in the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit—to determine his Background, Motivation, Goals, Friends (other than the player characters), Enemies, Romance, and Personality. This nicely adds a degree of variation between the player characters and gets them rolling dice even before play.

At the heart of Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit are two books, the forty-five page Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Rule Book and the fifty-three page Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart World Book. Intended for both Game and player, ‘Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Rule Book’ quickly delves into what Cyberpunk Red is all about—style over substance, attitude over everything, and living on the edge in fighting a cause those that would oppress you, from rapacious corporations and nihilistic boostergangs to road raiders and organised crime. It covers various aspects of the Cyberpunk setting, such as a cyberfashion, cyberpsychosis, and cyberware, the latter exploring how they work and where they can be obtained. It breaks down a character, explaining what the stats and skills are as well as what the three means of character generation are in Cyberpunk Red. These are Street Rat (templates), Edgerunner (fast and dirty via dice rolls on tables), and The Complete Package (point construction), with the Street Rat method having been used in the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit. Notably missing from the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit are Role Abilities. In Cyberpunk Red, each of the various Roles—or character types—has an ability associated with it, for example, ‘Streetdeal’ for Fixers and ‘Combat Sense’ for Solos, but in the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit, only the Netrunner has her Role Ability, ‘Interface’, which she uses when Netrunning.

Mechanically, the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit and so Cyberpunk Red uses the Interlock system. In general, for his Edgerunner to do anything, a player will roll a ten-sided die and add the Edgerunner’s Stat and Skill (or Role Ability) to the result in order to beat a Difficulty Value. This Difficult Value is fourteen for an Everyday task, eighteen for a Competent task, twenty-two for Heroic, and so on. Critical successes—rolls of ten—enable a player to keep rolling and adding to his total as long as he keeps rolling ten, whereas Critical failures—rolls of one—forces him to roll again and subtract from the total, but just the once. In combat, chases, and so on, the rolls tend to be opposed, both sides rolling and adding their character’s Stat and appropriate Skill.

Where in previous editions of Cyberpunk, combat was handled in the ‘Friday Night Firefight’ rules, but in Cyberpunk Red it is covered in ‘Thursday Night Throwdown’. They present a set of streamlined rules in just a few pages, but designed for ease of play and to avoid getting mired in details. Notably though, they include rules for handling reputational combat, enabling Edgerunners and NPCs to face off against each other without the need to draw weapons (yet). Overall, the rules feel slicker and easier to understand, there being not too much for the Game Master to learn and impart to her players.

There is though a bit more to learn and handle when it comes to Netrunning. Whatever the Cyberpunk-inspired roleplaying game—Cyberpunk 2.0.20. or Shadowrun—handling the virtual space of the Matrix and one player character’s interactions within it, has always been a time consuming process. In Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit and so Cyberpunk Red, netrunning is still relatively complex, but because the NET is no longer accessible, in the Time of the Red, a Netrunner has to accompany his fellow Edgerunners in order to access the target facility’s local VPN on the spot, accessing cyberspace via a cyberdeck and viewing it through Virtuality goggles–headsets which project cyberspace imagery over the ‘meatspace’ view of the world. Like combat in ‘Thursday Night Throwdown’, netrunning has been simplified and streamlined, a Netrunner typically moving from level to level in a VPN via an elevator, scanning and mapping the VPN in an attempt to locate an objective, control nodes for Meatspace devices, and so on, avoiding or fleeing Black ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics). Since this all takes place in the virtual space, the likelihood is that a Netrunner will have more actions than his compatriots outside in Meatspace, so will be doing more and so taking up more time between himself and the Game Master. 
There is a lot to learn here in comparison to the rest of the mechanics and setting presented in the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit, hence the Netrunning rules receiving a whole chapter of their own. The rules do feel slicker and easier than in previous editions of Cyberpunk and it helps that there is an extended sample of play, but this is the one chapter in the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit that requires close study.

The Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart World Book covers the history and setting of Cyberpunk Red from 1990 to 2045, focusing primarily on Night City and its environs in the aftermath of the Fourth Corporate War. Much of it comes with commentary from an in-game historian and commentator, whilst for the Game Master is given good advice on running Cyberpunk Red, including reasons why disparate characters would be together and how their Roles would work in a series of different team concepts, types of missions which could be run, and a discussion of the style and tone of a game. Rounding the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart World Book is a single adventure, ‘The Apartment’, and three scenarios. The three scenarios are built around Screamsheets and in turn involve a hijacking, a hostage situation, and a raid. The Game Master will need to do a bit more development and preparation on the three scenarios, but all come with clever twists and interesting set-ups. ‘The Apartment’ is more involving and adheres to the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit’s adage for the Game Master to keep it personal. This has the Edgerunners all living in the same apartment block when a corporation decides to take possession. The Edgerunners get to interact with the other residents before it all goes down, whilst the Game Master is given multiple options as to how the corporation moves in as well actions that the various player character Roles might undertake in defence of their homes. There is room here for her to expand the scenario just a little, perhaps have the corporation make multiple attempts. This is a really nice little adventure, one that gives the player and their Edgerunners a sense of home and place, in readiness for the scenarios to come.

In addition, the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit includes an ‘EZ Reference’ sheet in two formats—a four-page portrait format and a two-page tabloid format; a set of standees to print out and use, which includes the pre-generated Edgerunners, vehicles, and NPCs; and four maps, a street corner, a section of the open road, an office area, and a bar. All are done in full colour with the ‘EZ Reference’ sheet giving the basic mechanics, Ranged to Hit difficulties, weapon damages, action and combat modifiers, cyberware details, Netrunner actions, and NPCs.

Physically, everything in the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit is presented in full colour. The layout is clean and tidy, the illustrations are fully painted pieces and excellent. Barring the need for a little editing in places, the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit is a readable product.

There are two issues with the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit. One is that its background does not what good Cyberpunk does, and that is that it does not fetishise product names and models. No weapons or cyberware are named, so that all of the gear feels flat and generic, rather than giving flavour as it should. The other is the complexity of the Netrunning rules, which are time consuming in comparison to the rest of the rules in the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit. The first issue can at best be ignored, but the second will require a little more study on the part of both the Game Master and the Netrunner player. Then patience in play by the rest of the players.

Although it does not give every option (some players may be disappointed by only having six Roles available), the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit gives a solid snapshot of the Time of the Red and the Roles of the players can roleplay, all supported by solid mechanics and some decent, though short scenarios. Overall, the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit is a slick introduction to the updated world of Cyberpunk Red in an attractive and accessible package.

2 comments:

  1. I have a question: you wrote "Rockerboys are rock and roll rebels who use performance and rhetoric to fight authority".

    From what I understand, in the original Cyberpunk, Authority would be either the State or Corps (where the Corps becoming more and more important while the State was constantly losing ground).
    On the other hand, RED period looks like we are going more towards a world not so different from the first Mad Max movie: Corps have been greatly reduced in power, and yet State is far from making a comeback, especially around Night City.

    So, I am sure there are forms of Power that can be oppressive and violent, but these do not look like something we could call "Authority", and as a consequence, I doubt that concerts or videos might really be a viable way to fight back.

    In other words, maybe "Rocker" does not make much sense anymore as a character concept?

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  2. To be honest this is not a question which can be answered from the starter box set like this. You will need the full roleplaying game.

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