The year 2019 seems quite the year for the Cyberpunk genre, as we reach the year in which the genre classic film, Blade Runner, is actually set, and the classics of the genre in roleplaying see the release of either a new Starter Set and edition, for example, Shadowrun, Sixth Edition or Start Set with a new edition to come, for example, Cyberpunk Red. It is joined by Carbon 2185: A Cyberpunk RPG, a roleplaying game notable for being from a British publisher, Dragon Turtle Games, Ltd. and for its mechanics being derived from those used for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. From the outset then, the designers of Carbon 2185: A Cyberpunk RPG were faced with the challenge of adapting a set of rules strongly identified with Dungeons & Dragons and the fantasy genre to model entirely different genre. The good news is that they have succeeded and appropriately enough in 2019, have done so with a Cyberpunk roleplaying game heavily influenced by Blade Runner.
Published following successful Kickstarter campaign, the setting for Carbon 2185: A Cyberpunk RPG is the Earth of 2185, specifically San Francisco—a possible nod to the setting of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel on which Blade Runner is based. It is a future which begins literally tomorrow with climate collapse, resource depletion, and an ongoing refugee crisis as corporations begin expanding offworld, building orbital factories, searching for new resources, and supplying Earth with deuterium for the new coastal fusion plants. The discovery and manipulation of several wormholes which connected to other star systems resulted in ‘The Scramble for Stars’ in which the megacorporations raced to discover and exploit new worlds. Many were suitable for colonisation leading to a steady flow of those who could afford to pay or were prepared to work for corporations in return for their passage from Earth to “...[B]egin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure.” On these new worlds, the megacorporations were able to conduct research and development free from Earth’s oversight, which would lead to the introduction of Neurolink technology, Synths or biological androids, and power cell technology.
San Francisco is surrounded by high walls to protect it against the rising sea levels and has been long divided into five districts from the fortified and secure corporate zone of District 1 to the gang controlled, near slums of District 5. Debt and crime are rife and many prefer to spend their lives in Virtual Reality pods than the pollution drenched streets and tenements of the city. As ‘cyberpunks’, the player characters are rebels, wanting to live independently of the megacorporations, and in the given scenario in Carbon 2185: A Cyberpunk RPG, they are connected to gang which will give them a sense of family as well as employment.
At the core then of Carbon 2185: A Cyberpunk RPG are rules and mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. This means that it is a Class and Level roleplaying game, a twenty-sided die is rolled and bonuses added to determine success on an action, there are three Saving Throw types—Fortitude, Reflex, and Mind, and characters have Skill Proficiencies. There are changes, both minor and major, as you would expect. First off, instead of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, a character has the Abilities of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Technology, and People. Technology represents a character’s ability to deal with technology and People his ability to deal with people. Carbon 2185: A Cyberpunk RPG is primarily a humanocentric setting, so instead of Race it offers Origins, reflecting a character’s background. These are Badlander, who grew up in the heavily polluted regions between the Megacities where radiation has given the ability to see in the dark; the Gutter Punk, who grew up as street rats and in gangs; the Korporate Kid, orphans raised in corporate orphanages and are highly educated; and the Regular Joe. The two exceptions, are the Synth and the Wormer. The former is a cyborg manufactured offworld and indistinguishable from ordinary humans, but tougher and trained as warriors, companions, or labourers, whilst the latter is a human born in one of the low-gravity offworld colonies, forced to come to Earth as a refugee. Some of the Origins may have Suborigins, but not all.
Carbon 2185 has six Classes. These are Daimyo, Doc, Enforcer, Hacker, Investigator, and Scoundrel. The Daimyo specialises in heavy weapons and leading teams, the Doc is a healer whose hand implant can inject healing nanobots into the injured, and the Enforcer is trained to provide military, law enforcement, or combat support. The Hacker breaks into computer systems to steal information, but can also control botnets to access the local electronic infrastructure or even mechs; the Investigator is a private eye or a journalist; and the Scoundrel is a thief, a smuggler, or a street thug. Of the six it is possible to map some of them back onto the archetypal Classes of Dungeons & Dragons, so the Daimyo with its Fury is a little like the Barbarian Class, the Enforcer like the Fighter, and the Scoundrel like the Rogue, but there are differences enough between them so that the similarities are not intrusive. All have just the ten Levels versus the twenty of standard Dungeons & Dragons, although a player character needs more Experience Points per Level and it does mean that campaigns are likely to be shorter.
To create a character, a player rolls his Abilities—on 2d6+5 rather than four six-sided dice and drop the lowest, with the effect of giving a slightly smaller range, but less deviation or by assigning the given array. Besides selecting an Origin and a Class, a player generates two further aspects of his character. The first is Vice, for example, “I am addicted to Crush. If I go more than 24 hours without it, I suffer withdrawals” or “I like to keep and look after synthetic animals.” They include beliefs, additions, fears, obsessions, and so on, and represent both a roleplaying hook for the player and a story hook for the Game Master. Between adventures they can be indulged in to gain temporary Hit Points, but exactly how that works will be up to the Game Master and player to determine. The second aspect is the character’s Background, essentially what he did between leaving education and becoming a Cyberpunk. This consists of a number of five-contracts, the player deciding how many contracts he wants his character to go through before retiring to life as a Cyberpunk. Each contract is five years long and trains the character in various skill proficiencies and languages as well as providing him with several thousand Wonlongs (the currency in 2185) and a parting gift. A character is free to stay in the same career or switch, the latter typically to gain access to a wider variety of skills. The only downside to the process is that there is a chance of injury in each contract period which will end the contract without payment and should the character take too many contracts, he will suffer the effects of aging. The contracts include Corporate Drone, Criminal, Entertainer, Explorer, Laborer, Law Enforcement, Merchant, Military Technician, and Unskilled Worker. Overall, the Background generator feels like a simplified version of the terms used in Traveller and perhaps the only thing it could have done with, is some events to add further colour to the character’s background.
Name: PRV-1967-47 (Pierce)
Origins: Korporate Kid
Suborigins: High Flyer
Vice: I am careful and meticulous with my bonsai trees. Nothing distracts me when I am dealing with them.
Background: Contract Drone (4)
Languages: English, Japanese, Mandarin
Armour Class: 16 (DR/2)
Hit Points: 9
Strength 08 (-1)
Dexterity 16 (+3)
Constitution 12 (+1)
Intelligence 18 (+4)
Technology 16 (+3)
People 13 (+1)
Fortitude: 14 Reflex: 18 Mind: 20
Skill Proficiencies: Bureaucracy, Computing, Deception, Engineering, Hacking, Persuasion, Sense Motive
Armour Proficiencies: Helmets, Light Armour
Weapon Proficiencies: Melee Weapons, Pistols, SMGs, Shotguns
Saving Throw Proficiency: Mind
Exploits: Computer Interface, Hack Mech
Equipment: Advanced Comms, Concealable Ballistic Vest
Augmentation: ZA Korp Enhanced Aiming MK. II
Mechanically, Carbon 2185 is basically the same as Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, but it includes a number of rules additions to make it emulate the Cyberpunk genre. For example, in combat, armour not only provides an Armour Class value, but a Damage Resistance value against ballistic damage. This protects against most firearms—there being no energy weapons in 2185—but not melee weapons like vibro knives and some ammunition types. The rules allow for major injuries to be suffered when a character is reduced to zero Hit Points by a critical hit and instead a player rolling to attack when his character fires a gun in automatic mode, the defendants in the target area make a Reflex saving throw to avoid being hit. This neatly places the emphasis on the defendants trying to not get hit and keeping their heads down rather than on the attacker having to roll for each person.
Of course, the two signature aspects of Cyberpunk genre are Hacking and Cyberware. Both are very different to most other roleplaying games of the genre. In many of them, the Hacker character would have to play out sneaking into a network, overcoming the ICE, defeating the defending SysOp, and so on, all but a sub-game that none of the other players and their characters could participate. Further, all of that time spent in the computer network actually only took a few seconds in game time, but several minutes in real time. More contemporary approaches to the genre, as with Carbon 2185, simply have the Hacker be on the spot alongside his fellow Cyberpunks and his player making simple rolls to hack the local network, device, or mech. The one element of 2185 not discussed in Carbon 2185 is the nature of computer networks, but essentially the roleplaying game focuses on the local networks and leaves it up to the Game Master to decide that nature.
Cyberware is a bit more complex, but again different. In most other roleplaying games of the genre, installing cyberware detracts from your humanity or empathy—and in ShadowRun your capacity to cast magic—but that was never all that easy to roleplay. In Carbon 2185, cyberware, or augmentations, do not degrade your empathy; they poison you. Or rather, the power cells that power them do, leaking toxins and radioactivity into the blood. There are certain drugs which will counter both, but they are expensive and they have a limited effect, meaning that they need to be taken on a regular basis. Augmentations are arranged into tiers, the higher the tier, the greater its toxic effect, equal to its tier rating. Those on Tier 0, like Neurolink or an Enhanced HUD have no effect and the body can cope with them, but beyond that, from the Tier 1 Enhanced Aiming to the Tier 5 Supercharged Hidden Blade, and the augmentations begin poisoning the body. The base limitation or Blood Toxicity Limit is equal to twice a character’s Constitution modifier, so a character can have augmentations that add up to that before he considered to be poisoned. There are other limitations on augmentations. They can only be installed in seven locations—Neural, Eyes, Right Arm, Left Arm, Torso, Skin, and Legs—and only one augmentation can be installed per location. So they cannot be stacked in a location, but in general higher Tier augmentations are more powerful. There are also legal limitations, augmentations of Tier 3 requiring a licence, Tier 4 being reserved for the military and illegal for civilians to install, and Tier 5 being experimental. Of course, this does not mean that they are unavailable, but rather that they require certain Influence to acquire and they are expensive. The list of cyberware or augmentations is not extensive in Carbon 2185 as in other roleplaying games of the genre and some may be disappointed by the choice.
Influence represents a character’s standing and social cachet. It is measured on two tracks, Influence: Corporate and Influence: Street. Rated between one and twenty, at Influence: Corporate 1, a character gains access to the city’s auction houses or the black market for Influence: Street 1. At higher levels, a character can gain informants and access to higher augmentations. It will rise or fall depending upon the Cyberpunks’ actions, so kill an important member of a rival gang and Influence: Street will rise, but kill an important member of your own gang and it will probably fall. The Influence mechanic is fairly broad and open system with latitude for interpretation and nuance—and even expansion should the Game Master want to track the player characters’ Influence with multiple organisation.
As well as giving a timeline for its future of 2185 and describing the setting of San Francisco, Carbon 2185: A Cyberpunk RPG also includes tables of encounters district by district and a mission generator. It details the various corporations operating in the city, the many gangs—many organised along ethinic lines such as the Snakehead Tong, Aizutachi Yakuza, Diablos Eléctrico, and the Bratva, and groups of interest. The latter includes The Church of the Machine Bound God, fanatics obsessed with augmentations; The Enigma Collective, elusive hackers dedicated to toppling the corporations; The Synth Rebellion, which supports escaped Synths and protects them against the government’s ‘retirement agents’; and Villeneuve Robotics, a small, but ruthless synth design and manufacturing company. A number of NPCs are also detailed, ready for the Game Master to add to her game along with a wide range of enemies and villains, from Challenge 0 up to Challenge 11. They include civilians, gangsters, Wesleys—Crush addicts, spiderbot, mechs, synthdogs and canine mechs, retirement officers, cyberninja, liberated AI, spider tanks, and more.
Rounding out Carbon 2185 is the scenario, ‘Chow’s Request: A Carbon 2185 Adventure for 1st Level Cyberpunks’. The cyberpunks are asked by a gang leader to retrieve some stolen property from a rival gang. Various hooks are given as to why the cyberpunks might want to get involved, including being indebted, wanting to join the gang, and being an undercover law enforcement officer. It is decent enough scenario, basically a snatch and grab and its consequences, primarily focused combat. It would have been nice to see some options for Hacker Class for example.
Physically, Carbon 2185: A Cyberpunk RPG is a stunning looking book with a great cover and plenty of full colour artwork inside—although only in the first two thirds of the book. The layout tidy and looks impressive on its stark white pages. Unfortunately, dig a little deeper and there are one or two issues with the book’s production values. It does another edit, but the main problem is one of organisation in that a lot of the rules for actually creating a cyberpunk are in the rules section in the middle of the book rather than at the beginning and then the rules section comes after the one on combat. So expect to be flipping back and forth with Carbon 2185, especially when creating cyberpunks. None of this is helped of course, by the lack of index, an absurd omission in 2019, let alone 2185.
As solid a design as Carbon 2185: A Cyberpunk RPG is, it does feel slightly lacking places. There is lack of commercialisation in its depiction of 2185, in that every item will have a brand and the brand you use matters in the Cyberpunk genre. The corporations are mentioned, but the make and model of the items they sell. The presence of the media in the San Francisco feels underdeveloped and for any Game Master wanting not to set his campaign in the Golden City, there is only limited information about the world beyond its walls. Unfortunately, there is no advice for the Game Master on running Carbon 2185: A Cyberpunk RPG or the genre, and sadly, there is no bibliography either (although it could be said that Carbon 2185 wears its influences like adverts on your neurolink display). Thus no advice on the types of games that the Game Master could run, whether that is gang warfare on the streets of San Francisco, hunting down Synths as retirement officers, attempting to bring down the corporations, and so on. Hopefully a supplement specifically aimed at the Game Master will address these issues.
If you are looking for a Cyberpunk or Science Fiction roleplaying game after playing Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, then absolutely, Carbon 2185: A Cyberpunk RPG is a good choice. Equally, it is a good choice if you are looking for a Cyberpunk or Science Fiction roleplaying game, the core mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition likely to be familiar and easy to handle, with the new rules and changes nicely emulating aspects of the Cyberpunk genre without disrupting the core rules and mechanics. Overall, Carbon 2185: A Cyberpunk RPG does an impressive job of showcasing the adaptability of the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition whilst being solid take upon the Cyberpunk genre.