Tabletop RPG Review: Cyberpunk 2020

Cyberpunk 2020 cover

Cyberpunk is a subgenre that’s always appealed to me, for reasons that are often beyond me.  I’m not into computers, never was. I’m not much of a tech person at all, really. But there’s something about the aesthetic, the attitude, etc. that’s made me a lifelong fan.  From early movies like “Bladerunner” to tertiary works like the TV miniseries “Wild Palms,” or blockbusters as far flung as “The Matrix” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and low budget crap like “Cyborg” and “Nemesis.”  It’s all great, and I love it. So it’s no shock that Cyberpunk 2020 has been a part of my tabletop RPG library since the beginning.  I was skimming the pages of Cyberpunk 2013, the game’s first incarnation when I was first getting into RPGs in the late 80s.

However, as long as it’s been a part of my gaming world, I’ve actually never played the game, and the only time I ever ran it was for only four sessions using the original Over the Edge game system (now available as WaRP).  Why is this?  I don’t know. For a long time the only people I knew who were actively playing Cyberpunk games were essentially just playing D&D.  They ran missions (dungeons), killed lots of stuff (hack & slash), and looted the bodies.  Some of them would regale me with stories of blowing up this building, battling that corporation’s soldiers, stealing from this other gang, etc., but never in a way that felt engaging or like it captured that certain something I was looking for.  And forget it when it came to Shadowrun, which pulled out all the stops and seemed to just be D&D in the near future (I know that’s not how everyone played [plays] it, but that’s how the players I was talking to did).  Add to that, my own inexperience and reticence to run the game, and my usual players lack of particular interest, and you find me owning a large collection of books I’ve read a bunch, raided a ton, and not really used for their intended purposes.

The game talks a lot about style over substance, yet the basic book has a ton of really substantive information for running a game.  You could read just this book and have enough to go on for years. There’s so much evocative world-building that I found myself half carried away just flipping through the pages on megacorporations or about lifepaths.  The timeline and history of the world up to 2020 has so much to build stories on.

That brings me to an important point.  Cyberpunk 2020 is set in the year 2020, but it is not the 2020 we’re about to enter.  Honestly, this shouldn’t be a hard concept for someone to grasp, and certainly shouldn’t be for any genre fans.  Alternate History is a pretty common element, from episodes of the original Star Trek to the whole Steampunk subgenre, this idea isn’t new.  When the book was written, it was inspired by a lot of late 70s/early 80s fiction, and some of the mid-80s movies and TV (and yes…sigh…anime) based on that earlier fiction.  It was looking forward down one possible line of future developments. It was written at a time when nobody knew the crime rate in the United States was about to start a decades long decline, when there was still hope that the Soviet Union was really going to become something new and better, and not just fall back into its old ways, when Japan was looking to some as though it might become a true superpower.  That’s not the way things played out, but in the world of Cyberpunk 2020, it did.  Megacorporations took over from governments, people plugged their brains into machines, cellular phones are still used for making calls, not for real-time access to the internet.  The Net is a virtual reality world existing below, above, and around the flesh world we know. Some technologies are far in advance of what we really have today, while others are still shockingly primitive.  And that’s part of the charm of the whole thing. It’s not our world.

The basic game mechanics are pretty easy.  (Seth Skorkowsky did an excellent look at the game on his YouTube channel).  Combat is ultra-deadly, and character death is fairly likely if one gets into fights, which one is likely to do.  Short of death, the need to get cyber enhancements and replacements is high. The element of netrunning is odd. It’s very important to the genre, but doesn’t fit into the playing of a game very well, assuming the player characters aren’t all netrunners.  I’ve heard there are homebrew rules for netrunning out there that help it mesh more seamlessly into the game. I also understand that the upcoming new edition, Cyberpunk Red, is going to have updated netrunning rules.  As it stands, I’m not sure how I’d use Netrunning in my own game.  Is a runner essentially the party’s wizard? Do we stop what everyone else is doing and play through a run?  Are netrunners only non-player characters? I’m not sure.

There are elements I particularly love in the game, including the Lifepath system that lets you build a nice, unique background for your character.  I like that you can play anything from a rockstar who helps wake people up to start a revolution, to a corporate climber, to a mercenary road warrior, and more.  I like that campaigns can take place in many places, from the trash strewn slums, to the neon soaked sprawl, to the glass and steel halls of power, to the dusty roads of the wastelands.

As with any good RPG basic book, I finished reading this with a head packed full of character and story ideas.  I want to grab a bunch of people and take a deep dive into Night City, face off against an A.I. from Wilderspace, fight for ratings as a Trauma Team with a Media uploading footage of jobs for jaded audiences, try to topple Militech from within, and survive the next Corporate War.

There’s a reason this one’s a classic.

I did a video with a few more obscure movie suggestions here.

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