Cyberpunk RED Review

The Dark Future Never Looked So Good

Feb 09, 2022
Cyberpunk RED Header.jpg

Editor's Note: We talk able a companion app to Cyberpunk RED that makes running it a total breeze. We should clarify that this app is made independently, and R. Talsorian Games is cool with it. They are not, however, its creator. If you're interested in supporting the app's creator, you can find out how by tapping the options menu and hitting "follow on Twitter." A link to their Patreon can be found on the account.

Imagine an RPG where chrome and style are just as important as the iron you keep strapped to your body. Where you live on the streets hopefully long enough to make a name for yourself or at least go out in a blaze of glory. Where you jack your brain into computer systems, sway the masses with your art or media stories, maybe aiming to burn down the corrupt, oppressive system of the megacorps along the way. Maybe just aiming to make a few eurobucks. Welcome, choomba, to the latest edition of the beloved roleplaying game of the Dark Future: Cyberpunk RED.

We’ve looked at some interesting TTRPGs before. From the tiny but massively popular Kids on Bikes to the lesser known but still fantastic, kaleidoscopic Overlight. I’ve looked at another cyberpunk (or perhaps cyber noir) system, Altered Carbon. But I’ve never glanced over at the giant on the block until now, and that’s saying something. Despite my own long history with tabletop roleplay games, I’ve never sat down with the Cyberpunk system until last year, despite both my love for all things cyberpunk and the fact that this system has been around in some incarnation since the 80s.

It’s about time we got to it!

Cyberpunk RED Header.jpg Cyberpunk RED

Author: Mike Pondsmith, James Hutt, Cody Pondsmith, Jay Parker, J Gray, David Ackerman, and Jaye Kovach
Publisher: R. Talsorian Games
Format: Tabletop RPG
Price: $60 (Hardcover), $30 (Digital)
Copy purchased by reviewer
Cyberpunk RED somber.jpg

Who are you? What does cyberware mean to you? And what do you intend to do with your brief existence?

Meat And Chrome

If you’re unfamiliar with the world of Cyberpunk, let me set the scene for you. The vision of the dark future follows an alternate history timeline in which cybernetic and technological advances emerge around the 1990s. We’re talking about shifts such as replacing your eyes with cyberoptics instead of just getting glasses. Corporations are growing in power, and as the divide between the wealthy and the poor, the haves and have-nots, widens, those with power solidify the world into a new form: one in which corporate money and desire sway politics. More than they already do in the real world. Capitalism runs rampant. More than it already does in the real world. As government debauchery, cronyism, and corruption run unchecked, power in the American government fails, and eventually America succumbs to a lawlessness matched only by the ruthlessness of those that step forth to fill the power vacuum: the corporations.

Don’t worry, by the way, if you want your edgerunner to be non-American. Many countries are doing better than the ex-USA in the dark future, though how well still depends on where you are. The main focus of the game, and your gift of a fully fleshed out setting in which to begin, is Night City, something of a Californian independent city-state through which a hefty chunk of the world flows. Hence the North American focus of the core book. It’s important to note, though, that there is lore regarding the rest of the world by geographic region if you want it.

The world is just coming off a 4th corporate war, the largest the world has ever witnessed. Thanks to prolonged, global conflict, nukes, and no small amount of ortillery (that is, orbital artillery, rocks tossed down from space), the era is marked by a persistent dust layer that hangs in the atmosphere, tinting everything red. Just as each marked period of human history earns a name for itself, for example the 2020s being dubbed “the Roaring 20s” for their economic prosperity and lavishness, people will remember this one certainly as The Time of the Red.

Cyberpunk RED wilds.jpg

It's not all neon and cities. There are vast stretches of wilds that you could have to trek through. Hope you made some Nomad friends to help you along the way.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, global climate change, and neverending war. In this cybernetic future, now in a tense cat-and-mouse between world governments and megacorps, there are the edgerunners. That’s you. Whether you’re out to make a name for yourself, make a quick buck, or burn down one of the corps (or go out in your own blaze of glory trying), the fact is everyone now has access to cyberware. Anyone can be more than they seem. Of course you might be working off back-alley mods, illegally obtained and substandard quality. The street gangers you’re about to tangle with probably have mods of their own, too. Nevermind corporate samurai who are probably sporting top of the line chrome. And even if you do get all borged up, what do you plan to do with all that power? Maybe you can only afford it because you sold your soul to the devil and a corporation has you on a short leash. Who are you, what does all that chrome mean to you, and what do you plan to do with your short existence?

Cyberpunk RED follows the players as a group of up-and-coming edgerunners. Rather than starting as nobodies, though, you start a little bit further up than “level 1,” giving you some actual agency in this world that will still, in all likelihood, kill you. You probably still live in a modified shipping container community that acts as apartments, and your place probably still gets broken into from time to time. Maybe you splurge on food that comes in self-heating, ready to eat packets, or maybe you subsist on Kibble, a food that looks—well, exactly what you think it looks like. Fixers, the folks that get jobs from people with money to people like you, have heard of you. Think you’re ready for your first real job?

Cyberpunk RED kibble.jpg

Nutritious and...delicious?

What Really Matters

Normally I’d start by going into detail about the systems that make this game novel from anything you’ve tried before. But not this time. Cyberpunk RED is a simple d10 system: that is, barring a few exceptions, you roll a ten-sided die and add both your relevant stat and skill to just about anything you want to do. It’s simple and quick, and frankly that’s all you need to know about dice. For now. We’ll circle back to a few key tie-ins later.

What we’re going to focus on here instead are the glorious ways in which this 4th edition has been reinvented and reworked to be as engaging as a new launcher mod you’re slotting into that shiny cyberarm of yours. I think first and foremost focus falls on the most important aspect of any TTRPG: the people within it. Sure, the cybernetic enhancements and high-powered weapons are exciting, but what good is all that tech without characters to push them to their limits? Like any good work of sci-fi, the tech is at its best when it serves as a vehicle to propel stories about people, and Cyberpunk RED is no exception. And I have to say, the representation on hand, as in-your-face as it is, is truly refreshing to see. The Rockerboy art is depicted as a femme-presenting individual. We’ve got some of the most fantastic artwork in this book depicting same-sex relationships, men applying eyeliner, and the variety of faces befitting such a globally focused theme.

I don’t know about you, but I expect a cyberpunk setting to embrace this aspect of itself. It’s a world in which people can literally reshape themselves via body sculpting to appear exactly as they want to. I think Cyberpunk RED has really hit stride in how it fleshes out its world with this edition. As if on cue, there’s a story near the end of the book to set the mood and give players and GMs both an idea of what they’re getting into; the squad featured within is called The Cyber6, the players themselves who created the characters rocking prosthetics in the real world. We’ve already gotten the neon and the go-gangers and the fancy cars and three hundred different flavors of gun from prior editions. It’s good to see the people of this setting also receiving some upgrades.

Cyberpunk RED Cyber6.jpg

The Cyber6, stars of the narrative tale Black Dog.

But it doesn’t end there! Perhaps one of the more problematic aspects of the Cyberpunk system was the concept of Cyberpsychosis; or more specifically, the problem was with how it was handled. The more a person lops off parts of a health body and replaces them with cyberware, the more likely they are to become a sociopathic killer disconnected from reality. You can see where this might present some issues to today’s players. What if your character loses an arm to sniper fire and wants to get a replacement? Why does playing with what should be one of the most exciting aspects of the setting have to dance so close to the line on mental health issues (especially after I just started talking about representation)? Rather than shy away from the issue, Cyberpunk RED links up with these questions in so many more awesome ways than I was prepared for.

From a mechanical standpoint, I get it. Cyberware is power. Levelling up skills and stats is a slow process in this system, and you’re likely to use your hard-earned cash on hardware. That’s a form of levelling, too, and it needs to be balanced from a game standpoint. Humanity, one of a character’s stats, is paid in that balance. Lose too much and your character becomes unplayable. In this 4th edition, though, nothing says you can’t get some back. Therapy exists, and whether you have it administered by a Medtech in your group or you attend sessions on your own, you can regain most of the humanity you lose when you install new cyberware. The book does a good job of defining Cyberpschosis as a type of dissociative disorder, citing actual medical sources, both giving more shape to the condition and normalizing therapy in the gameplay. Your characters are given free reign to address their own mental health as they see fit. By the by, Humanity loss only comes into play when you replace healthy body parts with cyberware. If you get medical-grade replacements, you lose zero humanity. The creator of D&D’s combat wheelchair also contributed to Cyberpunk RED, so if you’d prefer a Rocklin Augmentics cyberchair to a pair of cyberlegs, that’s also a thing you can grab!

I wish you could have heard one of my players when I told them characters could attend therapy. I’m not exaggerating when they said it made their day. Some players may only see these additions as mechanical extras, things they don’t particularly care about beyond their ability to pack in more cyberware at the cost of time and money. The game’s creator, Mike Pondsmith, has said this setting is more about saving yourself than saving the world, though. So to those who want to explore humanity coexisting with cyberware these additions, I think, are a more than welcome addition.

Cyberpunk RED mental health.jpg

'Nuff said.

The Thrill Of The Job

One of my biggest fears running Cyberpunk RED was how cinematic it would be. Or rather, once the guns started firing, how cinematic it wouldn’t be. The setting is full to bursting with flavor: gangs, corps, mercs, and all the danger they bring. The list of initial cyberware in the core book is comprehensive. The lore is a continuous story told since the game’s first edition. But when the dice started rolling, I was afraid that a 10-sided die plus stat and skill would be so mechanically simple that everything would turn grey and tasteless. I am very pleased to report this was very much not the case. If anything, the reverse was true. But how?

There is a certain, subtle beauty hidden within this tech. Sure the rules are simple, but you can do a lot with them. There are vehicles and cover, including rules for when the former runs into the latter. There are different firing modes for different weapons, though not too many to overcomplicate things, and you can load them with special ammo as well. There are several kinds of close quarters options for that in-your-face flair. Not only can you grapple with opponents, you can even turn them into shields. It’s really fun stuff! And this isn’t something I say lightly. Thanks to playing D&D for years I rarely use the words “grapple,” “in combat,” and “fun” in the same sentence. Yet here we are.

Cyberpunk RED vehicle combat.jpg

Any system that gives me rules out of the box for Mad Max-style road combat is already ahead of the curve.

Cyberpunk RED sprinkles in just enough seasoning to spice things up when you need a little more heat. There are armor piercing rounds and incendiary ammo when you need more punch than basic bullets. Lighter weapons can squeeze off more shots than the heavy hitters, but those heavier weapons are better at blasting through armor. Melee weapons bypass half of armor automatically, and defenseless or unaware targets don’t even get a roll to dodge! Stealth attacks, anyone? Or maybe you just wanna mess up some poor guy’s ride parked where it shouldn’t be. Like a good restaurant, you can order things up as spicy as you like. The basic rules, however, are simple and streamlined at all times, often starting with just a roll of a ten-side die plus stat and skill. The perfect base for any dish. As a result, what you get is a very quick and snappy system that lets you get as cinematic as your edgerunner’s attitude allows. Some poser ganger mouthing off to you? Maybe you could teach them some manners! Or you could just stare them down and make them back away. Contests of your Cool stat are totally things you can do too!

In keeping with this theme of flair on top of a solid, simple base, there are the role abilities. Your main profession in the game. Do you hack systems? Do you know people on the street and get stuff no one else can? Do you have a team of lackeys that does your bidding? Or maybe you’re just really good at noticing when someone’s going for a gun (and shooting yours first). This is a deadly system where everyone’s expected to know how to use their weapon of choice. Everyone can take cover, everyone can fight. But what if I want to be the group’s dedicated frontliner? The Solo’s profession allows them to move around a fluid pool of points, giving them bonuses to perception, initiative, damage, hit rolls, or armor in any combination and constantly adjusting their distribution to the situation at hand. This is just one example of how the role abilities let you specialize just that little extra bit. They make your tough gal the super Solo and that other geek the nerdy Netrunner. Even if you both know how to snap an assault rifle to the ready.

Cyberpunk RED roles.jpg

The roles of Cyberpunk RED.

None of these things by themselves seems overly special. When I first made my way through the book, everything seemed like just another walk in the faintly lit neon park. Combat rules, stats, skills, character roles, a few other odds and ends. But as I’ve so often found, it’s when you put all the pieces together in play that the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. Simple base rules mean that guns fire quickly, turns move, and the action keeps pumping; as a first-time GM in the system, it was nothing short of miraculous experiencing not a single slowdown spent digging for clarification in the book. Everything ran smoothly, and that’s clearly by design. The little rules flairs are fantastic because they ensure both GM and players have a chance to get a little extra spectacular when they want. What this game delivers are intense bursts of action in between the spaces of intrigue or downtime in which you weave your stories. I really cannot emphasize enough how impressed I am with this simple yet highly engaging system. Whether you enjoy a good old cyberpunk narrative or just a glorious shootout, you’ll find something to love here.

Cyberpunk RED XY spread.jpg

Interested in a particular thematic thing? This book has you covered for diving in as you like!

The Code Behind The Mainframe

If you remember my Altered Carbon review, you know that while I loved the system and the setting I had some issues with the book as a teaching tool to new GMs. While it was ultimately not a dealbreaker, I’d certainly be doing a disservice to both it and Cyberpunk if I didn’t consider that angle here as well. Whether you’re the forever GM looking to introduce some new one shots to your TTRPG life, or you’re just a lover of cyberpunk and looking to get into TTRPGs with this system, you’ll be pleased to know that the formatting of this book is—and I’m really not exaggerating when I say this—the best of any roleplaying game core book I’ve ever read. Hands down. And second place isn’t even close. This book is a pure joy to learn from.

In fact, if I had to sum up everything this system gives you as a GM, it would be this: generous. The core book itself is a gorgeous production. Headers and sections are clearly marked and easy to read. The reds and blacks on the pages draw the eye to important information, and quick references are provided throughout. Also the book, as your gateway to the world you will bring to your players, is constantly offering references to other page numbers in the tabs, quick jumps you can hop back and forth between if you don’t want to wait to read up on related material. There are multiple lines of attack for engaging the material as well, for example the convenient table of contents, but also a “are you interested in X, turn to page Y” spread you can reference. Finally, each chapter is neatly categorized, which when combined with the aforementioned formatting, means that when you know what kind of info you’re looking for you can always find it with a minimum of page flipping.

Cyberpunk RED ad.jpg

The book has so many fantastic reference charts and art pieces, but it still finds space to playfully include colorful ads!

I do have a few nitpicks, but they are very small in the grand scheme of what this book accomplishes. We’ll discuss them briefly, and then we’ll get back to the generosity of this game because there is so much more to discuss. I will say that this book has almost the opposite problem I see in most TTRPGs. Most books I’ve seen initially struggle in teaching their systems but shine as in-game references, but as a mid-game reference this one sometimes frustrates me. The index isn’t as strong as it could be, and I often discover the things I’m looking for aren’t easy to find if I’ve forgotten the very specific jargon it's referred to as. There are also a couple of rules questions I had that the book—well it answered them, but not directly and not quickly. For example, if I have a fixed minigun on my gyrocopter, something a starter Nomad player can begin the game with, what skill do I roll to hit with it? It’s not outright mentioned anywhere, but through reading and rereading you’ll find the answer is: not your vehicle skill like you might originally think. You use the relevant weapon skill, the same as if you were holding it in your hands. I spent a solid hour trying to pin that one down. It’s in moments like these that the book can frustrate you. But they are only moments, and they’ll pass. Ultimately, as I said before, the system is streamlined, so once you’ve got your head around it you’ll very rarely feel the need to go digging for rules questions.

Back to the generosity I was talking about with Cyberpunk RED, I would be remiss if I didn’t point you towards the absolute dragon’s hoard of free stuff online you can plug into your game. From the most popular MMORPG in the Cyberpunk world to quick start materials for a pregenerated first session to a conversion kit for old guns if you’re coming in from a prior edition of the system, it’s all here for you. For free! Seriously, that cyberchair I mentioned before? It’s on this list too. All of this stuff is available online for free. And it gets even better, because if you’re like me you sometimes prefer physical books to sit with from time to time. I love sitting outside on a nice day, a lemonade in one hand, my book in the other, picking my way through new goodies at a leisurely pace. R. Talsorian Games recently put out a bunch of their free “DLC” content as a published book you can buy pretty cheaply; they didn’t have to do this, and I can only assume the effort and cost involved was just as much a hassle for them as any kind of opportunity to make a few extra dollars. Keep the free stuff on a tablet instead if you prefer or partake in the paper version. The fact that this option even exists at all says a lot about the lengths this publisher goes to put great quality stuff out for the community. Enjoy it as you like!

Cyberpunk RED Interface.jpg

The Interface book puts together in print a bunch of the freebies from online. A perfect addition for the paper-inclined or those that just want to kick a cool publisher a few extra bucks.

Finally, I absolutely could not end this section of the review without talking about the greatest companion app ever made for a TTRPG. Yes, I said what I said. Are you sitting down? Because the Cyberpunk Red Companion app can be yours for the price of—free! Ok, there are some pay features you can unlock, but everything a player needs is available at no cost. You get a place to store your characters, of course, but the app also makes character generation super simple; it lines up with the three methods outlined in the book for as templated or in-depth an experience as you want. Just about everything can be tapped for a description or the applicable reference chart from the book, and frankly this feature alone adds a staggering amount of content straight out of the book. The app also acts as a die roller, automatically calculating all persistent bonuses. It even tracks ammo in your pack and deducts a clip’s worth when you hit “reload” on your weapons page! What else do you get for free? An “agent” (like an AI assistant inside your cellphone) where you can store NPC contact info, objectives, and notes of your own, and you get a free copy of the Night City map straight from the book as well. Frankly, I’m flabbergasted by how much of the content on offer here is ripped directly from the book for your convenience. At. No. Cost. I’ve paid more for way less from many other TTRPG apps.

What do you get when you unlock the app’s premium features? Honestly, I’d only recommend it if you’re the GM. You’ll also gain access to comprehensive, quick NPC generation off a customizable list of pregen bases. You get a handy initiative tracker into which you can load characters along with your NPCs, easily tracking damage and die rolls for anyone you need. There’s a “data pool” that puts even more reference material at your fingertips, lists of goods and services, and the ability to instantly, randomly generate things like Night Markets, encounters, and weather (all provided in the book, but it’s good to have them only a few button presses away). What you might spend thirty minutes prepping prior to game night can now be done in seconds or on the fly mid-session if you’re in need. If I had one ask of the GM features, I’d love to see a generator for Net Architecture too, for quick needs when Netrunners are doing their thing. Both completely random (per the book) and with settings that allow me to designate the number of floors and forking paths. And the ability to edit floors after the fact to tweak to the situation at hand. I was surprised to find this one generator absent from the offerings. Maybe it’s already in the works, maybe not, but the facts stand clear as the sky is red on a good day in Night City. What you get in this app is nothing short of game changing. From a GM perspective, I find the premium version darn near indispensable at the very reasonable price of the five bucks, and you absolutely cannot go wrong as a player picking this app up for free.

Cyberpunk RED formatting example.jpg

Prime formatting example here. It was pure joy for me learning this system not to fight to pick important info off the page.

A Deal Too Good To Refuse

Once you come to terms with the flexibility of this system, you can do some really fun things with it. Sure you could spend all your starting stat points, skills, and cash on making a traditional Netrunner who’s great at crashing systems. But what if you redistributed some of those resources? You could make a hacker who’s also a quickdraw expert with a heavy pistol and neural speedware, lethal to anyone within a dozen and a half meters. Give him some mirror shades and a cowboy hat and have him self-style after a gunslinger from one of those old western films. Have him refer to himself as “a Net cowboy” and let his hacking style reflect that aesthetic too. Let the next Solo who thinks the hacker geek is easy prey find out the hard way just how good his aim is. For laughs, give him a few points in the Riding skill so you can make every player at the table guffaw when he actually knows how to ride a horse. What? Maybe he’s done some sims in his downtime.

Or maybe you could make a Nomad who’s a Taekwondo expert. How badass would you feel if the go-ganger who’s about to run them down on his bike instead gets dismounted by a flying kick? He picks himself off the pavement just in time to see the Nomad’s commandeered his bike and is headed straight back at him. Did I mention they can drive in the dark perfectly thanks to a pair of enhance cybereyes? They can even see in different spectrums like infrared, especially handy for silent takedowns between the smoke grenades they pack and the bow and arrows they carry.

Cyberpunk RED portrait.jpg

You lookin' at me?

Both of these characters were fun experiments I threw together in the Companion app just to see how far I could push starting character builds outside their norms. The longer you spend with Cyberpunk RED, the deeper the rabbit hole goes on this seemingly simple on the surface system. And this is before we even get into “multiclassing,” or in Cyberpunk’s case levelling two different role abilities. The publishers themselves via their Twitter account have no shortage of suggestions on just how far you can work things. For example, there’s fashion! No joke, there’s quite a comprehensive list of styles included in character creation and you get a separate budget to go shopping with. It’s a pretty unique feature among game systems I’ve seen, and those who aren’t used to it might be tempted to gloss past it. But in Cyberpunk, fashion can be just as big a tool as a gun. It could mean the difference between you disappearing into the streets or cutting the look that gets you entry into an exclusive club. There’s a modifier in the book, -2 for “lack of appropriate tool,” and sure while this obviously applies to things like opening locks without lockpicks, the publisher has stated in no uncertain terms a wily GM could apply this penalty to an edgerunner who just isn’t properly suited up for the task at hand. You can get incredibly creative in this system, even as it remains so very simple to play.

Cyberpunk RED love.jpg

More fantastic artwork! Seriously, they nailed every single piece of art in this book.

Interested in Cyberpunk RED? I can’t give it enough positive endorsements! From the well-formatted core book to the constant, free support online, stellar companion app, knockout artwork, and some of the best lore for a cyberpunk world I’ve ever seen (go ahead and look up who’s “in charge of space” and how they got there), there’s never been a better time to get into this system. Don’t be fooled as I was at first by seemingly simple rules. They disguise a deep and engaging system that stays quick during the heat of the action. As a GM, we’ve had some of the smoothest games I’ve ever run with no more than one copy of the book (mine) and all of us managing things on the app. This is a system that truly rewards creativity, and it does so with such effortlessness as to clearly be the product of I-don’t-want-to-guess-how-much effort. Go nuts, choomba! The world is sitting out there just waiting for you to grab hold of it.

Adam Factor