Review: Cyberpunk Red

This game is based on the Cyberpunk rules and setting first published by R. Talsorian Games in 1988 and updated as Cyberpunk 2020 two years later. Cyberpunk Red uses their in-house Interlock game system, which was used for the original and has been slightly tweaked in the intervening 30-plus years. Slightly.

Copyright R. Talsorian Games

Cyberpunk Red is named in honour of the video game studio CD Projekt Red, which licensed the world and related characters for the video game Cyberpunk 2077, released in November 2020. 

Basically, Cyberpunk Red is inspired by the video game that was inspired by their tabletop game. 

Despite this, Cyberpunk Red doesn’t take place in 2020 or 2077 but 2045. In the first edition of the game, the year was 2013 (25 years in the future), and so this book also takes place 25 years from now. However, it doesn’t alter the previous timeline: instead of moving all the events ahead thirty-odd years it advanceds that fictional history, presenting an alternate 2020.

What It Is

Cyberpunk Red is a hefty 455-page full colour hardcover book available in many game stores and web retailers, the R.Talsorian webstore, and Amazon. The PDF is available on DriveThruRPG Sadly, it doesn’t look like purchasing the physical book comes with a free PDF, even if done on the official store. 

The game uses the Interlock game system, where characters have STATs and a series of Skills (each ranging from 1 to 10). When making a check you add the STAT and a potential Skill then roll a d10, comparing the total to a Difficulty Value. Characters advance by increasing their Skills, while STATS and derived abilities (like health) largely remain the same. 

There’s a few ways of making characters. Rather than rolling randomly for each of your STATS you can pick an array from a table, or roll to pick an array. Each character has a Role, which is a little like a class, and offers a unique Skill. Each role also has a Lifepath, which is a series of tables that you roll on in succession to create a backstory.

The Good

The art in the book is amazing. This is still a small publisher and not a Wizards of the Coast (or even a Paizo), so limited art is to be expected. There are many pages of just text. But the art that is present is excellent. I’m uncertain if this was concept art created for the video game and borrowed by  R. Talsorian Games (in the same way I’m positive the Witcher RPG borrows Gwent card art) or if they just tapped similar artists to the video game. But the source is irrelevant as there’s some truly beautiful pieces, which set the tone of the world and the look of its inhabitants. It’s a nice looking product.

Copyright R. Talsorian Games

The game also knows the tone it wants for the world and sticks with it. There’s a consistency of presentation that comes with an established and well known world. And with the writers not having conflicting ideas over what the game should be or the type story told in this setting. It’s not fighting against itself to be both serious and gonzo, or a frolicking adventure in a grimdark world. There’s also a consistent voice throughout the book. It’s slightly informal compared to most modern RPGs (being slightly more akin to the conversational prose of AD&D rulebooks or even Paladium) but much less intrusive with fewer editorial commentaries. 

The book has a nice clean presentation that is simple but distinct and professional. The sidebars standout and the tables are eye-catching. You can make an argument for a more texture page background, but other people will be happy with the clean, white pages that are uncluttered and easy to reference. The sidebars are also nicely visible: distinct yet subtle. The tables are a little blocky plain though, which is really only apparent because there’s so many of them. 

As should be standard for the industry now (and especially for science fiction games) the book is hyperlinked throughout. All the red-coloured page references link to the appropriate page, so you’re a click away from relevant rules. Ditto the table of contents and the page numbers in the index.  

There’s a fairly detailed description of the history of the setting, with a timeline of events from 1990 to the “present” of 2045. Then it has several subsections on other historical events, like the 4th Corp War after 2021, which “ended” the Cyberpunk 2020 era and leads into the current status quo. There’s also an impressive look at the growth of Night City, even including how the city expanded, dredging and filling in certain areas of the coastline to reshape the land. (If only to explain why the real world Morrow Bay—roughly halfway between LA and San Francisco—doesn’t match Night City’s coastline.) Modern cities are hard to present, as you can’t accurately map out all the streets, but the book does a good job of presenting the major thoroughfares and the urban density. And there’s a fair amount of description on each district, including residents, gangs, and key locations. 

There’s lots of information on the setting in general. It doesn’t just go into the basics, but explores daily life. How people live, what they wear and eat, and the like. It’s a decent sourcebook for any cyberpunk style world

The Bad

It’s a little weird that they kept the original history, which is now awkwardly dated and anachronistic. In many ways, this isn’t a modern Cyberpunk world, but how we envisioned the future thirty years ago. In many ways it feels dated; it almost has this Flash Gordon retro sci-fi vibe now. Which is a feature/bug I suppose. It’s retro-cyperpunk in a pre-transhumanism way. Cyberpunk before the  total conversion cyborgs of Ghost in the Shell or Altered Carbon and cortical stacks. Or even the concept of MMOs meet pop culture of Ready Player One

Copyright R. Talsorian Games

But if keeping the alternate history aspect, why jump ahead in the timeline? Why not keep it in 2020 and embrace the anachronism? Like Tales from the Loop? Roleplaying in the ’20s that never was. Or keep going and make the setting 2077 like the game: most people who pick-up this book will likely be doing so to tell their own adventures in that setting, and having to update things thirty-two years in the future is awkward and needless. 

But not going to 2077 might also be a way to handwave away the difference between what you can do in the video game and the TTRPG. Such as being unable to hack NPCs in this game. Netrunners are still off doing their own side missions/ combats and not well integrated to the main plot events.This book at least takes steps to make them less tacked-on than prior versions (and even the playtest) as netrunning is now augmented reality, so they can still somewhat participate and aren’t trapped lying down by their deck in a VR world. But it still requires the GM to create this side aspect to most encounters for the one player to participate in that may or may not be helpful, rather than letting them hack enemies to make them blind, distracted, or inflict damage via a hack. 

This lack of innovation in what the game and its characters can do is a frustratingly common aspect of the book. It features particularly dated mechanics and game design. It’s a slap of paint on a system created in 1988 and it just feels old. So much more could have been done to make the game modern, and instead it just feels like an early 1990s RPG with modern production values. A reprint more than a new edition.

For example, the LUCK mechanic is fantastically subpar. Luck is its own STAT, with a rating from 1 to 10 like other STATS. Before a roll, you can add LUCK to a roll increasing in on a one-to-one basis, with your LUCK recharging every session. If you have a LUCK of 5 you can add a+1s to five rolls or one +5 to a single roll. Which just feels lacklustre when rolling a d10. +1 is such a small bonus (and success is binary you succeed or fail) there’s no benefit to having spent LUCK on a poor roll or a great roll. The +1 bonus literally means LUCK will be wasted and irrelevant 90% of the time. LUCK could easily have been a reroll. Or added a d6 to the check if used before and just a +1 if added after. Or had story manipulation effects, having it work like Plot Points to alter the narrative in your favour. Heck, even if the amount you exceeded the DV added to damage it would be something, so you wouldn’t feel like you wasted LUCK only to roll a 9 or 10.

LUCK is just one of the ten STATS in the game, and it’s not the only odd STAT. Movement is it’s own STAT. MOVE. Despite not being associated with any skills and not being added to any checks I can see. Why is it a STAT rather than everyone having the same MOVE or being derived from BODY or REF? Because reasons, I guess. You can use your MOVE to take Move Actions. But you can’t do anything with a Move Action other than move (not even stand up) so it seems needlessly complicated when they could just say you can move and take an Action.

There’s a TECH STAT that exists solely to be rolled with Technique Skills, like Basic Tech, First Aid, and Demolitions. (And Pick Pocket for some reason.) These could have just been INT or REF with no impact on the game; having them be REF would have allowed the engineers to be good and fixing things AND shooting as well as allowing people good at shooting to also be partially competent at fixing. This permits two character archetypes to have the option of participating in different types of encounters and scenes not focused on their speciality, as well as allowing more opportunity for PCs in smaller tables to fill party roles. Instead, Cyberpunk Red is a game of specialists that expects you to have a large table of players to fill all the roles but also have players that patiently watch and wait until their particular skill set comes into play. 

Empathy (EMP) is another odd STAT that exists for two Skills and to track your Humanity. Humanity is a derived STAT that determines how human you still are. How detached you have become from the world as a result of replacing your limbs with cybernetics. A mechanic tracking the loss of Humanity feels forced; cybernetics is such a key part of the world and game. Penalizing people for embracing the world is awkward. Like corrupting people in a fantasy world for casting magic spells. Especially as advancing in power often requires cybernetics, and most characters start with robo-parts. 

Woe to the pool Solo that rolls a 5 or 8 when assigning their STAT template and has their EMP halved in character creation. 

Humanity loss feels like a rules patch designed to prevent powergamers from loading themselves down with cybernetics, and doing that via flavour rather than a more abstract rule. (Meaning you unfortunately can’t play a character like Major Motoko Kusanagi.) Thankfully the game now acknowledges medical replacement parts don’t cause any loss of humanity—which will be necessarily given how easy it is to lose a limb to a Critical Injury.

Advancement is tied to group success and how well the players did during the mission, in addition to how well that player did playing according to their playstyle. Which is nice on paper, as the Socializer gets credit for supporting and contributing to the party’s success while the Explorer gets more points for engaging with the world and investigating. But this also means the GM is arbitrarily rating their performance. “Gee, Bonny, your role-playing just wasn’t up to snuff this week. Only 30 I.P.” 

The book only includes ten NPCs to serve as all the adversaries for a campaign. I’m really not fond of roleplaying games that skimp on enemies and rely on the GM to homebrew or tweak a small number of foes each and every week. Thankfully, NPCs don’t have many unique rules, being just collections of Skills. You can design them much like designing a PC. (Unfortunately, I didn’t see any guidelines for how many points a mook gets in their STATs or their Skill ranks.) 

The chapters are given unintuitive names. This might be fun in a physical book when you could use sticky tabs to mark appropriate sections, but is awkward A.F. when browsing bookmarks on the PDF. Not user friendly in the least. Even after some time of reading the book, finding what I wanted was a pain. RPG books are reference books and anything that slows down finding the information you need at the table is a problem.

Especially as the book is not well organized. Rules are spread out in several places and it repeats information a few times. The index is small and not particularly helpful. And not all rules are found in the chapter you might expect. If you plan on playing this game, seriously invest in some sticky index tabs and mark off key sections. 

The Ugly

There are way too many skills in the game. There are over SIXTY skills. And each character might have ranks in twenty skills. But because there’s a lot of overlap, even in a four-player table there might be a good dozen skills no one has ranks in.

Copyright R. Talsorian Games

This would be a problem even if all the skills were treated equally. But there’s not. There’s a wealth of skills that just have no place in the game. Lip Reading, Accounting, Library Search, Wardrobe & Style, Criminology, Cryptography, and Personal Grooming. Does there need to be a Bureaucracy AND a Business skill?  Trading AND Persuasion? Brawling AND Martial Arts? Endurance AND Resist Torture/ Drugs? First Aid AND Paramedic? And, again, Lip Reading. Lip Reading?!

Seriously. Why have a separate Paramedic Skill when any Paramedic check could just be a harder DV First Aid check?! Or require a minimum amount of ranks. It’s just needless complexity and makes the character sheets more crowded and busy.

Not only is this a ridiculous number of skills, but they’re a semi-organized mass on the character sheet. It’s a needless hurdle of the GM to memorize all sixty skills, what arbitrary subcategory they’re under, and what STAT they use. 

Meanwhile, the PC Role Abilities (i.e. class Skills) have a lot of overlap with the existing Skills. The Rockerboy Role Ability is basically the Persuasion Skill mashed with some GM fiat to determine if someone is a fan. The Medtech just gets super First Aid and Paramedic. 

Some Abilities add their Rank to skills. Like how the Nomad’s Moto Rank is added to various diving skills. Which makes sense, as the Nomad should be great at driving. Of course, to get Moto to Rank 3 and have 1 rank of Drive they must spend a total of 380 I.P. for a +4 bonus, as each Role Rank costs 3x the cost of a skill. This means a Rockerboy could spend 300 I.P and get a Drive skill of +5 in a single vehicle, being a better wheelman. Sure the Nomad can get a free car and some bonus customization options for their vehicle, but having a class feature that can be blown up or stolen is always problematic. 

Not that the Rockerboy’s Role Ability is great: it determines how big a venue they can play in and allows them to influence fans. If there’s no fans around they’re basically useless. And, you make ask, how does the Role Ability mesh with the Reputation subsystem that determines how much of rep the characters have? It doesn’t. Because that would make sense and would imply the various subsystems interacted. You can be a Rockerboy with a Charismatic Impact of Rank 2 that can play only in small local clubs (probably because you invested your I.P in Drive skills or something) but have a Reputation of 8 and are regularly featured in headlines. There’s zero reason Rockerboys and Media shouldn’t add their Role Ranks to Reputation. Or even Social Skills…

I look at the Role Abilities and just wonder what the game could have been had the system innovated a little more or looked at improvements in game design made in the past thirty years. The Rockerboy is just crying out for a bard style inspiration power, where they can motivate the group to succeed and boost their roles. A bonus on checks through motivational words.

The game is particularly lethal. Which isn’t at all surprising since it’s a game from the ’80s. Despite not being remotely related to D&D there is an OSR vibe to the game. 

When you suffer a Critical Injury (which occurs when you roll 2 or more 6s when rolling damage) you take an extra 5 damage (On top of the 12 from the double sixes. For reasons.) and roll on a table that applies penalties to you. When you’re rolling 5d6 for damage, you’ll score a Critical Injury 20% of the time, or 13% of the time with 4d6, which is pretty often. This applies a steep penalty. And being below half HP also applies penalties. 

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When you’re at less than 1 HP you have a -4 to everything, and must make a Death Save at the start of each of your turns or be healed by someone else with a DV15 check. For a Death Save, you roll a single d10 and if you roll a 10 or over your BODY STAT you die. Period. Despite being in the future and being able to replace people’s hearts and spines with cybernetics, you can’t be revived after being dead for 30 seconds, and die after a single bad roll. And, unsurprisingly, healing is slow. You regain HP equal to your BODY after each day of rest. So with an “average” BODY and WILL of 5 you’ll have 35 HP and need a full week to recover. This can go down to as low as 4 days or as many as 20. 

The book has some GM advice to give players on this and the difficulty of the game: “If they can’t handle the pressure, they shouldn’t be playing Cyberpunk. Send them back to that nice role playing game with the happy elves and the singing birds.” That’s the actual text on page 389. So when your character takes a couple bad hits, gets Crit, and then dies after failing a Death Save where they had a 60% chance of failure, bringing their story arc to an end and derailing all the GM’s plans… just suck it up or go back to a game on easy mode. I almost deleted my PDF on the spot after reading that. 

The Awesome

There are fun ads throughout the book. Not real ads for real products, like other games. But ads for products and services found in Night City. It’s a neat bit of flavour that captures the feel of the world. 

I rather like the Life Paths. There’s the basic chart that provides details like your cultural origin, personality, clothing style, family, and relationship status. And there’s additional flow charts for each Role with relevant history. A nice optional way to rapidly create a character when you have no concept (or replace one that abruptly died). These are useful even if not playing Cyberpunk Red and could be used for many futuristic settings.

The critical and fumble rules are rather neat. When you roll a 10 on the d10 you roll again and add that to the total. However, if you roll a 1 you roll again and subtract the second roll. It’s simple but potentially dramatic without being too swingy. It’s not full exploding dice.

While I’m hard on the mortality rate, the simplicity of scoring a Critical Injury when just two d6 end up as “6” is rather neat. And does make big guns extra deadly, as you’re rolling 5d6 or 6d6.

I like the range of games you can play with this system. You can do a game of nomads out on the wastes, riding between settlements or a corporate culture game with media personalities and management figures. You can be cops just as easily as criminals. You’re not locked into being the underworld netrunner and their bodyguard.

Final Thoughts

I played a little Cyberpunk Red with the Jumpstart kit when it launched, and found it okay. The skills were too dense for my liking; the GM was always struggling to pick the relevant skill. And when I invariably didn’t have the right skill there was the secondary struggle to figure out which STAT to use in its place. 

Copyright R. Talsorian Games

I was playing a Solo and could kick all the ass but felt bad for some other characters that ended up feeling less useful in many of the adventures. The Nomad who had to wander around being ineffectual because their car couldn’t fit into the office building. Meanwhile, it felt like I was oddly capped, having the best rifle in the game from the start and not being able to improve my gear, or my cybernetics without risking losing more of my limited Humanity. 

Had this game been released twenty years ago it would not have been out of place. (Apart from the production values, which would have been better than any other game on the market.) But now it just feels dated. Combat is lethal but oddly slow as you have to roll to attack and then compare that to a dodge roll with the Evasion skill. There’s a bunch of dissociated mechanics and subsystems that don’t connect, even when they’re dealing with the same thing. Individually tracking every shot fired for your assault rifle’s drum of 40+ rounds. No narrative manipulation mechanics. Poor balance between Roles. An incomprehensible character sheet that looks like an Excel spreadsheet. 

And there’s odd things like how almost every single character in every single piece of art is cyber augmented, and yet the game discourages you from doing so by implying body modification makes you less human. 

What makes it extra frustrating is how unnecessary some of the dated design feels. The tabletop game was designed to release alongside Cyberpunk 2077 and so many things are just better in the video game. Fewer STATS. More reason to use netrunning. A Rockerboy that’s badass with a gun and sword. No penalties for cyberware. A wide variety of different guns, with reasons to use them all. Playing a game in Night City could be fun. But if I decide to do a Cyberpunk one-shot or mini campaign I’ll likely take the world from this book and overlay a simpler ruleset, like that used by the Alien Roleplaying Game or even Eclipse Phase. That said, if you have the time and interest you could probably hack this into something quite playable. A little less of a death spiral and longer recovery period. Maybe some more plot armour health. A smaller skill list. A few tweaked Role abilities. It’d be highly doable.

Shameless Plugs

If you liked this article, you can support me and encourage future reviews. My disposable income—which is necessary to buy RPG products—is entirely dependent on my PDF sales.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website. Including Who’s Doomed, a book of 5e stat blocks of darklords for the classic version of the Ravenloft campaign setting. Which is a huge passion product but also really handy for anyone who wants actual darklord statistics. There’s also the companion product Allies Against the Night, which takes classic Ravenloft heroes and makes them into sidekicks (based on the rules from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything).

Others include the Blood Hunter Expanded, my bundle of my Ravenloft books, the Tactician class, Rod of Seven Parts, TrapsDiseasesLegendary Monsters, and a book of Variant Rules. Phew.

Additionally, the revision of my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is on DriveThurRPG, available for purchase as a PDF or Print on Demand! (And now in colour!) The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, but all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.