How to play the Cyberpunk Red tabletop RPG: A beginner’s guide
Right now is a pretty great time to start exploring the world of the Cyberpunk tabletop RPG. We have a video game adaptation, Cyberpunk 2077, dropping in a couple of months and a brand new edition of the tabletop RPG, Cyberpunk Red, coming soon after, with the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit - a starter set with beginner-friendly rules and pre-made characters - already on the shelves.
In this beginner’s guide to the Cyberpunk Red RPG we’re going to be going over the very basic of the latest ruleset. While a good deal easier to jump into than previous edition Cyberpunk 2020 (which had some pretty good predictions about how this year might look when it was released 30 years ago), it’s a reasonably complex roleplaying game - especially when compared to learning how to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E and other similar RPGs. As such, there is a heck of a lot more detail wedged into the rulebooks, but if you’re looking to dip your toe into learning how to play Cyberpunk Red this should be a good place to start.
When we say “dip your toe” we really mean that, because we’re working from the fundamentals up. If you’ve played a tabletop roleplaying game such as Dungeons & Dragons before you can probably skip right past this next section but if you haven’t, it’s important to get a grip on what to expect from the Cyberpunk Red RPG.
How to play Cyberpunk Red RPG
At some fundamental level, all tabletop RPGs are the smashed-together cousins of board games and improv storytelling. Most of the group - which is usually between three and six people - take up the roles of characters in the game world, in this case the dystopian techno-future of Cyberpunk. They act as the main characters of our story and get up to all kinds of weird hijinks, such as breaking into secure mainframes as code-cracking Netrunners and getting into street fights as a brawling Fixer.
One of the players doesn’t take the role of just one character, but rather assumes the mantle of game master (GM). This leaves them in control of... well, everything in the world that isn’t the handful of renegades controlled by the rest of the group. They give voice to the barista at the megacorp coffee shop, decide how many thugs show up when the team trespasses on their turf and generally manage the imaginary reality.
Between them, the group works together to tell cool stories, grow their characters and have some goddamn fun. When it goes well, the experience is something that’s hard to beat - as you'll know if you've watched the Dicebreaker team's Cyberpunk Red playthrough with co-designer Cody Pondsmith.
What separates an RPG like Cyberpunk Red from table-bound theatre, however, is its use of rules. What the heroes and villains can do is regulated by a stack of systems and the roll of the dice, which come together to give the world a sense of structure and fairness.
In practice many groups soon find that the rules are actually more of a guideline, dropping some ideas and altering others, but it’s generally good advice to at least start out following them. That way, when you start tinkering you’ll know what you’re looking for.
How do stats and skills work in the Cyberpunk Red RPG?
Before we touch any dice, we need to understand a little bit about who’re playing as. Fortunately, most of this information can be found in just one place: the character sheet. This is essentially a big old list of all the vital details and statistics for your particular character, ranging from their name and class to what kind of cyberware they have jammed into their skull.
There’s a fair bit to take in here, but for now the most important numbers on there are your characters’ stats and their skills.
Stats represent things that are innate to the character, like their natural reflexes or ability to stay cool under pressure. Skills, on the other hand, are talents that have come about through training and hard work (most of which happens happily off-screen). These two combine to determine how good you are at pulling off the desperate, dangerous and thoroughly badass stunts that make up the day-to-day life of a cyberpunk.
For example, a character’s ability to fire a teched-out machine pistol as they leap over the hood of a parked car relies on both their reflex stat and their marksmanship skill. If they had, say, a score of eight in reflex and a four in marksmanship, they’d end up with a total of +12 when it comes to shooting. Which, as it happens, isn’t half bad.
Now, some of you may be asking why we need that ‘+’ stuck onto the number. Well, it’s there because we’re finally going to get rolling.
When to roll dice in Cyberpunk Red
Real life - and, by extension, the made-up future reality of Cyberpunk Red - is a wonderfully random thing. Bad luck and poor timing can cause even the greatest masters to sometimes fail, while a chance ricochet or unexpected bounce can sometimes lead a rank amatuer to a shocking victory.
This is why so many RPGs rely on the roll of a die. These little plastic shapes act as the arbiter of fate for our fantasy worlds, and their random jigglings can completely reshape the stories we tell.
In the case of Cyberpunk Red, we entrust our destinies to a ten-sided die - commonly known as a d10. This is what we roll whenever our characters try to take on something risky, and is what stops the game from becoming a simple act of seeing whose numbers are bigger whenever you get into a fight.
If you want to sneak past some corporate cops patrolling the lobby, for example, you’d add up your dexterity stat and stealth skill, and then roll a d10. The combined total would give you some idea of how well you did, though whether you actually succeed would depend on how well the cops did on their own roll, which relies on their intelligence and perception - plus the luck of the GM, who rolls on behalf of any non-player characters (NPCs).
Their final result is higher? Bad luck, they spot you and draw their guns. If you came out on top, however, you sneak past them and into the elevator shaft with no problems whatsoever.
What is a difficulty value (DV) in Cyberpunk Red?
Of course, not everything we try and do has an obvious rival to work against. Jumping out of a plate-glass window and trying to land in the getaway car is cyberpunk as all hell, but trying to roll off against gravity itself seems a little silly.
In these cases, our goal isn’t to beat some opponent’s score, but rather some number that roughly corresponds to how hard the task is. This is a fairly imprecise science, but fortunately the rules lay out a few guidelines for GMs to work off.
Something tough but fairly straightforward, like quickly weaving a groundcar through traffic, might have a difficulty value (DV) of 14, while something truly badass - like that leap-though-the-window trick - might require you to get a total of 22.
Meet the DV and you land where you want to be, cool as a chrome cucumber. Fall short and you drop onto the concrete like a dweeb. A dweeb with broken ankles.
How do you hack in the Cyberpunk Red RPG?
One of the coolest and most iconic parts of any cyberpunk game is the ability to interact directly with computer networks. Entire missions can revolve around getting a Netrunner - think a computer hacker but with more chrome and holes in their skull - into a location where they can thieve valuable information from a server.
However, the rules around Netrunning are pretty detailed, so if you feel like cracking your knuckles and announcing “I’m in” to the rest of the table you’re going to have to do a little bit more prep-work before playing.
Don’t worry too much, though. Netrunning is built around the same rules as the rest of the game, so you’ll still be rolling d10s and comparing them to DVs. The biggest difference is that you have a pretty hefty stash of extra actions you can take while jacked into a network. The ‘Backdoor’ command, for example, allows you to bypass passwords, while ‘Zap’ would let you fend off security programmes or even roast the brain of a hostile Netrunner.
Networks are divided up into different levels, each with their own security and their own goodies to be found, whether that’s the payroll database or the system controlling the security cameras. In fact, exploring the network is a lot like delving a dungeon or - in keeping with Cyberpunk Red's setting of a sci-fi dystopia - taking elevators to different floors of a corporate tower.
The deeper you go the more you can find, but the more you risk an encounter with Black ICE: deadly attack programmes that can kick you out of a network and potentially damage you in real life. Combat with these digital monsters is handled much as it is in meat-space - the game’s ever-so-lovely term for reality - though there are fewer guns and more mind-bullets.
There’s a bit more to it than that, honestly, but if you keep a reference sheet of your options handy things should start falling into place pretty quickly.
In fact, that kind of applies to the entire game. So long as you keep the fundamentals in mind you’re probably ready to pick up the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit and get rolling.
See you in the streets, Cyberpunk.
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Want to know more about the upcoming edition of the game, Cyberpunk RED and the Cyberpunk RED Jumpstart Kit? You can visit the FAQ here: https://rtalsoriangames.com/2019/05/30/the-cyberpunk-red-faq/
The 4th Corporate War’s over and the big dogs have retreated to their corners to lick their wounds. That leaves everyone else to fend for themselves in a shattered world.
And that’s just fine. ‘cause you’ve got interface plugs in your wrists, metal in your limbs, and chips in your skull. You’re wired in, loaded with chrome, and ready to take it to the Edge.
There’s a world full of opportunities out there. Maybe this time you can do more than save yourself. Maybe.
Cyberpunk RED is the latest edition of the classic roleplaying game of the Dark Future, featuring updated mechanics and new lore set in 2045, midway between the events of Cyberpunk 2020 and Cyberpunk 2077.
The Cyberpunk RED Jumpstart Kit debuted GenCon 2019. The core rulebook for Cyberpunk RED hit the streets in November 2020.
Look for physical copies in your friendly local gaming store or our webstore.
Check out digital copies at DriveThruRPG.
The Corporations control the world from their skyscraper fortresses, enforcing their rule with armies of cyborg assassins. On the Street, Boostergangs roam a shattered urban wilderness, killing and looting. The rest of the world is a perpetual party, as fashion-model beautiful techies rub biosculpt jobs with battle armored roadwarriors in the hottest clubs, sleaziest bars and meanest streets this side of the Postholocaust. The Future never looked so bad.
But you can change it. You’ve got interface plugs in your wrists, weapons in your arms, lasers in your eyes, bio-chip programs screaming in your brain. You’re wired in, cyberenhanced and solid state as you can take it to the fatal Edge where only the toughest and coolest can go. Because you’re CYBERPUNK.
Cyberpunk: the original roleplaying game of the dark future; a world of corporate assassins, heavy-metal heroes and brain burning cyberhackers, packed with cutting edge technology and intense urban action. Within this book, you’ll find everything you need to tackle the mean streets of the 2000’s — in a game system that combines the best in realistic action and playability.
- Winner, Origins Gamer’s Choice Award, Best Science Fiction RPG 1989
Cyberpunk 2020 and its supplements are still in print and still available!
Want to know more about Cyberpunk? Here’s a great glimpse of the creator, Mike Pondsmith, running the game for IGN.
Thanks to IGN for sharing this video with us.
If you would like to know more about the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 video game, please visit our partners at CD Projekt Red.
Cyberpunk (role-playing game)
Tabletop science fiction role-playing game
Cyberpunk is a tabletop role-playing game in the dystopianscience fiction genre, written by Mike Pondsmith and first published by R. Talsorian Games in 1988. It is typically referred to by its second or fourth edition names, Cyberpunk 2020 and Cyberpunk Red, in order to distinguish it from the genre after which it is named.
Cyberpunk exists within its own fictional timeline, which splits from the real world in 1990. The timeline has been extended with each major edition of the game, from the first edition set in 2013 to Cyberpunk Red set in 2045.
The backstory begins with the USA becoming embroiled in a major conflict in Central America in the 1980s causing a significant economic collapse ending in a military coup resulting in the European Common Market and Japan as superpowers and the Soviet Union not collapsing. This is coupled with the development of orbital habitats that become independent states and the rise of Megacorporations that fight amongst themselves for dominance. Other disasters have included food blights causing disastrous famines, and by the late 1990s the Middle East is a radioactive desert after a nuclear conflict. Bioengineering, against a backdrop of warfare, has resulted in the rapid development of cybernetic prosthetics and direct human-machine interfaces. With the lack of government and police due to the Central America wars and economic situation, casual violence is endemic. Many also suffer from "technoshock", an inability to cope with a world of synthetic muscle tissue, organic circuits and designer drugs.
The main location for Cyberpunk is the fictional Night City, situated on the west coast of the United States between Los Angeles and San Francisco. With a population of five million people, it presents a stratified society of gang warfare, corporate rivalries and political machinations in which the players have to survive.
The rules of Cyberpunk are built on R. Talsorian's Interlock system.
A core game mechanic is the concept of Difficulty Values, used to gauge whether a player succeeds or fails at any given task. A player takes the value of their most appropriate character attribute, adds the values of any relevant skills or modifiers, and then finally adds the value of a ten-sided die roll. In order to succeed, they must beat the Difficulty Value assigned to the task by the gamemaster. Cyberpunk was one of the first tabletop games to use this concept.
As cyberpunks, the players embrace body modification, cybertech and bioengineering. They live by three tenets:
- Style over substance.
- Attitude is everything.
- Always take it to the Edge.
- (Break) the rules.
There are ten key roles, each with their own special abilities. These include charismatic musicians ('rockerboys'), bodyguards and assassins ('solos'), computer hackers ('netrunners'), road warriors ('nomads'), street experts ('fixers'), investigative journalists and reporters ('medias'), mechanics ('techs' or 'techies'), doctors ('medtechs'), corporate executives, and police officers.
A choice of rules are provided for character creation, either by assigning points to purchase skills or by rolling d10s for a more random outcome. A system called Lifepath is provided to develop each character further, by generating goals, motivations, and events from their past. Finally, they gain money, cyberware, weapons and other equipment, including fashion and lifestyle goods.
Further character development is skill-based rather than level-based; for successful play, players are awarded points to be spent on improving their characters' skill sets.
The combat system is called Friday Night Firefight (FNFF), and emphasizes lethality. Unlike other role-playing systems where characters amass higher hit points as they progress, allowing them to survive higher amounts of combat damage, the amount of damage a character can sustain in Cyberpunk does not generally increase as the character develops.
Each round, characters are permitted to take one move action and one other action. There are rules governing the use of autofire, armor, and cover, including specific instructions for using people as shields. Alternative ammunition types for weapons are available, for example a shotgun can be fired with buckshot instead of slugs. Character skills can be used to improve both ranged and melee combat.
Additionally, there are rules covering other forms of damage such as drowning and asphyxiation, electrocution, and being set on fire.
There are also rules for cybernetic hacking, called Netrunning. When characters "jack in", they can interpret the NET in several different ways, including as a classic Dungeons & Dragons maze, or perhaps as a star-filled galaxy.
Netrunners engage in the virtual world with interface plugs, cyberdecks, and the Interface special ability. Cyberdecks include slots to contain Programs, selected ahead of time by Netrunners to assist in tasks such as evasion, decryption and detection. Combat and other actions in the NET are fast, taking place second-by-second, as opposed to three second combat rounds in the physical world.
The destruction of the global NET in later editions of Cyberpunk turns the attention of Netrunners to local private networks. The effect on gameplay is that Netrunning is no longer a remote activity; Netrunners are embedded within their team and, with equipment such as virtuality goggles, can alternate their actions between both physical and virtual space. Closer integration with other activities was a game design choice to ensure all characters have a part to play during a hacking scene.
Empathy and cyberpsychosis
The acquisition of cyberware—cyberweapons, cyberoptics and other implants—carries a Humanity Cost. Every ten points of Humanity Cost causes the loss of an Empathy point, the character attribute that measures how well they relate to other people. An Empathy level of zero represents a complete loss of humanity, a state known as cyberpsychosis; in the case of players, their character becomes a non-player character controlled by the gamemaster.
Cyberpunk was designed by Mike Pondsmith as an attempt to replicate the gritty realism of 1980s cyberpunk science fiction. In particular, Walter Jon Williams' novel Hardwired was an inspiration, and Williams helped playtest the game. Another key influence was the film Blade Runner. Many also assume William Gibson's Neuromancer was an influence; however, Pondsmith did not read the novel until a later date. Other sources included the film Streets of Fire and the anime Bubblegum Crisis.
The original version of Cyberpunk was published in 1988 by R. Talsorian Games. The game components of the boxed set consist of a 44-page Handbook, a 38-page Sourcebook, a 20-page Combat Book, four pages of game aids and two ten-sided dice.
A number of rules supplements were subsequently published in 1989:
This edition of the game retrospectively became known as Cyberpunk 2013.
Second edition: Cyberpunk 2020
In 1990, R. Talsorian Games released the second edition of the game, titled Cyberpunk 2020, which featured updated rules for combat, Netrunning, and character generation. The game's timeline was also retconned to accommodate the German reunification in 1990. It was released as a boxed set that contained a 222-page softcover book, and a 24-page reference guide and adventure.
R. Talsorian Games released two revised versions: Cyberpunk 2020 version 2.00 (1992), and Cyberpunk 2020 version 2.01 (1993).
A total of 28 rules supplements and sourcebooks, and 6 adventures were also published by R. Talsorian Games between 1993 and 1996. In addition, Atlas Games published twelve adventures under license between 1991 and 1994.
Dream Pod 9 released Night's Edge in 1992, taking the Cyberpunk 2020 setting and adding a horror theme, including vampires and werewolves. Dream Pod 9 published ten other supplements and adventures in this setting between 1992 and 1995.
An alternate world sourcebook, Cybergeneration, was published in 1993; it centers around teenagers with unusual, superhuman skills gained from a nanotech virus epidemic. The first version of Cybergeneration required the Cyberpunk 2020 rulebook, but a second version became a standalone game.
Two Cyberpunk 2020 novels were published, in 1995 and 1996.
Third edition: Cyberpunk V3.0
Cyberpunk V3.0 is set in the 2030s, and was published in 2005. It takes Cyberpunk into a transhumanist setting in the aftermath of a fourth Corporate War. The global NET has been corrupted and rendered unusable, as has much hardcopied data, throwing human history into doubt. Six new subcultures have emerged, known as Altcults; one such group are the Edgerunners, successors to the cyberpunks of previous editions.
The third edition uses the Fuzion game system, rather than Interlock. Both the change of setting and the artwork within the book received negative criticism.
From 2007 to 2008, two sourcebooks were published to accompany this edition.
Fourth edition: Cyberpunk Red
The fourth edition of Cyberpunk, titled Cyberpunk Red, is set in 2045, following the events of Cyberpunk 2020 and serving as a prequel to the video game Cyberpunk 2077. The game is set after a fourth Corporate War; however, the events differ from Cyberpunk V3.0, which is considered to be a separate timeline.
The Cyberpunk Red core rulebook was released in November 2020. It was preceded by the release of a simplified boxed set, known as the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit, at Gen Con in August 2019. The core rulebook was delayed from a planned release alongside the Jumpstart Kit, initially to allow Cyberpunk Red game lore to be better aligned with Cyberpunk 2077, and later due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Collectible card games
Two different, independent collectible card games have been licensed and produced based on the Cyberpunk setting. The first, called Netrunner, was designed by Richard Garfield, and released by Wizards of the Coast in 1996 (the game has since been re-released as Android: Netrunner but is no longer associated with the fictional Cyberpunk universe). The second was called Cyberpunk CCG, released in 2003, designed by Peter Wacks and published by Social Games.
Combat Zone is a tabletopminiature wargame by R. Talsorian Games and Monster Fight Club, due to be released in 2021.
"Cyberpunk (video game)" redirects here. For the 1993 video game, see Cyberpunks (video game).
Stewart Wieck reviewed Cyberpunk for White Wolf #14, rating it 3 overall, and stated that "Cyberpunk is a fine game set in an environment which is very conducive to role-playing."
In the May 1989 edition of Games International (Issue 5), Paul Mason found the rules disorganized and lacked an index. He also found lots of typos, "the sign of a rushed production." Although Mason found the concept behind the game "quite appealing," he thought that the combat system, which was supposed to be an improvement on the usual non-descriptive hit point system, was too constricted by data tables to be very descriptive. He concluded by giving this game an average rating of 3 out of 5, saying, "All in all, Cyberpunk does the job. If you want to run a game in this genre and you want a single source of rules and background, then this game will be adequate to the task [...] It doesn't contain any ideas radically new to rolegaming, however, and so won't be much use to anyone else except inveterate collectors."
In the September 1989 edition of Dragon (Issue 149), Jim Bambra liked the production values of the original edition, but found many typos in the various books as well as a missing encounter table. Bambra found the setting "does a superb job of capturing the flavor and atmosphere of a disturbingly plausible and realistic future. The development and presentation of the Net is stunning and can be used as a basis for countless numbers of adventures. No other game has succeeded in portraying computer hacking in such a vibrant and absorbing way." He concluded that this was not for everyone: "Gamers brought up on heroic-fantasy or shiny science-fiction games may find the gritty realism of the Cyberpunk game not to their liking... To decide if this is the game for you, read a few of the Cyberpunk style novels. If you like them, don’t waste any time — rush out and buy the Cyberpunk game. Welcome to life on the edge."
In the September 1992 edition of Dragon (Issue 185), Allen Varney found Cyberpunk 2020 just as stylish as its first-edition predecessor, but he found even more typos in this edition than in the first edition. Varney liked the new streamlined combat system, but criticized the duality of modern combat, where "unarmored characters become pools of blood in 10 seconds of combat, but those in flak armor can shrug off submachine-gun fire." Varney also felt that the Netrunning system was much improved, calling the rules system "elegant and original." Varney thought the second edition's biggest flaw was lack of an index, but he also criticized the dichotomy of a system where "you can break into Eurobank and embezzle five million bucks, but you better pay your phone bill on time or you’re in big trouble." He accused the game of being "in the curious position of advocating rebellion, but only in socially acceptable ways." Nonetheless, Varney concluded that "The Cyberpunk game’s second edition surpasses its first edition on every count. With its smooth action, 'pure' cyberpunk atmosphere, easily accessible setting, and medium-low complexity, this game tops my list as the field's best route to dark near-future adventure."
In a 1996 reader poll undertaken by Arcane magazine to determine the 50 most popular roleplaying games of all time, Cyberpunk was ranked 10th. Editor Paul Pettengale commented: "Cyberpunk was the first of the 'straight' cyberpunk RPGs, and is still the best. The difference between cyberpunk and other sci-fi is a matter of style and attitude. Everything about the Cyberpunk game, from the background to the rules system, is designed to create this vital atmosphere. Cyberpunk is set in an unforgiving world where betrayal and double-crosses are common, trust is hard to find and paranoia is a useful survival trait."
In November 2020, Forbes found Cyberpunk Red to be a consistent continuation of the themes from Cyberpunk 2020. Contributor Rob Wieland praised the system for character generation, stating, "One of the signature elements of the game, lifepaths, went through a great refinement. Lifepath is a chart where players roll to determine elements of their character’s history. It creates lovers, friends, rivals and more for GMs to hang plot hooks on. Cyberpunk thrives on the personal connections between characters. Lifepath makes player buy-in easier; players are going to be much more interested in a job given to them by an old flame than a random NPC."
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