Jacking Into the Time of Red: Cyberpunk RED

By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico,  13 November 2020

With Cyberpunk 2077 coming out in the near future and the new release of Cyberpunk RED, gamers of all stripes can have a way to scratch that itch for a dystopian, technology heavy, futuristic shenanigans. This time around, I’ll be your guide in the NET, bringing you news on the latter of these titles: Cyberpunk RED. Welcome to the neon-soaked Time of Red, choomba.

Writer’s Note: An advanced copy of this title was provided by R. Talsorian Games for this review. This in no way affected the review or ratings below.

All artwork used with permission from R. Talsorian Games. Artists credited in the captions.

Cover of Cyberpunk RED. Illustration by Anselm Zielonka.

==The Pitch==

Cyberpunk RED is the newest iteration of Cyberpunk 2020, a tabletop RPG by R. Talsorian Games (the publisher behind The Witcher RPG) originally published in 1988 and revamped (and expanded on) through the 90s.  The Cyberpunk RPG as a whole is based on the concept of a dystopian future where corporations control more power than governments and people are simply trying to survive the difficulties as wealth gaps grow and technology overtakes humanity.

Cyberpunk RED takes this one step further by expanded the metaplot and bringing it to a new era.

==What You Get==

Cyberpunk RED, it PDF form, weighs in at a whopping 458 pages. While I cannot vouch for the physical book, the PDF is full color with black text, red accents, and full-color artworks.

Like The WitcherCyberpunk RED utilizes a cleaned up version of the classic Fuzion system: d10+mods for resolution. Also, like The Witcher, character are build with a Role in mind, like Tech or Solo, which comes with unique abilities.

From there, the mechanics are different. Cyberpunk RED makes additional changes to the Fuzion mechanic with a few tweaks, cleanups, and balancing to a number of “classic” but problematic rules.

==The Good==

I’ll simply say that Cyberpunk RED is possibly the best cyberpunk RPG I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Additionally, I feel Cyberpunk RED took most of what I disliked about The Witcher and older Fuzion games and made the necessary repairs.

For starters, it’s easily the most accessible game. Beyond the book, your only cost of entry will be the dice: 2d10 and about 6d6 will cover nearly everything you need for this game.

From an actual accessibility standpoint, the PDF for Cyberpunk RED is wonderful. The book is packed with hyperlinks to allow you to easily jump to the table of contents (by pressing the chapter title on each page), the index (by pressing the page number), and all page references are hyperlinked.

While these are all basic “quality of life” tweaks, there is one thing I did love to see: alt text describing every image my mouse hovered over. The accessibility options included with that are worth points in my book, and I was happy to see it.

Alt-text on the cover illustration. All pictures in Cyberpunk RED have this available for reading software to assist. Excellent accessibility touch!

I also can’t talk about Cyberpunk RED without pointing out the massive improvements to not only the franchise itself, but other games in the same style.

From a mechanical perspective, this is a clear evolution from the older versions of the game and its competitors. While we still have a large number of skills, many of the mechanics are more approachable: grapples are simplified, netrunning is easy to grok, vehicle combat doesn’t require spreadsheets, and equipment has been simplified so brands are now backdrop and not individual stats.

One of the biggest mechanical tweaks I have to praise is the reduction of all combat devolving to a game of “Rocket Tag.” As I mentioned during my review of The Witcher RPGCyberpunk 2020 and other Fuzion-powered games of the time were notorious for “Shoot First, Aim for the Head, Repeat.” As noted in that previous review, a starting character could dish out upwards of 150 HP in a single hit, and that would kill just about anything in the book.

Now, the multipliers are reduced, critical hits are less extra damage (and not multiplied!) and more impactful, and hits don’t utterly ignore armor. This means that a headshot, which is taken at a -8 and ignores other rate of fire bonuses (so one shot; make it count!), with maximums on dice rolls and no armor, will be dishing out 17-65 HP, with an “average” character having about 40~ish HP and a combat borg packing upwards of 75. Headshots can still be game enders, but they aren’t the only way to play, and I welcome that.

Of course, going in borg’d up is still going to ensure chaos is caused. Art by Richard Bagnall.

Character creation is full of options, from a plug-and-play chart option with lifepath options for background reasons, an in-depth point-buy approach, and one that rests just between them with flexibility. Characters also aren’t “locked in” to their Role. Your Rockerboy could decide to become a Fixer thanks to their charisma, or your Exec could shift their attention and become a Medtech to undo the problems they caused; both of these are possible without giving up your previous abilities, allowing for interesting and flexible characters.

On the note of progression, we see a rather new progression approach: instead of locking in XP for a mission you’ve survived, you instead pick a pair of “play styles” (like Warrior and Roleplayer), and if you perform a feat in accordance with them, you can net Improvement Points. For example, if you are a “Socializer” and were critical to helping the group complete a goal, that would earn more points than just finishing the mission. While the numbers are big (10-80 IP per game, upgrades costing 20-60 x level), being able to impact your gained points via your best way to RP your character makes it much more appealing and worthwhile.

Then you factor in the metaplot. Instead of just updating the old stuff, we see almost half of this tome dedicated to the lore and setting. It explains why things are the way they are, and why things aren’t as familiar to old hands. From another Corporate War that involved a nuke, major loss of face for corporations and linked governments, collateral damage, and major shifts of power (and subsequent supply line issues), everything changed. Tech improved but some became harder to find. The NET was less visual and more text. The law is lessened due to lack of corporation involvement. And on and on it goes; subtle changes that are big enough to notice for anyone coming back after a long while, but similar enough to not feel too alien.

Still have that familiar skulking about and big name corps to take on.
“Cat Burglar” by Adrian Marc

Of course, I have to talk about artwork. The art is just…ideal. You can see the inspirations from various cyberpunk franchises that have cropped up over the years, and none of the art is inherently bad; it’s consistent, well shaded, and evenly placed. They pulled a solid collection of artists together here, and they did wonderful with the art direction in general. As an added benefit, the crew behind the book actually listed the artists with the art. Instead of wondering “Who drew this?” every time artwork appears, they provided a name alongside each piece. I don’t see this often enough, and seeing credit given where credit is due makes my librarian heart fill with joy.

Finally, Cyberpunk RED isn’t just the most accessible cyberpunk RPG I’ve read; it’s probably the most inclusive. A number of cyberpunk-adjacent games have a bad reputation for this: characters are penalized for cyberware, regardless of purpose, and there’s an inherent bend on racism and gender issues that are prevalent.

While not entirely non-existent (some could argue elements when discussing metaplot), there are major improvements. We see nods in the story and character creation lifepaths where gender roles are tossed, and gender with regards to relationships are tied to preference. There’s a section on cybernetics that explains “making oneself whole” doesn’t impact your humanity as it does in other games; this means replacing a lost arm, undergoing gender affirmation surgery, or even contraception are easily accessible, acceptable, and do not cause harm.

No more wondering if your gender affirmation surgery, hand replacement, and biomonitor will tip you into a cyberpsychotic rampage. War may change you, but being you won’t. Art by Neil Branquinho.

The game even has a section dedicated to therapy, both to recover from trauma or to balance our the Dissociative Personality Disorder that comes with augmented cybernetics (i.e. cyberpsychosis). The idea of citing the Mayo Clinic regarding this psychosis, explaining the ins and outs and why augmented cybernetics cause it (but not “corrective” elements) is huge. It helps add a mechanical protection for people who want to make their characters “whole” to match what’s going on without penalizing them for it.

Sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction!

==The Bad==

To be honest…there’s not much bad about Cyberpunk RED. If anything, I have to scrape for things.

Like The Witcher, buying a print copy of Cyberpunk RED will not net you a PDF…unless you’re buying from your local FLGS. R. Talsorian recently joined with Bits & Mortar, so if you purchase from your FLGS instead of their virtual store, you can get the PDF. Not a bad move on their part, but a frustrating for those who lack an FLGS in our, as of this writing, pandemic-impacted world. When reached out to for alternatives because of the pandemic, mail-in orders were recommended with a physical game store that’s part of the program. Essentially, if you don’t have a local game shop, you’re dropping about $90 for book and PDF.

The game itself also has a bit of a learning curve. With sixty-five skills (yes, SIXTY-FIVE!), there’s a bit to learn, grok, and memorize, especially since the levels of  some of these skills provide special abilities, sub-skills, or have specialties involved. It’s a bit of book keeping, and when you link that with the larger numbers for progression, it’s just a bit much at times. While it’s not a bad as earlier versions of the game, nor is at as convoluted as Shadowrun, it may be a bit overwhelming for some players.

But all I want to do is ride around on an awesome bike!
Art by Adrian Marc.

Beyond the above, there’s not much bad to say. There’s the typical random typos (but not anything super prevalent, and some I felt were typos could be due to in-character talk), and the print copies may have different quality flaws, but the content and the PDF are, as you can see, solid.

==The Verdict==

After a bit of Input/Output around a rating, I’d have to offer Cyberpunk RED a solid 4.5 buns.

Cyberpunk RED is, hands down, the best cyberpunk RPG I’ve had the pleasure of reading. It’s accessible, approachable, and inclusive, cleaning up a number of problems that the genre has had over the years. With easy to grasp mechanics, flexible gameplay options, and decades worth of lore, you’ll be hard pressed to find a game this good.

Even if you aren’t married to the mechanics, there’s some worthwhile stuff to explore here; whether you are a game designer trying to determine how to make your game more accessible, want to scour the GM tips and tricks to improve your next session, or just a cyberpunk aficionado looking for things to bring to the table, Cyberpunk RED is a worthwhile investment.

Of course, you may find some old hats that will try to twist things because of the precedent set by older editions and other games, and there’s a bit of a learning curve. These aren’t impossible to overcome, but may scare some people off.

Cyberpunk RED is created and published by R. Talsorian Games, and will be available as a PDF on DriveThruRPG beginning November 14th, 2020 for $30 MSRP, and available as a physical book via their webstore and other game shops on November 19th for $60 MSRP.

Anthony, better known as LibrariaNPC, wears many hats: librarian, gamemaster, playtester, NPC, game designer, and our Editor-In-Chief. You can support his work on Patreon, his tip jar, via Ko-Fi, or by buying his games.

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