Time to Talk About Cyberpunk
I don’t think I’ve ever done a sort of rebuttal article, but here we are! The recent BOLS article “Let’s Play D&D in Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” has a lot of problems and now it’s time to talk about Cyberpunk.
Laying the Foundation
First off, we need to establish something. Cyberpunk: Edgerunners and its inspirational material, Cyberpunk 2077, did not spring into being out of the ether. Both are directly based on the Cyberpunk role-playing game IP developed and still actively supported by R. Talsorian Games. In fact, the most recent edition of the game, Cyberpunk RED, acts as a linkage between the last canon edition of the game, Cyberpunk 2020, and the Cyberpunk 2077 video game.
So what did BOLS do wrong? Leaving out the urge to smash everything into a 5e shaped hole regardless of if it works, they did a few things. Foremost, at the time of this writing, they never mentioned that there’s an actual Cyberpunk RPG already in existence. Instead, they say that Cyberpunk: Edgerunners “… perfectly framed a story that would probably feel more at home in a Shadowrun game than D&D.” Shadowrun is a completely different IP, unrelated to Cyberpunk mechanically and that came out after Cyberpunk did (literally riding Cyberpunk’s coattails and copying its homework). Then they talk about how less “daunting” 5e is as a game than Shadowrun, and plow into a terrible conversion of the main character into 5e. Saying something is “less daunting than Shadowrun” is almost the lowest bar you can step over in terms of game design, and it’s used here to make 5e seem like it’s a clean, well-maintained system.
So what’s the issue? Right away, it’s Black creative erasure. Mike Pondsmith is one of the original Black creators in the tabletop RPG world, and the founder of R. Talsorian Games. He’s literally credited in every episode of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners first, with “Based on Cyberpunk 2077 based in a universe created by Mike Pondsmith” being the first credit seen. Not recognizing this, or the game he created that spawned the show, is a serious snub from a media group with reach like BOLS has.
Next, they feed the 5e D&D beast and can’t even be bothered to throw a bone to the company that created the setting or the literal game that the anime is ultimately based on. Shadowrun is what they went with. A game KNOWN for its janky, difficult mechanics and issues. But there’s no mention of R. Talsorian Games, or Cyberpunk RED, a game barely three years old, that’s in print and well supported. This is either the sloppiest of efforts to write about Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, or a deliberate omission. It’s unwarranted and unprofessional, and feeds into the ongoing issue of the narrative that “D&D can do anything!” that hampers other games getting the attention they rightly deserve in preference for another 5e conversion job of, in this case, poor quality.
The Real Origin of Cyberpunk 2077 and Cyberpunk: Edgerunners
So, what’s the background to Cyberpunk 2077 and Cyberpunk: Edgerunners? Well, it all started back in 1988, in Washington State with the first company in the RPG world to embrace desktop publishing, R. Talsorian Games.
Cyberpunk: The Roleplaying Game of the Dark Future was released in 1988 by Mike Pondsmith’s still new on the block company, R. Talsorian Games. It had a few supplements and hit a nerve with the gaming world, becoming a success that would dominate the company for years to come. Also known as Cyberpunk 2013, it’s the foundational document that started the larger Cyberpunk universe.
Cyberpunk 2020 was released in 1990, and was a combination of rules updates and some needed retcons. In short order, Cyberpunk 2020 would completely supersede the previous edition to become the definitive baseline of the Cyberpunk universe. Its collection of books covered more of the world outside of Night City, and a broad meta-plot was introduced that culminated with the Fourth Corporate War; a world shaking event that reshaped the working reality for all edgerunners.
Cyberpunk RED was released its Starter Pack in 2019, and core book just ahead of the delayed release of Cyberpunk 2077 in 2020. It bridges the gap between Cyberpunk 2020 and Cyberpunk 2077, and is set in 2045, “The Time of the Red”. Like CP2020 before it, it features streamlined and updated rules, and a plethora of world information and lore to get you off on the right foot.
And to be complete, let’s talk about the Lost Canon of Cyberpunk; because someone is bound to bring it up in the comments otherwise.
Cyberpunk 3.0 was… a thing. Released to grim reviews in 2005, it was a transhuman future after the Fourth Corporate War and its fallout. Poorly received and tonally different to the last edition, it was retconned out of the series canon by Mike Pondsmith, with only altered versions of some events making it into Cyberpunk RED. This is honestly a game that was, thematically, ahead of its time and probably would have been a better far-future game than a relatively immediate successor to the much loved Cyberpunk 2020.
CyberGeneration was an odd game that was almost immediately its own timeline, where the children of edgerunners in Cyberpunk 2020 developed a variety of superhuman abilities. The setting was the same but ahead on the timeline, but everyone lived in arcologies, and there was some weird plot points and yeah. Players played tweens and teens with powers and it was not included in future supplements or in the official canon. This game was odd.
Where Do I Get Cyberpunk!?
If you bought a digital copy of Cyberpunk 2077, you already have Cyberpunk 2020’s core book. It’s buried in the program files. But otherwise, let’s talk about where you can get the games that directly inspired and square up well to what people are playing in Cyberpunk 2077 and watching on Cyberpunk: Edgerunners!
Cyberpunk RED is the current edition, and it’s available directly from R. Talsorian Games, on Amazon, in local game shops in hardcopy form. PDFs are available from DriveThruRPG at a reduced cost. But you don’t even have to jump into the 400+ page core book to start. There’s a Starter Set, and a free game called Cyberpunk RED Easy Mode that has everything you need to get a taste of the larger game. Free DLC for the tabletop game is available on the R. Talsorian Games website. Getting into Cyberpunk RED is probably the best call, as it’s the actively supported edition. It seems “crunchy” on first glance, but it’s a trick, the game’s learning curve is comparatively shallow and easy to pick up, and there’s deeper crunch if you want it. A good review of it is here. I strongly recommend Starting with the free Easy Mode game and then branching upwards.
Cyberpunk 2020 is the previous canon edition, and it’s full of flavour. And I mean FLAVOUR. Cyberpunk RED streamlined things by a few notches, but Cyberpunk 2020? It’s all about brand names, materialism, and 80s retro-futurism. At the time of writing, the best place to get this game is DTRPG, and there’s a lot of it. It was heavily supported until the mid-90’s hiatus by R. Talsorian Games, and so there’s a lot to work with. It’s mechanically similar to Cyberpunk RED, but a bit clunkier and crunchier. It’s not nightmare crunch, but the uptake is a bit steeper.
I’ll be honest. It drives me around the bend whenever I see genres outside “D&D Fantasy” getting pushed into a 5e shaped mould. I know why it’s happening (clicks, advert money, 5e fanbase support and cash), but that doesn’t make it okay, especially when it takes a deserved spotlight off of other games. And that’s what happened here. The R. Talsorian Cyberpunk games aren’t perfect, and definitely have their share of problematic elements, but they’re the source material. And when you have reach like BOLS does, it’s a body blow to not get mentioned in an article about something literally based on your work. This should have been a slamdunk for BOLS. A mention of Cyberpunk RED and a link before plunging into that 5e conversion; even a link to the review by the same author for Cyberpunk RED would have been good. But instead, here we are.
Update: Since publishing this, BOLS has edited the entry to recognize both Mike Pondsmith and Cyberpunk RED. This doesn’t excuse what happened though and in the environment of 5e dominance, it’s important to make sure that smaller games get their recognition.