Cyberpunk is more than just a genre or aesthetic. It’s a classic tabletop RPG that’s seen an unprecedented revival in recent years. Published R. Talsorian Games, its return was long awaited by many, and has a lot to offer new groups looking to live life on the edge. So after the last article on the topic of the Cyberpunk RPG, I think it’s long overdue to dig into this game for a review.
NOTE: R. Talsorian games provided me with near the complete Cyberpunk RED collection in hardcopy and electronic formats for review purposes. This was after the blow up on Twitter following the BOLS article; and I was the one who asked for review copies. All good? Okay. Let’s do this.
Cyberpunk RED is the latest tabletop edition of Cyberpunk, and in a previous post I dipped into some of its precursors. 1988’s Cyberpunk 2013 can be considered the Ur game of the series, establishing many of the tropes and concepts that remain in play now and bringing the early Interlock System to a wider audience. Until RED was released, 1990’s Cyberpunk 2020 was the definitive edition, but also one that left all of us on a cliffhanger, wondering how the 4th Corporate War’s fallout was going to reshape the earth. Then things got squidgy. Life happened and R. Talsorian Games went on hiatus in the mid 90s, only coming back in 2005 with Cyberpunk v3.0.
2005’s Cyberpunk v3.0 vaguely followed in the footsteps of the ideas established by standalone game Cybergeneration, and presented a radical departure in terms of setting, game drives, and art from the successful 2020 edition. So radical that it flopped, failing to pick up the existing player base or to develop a new one. Not helping was that it was struggling for air in the middle of the d20 Bubble caused by Wizards OGL for 3e D&D. Then it was more or less radio science for a long time.
2019 was huge with Cyberpunk IP news. Cyberpunk 2077 had been on the radar for a while, but it was revealed that Keanu Reeves was playing Johnny Silverhand, an iconic NPC from the tabletop RPG, and that a new edition of Cyberpunk was coming. The starter box was a critical hit, and then Cyberpunk RED released at nearly the same time as Cyberpunk 2077; which turned out to be a mixed bag. Cyberpunk 2077 was late and riddled with bugs and issues, and while a free pdf copy of Cyberpunk 2020 was included in the game files for PC users, there was no real tie-in with Cyberpunk RED from the 2077 side.
But Cyberpunk doesn’t quit and 2022’s release of the anime series Cyberpunk Edgerunners revitalized both the videogame and interest in the tabletop game!
Cyberpunk RED has a lot of good going for it, and first and foremost is the polished Interlock System. The interlock System was solid when it was first revealed in Mekton, and saw incremental improvements for years through other games by R. Talsorian Games. Cyberpunk RED features the smoothest version of it yet, with a number of quality of life improvements to the subsystems, like netrunning. The system is as solid as it ever was and has aged extremely well, keeping its mild learning curve and ease of use.
The art in Cyberpunk RED is beautiful, evocative of the era and genre, and plentiful. It’s also diverse. There’s no doubt that the Earth of Cyberpunk RED is a diverse place based on the art, and there’s little in the way of stereotypes presented. There’s also in-game advert sheets, which do a tonne of world building by presenting the kinds of things that the player characters are seeing on a daily basis. And given how the equipment section is more generic than in the 2020 edition, it gives some much needed consumerism to the operation.
The world is bigger. The overview section of the book that digs into the wider world does a good job painting a picture of the real differences between what’s passing for the USA and what’s happening in the rest of the world. To the point that it’s an Afrofuturist writer or gamer’s dream (seriously, read the sections on Futurist Africa and the Highrider Confederation). There’s a lot more going on and it’s presented a lot more clearly than ever before.
Character creation. Yes, I know there’s a lot of tables and if you’re just skimming the book, it seems really intimidating, but it’s actually beautiful. The character creation process guides you directly through the whole thing, moving you smoothly from page to page, choice to choice, and you only end up using a fraction of the tables and it all makes sense. We’re talking “broken into squads for ease of learning” makes sense. And it gives options every step of the way to make the process yours. Want a fast and dirty character in 20 minutes? They got you. Want to spend an hour or so carefully plotting it all out? Done. Something in the middle? They have that too. I was initially worried, but after reading and going through the process? Two thumbs up.
It’s Gamemaster friendly. The book is well laid out and the pdf is full of hyperlinks, so it’s easy to navigate. Making NPCs for your games is fast too. The whole system is quite friendly and supports you with contents in the book and lots of free DLC from the R. Talsorian Games website. The Running Cyberpunk section of the book is also EXTREMELY valuable, both to gamemasters and players, for establishing some base level expectations and ideas.
Cyberpunk has always had issues around its wider world, and they persist into this edition. The challenge is that Cyberpunk as a game has always focused on Night City and its immediate environs, despite having a larger and more interesting setting to play in. So things in the core book are focused on the USA and specifically Night City and its Environs, with some Roles traveling well outside that, and others less so. The worst offender is the Nomad, whose narrative influence and Role Ability need a lot of finessing or modification to make work elsewhere.
Not enough name brand stuff. Consumerism is a big part of Cyberpunk, the whole look stylish thing that the game touts as a key part of the gameplay, character development, and character presentation. I get that the book is already tipping the scales at 455 pages, but it needs name brands and the sorts of socioeconomic levels they’re associated with. I’m really hoping for an equivalent to the Chrome supplements that Cyberpunk 2020 had. In the meantime, I’ll be doing conversion work for my game from those books because it’s all about looking better than the opposition, no matter how the fight turns out!
The last point is that Cyberpunk RED retains the uneasy blend of world building influences that were established in Cyberpunk 2013 and Cyberpunk 2020. Namely the high-tech island-like corporate capitalist dystopia spaces surrounded by Mad Max-esque libertarian wastelands, ruined cities, Nomad families, and gangs. But only in the USA. This never sat well with me, and with the improved world building elsewhere, the welds that keep this part on are really showing and not in a good way. The inclusion of the Road Warrior series in the inspirational filmography highlights this. It’s not Cyberpunk, in terms of aesthetic or vibe; and the only other media kind of close to it on the list is Appleseed, and that’s only because that world was a post-apocalypse one too. So I’m really curious about how they’re going to address this or not as the timeline creeps forward to meet 2077.
Cyberpunk RED is a more than worthy successor to the Cyberpunk 2020 throne as the definitive edition of the game. It’s packed with lessons learned, gorgeous art, a polished system, and is bridging the gap between Cyberpunk 2020 and Cyberpunk 2077. Does it have some issues? Yes, the Humanity score and ableism are, at best, precariously balanced. The world building is shaky in places. It recommends playing “…your heaviest rock tapes…” to help build atmosphere at the table. And Cyberpunk is clearly where you bust out your best MiniDiscs. But as a whole? The game is good, really good. It was worth the wait. Whether you’re coming back to it like me or new to the game, Cyberpunk RED has you covered. And it spends the time that a game like this, in a genre like this, needs to spend to get players and gamemasters alike into the vibe and into the world without relying too much on you “knowing” things.
So I’m comfortable with giving Cyberpunk RED a Rank S rating. In a world packed with 5e everything and people thinking Shadowrun is the best cyberpunk game, Cyberpunk RED steps up and exceeds expectations. Cyberpunk RED is currently available from the R. Talsorian Games Shop, and DTRPG.