Getting More Out of Cyberpunk RED
Cyberpunk RED, its tabletop predecessors, and its anime and videogame future, have a very well defined vibe. But here’s the thing… there’s a lot more to the setting, and its potential, than people give it credit for. And even with some of it spelled out in black and white in the core book, it helps to have a little more in the way of inspirational media and a deeper understanding of the genre. So let’s dive into how you can get more out of Cyberpunk RED!
Small “C” Cyberpunk
As a genre, cyberpunk has become a victim of its own aesthetic. It’s cool as hell. But it has troubled roots. This article outlines the genre’s original sin, a combination of Orientalism and a cultural theme that was heavily influenced by the Japan Panic of the 70’s and early 80’s. And like its sister genre, steampunk, the aesthetic has trumped a lot of the social commentary that could happen around it. But that hasn’t stopped it from being popular, even when the messages have missed the mark.
As a genre, it exploded into the mainstream in the 80’s and 90’s, spearheaded by films like Blade Runner, books like the Sprawl Trilogy, anime like Bubblegum Crisis, and manga like Ghost in the Shell. Arguably its biggest success was the Matrix series of films. Since then, it’s been a constant low key aspect of popular culture, but not always a recognized one. Why? Because it very easily gets absorbed into general near future and vaguely dystopian science fiction. And this issue is part of why I think tabletop game doesn’t see its full potential get explored or recognized by a lot of people.
The World of Cyberpunk RED
The big thing to think about before you dive headlong into the world of Cyberpunk RED is that it’s science fiction with a firm alternate history base it develops from. It’s not “our” future, it’s “a” future that occurred after things during the Cold War went in some radically different directions, changing the entire trajectory of Cyberpunk Earth’s history. This can be a bit jarring, especially in today’s world of historical and technological development. Cyberpunk RED (and 2020, 2077, and Edgerunners) are a form of retrofuturism in terms of aesthetic. Cyberpunk 2020 was firmly in the Cassette Futurism aesthetic. Analogue and digital technologies jostled for space, as can be seen in a lot of the art for the game. RED, 2077, and Edgerunners are what I’d call “quasi-digital” futurism. Technology has advanced, things are smaller, there’s more light effects, holograms, and augmented reality. But there’s still an analogue vibe. Chips and cards are used to store data and transport it. Why? Security. So you get a future that’s got technology and science outside any norm we have, that at the same time relies on very analogue methods to get things done.
For a lot of people, the setting of Cyberpunk RED starts and ends with Night City and its immediate surroundings. There might be the odd jaunt somewhere else for a job, but it all comes home to the fictional central Californian coast city that we all love so much. And this is a disservice to the larger setting that Mike Pondsmith created. It’s a very similar situation to the one faced by Forgotten Realms in D&D, with the bulk of adventures happening in and around the Sword Coast, contributing to setting fatigue by not letting other places shine or see as much development. So what do we know about the larger setting? A lot.
Cyberpunk RED has a big setting. BIG big. NUSA and Night City are just the starting location, there’s lots to do there, but there’s way more to the world. With the near collapse of the Global North through multiple Corporate Wars and the functional falling of many national governments, the Global South has flourished. Africa, India, and other regions are having literal renaissance experiences of growth and development while United Europe and NUSA are on the decline. In 2045, the year Cyberpunk RED starts, there are multiple orbital habitats, lunar colonies, and Mars is seeing its first colonial efforts. What does this mean? It means that cyberware, bio-engineering, and technology have hit points where these are sustainable efforts. By 2077, the furthest on the timeline we have, these are well established. The setting is BIG.
But let’s talk about Earth. It’s in bad shape, especially in North America. We’re talking massive biodiversity losses, un or at best semi-checked pollution, and the general failure of most regulatory boards that don’t pack military grade heat. Things are degrading, but getting more alien by the month. How? Technology and bio-engineering. Humanity wrecked the place, now humanity is fighting over whether it’s better to try to recover the natural world we need to live, rebuild it with branded parts, or hybridize it. Nation-states are weaker than they’ve ever been, and even with the rally NUSA manages in the 2060’s with their Unification War, it’s a sad showing compared to the might of the old USA, or even the NUSA as it was pre-4th Corporate War. So regional powers like the Pacifica Confederation, Texas, India, United Europe, Brazil, and the highly African Highrider Confederation are prime locations for games outside Night City. There’s also constant brushfire wars going on at any given point between national, regional, and corporate interests.
Expanding the Inspirational Baseline
The filmography in Cyberpunk RED is a good jumping off point, and the Cyberpunk Edgerunners show is A+ material to get the feel of what a classic campaign feels like, but let’s expand it to give a better vibe for the 80’s style retro-future of Cyberpunk’s Earth, and for the kinds of stories and events that could happen in it.
Films & TV
Elysium(2013): An absolutely Cyberpunk movie that I’m shocked isn’t in the Cyberpunk RED book. It’s high-tech, low-life, and has all the features of an ideologically motivated Cyberpunk campaign; right from the getting sketchy street level cyberware to the wealthy living happy in orbit while the masses struggle on an ecologically devastated planet. It even has AV riding mercs working for the corporate/political elites! This feature length film is rated 14A.
Chappie (2015): Another Blomkamp film, it hits a lot of the Cyberpunk RED beats as well. Cyberpunk RED is a world on the verge of combat robots, where AI and the singularity are about to happen. And Chappie, where a Police robot achieves AI, goes rogue and then things get super messy as its makers seek to destroy it is 100% something that fits in the themes of the game and the known technology and developments in it. This feature length film is rated 14A.
Orphan Black (2013-17): Cyberpunk RED is a world of unknown levels of technology, real and fake conspiracy theories, and frankly alarming amounts of corporate control and power. The central conspiracy and events of Orphan Black are entirely within the boundaries of a large-scale, long-term operation by a megacorp. The setting isn’t Cyberpunk, or even really cyberpunk, but the plot and themes of the show? Yes. Definitely. The series ran 50 episodes and is rated 13+.
Nemesis (1992): This 95 minute not-quite-straight to VHS/Laserdisc movie is so Cyberpunk it hurts. The plot line is Androids are taking over the world, and a near full body conversion free agent working for the LAPD who ends up switching sides and… I can’t. I can’t make this movie make sense with written words. Just watch it, and it’ll make sense. The film is rated R.
Johnny Mnemonic (1995): Based on the William Gibson story of the same name, this film is Cyberpunk to the bone. From Johnny’s cyberware to the nanowire weapon his enemy prefers to an ex-military dolphin leading a revolutionary movement. This is a great movie for the genre and fits neatly within the realities of the Cyberpunk world. The film is rated 14A.
Virtuosity (1995): This forgotten gem not only matches the aesthetics of “normal life” in a cyberpunk world as opposed to flashy low-life styles in Cyberpunk, but also takes a dive into virtual reality (the NET), AI, and experimental technology that are all within the framework of a Cyberpunk RED game. It’s a solid film, a little over the top like it needs to be, and gives a lot of great ideas for a Cyberpunk RED campaign. This film is rated 18A.
Total Recall (2012): I’m going to catch flak for this one, but the 2012 remake is more Cyberpunk than the original in a lot of ways. This is the high-life meets low-life world of Cyberpunk on display in a lot of ways and as much as I love the original from 1990, the 2012 remake did a better job on world building. Some of the tech is outside the specs of Cyberpunk RED, but the Braindance and memory replacement aspects definitely aren’t.
Bubblegum Crisis (1987-91): this series follows the actions of a trio of, in Cyberpunk terms, ACPA (Assisted Combat Personnel Armor) vigilantes called the Knight Sabers in Neo Toyko, a city functionally controlled by the GENOM corporation. The series patterns nicely onto Cyberpunk Earth in the sense of the technology, evil corporation, and general vibe. It also explores a technology that’s well within Cyberpunk RED’s capabilities, “Boomers”. These are the main antagonists through the show as when the GENOM built android/artificial lifeforms go rogue, it’s almost always a bloodbath. The series is rated 14A and ran for 8 episodes; there was a 26 episode 1998-99 reboot, Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040, rated PG, and was pretty solid.
AD Police Files (1990): Set in the same universe and city as Bubblegum Crisis, this OVA collection acted as a much darker prequel to it, showing why the Knight Sabers were formed as the AD Police struggle with the twin issues of what in Cyberpunk would be identified as cyber-psychosis in a population that can trade body parts for cyberwear and cash, and the Boomers that are rapidly becoming a norm despite their dangers. Every episode is very Cyberpunk, and also very dark and violent. The series ran for 3 episodes and is rated 18A; there was a 12 episode 1999 reboot, AD Police: To Protect and Serve, which had mixed reviews but maintained the vibe more or less.
Armitage III Poly-Matrix (1995): People often forget that Cyberpunk 2020 and Cyberpunk RED are not bound to Earth. There’s the Highriders orbital habitats, Lunar bases, and Martian colonies. This movie (edited down from a series, I’ve only seen the fim) is Cyberpunk on Mars. the main plotline is around “Third Types”, human-robot hybrid organisms originally designed to be infiltrator units, being hunted down on Mars. It’s a solid film if a bit fast paced and gives a good idea of the things that might happen on Cyberpunk Mars. The film is rated 14A.
Cyber City ODEO 808 (1990-91): Taking a slightly different approach to things, this show features three episodes, each following a different “cyber criminal” who has been offered time off their sentence for taking on high risk missions for the police. It’s over the top at times, but has a very solid Cyberpunk core at its base. Particularly in the sense of the dead living on in advanced computer systems (something Cyberpunk 2020/RED/2077 confirms is a thing with Soul Killer), experimental tech gone wrong, and what happens when tech and genetic manipulation meet. The series has three episodes and is rated 13+.
Ghost in the Shell SAC (2002-05): The second kick at the can in interpreting Masamune Shirow’s GitS manga into anime, this series nailed it. Following the agents of Public Security Section 9, it’s an excellent snapshot of what the Cyberpunk world outside of Night City could be like. Almost all the tech in it is replicable in game as well, especially if you dip into some Cyberpunk 2020 resources. The series is 52 episodes long, and rated 14. It had a film worth watching, 2006’s Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – Solid State Society.
Cyberpunk RED is a great game with a great setting that’s underserved by its main presentations. Yes, it absolutely excels at the kinds of games it’s known for, but there’s more kinds of games, kinds of stories, kinds of larger campaign story arcs that it can do. Not just do, but do well without losing the vibe, the feel, the edge that the game thrives on. More to follow!