Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit Review

TL;DR

The good: The layout and art are excellent. Many of the rules have been streamlined. The setting is great.

The bad: the dice system has some moderate apparent flaws, some mechanics are inelegant, netrunning is still pretty blah.

Background

I have a lot of nostalgia for Cyberpunk 2020. I played it some in high school and loved reading through it and making up characters… I loved the imagery, the high tech, cyberlimbs, big guns, and fighting against The Man. The game’s text was intentionally written to be in the voice of characters from the RPG – hard and tough with psuedo-futuristic slang thrown in. It was easy to feel badass, and in my first game my character died in the first round of combat. How cool is that?!

The rules were… kind of all over the place. Not great, but playable enough for the 90s.

We’ll forget Cyberpunk v3 ever existed because… yeah, ouch.

Cyberpunk Red

I purchased the digital version of the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit, because my friend who went to Gen Con wasn’t able to get one of the limited number of physical kits before they sold out. This is a review of that version. It is just a preview, really, of Cyberpunk Red, an updated version of the original Cyberpunk RPG, to coincide with the release of the Cyberpunk 2077 video game.

Summary

Cyberpunk Red, for better or worse, is basically just a slight streamlining to Cyberpunk 2020. I’ll be doing a lot of comparison to 2020 for those that know it, but I’ll try to make sure that you don’t need to know 2020 to understand the review (since, to be fair, even I haven’t played 2020 in a couple decades, but I do have the book next to me as I write).

There’s a lot of important info missing in the jumpstart kit – like how to create characters – which can make it hard to fully judge the end product, but I’ll do my best to make educated guesses, assuming it’ll be pretty similar to 2020.

The jumpstart kit has the background setting, attributes, skills, how to run combat and skill checks, and some pregenerated characters.

Details

The first thing I noticed when I picked up the PDF was the awesome art. This ain’t grainy photographs of action figures, choomba. The art is really great, and I’m super glad for it. I feel like the art really drives cyberpunk in particular. You can’t say you’re about style over substance and then slack on the style.

I don’t love the primarily red design elements in the book, but it is laid out nicely, quite readable, and otherwise up to today’s standards.

Roles

The very brief description of the Roles in the Jumpstart Kit don’t give you any info on what benefits they provide, aside from the Netrunn’s special skill, so there’s not much I can comment on there. In 2020 there was basically only a single benefit you got from each role, and everything else was point buy. It looks like that’s basically still be the case in Red, but we’re only given the Netrunner’s special skill, and no more info about Roles.

The list of roles is unchanged from 2020 - Rockerboys, Solos, Netrunners, Techs, Media, Lawmen, Execs, Fixers, Nomads. Not too happy about the two explicitly gendered role names - “Rockers” and “Officers” would have been fine (in fact Lawmen used to be “Cop” which was genderless and IMO less awkward anyway).

Attributes

Holy crap there’s still a ton. 10 to be exact. Intelligence, Reflexes, Dexterity, Technique, Cool, Willpower, Luck, Movement, Body, Empathy

You could (and I would if it were my game) set aside a couple of these (Luck and Movement) since they’re not really used for skills or other actions the way the rest of the attributes are. Just like you don’t count “hit points” as an attribute in D&D. It would make the game look less complicated without actually removing anything.

Still, it’s intimidating. As someone who has worked to reduce duplication of stats even among D&D’s 6, I feel like 8+2 is really just too many. Do we really need Empathy and Cool? Reflexes and Dexterity? Does Luck really deserve an attribute all on its own? I’m paying for movement points now? Is this a superhero game where one person can run 5x as fast as another person?

Empathy still exists as the (apparently) only foil against getting too much cyberware (see Cybernetics, below).

Just as in 2020, attributes run from 1-10, though all the pregens have nothing under a 3, and most things are 5+. We don’t have character creation rules, so there’s no way to know how you get more attributes (the Kit indicates you’ll be able to roll on tables or just use a point-buy method… but how exactly those function will greatly affect how breakable the stats are).

Skills

The list of skills is greatly reduced from 2020 (which had literally 92 different skills down to – no kidding – Pilot Dirigible). In Red, there’s 18 non-combat skills which are reasonably broad, though there’s still Conversation, Persuasion, and Interrogation that all basically do the same thing with subtle differences in their approach. Still, I’ll take it over the 2020 list that literally took a full page just for the names of the skills.

Skills work like they did in 2020, each skill has a value from 1-10. To make a skill check you roll 1d10 + attribute + skill. Since we don’t know how skills or attributes are created or increased, it’s a little hard to judge how they’ll be balanced.

It seems likely to be very similar to 2020, which means it’ll also have the same problem as 2020 - where someone who wants to be good at something will have 8-10 in both the skill and the relevant stat, and therefore start with 1d10+16 or so… versus the person who wants to be mediocre having 5 or 6 in both, meaning 1d10+10… that’s a 60% difference on that 1d10 roll, or the equivalent of +12 on a d20. That’s gigantic.

Combat

The combat skills are thrown in with the non-combat skills, just like 2020, which I’m not sure I like. Getting +1 to Driving probably should not be similar to getting +1 to all ranged combat… but again, we don’t know how skills are purchased, so it’s possible the way to increase the combat skills is different (but it wasn’t in 2020, so I’m not holding my breath)

Ranged Combat

Just like in 2020, armor and dexterity don’t make you harder to hit with ranged attacks – you can’t dodge bullets, and bullets that hit you, by definition, don’t miss. Instead, there are static difficulty numbers for each range increment. But there are, legit, 7 range increments:

So not only do you need to know the exact distance to the target, you have to consult this chart to figure out what the target number is that you need to beat… every single round for every single attack.

Now we could dive into these numbers, but let me point out something… check out rifles at range 13-50m… they’re five easier to hit with than anything else at any other range. That’s FIFTY PERCENT on a d10. I don’t have actual play time under my belt, but that seems way too good.

Melee Combat

Melee combat is contested rolls, which means no annoying chart, but it does showcase the “awesome vs. average” discrepancy, where 7 Dex + 7 weapon skill is gonna be WAY better than 5 Dex + 5 Evasion (40% better).

Death and Damage

Characters have hitpoints like many other systems. Hitpoint loss above halfway has no effect, below half way, you’re at -3 to everything. This is an improvement on 2020 where there was a quick death spiral where even a relatively average roll from a small pistol would make you start making checks with a penalty, and the penalties quickly stacked up.

There’s no more stun/shock save as there was in 2020, so there’s no chance a small would will just knock you out. It may be less realistic than 2020, but it’s more cinematic, which I think is better (also less fiddly).

Cybernetics

Cybernetics are in the name of the genre and the game, but they are only very lightly detailed in the Jumpstart. There are a few extremely brief examples, though the book talks about how cybernetics are common and how they’re viewed by society. It’s much the same as in most cyberpunk literature, but there are no rules for how you obtain cyberware for your character.

The ableism from CP2020, which proclaimed all body modifications to take away from your inherent humanity has been dialed back, but not erased.

Cyberware installed for therapeutic purposes, including limb replacements, prescribed medical devices, and cyberware used as part of gender correction surgery, does not contribute to Cyberpsychosis. Neither does simple decorative cyberware such as light tattoos or tech hair. Only cyberware used to replace perfectly functional body parts or enhance the body beyond the human baseline can push someone towards Cyberpsychosis.

I had hoped for better, as this feels more like an adhoc patch than anything. I feel like this is the one thing that really needed to be fixed for a cyberpunk RPG in 2019, and yet, it was effectively just not.

Netrunning

Hacking in Cyberpunk is called Netrunning. In CP2020 it meant the netrunner sat at home and jacked in, fighting their own battles on their own timeline with their own rules, with little to no interaction with the rest of the PCs. It was complicated, isolating, and not very fun. Most groups I’ve heard of just never did it.

In Red, the rules aren’t fully detailed yet, but it feels faster and less cumbersome. However, there’s still very little the Netrunner can do to interact directly with other people. You can’t hack someone’s cyberarm, or cause their cybergun to misfire. The difference with 2020 is that now there’s no net, so you have to go along with your buddies to jack in directly to buildings to override security etc, which at least gets the netrunner out of the house, but lacks interactivity that would make the role more fun.

Setting

The setting is well detailed in the world book in the kit. The cyberpunk world of 2045 in the book is an almost post-apocalyptic version of the grim future envisioned in the CP2020. The city was bombed out, but is rebuilding. This makes most central services (water, electricity, etc) spotty, and makes the city more 2nd world than 1st world. Night City is now effectively a city-state and the author describes it as a kind of future Casablanca - a lawless crossroads where anything is possible and everything is dangerous.

Conclusion

The setting is pretty fantastic. The art is great. The tone is great. I just wish the actual rules were better. It’s possible the character creation rules will iron out some of the apparent imbalances… and maybe they’ll come up with something other than that godawful table for ranged attack rolls… but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The setting and resource books (think: cybernetics and other equipment) were always the best parts of CP2020, and it seems that trend continues. The mechanics are probably passable enough such that you can mostly tolerate their warts (and maybe house rule some stuff) and then have fun playing chromed-out badasses.

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As someone who playtested Cyberpunk v3 (with Mike, at Origins, it’s true!) and was sorely disappointed by the overall unplayable final product, I’m glad that this game is (A) playable and (B) good-looking. Baby steps in the right direction, and there are plenty of other games out there doing cyberpunk fiction too so… yeah, I’m optimistic about this one joining The Conversation.

Cool that you got to playtest with Mike. v3 was clearly done on a shoestring budget, and suffered for it. I’m glad Red got a sufficient budget to get some good eyes on it, and benefits from the advances in TTRPG thinking. I wish they’d taken more chances on it, rather than sticking so close to 2020, but it’s definitely better than either the previous versions, so I can’t complain that much.