Cyberpunk 2020

R.Talsorian Games, Inc., 1990

What you get/need

Cyberpunk 2020 $21.95

Concept - 4

Oh, joy. Another cyberpunk game. Actually, this was the first cyberpunk game, and it shows, even though this is the game's second edition. Afterseveral years, I've grown tired of the whole genre, but I still enjoy an honest cyberpunk game every now and then. Unfortunately, Cyberpunk 2020's setting is mired down by some tedious (and sometimes absurd) concepts.

Character Creation - 2

Character creation is simple. First, you choose a Role, which is basically a character class. Despite your Role, you can still learn whatever skills you want--you just get an extra skill or ability that's exclusive to your Role. This is all well and good for things that couldreasonably belong to only one Role (such as a Cop's Authority or a Nomad's Family), but many Roles have abilities that, at least from a logical standpoint, could be learned/possessed by anyone who is willing to spend enough time or take enough risks. Half of the Roles have abilities of this latter sort. For example, the Combat Awareness that only Solos have. A Solo is defined as pretty much a cybersoldier mercenary, probably with some kind of military experience. Having points in Combat Awareness (which is based on his "constant training and professionalism") will make him faster and more perceptive in combat situations. But other characters can never have this ability, even if they've spent their entire lives fighting boostergangs, cyberbikers, psychotic transients, underworld assassins, and God knows what else in the streets. Even if a non-Solo has survived more harrowing situations and made more kills than a Solo, and has gained enough practical knowledge of tactics and battles to rival anyone out of a military academy, the Solo still has an edge over him, simply because e choose to define himself as something else. It gets worse with other abilities, such as Jury Rig, Interface, Medical Tech (yes, unless your Role is Medtech, First Aid is all you're going to know), and especially Streetdeal. Streetdeal is a Fixer's ability to make and utilize his network of underground contacts. The idea that only Fixers have/can usenetworks (underground or not) is ridiculous. As campaigns evolve, most player characters will gain their own underground contacts, be they Fixers or not. Beyond that, underworld powers in any setting will wear their contacts and influence like armor, and somehow I doubt they're all Fixers. Indeed, a non-Fixer PC could probably rise to become the head of the cyber-mafia (or whatever it's called) just as easily as a Fixer. At least as irritating as this is the Interface ability--only Netrunners, of course, can manipulate things in Cyberspace. Which sends a glaring message to players of other Roles that Cyberspace is useless to them. Of course, it isn't, they can still look at things the way a present day person surfs the Web (I presume), they just can't steal data or mess with computer systems. Unfortunately, all of the Cyberspace rules and texts deal only with stealing data and messing with computer systems, doing little to counter the "Netrunners-Only" image.

Oh, well. To their credit, I don't think the game was meant to be THAT true to life. Indeed, this would be all right, if many of the Roles weren't so obviously useless or out of place to begin with. All descriptions to the contrary, most edgerunner parties aren't going to find much use for Corporates, Medias, Medtechs, or Rockerboys, unless the Referee is willing to do a lot of work (and contrivance) or base the campaign around them (which may not please all the other players). And then there are Cops--what were they thinking? Policemen in this setting are portrayed as being pretty much outgunned by the forces of cyber-chaos and outclassed by the security and operatives of cyber-corporateship. Even if they have far less to look forward to than today, my guess is that Cops are still going to take a dim view of edgerunners in general. Again, some Referee contrivance is in order.

That ugliness behind us, we can now choose attributes, skills, and equipment (munchkin warning--the money you get to spend is based on how high your Role skill is), including weapons and cybernetics. Why do I bring up weapons and cybernetics? Because both of these can get pretty disappointing. To start with, there isn't enough weapon variety or extrapolation. Once you remove the autoshotguns, monoblades, and interface plugs, all the weapons on the list are pretty much the stuff we have today, with different names, slightly bigger clips, and slightly better accuracy. After 30 years, you would think they'd have invented lasers or magnetic acceleration weapons or something. As such, players will have to buy the game's Chromebook supplements if they want neat weapons to kill things with. Most Cyberpunk devotees will buy all the Chromebooks anyway, but it would have been really nice if the designers could have included some of the Chromebook weapons in the main book. The whole weapon thing, of course, is probably only an issue of how much space was left in the book and, at any rate, it's not an issue at all compared to the cybernetics system.

The way cybernetics are handled is perfectly fine...until you get to the Humanity Loss. That is, the more cybernetics you add to a character, the more of their human nature is lost, until they've plunged into Cyberpsychosis. At this point, the character starts doing such fun things as eating corpses and duct-taping down the triggers of their assault rifles before going into crowded public places (which, by 2020, is pretty much everywhere). Of course, people who have been reading cyberpunk literature since William Gibson's Neuromancer (one of this game's inspirations, naturally) will be hard pressed to name a story where this concept is actually implemented, but let's not let that stop us. The point is, the whole idea of Humanity Loss makes little sense. I can see how therapy might be required if massive alterations are made to an UNWILLING subject (like in the computer game Bioforge), but Humanity Loss smacks of being something the designers threw in after discovering that their playtesters' characters were all human brains attached to arsenals of retractable, non-detectable weaponry. A cursory glance at the cybernetics list will confirm this: why, for example, do "Wolvers" (described as foot-long retractable blades implanted along the back of the hand) have a humanity cost of 3d6+1 when getting an entire _arm_ replaced by a cybernetic one (without weapons) only has a humanity cost of 2d6? A cybernetic arm is a more drastic alteration to a human body than an implant blade (even if it is retractable). Even better are "BigKnucks," which only have a humanity cost of 3d6 and are basically reinforced knucklebones.

I think I've made my point.

Of course, no description of Cyberpunk 2020 character creation would be complete without mentioning the Lifepath. A trip through the Lifepath is always exhilarating (read: nonsensical) because, according to the charts, your family ranking has an equal chance of being "Urban homeless" as it does "Corporate executive." I wish. You also have a 40% chance of your parents either dying, leaving, or doing something nasty to you, like selling you for money. That's always fun. It also makes me wonder if the divorce rate in the future is still 50%. Unfortunately, the novelty value of the Lifepath wears off quickly--once you've read all the charts, it becomes more tedious than fun or helpful, and, after each round of increasingly bland and non-altogether-coherent results, you begin to think, "Gee, I couldn't have imagined that myself. Thanks."

Playability - 2

Cyberpunk 2020 does not have the most logical or comfortable mechanics I've ever seen. For one, the difficulty levels (outside of ranged combat, anyway) are not explained nearly as well as they should have been. Three other points of irritation are 1) all people, now matter how skilled, have a 10% of failure at any task, 2) a person of average intelligence (INT 5) who, say, is practically a trained laboratory chemist (skill of +7) has the same chance of success as a brilliant person (INT 10) who may or may not have passed chemistry in high school (skill of +2), and 3) skills improve at such a slow rate that in-game advancement is pretty much a waste of time.

I'm not buying this.

Of course, the second point is common to many other games that are more recent, such as the White Wolf games and Fading Suns, and it's not that big a deal. More crippling are the first and third points. Routinely fumbling one out of every ten tasks adds that element of uncertainty that is the heart of all games, I guess, but it can get old. Players had better choose their skills well during character creation, because, unless the Referee makes a radical change to the Improvement Point system, they're not going to learn many new skills past a level of +1 or 2.

Another blow to playability is when players suit up in heavy armor. A munchkin with the SkinWeave cyberenhancement (which alone will make him invulnerable in fistfights) and MetalGear armor will cheerfully notice that he's impervious to just about everything short of heavy assault rifle fire. Even with armor-piercing rounds, it's still going to take assault rifles to bring him down...bit by bit. Of course, he's not going to be wearing that MetalGear everywhere he goes (at least, not if the Referee has any notions of society and consequences), but it can take a lot of the excitement out of black operations where anti-tank weapons aren't involved. Also, the rules for martial arts are not very detailed, especially the explanations for the defensive moves. The Netrunning rules are also tedious, and not at all believable, especially when it comes to writing new programs.

On the plus side, however, combat in Cyberpunk is relatively lethal once you take the heavy armor out of it (and the lowest caliber weapons, many of which won't inflict lethal wounds to unarmored targets, even with head shots).

Despite all its flaws, the system for this game, while far from being the system to end all systems (but still sooooooo much better than the Fringeworthy system), is workable enough for the setting, and fairly easy to learn. But it could have been much better.

Writing - 5

All said and done, it is probably the game's unique attitude of rebellion, energy, enhancement, and cynicism that will keep players coming back for more. This theme is continued and reinforced throughout most of the book, and is very catchy for those who enjoy settings that are also styles (listening, White Wolf fans?). I don't care for all of the setting's details (I would liked for the corporations to have more power, for example), but this is a matter of taste, and nothing here is severely off base.

Highs - the definitive Cyberpunk attitude

Lows - irritating game engine; useless Roles; HUMANITY LOSS!!!

Final Call - nothing more than it claims to be--a celebration of style over substance