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‘Making Cyberpunk Red almost killed us’: Mike Pondsmith on the return of the tabletop RPG, catching up with 2020’s future and Cyberpunk 2077

From predicting the internet to breaking it.

2020 is an auspicious year for fans of the cyberpunk genre, for this is the year in which the Cyberpunk 2020 tabletop roleplaying game is set. Whilst many cyberpunk-themed RPGs have come and gone over the decades, Cyberpunk remains the iconic roleplaying game of the dark future. 2020 is a momentous year for the game in more ways than one; this is the year the core rules for the latest edition of the game, upcoming tabletop RPG Cyberpunk Red, and its hotly anticipated video game adaptation Cyberpunk 2077 will be released.

Created by Mike Pondsmith of R. Talsorian Games in 1988, Cyberpunk immerses players in a world of high technology and low life, where players assume the role of cybernetically-enhanced mercenaries and hackers who can directly interface with computer networks.

Although many assume William Gibson’s Neuromancer was a source of inspiration for Cyberpunk, it was only much later that Pondsmith read Gibson’s groundbreaking novel. Instead, the designer cites his own key reference points for the game as the film Blade Runner and the novel Hardwired by Walter John Williams, who also helped playtest the RPG.

“Most cyberpunk, including my much beloved Blade Runner, is pretty depressing because one of the elements of it is that the people involved are not the heroes,” observes Pondsmith. “Cyberpunks don't save the world; they save themselves. If saving the world comes out of that, then that's great.”

Cyberpunk 2020 RPG core rulebook
The first edition of the Cyberpunk tabletop RPG was set in 2013, before being updated to 2020 in the second edition, the 2030s in V3.0 and the mid-2040s in this year's Cyberpunk Red. | Image credit: Sarah Jarvis

The strength of the Cyberpunk RPG lies in its capacity to tell vastly different stories, such as media teams uncovering the truth of a corporate cover-up or police squads attempting to clean up the danger zones of Night City. Opposing the characters could be anyone, from street-level booster gangs to corporate mercenaries.

Cyberpunk’s first release, in 1988, was set in 2013. A second edition was released two years later, which updated the rules and renamed the game Cyberpunk 2020, forwarding the timeline and Cyberpunk RPG lore accordingly. Three decades later, 2020 remains Cyberpunk’s best-known iteration.

Following the mid-nineties superhero-themed offshoot CyberGeneration, which began as supplement for 2020 before being spun out into a full release, the RPG was updated again in 2005 with Cyberpunk V3.0. With this, the setting was moved forward to the 2030s and the technology curve advanced, bringing in elements of transhumanism, such as full-body cyborgs: humans with their minds downloaded into robots.

I thought cyberpunk was going to be lighted jackets and flying cars, but the genre kind of shifted and stayed in the ‘80s.

This third edition proved controversial for many players, as the setting deviated from its cyberpunk ethos to include post-cyberpunk elements of science-fiction, which some felt were out of place.

“What I learned when we did the ill-fated Cyberpunk V3.0 is that the whole idea of cyberpunk really does involve lighted jackets and flying cars,” admits Pondsmith. “I thought at the time that was where cyberpunk was going, but the genre kind of shifted and stayed in the ‘80s. When you start moving into the elements that make up transhumanism, there's no exact period of time for that, but it definitely isn’t the ‘80s and so the feeling definitely changed.”

It could be easy to dismiss the cyberpunk genre as dystopian science-fiction but, whilst it shares many similarities in terms of setting, there are distinct tonal differences between the two. Although both genres feature authoritarian governments and societies teetering on the edge, the cyberpunk genre is typically more street-level and heavily emphasises the technological element. William Gibson’s short story Burning Chrome, published in the collection of the same name, articulated the cyberpunk ethos in its line “the street finds its own uses for things”.

This focus on technology is reflected in the Cyberpunk tabletop RPG, with almost inexhaustible amounts of cybernetics, weaponry and gadgets on offer to the players.

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Unlike other tabletop roleplaying games released at the time, Cyberpunk uses the Interlock system, where players add their attribute and skill values together before rolling a ten-sided dice to determine the outcome. This acknowledges that some people are inherently better at certain things than others; for example, someone with quick reflexes would naturally be a better driver than someone who is slower to react.

This method has since become a common mechanic within RPG rulesets such as White Wolf’s Storyteller system, used in the World of Darkness series of roleplaying games such as Vampire: The Masquerade, but was groundbreaking at the time that Cyberpunk was released.

“I'm not sure we were the first, but we're at least one of the first,” says Pondsmith. “It was a natural progression on how I look at life.”

Another element that Cyberpunk included was the dehumanising aspect of cybernetic enhancements. Cybernetic limbs can be stronger and more durable than normal limbs, as well as having built-in upgrades. But voluntarily replacing a limb with a cybernetic one carries with it significant psychological repercussions.

Cyberpunk Red RPG artwork
Cyberpunk Red takes place before the upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077.

A character’s humanity is represented by their empathy attribute. The more cybernetic enhancements they have, the greater their loss of empathy. As the character’s empathy statistic lowers, they become increasingly cold and emotionless, until finally going over the edge and becoming a 'cyber-psycho', someone who has lost all compassion and is consumed with rage at the 'meat bags' surrounding them.

Following the lacklustre response to Cyberpunk V3.0 - only two supplements were released for the third edition - it seemed like the end of the Cyberpunk roleplaying game. However, everything was about to change.

In January 2013, The Witcher 3 developer CD Projekt Red revealed it was working on a video game based on Cyberpunk in conjunction with Pondsmith. The Cyberpunk 2077 teaser video accompanying the announcement showed no gameplay footage, but captured the atmosphere and ethos of the RPG’s setting.

If Kim Kardashian broke the internet in 2014, then Cyberpunk 2077 shattered it five years later when CD Projekt Red revealed on-stage at video game convention E3 that Keanu Reeves would play the iconic rockerboy Johnny Silverhand within the game. Reeves reportedly enjoyed the experience so much that he requested his screen time to be doubled in the game.

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It was also revealed that Pondsmith was developing a new tabletop edition of Cyberpunk, called Cyberpunk Red, set in the 2040s. This new edition would incorporate events from the previous editions, such as the Fourth Corporate War that decimated most of the planet, as well as tie into the forthcoming video game adaptation.

Last year’s Jumpstart Kit was our first glimpse of Cyberpunk Red. The starter kit, with condensed rules and pre-made characters geared towards teaching players how to play the Cyberpunk Red RPG, was released at Gen Con 2019 and has repeatedly sold out since.

“Oh God, Gen Con… There were twenty of us at the booth and we were just flying through stacks of the things,” says Pondsmith. “We ended up literally getting more boxes in and assembling books on site an hour before. Each day we had over a thousand and they would disappear. It was pretty crazy.”

Each day at Gen Con we had over a thousand Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kits and they would disappear. It was pretty crazy.

The full version of Cyberpunk Red is expected to be released later this year with the core rulebook. The delay between the Jumpstart Kit and the full release has been longer than expected, due in part to R. Talsorian Games being burnt out creating the Jumpstart Kit, as well as wanting to tie Cyberpunk Red in as much as possible with Cyberpunk 2077.

“The lag to doing the full game came up partially because doing the Jumpstart Kit almost killed us; it was just insane doing it,” says Pondsmith. “Even more importantly, we wanted to make sure that the stuff in 2077 and stuff we developed in Red meshed, and there were things that hadn't been decided yet in 2077.”

As with previous versions of the Cyberpunk RPG, Cyberpunk Red uses the Interlock system for resolving conflicts. One of the major changes in Cyberpunk Red compared to previous editions is how netrunners - the game’s cyberspace-surfing hackers - operate. Instead of being able to jack into the ‘net and go anywhere, the localisation of networks due to the net being severely damaged during the Fourth Corporate War means that netrunners must now be physically close to the system they want to interface with.

2019's Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit includes pre-made characters and cut-down rules compared to the full game.

The upshot of this is that netrunners now have to be much more part of the team, rather than being separated from everyone else as they explored the digital world, one of the main problems with the previous editions.

“When I originally wrote netrunning, we were trying to simulate flying, out in cyberspace, which was prevalent in the way they did things in Gibson,” says Pondsmith. “The problem with it is that most of the protagonists were doing something and then having to wait for the netrunner to do something. We deliberately made netrunning more personal.”

Due to the almost limitless potential offered by the setting of Cyberpunk, Pondsmith is already working on two expansions for Cyberpunk Red. One of them has already been written and is waiting for the art, whilst another only started development recently.

As for whether we might be able to explore the later world of Cyberpunk 2077 in the tabletop roleplaying game, the answer is yes. Taking Cyberpunk Red into the 2077 timeline is already in the planning stages, but Pondsmith says it will be something that's released further down the line.

“Sooner or later, we're going to have to cover some of this stuff,” he concludes. “There's a lot of amazingly cool things that we've got coming up that just really need to be said. They need to be put out there for people to look at and go, ‘I didn’t see that coming!’”

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