It can be hard to get started when it comes to explaining the world of the Cyberpunk tabletop RPG. Honestly, it’s rather tempting to just point a finger at the title and clock off for an early lunch.
That would, however, be doing this world a rather dreadful disservice. Though a lot of its broad strokes and themes are going to be instantly familiar to anyone who’s watched Blade Runner or read anything by William Gibson, the Cyberpunk setting has been pushing boundaries and dreaming up new ideas for more than three decades.
With a new edition of the tabletop RPG, Cyberpunk Red, on the way and a video game adaption, Cyberpunk 2077, from The Witcher developer CD Projekt Red due for release in April 2020, there’s never been a better time to live life on the edge.
What is the world of Cyberpunk Red?
Let’s start with the very basics.
The world of Cyberpunk is a mirror-image of our own reality, with the timelines splitting somewhere in the late 1980s - conveniently enough, just about the time that the first edition of the game was being written. There’s a whole heap of detailed history buried in sourcebooks, but as far as the folks on the street are concerned the biggest changes are the collapse of the rise of cybernetic technology and the decline of world order.
In the far-flung world of 2013, setting of the original Cyberpunk RPG (called Cyberpunk 2013), collapsing world governments had been muscled out by corporate overlords that slithered their way into every aspect of public and private life. Anyone not lucky enough to be part of their profiteering was relegated to a life of poverty and despair on the mean city streets.
By the time of the game’s first sequel, Cyberpunk 2020, most of those streets were located somewhere in Night City, an urban sprawl that stretched along the California coastline like a tangled neon anthill. Between the corporate cops and indifferent government it was hellishly dangerous, deeply divided but also achingly cool. After all, it was the playground of the cyberpunk - a breed of high-fashion, high-tech, high-energy survivors who lived to stir up trouble, make some cash and get famous.
In other words, the heroes of our stories.
What’s the technology like in Cyberpunk Red?
Of course, one of the defining aspects of these cyberpunks was the whole ‘cyber’ thing. Pretty much every character is expected to have at least a little bit of technology wedged somewhere into their body, whether that means having razor blades woven into their finger-tips, silicon irises that can shimmer whatever shade you desire or a full set of plugs that allow them to link up directly with their gear.
Between the corporate cops and indifferent government it was hellishly dangerous, deeply divided but also achingly cool.
This isn’t just an avenue for cool upgrades and ways to modify your characters, however. The idea of tech weaving its way into everyday life is one of the world’s key themes, and many of the jobs that the cyberpunks head out on are likely to involve hacking into networks, stealing data and sabotaging corporate computers.
Even the more mundane aspects of life in the world of Cyberpunk are dictated by tech. Civilians buy their groceries from well-armed vending machines, corporate managers drive about in cars they steer with their minds and clothing can harden into body armour at a moment’s notice. If you can think of something cool (or depressingly dystopian) to do with wires and microprocessors, someone’s probably selling it in Night City.
How is Cyberpunk Red different to Cyberpunk 2020?
So far, everything we’ve been talking about could apply to pretty much any of the Cyberpunk series’ timeframes, but over the past few editions - and in-game decades - a lot has changed.
By the time of Cyberpunk Red, the latest version of the game, the world has leapt forward into the mid-2040s. Night City is a more of a mess than usual thanks to a nuclear detonation levelling much of downtown, while disastrous corporate wars have left a power vacuum that has thoroughly trashed modern society. Indeed, the edition gets its name from the blood red skies that have been hanging over the world for a couple of years, the product of dust kicked up by a nuclear blast and orbital weapon strikes.
However, there’s also seems to be a strange little kernel of optimism squirrelled away within RED’s doom and gloom. Night City is in the process of rebuilding, the corporations aren’t quite as powerful as they used to be and the skies are clearing. The world is still a technological and environmental hellscape, but it could be worse. Make enough money and commit enough crimes and you might even be able to afford meals with real vegetables in them.
Night City is a more of a mess than usual thanks to a nuclear detonation levelling much of downtown, while disastrous corporate wars have left a power vacuum that has thoroughly trashed modern society.
On a slightly more practical level, the tech has also been quietly upgraded to fit in with a modern vision of near-future cyber-wizardry. The plugs and wires of Cyberpunk 2020 have mostly given way to wireless transmitters, while most body augments can be as slick and smooth as you want them to be. Of course, not everybody wants to be subtle when it comes to their fancy chrome gear.
Who is Johnny Silverhand?
Just going over the facts of the world isn’t really enough to truly explain it, though. Perhaps the best way to get a handle on what Cyberpunk really feels like, and what makes it special, is to take a look at its leading man and most iconic character, Johnny Silverhand.
That name probably doesn’t mean too much to most of you, but even if you’ve never cracked open a rulebook in your life, there's a good chance you’ll know that Johnny Silverhand looks like. Because he looks like Keanu Reeves.
At least, that’s who he’s modelled on in the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 video game, where he (or possibly his digital ghost? It’s complicated) is set to act as the main character’s guide to Night City. This is far from his only appearance in the series, however.
Over the years Johnny has worked his way into all kinds of classic missions, from raids on corporate offices to inciting street riots. He was even rumored to have died in the nuclear attack that levelled a slick of Night City. However, this isn’t what he’s most famous for in the world of Cyberpunk. No, that honour goes to his career as the frontman of legendary ‘chromatic rock’ band Samurai.
It’s hard to think of anything more shamelessly, joyously ‘80s than a gun-toting, revolutionary, cybernetic rock-star. That’s Johnny Silverhand, and that’s Cyberpunk in a nutshell.
How are Cyberpunk Red and Cyberpunk 2077 connected?
Savvy readers will note that that there’s a pretty substantial gap between Red’s 2040s timeframe and that of Cyberpunk 2077. So what kind of connection can we expect to see between the two?
Well, the video game’s early trailers show Night City to be a dangerous, corporate-dominated mess of violence and crime, but that’s pretty much business as usual.
According to Cyberpunk developer R. Talsorian Games, the world of Red is planning to explain how society moved from the world-shattering corporate wars to the slightly more stable setting seen in 2077, but exactly how they plan to do this is probably going to stay in the shadows until both games are released in 2020.