No preamble, this just jumps straight in to Life on the Edge with Section 1: Soul & the New Machine - encapsulating the in-your-face attitude that's at the core of the cyberpunk genre. Sidebars fill in details and quotes from celebrities of the cyberpunk world like musician Johnny Silverhand provide flavour as the text explains the core pragmatic survivalist with a touch of idealism approach that the true 'Punk takes to life. An overview of future history, written as if in the year 2020 looking back to the late 1980s shows how the world came to be in the state that it is - and is quite entertaining when read in the real 2018... yes we do have the 'Net, but other aspects - such as incorporating cybertechnologies into our own bodies - haven't happened yet.
It's all style over substance, projecting attitude, living on the edge. Before we know it, we're reading about the 'roles' (Cyberpunk's version of character class) and their special abilities. There are nine roles - Rockerboys, Solos, Netrunners, Corporates, Techies, Cops, Fixers, Medias and Nomads - and each have something to bring to the party, something unique to that role. Each one gets a couple of pages explaining where they fit and what they can do... and these are vivid enough that you can easily envisage a campaign built around any of them.
Next comes Section 2: Getting Cyberpunk. This covers character creation. It's basically a point-buy system, with the numbers of points you have either assigned by the GM based on the style of game they have in mind or randomly by rolling 9d10 and adding them together. There are nine Statistics to spend them on (Intelligence, Reflexes, Cool, Technical Ability, Luck, Attractiveness, Movement Allowance, Empathy and Body). Many things like strength, endurance and so on that normally form core game statistics are calculated from these nine in this system. Then you choose skills, with a vast range of different ones mainly associated with your chosen role (but you can cross-train), and at this point a mechanic for 'Fast and Dirty Expendables' is introduced for those not wishing to spend ages pouring over the options. It's quick enough to be recommended for making NPCs as well.
This is followed by possibly the most interesting part of character creation, Section 3: Tales from the Street. This is where you put some substance into the character with a mechanic called Lifepath that builds some background... it's a flowpath that covers national/ethnic origins, family, friends, enemies, personal habits and key events from your past... all of which may have an influence on your present. You can roll dice, or pick what you fancy from the options, as you please. If I don't have a vivid idea of who the character is, I start out with the dice, then change things as the character begins to come to life. Starting with some notes on personal style (clothes, hairdo and accessories), you find out nationality and language, a fair bit of detail about your family, and about what motivates you before you reach the Lifepath proper. Basically for each year over the age of 16, there's a chance that something happened that year. This is where it is fun to let the dice loose... and the GM will likely have a field day with the trail you have left through time. It's something that can be fun to play with in an idle moment, even if you don't have a game coming up!
Section 4: Working looks at tasks and skills in great detail, starting with a look at how to check if you have succeeded in whatever you are trying to do, applicable die modifiers and so on. The basic mechanic involves adding the appropriate statistic to a single applicable skill and rolling 1d10 against a GM-set target, or against someone else's roll if it is an opposed task. Now you know how to use skills, we move on to look at what skills are available and how to acquire them. You get ten career skills associated with the role you have chosen, and forty points to spend on them. You also get 'pickup skills' to further customise the character. There's a detailed listing of skills and what you can do with them to help you choose (although I still worry about a game that has 'Resist Torture/Drugs' as a skill... it's not one I want to have to use!). For those who like to invent, there are notes on creating new roles and new skills, although there's plenty here. The approach to martial arts is quite interesting, allowing for a lot of variety without getting bogged down in excessive detail.
Now it's time to equip our new character, with Section 5: Getting Fitted for the Future which covers weapons, armour and 'gear' - most everything else. Apart from cyberware which comes later in its own section. Here we find talk of the typical lifestyle (rootless and disposable), find out how much the character earns, and check on encumberance (important when you carry most of what you own), before looking at weapons in great detail. Armour and everything else have much smaller sections.
Then, Section 6: Putting the Cyber into the Punk does just that. It starts off talking about style and image, but soon veers off into cyberpsychosis, a mental illness that can affect someone who replaces or augments so much of his body that he runs the risk of losing touch with his human side. Suitably advised of the risks, we then move on to the cyberwear itself. Some of it is fluff, some has practical application, sometimes even combat use... but there's page upon page of it, plenty of choice for everyone. Some characters start off with some, others choose to get 'cybered-up' later on when funds permit... or when injury requires replacement body parts. In true Cyberpunk style, there are 'fashionware' modifications like hair that changes colour or a watch implanted in your wrist rather than being worn on it, as well as replacement limbs, implanted weapons and neuralware that enhances thought processes, memory, and has other effects depending on just quite what you have installed. A common enhancement is the interface plug, vital for netrunners, but useful if you operate any kind of machinery - or a smart gun - that you want to control by mind rather than physically. The one drawback is that these are all expensive. Various ways for getting the cash are discussed, but all involve selling out in some manner, and may have other consequences.
Now things start hotting up with Section 7: Friday Night Firefight. This is the combat system for the game, and is covered in extensive detail. It opens with the statement that the game mechanics have been designed with an eye to realism rather than to Hollywood-style 'heroes never miss and never run out of bullets' concepts, and then gets down to details. Combat is conducted in rounds representing about three seconds, and each conscious combatant gets to do something each round. Just what you can do and how it is done is covered in almost-scary detail... but once you have the hang of it, it actually flows pretty well. If combat is your thing, it is an excellent and comprehensive system, capable of handling as much detail and realism that you want. If you are less interested, it can be abstracted... or you may find it too dangerous and avoid a brawl whenever possible! There are loads of hints and tips about how to fight to best effect which are well worth reading, even if you don't intend to engage in combat: you often do not get the option!
Possibly just as well, the next section is Section 8: Trauma Team. This covers everything you need to know about medicine and the healing arts... and death. Fortunately in this vision of the near-future, there's a fast-response paramedic corporation (called TraumaTeam) who guarantee to get to you within seven minutes wherever you are... provided you pay the subscription! Assuming medical help is available, the process of getting better from whatever trauma or disease has laid you low is covered. One point is that this is no fantasy game: even with modern/futuristic technology, it takes time to recover from illness or injury. It's not just emergency medicine either, this section covers the medical aspects of getting cyberwear too, as well as notes on 'bodysculpting' - which sounds a bit better than cosmetic surgery. There's also considerable detail on TraumaTeam's operations. They come combat-ready, with security personnel as well as paramedics, so a wounded subscriber can literally be picked up while the fight's still going on (you could even run a campaign based on a TraumaTeam's exploits, or one I did that involved several rival paramedic services engaged in a turf war...).
Next, Section 9: Drugs looks at everything from medical-grade pharmacuticals to combat enhancers and recreational compounds. Many are literally designed to be addictive, so perhaps they are best left alone. On the other hand, if you prefer to design your own, there are rules for that as well.
Then comes perhaps the defining bit, Section 10: Netrunner. A lot of people are scared of this... and it can be quite hard in the middle of a session to cater for the party net-head without leaving the rest of the group sitting around getting bored. Some GMs even refuse to have netrunner characters, but it does add something special to the game if you manage to handle it. There's a lot about the 'geography' and functioning of the Net - and it's interesting reading looking back from present-day familiarity with the World Wide Web and the ease of net-browsing without plugging in bare-brained! Equipment and programs are covered here, along with the nasty things that can happen to the incautious or unlucky who pokes into some corner of the Net where they ought not to be. If you do want to do some serious netrunning, all the game mechanics you'll need are here - including how to build systems to be attacked, and how to create your own programs; but remember, there's a lot that the party netrunner can do whilst remaining (mostly) in the real world, even during a brawl or an intrusion.
Now it's time to look in more detail at the world you'll inhabit, with Section 11: All Things Dark and Cyberpunk. There's a future history timeline from 1990 to 2020. The European Union has become a monolithic trading bloc, space exploration - at least orbital - is flourishing, and corporations are taking the place of nation-states, even to the extent of having wars with each other. Plenty of commentary to put meat on the timeline's bones, to show you how everything developed to the current state. Law and order is discussed, and it's a harsh system of retribution... so best not to be caught! Any semblance of arms control, even in the USA, has gone completely out of the window, and self defence is an acceptable excuse. However, self-driving cars have not been developed although here it's possible to control your vehicle by thought by jacking in to it, although that's quite rare and expensive. People still write letters, or they can send faxes instead - e-mail appears not to have been developed. Newspapers flourish and there are some 186 TV channels. It's all a fascinating look at what the future might have been... but it created a fun world when written, and works well as an alternate path when played today.
Section 12: Running Cyberpunk tries to answer the question of "How do I run this game?" Plenty of ideas about how to set the scene of the gritty urban underbelly in which it always seems to be raining... There are staggering contrasts between the haves and the have-nots, and it's never clear who can be trusted and who is double-crossing you. Play it hard and fast. A bibliography is provided to help GMs immerse themselves in the atmosphere and style of the cyberpunk genre. There are suggestions for how to coax the normally antisocial and individualistic 'punks into teams, so that your group can work together.
Next, Section 13: Never Fade Away is ostensibly fiction to get you in the moon... but it is resourced enough with maps, stats for the main characters and other details that you could convert it into a scenario. This is followed by Section 14: Megacorps 2020, which provides background material on the nature of these vast organisations and how they impact with the day-to-day life of the average 'punk on the street. There are plenty of adventure ideas here, there's money to be made on the fringes as corporations often hire deniable assets to do their dirty work. There are outline sketches of several of the largest and best-known corporations, covering a brief history and listing their assets. I always giggle at one - Microtech - because I worked for a company of the same name when this book first came out. It was a tiny software house rather than a monster builder of hardware, though!
Finally an introduction to the default setting in Section 15: Night City provides you with a ready-made urban environment to run your game. There's a lot of detail here (and a whole supplement dedicated to it if you want...), with locations, personalities, suggested encounters and a collection of 'screamsheets' (print-on-demand newspapers) that provide a wealth of adventure ideas, some of which have been expanded for you. Of course, you might prefer to use your own home town - just use the material here to give it a cyberpunk spin.
This game has given me hours of innocent amusement over the years, from both sides of the GM's screen, as well as having written several convention scenarios. It has worn well, and is still playable today, especially for lovers of gritty underbellies of the future, with an excellent if extremely detailed combat system that pulls no punches. Still well worth the getting if you like this genre!
Return to Cyberpunk 2020 Core Rulebook page.
Reviewed: 11 November 2018