Cyberpunk, mainly known by its second edition title Cyberpunk 2020, is a cyberpunk role-playing game written by Mike Pondsmith and published by R. Talsorian Games in 1988. Because of the release in 1990 of the second edition, set in a fictional 2020, the first edition is often now referred to as Cyberpunk 2013, following the fictional year, 2013, in which the game was set when it was first released in 1988. The third edition, published by R. Talsorian Games in 2005, is referred to as Cyberpunk V3.0 and is set further along the same fictional timeline as the former editions, during the 2030s.
This role-playing game is inspired by the novel Hardwired by Walter Jon Williams, who helped playtest the game. Hardwired, in turn, was written as a homage to Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley. The game includes a number of elements now associated with the 1980s, such as the idea of style over substance and glam rock.
The game tends to emphasize some aspects of the source material more than others. Much of the focus of the game is paid to combat, high-tech weaponry and cybernetic modification; however, performance-enhancing and recreational drug use is either played down or discouraged. Although artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and cloning are barely mentioned in the core rulebook they are reintroduced in later add-ons such as the chromebook manuals.
The range of characters players can adopt is diverse, ranging from hardwired mercenaries with psycholinked weapons and boosted reflexes, to Armani-wearing corporate mega-yuppies who make and break national economies with the stroke of a pen.
Cyberpunk 2020 is the second edition of the original game, Cyberpunk 2013, often just called “Cyberpunk.” It was originally published as a boxed set in 1988, and R. Talsorian released a few supplements for this edition, including Rockerboy, Solo of Fortune, and Hardwired, the latter based on the Walter Jon Williams novel of the same name. Another supplement was Near Orbit (made obsolete by Deep Space in Cyberpunk 2020)
The second edition featured rules updates and changes, and additionally moved the timeline forward by 7 years, to 2020. The game’s timeline was also retconned to accommodate the German reunification in 1990.
The basic rules system of Cyberpunk 2020 (called the Interlock System) is skill-based instead of level-based, with players being awarded points to be spent on their skill sets. New skills outside their expertise can be learned but in-game time needs to be spent on this. A large part of the system is the player characters’ ability to augment themselves with cyber-technology and the ensuing loss of humanity as they become more machine than man.
Cyberpunk 2020 claims to lend itself to play in the street level, dark film noir genre, but certain aspects of the basic system can influence game sessions toward a high body-count, 1980s action movie style.
Although each player must choose a character class or “role” from those given in the basic rules, there is enough variation in the skill system so that no two members of the same class are alike. Because Cyberpunk 2020 is skill-based, the choice of skills around the class-specific special ability allows a wide range of character development choices including non-combatants.
The combat system, called “Friday Night Firefight”, emphasizes lethality. Several pages in the rules are devoted to discussing real combat vs. the illusions often seen on TV. Attempts are made to keep the combat as realistic as possible in a game setting. No matter who the character is, a single bullet can result in a lethal wound. This encourages a more tactically oriented and thought-out game play, which is in accordance to the rough-and-gritty ethos of the Cyberpunk genre. Also, the amount of damage a character can sustain does not increase as the character develops. The only way a character can become more damage resistant is to either become better at not being hit, physically augment their body with muscle (trained or implanted) or cybernetics, or wear armor.
Cyberpunk 2020, as the name implies, takes place in the year 2020. The game’s default setting is the fictional Night City, a city of five million people on the west coast of the United States located between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is described as being near San Jose but the map puts it closer to Monterey. Later supplements to the game have contained information about the rest of the US and the world.
Following a vast socio-economical collapse and a period of martial law, the United States government has had to rely on several megacorporations to survive. This has given them a veritable carte blanche to operate as they will.
The Cyberpunk 2020 equivalent of character classes are roles, of which the main rulebook contains 9, and later supplements have expanded the number considerably. Each role has a special ability which gives a character a unique edge.
The game’s backstory had a series of powerful characters that influenced the world of Cyberpunk.
Firestorm was supposed to be the bridge between Cyberpunk 2020 (the 2nd edition rules and milieu) and Cyberpunk V.3 (the 3rd Edition rules and milieu). Its purpose was to shake up everything and get players prepared for the new background they were cooking up.
Set in 2023, the backstory has two deep-ocean-based megacorporations dueling for control over a third one (the period known as the “Ocean War”). When it escalates into open warfare, they each hire mercenaries. One hires the Japanese diversified technology and security services firm Arasaka and the other hires the American military technology and mercenary services firm Militech.
During the conflict, the long-standing bitter rivalry between Arasaka and Militech causes them to forget about their customers and go for each other. In the beginning they feud quietly (the phase called the “Shadow War”). But the covert war between the two heats up, becoming the Fourth Corporate War.
In the course of the adventure setting, the characters are hired to hunt down a pesky netrunner who is making their anonymous employer unhappy. Little do they realize that the hacker is the infamous (and already “dead”) Rache Bartmoss. Regardless of what they do, their employer pinpoints the apartment with an orbital mass-driver and vaporizes it.
Set in 2024, the second part of the Firestorm series sees Arasaka mobilize the Japanese Defense Force to take on Militech and the American military in a series of “proxy conflicts” (the phase dubbed the “Hot War”).
Waves of cyberviruses corrupt databases worldwide, leaving the isolated Arasaka Towers arcology in Night City the last viable data storage mainframe in the world.
Militech gathers together the surviving meta-characters and a Special Forces team played by the player characters into a “super team”. Their job: to take out Arasaka’s Night City arcology with a tactical nuke to deny its assets to Arasaka.
Then they find out that Alt Cunningham, who was captured by Arasaka earlier, is trapped inside the mainframe. Of course, Johnny won’t let Alt die a second time, so the team tries to break her out.
The end result is that the meta-characters go out in a blaze of glory. Johnny Silverhand dies at the hands of Arasaka’s cyborg assassin Adam Smasher in order to buy Spider Murphy enough time to break Alt into a series of datapackets and downloads her into the Net. Morgan Blackhand then takes on Adam Smasher atop Arasaka Towers while the rest of the team gets extracted out. The outcome of the duel is greatly disputed because the low-yield tactical nuke the team deployed sets off the 2-kiloton “self destruct” bomb Arasaka had placed in its data core. This destroyed much of downtown Night City and contaminated the ruins and anything downwind of it with lethal fallout.
The long-awaited third volume, Aftershock promised to tie all the loose ends together and herald the end of the old Cyberpunk 2020 (or “Cyberpunk V.2”) game world and usher in the beginning of the new Cyberpunk 2030 (or “Cyberpunk V.3”) game world. It was later cancelled and its material was folded into the Cyberpunk 203X rules book.
Cybergeneration takes place in an alternate future of the core Cyberpunk 2020 timeline, where a nanotech virus epidemic has resulted in a subgroup of teenagers with unusual, superhuman skills. It began as a supplement that still required the Cyberpunk 2020 rulebook, but the second edition became a standalone game.
Ever since the 1998 release of the Cyberpunk 2020 sourcebook Firestorm: Shockwave, fans of the game had been waiting for a third edition of the Cyberpunk game, known as Cyberpunk 203X. Over the years, the entire project had at times been discounted as vaporware, its delays due to other projects and Pondsmith’s involvement in the development of The Matrix Online.
The game was released first in PDF form on December 17, 2005 and as a conventional book on January 15, 2006.
The setting has been heavily updated from its last event book series, Firestorm, which covered the opening of the Fourth Corporate War. The aftermath of the Fourth Corporate War has resulted in widespread corruption of the Net and major losses of hardcopied data, to the point that all data is intangible and recent recorded history is in doubt. An example that pops up in Pondsmith’s demos at conventions, releases on the Internet, and in the finished game is that history has become so corrupted that many people in the world now believe Richard Nixon, instead of resigning over Watergate, committed suicide on camera and that memes such as the moon landing being hoaxed become prevalent.
The war has also led to the collapse of nations, the world economy, and many of the staple megacorporations. This civil upheaval leads to the rise of the “altcults”, alternative cultures similar in vein to the “phyles” from Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. In fact, Cyberpunk V.3 has more to do with the new postcyberpunk literary movement and transhumanism than with the Gibson-Sterling mirrorshades movement.
In addition to rules changes to the Fuzion system and background, Cyberpunk V.3 also uses concepts taken from Pondsmith’s experience at Microsoft with computer and video games as well as corporate culture, such as a simpler character generation system using templates, web-based active content URL links for updates, and making groups, organizations, and corporations their own “characters”.
In addition, there is also the Fallen Angels, space-bound scavengers, the Ghosts, people who have uploaded their minds, and the Neo-Corps, the surviving corporations of the Cyberpunk 2020 world that are now organized in the form of organized crime syndicates. However, the six listed above are the only ones that have been mentioned in deep detail.
Two Cyberpunk 2020 novels have been published, both written by Stephen Billias:
Two different, independent collectible card games have been licensed and produced based on the Cyberpunk setting. The first, called Netrunner, was designed by Richard Garfield, and released by Wizards of the Coast in 1996 (the game has since been re-released as Android:_Netrunner but is no longer associated with the fictional Cyberpunk universe). The second was called Cyberpunk CCG, released in 2003, designed by Peter Wacks and published by Social Games.
Cyberpunk was ranked 10th in the 1996 reader poll of Arcane magazine to determine the 50 most popular roleplaying games of all time. The UK magazine’s editor Paul Pettengale commented: “Cyberpunk was the first of the ‘straight’ cyberpunk RPGs, and is still the best. The difference between cyberpunk and other sci-fi is a matter of style and attitude. Everything about the Cyberpunk game, from the background to the rules system, is designed to create this vital atmosphere. Cyberpunk is set in an unforgiving world where betrayal and double-crosses are common, trust is hard to find and paranoia is a useful survival trait.”
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