18 November 2019
Old-school future visions
If a good starter set is meant to act as a little torpedo loaded with everything great about a game, the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit is a solid hit. There are a few spots where rather archaic design clashes with slick modern presentation, but within the space of two booklets and some handouts this box jacks players right in to the neon-pulsing heart of cyberpunk.
Set in an alternate-timeline version of the 2040s, Cyberpunk Red is the latest version of a game with a pedigree stretching back more than three decades – a time when you could get away with calling a cyberpunk game Cyberpunk. The full RPG is slated for release sometime in the next year or so, but until then the Jumpstart Kit is designed to give players and GMs alike a taste of the game and the world it inhabits.
If you want to picture that world, just conjure up every single trope and cliché you could possibly associate with the word ‘cyberpunk’ and then give it a slight brushing with ‘80s flair. While that sounds like an insult, it really isn’t meant to be. Rather, the sheer, shameless dedication to embracing everything cyberpunk-ey smashes any inhibitions keeping you from leaning into the roleplay.
On top of this, it also means that you really don’t need to already be invested in the setting in order to hit the ground running. Even if you only have a passing association with the genre you already have a grasp on shady megacorps, futuristic street gangs and visor-clad cyberhackers. This is especially helpful in a starter set where slashing the time from opening the box to rolling dice should be as low as possible.
It helps that the rules are – initially, anyway – simple to work with. Overcoming challenges, whether they involve scaling a wall or impressing a contact with a sweet guitar solo, requires a d10 roll modified by some combination of raw attributes and trained skills. Roll high enough and you pull it off. Easy.
As you delve deeper into the game, however, the complexity swiftly grows. Hand-to-hand combat is surprisingly chunky, with options to grapple, choke and throw your enemies about the room, while ranged battles involve consulting a chart showing how hard it is for different classes of weapons to nail a target at certain ranges.
It’s rare that this crosses the line into confusion, but every now and then the simulationist approach of earlier Cyberpunk editions peeks through and adds an extra layer of bookkeeping and detail to things. As you take damage, for example, you need to track howmuch of your armour is ablated away – and if you use your rifle on the three round setting, you need to make sure you’re using the burst sub-table, not the primary one.
This love of little details, a reliance on reference tables and occasional glimpses of old-school approaches to GMing – it’s been a while since an adventure suggested making players suffer for “the sin of powergaming” – does make Cyberpunk Red feel weirdly archaic at times. Whether this is a positive or not will depend on you and your playgroup, but it certainly does give the game a distinct feel and tone.
Indeed, the original Cyberpunk was a child of the ‘80s and Red still seems to have one shiny black boot firmly planted there. Spandex-clad ‘Chromatic Rock’ is still the sound of rebellion in its version of the 2040s, mirror shades are the height of fashion and mundane objects are made to sound cooler by sticking the word ‘cyber’ in front of them.
If you read that and feel yourself shrinking away, Cyberpunk Red may not be for you. It’s a game that pulses with a love for the genre’s aesthetics, its themes and its retro-futuristic vision of our future. If you can drop any sense of irony and embrace the babble about Black ICE, get cybered up and go throw down with a booster gang, you’re going to have run with the Jumpstart Kit.
In fact, the biggest problem with the box set is that it currently acts as an introduction to nothing in particular. At time of writing the full version of Red doesn’t even have a release date, so if you do fall in love with the world you’re forced to jump back to an earlier version of the game or cool your heels until the final product hits.
RICHARD JANSEN PARKES
PLAY IT? YES
Designer: Pondsmith, Ackerman, Gray, Hutt, Pondsmith
This review originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.