Tomes of Antiquity: Cyberpunk

Feb 25, 2011


In 1990, R. Talsorian released the second edition of their Cyberpunk game set in 2020. The new edition was a significant rules expansion of the original version set in 2013. Little was done to streamline the game or make it easier to play. Instead, concepts touched in version 1, 2013, were consciously extended.


Shortly after the release of the new edition, numerous supplements were produced expanding and extending the system as well. The supplements ranged from equipment expansions in the form of the Chrome Books to role specific expansion like Protect and Serve, Edge Runners, and Home of the Brave. Additionally, both Atlas Games and Ianus Games (now Dream Pod 9) released additional supplements and expansion materials.

Cyberpunk 2020’s height of popularity was the first half of the 1990’s. R. Talsorian released updates for the system in 1993 and 1995 in the form of CyberGeneration 2027 and then a completely new edition Cyberpunk v3 (203X) in 2005. Neither release achieved the overall popularity of 2020.

CyberGeneration was an attempt to shift the characters a younger, hipper audience as nanotech enhanced teens. Neither my gaming group at the time nor I was really intrigued with the idea. Version 3 was derided in many reviews but I never took the time look closely at the material since I wasn’t actively gaming at the time. I finally purchased a used copy of V3 but have yet to actually read the system in depth.

The Good

As a system, CP2020 did a good job of capturing the setting of William Gibson’s dark future
as he set forth in Neuromancer and short fiction. The world was mostly dark and gritty with an extreme imbalance of corporate wealth and struggling individuals. Society was fragmented. Government, where it existed, was the chosen figure head of the wealthy. The average person was either displaced from society (Nomads), made their living via illegal activities (Netrunners) or were hired guns used indiscriminately to further corporate profits (Solos).

The Bad

The first major stumbling point of the system were the Roles. While true to the genre, they made it a living hell for a game master. The idea of having a balanced group wasn’t possible unless you wanted to spend a lot of time bouncing back and forth between independent actions by the characters. Considering many newcomers to the system were likely from D&D backgrounds, the idea of temporal and spatial distribution of individual activities were foreign concepts to the game master and the group. My first, quickly aborted attempt at running the system in that fashion left a bad taste in my mouth. The second and third attempts were much more focused on group activities as a whole with significant constraining of roles. Instead of balance, I used a lot of NPC’s to fill the gaps where needed. Neither approach worked well. Perhaps I was just too inexperienced or too set in my ways. None of the campaigns really caught life. Everyone in the group was eager to give it a go but no-one ever walked away from a session clamouring to keep it going forward.

The combat system wasn’t intuitive. It was okay but very deadly for anyone not geared to the hilt. So people geared themselves to the hilt when they could. Then it became trying to figure out how to even make a character fear when he was walking around in gear that made modern tanks cry with envy. Clarity of rules didn’t reign. Most were open to interpretation by the GM. Some have decried my interpretations as completely wrong. Others wondered how I arrived at such a differing aspect than they did. My conversations with those who wondered left us both wondering.

The Ugly

Character generation is a marathon. Flipping back and forth between tables to determine statistics and how they modify attribute values. Keeping track of the dreaded Humanity value when adding cybernetics required a math degree and a federal mediator to interpret the rules. Add in the ubiquitous supplements adding on gear and more factors and you could spend more hours trying to generate a character than it might be played. Once you finally got through the race and began to play, if you took damage effecting one of the cybernetic add-ons…you’d need a computer wizard with a Ph.D. in math to try to back out the add ons.

The Role imbalance for characters drove me away from the system. For the way my groups have played, there is no good way for allowing completely open character creation while trying to put forth a campaign within the rules. More specialized campaigns have proved to be much more entertaining but I’ve always felt I’m working against the system rather than it working for me. Likewise, specializing those campaigns nearly always eliminated the Netrunner as a role.

The idea of Netrunners was cool. The implementation left a lot to be desired. The few attempts I made to incorporate them resulted in spending far too much time trying to follow the intricate twists of the secondary, impossible Netrunner combat system. Far too much time was required for the Role specific rules to be useful. All at the expense of other players being bored to tears while I switched focus to allow that player his due attention.


Twenty years ago, I was struggling to figure out why this game I wanted to play badly just never worked. In hindsight, it just wasn’t that great of a system or a good fit for my group. High on the cool factor but low on playability. On the plus side, at least I managed to figure out the rules enough to play unlike Twilight 2000.

I should have recognized the complexity wall when I felt it necessary to automate not only the Lifepath portion of character generation but also the generation of NPC’s. Lesson learned. If the mechanics are complex enough to require a computer program, it’s probably not a good system to choose. Yeah, they still work in the form of Web 0.5.

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  • I have mixed memories about this game. Most of the times trying to recreate Gibson’s vibe ended in terrible game experiences. At the time I had some friends that loved it, but they where playing Cyberpunk 2020 like a Bruce Willis movie.

  • Your experiences are similar to mine. Trying to work a complex setting within the mechanics never really worked out for me either. Generally, it was tipped toward being run as an action movie unless you wanted a campaign to move at a snails pace.