Cyberpunk V3

Roger Burton West
5 July 2006

Cyberpunk v3.0 / 291pp / R. Talsorian Games, 2005

Cyberpunk is one of the more venerable games to have survived into the post-d20 market. While the original Cyberpunk of 1988 was quickly replaced, Cyberpunk 2020 (1990) - which I'll just call 2020 hereafter - was supported by a stream of supplements and adventures for six years after its publication. Then it all stopped. Eleven years after it was seemingly abandoned by its creators, after long rumours of new editions, Cyberpunk is back. What have its fans been asking for in this long-awaited new edition? And do they get it? I think that there are two main groups.

The original Cyberpunk RPG was pretty light on setting: you got some material about the corporations, but there wasn't any of the detailed world background that would come in 2020. In some ways this is a throwback to that earlier era: there's still a timeline, unchanged from the one in 2020 up to that date (this is very clearly now an alternate history, since that timeline starts in 1990, though the book doesn't mention this explicitly) but going into a bit more detail about the Fourth Corporate War. Not a great deal, though, because nobody really knows much about that. Nor are they even sure what year it is - the book keeps referring to the present date as "203X".

How's that again?

Well, see, there was this big mean virus called the DataKrash, which somehow not only erased all the soft-copy records but corrupted the hard-copy ones as well, and people's memories are suddenly irrelevant. Now nobody knows for sure what year it is, or whether humans really landed on the moon in 1969, or whatever - there are lots of different media versions of "reality" out there.

Um, yeah. OK. Remember that this book isn't standing in isolation - there are explicit provisions for importing 2020 characters into the new game. Some of those people might have memories; they might, conceivably, even be able to count. But never mind the basic implausibility: why has Pondsmith done this? I suspect that some of it is to deal with those old imported characters, in that nobody will believe their stories of having taken down the Big Bad Guy; some of it is presumably to deal with any continuity errors that have crept in. Even so, it seems a very significant change to the setting with little in the way of reward.

Oh, and the big corps? They all ran away to Alpha Centauri on their secret interstellar colony ships. I am not making this up.

In any case, the Brave New World isn't the corporate-run social chaos beloved by 2020 gamers. Instead, it's a patchwork of micro-societies, "altcults", binding their members by mutual interest and interacting with each other cautiously if at all. In some ways this is quite encouraging, indicating a climb out of 2020's permanent adolescence: v3 characters are going to have a place where they fit, not just be thrown out of the cloning vat onto the street. Those societies are very reminiscent of White Wolf-style splats, though:

We're also told briefly about the Fallen Angels who scavenge in space and keep communications running on earth, the Ghosts (who've uploaded their minds into VR, one of the few real nods to transhumanism made in the book), and the Neo-Corps, shells of corporations now taken over by organised crime (in case you were wondering where the Designated Villains had got to). Those aren't available for player characters, though, and nor are they covered in significant detail. Right now you basically have six societies to choose from, or you can be an "outsider" with no access to any of their gimmicks but the "freedom" to choose whichever altcult you like later.

Character generation has been greatly simplified, and is extremely fast: pick a template, move stats around if you want to, pick any options (e.g. one of three sorts of vehicle), calculate derived stats, then pick equipment off the starting list. It's true that you don't get a whole lot of detail, but this game isn't really meant to be the sort of detailed simulator that, say, GURPS is.

The stat descriptions have been rescaled so that level 1-2 is "every day", 3-4 is "competent", 5-6 is "heroic", and so on - but the numbers still run from one to ten, and the basic resolution mechanic is still the high-spread d10+stat+skill. So, that "every day" character with a stat of 2 and a skill of 2-3 will only very rarely be able to achieve even the simplest of tasks... well, unless he gets a critical success. (If you roll a 10, automatically add another d10 to your total. If you roll a 1, subtract d10 from your total, but if the overall result is positive - which for PCs doing PC-type things it usually will be - nothing bad happens. This is more generous than any of the critical systems I've seen house-ruled into 2020 games.)

It's possible to generate characters from scratch, too. There's a pool of character points available, much as in GURPS, though it's still suggested that the total should be rolled randomly. However, both stats and skills are purchased at a level of one per CP, even though a stat gives a boost to many different skills; I expect characters created under this system to maximise stats and have few skills, especially as the penalty clause of punitive skill cost multipliers is still in place for techies, pilots and martial artists.

More things on which those character points can be spent are Perks and Talents, basically similar to GURPS' Advantages (in some cases very similar). There's no canonical cost list, though - Perks should have their value multiplied by up to 4 depending on how important they are to the campaign, but there's little guidance on setting those multipliers. Still, at least we do actually have official rules for giving starting PCs contacts, favours, and other things to tie them into society. Unlike GURPS, there's no form of disadvantage one can take in order to individualise the character and possibly get more points.

Skill improvement costs have been quietly dropped by a factor of ten, and the suggested experience point awards increased: clearly it's intended that PCs should now gain skill levels very quickly. There's very little suggestion here about how to run campaigns, not even a sample adventure (unless you count the demonstration of how the combat system works). There are some single-paragraph summaries of campaign types, though they're clearly pasted from some earlier book as they mention how to fit the various 2020 character roles into a campaign rather than saying anything about the new altcults.

Indeed, that's a general problem in the book: large chunks of text have been taken from 2020 or (more rarely) its supplements, and edited only lightly if at all. At times this feels very much like padding: there are several paragraphs straight out of the original 1988 Friday Night Firefight booklet on how realistic and lethal the combat system is, for example, and the one from 2020 at the end saying essentially "never mind all that, this is a fun system really". While many of the more popular features of the 2020 rulebook are gone (such as the cyberware listings, replaced by the new tech), little-used parts are still there, such as the list of old guns - doubly irrelevant since most altcults offer access to some sort of super-powerful hand weapon to take down super-powerful foes.

Many people have mentioned the art. I don't normally pay much attention to art in gaming books; it can help break up a dense page, but mostly I'm more interested in the text. Even I had to pay attention to this art, though: it's almost entirely done with action figures and Photoshopped into black/green/white, and it's actively distracting from the content. There have been some pretty decent artists working for R. Talsorian over the years, so it's a great shame to see them drop the ball in this way; I can only assume that the budget was extremely tight. All the artwork is filler: there are no illustrations of robots, weapons, vehicles, or anything else which one might wish to visualise.

Although this is supposedly a revision, most of the actual detailed rules - for skill use, combat, and so on - are essentially unchanged from 2020. This includes some of the more amusing faux pas, such as the way the blast radius of explosives increases linearly with mass (making very big bangs unrealistically easy to carry - a ton of plastic explosive would have a blast radius of over six miles). Even the old Martial Arts table is the same, and "Capeoira" is still spelled that way. There are new problems, too: for example, the difficulty of hitting an inanimate human-sized target is 14, which is higher than the difficulty of hitting many characters with their defensive DEX+Dodge+d10 rolls.

The stats have been shuffled around slightly; this is probably part of the general change from the Interlock to the Fuzion system. Some long-time fans are very riled up about this, though from an outsider's perspective I can't make out a great deal of difference.

One development that I do quite like: "Meta characters". The GM is encouraged to write up character sheets for organisations - corporations, bars, gangs, etc. - listing their assets, goals, and so on, so as to develop a sense of "personality" and flavour. (Personally I'd rather list the goals of the various people with power in the organisations, but it's a start.)

Overall, I don't think I'm going to be playing or running in this new game. It makes some concessions in the direction of biotech and transhumanism, enough to annoy fans of 2020 who will rapidly see their old characters outgunned, but not a great deal - nothing like as much as existing games such as Transhuman Space. There are plenty of rules loopholes, unrealistic single-use technologies that aren't taken and used in other roles (power storage, as usual, is my particular bugbear), and generally signs that the first half-smart character to come along will overturn the existing social and technological orders and rule the world.

Back in Cybergeneration (1993), Mike Pondsmith made it clear that he didn't like what the players had done to his game: all the combat monsters, characters who owned major corporations, and so on. Much of Cybergeneration was an attempt to regain the "original cyberpunk" feel of desperate rebels fighting against massive and powerful enemies. It's clear that this game will be similarly repurposed: it's not even made clear just what sort of stories the GM is expected to tell, still less what sort of power level should be maintained. Even the "meta character" system just encourages players of the game to think of organisations as things with stats - and, as players learned as far back as TSR's original Deities and Demigods (1980), if it has stats, the PCs can hunt it down and kill it.

I don't hold out much hope for Cyberpunk V3. There are URLs scattered all over the book, supposedly leading to new free content, but they all come back with "NO ACTIVE CONTENT @ THIS TIME" (sic). Combined with the art, Talsorian looks to me like a company in trouble: and while I wish any gaming company well, I have to say that with product like this I'll be very surprised if they stay in business.