Night City: a broken, whirring machine of a metropolis, a place of dirt, blood, and flashing gadgets under a darkened red sky – colored by the afterglow of a nuclear explosion that ripped the city apart.
This is a city of extremes, split between those who have everything, and those who make do with nothing – but it is also a place of overlap, where flesh meets metal, isolation meets connection, and those who spend the best part of their days in cyberspace are both present and absent.
On the rooftop of a tired, five-story apartment building – just a stone's throw from the heart of the corporation high rises – a curious scene is unfolding. Nikki Lovelace, an alcohol-drenched Rockerboy is trying to manhandle a large woman over the railings, while Montana, a former farmboy turned gun fanatic, is trying to detach the cyber arm of Bolt Harrison, a gruff ex-military Solo, from the rooftop door he has somehow soldered himself to. Meanwhile, an insurgence of soldiers are trying to force themselves through the other side.
And it all started with the TechRadar team, some donuts, a couple of pizzas and an eagerness to find out more about Cyberpunk 2077.
TechRadar goes tabletop
Here at TechRadar, we don't tend to cover tabletop games. They aren't exactly 'tech' and therefore don't really fall into our parameters. However, as we patiently wait for the release of CD Projekt Red's Cyberpunk 2077, a thought occurred to us. We don't need to wait to jump into Night City. We can do it right now, with Cyberpunk Red.
Now, for those who don't know, Cyberpunk 2077 is based off the Cyberpunk pen and paper role playing game: Cyberpunk 2020. By pen and paper RPG we mean like Dungeons and Dragons, where the game is conducted through speech. You create a character using stat sheets, which outlines their background, skills etc; and then you describe the actions you want them to do undertake based on what you think they would do.
Meanwhile, there's a very stressed Gamemaster (GM) acting as a narrator, referee and organizer (among other things). They take the players through the game, setting each scene and making sure everyone doesn't get too carried away.
Essentially, all the actions you want to do require you to roll a certain number on a dice – paired with your own skills – to do so. So, say you want to punch someone, whether that is successful will depend on how athletic you are mixed with how high your dice roll is. It's a bit confusing at first...
Cyberpunk 2020, which the upcoming video game is based on, is the second edition of the original Cyberpunk RPG by Mike Pondsmith, and was published in 1990. Since then, several new editions of the game have come out.
The latest new edition of Cyberpunk is Cyberpunk Red, which has been released to coincide with the launch of CD Projekt Red's Cyberpunk 2077. Even better, R. Talsorian Games has published a Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit which is marketed as the "perfect introduction" to Cyberpunk – in other words, it's for newbies.
So, our thinking was that we could get our Night City fix by trying out Cyberpunk Red and maybe, in doing so, learn a bit more about Cyberpunk 2077.
Having seen an hour's worth of Cyberpunk 2077 gameplay at Gamescom 2019, I realized that we were successful.
Set the scene
Let me quickly set the scene for you because tabletop RPGs are a slow-burner. Our group had three players: myself (gaming writer Vic Hood) as the Rockerboy Nikki Lovelace, our phones editor James Peckham as Bolt Harrison and staff writer Tom Bedford as Montana – who turned out to be the wildcard. Not one of us had ever played a pen and paper RPG before.
Meanwhile, our GM was staff writer (and regular DnD player) Henry St Leger. It was Henry's job to take us through the garbage-strewn alleyways and neon-clad streets of Night City.
However, before starting, we all had to brush up on the lore of Cyberpunk. That means reading the world and rule books – to understand the world we were inhabiting. This in itself painted a clearer picture of Cyberpunk, it forced us to learn the history of Night City, the tech, the character types and even the food we would be eating. If you want full lore and immersion before Cyberpunk 2077, jump into the Cyberpunk world book.
But, actually, we found that simply playing Cyberpunk Red was enough to automatically sponge up aspects of the Cyberpunk world. Once we got over the real-world ties of embarrassment and sank into our madcap dystopia, everything fell into place.
We learned about Exotics from Beanie, the odd cyber-enhanced cat lady our group met at the start of the game, and discovered the unsettling power of megacorporations through our violent scuffle with Militech (which saw sweet farmboy Montana shotgunning a man point-blank and Nikki punching a woman in the throat). It was under the guise of fun, but at the same time we were becoming more and more part of Mike Pondsmith's world – more connected with each encounter.
This didn't become inherently obvious until I went to see Cyberpunk 2077 at Gamescom 2019 – about a week after our first dive into Night City. I'd watched Cyberpunk 2077 footage previously, but this hour long gameplay presentation seemed to click more than ever before.
The character creator, the allocation of skills: it was essentially the stat sheets we had filled out for our own characters a week before. The terms used by characters, the ambiance of the city and the gangs which inhabited it, everything felt clearer than it had before. It's also a testament to how Cyberpunk 2077 hasn't abandoned its roots.
As a player, Cyberpunk Red is fairly straightforward. You sit back and enjoy the ride mostly. The real hard work, taking Pondsmith's world and making it real, falls down to the Gamemaster (AKA Henry).
So after the Cyberpunk Red session, I caught up with our narrative wizard to chat about how he found the experience – because, as a player, you're not allowed to read certain parts of the rule book to avoid spoilers and such.
Henry's points were pretty straightforward: Cyberpunk Red has extensive GM notes and guides; while stats can be intimidating, the mechanics help with guidance; the game in PDF format is much easier to navigate than a hardback book; and Tom Bedford's Montana is a psychopath. To be fair, Montana shot at least three characters during our short playthrough.
“As a previous tabletop RPG player, I was familiar with the kinds of mechanics and stats that Gamemasters running a game have to deal with, but Red has its own personal flavor that doesn’t make it feel like a copy," Henry explains.
“I found it somewhat easier to pick up and play than some other TTRPGs – like Dungeons & Dragons – as the character customization options are a lot looser and stick to only 1-2 pages per class, with ready-made characters concepts to choose if you don’t want the pressure of making up your own.
"As a Games Master, the example story they provided ran me through everything I needed from the environment, NPCs, and story threads too – even if we naturally ended up tweaking the template to suit the party we played with (all journalists having a taste for the sensational).”
What we're saying is...
You don't need to play Cyberpunk Red before Cyberpunk 2077, but if you want to immerse yourself in the world before the videogame comes out then we highly recommend it.
With the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit you can control the game world within your boundaries, without controversy or living in a developer's specific interpretation. It's the perfect time for those who have been intimidated by tabletop RPGs to finally jump in and for veterans to remember why they loved them in the first place – even if that's the simple pleasure of a wildcard player sending the GM into meltdown.
Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit is available now and Cyberpunk 2077 will release for PS4, Xbox One, PC and Google Stadia on April 16, 2020.
Henry St Leger, James Peckham and Tom Bedford contributed to this article.