Cyberpunk 2020 Redux

In honor of the year of Cyberpunk, I’m going to outline my vision of how Cyberpunk 2020, a classic traditional roleplaying game, should be modernized for practical current-day use. Obviously there will be differences of opinion on a project like this on multiple levels:

  • If you’re hardcore trad, you might not even think that C2020 needs a revision. If it was good in 1990, it’s good now. I respect the position, even if I disagree with it — I think that most traditional ’80s rpgs, C2020 included, are strictly inferior as game texts compared to later improvements in the art. I want to emphasize that the actual play was and is legit when it is successful; my beef is with the clarity, utility and purposefulness of the game text, not with what a specific group of gamers might have accomplished with it.
  • Even if you agree with me that C2020 needs a facelift to have a place at our tables today, it’s unlikely that we’d end up at the same exact place in our revisioning. It’s a fact that the original game text is vague and expansive, containing multitudes; what I view as core and interesting and relevant in the game is probably not what you see. Hopefully my vision will be an interesting one even if it’s not exactly what you’d do in my place.

Writing up the entire revision is a too expansive task for a single article, but what is possible is to provide an overview of the project. We can get a good sense of the external shape of the game’s moving parts without having to do the grunt-work on the minutiae right now. I might follow up later with articles on the particular concerns outlined here, of course, particularly if I find some people interested in taking the C2020 Redux out on a spin.

Textual review, summary

C2020 was one of our most played rpgs in the ’90s, over my teen years. The play was pretty messy, I won’t claim any special expertise on that basis. Our play at the time focused on a typical trad cycle of creating characters, starting up a GM-invented adventure, and then having the stupid murder hobo player characters mess things up and get killed. If memory is to be trusted, for me as the GM C2020 was primarily a science fiction vehicle: insofar as there was any real structure to our messing about with the game, it came from my having read this or that science fiction novel and implementing it as an adventure that might or might not explode before emerging from the starting gates. Unlike some other games, I think we actually managed to retain coherent plot arcs that lasted for a couple of sessions a time or two, which made C2020 one of the more memorable games of the era for us. The most memorable player characters were barebones pop culture callouts — for example, one character was a rockerboy with extensive plastic surgery and cybernetics that made him a spitting image of the H.R. Giger xenomorph.

Obviously enough I want to get deeper into it this time around. I haven’t played or studied C2020 since the ’90s, really, so I started out by refreshing myself on the rulebook to see what I’m working with here. My afore-explained background means that I have strong opinions about what C2020 is, but obviously the revision project demands more than vaguely nostalgic memories to go on.

I’m limiting myself to the core rulebook of the 2020 edition (2nd edition) specifically because that’s the version we played here in Finland back in the day. A lot of material was published for the game back in the day, and there’s merit to it, but we cannot make effective use of it without first mastering the core affair. Besides, we never got that deep into the supplementary material with our crew: C2020 lived in an ecosystem of science fiction literature, with its own setting conceits like the Night City and such an afterthought at best.

I refreshed myself on the core rules. What follows are the pertinent observations. It’s probably not very readable if you’re not familiar with the original game text, but it might help follow my thinking in the next part.

The game’s fluff is all right. As a teenager what I understood about cyberpunk were the intellectual dimensions, the politics. I now realize that just like Vampire a few years later, C2020 is also a lifestyle wish-fulfillment game: despite having no processes whatsoever for achieving it, the game yearns for the chance to roleplay tough, cool, sexy street people who do the kinds of things that rpg geeks don’t: hang at night clubs, engage in promiscuity, use a vocabulary that doesn’t include words like “promiscuity”, and so on. It’s cultural appropriation from the jocks to the geeks, if you will. This is a core feature, by which I mean that it has to be preserved in a revision of the game.

Roles are essential for what C2020 had to offer: by having what amounts to character classes by a different name be front and center in character creation (if not in game mechanics; character roles in C2020 are mechanically trivial, even less important than character templates in similar point-buy games) the game encourages a multi-faceted exploration of society. Because the roles themselves are social roles, occupations, rather than mere tactical combat builds, the choice of role affords a player significant control over the content of play: if you play a rockerboy/girl, that’s going to define a major part of what the campaign will be about. Or it should, anyway.

The pointbuy is worthless despite being presented as a core feature. I am familiar with the creative arguments for it: it’s a reaction to D&D style character classes, intended to empower the player in creating and customizing precisely the character they want. However, without a structural chassis — that C2020 lacks — the bare point-distribution system chokes down in practice and causes player characters to become emotionally thin. The proper traditional technique for counter-acting this is front-loaded “concept first” character design, but there’s no explicit procedure for that either here. (Not surprising; I think that Amber Diceless could be the only traditional point-buy game that I’ve ever observed to have a legitimate explanation of how to utilize the point-buy chassis.) Either the point-buy needs to go, or it needs to be properly supported.

The structure of play is incoherent in a way emblematic in traditional rpgs. Specifically, the game puts sweat and attention into character creation while simultaneously presuming a party-based, adventure-oriented session structure. In other words, you’re expected to know what your character’s sister’s name is, but you’re also expected to form a merry crew of misfits with some random cyberpunk PCs and go on adventures with them for no better reason than the GM’s say-so. One of these has to go: either the game has to accept that detailed character play is secondary to the need for the characters to be a heist team, or it has to accept that heists and “being a team” aren’t the be-all, end-all of the game.

The task resolution rules are passable — not great, but technically speaking a GM applying proper procedures would get the necessary outputs from the system effectively enough. Everything is relatively drab, though; there are some psycho-social rules in the form of humanity and reputation mechanics, for example, but the only systemic guarantee for them having any teeth is the GM being capable of interpreting and applying them in a powerful way.

Equipment rules are over-wrought in that there’s plenty of detail but not much use for said detail per se. I understand that the implicit understanding is that you’ll use this for general dollhouse play, imagination aids and such, but there are better techniques for that sort of thing nowadays, what with the ubique Internet and all. And this stuff has always been a major distraction; players concerned for winning gun-fights will waste attention cycles on Militech Ronin Assault Rifle vs. Fabrica de Armes M-2012 instead of doing something useful that feeds back into the actual game.

The netrunning rules are ambitious, but as you probably know, difficult to use in practical play. The actual at-table process of play that makes this work requires thought specifically because the game otherwise presents itself in the team-based paradigm. The netrunning doesn’t work very well if it means that the other players get to twiddle their thumbs while one of them is netrunning.

The GM advice is decent. The advice sort of recognizes the difficulty of featuring both team-based questing and character-based immersive slice of life roleplay in the same game, but I can’t in good conscience call it a clear understanding, and the tools provided are a bit dull. There’s an inkling of a game there, but we can clarify it further.

Creative Model: SimPunks & NailBags

Now, the key question we have to ask before going further is this: what is C2020 trying to accomplish? By understanding the material we have, and the creative goal, we can determine what needs to be discarded and what needs to be elevated to make the game work for us. Here’s some ideas that I got from reading the game text:

  • The game wants to immerse us into a postmodern dystopia, a world where traditional values have evaporated and the world makes less and less sense every day as technology erodes traditional humanity. So whatever the game does, it needs to provide opportunities for showcasing a type of social satire, “cyberpunk stuff”.
  • The game wants for the players to be able to immerse in a middle class “gangsta romance”: player characters are exciting people who live raw lives, unironically playing games of life and death, devoid of the kinds of protections and buffers that civilized society offers to the modern middle class. The distanced “future” setting allows everybody to claim this romantic street cred in a way that would be more difficult to sell in a modern day setting. Important to realize that there is no profound difference, though: in C2020 you’re generally speaking supposed to play an American street gangsta. Everybody is one.
  • Exciting techno-thriller adventures with gunfights and computer hacking and car chases (I assume, not really present in the text). The game presents a hilarious textual lacuna in how to move from the character development into adventuring: there’s all of four pages of GMing advice in the book, and the advice directly contradicts the ready-made adventure modules presented, so… it’s definitely central to the game, but how it’s accomplished has to be figured out first.
  • There’s a definite combat focus in the rules and the general assumptions of what kinds of activities the game involves. It would, in fact, be fair to interpret the game text as proffering a model of play that concerns itself with tactical gunfights as the centerpiece of play, with everything else only being present as feeder material for the gunnery.

There might be other creative priorities in there, but those four are the ones I recognized in my review. Now, how do we cohere those into a creative model of play, a structural plan for how the game should work in practice? The game text itself is remarkably quiet on this, and where it does say something, it’s generally completely self-contradictory. In practice C2020 has historically lived within the trad rpg ecosystem, relying on the group’s pre-existing ideas about what the GM and the other players are supposed to be doing. We need to make our own choices here, and although there are many different games we could build out of these pieces, I’ll be focusing on one in particular; it’s my personal choice about what I find most interesting in C2020.

Let’s call this specific creative model the SimPunks & NailBags model for lack of a better name, just to differentiate it from some other possible readings of C2020. It’s based on a more general — and unnamed — structural theory I have about how to play this general type of high-trad rpg successfully; it is relatively trivial to adapt what I suggest here for games such as Call of Cthulhu, WFRG, Vampire… in general anything that tries to combine immersively detailed player characters with a lukewarm understanding of adventure play. (Yeah, there are lots of trad games like this out there. You could generalize SP & NB easily enough and use it as the campaign framework in many other games.)

So, here’s a general overview of how a SP & NB structured C2020 campaign would work, and how it achieves its creative payoffs:

  1. The campaign begins with a slow and considerate character creation process that attempts to immerse and entice the players with their cyberpunk alter egos. The process involves developing character backstory and personality, a heavy mechanical skill system backbone and more generally the entire chargen circus suggested by the C2020 rules. The goal is essentially to have the player invest in their character as an immersive protagonist, the player’s participation vehicle in the game. It’s best to understand this phase of play as a core activity in itself, as it’s going to take time and hopefully move seamlessly into later stages. It simply is the case that filling up character sheets and talking about character backgrounds is an essential part of the game, not merely preparatory.
  2. The characters are adapted to Roles as conceived in C2020, defining the character’s socio-political identity. I see this happening in a relatively late stage of character creation, and as more of a mask than a core of the character: characters can switch roles over the campaign, and it’s not a given that a character very good at the role they’re inhabiting at a given time. I want the Roles to be important, yes, but I want to treat them just a little bit more like WFRPG treats its Careers than as fixed character classes. If the character gets completely subsumed by their role, such that others cannot say anything about them except “he’s the Solo”, then I want this to be a player choice and not a mandatory outcome.
  3. After character creation the game moves into a stage of play that I call SimPunk: a slice of life exploratory phase where the players make choices and investments to define the individual lifestyles of each player character: where they live, get their money, meet their friends, who those friends are, whether they have hobbies, aspirations in life, and so on. Budgeting money, time and personal resources is involved here, as are some random event checks and general date sim logic. The goal is to establish the status quo for each player character, and to identify what they want and what they have to lose in very concrete, detailed terms. The SimPunk exists implicitly in the C2020 vision of play, but the game text is very bare-bones in talking about it.
  4. The GM has a prepared cinematic blood opera scenario that I call the NailBag: essentially a traditional rpg adventure, except formed less on a team-based questing premise and more as a modern drama-oriented “story game” thing. The scenario involves interesting NPCs in a high stakes situation, with natural hooks for characters of various roles to enter the situation. This is how and why a Media character would get involved, this is how a Cop would get involved, this is how a Corp would get involved, and so on. The C2020 game text recommends a different way of bootstrapping an adventure, so this is a conscious deviation: I believe that the game cannot achieve its design goals if it sticks to aping D&D in how adventuring parties and quests are handled.
  5. Player commitment to their character’s current Role translates into willingness to grab a NailBag hook and run: because my character is a Rocker, they’re eager to take this opportunity or respond to this threat that the GM is offering. Therefore, I am invested in participating in this scenario. My character is involved because their life is on the line, rather than because “I’m a member of the party and therefore I automatically participate in quests that the party undertakes”.
  6. The NailBag is played, processed through play, in a fast and definitive manner, focusing on the idea that the player characters have, each for their own reasons, gotten involved in a dangerous high stakes cinematic scenario that will feature ruination and possible ascendancy for some of the characters involved. The NailBag probably involves such crime thriller standbys as highly illegal actions, bags of anonymous money, immense corporate interests and love at first sight. It’s paced like a movie, not like a… whatever it is that traditional rpg scenarios are supposed to be. C2020 texts have some inklings of the idea that a rpg adventure doesn’t need to be a very lengthy and complex affair, but I want to take this further: 70% of the meaning in the NailBag comes from the SimPunk part of play, and therefore the adventure itself can be short, snappy affair, just a few scenes of ultra-violence.
  7. Once the NailBag has been processed and the survivors exit, the player characters return to the SimPunk slice of life play mode: the group figures out how the highly dramatic events of the NailBag ruined and elevated lives: some were injured physically or psychologically, some gained windfall fortunes, others lost everything they had, some had to escape town, others gained trust and reputation. All this is fed into the SimPunk process such that it forms the new status quo of what the character’s life is now. This may then be understood as the epilogue of that character’s story, or… the player may choose to have the character continue on to the next NailBag offered by the GM, risking it all once more!

It should be noted that the SP & NB model differs a little bit from what the C2020 game text offers: the game suggests that a campaign should involve establishing the player characters as a “team” of operators in service to some organization interest. The scenarios written for the game outright assume that the PCs form an adventuring party that is available for general mercenary work. I obviously don’t feel that either of these notions really work — not without groundwork that isn’t really explicit in the game text.

On the other hand, the idea of having play feature a cinematic cyberpunk adventure as a centerpiece is still present. What I want to do is mostly about removing the team-based default assumption (blood opera instead of team-questing) and emphasizing the highly informal and implicit slice of life elements present in the game’s text: if the game really is supposed to be about things like “living on the edge” and all that stuff emphasized by its fluff, then I certainly want to actually have that present in the procedures of play, even if I have to develop the entire subgame for it myself. It is beyond credulity that the game has no processes for one-night stands whatsoever; I can believe that it doesn’t have specific rules beyond simple skill-checks, but think about it: the process of the game does not have an actual spot in the process where a one-night stand could even occur. The only process the game has for content inputs seems to be the GM sitting down to spoon-feed the adventure they’ve prepped in advance.

I’ll also clarify that the SP & NB model does not forbid team-based commando mission play, it merely makes it conditional: if your characters have aligning interests and if they wish to work together and if they actually, factually have complementary abilities to do so effectively, then we might enter the NailBag in a very traditional way, with the PCs coming in as a coherent team, or forming a team in the first act of the movie. Even then, though, betrayal is very much on the table simply because we’re taking it seriously that these characters have their own personal histories, beliefs and motivations: something might come up in the scenario to motivate the PCs to turn on each other, no matter how much they’re being a “party” at the moment.

A gamer familiar with the traditional playstyle will recognize here that the SP & NB structure of play takes an explicit stance on a core question that has bedeviled roleplaying since the early ’80s: when the nature of the player character conflicts with the needs of the adventuring party to be an adventuring party, what gives way? C2020 is a high-trad game straight out of the hellhole, so it obviously dances around this question like a fully charged pole dancer bot, but not so here: my vision of the game demands that character backgrounds and identities are deadly serious, and if your character logic demands you to ruin the party, you ruin the party, and we see what comes of that. The only reward you’ll get for bending over to the all-mighty requirements of tactical commando party play is a pitiful look before I ignore your character as irrelevant to the big picture.

And, one more observation: the SP & NB creative model doesn’t comment upon the real pace of play. I’m imagining in my head a session structure where we start an individual session by doing some SimPunk, and then go into the NailBag, and end the session once we finish the NailBag, with perhaps half of the session spent in doing either mode of play. However, I could easily see practice proving that it’s better to do alternating sessions: one session of Simpunk, then one session of NailBag, or the NailBag could even take more sessions. Definitely something that playtest will find out, although I personally favour the idea that the NailBag is quick and definitive rather than plodding. How long do you need to lay out a cinematic premise, pick a vector of approach, and get involved in a dramatic gunfight that ends some lives?

To-do List

Now that I have an opinion about what I’d like to do with C2020, I could theoretically just go and start playing. However, in practice the game text is not quite ready for implementing SP & NB yet: it’s fuzzy, with parts that spin empty and parts that are unfinished. I’ll make a list of the major parts of the game that require more development before SP & NB is possible in an even-keeled, non-freeform manner:

The game needs an emotionally rewarding character creation system as a starting point. The textual version mainly fails in this regard in my eyes for lack of consistent procedure and the unnecessary point-buy stuff. Distributing stat and skill points is a boring and mainly not very useful activity. Equipping characters is likewise often boring and only peripherally relevant to the much more important task of developing a firm fictional persona. We need to revise the entire core of how characters are created to achieve something that is both entertaining and effective.

The SimPunk systems need to be enriched; as it stands, the game features a light-weight wages-and-expenditures model that can technically be used to maintain personal finances for each player character. The game also establishes social circles for the characters, and hovers ambiguously around the notion of the player characters having actual jobs (on top of being murder hobo adventurers, I mean). It’s all very vague and free-form, though, and I believe we can do better. I envision a sort of managerial simulation thing with weekly resolution: players design the “lifestyle” for their characters, and this inputs into their personal finances, social life, how risky their life is, and ultimately the overall condition of their lives. Dollhouse play, very much, with characters having goals (work-related, relationships, whatever) that are slowly advanced or ruined.

The NailBag needs to similarly be brought out as an explicit procedure for how adventures are initiated and resolved in the game. As I mentioned earlier, C2020 has extremely minimal formal procedure for this, relying on the unwritten tradition of ’80s tabletop roleplaying. I envision fixing this with an explicitly cinematic scenario logic where all the player characters are dramatically coordinated into participating in the same sequence of events, the one that we call the NailBag. Dramatic coincidence, mostly: it just so happens, just like in a movie, that character A finds the lost McGuffin, and character B is hired to to find that same McGuffin, roughly within the same time-frame. The GM develops the NailBag based on the individual circumstances of the characters in the SimPunk, and we need clean procedures for that.

The resolution mechanics require a bit of polish, mainly because large changes in other areas cause obvious opportunities to freshen things up here as well. This is also an area where 30 years of rpg development has brought about some minor technical improvements that might as well be plugged in while we’re at it. Perhaps most important, however, is that a revision of the mechanical overlay enables us to increase the mechanical exposure of social and psychological elements of the game fiction. In the old C2020 rules this aspect is pretty haphazard compared to the obsessive way the game tracks skill lists, so it’s an easy way to harmonize the mechanics with the topic of the game.

The combat subsystem should be reworked simply because I think we can do better today; what the game has is relatively old-fashioned and doesn’t really have many particular charm points in its favour. (No, I don’t consider being able to armour and hit individual hit locations a charm point.) This happens at the behest of and for the requirements of the NailBag: the combat system needs to be brutally decisive and it needs to account for all the character detail cruft that flows downhill from SimPunk, so that everything gets to matter: being cool under fire needs to matter, having bought an excessively cool shotgun needs to matter, having grown up in an artificially cooled survivalist compound needs to matter, and so on and so forth.

Other action subsystems need to be put into order, the netrunning thing first and foremost. C2020 doesn’t have separate subsystems for other action situations than firefights and netrunning for whatever reason, which I feel requires a critical review: should the game have e.g. chase rules? Should it actually not have an elaborate netrunning subsystem? I’m pretty sure that the combat system needs to exist as a crown jewel and climax of the NailBag (the genre mandates that it all comes down the knife in the end), but maybe everything else should just run off a generic conflict resolution system?

Completing all the action items listed here is obviously quite a bit of work, so we’ll see how far my inspiration gets me there. I’ve had some ideas about the core resolution and character development mechanics over the last few weeks, so I’ll probably write a bit about that at some point. We’ll see.

7 thoughts on “Cyberpunk 2020 Redux”

  1. “Specifically, the game puts sweat and attention into character creation while simultaneously presuming a party-based, adventure-oriented session structure.”

    This, here, is what I see as the difference between Cyberpunk and Shadowrun. The latter has taken the party-based heist-adventuring as its core activity, which I think is not what cyberpunk as a genre or as a roleplaying game should be about. Cyberpunk 2020 of course muddies the waters by offering non-existing mechanical support for playing anything else aside from shootouts, as you wrote.

    I’ll probably get to my take on Cyberpunk not until in the autumn, but I’m drawn to the counterculture punk attitude and black mirror -esque future shock. Maybe I should read Transmetropolitan in the meantime (or even instead).

  2. I agree with you about the contrast: I haven’t ever actually read Shadowrun (I find the fantasy porridge off-putting), but from everything that people tell me it’s pretty clearly focused towards commando raids – sort of like a cyberpunk D&D. C2020 in comparison is a more schizoid, swinging back and forth between doing that exact same thing and doing some sort of free world exploration slice of life thing of the sort that I’m calling “SimPunk” here.

    Needless to say, I think that C2020 does not present a compelling vision of a commando raid game. If there is a game to be had here at all, it is one that punches through the socioeconomic and psychological dimensions with the skirmish combat as an afterthought, allowing the players to play edgy katana-wielding street culture heroes in movie-like scenarios.

    And yes, you should read Transmetropolitan; I find it an immensely pleasant call-back to the cyberpunk genre, written well after the fact yet capturing the key literary qualities nevertheless.

    Who knows, when the autumn comes I might have finished with C2020 Redux and you’ll have a complete game to playtest. If I do this right, the game’ll have all the good parts of C2020 with a fresher coat of paint.

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  6. Fantastic article, Eero (good to see you!) Working on a “cyberpunk” (adjacent) game for years and this really gelled with the issues I’ve faced and the solutions I’ve implemented (random, swingy lifepaths and rolling for skills, emphasis on relationships, calling out neo-noir tropes in the mechanics). The “dating sim” aspect is much overlooked and I’m glad you gave it a mention.

    1. Thanks. It seems like I could push this into a playable campaign at some point. It’s just getting over-ridden by all these other things I’m trying to do, so might be a while until we actually try to get this to the table.

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