Actual Play

A Eulogy for Cyberpunk 2020

I am preparing a campaign to run with my college group, that marks the end of an era. Not the end of our playing in person, that was marked by my previous campaign. No, this is our last Cyberpunk 2020 game that I will ever run.

Sort of.

You see, Cyberpunk 2020 was for a long time my favorite game. It was the second game I purchased after Third Edition D&D…I was 16 and Pandemonium Books and Games was still in its Harvard Square location when I purchased the slick paperback from its shelves. The game was everything I was looking for: cool, futuristic setting, flying cars, gigantic guns of all shapes and sizes, and many fictional (but clearly lampshaded) evil corporations to go after. I was so excited to play that I ran a game with my brother and his friends. It wasn’t really Cyberpunk’s fault that GMing 12 year olds takes patience I simply didn’t have, so I next took it to our school’s Science Fiction club meetings. These games didn’t really evolve into campaigns, per se, but they began to unlock the power of the system, in all its messy, “realistic” glory. By my senior year of high school, I had started running the game for my friends in a real campaign structure. Though the story was messy, it was tied together by one of my favorite NPCs, a sociopathic mercenary named Lars Blackpool, who typified the Cyberpunk attitude which horrified my “swords and heroism” classmates. In the end, I’m not sure what broke the group up; Lars, or me stealing one of the players’ girlfriends. But I digress.

More important was my series of campaigns run in college in Mike Pondsmith’s well-worn setting. We built some very memorable characters, many of whom were as much or more sociopathic than Lars (it comes with the setting, trust me). Finally, three of my friends all ran Cyberpunk games which I played in, and all were immensely enjoyable. And around the time we were playing in a game using the system but set in modern times, it began to hit me a little: Cyberpunk 2020 is very old.

The 2nd edition of the Cyberpunk roleplaying game was released in 1992, meaning the game is now celebrating its 20th anniversary. When it was released, it was popular among other favorites like 2nd edition AD&D (remember THAC0? Yeah…) and Rifts (the only game I know of that could have benefited from less creativity). Although it required less brain bleach than Rifts, Cyberpunk still had its share of rules problems. For one, cyberpsychosis, which makes no sense. But more importantly was the more pervasive sin for which cyberpsychosis was a symptom: game balance, or lack thereof.

Have you ever tried to play a netrunner in Cyberpunk? Neither have I. Nor has anyone I’ve ever played with, save for one of my brother’s friends (bless your heart, Ian) who somehow waited patiently while I had to figure out midgame that the netrunning rules are, if not unplayable, at least a second RPG entirely contained within the first, that’s run on entirely different timekeeping. And what about solos? Why write nine classes when you give only one of them a 50-100% initiative bonus? That was smart, Mike.

I sound like I’m bitching. Honestly, I am a little. But there were so many things about the game that made it great. With the exception of the armor rules, combat was swift and brutal, and remarkably well done for being so simple. It was also the first game I played without straight hit points, which I appreciate. Any conversation about combat in CP2020 I have with a player inevitably ends when he says “but whoever gets the drop on the other guy always wins!…just like in real life…never mind.” And Lifepath. Until I learned that as a GM I could actually force players to write backstories, Lifepath was the best thing that ever happened to me. And joking aside, though I think there’s more variety in a lot of other systems, lifepath systems are the only I know of that really helps you build a bit of depth into character motivations. And before anyone can say Traveller, Cyberpunk was my first, so it holds a special place in my heart.

Of course, beyond just critically judging the system, I’ve known this day would eventually come when Cyberpunk 3.0 came out. You see, many of the games I’ve recently become interested in have had new versions come out. I bought my first GURPS books about six months after 4e came out, and 4e is a massive improvement over 3e, not to mention fantastic in its own right. Shadowrun 4e is also good, and I’ve bought that book as well. Even new World of Darkness shows some improvement (in my opinion) over the first edition. Sadly, Cyberpunk 3.0 sucked. It really, really sucked. The rules were poor (not to mention barely finished), the editing was nonexistent, the layout could have used a lot less green, and most of the cool ideas in Cyberpunk and even Cybergeneration were replaced by 90s cartoons (i.e. Street Sharks) and Barbie Dolls (i.e. all the fucking artwork). And when the edition pipeline crashes and burns, it’s essentially game over.

So what of my last campaign? How to accommodate cool (but wonky) rules in a flashy (but dated) setting? Well, I’m putting the Chromebooks away this time, and running it in GURPS. Some say that using generic rulesets takes away some of what made the original system cool, and to that extent I agree. But even as I continue to run my seat of the pants games, a heavier system with more depth is going to serve me better than one that’s at this point 50% houserules anyway. And with that, I say adieu to Cyberpunk. You were my favorite for a long time…but too many of my players new that nasty trick about stacking skinweave. As a GM, I fucking hate skinweave.


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