Commentary

Review: Cyberspace

Fact is, the 1980s were the time that roleplaying games really exploded. While Dungeons and Dragons was a child of the 70s, the 80s were a time that the corpus of games got a lot bigger, and some great mechanical and genre innovations came out of it. We got GURPS from the 80s. We got Paranoia from the 80s. We got Champions and Toon from the 80s.

We got Cyberpunk from the 80s.

The first wave of Cyberpunk roleplaying games came out over a very short time period. Cyberpunk 2013 was the first, released in 1988. Cyberspace and Shadowrun both followed in 1989. Cyberpunk, in my opinion, had the best mechanics of the three. Shadowrun, more objectively, sold the best. Cyberspace trailed the other two in popularity and adoption, and while a “second edition” was published (little more than a new print run with errata), Iron Crown let Cyberspace die on the vine and focused on their more successful fantasy game, Rolemaster.

At this point, I’ve run five full-length campaigns using Cyberpunk 2020 (including one with a GURPS kitbash), played in two full-length campaigns of Cyberpunk 2020, run and played numerous 2020 one-shots, and played in two full-length campaigns of Shadowrun as well. Cyberspace is, as the third member of the Cyberpunk RPG first wave, notably absent. So what did I do? I bought the book from a used book retailer on Amazon, and then last night I read it, cover to cover.

Cyberspace is based on Rolemaster, as is pretty much every product Iron Crown released (Rolemaster, Spacemaster, MERP). In fact, the book contains conversion notes for Spacemaster, in case you wanted some sci-fi crossover. The thing about Rolemaster is that it doesn’t have a unified mechanic. As an example, GURPS has a unified mechanic…roll 3d6 and your target number is your skill score. Though there are tons of modifications the system can throw at you, all rolls boil down to rolling these three dice and looking at your skills. In Rolemaster (and therefore Cyberspace), while there is one die mechanic (1d100), there is not a consistent way to determine success. Instead, there are tables indicating what happens for each range of dice results. Every type of maneuver has its own table, meaning there are somewhere on the order of half a dozen tables with results ranging from roughly -100 to 200. There are another half dozen critical hit tables, and another half dozen fumble tables.

Weirdly enough, this doesn’t affect the actual mechanics too much. This method adds some granularity to roll results, and actually reading the tables I thought it was pretty cool that margin of success had codified results. Here’s the problem, though: the raise mechanic in Savage Worlds also codifies results for margin of success, and for that to work you just need to divide your margin of success by four. In Cyberspace, you calculate the roll, find the table, read the table, and then determine the result. In a typical combat round you’ll be consulting at least two tables, and that’s if you already did out the calculations for your attack bonus and skill modifiers beforehand. So my main fear, not yet substantiated through play, is that this system is going to be slow. It’s also much more math-intensive than most modern systems, requiring the addition and subtraction of 2-3 digit numbers every roll. The main reason this is a problem is that both of Cyberspace’s competitors were much, much better in this regard. Cyberpunk is roll against a DC like D&D, and add your straight stat and skill rank. Shadowrun is a dice pool system: roll dice and count the 5s and 6s. Easy.

The combat system is based on simultaneous task resolution. The players all decide what they’re going to do, write it down and give it to the GM. The GM then resolves actions in order of what they are, with each action subtype having a ruling on how they affect either each other or subsequent actions. So ranged attacks go first, and are always executed. That means that if characters are shooting at each other, getting shot doesn’t actually affect whether or not you get your attack off. Melee attacks, on the other hand, are resolved based on an initiative order, with only identical initiatives resolving simultaneously like ranged attacks. There’s a lot of more detail in the combat system…mostly illustrated through tables.

Character creation is both very interesting and very problematic at the same time. The problematic aspect I can get out of the way at the outset: the first thing you do when creating a character is rolling 1d100 for 11 stats. That’s bonkers. I mean, people complain a lot about 3d6 for D&D, but 1d100 is completely random. You could roll below 30 for every stat while your table-mate rolls above 75 for each stat. I’d immediately houserule this to something less random, like 5d20 or 10d10. After that nonsense, things get better. The professions in the game are different packages of skills, and don’t provide many restrictions in the way of what skills you buy, merely varying amounts of start points and future XP costs. One thing I actually really like is that skills at character creation is divided into two parts: you first get a skill package based on your upbringing which is tied to social class, and then you get to the part where you buys skills based on your profession. There is a more detailed background section which is optional but too cool to actually ignore, it serves the same purpose as Lifepath in Cyberpunk but in my opinion is a lot less stylish.

The hacking and computer rules…where to start. First, I’ll concede that all hacking rules, especially very old ones, are pretty bad. Add to that that the technology assumptions are wildly inconsistent. What really bothered me about the technology in the book was how it seemed to jump from incredibly prescient (in 1989, the authors assumed in the future we’d have smartphones with full-featured CPUs, way better than the Cyberpunk phone assumptions) to incredibly stupid (the entire section on cyberdecks seems to have no real idea how a computer works). The worst is that these two things combine themselves. For instance, the authors describe memristors and MRAM with clarity…and then say you’d make a CPU with them (the confusion between processors and memory is a strong theme). They also describe the difference between a high-level programming language and a low-level machine language, even identifying that different processor types have different machine code…and then go ahead and include a table of machine languages based on software type…which makes absolutely no sense. In Cyberpunk 2020, the technical detail in the hacking section was thin…which as I see now was for the better because it prevented the authors from making technical error after technical error after technical error.

The setting material is good, similar in feel to Cyberpunk 2020 but with more detail. I do like how the main city in the book is San Francisco…as much as Night City was a neat setting in Cyberpunk, sticking a fictional city halfway between San Francisco and LA always felt weird to me. As Shadowrun was originally set in Seattle, this continues the trend of the west coast being the fictional Cyberpunk nexus. Cyberspace also goes into more detail with arcologies, space colonization and environmental damage, aspects that were important in Cyberpunk 2020 but glossed over.

Overall, Cyberspace is solid compared to its two contemporaries, but is definitely going to be a very different game. Like the system it’s based on, it’s designed to produce consistent roll results that are clear and easy to adjudicate. Also like the system its based on, it does this through miles of tables which make rules referencing during play essentially a must. This game, like Rolemaster, is designed to be crunchy and give strong mechanical support in deciding actions. It also leans on the 80s standbys of random character generation and lack of enforced game balance (though it’s nowhere near as egregious as, say, Rifts).

I’m incredibly curious to see how this game actually plays. I have a feeling that running online is going to be all but impossible unless I convince my group to all get their own copies of the book, though it may well be that I could run in a way that only the GM is looking up results on tables. I also have a feeling that if we felt FFG Star Wars could be slow in combat, we’re in for a very rude awakening.

Ultimately, I see why this game exists and why it still has fans. I can’t say for certain how I feel about it compared to Cyberpunk 2020…from what I can tell Cyberspace has a much more robust ruleset in terms of exploitability, and both the character creation and advancement rules are better from a mechanical perspective (Lifepath still has more style though). But until I try running this thing and dealing with all of these tables, I don’t really know how the core game plays compared to others. When comparing it to my broader game collection, though, it’s hard to see my interest in this other than as a historical artifact. Cyberspace could compare favorably with Cyberpunk 2020, but with Interface Zero, The Sprawl, Technoir, and others gaming has continued to move beyond the design principles of the 80s. Even GURPS, with its own design roots in the 80s, has improved significantly in its four editions, becoming an easier toolkit while still maintaining a good amount of heft. Though I’m not sure what I thought was going to happen, reading Cyberspace made me understand perfectly well why it was the third place finisher in the first wave of Cyberpunk games.

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