The Pen-and-Paper Prequel to ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ Is Brutal and Beautiful

by Sarah Nove ‘20

In the late ‘80s, R. Talsorian Games released the first edition of “Cyberpunk,” a tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) which has since become a classic. More than three decades after its initial release, a video game spin-off, “Cyberpunk 2077,” is set to come out this spring, featuring stars like Keanu Reeves and Samuel Barnett. In the meantime, R. Talsorian Games dropped the “Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit,” the “perfect introduction to the newest edition” of “Cyberpunk,” according to the sales description. “Cyberpunk Red” takes place in the year 2040 and acts both as a sequel to prior editions and a prequel to the video game.

Before diving into this review, let’s go over the basics of TTRPGs. TTRPGs are similar to role-playing video games, but without the computer. Instead, there is a game-master (GM) who organizes and presents the narrative that player characters (PCs) experience. Most TTRPGs rely on dice-rolling to determine the effectiveness of a character’s action. For instance, in “Cyberpunk,” players can roll a ten-sided die to make a “perception check.” On a low roll, their character does not detect anything unusual or out of place; on a high roll, they might notice a hidden object or overhear important information. Also, many TTRPGs have specific rules for combat, and “Cyberpunk Red” is no exception. “Cyberpunk Red” runs on a combat system called Thursday Night Throwdown (TNT) which is an abridged version of previous editions’ exceedingly-complex systems. TNT may be simpler than its predecessors, but it is still pretty tricky.

The “Jumpstart Kit” may be an “introduction,” but it definitely is not just a beginners guide. With over 100 pages of content, it’s quite a hefty read. The kit includes the Worldbook (which contains one full module and three adventure outlines), the Rulebook, six pregenerated character sheets, a few maps and standees, and two “EZ” reference sheets. Altogether, it is comprehensive and detailed guide, and, frankly, a bit excessive.

The world of “Cyberpunk Red” is beautifully crafted. Cyberpunk, the game’s namesake, is a subgenre of science-fiction dominated by the relationship between humans and technology––think “Blade Runner” and “Ready Player One.” “Cyberpunk Red” relies on an alternate history, which diverges from our reality in the 1980s, around the time of the game’s initial creation. The timeline laid out in the Worldbook is a work of art. Nothing occurs in a vacuum, and players can trace each and every event back to a plausible cause and track its influence on the future. It is a complicated web of catastrophes that sets the stage for a “dark future,” as it is referred to in the Worldbook.

The physical world of “Cyberpunk Red” is not quite as detailed, at least in the Jumpstart Kit, which focuses primarily on Night City. Off the coast of California, Night City is a haven for ne’er-do-wells, as it is about as far from the Capitol and federal influence as characters can get. It is the Wild West, where gangs rule the streets, and if you are not employed by a corporation, you are flat broke. The city is absolutely brutal, and the stakes are always high. Players, beware: don’t get too attached to your characters. If your GM is playing as the kit encourages, your PCs might not make it out alive. The Worldbook makes it clear from the very start: “Nobody ever leaves Night City. Except in a body bag.”

Thankfully, the “Jumpstart Kit” makes it just as effortless to make a new character as it is to accidentally kill one. It contains pregenerated characters and a streamlined guide for character creation, called the Lifepath System, which ensures each PC is well-developed and unique. Stats, or the numeric scores that players add to dice rolls, are predetermined for ease of use. Only six of nine character classes, or types of characters, are available in the Jumpstart Kit, but that’s more than enough to have a great time.

The only glaring problem with the “Jumpstart Kit” is the length and complexity of the Rulebook. Expecting players to read more than 15 pages of rules as an “introduction” to a game often is overwhelming as a new player. Additionally, the Rulebook does not provide clear and succinct descriptions of many important functions, so players may end up spending more time searching for rules than playing the game.

“Cyberpunk” is an examination of the domino effect; it is the culmination of what-ifs. Players are enveloped in a lawless world of cybernetics, advertising, poverty, and violence. At face value, the game’s futuristic setting may seem distant from our reality, but, upon closer inspection, it seems more like a future we narrowly avoided.