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Cyberpunk’s old-school order: The history and future of the tabletop games

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Editor's Note from Stephanie Carmichael:
Reggie walks us through an extensive history of the Cyberpunk pen-and-paper games, providing a rich overview of the culture and development of the series as a way to predict what its future could look like.

“The world of Cyberpunk is a violent, dangerous place, filled with people who’d love to rip your arm off and eat it. The traditional concepts of good and evil are replaced by the values of expedience — you do what you have to do to survive. If you can do some good along the way, great. But don’t count on it.” - excerpt from View from the Edge: The Cyberpunk Handbook, Cyberpunk: The Role Playing Game of the Dark Future

Mike Pondsmith and his crew on R. Talsorian Games’ pen-and-paper (PnP) role-playing game Cyberpunk pulled few punches welcoming would-be Solos and Rockerboys. That’s going to be a shared sentiment with the talent behind The Witcher video game series working on an adaptation of the tabletop game, which took a little over two decades to realize.

Cyberpunk 2077’s teaser doesn’t reveal a lot about the world that the developers are working on or the story — even with the screamsheet promo. Just what exactly is Cyberpunk going to be all about? What can players who have never heard of the original PnP game expect? There’s quite a bit of anticipation that it’s going to be like Eidos’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Electronic Arts’ Syndicate reboot, or a Shadowrun derivative.

The first edition came in a big, cardboard box with B&W books that might have been printed in someone's basement. But it did add a kind of low-tech edginess.

Above: The first edition came in a big, cardboard box with B&W books that might have been printed in someone’s basement, which added a kind of low-tech edginess to the whole thing.

But Cyberpunk’s roots are more old-fashioned than that.

It still has grit in its manicured teeth, stubble on its scarred chin, and enlarged eyes on your significant other. And it’s itching to claw your face off with retractable, chrome-plated finger blades it took from a wage slave the night before because you didn’t buy it a shot at the dive where you met. It lives in a neighborhood where ripperdocs discreetly install wetware in their kitchen if you don’t have the cash for the fancy digs at the local hospital. Ronin and samurai are also checking things out, roaming the back alleys and bars at the behest of their employers while the nearest posergang, dressed in the latest duds, eye the faces looking back at them from their mirrorshades.

The 1988 tabletop game from R. Talsorian Games attempted to distill the essence of what cyberpunk was — envisioned by writers like William Gibson — into a gritty, street-level dystopian society where pervasive, cutting-edge tech has outrun everyone’s maturity to handle all of the shinys. To some, that’s the only light in the dystopian hell that failed economies and new robber barons have built from the ashes, creating a hopeless place where he who has the gold makes the rules.

It’s a place steeped in the genre’s then-nascent tropes of corporate empires insidiously pulling the strings of sock-puppet politicians, fascist police roaming the streets in the name of order, and city blocks off-limits to everyone thanks to the crazies who live there — unless you’ve got old-school plastic showing through where you had a limb replaced with a first-generation servo. Retro shit like that still earns cred in some quarters.

Roaming “tribes” of nomads migrate along what used to be the interstate highway system between enclaves of order and security in the States, which band together for mutual survival. The combat system’s brutal crunch had also shared this attitude by putting the fear into players that they were as disposable as the cyberwear they bought off the shelf. Lucky headshots could kill careless veterans as easily as newbs, making the experience both exciting and frustrating.

Although video game developer CD Projekt Red is keeping its cards close to its chest when talking mechanics, we do have a better idea about what the world could be like and the first tidbit on what it’s planning to build the game around — the “braindance,” which has become all the rage, allowing people to live other lives via recorded memories. It’s sort of like what Ralph Fiennes sold to his buyers in 1995’s film Strange Days. It’s also an element changed from the original game, which was written in a time when Soviets still barely clung to power and BBSes were all the rage.

The world

Cyberpunk’s first version, released in 1988 inside a big megabox, introduced used a backdrop written from the perspective of the late ’80s, with a timeline starting in 1989 and ending at 2013. It would also be carried on through the second edition, which arrived in 1990, called Cyberpunk 2020 — with a few new additions such as revisions to the combat system and more detail thrown into the backdrop, but nothing so dramatic as what it continued to use as a foundation.

A lot of things have changed since then — the rise of the Internet, wireless connections, and the fall of the Soviet Union, for example, though bumping up certain events and characters to 2077 might still be in the cards. The question is, just how smashed will the world be in CD Projekt Red’s take? Cyberpunk’s original setup had taken any notion of a shiny, happy future through an acid bath before grinding it down even further with sandpaper.

The U.S. ended up as something of a cross between Mad Max, Blade Runner, and Jericho.

Above: The U.S. ended up as something of a cross between Mad Max, Blade Runner, and Jericho — indivisible, with shareholder meetings for all … who can afford it.

It went something like this: in ’89, the CIA, DEA, NSC, and FBI take over the United States. For the next several years, this “Gang of Four” essentially run the nation, plunging it into war in Central America that lasts for most of the first half of the 90s and aiming to take back control of the Panama Canal with a much larger stick than Teddy Roosevelt had used in 1903. It eventually spreads to neighboring nations, miring U.S. cybersoldiers in the possibility of a new Vietnam. But they win, securing the canal and spending the next several years fending off attempts by Latin America to take it back.

As the years roll on, South Africa collapses, hardliners are purged from the Soviet state (which survives), and CHOOH2 is developed as an alternative biofuel, filling tanks everywhere. The Euromarket is formed, everyone starts using eurodollars (except the U.S., which the Gang of Four isolates from the world), and the DEA unleashes a designer plague — wiping out nearly every cacao and opium plant in the world, decimating the drug trade, and instigating an urban drug war across the Americas. In ’94, the world stock markets crash, dealing a Bernie Madoff to the U.S. economy.

By the time ’96 comes around, one in six Americans are homeless, and roaming packs of so-called Nomads range throughout the shattered nation. Martial law is declared. Also, hundreds of criminal defense attorneys are lynched en masse — just because.

In ’97, the Middle East is reduced to radioactive slag when tensions explode into war between neighboring nations, which puts off any need to detail that region until it’s mentioned again in another sourcebook.

By the end of the century, a moon base is established by Europe, and martial law ends in the U.S., which adopts a draconian set of laws to end the riots and brings order by essentially shooting anyone who disagrees. As the world marches toward 2013, corporations grow so large that they literally declare war against each other and wage ops using mercs and other specialists in surgical strikes. The U.S. plunges into a Second Central American War, which ends in disaster, catalyzing the end to the Gang of Four and ushering in a new administration.

It can send cargo into Earth orbit for pickup. It can also drop giant rocks on cities.

Above: This slingshot can shoot cargo into Earth orbit for pickup. It was also used by the European Space Agency to drop rocks on cities to end flame wars between superpowers.

The U.S. attempts to assert its authority in space by attacking a Soviet weapons platform. A short orbital war ensues until Luna Colony’s Tycho massdriver sends a rock crashing into Colorado Springs, turning most of it into a crater. The European Space Agency also hangs it over Moscow like a celestial Sword of Damocles, ensuring that the spats between the U.S. and the Soviets never escalate into MAD.

“Microsurgical waldoes ripcut through the perforated guts, swabbing, tying off, prepping. The doctor stitches in three feet of glistening wet, tank-grown intestine; plugs the punch holes with synthetic skin and muscle. Airhypoes inject the area with speeddrugs, fasthealers, endorphins, and antibacterials. Microscopic stitches hum off the serrated teeth of a minicloser, bonding flesh together almost as well as the original. In a month or two, there won’t even be a scar. Let’s hear it for newtech.”
- from Never Fade Away: A Cyberpunk Adventure, Cyberpunk: The Roleplaying Game of the Dark Future

By the time the world actually lurches into 2013, the U.S. is a shadow of its former self, afflicted with internal strife and a police-state mentality derived from a desperate attempt to hold what is left together. Though the country is no longer under martial law, the new laws it has adapted are drawn from what it did to survive its near-death. To solve the overpopulation problem of its prisons, criminals are stuffed into cryotubes and forced into a “braindance” — a looped nightmare of “bland horror” — because rehabilitation has proven pointless.

The Soviets are a new superpower, minus a few nukes that went missing, with a large portion of the world’s last accessible supplies of oil bolstering its economic power. It has also teamed up with Europe to send astronauts to Mars. The European community also controls a piece of the new world order on the ground and in space. Japan is now an economic partner in shoring up the U.S., and Africa has emerged as a continent of space engineers, using technological prosperity to sweep the last of its dictators under the rug beneath the shadow of the Kiliminjaro massdriver and the space ports that pop into the neighborhood.

The divisions between the haves and have-nots in the U.S. has skyrocketed, and a combination of plagues and mass rioting have left over 100 million dead in the home of the brave. Free states exist in an uneasy alliance with the federal government, which holds the largest power block with its military and a unified tax base to justify its influence. Canada is completely run by the corporations. The European Space Agency owns a monopoly on high orbit over the Earth with the biggest gun on the moon.

Cyberpunk 2020 pushed things a bit further. Science has managed to clone a full human body. The European Space Agency is sending a mission to Jupiter. A Third Corporate War is fought exclusively online. A riot breaks out in an orbital colony. And somewhere on Earth, there you are.

Welcome to the future.

Sharp eyed fans of the tabletop will recognize the lady in this screenshot as Alt who also happens to be the hotshot programmer behind Soulkiller which can suck out your mind and boxes it on silicon. Hope someone's watching your body when that happens.

Above: Sharp-eyed fans of the original PnP will recognize the lingerie model in this screenshot as Alt. She also happens to be the hotshot programmer behind Soulkiller, a black program that can suck out your mind and box it in silicon. Whether or not this will really be Alt or if any of the regulars from the old materials cameo in the new game in some form or another, CD Projekt Red isn’t saying. At least, not yet.

The morning after

Over the next few years, Cyberpunk continued expanding across a large number of supplements and books that added a lot of fluff and a few new tweaks to the mechanics, fleshing out a world of geopolitical jockeying, economic warfare, and engines of progress that ground down the populace from behind the polished glass faces of palacial opulence. Down in the cracks, people fight back with whatever they can salvage, beg, borrow, or steal against impossible odds and across a wide spectrum of fronts.

Rache Bartmoss and Spider Murphy taught their audience what the ‘net looked like and how to run it. Netwatch became the ‘net’s version of Big Brother. A.I.s lurked in the shadows or behind the virtual walls of corporate dataforts made up to look like anything from a feudal Japanese castle to a virtual Disney World. Cyberspace was extended into orbit, and there was always the persistent omnipresence of the corporate juggernauts who continue to run the world behind the facade of local governments.

It all nearly ended in flames during the Fourth Corporate War leading up through 2024. Arasaka, one of the biggest private security corporations on the planet led by Japanese nationalist Saburo Arasaka, would go out in a blaze of glory, detonating a nuke in the heart of Night City as the Japanese government turned against them at home. In the meantime, the U.S. and Europe invited their militaries to the party held in their own backyards, where Arasaka had a presence. It was a thunderous shake-up that promised to raise the stakes going forward.

Yet it didn’t quite have a definitive end. And what came out afterward was probably not what many expected.

Cybergeneration

Teenagers and youths fighting the man with super powers! It's even illustrated with manga inspired art direction.

Above: Teenagers and youths fighting the man with nanite-built superpowers! It’s even illustrated with an art direction that Kenichi Sonoda might have appreciated.

Five years after the first version of Cyberpunk hit shelves with its minimalist box set of sheets and black and white booklets, Cybergeneration arrived in 1993 to pick up where Fourth Corporate War left off.

This time around, players wouldn’t be playing grown up ‘punks. Instead, the game took a page from manga and anime as its art style had also done, and players were asked to play youths aged anywhere between 7 and 19. It brought players face to face with goboys, vidiots, streetfighters, and yogangs and ran them around corners dodging genies so that they could see another sunrise in 2027.

It was a radical departure from Cyberpunk’s established setting. Here, 2025 was when it all changed thanks to the Carbon Plague — a nanotech virus that could lead to death for a low percentage of anyone over the age of 20 who caught it. To those under 20, it did something else.

Like adults, they might be sick for awhile and recover with no side effects. Unlike adults, who could die from the plague, it gave a lucky few nanite-grown superpowers instead — powers fueled by nanotech that allowed them to communicate with machines like walking cyberdecks, turn skin into armor, remake matter into a pop soda, or throw bolts at bad guys without having to say “lightning bolt.”

The attitude was still the same — these were kids with a cause. Parentally neglected, orphaned on the street — pick your history. And they hate the system for it. Golden boys with a silver spoon in their mouths, for example, have seen what it has done to their parents, and they don’t want it to happen to them, so they do anything they can to rebel against it. For many others, however, simple survival trumps everything else.

Cybergeneration had a lot of neat ideas, one of which was being a kid with superpowers meant you were also saddled with a lot of lethal baggage that segregated you from a normal life. Corporate troopers are on the lookout to collect them all, for good or ill, as cyber-enhanced Ash Ketchums. Having neat-o powers didn’t make them invincible. But sticking together with their friends often gave them something that the heavily oppressive and fractured world of Cyberpunk didn’t often push: hope.

Which was one reason that Pondsmith and his team went in this direction — to address the problem from the first Cyberpunk of players who became walking weapon platforms. They wanted to bring it back down to the streets in a sort of reboot by injecting a little more mortality to the system. In Cybergeneration’s case, it was with a ceiling of deadlier-than-thou consequences. Though as interesting as that angle was, the setting didn’t garner quite as much support as Cyberpunk did with its massive catalog of supplements and newsletters or from players who didn’t warm up to the idea of playing nanotech-empowered youth angst.

Cyberpunk v3.0

This version came out in 2005 after years of waiting, and Pondsmith took up the Cyberpunk world from where the Firestorm series had left off in 2024, with the end of the Fourth Corporate War. Cybergeneration was all but ignored in this entry, which shook up its setting with themes of transhumanism, nanotech that built buildings overnight, and alt cults defining the attitudes and classes of the world in 203X. It wasn’t just an attempt to update the old series with what has gone on in tech over the the last 20 years. It wanted to leapfrog past it.

It also wasn’t as popular as the previous iteration from what I can gather mainly because of how radically it had smashed the world of the 2020s with a number of ideas that even hardcore fans had a hard time swallowing, such as a biovirus that destroyed all paper to obscure the truth of history and a worldwide crash that smashed databases like virtual piñatas.

Cold steel and dead ends

CD Projekt Red confirmed that Night City is where the action will take place. The first edition of the game didn’t even have a location — it was only important for the “feel” that its high-rise towers and booster-gang-infested slums created. When the second edition came around with Cyberpunk 2020, it was then located between San Francisco and Los Angeles and given a backstory involving a developer named Richard Night, who bought up land hoping to create a safe city during the Collapse.

On top of the usual dystopia, Cyberpunk 2077 wants to throw these at players, too. But at least this guy will look good before he's recycled.

Above: On top of the usual dystopia, Cyberpunk 2077 wants to throw these at players, too. But at least this guy will look good before he’s recycled.

Unfortunately for Night, a number of unions that also had criminal backing didn’t take kindly to being snubbed when the buildings went up. Night was killed, the criminal organizations took over, and the desperate left behind in the Collapse were victimized once again when they arrived in a Night City.

In 2009, the corporations moved in and “wiped out” the criminal bosses, allowing them to clean it up. A semblance of order exists within its new and pristine corporate heart, but violence still clings to its streets as its corporate soldiers continue to wage a war against anyone threatening the peace — or cyberpunks breaking off more than their custom-fitted hands can grasp.

There’s also a lot of potential in making it into a colossal, urban dungeon rife with adventures — a microcosm of everything in Cyberpunk’s world. Though if they opt to take things up after the Fourth Corporate War, that might be a little tricky with a glassy, radioactive crater where Arasaka Tower and a few surrounding blocks used to be.

Friday night firefight

Which finally brings us to Cyberpunk 2077.

Cyberpsycho with one too many arm scythe upgrades? Or a bad braindance?

Above: Cyberpsycho with one too many arm scythe upgrades, or a bad braindance? That corp cop probably doesn’t care. Likely, he’s thinking more about the virtual paperwork he’ll have to fill out later.

Though the developer likely won’t adopt the worlds of Cybergeneration or version three, that’s not to say that it isn’t overloaded with speculative material that could easily make its way into the new timeline. Adding in 57 years to 2020’s history is a lot of margin to fill.

Big bad corporations, police-state cybersoldiers, and a missile-armed trauma team A.V. flying out to answer a broken card call are only scraping the surface. The series also has a sizeable lexicon of terms to fill its dialogues with between all of its editions — potentially mixing in poserboys and chromers with tinkertots and boardpunks to further distinguish the new game from its peers.

Character-build mechanics are still a mystery though Cyberpunk’s life story system essentially set up a background to determine things like your childhood, how much high school education you received, romantic involvements, or enemies you’ve made — similar in a way to what a number of other console-RPGs have also used, such as Origin’s Ultima IV.

Cyber-stuff also has a price beyond the retail sticker. Loading up on too much can literally make you a monster. A system was built in that penalized the player’s humanity depending on what was replaced, letting you roll dice to see just how bad the loss would be. So replacing those eyes of yours might just be the things that tip your cyber-psychosis over the edge, turning you into a cyber-psycho and effectively making you something that your friends might have to put down before stripping for parts. They’re looking to score a few upgrades, too.

Its aesthetics also had a bit more in common with the dirty future of the first Deus Ex than Human Revolution, though gunning through gang bangers or staying out of their warpath was something that it shared with both. Bullfrog’s corporate superpowers underpinning Syndicate’s world also share the disregard for collateral damage that Cyberpunk’s megacorps deftly calculate into their fiscal reports. And despite wildly deviating from the original’s mechanics, Starbreeze’s Syndicate shares a few elements with classic Cyberpunk and even Cybergeneration’s virtual terminals and wizard class, sans the anime influence.

Adding in the consequence-laden approach that CD Projekt Red has integrated into its The Witcher series and the lavish attention it pays to the source material (Cyberpunk’s Blade Runner-esque, urban sci-fi, which pushes technology to the edge along with the morals of those dragged along for the ride), this Cyberpunk stands ready to offer up a more brutish, hard-hitting alternative, adding a little more dystopia to everyone’s diet.

Some elements will obviously require a bit of updating unless Russia somehow manages to fall back into the hands of the Communist hardliners — or if CD Projekt Red instead decides to stick China in its place. But anything could happen in Cyberpunk, especially in a setting where rocks can be dropped from the moon to keep everyone civil. It’s this sheer body of fiction that makes this world as exciting as the upcoming Shadowrun Returns.

Cyberpunk’s attitude doesn’t expect you to change the world overnight. Like loose screws tumbling between the teeth of finely tuned cogs that churn relentlessly in their set patterns, players might be the one thing that can gum up the system — at least until someone yanks them out or they’re knocked loose to shake things up again later. But slotting the latest gear, looking sharp while doing it, and swaggering into an retro arcade with enough firepower in your fist to wipe the smirk off of anyone’s face — now that’s cyberpunk.

Like Pondsmith and his team wrote so many years ago, you might be able to do some good along the way. In the end, that’s just a bonus to surviving long enough to make it back to your day job.

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