Retro Recall: Cyberpunk 2020

April 9, 2019 by brennon

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I've talked already about how The Matrix informed a lot of the ways my friends and I changed up how we played our role-playing games around the tabletop. World Of Darkness (and Werewolf The Apocalypse) was a fascinating new direction that captured our attention due to its world and its mechanics.

Retro Recall: Cyberpunk 2020

Cyberpunk 2020, on the other hand, fried our teenage brains like a Netrunner who'd just unceremoniously had his brain smashed against a firewall.

Cyberpunk Butterflies

A friend of mine picked up the book because we were playing through a few World Of Darkness stories but Cyberpunk 2020 then provided us with an interesting distraction. We were very much role-playing butterflies at this point, flitting from system to system as we saw the next cool thing. The cover was the first thing that caught our eye with its striking black and red palette.

Cyberpunk Art #1

Inside the book, it was still a feast for the eyes with artwork which looked like it had been ripped from the pages of a graphic novel. That, twinned with our new found love of anime like Ghost In The Shell meant that we were hooked. I think it also helped that pretty much everyone in the book looked insanely cool and we all wanted to either be those people or know them in some way!

This all meant that we were going to play this game. The only problem was we knew who we wanted to play...but no-one knew the rules.

Unravelling The Code

The same friend who snapped up the book then took it upon himself to learn the rules, as he's done for pretty much every game in our collection. With his help, we were able to make characters and we were prepared for the first session.

Cyberpunk Art #2

Most of us had avoided playing the Netrunner as it all looked far too one of us. He was sat there still scratching his head and sketching out diagrams like a madman as the story began. This brought us to our first problem with the game (as teenagers anyway). He was basically off working out his own game as we were all finding our way through the narrative and mechanical elements of everyday encounters. It was all a bit much, especially when we all looked down at our very complicated looking character sheets.

I should point out one of the great elements of the character creation had been the way that you build up a backstory for your character. The diagrams, tables, lists and all sorts that you can delve into had been a lot of fun and helped us work out the kind of characters we were going to play, unveiling their motivations, romances and more. I think this is one of the great things about Cyberpunk that other systems have come to develop in more detail since. You can even see it in D&D 5th Edition with their Background system!

Cyberpunk Art #5

Still, even with most of us getting our heads around our characters we were still pretty daunted by the game. It got even more complicated when we suddenly looked at all the tech we could pick up and use.

We might have been overwhelmed but the chap taking control of the story was at the tiller and what followed led to one of the most chaotic first sessions of a role-playing game I've ever had.


Our crew was tasked with getting into a club and making our way to the top where a particular gang member had a certain chip we needed to procure. Sounds simple right? As soon as we rocked up to the club and clambered out of our car, checking our guns, a shot rang out and one of our party had their arm blown off. And so began the chaos...

Cyberpunk Art #3

He was immediately dragged inside the car and we stabilised him but we were already spooked. Instead of the softly, softly approach we just had to go in all guns blazing and charged towards the club, busting through the door and lighting it up. Looking back we'd probably done something wrong at the beginning that triggered this unfortunate series of events.

Burly gangsters came crashing down through the neon lights and we battled our way up past mirror balls and rooms packed with thumping music before making it to the glass roof of the club where the man we'd come to snatch was situated. The fight continued before one of the bad guys pulled the pin on a grenade and chucked it into the middle of the dance floor.

Here is where hindsight is a wonderful thing. My friends barrelled for the stairs and threw themselves down it but, seeing the man we were after leaping off the side of the building I thought I'd be the hero. Just like Anakin in Attack Of The Clones, I threw myself off the roof after him.

The man we were chasing had a freckin' Aerodyne (flying car) and he landed in it, scrambling into the passenger seat. I failed my roll and slammed hard into the bonnet. That fearful squeaking sounded as I started to slip and I barely held on as the car started flying off into the city.

Cyberpunk Art #6

I held on for a bit but eventually was shaken off, sent spinning out into the void where I'm fairly sure I hit about three different cars before finally coming to a stop with a crunch on the concrete My friends rushed to find me in the car and shoved my limp body inside before we tore off into the night. Our storyteller was being nice to us, or so we thought.

As we rushed away trying to work out what on earth had gone wrong with our idea we stopped at a gas station and fuelled up. However, as we settled up with the cashier our car exploded in a shower of metal and plastic and a freckin' gun-toting Cyberpsycho (someone suffering from an overload of cybernetic enhancements and its psychological impact) started opening fire on the petrol station! He gunned down the player who had lost his arm half an hour before and proceeded to try and hunt all of us down, clearly sent by the gangsters to finish the job...oh yeah, and I had been in that exploding car.

The rest of the crew basically hid until soon someone nearby must have called the cops and they were able to take down the maniac. Soon after, they were dragged away for questioning and the first session came to an end...

The Fallout

So, sounds fun right? It does, but this was very much a case of one person knowing the rules and others just relying on them to run the story. All of that action happened and not once did I feel like I'd understood the mechanics or how they really worked. It might be because we were younger, or I was busy working out just how I was going to survive, but everything had just felt too complicated.

Cyberpunk Art #4

It didn't help that in the next session our friend who chose to play the Netrunner basically spent about an hour doing his own solo adventure whilst we all just watched all of that unfold. It became the case that we had had our brains fried by this complicated new rules set and we weren't all involved enough to take the time to understand it. We were still thinking in polyhedral dice!

Soon after another of us tried to run a campaign and it all just fell apart. For some reason, we just couldn't work out how to work the game. Our group decided that it was just needlessly complicated and we eventually went back to playing World Of Darkness.

Returning To Night City

So, would we ever go back to it now we're older and (probably) more intelligent? It's a hard one. I love most of the system I've been able to delve back into and it feels a lot simpler than I gave it credit in the beginning. I think our teenage brains were just more focused on fun than the nuts and bolts of mechanics.

However, currently, there are probably now easier ways of getting that Cyberpunk kick. I think in future I'd probably use the background building mechanics from 2020 but then use something simple like digital_shades for the actual running of the game. It's quick, easy and would make for very dynamic gameplay.

I think less focus has to be on chrome plated weirdos shooting each other and instead more time should be invested in the culture of Cyberpunk worlds, the people, the city and the lifestyles they lead. Something very light works to make that happen, taking the focus away from dice rolls and instead allowing you to really let the players 'role-play' through situations.

Who knows. If someone who has a real head for mechanics was willing to step in and take the reins on Cyberpunk I'd probably follow as a player but actually running it myself seems too monolithic a task!

Were our teenage minds too baffled by Cyberpunk 2020 to truly understand it; is it really a very easy game to play?

"Just like Anakin in Attack Of The Clones, I threw myself off the roof after him..."

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" it really a very easy game to play?"

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