Learn more about the roots of Cyberpunk 2077 by looking back to the hit 1988 RPG title, Cyberpunk 2020!
My name’s Burtacamoose, and I’m a Cyberpunk fan.
Like many of you, I’m looking forward to diving into Cyberpunk 2077. For me, however, it goes a lot deeper than that. The game has a history longer than some might know about (way longer than the seven years we’ve been waiting for it!), and I really want to get into the great tabletop game behind its origins. That’s right: this is not Mike Pondsmith’s first rodeo. In addition to his present work with CD Projekt Red and prior work with other video game companies (I forgive him for XBox’s Shadowrun port), he was the creator of the 1988 Cyberpunk tabletop roleplaying game. The game had three incarnations: 2013, 2020, and v 3, but for all intents and purposes, I’ll be hitting the content from Cyberpunk 2020.
I want to go over it because while I expect to get something amazing once the game releases, I know it’s going to be different. There’s no way around it. The Cyberpunk 2020 tabletop game’s timeline starts in 1990 – making it an alternate history game as I played it in 1993. Given that, it’s still amazing and worth exploring. So, come take a walk with me to Night City, and I’ll explain how it got that way while we’re on the way.
The Setting of 2020
Think of the Cyberpunk 2020 setting as a genre recipe built on tropes. Take a decidedly unhealthy dose of corporate dystopia, add an insane amount of invasive and unpredictable technology (cyberware, AI, virtual realities), a cast of iconic characters, and a deeply rooted distrust of authority. Lastly add in every bad decision, political policy, and hubris-filled dream and shake until you have a brown sludge that no one can fully rid themselves of. Dump it over the globe, and you have a world on the edge of collapse but full of potential.
The environment is in dire peril. The world is awash in junk and acid rain. Shoals of cheap crap pumped out by thoughtless Megacorporations wash ashore on every beach, broken tech lines the alleys, human filth backs up almost everywhere. Food and water are at a premium, and most agricultural efforts are based not in natural practices but synthetic ones. Genetically modified food is the rule, not the exception, and its the only thing keeping most of humanity alive. Technology runs rampant and completely unregulated, fueled by amoral Megacorporations putting profit above all else.
The Megacorporations are the masters of this polluted hellscape. They have gone beyond what we can identify as business entities and have become sovereign nations unto themselves. They are comprised of hundreds, even thousands, of smaller companies. Some serve as sub-companies, others are fronts or decoys. All of their resources flow up to the top where the Elite reap all of the rewards and use them for their own self-aggrandizement. They are run by salarymen who are born, raised, exploited, and buried on the company dime. Company housing, “Company hymn, company funeral,” as William Gibson wrote.
Cybernetics raised the bar of human achievements. It’s not enough to be born ready. You have to ‘chip in’ and get ‘chromed,’ if you want to get the best gigs and stay ahead of the pack. Baseline humans can’t compete with cyborgs, and the decision to go ‘borg is easily made by those who can afford not just the technology, but the surgery to implant it, and the anti-rejection drugs they’ll depend on for the remainder of their lives. Some people even replace perfectly functional limbs in the name of being stronger and faster. It gets them the advantage, and they can sell those perfectly good limbs or organs to the vat clinics. Sure, the tech is all proprietary, tagged and tracked. Everything is. Most people are willing to sign over their independence and privacy for a chance to eke out just a few more Eurodollars. It beats living in the gutter. The dark side of cyberware though doesn’t stem from the Megacorporations, but from the effects the ‘ware has on the mind. Replacing yourself piecemeal with bits of metal and plastic can have a detrimental effect on the psyche. With every new piece of cybernetic kit installed, some of the man is lost to the machine. Get too much metal and people go over the Edge, become cyberpsychotic. The ‘borg’s world becomes a place brimming with sacks of irrational meat crowding them in. Soon the psycho goes on a rampage, solving the problems it finds with ruthless violence. It’s led to the rise of special police units: C-SWAT squads. It’s the only division of law enforcement the Megacorporations back without question.
There’s also a virtual world: The Net. Tying together corporate and municipal data systems, this interconnected computer system exists in full sensory splendor due to the invention of Braindance (a customizable sensory playback experience a la Strange Days) and the Ihara-Grubb Transformation Algorithms created by the Raven Microcyber Corporation. The consensually hallucinatory realm is growing rapidly around the globe (and into orbit where the fabulously wealthy get the best of everything), getting bigger and more dangerous every day. Almost all commerce is handled via the Net, making it an indispensable even to those who don’t directly interface with it using cybermodem technology. Given its importance, it is overseen by Netwatch, a division of the world-sprawling Internet Corporation, which even the biggest peer all Megacorporations know they need. As the core books say, even Saburo Arasaka wakes up on the first of every month and pays his Internet bill. It remains sovereign in 2020, almost a nation of its own, though the Megas and governments all have carved out their own nominal chunks.
When looking at all of this though, it’s important to remember that Cyberpunk 2020 is a world of Style Over Substance. This isn’t the future of our present 2019. I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of the style of Cyberpunk 2020 in 2077. The tabletop games are the future as seen by the children of the Cold War. There’s a lot of synthleather and denim, chromed technology, and mirrorshades. Sure there’s space stations in orbit and a tentative corporate colony on Mars, but almost nothing in those places is wireless. To jack into the Net, you’re dealing with cyberdecks the size of briefcases that literally require programs on cartridges and cybernetic implants to fit the cord you need to link to your machines. What wireless technologies exist are insanely expensive and glitchy. Programs still come loaded on cartridges you buy from the soft markets. It’s the future the children of the eighties dreamed of, and that takes some getting used to if you weren’t from that era. And that’s okay. Part of the charm of Cyberpunk was seeing what we knew twisted into something unexpected.
Enhance Sector: America
Most Cyberpunk 2020 core books focus on an America in rapid decline. Many former states are completely barren and dissolved due to environmental disaster, war, and poor governance. The few that remain solvent are on the verge of bankruptcy, filled with transient populations (Nomads) and desperately impoverished people. Some states like California have gone ‘free state,’ removing themselves from the entanglements of federal governments.
Regardless of the status of the territories they occupy, former city sprawls have transformed into dense Corporate cores surrounded by sprawling, lawless Combat Zones that cops and municipal staff won’t enter unless in overwhelming force. Despite this disparity, the cities are the only places where people can make permanent residences without the backing of a military behind them. You either live in a city, or you walk away and go Nomad (more on this later).
Where law and order can be found, it comes from corporate backers holding up the vestigial United States and local governments. A draconian and simplified Code of Justice has replaced the complex system of American courts. Summary execution is not uncommon for violent offenses, and cops find themselves with a lot less paperwork after the lawyer purges in the late nineties. The remaining laws of the landfall unerringly in favor of the Megacorporations which act as sovereign entities, untouchable and above the law of most nations on Earth. The major corporations like Arasaka, Militech, Biotechnica, EBM, and Petrochem all but rule openly in the ravaged streets of the 21st Century America.
Friday Night Firefight In Night City
Night City is the signature city that embodies the setting on the whole: a densely populated SoCal Freestate city halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It began as a project unlike anything before it, the dream of industrialist Richard Night. He dreamed of a new model for designing American cities. They would be optimized from day one to be efficient and networked, a technology-based paradise for its occupants and a hub of commerce to enrich its citizens.
He sought out the assistance of the Megas, and he got it, mostly from Arasaka, EBM, and Petrochem, three of the larger Megas in the world. Work went ahead, but it made Night enemies. He’d pushed out former partners, and those partners held grudges as well as connections to organized crime. Before Night could see his plans fully implemented, he was gunned down in his executive penthouse. This left the vision of Night City open for the taking by the Megacorporations and the Mobs.
For a time, the three Megas and the Mob could ignore each other. They had limited engagements with one another. But by 2005 the Mob activity started to affect the only thing that mattered the Megas: their bottom line. Things got messy quickly. The two sides started killing each other. It was all cloak and dagger to start, but after a while, the Megas decided they could afford to liquidate the Mobs. And they did so in a fantastic display of force using the well-equipped corporate army of the Arasaka Corporation. Blood ran in the streets. In the wake of the conflict, disorganized crime ran rampant, filling in the territorial vacuum left by the Mobs. Boostergangs overran entire sectors of the city creating Night City’s Combat Zone – the very thing Richard Night was striving to avoid. It was chaos – but the gangs didn’t have the ambitions of the Mobs. And that suited the Megas just fine.
Corporate power holds the reins of the city core tightly, but they haven’t forgotten how vulnerable they made themselves by ignoring ‘lesser’ organizations. Many of the core’s outer blocks are still recovering from Mob war, predatory street gangs, and anarchists. But, so long as they’re running the show, there’s money to be made by the brilliant, the cunning, and the ambitious.
The People of 2020
There are three primary groups that people in Cyberpunk 2020 fit into: Elites, Zoners, and Nomads.
The Elite of the Megacorporations has all of the money, power, and access to the best things in life. They can afford to implant wonderous devices into their bodies, afford the finest pleasures of the flesh (or the virtual), travel to new and exotic locations, indulge in designer drugs at the most exclusive parties, and own homes protected by heavily armed corporate security teams. It’s a life where only the boldest, most ruthless can thrive. The Megacorporations they’re raised and vested in see that they want for nothing, and they ruthlessly liquidate competition for resources and influence. They are the new aristocracy, and they rule the world with a cybernetic fist.
Zoners make up the rest of the teeming mass of humanity living off the scraps of the elite in shattered remnants of suburban neighborhoods. They typically want for access to a reliable power grid or even running water. Most lack the citizenship to go into the corporate zones of their cities or to have a say in the sham of democracy the Megacorporations have propped up. They live off cheaply manufactured kibble or whatever they can catch in the gutter, often squatting within several different shelled out buildings to avoid predation by gangs, corporate baggers, or Nomads. The few Zoners who can afford technology have last-generation goods and sport the most primitive (and often gratuitously violent) cybernetic implants, installed in barely suitable shadow clinics.
The exception to the rule is Nomads, the wandering homeless of the world. Like the hobos of the ages prior, they ride in convoys of motorbikes and salvaged automobiles. They drive between cities looking for work, ambush opportunities, and a safe place to bunk down against the horrors of the destroyed interstate system. Occasionally, they roll into Night City in force, armed and looking for opportunities. They’re the wild card. Each Nomad family is different. Each one has something to offer. Each one has something to fear.
Where You Fit In Night City
The last piece to the dysfunctional jigsaw puzzle is the Edgerunners – that’s your role in the game world of Cyberpunk 2020. You’re not resigned to living like the masses huddled in the shadows beneath skyscrapers, though that’s where you probably make your Eurodollars. You’re also unlikely to ever ascend to the exalted ranks of the elites – though they need you to take care of unpalatable jobs they can’t be seen doing themselves. You don’t fit. You’re special. You spit in the eye of social categories. You challenge the powers that lord over Night City at one level or another. Your loyalty is to you and your Choombas, bed it your Gang, your Family, your Team, or your Corp.
And you’re in it to win on your terms.
You may die trying. But, that’s the cyberpunk way. If you can’t win, take down your enemies while you’re in flames on the way down. Make it look good for the cameras. Make people know your name. Make them talk about you around the barrel fires and corporate board rooms. Make a difference. Make some money. Make a reputation.
As a result, player characters are rarely angels; they’re typically misfits, anarchists, hackers, or people who’ve run afoul of the world’s corporate masters. Most Edgerunners are adept at violence of one sort or another or have a highly specialized skill that sets them apart from the average Elite or Zoner. They almost always have an axe to grind against authority or simply don’t fit in with Megacorporate agendas.
That puts you on the Edge, feet in both worlds, doing your damndest to chart your own course. You work for whatever group or individual (usually a corporation) can afford your skills. The jobs you take on are almost always illegal, and the punishment for failure is punishingly severe. Betrayal is common (either from your own peers or the parties that hire you). If you survive, the rewards are great. All the Eurodollars you’ll ever need are out there for skilled people who don’t ask questions. Sometimes it’s not for the money; it’s for the cyberware, the prestige, your reputation. Sometimes, Edgerunners even do what they do for love.
It’s a big, dangerous world out there. But you’ve got what it takes.
Because you’re a Cyberpunk.
Who Are These Punks?
Players in the tabletop game usually end up in one of nine roles, three of which are featured in the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 video game: Netrunners, Techies, and Solos.
Netrunners are the virtual elite. In the shadows of vast complexes of valuable data, they move between Net sectors in the quest of the most valuable asset in the world: information. Armed with Cyberdecks which allow them a direct neural interface to the Net, they lay their brains on the line to rob corporate data, disrupt commerce, trade secrets, and protect their interests. The perils of cyberspace are myriad. There are other Netrunners, their Daemon programs, killer black IC countermeasures, and the ever-present Netwatch organization to monitor and combat. If there’s anything on the Net that you need, Netrunners can get it fast – or keep you from it.
Techies are Edgerunners who live for technology, either biological or manufactured. They know how to make, fix, and sabotage everything from your internet-enabled toaster to complex cybernetics with only the tools they have at hand. They can smith guns and blades. They know how to get around locked doors, security systems, and proprietary firmware. When Edgerunners get shot, the Techie is the one who puts them back together. They install your cyberware, replace your lost blood, and make sure your body doesn’t reject your implants. It’s not always glamorous, but the Cyberpunk world cannot get by without them and they have the coolest toys.
Then, there are Solos. Solos kill, and they do it well. They have a sense of danger that makes them frighteningly fast in a conflict. Some come by it naturally. Others have complex cybernetics or drugs that give them that extra edge. No matter how they acquire their skills, all Solos are bad news in a physical confrontation – unless they’re on your side. There’s no one you’ll ever want more at your back in a straight up fight with your enemies, though their services will cost you a fair chunk of change.
Stuff You Can’t Play in Cyberpunk 2077 (Yet)
The other player classes don’t necessarily fit the playstyle we can likely expect from Cyberpunk 2077, but CP 2013 and CP 2020 also offer great core options: Cops, Nomads, Rockerboys, Fixers, Medias, and Corporates.
Cops are rare in groups of Edgerunners, but the dark future makes for some strange bedfellows. Cops who end up on the Edge are usually trying to uphold the law the way it used to be. They’re the last true seekers of justice in a thoroughly corrupt world. Using innate authority and a host of high stopping power weaponry the Cops of the future take on those who see themselves as above the law.
If Cops show up in the game as a playable option, I’m not sure exactly how they’d pull it off, or integrate it mechanically.
Nomads are extended family groups comprised of the homeless, exiled criminals, and the remnants of the middle class. Rolling on motorcycles, RVs, big rigs, jeeps, and decommissioned military vehicles, they work their way through the desolate landscapes of the globe. They usually have a mishmash of skills, but almost all of them know how to take their respective shows on the road. The one thing they have going for them in all cases though is Family; it’s the only thing that matters. Where there’s one nomad around, there’s bound to be a few of her Choombas around waiting to pitch in on a fight, a job, or a raid.
I’m really hoping that Cyberpunk 2077 will eventually introduce Nomads as a playable option, complete with vehicular stunt advantages and companions.
Rockerboys (and Rockergirls) are rabble-rousers with style, grace, and a compelling nature. They can direct their adoring fans to do a great number of things, some mundane, others not. Need someone to direct a flash mob at a corporate event? They have you covered. Want to get your word out to a live crowd? Done. You want a riot? Oh yeah, they excel at that. They are the charismatic leaders who can take an audience to the brink then push them past it, inciting chaos and action in a world otherwise numb to the world around them.
While I love Rockerboys as a playable class, they have traditionally been underpowered unless they’re working a gig that they can push to do something. I’m not sure how much flash and interesting gameplay they would bring as a playable class in Cyberpunk 2077.
Fixers are the dealmakers of the sprawl. All of that gear, your guns and ‘ware, come from someone, and that person is your Fixer. You usually can’t get what you want because you’re not a citizen. You can’t get to convenience stores in Corporate zones let alone buy a gun. But, your Fixer can. He has connections and knows how to use them so long as he gets a cut. Weapons, armor, tech toys, illegal Net software, hardware access, it’s all covered by your fixer through his deals made on the street.
Fixers sound like the kind of class that would live strictly in the realm of the NPC in Cyberpunk 2077. Nobody is interested in playing the shopkeeper in an action RPG video game title. We have EVE Online for that.
Medias were probably my favorite class in Cyberpunk 2020. They’re the people who do what it takes to get the word out to the masses. While most Medias work for Megacorporate patrons who are uninterested in much aside from spinning good PR, some Medias go underground and become effective Edgerunners. With years of good copy and uncovered skeletons behind them, they have the credibility to back their stories. They’re willing to dig up the dirt and find the bodies. They reveal corporate teams trawling the sprawl for zoners to experiment on. They show the noble sides of Nomad families just trying to survive. They fight injustice not with weapons, but with truth streaming live from their video feeds.
And, unfortunately, that’s what would make Medias unsuitable as a player class. They’re not built for conflict in the traditional Action RPG video game sense, and even if they were their effect on the game would take too much time.
Corporates are aspiring members of the Elite. Megacorporations are massive, byzantine organizations, staffed at every level by the ambitious and the daring. They do in the lofty towers what the Fixers do on the streets: make deals and get rich. Mega-rich. By comparison, they have wealth outside of the imagination of most Edgerunners and they know how to use it and look good while they do it. It’s extremely rare to find Corporates rubbing shoulders with Edgerunners on the streets, but it happens. More often than not though, they’re your bosses, providing you with money in exchange for services.
Let’s face it, while I assume there might be a good corporate out there in Cyberpunk 2020 (or even 2077) the Corporates are the mustache-twirling villains of the setting. They also tend towards not getting their hands dirty – they have people (i.e.: you) to do that kind of thing for them.
This Is Great! How Do I Play Cyberpunk 2020 While I Wait!
I have good news for you: Cyberpunk 2020 is still out there for you to play in a couple of formats.
The bad news is that finding physical copies is a difficult prospect. You can find them used no doubt, though I can tell you the game was well loved, and as such, the used copies probably are too. You can find them on Amazon or eBay most likely, but expect to pay a high price for them when you find them. I saw markups as high as $80 at the time of this writing.
The good news is that Cyberpunk 2020 and its assorted sourcebooks are online (of course). Cyberpunk 2020 and its varied sourcebooks are commercially available on DriveThruRPG.com in PDF format. The documents are often times scans of the print books, so there’s some quality lost in some of the titles, but sometimes you find a gem that was scanned at high quality or has been remastered from original digital documents.
More and Faster
Cyberpunk 2020 not enough for you? Well, there are options, some cannon, others not, that can scratch that cyberpunk tabletop itch for you. Here are some options:
Official Cyberpunk Tabletop Games
- Cybergeneration – This cult spin-off of Cyberpunk 2020 pushes the timeline seven years into the future. The Corporations have done away with the final vestiges of American democracy and have supplanted it with the Incorporated States of America. The Nomad and Zoner problem is being addressed by BuReloc, a force that publically claims to be rehabilitating the homeless and indigent populations for work in a brave new America, but the reality is more sinister. They’re rounding up people to put them in work internment camps and to have a front to collect children affected by a nanotech plague that turns children into the next step in human evolution. It didn’t quite take off, but is a good place for young aspiring ‘punks to cut their teeth.
- Cyberpunk v 3 – This book is a divisive topic for a lot of reasons amongst fans of Cyberpunk 2020. This book advances the timeline of 2020 by an estimated ten to nineteen years, completely ignoring Cybergeneration. It takes the cyberpunk future to a place that diverts the core technology from cyberware to other radical forms of technology. Many would argue that it takes the cyber out of the punk, and replaces it with things that should change the name of the line. It also completely destroys the Net, replacing it with something… weirder. It has some interesting bits though that are thematically worth checking out, though the layout and especially the art leaves something to be desired.
- Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads – This is the definitive Cyberpunk Gamemaster Guide. Headed by Mike Pondsmith and co-authored by several of the games other developers and friends, it provides indispensable information for making better games, exploring the themes of cyberpunk fiction, and taking ‘punks who’ve got too big for their britches down a notch.
Other Great Cyberpunk Tabletop Games
- Interface Zero – Want to have something that injects a little more weird into your Cyberpunk? This does it between several different systems (Savage Worlds, FATE, D20 Modern, and Pathfinder versions are all available) via android, replicant, splicer, and other player character options. It’s also available at DriveThruRPG through varied editions, and some can even be printed on demand or found at certain local hobby game stores. Just be sure you’re getting the right books for the right system, and know that some systems have more titles available than others.
- The Sprawl – this game gives you everything you need to create worlds based on your favorite cyberpunk books and films. It’s a Powered By the Apocalypse title, which is rules-light and narrative in style.
- Technoir – This entry gives you a collaborative way to build a world and background for the cyberpunk story of your choosing. It’s not something I’d recommend for anyone’s first game, but for experienced players, it can give you a surprising amount of depth and inspiration to create something interesting.
Waiting For 2077 Is the Hardest Part
Well, we’re here at the end of the article. While it feels like 2077 is the release date for the Cyberpunk 2077 game, we have options in the meantime. Take a stroll through the expanded universe. And if you have questions, or want to talk to an experienced ‘punk, you know where to find me, Choomba.