Mark Damon Hughes Cyberpunk: Role-Playing Games [Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics] [about]

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So far I've only been totally impressed by two cpunk RPGs, despite having played all of them (AFAIK)... I'm also firmly of the belief that rules should simulate the genre conventions accurately. I don't care that a good GM can fudge results left and right and run a good game "in any system" (even if in name only)... Those who disagree are advised to move on now, because they'll just raise their blood temperature if they read this...
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Cyberspace
A greatly simplified version of Rolemaster/Space Master, with a much easier character creation system. Rules-wise, it's hard to get more detailed and, in most cases, realistic, than this. The setting, though set too far in the future (2090? Not likely!), is VERY hard-edged cpunk. It has the best cybernetics, equipment, and computer rules I've ever seen, and netrunning rules that are both fast and realistic (out the router, up the comsat, down into Bob's DNI-jacked cell-phone, hypo a virus into his brain...)

It uses "professions" to determine where a character's development points will be most efficient, but you can develop any skill. It uses "levels", but only to spread out gaining new DPs. It's also trivial to make new professions or let the players design their own. Social class plays an important role in initial skills, also, something missed by all of the others.

If you do need more detail, it's compatible with Space Master, and if you need tanks or powered armor you can use the Space Master Armored Assault boardgame (or Star Strike if you need space combat, though some of the technologies there would need to be modified - much lower MT ratings and no energy shields, for instance).

Contrary to common rumor, ICE systems are rather easy to use - all players really need to know how to do is roll open-ended d100 and add a bonus, and look the result up on one of a small (in the case of CSpace, anyway) handful of tables or charts (or just see if you got over 100, for pass/fail tasks). For this, you get a broad range of results from total failure to partial failure, to partial success, to total success, often rated in percent of task completed... One of the best task resolutions around. And the chance of critical failure is only a few percent (how much depends on what you're doing and how skilled you are).

There aren't many supplements, but they're VERY good, I highly recommend them (Chicago Arcology and CyberEurope especially).

The only disadvantage, really, is that it's out of print.

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SLA Industries
I love this game. This is what cyberpunk used to be about, taken 90° off-kilter and played back at fast-forward. See my detailed review for more information.
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CP2013/2020
While the basic source material is fine, the rules are not so fine. It has restrictive classes (just a single skill exclusive to each, but they're essential ones like netrunning and contacts, and there are no standard or balanced rules for multi-class character), a slow and unrealistic netrunning system (thus most CP players think netrunners are a waste of time, even in good game systems), and a task system that makes everyone fail at anything at least 10% of the time... Often known as "Three Stooges 2020", once you've seen how the system runs (remind me to tell y'all about Gutterman and the AV-20 someday).

The original CP2013 had a great combat system derived from the FBI's statistics, but it was toned down in lethality (and chances of hitting increased), because apparently many people don't like realism, they like cinema. CP also foisted that ridiculous "Humanity Cost" concept on the genre because the original playtesters were munchkins (here's two questions for anyone who likes HC: How many grannies have gone psychotic and shot up grocery stores lately, just because they have an artificial hip, a hearing aid, and a pacemaker? How many cyberpunk novels can you name that have that concept in them?) It's a game hack, and a very bad genre-destroying one. Sadly, it's infected almost every other system since, but this is where the virus started.

Worse, the supplements have a steady increase in power - giving PCs tanks, powered armor, full body conversions, and the like may not be in the best interests of the genre, other than a very few limited settings (Hardwired, Appleseed), and the later source material assumes that that power increase *IS* part of your setting.

The Alternate Reality supplements and adventures from Ianus Games (especially Dark Metropolis) are VERY good, by the way, and may be worth picking up for any cpunk game, even if you don't use any horror or supernatural elements in yours (they mostly focus on personal horror, like rape, domestic violence, and serial killers, anyway). DM has great sections on the stress of daily life, hardware malfunctions and maintenance, privacy, pirate media, disasters, heat waves, riots, "asylums" (places to hide out), and sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll. You can't live without it. Well, you can, I guess, but why would you want to?

With the upcoming conversion of CP20xx to Fuzion, the system complaint will soon be going away, though the humanity cost delusion and the munchkinizing are sure to remain, and I wouldn't be shocked by their retaining the restrictive character classes somehow.

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Shadowrun
1st and 2nd Ed had a horrid game system, unbalanced magic rules (too weak in the original, too powerful in 2nd Ed), netrunning rules derived from CP2020, terrible combat rules (though the DMZ boardgame makes a tolerably realistic replacement for it).

3rd Ed has more balance across the board, combat is now moderately hazardous (not up to the level of Cyberspace, but it's no longer safe to stand up in a firefight), and almost all of the system uses the same task system now. 3rd Ed doesn't suck, for what it does. Note that you will need the GM screen to use 3rd Ed, because it has the critters section. I'd complain about this, but the main book *IS* only $25 for 300+ pages covering riggers, netrunners, mages, cybernetics, spirits and dragons, and a ton more. $40 for the complete game is still reasonable.

Of course, it's not really cyberpunk (you can DO cpunk in it, but the setting itself is just hack-and-slash fantasy in a near-future world), though it does have potential. I've successfully run something like the setting under CSpace with Rolemaster magic and races, and that works quite well, though. Some of the older adventures and supplements are interesting (Harlequin, The Universal Brotherhood, and Sprawl Sites, especially).

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Cyber Hero
Uses the same setting as CSpace, but with a somewhat lighter tone in the rules. The Net rules aren't realistic, but they are fairly fast and fit a Snow Crash-style Metaverse somewhat. The cybernetics and computers are not as well-developed as CSpace's, but the equipment list is better. It expands on CSpace's essays on what a cpunk setting is about, and the character creation works very well for the setting. On the down side, the editing is terrible, I mean, REALLY bad. Overall, it's a good alternative to CSpace if you like Hero and dislike ICE, or makes a good sourcebook for other systems, though in most ways CSpace is superior.
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Underground
Homeless superheroes created by the military on the streets of LA. Great setting, hilarious material (Tastee Ghoul fast food franchise!), and incredibly bleak politics, leavened with the heroic notion that you CAN do something about it. Unfortunately, it uses a variant of DC Heroes for the rules, which makes all normal-level characters look identical, and past a certain point it becomes obscenely powerful. More of a parody of the cpunk genre than anything else, but worth getting for the source material (and a lot of it does fit into a normal cpunk game).
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CyberGeneration
A variant of CP2020 heading in the direction of Underground, but it takes itself more or less seriously. Blatantly hokey setting, without the redeeming humor or insightfulness of Underground. My thought was that it's the stilted and inferior ripoff Virtual Light by an established but past-his-prime artist to the much better Snow Crash by a young upstart. YMMV.
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TORG Cyberpapacy & Tharkold
Not really independent cpunk worlds, as they're a full part of the Possibility Wars, but they have a lot of very good ideas, and with some work at combining them they make a pretty good cyberfantasy setting. TORG's really too cinematic to run cpunk, though.
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GURPS Cyberpunk
As a sourcebook, fairly good. It was a bit too in touch with modern trends and didn't have enough wild extrapolation for my taste, but that's me. The "realistic" netrunning rules were rather decent, though. Rules-wise, I despise GURPS, and I don't think this was even the best of the GURPS books, but... Do what you have to do.
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TWERPS Robo-Punks
Hey, it's fast, simple, doesn't violate genre conventions, and comes with really nice teeny little d20s. Not much setting material, but presumably you can read a book... It's only really suited to the lighter parts of the genre, but whaddaya want, it's The World's Easiest Role-Playing System! I could easily see running Rucker's Software setting in TWERPS - ignore the details, just focus on speed and style.
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Bubblegum Crisis
The Fuzion system is pretty spiffy. It's not quite perfect yet, but it's better than most of the systems listed here, and while BGC doesn't have the most current version, you can pick it up for free on their web page. There's quite a bit of useful material here on MegaTokyo and Genom, and while the cyberpunk themes are diluted by the superhero and anime aspects, they're not gone entirely. If you ditch the bimbos-in-suits parts (running AD Police or any of the other non-superhero campaign styles they discuss), it'd be quite functional for cpunk. A nice additional note is that Fuzion is compatible with the Hero system and the Interlock system from Cyberpunk, so you can rip off elements of those games and paste them right in, and yet you're not crippled by the horrible Interlock task resolution system.
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Dark Conspiracy
A hybrid horror/cyberpunk system, with a fairly interesting setting, but it takes too much of a "big guns and high explosives" approach to dealing with the supernatural to be good horror, human technology is neither invasive nor shocking, in fact it encourages a '50s retro look and gung-ho attitude. Also, the system is one of GDW's lousy "house rules" systems, but I have to admit it's marginally better than some systems above, at least after the later change to a d20 instead of d10 for task resolution (combat is still broken, though). It might be good material to borrow from, but it's no cyberpunk system. Avoid the supplements, they're even further from cyberpunk, and are unbalanced and illogical to boot.
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Rifts, Ninjas & Superspies
Not even remotely cyberpunk, despite Siembieda's claim in the intro to Rifts. Technology doesn't make cyberpunk. On the other hand, they have most of the rules and technology to SUPPORT a cyberpunk game (the netrunning rules are finally available in an issue of The Rifter magazine/sourcebook), if you had a background to run it in.
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Ratings
The ratings below are for each game's value for cyberpunk only, by the way - in several cases they are better or worse at other genres. There are also many universal (FUDGE, CORPS) or science fiction systems that could be used to run cyberpunk games, but I can't justify excluding house-rules fixes or free-style gaming and yet including them.
  as a CP system as source material
Cyberspace Superb Superb
SLA Industries Great Superb
CP2013 Poor Fair
CP2020 Terrible Good (Ianus supplements: Superb)
CP20xx/Fuzion >= Good unknown, presumably >= Good
Shadowrun 1st-2nd Terrible Mediocre
Shadowrun 3rd Ed Fair Mediocre
Cyber Hero Good Great (editing: Terrible-1)
Underground Fair Superb
CyberGen Terrible Terrible-1
TORG Fair Good
GURPS CP Poor Good
TWERPS Fair Poor
Bubblegum Crisis Good Fair
Dark Conspiracy Poor Mediocre
Palladium Good N/A
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