So what are the problems? Cyberpunk 2020's design flaws: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
1) The core mechanic (d10+skill+stat, beat the difficulty score) has a key problem, namely that failure is too frequent - whenever you roll a '1'. A 10% rate of failure, no matter how skilled the actor or how hard the task, is just too high to be credible.
2) The d10+skill+stat mechanic has that "Eh?"-inducing element which all systems using that mechanic have. I call it the Stupid Biology Professor problem: A biology professor with average intelligence (5) but a PhD in biology (+9) has the same chance of success in a biology related task as a brilliant person (intelligence 10) with only an A in biology at 'A' level (+4). That doesn't make sense.
3) Each role has a special skill, available only to them, which supposedly reflects their unique character. Except that most of these are poorly defined and far too broad in nature to be be associated with one role. The worst culprit was the Solo's special ability - Combat Awareness - which gives bonuses to initiative. Supposedly, it reflects the Solo's nature as a hitman/corporate assassin/mercenary. But if you think about it for even a second, it just doesn't make sense that a rookie Solo who's never even been in a firefight should be faster (way faster, potentially) and more combat-aware than a Cop who's seen 15 years on the street and been in countless gun battles with hardened criminals - simply by virtue of the fact that the Solo has a different role and thus possesses 'Combat Awareness'. This problem is common to essentially all the roles.
4) Characters start off with different amounts of cash depending on what role they have and how many points they've invested in their role-specific special skill. Works well for Solos and Techies, who have valuable special skills: not only does putting lots of points into that skill pay off in-game, it also means they start off with lots of cash. Not so great for Medias, whose special skill is basically a dump stat, or Fixers, whose special skill is amorphous, vague, and superseded by what happens in-game. Those characters have to trade off being a competent pauper or a rich specialist in a crap ability.
5) Netrunning is by turns incredibly dull, complicated, time-consuming and laughable in its vision of the internet. The last problem isn't the designers' fault, because how could they know? But the rest conspire to make what should have been an essential element really annoying.
6) Armour is too important. Even relatively light kevlar can stop most decent rounds. This is made worse by the cheap and readily available cyber implants which armour the skin. Combine the two and you have starting characters who are practically invulnerable to anything smaller than a FN-FAL and who you need a railgun to take down with one shot. But this of course applies to NPCs too - which then results in the need for the PCs to go everywhere with 7.62mm calibre assault rifles or bigger.
7) The Reflex characteristic was just far too important, as it governed everything from combat to driving to athletics to stealth. It was the very embodiment of the concept of the god-stat.
All of that said, however, Cyberpunk 2020 is still a lot of fun. Combat is exciting and lethal, the rules are very easy to grasp, character generation (if you're into random chargen) comes up with hilarious results. Moreover it gets that tone just right: the writing perfectly captured the mood of what cyberpunk is all about as a genre - those wonderfully 80s concerns about accelerating technological development, societal breakdown, the spread of Communism, and the rise of Japan. And yet it also captured the Punk part very well too - it manifestly concerned itself with Sterling's "Victims of the New" and what their role in the future would be. This is a perennial concern, something which speaks to the human condition, if you will, and ripe for exploration in gaming. (I've written about this before, somewhere - ah yes, here.)
If I was going to run Cyberpunk 2020 again (and I'd like to) it would be with the old house rules we used to use:
- Netrunner is an NPC role
- Anybody can pick any special skill, at double the IP cost
- Starting cash is a flat rate for each role
- Automatic failure on a roll of '1' can be re-rolled if you have +5 in the skill or more
- There are no roles, just skills and abilities
- 'Reflexes' gets split into Agility and Reflexes