Saturday, 27 June 2009

"It's not like I'm using, it's like my body's developed this massive drug deficiency."

So Sir Larkins has asked me to elaborate on why I commented in the past that Cyberpunk 2020 was "broken" as a game. I should clarify by saying that I love the game and have played it a lot, probably as much as D&D, and that there is a perfectly okay system lurking in there somewhere - if you're willing to house rule. A lot.

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
Plus some extra ones I've been toying with while thinking over this entry:
  • There are no roles, just skills and abilities
  • 'Reflexes' gets split into Agility and Reflexes
More generally, some of the problems (especially those to do with the importance of armour and toting around massive guns) can be solved by the GM being realistic about what the police and society expects. No, it is not possible to walk around in broad daylight wearing a flak helmet without the police wondering what you're up to. No, you can't walk into a club cradling an uzi without the bouncers wanting to stop you. Yes, you will be minigunned down by SWAT team gyrocopters if you start a firefight in broad daylight. I don't think the rulebook stressed the importance of this sort of thing nearly enough, and consequently though our games were always a lot of fun for the 14-year-old male (full-body conversion cyborgs with smartchipped assault carbines chewing up entire shopping precints) I don't think they'd hold my attention for longer than about 10 minutes now. Well, okay, perhaps half an hour...


  1. Some of the problems you identify, particularly the net-runner, armour and gunnery stuff, are generic to cyberpunk. The netrunner as NPC is the simple solution to that problem, but it's difficult to preserve the feeling of a future world of laissez-faire capitalism without gun control (i.e. a cyberpunk world) and preserve the playability of an RPG.

    Shadowrun got around this a bit through the diversion of magic, which evened up the score a bit. But in general, the cyberpunk world rewards nihilists and criminals, and it's really difficult to play an enjoyable RPG in that kind of environment.

  2. faustus--"But in general, the cyberpunk world rewards nihilists and criminals, and it's really difficult to play an enjoyable RPG in that kind of environment."--

    Are you serious?

    I mean, as far as I can tell, every single popular RPG genre except possibly the super-hero one is quite often arranged to award nihilists and criminals--and it's fun.

    In DnD players are just as likely to play loot-crazed bandits in lawless Lankhmars as knights in shining armor.

    The problem is simply the armor's too good, end of story. Make armor clunky, expensive, less effective, and have it restrict mobility and restrict the precious reflex stat and you're back in business.

  3. Re:

    (1) In most cases, if the chance to fail is really < 10%, don't bother rolling and move on. Though your house rule is okay too.

    (2) Very experienced guy with modest natural ability getting upstaged by brilliant guy with less experience is not a bug, it's a feature! The problem comes when the game makes it too easy for characters to get extreme scores, or when the value of abilities vs. the value of skills is otherwise not understood/appreciated. Is the 10 stat just what the system lets you have for your "smart" guy, or is it supposed to be eek, scary-genius?

    Having skill and ability levels too fungible is bad, another way your house rule for (1) is good.

    (3) A heavily-chipped solo being much better than a streetwise cop is 100% in cyberpunk idiom.

  4. faustusnotes: it's difficult to preserve the feeling of a future world of laissez-faire capitalism without gun control (i.e. a cyberpunk world) and preserve the playability of an RPG.

    People think laissez-faire capitalism means no law & order. In fact there'd be plenty of law & order - just privately paid for, and way more into arse-kicking than a government-run police force. This was what I was mainly talking about in the final paragraph of the entry. Corporate security ready and willing to play with tactical nukes if the mood takes them.

    But in general, the cyberpunk world rewards nihilists and criminals, and it's really difficult to play an enjoyable RPG in that kind of environment.

    Like Zak I find it hard to understand this comment! Aren't 80% of RPG characters, no matter the game, nihilists and criminals?

    Zak: You don't even need to fiddle with the mechanics of armour. I think you can deal with it entirely in-game by introducing an iota of realism - namely, if somebody is walking around town in a flak jacket and kevlar helmet, the chances are they're up to no good and somebody's going to want to ask them what on earth they think they're doing.

    K. Bailey: Fair enough on points 1 and 2. Point 3, though - Combat Awareness is in addition to being heavily chipped. It's a double whammy. The non-chipped solo is faster than a cop even without cyber-reflexes. Add cyberware into the mix and the cop might as well not bother.

    And Cop is a PC role in Cyberpunk 2020 - which makes it a lot worse.

  5. I don't think most PCs are nihilists and criminals. Most PCs cooperate with a group of people to save the world from evil. The fantasy genre context for nihilism is completely different to the cyberpunk context. And in Cyberpunk it's not just the PCs who are nihilistic.

    Serious corporate security has not, in my experience, been a dampener on bad PC behaviour. But the worst part of my experience of cyberpunk and sci-fi settings (not Cyberpunk particularly) is when players find really strong internally consistent reasons why they should have access to heavy weapons and armour, and you basically have to house-rule them away to stop the game turning silly. I've had a lot of silly experiences in sci-fi (mostly traveller but including cyberpunk) which culminated with thermonuclear weapons. It's really hard to balance a DMing ethos of "facilitate the players getting to their goals" against "if you have enough money you can buy a plasma cannon".

  6. 3). You presuppose that the character has never before been in combat, which seems like a strawman argument. The Lifepath doesn't state all the action the character has seen, it simply forms a baseline from which the mechanic begins to elaborate from.

    6). Sorry to tell you, Ballistic Armour is really that important. In a setting like that, its ubiquity is more than reasonable in comparison to the assumption that everyone is Jacked-up, razored, and packing heat.

    As far as your other points, I think they are reasonable gripes, but not profoundly 'broken' as you would seem to think.

    The d10 did prove to be a bear in my games, but I simply rolled a d10 and d12, with 1's and 10's on the d10 forcing a read of the d12. If that was then a 1 or 12, then the listed effect occurred, otherwise it was simply an additive value of the d10.

    I certainly think it was the easiest to facilitate, easiest to learn/teach, and stylistically closest to the 'big concepts' of the Cyberpunk sub-genre games, and still find a lot of merit in the system as compared with its contemporaries --all of which were a least another magnitude of difficulty to learn and operate for their output.

    I had issues with Pandsmith's heavy-handed descriptions of what the genre had to contain, and still remember our scorn at his references to, 'this isn't a milk and cookies game. It is dark, mean, and celebrates nihilism; style over substance; the last bird died in blah-blah-blah.'

    YMMV, of course. :)

  7. I agree with most of the issues with cyberpunk 2020. I love the game, but the system gets in the way to often. I've looked for a better system for a while now. Shadow Run 4th has promise if i drop the magic, but right now I'm looking at Swordplay and Spellcraft for the basis of a cyber-punk system.

    Ever since you made the joke about an LL mod for cyberpunk (almost a year ago) I've wanted to do an OD&D / Basic D&D cyberpunk game, but I really think SW&SP has potential for being the basis of a really great game.

    SW&SP is a simple system that has an emphasis on equipment in combat, and I believe it's magic system could be a fantastic basis for a hacking subsystem. It's skill system might be a tad onorthadox, but I like it.

  8. Timeshadows said, "I had issues with Pandsmith's heavy-handed descriptions of what the genre had to contain..."

    I was similarly annoyed with Pondsmith in the same regard while preparing for my current Castle Falkenstein campaign. I mean, I appreciate an overview of the conventions of Victorian melodrama, but don't beat your reader over the head with it!

    noisms: Thanks for this! A lot of your points are issues that had sort of raised red flags for me, but like I said, I haven't played enough CP2020 to see if those concerns were warranted.

    I like your house rules. I think I've seen a write-up for ditching roles--can't remember if it was online or in a supplement.

    Your in-game solution for armor works well too, but if I wanted to further house rule that, I would probably steal BRP's optional "variable armor protection" rule. Basically, each piece of armor offers a random number of AP; a Kevlar vest that has 3 AP as written would instead offer 1d6 (or 1d4, maybe) AP. Makes armor a bit less of a sure bet.

  9. faustusnotes: It's perfectly possible to play Robin Hood with Cyberpunk 2020 too, you know. I think the fact that you can be Cops and Medias (crusading journalists) bears this out. There's no legislating for bad players (i.e. people who just want to get plasma cannons and go apeshit); you can't really blame that on the game.

    Timeshadows: 3) In the RAW it's perfectly possible to play a rookie Solo, 18 years of age (i.e. only a year or so into the lifepath - I can't remember off hand if it starts off at 16 or 18), who is exponentially more combat aware than a Cop of 15 years experience. That isn't a strawman argument - I've seen this in a game!

    6) My complaint was more that body armour combined with literal (i.e. cybernetic) body armour conspires to turn people into tanks.

    Bluskereem: Interesting. I haven't read Swordcraft & Spellplay. Maybe elaborate in a blog post?

    Sirlarkins: Another option for armour is to say that all hits always do at least 1 point of damage, no matter the SP. I saw that on an thread and thought it sounded like a good idea.

  10. On Pondsmith's heavy-handed style... well, yes, that's a valid criticism. Although I have to say when I was 14 I thought it was the coolest thing ever that the author was explicitly saying it was okay to try to cheat the phone company, sell your soul to the corporations to get cyberware, and deal drugs.

  11. noisms,

    3). I know plenty of CoPs who cant even hit the paper, let alone the target, and they've been on the force for 20+ years --and never could hit a target. And, human male reflexes are at their peak around 13-18, so, again, it is just the way things seem to you.

    6). The problem isn't the armour, its the cybertech.



  12. Timeshadows: Combat Awareness isn't about pure reflexes; it's about being able to sense and predict what is likely to happen in a combat situation, thus gaining the initiative. Your comments about accuracy of shooting are completely irrelevant to this. (We're not even talking about real world policemen anyway.)

    Whichever way you cut it, it simply isn't realistic to assume that an 18 year old Solo will have the experience necessary to 'sense' combat in the way that a 35 year old veteran policeman can. He certainly won't be exponentially better at it, which is what Combat Awareness allows him to be.

    (The comparison to a Cop is not the only one, in any case. What about a fixer who's been in numerous shootouts with boostergangers? A nomad who's been a warrior for his tribe for the past twenty years? These people also can't get any combat awareness...and will consequently always lose initiative to a rookie solo whose player happened to give Combat Awareness +8. Suspension of disbelief doesn't stretch.)

  13. AS for your complaint about skilled people being equal to an unskilled but brilliant person, I am an example. I'm not brilliant by any means. But I was bright as a child. Ahead of the curve. I also had been reading voraciously since I was five. I essentially 'brute forced' my way through school until I hit High School. But I had *no* actual educational training. So once I encountered something I had no experience with... I failed miserably. And that blow to my ego didn't really heal until I was in my twenties.

    I had convinced myself I was stupid where in reality I was untrained.

    So, being skilled beats being bright any day. :)

    The 10% failure rate in CP2020 can be cut in half by switching to a d20. :) But your idea of a reroll with a high enough skill score is good.

  14. Whatever you say noisms. It's your blog.

  15. Tetsubo: d20 works fine too, you're right. Just add 10 to the difficulty ratings.

    Timeshadows: Is this your way of saying that I win the argument? :D

    I win TEH INTERWEBZ!!!1

  16. In Response to the Biology Professor Scenario.

    Dream Pod 9's Silhouette System has a skill system with 2 scores that range from 1 to 6.

    So, if you had pilot aircraft at 6/1 you could pilot a prop plane and that's it but you were a world famous barn stormer.

    If you had a 2/4 you could pilot sub-orbit shuttle craft but you weren't getting a raise any time soon.

    my 2 cents.

  17. At any rate, I liked some of the vadlo science cartoons!

  18. I think I've seen a write-up for ditching roles--can't remember if it was online or in a supplement.

    As I'll be elaborating on in my next post, Cyberpunk's been much on my mind again and as a result I finally got around to tracking down the "no role" character generation houserules. They live at this link: