In the 80's there were two things that were predominantly head and shoulders above the rest when it came to cultural phenomena in media. Science Fiction and Glam Rock. From this the Cyberpunk Genre emerged in books such as Neuromancer then games like Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020. The basic rundown is some sort of government shaking catastrophe occurs leading to a state of near anarchy reducing vast metropolises to a big chaotic free for all while large corporations watch intently.
Now, the first thought you may have as a RPG buff upon seeing this cover is probably that its a rip off of Shadowrun. That is actually a falsehood, as the first edition called Cyberpunk 2013 came out a year earlier then both of them in 1988, while Shadowrun didn't come out until 1989 just as the second edition that I am reviewing came out the same year. I personally liken the two to different strokes for different folks, C:220 has a remarkably lethal combat system and emphasizes more with simple survival and the iconic Mad Max style action hero motif where Shadowrun focuses more on a until recently secretive magic world and how the world has metaphorically ended with a strange new one arising from the ashes of the last and survival in this weird but at the same time oddly familiar new age. In short, you will never see me flat out claiming one is actually better. Both have terribly written later editions and their own interesting takes on how technology can advance.
The very first thing you get in the book is the introduction, but oddly enough there is absolutely zero plot in the first half of the book. Sure, it explains what being a cyberpunk is and why you should mind but it does not really tell you much of why it happened and why you can't just live a safe life. In fact, the closest thing to a log of history is not until page 166 of 221. A quick glance of the timeline is pure sci fi cheesy goodness. Bionic plagues, corporate wars, and in 1996 there was a huge lawyer purge. That's right, they lynched hundreds of lawyers on seemingly a whim. This does mean its very easy to get playing without much thought on back-story. I mean come on, if the game doesn't care why should I?
In addition one of the settings major cities called Night City is also mentioned in this section and the next. Night City is in the center area of the Monteray Bay which is slightly south of San Jose. Now, the only issue I have with where Night City is placed is the fact that even the Night City Book itself (Which I also own) accounts completely for some other small towns near it just like my home town of Santa Cruz, California (Which many of you may know as "Santa Carla, Murder capital of the world") and is mentioned by name as a major city. Except of course, Watsonville; the boring predominantly Hispanic farming hub that Night City is directly built on top of. Night City was founded in 1994 while Watsonville has actually been around since 1868. I know this is a Sci-Fi game and its allowed to omit things but my suspension of disbelief is shattered. In the history blurbs this is never discussed.
Next comes the games character classing system. A role is composed of a special ability in addition to a selection of preferred skills. Looking at it makes you feel like every role is supposed to be played a certain way, which in some cases is the point but most of the time it feels a bit too generic. Solo's for instance are powerful street samurai whose ability gives them a additional stat to put points into in order to act faster in combat. This translates to them being the best fighters in the game usually, though the flip side is they are often heavily cybered up and thus not really... people persons. You see cyber-psychosis is a major issue in today's society.
A big part of developing your character is rolling their backstory. Starting with your clothing style, which goes from punk rocker, , a Gary Glitter jumpsuit, or just walking around naked. Did I mention free love and drug fueled sex is one of the big motifs of the genre? Either rolling for your age or just picking one from age sixteen to twenty-six you roll for what happened each year in a method fairly reminiscent of Traveler. All sorts of stuff can happen from making a big score, getting addicted to synthcoke, to pissing off a corporation. This really helps you flesh out a character and can really help you forge a story.
Right after the blatant combat classes you are also offered plenty of social or problem solving classes like journalists, corporate figures, and the iconic Rockerboy class. Rockerboys are indie glam rockers that rock out amazing illegal concerts and have the ability to sway the crowd to anarchic riots. Every role has a hat, and the book plainly states it has no problem with your group coming up with new roles and even gives you two more roles on top of the ten originally offered (The Actress and Politician, Page 34) technically giving you a total of 12 Roles to chose from initially.
Combat is amazingly lethal in Cyberpunk 2020. For starters, most of the time unless you are a seasoned professional gunslinger there is a good chance you will have a less then 50/50 chance to actually hit anything. Cover really matters and getting hit period brings on the innate chance of just passing out from shock. Solos, Cops and other combat rolls excel here and are usually the ones with the highest body-counts while the more social roles need to just find some big heavy and preferably bulletproof cover though how the combat rolls are set up you can still reasonably score a hit, its just the combat roles do it much easier.
Despite the lack of a overarching plot or much clear reason why the world went bizarre the games culture is very interesting. You see there is a reason ugly people simply don't exist in this game, technology has allowed for cheap and easy reconstructive surgery allowing for relatively easily accessible limb replacements and bodily changes. Plenty of gangs adopt some sort of uniform change with the popular choices being clowns, all having tails, or some sort of exotic look that makes them different. These are called poser-gangs, and probably one of the most fun concepts of the underworld offered.
Like any Sci-Fi game, the most fun of the games character development is the ability to simply spend hours shopping for your character. Weapons, Cyberware, and Vehicles are supplied in mass for you to ponder over as well as a catalog of various drugs for you to get addicted to. In fact, the game supplies rather easy rules and flat out dares you to come up with your own terrifying drugs as well as a list of sample effects including contraceptive and depressive qualities in addition to essentially pointing out how easy it is to just be a drug lord in the game. Pretty spot on for the genre, actually.
Supplementing combat is the netrunning system. These days the internet is a vast world wide web of information that can be decked into personally. Only the Netrunner role has the ability to actually jump in and really do things, but in general netrunning requires different maps and different methods altogether to the point like in other cyberpunk games it tends to just bring the game grinding to a halt as not everybody can actually interact with the net.
Cyberpunk 2020 to this day is a legend among RPGs, having fairly simple but vivid gameplay while Dungeons and Dragons was still dealing with overly lethal and convoluted rulings. The series of books included around 22 titles, covering a wide range of subjects from shopping books to additional city settings. Sadly not all good things could last.
Long discounted as vaporware, a sequel finally arrived in the form of Cyberpunk V3 in 2006. That however, will have to wait until next time. Mike Pondsmith, the author of C:2020 decided to start over his little world and try a different approach.
He chose.... poorly.