Cyberpunk Red: Actual Play Report
My name’s J Gray and I’m the media ambassador for R. Talsorian Games. That’s a fancy title which means I talk to folks on behalf of the company. Mike’s graciously allowed me to hijack the Maximum Mike Minute this week so I could share something awesome with everyone.
Last weekend was pretty darn special. I got to sit down at TotalCon in Marlborough, MA and play in a beta session of Cyberpunk Red run by the man himself. I was thrilled! And while there were some rule differences I spotted, know what I really paid attention to?
I love me some lore. It’s one thing to read notes about world background or hear about it in a meeting. It’s another to see it in action as you play the actual game.
Here’s what I learned.
(NOTE: Everything I report below is subject to change. Nothing is final until the book comes off the printing press.)
The Fourth Corporate War turned pretty nasty towards the end.
Our session took place roughly a decade after the end of the Fourth Corporate War. Mike described a world in which the war destroyed much of the global infrastructure. Here are the hot beats I figured out from his narration:
- Global shipping was not just disrupted by the Fourth Corporate War; it was nearly destroyed. Port blockades, mine fields, and fleet destruction (accidental and on purpose) brought global trade to a stand still from which the world has yet to recover. Ground transport, always dangerous due to the wandering raiders and gangs which inhabit rural lands is now one of the only ways to move goods from urban center to urban center.
- When the war moved to land, there was a lot of destruction in occupied cities. They weren’t flattened but many cities ended up pockmarked and with disrupted infrastructures. Governments, both local and national, are still playing catch-up to overcome the damage.
- Even still, this isn’t a post-apocalyptic wasteland of a setting. Governments haven’t fallen and economies still exist. Think of the world of Cyberpunk Red as less of a Mad Max style hellscape and more along the lines of Europe after World War II or the USSR during the era of stagnation. Because new goods aren’t reaching markets due to shipping issues, many cities live in a scarcity economy. In Mike’s words, “People still have cellphones, but they’re whatever model they can get, not whatever model they want. Resourceful individuals will occasionally find a shipping container full of cellphones and then suddenly a new model will flood the market.” Smaller shipments of new goods are making their way from one market to another but they’re expensive as hell and, thus, luxury goods for the wealthy.
- Rache Bartmoss broke the NET but good. NETWatch tried to repair the damage but eventually gave up and shut most of the nodes down. In its place, a new NET is slowly being built. Its beginning with local CityNETs which may or may not connect with each other. Individual organizations, meanwhile, have learned a lesson from the Fourth Corporate War: being on the NET makes you vulnerable. As a result, there’s paranoia about connecting local servers and LANs to these slowly growing CityNETs. In other words, if a netrunner wants to plug into a juicy server full of secrets, they’ll need to be there in person to stud the wire straight into a local port.
Final Thoughts: The world had changed and, I’ll admit, I was unsure at first. Did it make sense? Could it be a Cyberpunk world when there wasn’t a global economy dominated by gigantic, monolithic megacorporations? As Mike described things, though, it became clear the answer was yes. The monoliths have been replaced by local powers. Hell, it sounded like sometimes the corps have become the local powers! Corps can no longer act globally in a consistent fashion but can still dominate the landscape locally. In a way, this makes them more dangerous. No longer complacent, the corps are working harder than ever to hold onto the power they have left. There’s still plenty for a good cyberpunk to rebel against.
The trip we took in the game. Note the destroyed Corp center.
The session took place in Night City, which still exists and is a functional, if somewhat broken, metropolis. We began in Northside, eating a cheap meal in a Chinese place built inside the shell of a broken building. We eventually traveled to the east and visited the New Harbor Mallplex. Here are some takeaways of what I learned from our trip through Night City:
- Night City has a government and infrastructure. They might be as spotty and ineffective as a third world country, but they do exist. We encountered members of the NCPD. We raced through traffic. We ran through red traffic lights. We sent out messages by phone and listened to news broadcasts via the radio and television. We paid for food and goods with Eurodollars. The Night City of Cyberpunk Red may be a darker and more depressing city to live in than it was in Cyberpunk 2020 but it is still functions.
- A nuke did go off and it did bring down Arasaka Towers but the damage didn’t extend too far beyond the immediate area. As we drove, we could see the ruins of the Corporate Center. It was, or so we were told, a radioactive Combat Zone but the area of effect was small. The rest of the city isn’t irradiated and new Corporate Zones have already sprung up. In fact, as we traveled from Northside to the New Harbor Mallplex, we looked across the bay and saw the metal skeletons of new towers rising up into the sky. That, we were told, was a new district going by the name of Watson. Right now, it’s growing and home to a number of new corporate headquarters (with housing to match). You might recognize Watson as V’s home in the gameplay demo of Cyberpunk 2077. Obviously, by 2077, the corps have moved out of Watson, leaving behind buildings and once expensive housing for the masses to carve up for themselves.
- The population of Night City has declined. Many residents have fled. In fact, this was true of many cities. There is now a new settler movement, where residents of cities hit by the Fourth Corporate War have left to repurpose cities which had been abandoned during the Collapse of the 1990s. Better, they think, to be one of a few rebuilding a ruined city than one of many scrambling to survive in a city straining to serve its current population. There were still plenty of people living in Night City, though. Enough to make it a real city and not a haunted collection of mostly abandoned buildings.
- Like always, the world of Cyberpunk is one of haves and have-nots and the haves are doing just fine. New housing is being built to shelter the wealthier citizens of the Night City. In fact, the New Harbor Mallplex was being expanded both outward and upward in what Mike described as the beginnings of a megabuilding of the sort we saw in the Cyberpunk 2077 demo gameplay.
- Corporations still exist. We dealt with employees of two decent sized corps. One was a new Corporation. One was a Corporation which existed in the 2020 era. Its obvious they still have a lot of sway when it comes to local government and are happy to play rough when needed.
Final Thoughts: Going from the desolation of eating stale noodles from a stand set up inside a broken building to the glory of a shining, expanding mallplex full of consumer goods and passing an irradiated Combat Zone and expensive new construction along the way? This felt like Night City. A Night City pushed to the edge, yes, but still Night City.
The people of Night City haven’t changed that much!
Our party consisted of seven characters. Two lawmen (new name for cops), a nomad, two medias (one of them was my character, Eddie Truth!), and two solos. Here’s some details of what I observed:
- Everyone was human. Each character had cyberware. There wasn’t a sharkman or bioform in sight. We were armed with old fashioned, bullet-spitting firearms and the occasional monoblade.
- Some of our tech seemed new, compared to what was commonly available in Cyberpunk 2020. It looks like some advancements hit the market before the end of the Fourth Corporate War. For example, my character had something akin to a smartphone he could use to send out calls over the CityNET and watch news broadcasts with.
- The lawmen were of two different types. One was an NCPD detective. The other was a corporate guard. Both were part of existing support structures which they could contact as needed. Further proof that, while this was a dystopian setting, it wasn’t one which had descended into anarchy.
- The solos were as badass as ever and still mercenaries for hire. Little seems to have changed there. Their cyberware loadout included cyberarms with built in weaponry, cyberoptics with targeting scanners, and reflex boosters.
- The medias were independent journalists, occupying a space similar to modern news vloggers. We know they once worked for a local television station but made an enemy of them when they went freelance and stole some video equipment. The video equipment consisted of drones which would automatically position themselves to capture a panoramic holographic recording of the area surrounding a central point. It was pretty sweet.
- The Nomad belonged to a local pack. Because traditional shipping in the world of Cyberpunk Red is perilous at best, Nomads are more important than ever. They not only act as couriers and cargo haulers but also now control some ports and other city access points, which means they have a say on what little cargo flows in or out of major cities.
Final Thoughts: More than anything else, the characters felt like the Cyberpunk of old. The lawmen were cops, trying to keep order in a chaotic city despite a system stacked against them. The solos were chromed up, moving faster than the eye could see and tracking targets with smartgun links. The medias were guerilla journalists, seeking to bring truth to the world (and make money doing it). The nomad was still the unconventional glue which could hold it all together. Even the NPCs we encountered felt Cyberpunk: The food truck operators who were as fast to serve up bullets as a meal. The polite but hard-edged head of mallplex security. The wided-eyed store clerk hoping desperately for a better life than her dead-end retail job. The world-weary food critic who had been everywhere but was still surprised by the taste of real fish. It was amazing to see the world brought to life through their eyes.
And that’s my report! I played a beta session of Cyberpunk Red and I loved it. It really felt like classic Cyberpunk but, at the same time, it also seemed like this was a new world I could explore and learn and not just the same Night City I had seen a dozen times before. Mike always says, “in Cyberpunk, you can’t save the world, you can only save yourself.” But I’ll be damned if this new Night City didn’t tell me: “The megacorps are weak. You might actually have a chance, kid”.
I know it’s a lie, but I’m ready to fall for it anyway.