Review: Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit

Cyberpunk has always billed itself as a game about attitude, and this certainly rings true for the Red edition’s Jumpstart Kit. Approach it from the wrong angle and you’ll find a pile of clichés wrapped in a slightly dated ruleset, but if you’re able to embrace the mirrored shades and hacker-slang its utterly boundless love for the setting shines neon-bright.

Of course, “it’s fun if you do it with friends and the right attitude” isn’t a particularly strong defence of something’s quality – the same could be said of Monopoly, The Room and throwing old bottles at a brick wall. What makes Cyberpunk Red stand out, however, is its sheer, shameless commitment to the genre that provided its name. When you get swept up in the fun it isn’t with a sense of ironic, half-mocking detachment, but with a gleeful, blood-pumping kind of joy.

Even within the modest pagecount allowed by the Jumpstart Kit, which is a starter set in all but name, the infections enthusiasm for everything cyberpunk oozes out. And when we say everything, we mean it.

Virtually every cliché and trope you could possible associate with the genre is on full display here, from a love of mirrored shades to the ever-present megacorporations that run much of the world from the shadows. Almost every character has bits of their body stuffed with cybernetic implants, and every street corner seems to be home to a menacing gang of sharply dressed thugs.

Apart from a few snippets of lore designed to hook fans of the series none of it really feels particularly unique – though how much of this is due to the original Cyberpunk getting in on the action when the genre was still forming is up for debate – but honestly it doesn’t seem to matter too much. If anything, the fact that anyone who’s seen Blade Runner, Akira or even Altered Carbon can hop right in is very handy when you’re trying to get a quick game going from the box set.

Skilled Checks

Of the two booklets buried in the Jumpstart Kit, the shortest is the rules primer. In a shade over 40 pages it covers everything you need to get a game going, though if you’re after ways to create, grow and customise your characters you’re going to have to wait for the full rules to hit the shelves.

The core mechanic, which covers everything from hacking corporate networks to staring down a street tough, is a simple one. Checks involve rolling a d10 and adding both your raw attribute score and a skill value, and trying to beat some target number set by the GM.

One of the interesting qualities of the system, however, is the extent to which the proper abilities and training can outweigh the pure luck of the dice. When you’re using one of your pre-generated character’s best skills you can find yourself adding as much as a +17 onto your roll, which virtually guarantees success in all but the most extreme of situations.

This can feel a little odd if you’re coming from more traditional games where a mediocre roll can spell instant doom, but it works. It allows every character to feel truly special when they’re working within their wheelhouse, whether that means having the party’s driver casually throw their car up on two wheels or the combat specialist nail a bad guy with an entire burst of headshots.

Fortunately, while not everyone will be up to quite that level of marksmanship, all of the pre-gens are built to be able to handle themselves in a scrap – an important skill in a world as violent as the 2040s.

Blood and Wires

Where previous editions of Cyberpunk aimed to model combat in every gory, deadly detail, Red is happy to inject a little more abstraction into things. Hit locations are limited to either the head or the body, ranges are grouped into bands and its perfectly possible for tougher characters to take a fair handful of bullets before they start to bleed out.

This doesn’t mean the game has been wholly simplified, however. Before shooting anyone you need to consult a chart showing the difficulty for the current range and weapon-group, for example, and every hit you take ablates a little bit of your armour. Even the rules for unarmed brawling are surprisingly elaborate, with special manoeuvres for choking and wrestling your opponent.

Between the reference charts and the attention to little details, the game can sometimes feel as through it’s still slightly stuck in the 1980s – both thematically and mechanically. It’s a damn sight smoother than earlier editions, but there’s still a fair bit of complexity bubbling away beneath the surface.

One of the areas where this is most apparent is in the Netrunning sub-system, where specialised hackers pit their minds against defence programmes that guard important systems and files. This is where the game – or at least the snippet shown in the Jumpstart Kit – becomes most complicated, with characters using multiple ‘NET’ actions and ‘meat’ actions each turn as they explore the digital realms.

It’s not the craziest system out there, but you’re definitely going to want to ensure that whoever’s playing the Netrunner has gone over the rules a few times before starting a session.

Fortunately, though, the Cyberpunk Red ruleset has at least taken steps to reducing one of the traditional problems with hacking minigames – namely that they usually force the rest of the party to twiddle their meatspace thumbs while the specialist has an hour-long cyber-adventure. They’ve done this by ensuring that almost every system worth breaking into is completely isolated from any wider networks, so if the Netrunner wants the data they have to follow the rest of the team into the building and carry out their hack in person.

If everything is going smoothly with the job you can still have a few minutes of tedium, but often it means that the hack is being played out while the rest of the party secure escape routes, hold off security or steal more tangible goodies.

Rock Your World

The aim of any started kit should be to get new players hooked into the system and the world, and the Jumpstart Kit does a pretty solid job of just that. If you want a smoother, more modern approach to the genre you may want to check out Fantasy Flight’s Genesys sourcebook Shadow of the Beanstalk, but where Cyberpunk Red excels is in its attitude.

The designers love for the genre and the world they inhabit leaps right off the page, and if you let it embrace you there really is nothing like this.

In fact, the biggest problem with the Jumpstart Kit is that while it’s pretty good at providing that jumpstart, at the of writing there’s nothing for enthusiastic new players to actually hop onto. The core book for Cyberpunk Red isn’t just unreleased, it doesn’t even have a potential launch window. Sure, you can always pick up one of the older editions, but if you’re going to pick up Red once it’s released too you’ve just committed to buying three different Cyberpunk kits within the space of a year or so, and it’s hard to view that as a good deal.


★★★★☆

If you get over some slightly dated elements there’s a crazy amount of fun stuffed into this box set. We just wish the full game was coming sooner.

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