Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Retrospective: Cyberpunk

As I've explained before, I hadn't read many of the books in Appendix N of Gary Gygax's AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide before I first picked up that book in 1980. In fact, Appendix N (and the list of "Inspirational Source Material" that appeared in Tom Moldvay's D&D Basic Rulebook) played a role in introducing me to a wider world of fantasy and science fiction literature. Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu played a similar role, pointing me in the direction not just of Lovecraft but writers like Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Robert Bloch, and others with whom I might otherwise not have been familiar. This is part of why I'm such a proponent for the inclusion of bibliographies in RPGs: they can serve as literary gateways to the uninitiated.

I'm fairly certain that 1988's Cyberpunk, published by R. Talsorian Games, included a short bibliography of cyberpunk books that I would eventually find useful in much the same way as Appendix N had been for fantasy. Though I'd been a huge SF fan since I was quite young, most of my favorite stories and authors dealt with space travel, aliens, and galactic empires rather than more earthbound topics. Consequently, I didn't take any notice of William Gibson's influential 1984 novel, Neuromancer, or any of the other seminal works by him and others that both followed and preceded it. 

Truthfully, I probably wouldn't have noticed Cyberpunk either when it was first released. I was away at college at the time and, while there, I became friends with a student a year older than I, who was much more plugged into the current trends of SF. He was also, as it turned out, a big fan of the 1982 movie, Blade Runner, his dorm room down the hall regularly blaring its Vangelis soundtrack at odd hours. It was through him that I was introduced not just to cyberpunk literature but also to Cyberpunk "the roleplaying game of the dark future." He refereed several adventures for myself and our mutual friends that never quite amounted to a proper campaign. but we had fun and they succeeded in increasing my interest in and appreciation for cyberpunk SF.

Cyberpunk came in a black box that featured an illustration that reminded me somewhat of Patrick Nagel, whose distinctive line art will indelibly be linked in my memories with the 1980s. For that matter, cyberpunk – the literary genre, the esthetics, and the RPG – is, for me, a quintessentially '80s phenomenon, despite the fact that it's supposedly about the future. That's not a knock against it by any means. In my estimation, nearly every work of science fiction is really about the time in which it was created, but cyberpunk, with its mirrorshades, megacorps, and rockerboys (not to mention its American declinism and Japanese fetishism) somehow feels every bit as dated as the atomic age optimism of the 1950s. Though I regularly joke with my friends that we currently live in the worst cyberpunk setting ever, the world envisioned by Cyberpunk is now solidly within the camp of a retrofuture.

I say again: this is no knock against Cyberpunk. At the time I was introduced to it, at the tail end of the Cold War and the dawn of the Internet Age, it felt incredibly bold, fresh, and relevant. Plus, I was nineteen at the time and, even for congenital sticks in the mud like me, the lust for rebellion is strong. That, I think, is a big part of why Cyberpunk succeeded so well in establishing itself: Mike Pondsmith and his fellow writers had succeeded in making rebellion – or a consumer-friendly facsimile of it – the basis for a game that also included trench coats, neon signs, chrome-plated prosthetics, and guns – lots of guns. Say what you will about its plausibility or realism, but it was a brilliant stew of elements that somehow worked, despite the objective ridiculousness of it all.

Inside that black box were three booklets, each dedicated to a different aspect of the game. "View from the Edge" contained the rules for creating a character, including its "roles" (i.e. character classes) and life path system. As a fan of Traveller's character generation system, I really appreciated the latter, since it helped bring a new Cyberpunk character to life. "Friday Night Firefight" was devoted entirely to combat and to weapons. As I said, this was one of the big draws of the game, at least in the circles in which I traveled at the time. Finally, "Welcome to Night City" presents an urban locale that I took to be a stand-in for any dystopian megalopolis, though, as I understand it, was eventually established to be an actual city within R. Talsorian's official Cyberpunk setting. 

More than thirty-five years after its original release, it's difficult to overstate just how new this game felt upon my discovery of it. Some of that is, as I've suggested, due to my own limited tastes in science fiction up till this point, which made Cyberpunk feel even more revolutionary than is probably warranted. Still, there is something genuinely brash about the game, both in terms of its subject matter and its presentation. The artwork, for example, is frequently dark, moody, and violent, which set it apart from the increasing stodginess of, say, Dungeons & Dragons and perhaps even laid the groundwork for the coming tsunami of White Wolf's World of Darkness. 

Like a lot of games, I'm not sure I could ever play Cyberpunk again, though, in fairness, I'm not sure I could ever play any game in this genre anymore, since the real world is now frequently more unbelievable than anything a SF writer could dream up. At the same time, I retain an affection for this game, which served as my introduction to the genre. Further, I recently learned, completely by accident, that the older student who lived down the hall from me died almost a decade ago. We'd lost touch over the years and, while I'd occasionally think of him, I never made the effort to try and reconnect. Now, it's too late – but I still have many fond memories of late nights holding off security goons while our netrunner tried to break into a corporate data fortress. 

Rest in peace, Chris, and thanks for the good times.


  1. Though I know you aren’t a huge video gamer, I’d recommend checking out the Cyberpunk adaptation that came out a couple years ago. It had an incredibly troubled release, which is worthy of a deep dive in itself, but the game as it stands now is a very enjoyable open world game with role-playing opportunities and loads of Keanu Reeves (for better or worse). It’s worth a look, especially if the Night City setting is already familiar to you.

  2. I came into cyberpunk as a genre through Ellison and Dick and was reading Jeter and Sterling before Gibson, but it's always been a compelling subject for me, as is the transhumanist fiction that grew out of it. The original Cyberpunk RPG was an inevitable buy for me, at least in part because the striking b&w box art reminded me of Traveller's little black books. Great examples of "less is more" marketing.

    I suspect the game would have been quite a bit more successful if it weren't for the release of both Shadowrun and ICE's Cyberspace in 1989, which really split the potential player base between systems befoe CP had time to establish itself as the clear leader in the niche. Pity, since CP probably had the best system of the three.

  3. Man, we played the hell out of Cyberpunk when it came out and have revisited it, now and again over the years. The game system was elegant and intuitive and the setting immersive. Unlimited options for scenarios and campaigns, too.
    There’s a new edition out, I assume in conjunction with the video game. It certainly of high production value, but as I find with most “modern” editions of classic games, on the one hand it’s missing something and on the other it’s too much.

  4. Weirdly I was just talking about this on Twitter like an hour ago.

  5. I grew up in suburban Australia, so Mad Max pre-apocalypse, moved to downtown Hong Kong in the early 80s as a kid, so total Blade Runner minus flying cars, and then back to sububan Australia, and then rural Wolf Creek-style Australia before settling in Bangkok in mid-late 90s. Cyberpunk, and Car Wars post-apok are my genes but I just can't game them. Too close to the bone. Have to game vanilla Advanced Fighting Fantasy instead. :-)

  6. Cyberpunk 2020 (1990) page 187. A Cyberpunk Biblography.

    William Gibson:
    Count Zero
    Mona Lisa Overdrive
    Burning Chrome

    Norman Spinrad:
    Little Heroes

    John C. Batancourt:
    Johnny Zed

    Joan D. Vinge:

    Mick Farren:

    Walter Jon Williams:
    Voice of the Whirlwind
    Angel Station

    Bruce Sterling:
    The Artiffcial Kid Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology
    Islands in the Net

    John Brunner:
    Shockwave Rider

    George Alec Effinger:
    When Gravity Fails
    A Fire in the Sun

    Steve Barnes:
    Gorgon Child

    John Shirley:
    Eclipse Prenumbra

    Rudy Rucker:

    1. For the sake of completeness, one might add The Exile Kiss to the George Alec Effinger list. It's the third in the series whose first two books are already there, and came out in 1991, just missing the bibliography.

    2. Did p.187 include movies and TV?

      If so, I hope they included the Max Headroom TV series.

    3. The Filmography is on page 188 of Cyberpunk 2020as follows:
      Blade Runner
      Max Headroom
      Terminator 1 & 2
      Liquid Sky
      Overdrawn at the Memory Bank
      Mad Max
      The Road Warrior
      Total Recall
      Robocop 1 & 2

    4. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash came out two years later in 1992 and would have been on this list and should be considered a seminal book for inspiration in this genre.

    5. Thanks T. G. Moore! That's a great list, but I never saw the Mad Max films as cyberpunk.

    6. Snow Crash made the Cyberpunk Red (2020) list.

    7. Genuinely surprised that neither Akira nor Ghost in the Shell made it to either the book or film lists.

    8. I think the timing just wasn't right for those titles to appear on the list in 1990. The Akira Manga began in 1982, and the film released in 1988, but the comic wasn't published in English by Marvel until 1989, presumably while the CP2020 manuscript was being prepared. Ghost in The Shell was first published in Japan in 1989, and the film came out in 1995.

    9. The Mad Max films definitely aren’t cyberpunk, but they were clearly an inspiration for the “wastelands outside the metroplex” part of the Cyberpunk game’s world… and Max Rockatansky definitely has a style and attitude that would fit right in as a cyberpunk protagonist.

  7. We're currently playing it. Reports here:

  8. If you do have an itch for cyberpunk roleplaying and don’t want to track down the original game, don’t feel like trying Cyberpunk Red, and don’t want the “you got your Gibson peanut butter in my Tolkien chocolate” that is Shadowrun… I highly recommend checking out Cities Without Number.

  9. I would play the crap outta this. RTG is still selling old 2020 books, btw, normal retail price, I bought virtually everything, and love it.

  10. If there's a flavor of Sci-fi that I think of as "my" Sci-Fi, it's cyberpunk.
    Bitd I gmed a lot of Shadowrun due to a greater interest on my players' part, but I think Cyberpunk was a better game in most ways.
    I can easily see myself playing some Cyberpunk Red (the new edition).
    I'm a big Pondsmith fan, Talsorian is my favorite 90's publisher and our group played basically all the games they put out at the time (Cyberpunk, Falkenstein, Mekton, Tennagers, Dreampark).

  11. I purchased the Cyberpunk boxed set back in '91 after reading about it in Dragon Magazine and I remember being quite disappointed to find only the three thin booklets inside the massive box. I thumbed through them, wasn't impressed, and wrote a list of adventure hooks, but didn't do anything else with it, as I didn't have a group. Present time, now that I have a group, Cyberpunk 2020 is going to be our next campaign! I bought Red but then I bought the 2020 reprint and chose to learn that instead. The campaign is a sandbox with the PCs inhabitants of the New Harbor Mall area, involved with street gangs that are caught up in rockerboy rivalries. During Session 0 we'll dial in on the specific goals for the PCs to pursue. With a dozen NPCs and their goals already prepped, a dozen locations prepped, and lots of things going on to distract them and interfere, that should result in 20+ sessions of entertainment.

  12. A friend recently started a Cyberpunk Red game and I joined, curious about this seminal game I had seen in stores back in the early 1990s as I was starting college and transitioning out of role-playing regularly. All I can say is that to me the new version of the game definitely feels like something from the 1980s. Massive rulebook! Derived stats! Skills you need to take to specifically block other skills, or to use a specific weapon mode (automatic fire)! Lots and lots of weapons with different load-outs and range bands to consider. It was just too much for me.

    1. May I suggest Sprawl Goons ( as a rule-light alternative?
      I played a single adventure (sort of a test drive) and I was pleasantly surprised.
      I own the original boxed edition and I read most of the original supplements, and I believe it should not be difficult to adapt these to the Sprawl Goons minimalistic ruleset.

  13. I think you mean "difficult to overstate".

    1. You're correct. Thanks for catching that.

    2. Happy to help! I've weirdly seen the same inversion at least 3 times in the last week.

  14. We (my gaming friends and I) played THE HELL out of this game. As with many of the other RPGs we played, our inspirations weren't initially literary.

    By 1988 we had seen Blade Runner, Max Headroom, and oh so much Anime. Appleseed, Black Magic M-66, Bubblegum Crisis, and of course Akira (itself coming out in 1988). Often more inspired by images than words (which is why D&D never sank in for me), my fellow gamers and I found it easy to 'see' the setting of Cyberpunk. We often combined it with R. Talsorian's Mekton.

    Damn I was a RTG fanboy back in the day.

  15. I am curious - have you ever seen the recent anime adaptation of Cyberpunk? It's interesting to see how this trpg has now been turned into a pretty accessible and relatively popular modern Netflix anime.

    1. I have not. For good or for ill, I don't watch a lot of TV.

  16. iwannastudyaristotleApril 30, 2024 at 9:16 AM

    RIP Gillen. The switchboard won't ever be the same.