“What is Cyberpunk?” the youth of today often ask. “Is that like Slipknot?”
“No, my child” the answer comes. “It is not like fucking Slipknot.”
In the 1990s though, R. Talsorian Games, the publishers of the successful Cyberpunk 2020 role-playing game, were questioning the nature of Cyberpunk. In 1993 they published a supplement for CP 2020 called Cybergeneration, later re-released as a stand-alone game, set in the year 2027.
Whereas classic eighties Cyberpunk literature and CP 2020 were 'hard' science fiction (speculative fiction based on known scientific fact) set a mere 30 years in the then-future, Cybergeneration went off into the realms of science fantasy, with such items as 'genius guns' whose bullets could chase you round corners.
Cybergeneration also belonged to the post-cyberpunk and transhumanist genres: you played teenagers infected with a nanotech bio-weapon called the Carbon Plague, which killed adults but gave children super powers. This was the shape of things to come, as the next edition of the Cyberpunk RPG would take a similar direction.
In 1998 R. Talsorian Games published the Stormfront campaign series for CP 2020, which by that point was a well-developed RPG with over 40 published supplements. Stormfront marked the apocalyptic end of the Cyberpunk world as we knew it, as a result of the Fourth Corporate War between mega-corporations Arasaka and Militech. The war ended with the nuking of Night City, the fictional stock setting of the first and second editions of Cyberpunk. Stormfront paved the way for a new, third edition of the game with a new setting, scheduled for release in 2001.
However, in 2000 Cyberpunk mastermind 'Maximum' Mike Pondsmith was hired by Microsoft to develop video games for the Xbox, keeping him busy and away from tabletop RPG design. In 2004 he also worked for Monolith Productions on The Matrix Online MMORPG, which was released in 2005. The upshot of this was that although Pondsmith had started work on Cyberpunk v3 as early as 1999, it didn't see the light of day until December 2005 as a PDF e-book, with the print version (with 16 bonus pages) being released in January 2006.
The world of Cyberpunk v3 was a radical departure from that of earlier editions, and came in for a lot of criticism for its perceived silliness and abundance of plot holes.
During the Fourth Corporate War, a computer virus called DataKrash, created by Rache Bartmoss (one of a set of god-like NPCs that populated the Cyberpunk 2020 world), was released which re-wrote ALL computer software and data, and so crashed teh intarwebz and other telecommunications systems. The only computers unaffected by DataKrash were in the basement of the Arasaka tower in Night City, and they went up in smoke (along with the whole corporate district) when a 2 kiloton nuclear weapon, placed there as insurance against intruders, was set off by the A-Team of Cyberpunk 2020 NPCs demolishing the place with a smaller-yield nuke.
Another virus, this one nanotechnological in nature and created by the Arasaka corporation, ate ALL paper produced since 1970, presumably including cardboard boxes and the stuff you wipe your arse with – while you were wiping your arse with it.
The result was that most records of anything, most literature, most textbooks, encyclopedias and dictionaries, all financial data, all computer software, was either deleted or scrambled. This of course led to the complete collapse of the financial and government systems. In the present day of the game world, history has become purely a matter of urban legend: most people believe that Richard Nixon committed suicide live on television following the Watergate scandal, rather than resigning, and that the NASA moon landings were faked.
People can't even agree on what year it is, although most think it's some time in the 2030s. Hence the alternative title of the game: Cyberpunk 203X.
The nuked Night City has been rebuilt using self-replicating nano-machines which constructed buildings, roads and other infrastructure out of the underlying soil and rock. What was once an urban area of a few million inhabitants somewhere between San Francisco and Los Angeles (probably somewhere around Carmel, where Clint Eastwood lives) has become a mega-city straight out of Judge Dredd, sprawling along most of the of the California coast, all in 10 or 15 years. The nanites have a mind of their own, and regularly de-construct whole buildings without warning and replace them with new ones. East coast USA has a similar mega-city called Boswash, stretching from Boston to Washington, and a third, Chi-cag, is growing in the midwest.
One problem with this paradigm is that netrunning, hacking or whatever you call it, the staple of the cyberpunk genre, is limited in scope. Perhaps to compensate for this, Netrunners and Artificial Intelligences can use the omnipresent nanites to create physical 'demons' to fight battles.
Another is the afore-mentioned plot holes. Were there no computers unconnected to the internet that could have survived the computer virus? How does the paper virus work, and how come it didn't consume all wood and living plant matter as well? Why didn't anyone just count the risings and settings of the sun (or just the passing of the seasons) from the last known date until new computers and software were developed? Bear in mind that all of this is supposed to be happening in the mid-2030s, 20 years from now.
In place of the character roles of CP 2020 (which were basically careers), Cyberpunk v3 has 'Alt Cults' (Alternative Cultures). These are not just urban tribes: they constitute whole nations in the setting. Functionally they are almost like character races in a fantasy RPG. Whereas each role in CP 2020 had its own unique 'special ability' skill that characters of other roles couldn't learn, the Alt Cults have their own exclusive technologies and homelands and enclaves, which you can only freely access with a kind of electronic key called a 'Dog Tag'.
The playable Alt Cults are as follows: Edgerunner, Reef, Desnai, Rolling State (Rollers for short), Riptide (Rip for short), and Corporate Metal (Cee-Metal).
Edgerunners are the old-school cyberpunk heroes of the first and second editions of the game, residents of the new maga-cities. Instead of getting their limbs, eyes and other organs removed and replaced with enhanced cybernetic versions of the same, they wear their cybernetics like a kind of jewellery called Nu-Cybe. This generally comes in the form of 'cuffs', metal bracelets with fine needle-like probes that penetrate the flesh and connect to the nervous system, which unfold by some strange pseudo-science into powered armour that covers the limb or body.
This does away with the great dilemma of the first two editions: you wanted cybernetics to make you a better Edgerunner, but adding more implants chipped away at your humanity, gradually turning you into a cold-blooded psychopath. Cyberpsychosis was the Sanity Loss of the first two editions of Cyberpunk.
Reefers (not the kind you smoke, unfortunately) live under the sea, in an octopus's garden, in the shade. Led by a couple of characters called Richard Storm and John Neptune, their unique technology is kind of virus-driven genetic engineering called Transform Nodes (or Nets), which they use to adapt their bodies to life underwater or for specific jobs. One Reef template is called the Whaleboy, while another, the Shifter, a kind of spy class, has 'Sex Change' and 'Succubous' (sic) as options for its transform nodes. It's not that you're a kinky transsexual, rather that you keep switching your parts as needed to seduce people as part of your spy work. How delightful.
Desnai use Japanime-style mecha suits as their signature tech. They occupy an abandoned multi-media theme park in Orlando, Florida, called Desnaiworld, and have a skull-faced Mickey Mouse icon as their clan symbol. Did you see what they did there? They have kept the theme park open for business, and in fact it's the cleanest, tidiest place in the Cyberpunk world. One of their templates is called the 'Imaginator', whose job is obviously to imaginate fings. Their special tech power is controlling mecha and other robots remotely via implanted radio transmitters in their heads, complete with antennae poking out of their skulls.
Rolling State are the nomads of CP 2020 with all the street cred removed. They live in entire mobile cities on caterpillar tracks, each housing around ten thousand people, their homes, factories, markets and enough weaponry to destroy a small country. Compare this to the CP 2020 Maximum Metal supplement, which explained in detail how giant robots and tracked vehicles over about 100 tons would just sink into the ground and get stuck. The Rollers' signature technology is 'Adaptive Symbiosis' (another word for nanotech) that gives them near-magical healing powers, poison resistance and superhuman reflexes.
Just as Rollers live in mobile land fortresses, Rips live in floating cities originally built around Japanese coastal cities, cut adrift during on the world's oceans during the Fourth Corporate War. They specialise genetic engineering (a bit like the Reefers) but use it to create bio-engineered pet/friend/servant/tool/weapon lifeforms. Whereas the Reefers have a hunter-warrior culture, the Rips are vegetarian pacifists.
Cee-Metal are full 'borgs like those from the CP 2020 Chrome Books, but with posher technology: Livemetal™ is a liquid metal analogue of the human body. Of course, they should still be a fucking cyberpsycho, but apparently we're not playing that rule any more. Only 2 per cent of them ever go on a murderous rampage croaking: “DESTROY... ALL... HUMANS!”, so that's all right then. Like the robots in The Animatrix, they got pissed off with everyone persecuting them for being flesh-hating freaks, and went off in a sulk to start their own country somewhere in the south-western deserts of the USA, where they constructed huge solar-panel farms (another blatant Matrix reference).
The book tells you straight off that Cee-Metal hate Rolling State, Edgerunners hate Desnai, Riptide hate Reef (a bit unfortunate since the both live in or on the ocean) and Desnai hate Cee-Metal, all because of cultural differences or 'kulturkampfs' ― it goes without saying that Cyberpunk is as full of pseudo-German and Japanese as Warhammer 40,000 is of dog-Latin. So much for inter-player cooperation and harmony. Oh, and Dwarves and Elves hate each other 'cos one lot live down mines and the other lot live up trees. By this point Cyberpunk v3 is starting to look like its cyberpunk/fantasy mash-up rival Shadowrun.
Some other, non-PC altcults include the Fallen Angels, residents of the pre-crash orbital habitats who are reduced to scavenging, Ghosts, whose personalities have been uploaded from their dying bodies onto surviving internet systems in abandoned cities, and Neo-Corps, now organised like the Mafia.
In addition, the basic game had character creation simplified through the use of templates, a concept which Mike Pondsmith had borrowed from computer games design, with the stated aim of getting new players started quickly. A more detailed and flexible character generation system was included in the 'advanced' rules later in the book, but some players complained that it did not include some of the cooler and more powerful stuff available in the basic templates.
Cyberpunk v3 used the Fuzion game system, a combination of elements from the Interlock system used for CP 2020 and Mekton, and the Hero system by Steven S. Long. However, large parts of the rules in Cyberpunk v3 were simply copied and pasted direct from the CP 2020 rulebook. The editors had obviously failed to proof-read the text closely, because these sections still made reference to sections and tables from the second edition that weren't in the new book. A couple of the diagrams from the CP 2020 Friday Night Fire Fight section were reproduced, but at horribly low resolution.
Artwork and Design
What's black and white and green all over? Cyberpunk v3, that's what! The pages of the core book and its supplements are laid out within a kind of monochrome tablet computer screen border graphic, with black and white text boxes on a green background. There's a lot of green, and it isn't easy on the eyes. Even the artwork has a green tint to it. Seeing as those horrible green-on-black PC monitors went out at the beginning of the nineties, this could be seen as a tribute either to classic eighties cyberpunk or to the Matrix series of films.
The artwork probably drew more criticism than any other aspect of the game. It consisted of green-tinted black-and-white photos of action figures and other toys with model buildings and other backgrounds. One classic example was of a figure mounted on a motorbike on the roof of a tower block. How did Action Man get his bike up there? How was he supposed to get it down? Never mind, it looks cool, sort of.
The internet is rife with speculation as to why R. Talsorian chose to use this artwork rather than pay a graphic artist (or just re-use artwork from their previous books). One explanation is that Mike Pondsmith was a keen collector of action figures, and he thought it would look good. Another is that the photos were just supposed to be a guide to artists who were to be hired to complete the project, but the editors at R. Talsorian never got the memo. The first explanation seems more plausible than the second.
As has already been said, Cyberpunk v3 came in for a lot of criticism from sections of the existing CP 2020 fan base. It wasn't as successful as its predecessor, and only a handful of supplements were published. It is telling that Cyberpunk 2077, a computer RPG under development since late 2012 (scheduled for release sometime before the actual year 2020), is based on Cyberpunk 2020 and not Cyberpunk v3.
Perhaps the moral of the story is that computer RPGs and MMORPGs are a different kettle of fish than tabletop RPGs. Perhaps it's that if you wait seven years to release the sequel to a successful game, people will move on in the meantime and play something else. Or perhaps it's that snot green-tinted pictures of GI Joe and Barbie don't make for great illustrations.
|The roleplaying games by R. Talsorian Games|
| Castle Falkenstein - Cyberpunk 2020 - Cyberpunk v3 |
Dragon Ball PNP RPG - Mekton - Teenagers From Outer Space