With the new Blade Runner RPG now hitting shelves, there’s a new jewel in the Cyberpunk RPG genre crown! Let’s Netrun through the history of Cyberpunk RPGs, then dive into the upcoming Blade Runner release. Jack in to high-tech dark futures and ready to get Chromed!
“I was actively trying to invent a new term that grokked the juxtaposition of punk attitudes and high technology … I wanted to give my story a snappy, one-word title that editors would remember.”
Bruce Bethke didn’t know that his 1980 short story Cyberpunk! would lend its name to an entire sci-fi movement. It’s a great early example of the genre, though not the only one.
William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer is foundational, but of course, there were other works laying out the genre’s conventions and tropes. Critically, these include Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and its 1982 film adaption Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott.
“I think the aesthetic of Blade Runner made the genre,” Cyberpunk RPG designer Mike Pondsmith told WIRED magazine in 2020.
“A large part of the cyberpunk genre is atmospherics. It’s the feel. Blade Runner is important not just because of the technology but because it had the elements of film noir that cyberpunk is always calling back to.” (We’ll dive deeper into Free League Publishing’s upcoming Blade Runner RPG in a moment.)
Other precursors and early works include Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange (and its 1971 film adaptation), Moebius and Dan O’Bannon’s 1975 graphic novel The Long Tomorrow and Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1982 manga Akira.
So why did the genre catch on so quickly? And what are we talking about when we talk about cyberpunk?
Turn on, jack in, drop out!
Cyberpunk stories (and therefore Cyberpunk RPGs) typically address a near future (usually 20–50 years from their time of writing) where the world is radically different from the present. Corporations challenge nation-states’ authority, high technology is cheap and abundant, body modification is rampant, social and economic inequality is soaring and society teeters on either side of collapse.
They’re violent places and most stories’ protagonists exist on the fringes of society, as members of marginalized groups, criminal gangs or revolutionary organizations. They’re dark and violent futures, often with views of technology that can seem quaint. Cyberpunk stories from the eighties and nineties all featured the internet – but not Wi-Fi. (Side note: Gibson was the first to use the term ‘cyberspace’, in his 1986 short story Burning Chrome).
Hackers and punks with cybernetic implants would use cables to plug themselves into computers, communications devices, gunsights, vehicle controls – you name it. It’s strangely analogue. Still, ‘jacking in’ to the net and conducting what we’d today call cyber warfare is common in cyberpunk stories, whose heroes are often hackers and computer geeks.
(Another side note: ‘geek’, before it became a semi-mainstream term of pride, or slang for an obsessive or eccentric person, originally referred to carnival performers with bizarre acts, such as biting off chickens’ heads.)
Just as cold war sci-fi focused on our fears of alienation, conformity, control and destruction, cyberpunk sci-fi is concerned with notions of identity, fracturing societies and technology’s pervasive impact on every aspect of our lives.
Classic Cyberpunk RPGs
Needless to say, gamers jumped right on in. And that brings us to the big question: not ‘Beatles or Rolling Stones?’, not ‘J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis?’, not even ‘Star Wars or Star Trek?’ Forget all those. Here’s the one that really matters: Cyberpunk or Shadowrun? These first two RPGs are the godfathers of cyberpunk role-playing. Both games spawned miniatures, board games, card games, novels and comic books. Not to mention inspiring countless more RPGs!
Cyberpunk was published in 1988 by R. Talsorian Games, with the setting taking place in 2013. In each edition, the timeline advances (sometimes with retconning to keep things consistent), making it a steadily evolving game and setting. Cyberpunk 220.127.116.11. (set in the year 2020 and generally referred to as Cyberpunk 2020) followed in 1990. Cyberpunk V.3.0 (set in 2030) released in 2005. The current edition, Cyberpunk Red (set in 2045) released in 2020.
There was also a fascinating spin-off RPG, Cybergeneration, published in 1993. It’s something like a cyberpunk superhero game featuring adolescent characters with nanotech-based abilities. Weird but very cool – though it never really caught on.
Cyberpunk RPG rules are simple: roll 1d10 and add attribute and skill bonuses vs a target number. Edgerunners (player characters) can choose from a number of archetypes including Rockerboys, Solos of Fortune, Netrunners, Corporates, Fixers, and Nomads.
Mike Pondsmith, the game’s creator, emphasized the game’s three key ideas: Style over substance; Attitude is everything; Always take it to the Edge.
The game was a huge hit in its heyday and is seeing a revival now, with extra publicity coming from CD Projekt Red’s PC and console RPG Cyberpunk 2077.
Speaking of which, CMON (Cool Mini or Not) is getting ready to release a miniatures-heavy board game spin off in collaboration with CD Projekt Red. Cyberpunk 2077 Gangs of Night City is set to release in 2023.
Shadowrun, by contrast, is a cross-genre game: cyberpunk plus fantasy. In 2011, the fifth world (our world) ended and the sixth world began. Many humans were ‘goblinised’ into orks and trolls, while human children began to be born as elves and dwarfs. Magic returned, as did magical creatures, including dragons!
Created by Bob Charette, Paul Hume and Tom Dowd, Shadowrun initially published by FASA in 1989. Like Cyberpunk, it was a huge hit and has arguably been more consistently successful over the long term. It’s currently in its sixth edition and the setting has progressed from 2050 (first edition) to 2084 (sixth edition).
The sixth edition, appropriately titled “Sixth World” is under the banner of Catalyst Game Labs. First published in 2019, this edition provides a faster entry into this world of urban fantasy. Featuring stunning art and thrilling game play, it maintains an ambitious release schedule with new source books and adventures. Continually a best seller, the current edition also supports organized play. We are proud to host Shadowrun Missions Madison every other week here at Noble Knight Games!
A metaplot-heavy game, the game uses a d6 dice pool system as the core mechanic. When a player wants to accomplish something, they perform a “Test.” This Test is effectively a roll of their dice pool to see how successful the action is. The dice pool for the Test is determined by the player’s relevant Skill and the Attribute linked to that skill.
Players will choose their race (human, dwarf, elf, ork or troll) and archetype (including deckers, mages, gang members, shaman and street samurai). But unlike other game systems, the real meat of what makes a player’s character unique is their choice of Skills rather than their race and archetypes, which serve as more of a starting point than a lock-in of what will be possible in the character’s future.
In addition to the six tabletop game editions, there have been many Shadowrun computer and console games. These range from 1993’s classic Shadowrun for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, to 2015’s Shadowrun: Hong Kong for PC, Mac, Linux and consoles.
Fun fact, Noble Knight Games is the proud owner of the original Shadowrun logo artwork by Dana Knutson. This art is one of the crown jewels of our collection, a true one of a kind collector’s piece. This gorgeous piece is the single greatest prize any Runner could ever hope to acquire.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe”
With Cyberpunk and Shadowrun priming the market for decades, thrilling new cyberpunk RPGs are in high demand. Enter: The Blade Runner RPG. Are you ready to take the Voight-Kampff test, replicant?
What’s a replicant? A replicant, as those familiar with the movie and books will know, is a clone. Of a human. With physical and sometimes mental capabilities exceeding those of regular humans. Roy Batty. Leon. Zhora. Pris. Officer K.
When you think about it, RPGs are like replicants. They’re copies of worlds, characters and creatures whose capabilities often exceed those of regular humans and our regular world.
Blade Runner is Free League’s latest RPG. Designed by Free League co-founder and CEO Tomas Hårenstam with setting writing by Joe LeFavi, it draws its rules and play structure from Free Leagues’ other games and adapts them to the new setting. Kind of like the way a replicant’s memories are embedded to help it function better.
What to expect from the Blade Runner RPG
The game is gorgeous (featuring art from Martin Grip, well-known for his work on Symbaroum and The One Ring) and it’s dedicated to replicating the movie’s tone, mood and feel. It’s a proto-cyberpunk noir game, with cops, replicants, rainy streets and plenty of neon. Dark pages are replete with high quality, immersive imagery, tempting enough to use this book as a coffee-table piece.
Familiar gear abounds, from Voight-Kampff machines and replicant baseline testing to the trusty PK-D 5223 blaster* and the Esper machine (“Pullout, track right. Stop … Center and pull back. Stop … Track 45 right. Stop. Center and stop … Enhance 34 to 36.”).
More importantly, familiar themes and tropes abound. On the surface, Blade Runner is a game about solving crimes. Dig a little deeper and you soon realize it’s a game about humanity: what it is, what it means, how it’s gained and lost. Is a blade runner just a slave hunter with a badge and a gun? If so, can a blade runner be more than that (or less) – and how?
You can play it any way you like, of course. Dramatic, action-filled replicant hunts are a breeze to run and the chase rules give plenty of options and flavor. Moody, narrative-driven stories about humanity, empathy and freedom are also supported, with rules to simulate the fears and stresses and technologies that threaten to imprison – or free – us all, even today.
The opening scenario is an elegy to the movie in particular but can also start an epic campaign for those who like an overarching story. The game is clever, gorgeous and adaptable to whatever purpose you have for it.
Just like a replicant.
The Blade Runner RPG is now available, released in December, 2022.
We highly recommend it, but don’t take our word for it, plenty of rave reviews are rolling in!
- “The Blade Runner RPG nails Ridley Scott’s vision, and adds pitch-perfect investigative mechanics.” –Polygon
- “Blade Runner: The Roleplaying Game blends sci-fi noir with corporate intrigue and is sure to bring out the existential detective in everyone.” –Screen Rant
- “I don’t like to use the word ‘perfect’ often, but I’m going there now. The Blade Runner RPG captures the themes and feel of the source material perfectly.” –Wargamer
Need more cyberpunk adventure in your life? Good news, chombatta, there’s plenty out there. Cyberpunk is a wide and always-evolving genre in literature and film; so too in RPGs. Here are a few of the more interesting examples. Some offer specific and personal takes on the genre; others take a broader approach.
More Cyberpunk RPGs
- Cyberspace (ICE, 1989): A highly detailed game based on ICE’s Spacemaster system, Cyberspace featured cyber technology design rules and was set in and around San Francisco in 2090.
- GURPS Cyberpunk (Steve Jackson Games, 1990): Another excellent, highly detailed SJG publication. GURPS Cyberpunk is a stand-alone campaign sourcebook that can also be used to enhance games using other rules or settings. (Yet another side note: the Secret Service raided SJG’s offices in 1990, believing the book was a “handbook for computer crime”. Really.)
- Shadow of the Beanstalk (Fantasy Flight Games, 2019): A sourcebook for the Genesys system, featuring FFG’s narrative dice system. The game is set in and around New Angeles and its space elevator, the titular beanstalk.
- Hack the Planet (Samjoko Publishing, 2019): A Forged in the Dark Game (i.e. based on Blades in the Dark’s rules), about “clawing power away from those at the top while surviving extreme heavy weather,” and using technology to find new ways to live.
- Altered Carbon (Renegade Game Studios, 2020): Based on Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 novel of the same name and the 2018 and 2020 TV series of the same name, featuring the ability to ‘re-sleeve’ your consciousness into new bodies.
Other Cyberpunk setting games
If you prefer to get your dose of cyberpunk through board games, card games, or even miniatures, you’re also well served. For example:
- Blade Runner 2049 – Nexus Protocol (card game)
- Cyberpunk 2077 Gangs of Night City (board game)
- Human Interface (board game)
- Reality’s Edge (miniatures rules)
- Shadowrun: Sprawl Ops (board game)
- Shadowrun: Crossfire (card game)
- Shadowrun: The Trading Card Game (collectible card game)
- Netrunner and Android Netrunner (card game)
- Cyberpunk CCG (collectible card game)
Finally, you might want to expand to other media. If you’re after some reading material this 21-book list from Goodreads is handy, or if you want something more visual, the IMDB Cyberpunk Movies/Series list is a good starting place.
So get your gear on and get out there. Whether you want to hit the mean, rain- and neon-soaked streets of LA, Night City, or Neo-Tokyo, there’s a cyberpunk game waiting for you.
And remember to enjoy your games – every session, every moment – as you’re running them. Hold onto all the great memories you and your players create. Otherwise, as Roy Batty’s said, “all those moments will be lost in time, like tears … in rain.”
* You see what they did there, right? (Philip K. Dick would be so proud.)
Written by Michael B.
Michael’s from Sydney, Australia. Over the years he’s organized game conventions, contributed to magazines, and written supplements for White Wolf and Dream Pod 9. He doesn’t have his incep date.