Every time I sit down to write a review for a cyberpunk game, I’m a little disappointed at how relevant these games often are when looking at current affairs. So, let’s throw a curve ball into the equation. What happens when we look at a cyberpunk RPG that isn’t set in our future, but in the alternate future of 2020, where the 1990s formed the basis for what the future will look like?
Today, I’m looking at Hard Wired Island–Retrofuture Cyberpunk. While it still deals with relevant issues from today, the game is envisioning 2020 as imagined by the cyberpunk genre of the 1990s. This is also cyberpunk that pulls from a wide range of media, including anime and manga of the era that addressed the genre.
This review is based on the PDF version of the product. The PDF is 400 pages long. This includes a two-page spread that includes the game’s credits, and a two-page table of contents. The end of the book sees about ten pages of randomly generated setting elements, a one-page index, two pages of backer thank you’s, a two-page spread/general thank you page, and a character sheet.
The book is full of color. Each of the chapters has a full page, full color image as an introduction, as well as several other full color images in various locations. There are page borders, border adornments, and easily recognizable headers, sub-headers, and sidebars that all have their own color coding. The book is generally organized in two column format. Overall, the layout is colorful and easy to follow, and between the color, format, and artwork, this product is a very attractive book.
Lots of RPG products have in-jokes and nods to other properties, but I wanted to point out that there are multiple axis of buried geek humor in this product. From old D&D references to science fiction properties, to the box office fate of this universe’s version of Armageddon, its worth keeping an eye open for the jokes woven in and out of the “code.”
Chapter 1: The Year is 2020
This section not only details the broad strokes of the setting, but also the thesis statement of the game itself. In 1996, a meteor strike caused massive environmental damage, and this disaster pushed the world into a technological frenzy. Unfortunately, the collaborative work that started in the aftermath as pretty much faded by 2020, but it did produce Grand Cross, the orbital space station that serves as the setting for the game.
The tenets of the game are also spelled out in this section. The game assumes that capitalism is a problem, not the solution. Cyberpunk should be relevant and not just a “look,” or jargon. Cybernetics are an insidious force in opposition to humanity. To properly tell the kind of stories that the game wants to tell, multiple perspectives, from different communities and marginalized populations, should be considered.
I’m always happen when a book starts off explaining its thesis statement, and I have to agree that this is the kind of cyberpunk that I appreciate. This isn’t about proving how cool you can be, its about examining problems and telling stories about addressing those problems. Let’s see how this gets implemented.
Chapter 2: Basic Mechanics
The basic mechanic of the game is a 2d6 + modifier system, measured against a table of standard difficulties. Under some circumstances, you might get advantage or disadvantage, meaning you roll additional d6s and take either the higher or the lower numbers, based on if you have advantage of disadvantage. In some situations, you get a bonus, which is just an extra d6 to add to your result.
Failure, officially, isn’t just failure. Depending on the situation, the GM can decide that it’s a failure, it’s an opportunity for a bargain, or it’s a partial success. Depending on conditions and harm suffered, you may end up rolling with a penalty or even with only one die to attempt at task.
Characters are comprised of the following elements:
- Abilities (Cool, Clever, Tough, and Quick)
- Origin (character backstory)
- Traits (unique benefits and drawbacks)
- Occupation (your operating template)
- Talents (rules modifications or boosts in certain situations)
- Specialties (extra bonuses in very specific circumstances)
- Defenses (defenses for each ability, depending on the challenge)
- Assets (special gear, contacts, or modifications you have access to)
- Burden (how much your socio-economic status affects your day-to-day life)
- Cash (short term, immediate resource that can be spent)
- Personal Goal (a goal that ties into character advancement)
It’s worth noting that occupation isn’t a specific job, like working in an IT department. It’s more of a broad template of the type of work that you are suited to perform. The occupations in the game include Fixer, Hacker, Influencer, Operator, Soldier, Street Fighter, and Thief.
Different types of situations have templates that walk you through resolving the scene. These templates are like one another, in that they set a tension level that allows or denies certain actions, and list several actions that can take place in that type of scene. This is a structure on which to hang resolutions, but it’s not so rigid that if the scene overlaps with other types of scenes, that it locks away actions to resolve other kinds of scenes if they come up.
The types of scenes include the following:
- Social Situations
- Stealth and Security
- Hacking the Cylinder
Not only can you take various actions to achieve goals, but there are generally actions that allow a scene to be escalated or deescalated, shifting around the options that are available. I really appreciate that hacking is structured, but it has a similar structure to other scene resolutions, and because of that, it doesn’t feel like a whole separate subsystem. It’s just another type of scene that has steps to measure how escalated the scene is and what actions are available.
Each one of these scene types is accompanied by an example that walks characters through using different actions, and what it looks like when a scene goes from Formal to Hostile, for example. As an example of the types of actions that get locked out or enabled, in a social scene, Charm isn’t available when a scene becomes Hostile, and Threaten can’t be used unless the scene is Hostile. Placate only works when a scene is Hostile and can be used to shift the mood into Indifferent, for example.
There are eight different combat actions, each one having a slightly different resolution. For example, if you use the Take Cover action, you use a ranged weapon and dive behind cover. The second aspect of combat, however, is that once you use an action, it’s unavailable to you until you take another combat action. That means that you may alternate between two different actions, but you can’t go an entire combat using the same action continuously.
If you have a burden above 0, at the beginning of every mission you check to see if you suffer economic shock. If you do, there is a list of life changing events that represent you having problems making ends meet, paying bills, or just surviving day to day. This might cause you to have disadvantage on different rolls, removes certain specialties, or forces you to find a brand-new place to live.
For some players, I think seeing the different scenes laid out in a structured manner may make the scene feel less organic, but all the actions and the ratings for the scenes feel like a clarification and formalization of what’s true in a lot of scene structures in games. I think I understand the mechanics and how they are meant to be used much more due to this structure. I’m also very curious to see the feel produced in combat when actions have to be varied.
I love the economic shock mechanic as a means of reinforcing that this isn’t the cool future where you take jobs to be badass. You might be desperate to make sure you can just live your life, and society is designed to bite you in the ass eventually.
Chapter 3: Occupations
Occupations all have a specific structure. The game is “kind of” level based; in that you get levels in a career to measure if you have gained additional bundled advancement items. The occupation entries have a sidebar that spells out what you get from the career if it is your first occupation. You can pick up other careers. Why would you do that? Because each occupation has talents that are only available to the people with that occupation.
This section also lists several talents, including a list of talents that are general talents not tied specifically to a career. Talents might modify how standard actions work or grant extra resources.
At each level gained, a character gets two new specialties and a new talent. Levels don’t increase your statistics, and they don’t give you any more harm boxes. They give you a bundled package of things that make your skills broader.
Chapter 4: Assets and Cybernetics
Assets may be assigned to you because of your career or other choices you have made, and different assets also have a cash value, allowing you to pick up extra assets in the game beyond what your archetypical choices may have granted you. Cybernetics are essentially a subset of assets that become part of your character. They may also have different effects based on if the character is a full-body cyborg, a person with only a few cybernetics, or an android.
Assets have the following tags:
- Critical (special effects when rolling a critical, in this case, matching d6s)
- Illegal (gear that will get you in trouble)
- Obvious (gear you can’t hide)
- Rad (gear that gets you positive attention)
- Restricted (gear that is not illegal, but requires a license)
- Specialized (gear that provides special benefits when you have a related specialization)
There is also a two-page section on “augverts,” augmentations that don’t increase burden, because they have some form of advertising built into them. There are several types of augverts mentioned, which cause different forms of difficulties due to their intrusive advertising during a mission.
Chapter 5: The Place is Grand Cross
This section goes deep into the history of Grand Cross. It discusses the different generations of people living on the station, the different social standings, and the ongoing issues affecting the site. It talks about how people end up on the station, what corporations dominate the station, and how people live from day to day. In addition to having some example ads that might exist in the setting, there is also an interesting contrast between what life looks like for an android that has lived on the station since working on its construction, a second-generation person living on the station, and a corporate scion.
There is also some information on an ongoing threat to the setting, the Dreamers. These are AIs that were illegally developed by various corporations. They aren’t so much malevolent as they are alien in outlook, and often act in ways that are inimical to human life. The corporations are actively hiding the existence of the Dreamers while trying to reacquire them to figure out where they went wrong.
Chapter 6: Location Data
This is one of the meatier sections of the book. This details various neighborhoods that exist on the space station, detailing the people and cultures of different locations, the challenges to the different neighborhoods, as well as a selection of organizations and people found there. The areas presented here are:
- Voyager Ward (the “entrance” to the station)
- Turing Ward (manufacturing and with a high android population)
- Cixin Ward (entertainment center)
- Adams Ward (residential ward with refugee issues)
- Marukyu Ward (commercial ward and youth culture)
- Mariposa Ward (parks and museums)
- Amal Ward (residential and commercial)
- Foundation Ward (government buildings)
- Infrastructure (all the structural parts of the station that support its existence)
- Gazetteer (locations that were slotted into the above wards
There is a lot going on in this section. I am interested in all the details presented, and I really appreciate the eye towards who lives in each ward, what the challenges are, and what games based out of that location might focus on. That said, there is some thematic overlap in a few of these sections, and just a whole bunch of detail. I think I would have liked a separate section that presented the “default” starting neighborhood, and then included all the other locations later, where they could be digested for longer term or later campaigns.
Chapter 7: Home Directory
The Home Directory presents the following information:
- Factions (corporations, criminal groups, political blocks, and movements)
- Faces of Space (characters associated with the factions or various locations)
- Encounters (characters included as example “faces” of different experiences on the station)
- Dreamers (the unique machines that developed from the corporate AI experiments)
In many cases, I think factions are one of the most important elements you can include in a setting. They have different scales, different desires, and different ways to achieve those desires. Those details help shape what the missions in the setting will look like. This entire section has some very strong world building, and that world building is “table ready.” In other words, it’s easy to see how to use this material in a game when building missions and interactions for the group.
The Dreamers get a lot of buildup in previous sections of the book, so it’s interesting to get a look at them in more detail. I really enjoy their unique presentation. The alien nature of the AI associated with the Dreamers means that each one customizes their form differently, and each one has their own habits and actions that they regularly perform.
Chapter 8: Running the Game
This section broadly lays out the job of the Game Master as envisioned by this game. The list that this section details includes the following:
- Setting the Scene
- Creating Challenges
- Adjudicating the Rules
- Side Characters
After touching on this set of expectations, there are two pages on support and safety tools, which I always appreciate in a roleplaying game. Part of this discussion of safety tools is a link to the TTRPG Safety Toolkit. Beyond safety, there is a lot of emphasis on openness and communication.
Each of items on the list above gets at least of page of explanation, and there are also sections on theme, tone, and inspiration for the game.
Chapter 9: Launch Systems
Launch Systems is the broad term for the “ready to play” section of the book. This includes pregenerated player characters, plot hooks, an example campaign, and an example scenario to get a group started down their path to exploring Grand Cross.
There are 13 different player character examples in the book, which is a strong cross section of example characters. Not only are these good archetypes for jumping into the game quickly, but they are also good examples of what the rules look like when assembled into a character. While I wish it went without saying, there is a diverse cross section of characters presented in this section as well. Not only does that provide players with more choice, but it also helps to set the expectation of what Grand Cross looks like.
This is cyberpunk that wears its heart on its sleeve and is willing to send you its newsletter.
Some of the plot hooks are tied to factions or NPCs presented elsewhere in the book. Some of the plot hooks are short framing devices, while others are full page expanded hooks.
The sample adventure is about ten pages long, and includes a setup, a list of what happens if the player characters don’t get involved, and a section on running the scenario, as well as some framed scenes that will likely come up in the adventure.
The example campaign is laid out in a similar manner, but there are notes on where you could slot in other adventures to weave this story in and out of a campaign that also includes other missions. This involves uncovering several principle members of the conspiracy to cover up the Dreamers, one of the mysterious goals of the Dreamers, and what happens if the Dreamers continue to do what they are moving towards.
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The writing in this book is extremely engaging. You want to read more about the setting and follow the sardonic commentary. The system is detailed enough to give you room to grow and to grow a character concept, but it’s also easy to understand and adjudicate. This is cyberpunk that wears its heart on its sleeve and is willing to send you its newsletter.
I think that anyone following the examples will see how flexible the scene structures are, but they may look more rigid than they are on first pass. I also think that while the Location Data chapter has some great information in it, it also has enough information in it that it can be easy to lose some of the good bits, and may be a little overwhelming for people trying to find a good starting point.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I think this is a solid purchase for anyone interested in cyberpunk or science fiction, and it’s also a good investment to see examples of framing scenes and adding structure to storytelling. It manages to feel positive while still presenting a deeply flawed society in need of correction. There is a strange hopefulness that doesn’t just come from the fact that the PCs may be heroes, but from the fact that the PCs may get to live their lives.
What are some of your favorite cyberpunk sub-genres? What makes a setting hopeful even when presenting challenges? How much change do your PCs need to make to feel like they matter in the campaign? We want to hear about your experiences below in the comments!