The upcoming DLC for Cyberpunk 2077, Phantom Liberty, is set to provide fans of the Cyberpunk franchise with new missions, weapons, tech, and a game storyline centered around espionage and spying. To bide the time before this DLC’s release, Cyberpunk 2077 fans could do worse than to return to the franchise’s roleplaying roots, trying out tabletop RPG systems such as the fantasy-tinged Shadowrun, the Cyberpunk RED game that inspired Cyberpunk 2077, or the recently released CY_BORG RPG. The last of these game systems has low-complexity rules, fever dream artwork, and a setting that embraces the “punk” part of the cyberpunk genre.
The Cyberpunk 2077 video game, set in Night City, a dystopian future metropolis, was based off the Cyberpunk tabletop RPGs of R. Talsorian Games, even to the point of including iconic NPCs such as Johnny Silverhand. Both the video game and the original RPGs are centered around urban outlaw protagonists with cybernetic augmentations and computer hacking skills, hostile towards the mega-corporations that rule their dystopian world. The setting of CY_BORG, created by Free League Publishing, is similar in several ways to the world of Cyberpunk 2077, but also very distinct in its game mechanics, anti-authoritarian ethos, and undertones of Armageddon.
CY_BORG’s Apocalyptic Sci-Fi Setting Is Heavily Inspired By MÖRK BORG
The basic rules, layout, and themes of CY_BORG, released back in November 2022, owe a lot to its immediate predecessor, the doomed world fantasy RPG MÖRK BORG. Inspired by the mechanics and ethos of the Old School Revival movement of tabletop design, MÖRK BORG is an RPG set in a pitch-black world prophesied to end very soon (a dice chart styled after religious scripture helps Game Masters determine just how close the world is to ending). The player characters of MÖRK BORG, easily generated and easily killed, aren’t glorious heroes or chosen ones, but a motley collection of broken fools seeking wealth, glory, or salvation in the little time they have left.
The developer of MÖRK BORG (which means “Dark Fort” in Swedish) may have decided to create its cyberpunk genre tabletop RPG spin-off purely because of the humorous wordplay (MÖRK BORG sounds a bit like “Cyborg,” and it “hacked” the tabletop RPG to create an RPG with computer hackers). Even so, the dark, apocalyptic themes of MÖRK BORG translate very nicely to the mad dystopian game premise of CY_BORG, giving the tabletop RPG a spiciness and urgency other cyberpunk RPG systems lack. To paraphrase CY_BORG‘s own tagline, seen on the game’s successful Kickstarter page, “The world is ending. Again and again and again and again and again and again and again.”
If Cyberpunk 2077 has Night City as its signature adventure-friendly location, filled with its own histories, central figures, and competing factions and corporations, then CY_BORG’s own Cyberpunk genre open-world map is the polluted, glitched-out, infested sprawl called Megacity Cy. The CY_BORG rulebook brings this game setting to life with mixture of erratic text and fever-dream background art, painting a picture of a metropolis ruined by unchecked capitalism, pollution, and a digital ecosystem grown out of control. Besides the classic cyberpunk tropes of street gang cyborgs, mega corporations trying to buy and sell the world, and hackers who jack into cyberspace with “decks,” CY_BORG also has the novel idea of omnipresent nanotechnology contaminated by bacteria from outer space.
CY_BORG’s Light Rules Are Accessible Tabletop RPG Newcomers
The biggest barrier to entry for Cyberpunk 2077 fans interested in cyberpunk-genre tabletop RPGs may well be the rules they need to learn. DnD inspired video game RPGs often automate the process of leveling a player character up. Tabletop RPGs, as shared exercises of imagination, often force players and Game Master to memorize game mechanics such as when and how to roll dice, unlock new abilities, or add equipment bonuses to certain PC actions. These rules can get especially complex in cyberpunk-genre RPGs like Shadowrun, a game system notorious for having a labyrinthine character creation system and multiple convoluted rules for computer hacking and cyberspace navigation.
The big mechanical advantage CY_BORG has over other cyberpunk RPGs is the sheer accessibility of its rules for character creation, basic actions, combat, and other, more quintessentially “punk” Cyberpunk 2077-style actions. Players can quickly crank out new punk player characters by using dice charts to generate their starting equipment, attributes, hit points, glitches, and debt to the various mega-corps. Alternately, they can choose starting character class with colorful names such as Shunned Nanomancer, Burned Hacker, Forsaken Gang-Goon, or Discharged Corp Killer. The basic dice mechanic parallels the skill checks of DnD – roll a twenty-sided die and try to beat a difficulty rating between 6 and 18.
The finest accomplishment of CY_BORG may be its rules for computer hacking – specifically, how clear and easy to parse they are in comparison to some of the computer hacking rules of video games or tabletop games like Shadowrun (or the grappling rules of early edition DnD). Aspiring hackers in the world of CY_BORG need to have a Cyberdeck in order to hack into cyberspace and gather information. These Cyberdecks (akin to DnD wizard spell books) can hold a series of Apps that grant the hacker specialized abilities such as activating nearby devices, creating false alarms, or destructively overloading the parts of nearby cyborgs. Fumbled hacking rolls trigger randomized backlashes that damage the hacker or their deck.
CY_BORG’s Deadly Gameplay Lets Players Roleplay True Punks
Like its predecessor dark fantasy roleplaying game MÖRK BORG, CY_BORG is built off the battered bones of the Old School Revival RPG sub-genre, which tries to emulate the gameplay of Basic DnD from the 1970s where danger lurked everywhere in the dungeons, players’ characters were fragile, and players had to use lateral thinking to survive. Player characters in CY_BORG aren’t one-person armies like the V protagonist in Cyberpunk 2077, but a bit more like the main characters of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners: flawed, messed up, saddled with issues, and extremely likely to bite the dust in the game’s final act against the Game Master’s lethal, party-wiping threats.
It’s harder to keep a cyberpunk character alive in CY_BORG than in certain other cyberpunk RPGs; even if they do survive and level up, they’ll likely be riddled with unattractive nano-mutations, burdened with debts, dying from a terminal condition like the protagonist of Cyberpunk 2077, or on the run from the private armies and Black ICE of the Megacorps. In some ways, the doomed status of a CY_BORG character can be liberating for players, particularly if they’re fans of Cyberpunk 2077. Rather than fretting about keeping their fine-tuned characters alive, they’re free to have their characters make recklessly, rebelliously punk choices and rage to the end against their cyberpunk dystopian reality.
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