Cyberpunk as a term covers a broad vision, from Philip K. Dick, to Blade Runner, to The Matrix, to Snow Crash, to Transmetropolitan and many beyond. Cyberpunk is recognizable while being open to many artistic points of view. The audience’s understanding and vision of cyberpunk is also theirs. That’s part of what keeps cyberpunk alive, this ability to share some basic concepts but in many guises.
Like much else with genres, each person has touchstones of their encounters with the genre that defines what that genre is to him or her. Unlike settings such as Star Wars and Star Trek, whose basic themes and style were laid out by their creators — George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry, respectively — and which thrive on exploring those universes, your feelings on what cyberpunk is are probably largely driven by your first interactions and that creator’s particular view on cyberpunk. Rather than the singular artist who created Star Wars and Star Trek (at least initially), cyberpunk was created by multiple artists, even if it had leading lights. Also, this is not to say we are not open to expanding and incorporating additional inputs, only that what we may typically think of a cyberpunk is rooted in our first interactions with the genre.
For me, Blade Runner materialized Neuromancer by William Gibson. I was lucky to be young and read and see many of the early cyberpunk works. Sure, Blade Runner was based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep, but it really seemed to be a story set in the Neuromancer world. Gibson himself said:
I was afraid to watch Blade Runner in the theater because I was afraid the movie would be better than what I myself had been able to imagine. In a way, I was right to be afraid, because even the first few minutes were better.
While Blade Runner set in my youthful mind what the cyberpunk visions of William Gibson would look like onscreen, cyberpunk, for me, was locked and fleshed out in the Cyberpunk 2020 RPG from R. Talsorian Games. That RPG informed for me the whole notion of what cyberpunk was and is… and subsequent films like Strange Days or The Matrix or books like Altered Carbon and Accelerando are descendants or reactions — for me — to Cyberpunk 2020 – even if not intended as such.
Playing in Night City — the primary setting location for Cyberpunk 2020 and the upcoming Cyberpunk Red and Cyberpunk 2077 – was all about brash attitudes and “style over substance.” When PCs walked into a nightclub or any other place, people needed to know they were the most bad-ass people in there and messing with them would bring down a world of hurt.
This all leads me to the Night City sourcebook, which may be the best sourcebook ever written for an RPG. Saying the best may be too much for some. My favorite then, but I tend toward best…. Yeah. The best.
And some stunning ones are its competition. The folks at Six More Vodka crank out some beautiful sourcebooks. The Delta Green sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu spawned an entire RPG of its own. Traveller has released a variety of essential sourcebooks across its many editions. Star Wars RPGs are known for their supplements. West End Games’ Star Wars sourcebooks were so good, Timothy Zahn is said to have used them as reference material for his Heir to the Empire trilogy, often credited with saving Star Wars in the years before Lucas filmed the prequels.
I broadly classify sourcebooks into three categories: rules expansions (including for characters), equipment, and fluff. Of course, these divisions are rarely pure. Many are familiar the career sourcebooks from Traveller — expansions on the core rules that helped players and referees flesh out Scouts, Merchants, Naval, and other characters. Mongoose’s Traveller has an excellent equipment book, the Central Supply Catalogue. Fantasy Flight Games has sourcebooks down to a science. Each of their career books for their Star Wars line includes new player options and careers; new equipment, vehicles, and starships; and rule supplements. Their era sourcebooks (Rise of the Separatists, Collapse of the Republic, and Dawn of the Empire) repeat much of that formula while including guides for playing games set in those particular eras versus the default.
But I have yet to encounter a sourcebook quite like Night City by R. Talsorian Games. I typically find the Cyberpunk 2020 sourcebooks are pure joy. Home of the Brave plots out the history of the USA up to 2020 (in the Cyberpunk universe) and its current state. Protect and Serve fleshes out law enforcement characters and provides guidance on conducting a campaign using them. These are pretty typical sourcebooks in what they provide. However, all of the Cyberpunk 2020 material oozes with the attitude and personality of Cyberpunk 2020 as envisioned by its creator, Mike Pondsmith — even if he did not write all the sourcebooks.
Night City is the epitome of this. The book is almost pure fluff, but in a gorgeous, world building glorious way. This book is a detailed description of the titular city, including pages upon pages of information about specific neighborhoods. What makes this special is that the book is treated as an in-universe item. In other words, Night City — for the most part — is crafted to be a part of the players’ world. Most sourcebooks are written like regular rulebooks with snippets of in-game bits. Night City flips that on its head.
The organization of the book uses the Dataterm set up, public-access computers scattered throughout the city that serve as information booths. You get a map of Night City, basic background, information about weather and services, and so on. All written as if they were part of the setting. Maps of the airport, ferry center, and transit center. Maps with locations of tourist attractions, hotels, dining, public services, etc. Articles on America in 2020 and a brief history of Night City itself. Descriptions of the categories of Night City inhabitants, its many gangs and their strongholds. A classic favorite in the game are the Bozos, folks who undergo biosculpting to physically have big feet, perpetual frowns, and so on. They recently turned violent and dangerous, often targeting people in an escalating series of terrifying pranks to murder. A brief section on security, threat levels, and so on also appears before the heart and should of the book.
The detailed coverage of each of the controlled urban zones—18 in total—is the reason for possessing this book. From Little Italy to Japantown to Charter Hill, each section receives a thorough overview with a detailed map. What to know about Beppo’s Trattoria? It’s called out on the map and then given a brief description. Or you’re interested in catching the latest braindance at CINEmaXUS in Upper East Side. It’s there. 121 pages of this level of detail. It breaks its focus for each neighborhood to provide random encounter tables and potential contacts, but for the most part, it remains true to being a guide to the city. All of this, of course, includes any number of potential hooks and plot lines for the referee.
The Bank Block section serves as an example of these sections. Thirteen properties are identified on the map and given short descriptions and a security level. Descriptions vary in length based on the topic, but most are a few sentences at least. Many potential hooks are scattered through the write ups. For example, the Bank Block is where the Japanese Consulate is housed. At the tail end of the description is this one sentence: “Claims of yakuza and Arasaka connections have never been substantiated.” Well, I wonder if there’s an adventure there?
These kinds of nuggets are scattered throughout the book and offer referees plenty of opportunities to grab them and run with them in their games. Each section also includes notable personalities and their game stats, a list of random encounters (roll a ten-sided die and see what pops up) — many a game hook in their own right. Then a few contacts or potential NPCs that include a range of diverse characters from gossip-mongers to netrunners. The Bank Block includes five of them, one of which is Walt Williams: “A famous novelist staying at the Ashcroft. He is working on an expose of one of the Corporations, and may need to hire a bodyguard.”
The Bank Block also includes small maps of the stock exchange and medical center. Readers will find these scattered throughout the book — bars, malls, casinos, and so on. Additionally, the book contains FYI sections, small sidebars of information about the state of something in the world in 2020 or other useful tidbits, whether this be about the Mob, gangs in the Corporate Center, or student education at Night City University.
A chapter for crafting your own Combat Zone (a space outside of the central part of the city proper that is left purposely vague in location). This section includes blank maps for use along with random tables to generate what is at the location.
After the “Combat Zone” chapter, the book delves briefly into a few of the major suburban areas outside Night City proper, South Night City, Westbrook, North Oak, Pacifica, Heywood, and Rancho Coronado. These are described briefly and given a few key location write ups. The book ends with some costs for phone usage and generating the difficulty of knowing any particular fact along with a NET Access map, and a headline generator to add some flavor to screamsheets you may make for your game.
The book itself is clearly a labor of love by the creators, who have thought about so many details of places, people, and setting. Additionally, despite Cyberpunk’s unofficial slogan, “style over substance,” this sourcebook has tons of substance and never lacks the style. If you’ve never had the pleasure of listening to Mike Pondsmith, he’s done a number of interviews and even ran a game of Cyberpunk Red for GaryGon this past year. I cannot read many of the descriptions without hearing his sonorous voice:
About the Blood & Tears gang: “The gang is one of the nastiest in the area.”
From the opening description of Little Italy: “Then the Corporations moved in. In an incredibly bloody, two year war of attrition, the forces of Arasaka and its allies decimated the Mobs, driving them back to ratholes in the western City.”
Tons more flavor the content throughout. Night City and the Cyberpunk 2020 books in general read very differently than most roleplaying rulebooks and sourcebooks out there.
One item to note is that despite all of the information crammed into Night City’s 184 pages, the referee is free to use, ignore, or add all she wants. Night City is so rich a setting that she can take all the information provided, use it, and still add double or more her own if she wanted. The sourcebook serves the purpose of providing the referee a ton of information and some ready-made locations if she desires, but it also helps set the tone of a game taking place in the Dark Future — the official slogan of the Cyberpunk 2020 rules: “The Classic Roleplaying Game of the Dark Future.”
Western part of central Night City
Eastern part of central Night City
Will we see such a product for the new edition, Cyberpunk Red? Time will tell. Good reasons exist for it not to. The pocket nuke that destroyed much of the corporate center at the end of the Fourth Corporate War (described in the Firestorm two-book adventure/sourcebooks) may eliminate some of the central focus that makes the Night City sourcebook so special. Regardless, the book is a signal delight. Good luck out in that city choombas!
Patrick Kanouse encountered Traveller and Star Frontiers in the early 1980s, which he then subjected his brother to many games of. Outside of RPGs, he is a fiction writer, avid tabletop roleplaying game master, and new convert to war gaming. His last post for Black Gate was Fight the Conspiracy or Join It. You can check out his ongoing, play-by-post, referee-less Traveller game at basiliskstation.blogspot.com. Twitter: @patrickkanouse. Facebook: facebook.com/patrickkanouse