I am now four sessions deep into my Cyberpunk RED campaign, codenamed Chrome Shift, and it seems like the group has found its rhythm, which is great. As we’re reaching the end of the first scenario, here is a summary of the story so far, and my GM commentary track.

Saving customers with extreme prejudice

The dystopian future of Cyberpunk RED is a dangerous place. In Night City, in 2045, violence is everywhere, from the combat zones to the executive enclaves, from the crater left by the nuke that blew up the corporate center to the rooftops of the skyscrapers erected during the reconstruction. Therefore, those who can afford it subscribe to privatized emergency services: teams of medics and paramilitary agents, half paramedics and half SWAT teams, who will rush to their wounded customers in their flying ambulance and carry them to a hospital, dealing with opposing resistance without restraint nor discrimination.

The best in this field are Trauma Team – they have the means, the gear, the reputation, the glamour of modern paladins, and they charge accordingly. The protagonists of Chrome Shift do not work for Trauma Team. Instead, they are contractors for REO MeatWagon, the under-staffed, unscrupulous, and a bit shady rival of Trauma Team.

The story started when the party, after an bad day, took on a last and unexpected intervention: MeatWagon’s dispatch AI had intercepted an emergency call to Trauma Team, and there was a window of opportunity to steal this customer from them. After a brief firefight in an abandoned metro station1 to get rid of two gangs exchanging fire, the Brainiacs and the Inquisitors, the party successfully extracted the unfortunate customer caught in the crossfire, as well as his husband, and then evaded a very pissed off Trauma Team squad. Even more importantly, the party’s solo2 managed to get hold of an unknown device left on the scene – some kind of unmarked black box.

Once back to the MeatWagon HQ and medical center, the party was welcomed by their manager, Inglès, something as infrequent as him not slotting in his Cary Grant personality chip. The party then disbanded, only to be contacted by menacing members of the Brainiacs; the gang demanded the return of the device, which they claimed to have fairly bought from their still unidentified customer.

Unfortunately, the party soon discovered that Inglès had stolen the device from the locker where it had been left, and then precipitously vanished. Leveraging the resources at their disposal at MeatWagon HQ, the party eventually localized their manager on the territory of a local posergang3, the Tomb Raiders. Clever negociations granted them access an altered Inglès, detained in a state of primitive rage and seemingly unable to recoginize anyone. Unfortunately, it was quickly obvious that the Tomb Raiders had taken possession of the device, and would not let it go for free.

The party then moved their attention to the presumed seller of the device. His identity was soon revealed: nicknamed 3-Piece, this fixer had a certain renown, and a specialty in tech-related ventures. Tactfully approached, 3-Piece proved to be friendly and accomodating, and warned the party that being in possession of the device could attract dangerous attention, and especially that of a rival named Armalite, from whom 3-piece initially acquired it.

Intrigued but steadfast, the party worked on broking a meeting between the Tomb Raiders and one of their most dangerous rivals, the Slaughterhouse. The deal granted them the ownership of the mysterious device, but as the party was leaving the abandonned skyscraper where it took place, shrieks and gunshots made clear that something had gone sideways in the negociations…

GM’s notes

Overall, I’m pretty happy with this introductory scenario so far. Except for a Kult one-shot a couple of months ago and two sessions of old-school Rolemaster dungeon dwelling the year before, I hadn’t GM’ed anything in years. And our group is still not very well-organized for remote play – we haven’t found a VTT we all like, there is always a problem with someone’s audio setup, and most players aren’t confortable showing their faces on camera.

For this reason, and because Cyberpunk RED is a new game for everyone, and even a whole new genre for one of the players, I went for a very simple scenario. It is a McGuffin hunt, but it offers several hooks for mysteries, politics and intrigue (something the players said they were looking for). It also leans in on the backgrounds of the characters, at least some of them. (The lifepath system of Cyberpunk RED is really great for building rich backgrounds, and our session 0 was very inspiring.)

I used to play with this guys4 20 years ago, but then life dragged me away from the gaming table. However, most of them managed to keeping playing, and it showed! I was positively surprised by their quick-thinking during the development beats, and their tactical sense during the cliffhanger beats, to reuse the game’s terminology. Still, I had a hard time keeping everyone invested, even though the feedback I’ve gathered is positive (Rob Mulligan’s GM report card in his DLC is pretty great for that). I hope that with a better setup, and more familiarity with the rules and the setting, everyone will get into the flow of the game.

House rules and changes to the setting

Like many GMs, I like to create my own campaign settings and imaginary worlds. Yet, I also like to stick to whatever a game offers: it is usually what the rules are tailored for, professional game designers are better at this than me, and it is easier for the players to be on the level with me if they have access to the same material. Cyberpunk RED is great, in that it lays down the groundwork, but leaves room for the GM to add their own spin on things. So my Cyberpunk RED is basically what you read in the core rulebook, plus stuff taken from Willian Gibson, George Alec Effinger or Walter Jon Williams. And I adjust some details as I see fit, like giving REO MeatWagon its own, modest-ish medical center on top of their ambulance service (making it easier to slot in the medtech character).

However, there is one thing I have issues with in the original setting, and that is the timeline. In order to maintain continuity with stuff written 30 years ago, and also with the video game, you need to somehow conceive a world that is very different from ours, where technology accelerated exponentially in the last decades of the 20th century, but then somehow stalled from 2020 to 2077. It’s a detail, but it irks me. So I’ve blurred the timeline and keep the dates very ellusive. The campaign takes place in 2045. Some time ago, a tactical nuke blew up the center of Night City and this marked the end of the 4th corporate war. Was it in 2023? 2033? 2043? It doesn’t matter. Let’s move on.

Rules-wise, I’ve always liked the simplicity of the Interlock system, and even more of its successor, Fuzion. I was a bit disappointed to see that CP-RED had moved back to a revised Interlock, but it’s still a solid, simple if a bit old-school system, and I see no reason to house rule anything. So far, the new stuff, like the critical injuries replacing the hits location, worked fine.

I did import the time table for skills from Fuzion: I find it easier to have a set list of possible durations for a given task, especially when “taking more time” is often the only way for the players to try again a failed attempt. But the most significant change I’ve made so far relates to the Trauma Team (or MeatWagon) intervention time, and the consequences of dying.

In the rules as written, when called for help, Trauma Team arrives in less than 20 seconds. That is stretching the versimilitude a bit, but it makes sense from a game perspective, since the time window to save a dying character is rarely larger than that. To keep things a bit more realistic, while preventing constant character deaths, I have introduced the following changes:

  • Trauma Team, when called, arrives in 1d6 minutes, not rounds.
  • But, as in Cyberpunk 2020, death can be reverted. This requireds a successful Surgery roll, whose difficulty is 13 + the number of minutes elapsed since the character’s death (rounded up). I like the idea that, in 2045, even death can be cured by technology.

Tomorrow people

I have a stable(-ish) gaming group, a game with a rich setting and a lean system, experienced players with a taste for both narrative and tactical play, and strong characters to write scenarios around. Now all I need is better tooling for online play. I can’t wait to see where the campaign goes!

  1. Night City used to have a very simple metro system named NCART, but in 2045 it is abandoned, its tunnels and underground stations flooded and irremediably damaged by the aftershock of the nuke. 

  2. “Solo” is the generic name given to professional combatants: mercenaries, bodyguards, hit-men, etc. Think Molly Millions or Sarah in Hardwired

  3. In Cyberpunk RED, posergangs are gangs whose members impersonate a specific personality or character, often to the point of being biosculpted in order to resemble them physically and in persona. 

  4. Yes, we’re not a diverse group, unfortunately. The new generation is better at this than us grognards.