The Cyberpunk system is stupidly simple and easy to play, but in its basic form it is also quite broken, and especially it is broken in favour of Solos (fighters in Cyberpunk terms), and ideally designed for min-maxing your character. Basically in the rules as written there are only two stats that matter, Body and Reflexes, and a whole bunch of other stats that could be really cool but just have no value. Furthermore, the combat system is heavily stacked in favour of the person who acts first. The consequence of the rules as they are written is a rush to heavy armour, certain specific types of cyberwear, and characters that are largely an array of dump stats.
At the same time, the system is unbalanced in such a way that no matter how good your character becomes there is always a huge risk that they will fumble, with generally catastrophic effects. In the basic rules there is no escaping from the fact that no matter how good you are, no matter what you are doing, you will fumble 10% of the time. Even if your Luck stat is 10 (the maximum possible), you will fumble 10% of the time. In combat this means your shot automatically misses but it also means you have to roll above the reliability of your weapon or it jams for 1d6 rounds. The most reliable weapon has a reliability of 4, so there is a 40% chance of being out of combat for 1d6 rounds every time you fumble. With the best weapons. For the first three sessions of this campaign I have been rolling a loaded die and getting huge runs of fumbles – I think I had 5 fumbles out of 8 rolls in one session. This is punishing for the player, and also tough for the group if their theoretically most destructive solo is consistently incapable of firing. It also means that you need to carry two assault rifles, for when the first one jams …
The basic combat roll in Cyberpunk is a d10, with a roll of 1 being a fumble and 10 being critical success. On a 10 you reroll and add, and keep doing so until the 10s stop. Your basic target to hit someone at short range is 15, unmodified by any attribute or skill of theirs (you’re shooting a target). You add your attribute and skill to the roll, and if you’re doing a 3-round burst you get +3. Drew, with Reflexes 6 in armour and rifle skill of 6, a smartlink and an accurate rifle, gets a basic bonus of +15, +18 on a 3 round burst. So she has a 90% chance of hitting and a 10% chance of her gun jamming. This is what one might call a bimodal distribution … but worse than this, you can use multiple actions, each additional action incurring a -3 penalty. So Drew can fire 6 three round bursts in a round, at 0/-3/-6, etc. The first three are guaranteed to hit (or fumble); the next 2 have some chance of hitting; the last one will hit on a critical. Each three round burst delivers 1-3 hits to the target, so basically Drew delivers 1-3 hits until she rolls a 1, at which point she has to switch weapons. Given her gun does 6d6+2 damage and the best armour anyone normal can field takes 15 damage off that, if she wins initiative her targets are going to be so trashed that they won’t be able to fire back.
This makes the first round of combat way too important, and basically eliminates tactics from combat because if you don’t win the initiative you’re dead. So we set about fixing this through a series of house rules that widen the range of attributes a Solo needs to boost to win a battle, balances out the role of fumbles, and gives non-Solos a fighting chance of at least staying alive long enough to run away.
Using Luck to beat fumbles
Every character has a Luck stat, but it doesn’t apply to any skill checks, and as far as anyone can tell it has no relationship to how the game is played at all. It just draws points from the important stats. We decided that you have your Luck stat in Luck points that you can use every session for three purposes:
- Use one Luck point to neutralize a fumble, so that it remains a failure but does not do anything catastrophic
- On a critical success, increase the result by 1 per Luck point you expend (so you could actually increase your critical roll enough to hit)
- On a critical success, increase the damage your weapon does by one die per Luck point expended, up to the original dice pool of the weapon (so Drew’s rifle could be boosted to a maximum of 12d6+2 damage)
- Use a Luck point to reroll a failure on a death or shock roll
This means a person with a weak rifle still has a chance of beating serious armour, if they’re willing to stake their luck on it, and means that when people are highly skilled they can reduce their fumble rate, even though they still have a 10% chance of failure under any circumstances (which is fine with me).
Using Movement Allowance to limit actions
Another stat no one cares about is the Movement Allowance stat, which determines how fast you move when you walk and run, but since moving in combat is extremely dangerous no one really cares about it. It’s another of many dump stats. We fixed this by making Movement Allowance the maximum number of actions a PC can perform in a round, and ditching the concept of the Run movement rate. Basically, every point of movement allowance gives you an attack action or 3m of movement, and you can act a maximum of your Movement Allowance in one round. Drew, with an MA of 6, can perform 6 actions. Under the original rules this is 6 three round bursts at +3/0/-3/-6/-9/-12. Even the last one has an 8% chance of hitting, so with the new fumble rules guaranteeing she can complete the full range of her shots, she should expect to deliver 3-9 bullets with certainty, have a marginal chance of getting another 2-6 in, and maybe a critical hit on the last 1-3.
That would kill a combat-armoured elephant. So we also introduced a different approach to penalizing multiple actions …
Restricting multiple actions
Instead of having the -3 penalty for additional actions accumulate only on those additional actions, our house rules apply the maximum penalty across all actions. So if Drew does three actions in one round, all three of them occur at -6. This is intended to reflect the fact that fitting in more actions requires rushing the earlier ones as well as the later ones. This also gets around the strange problem in the original rules where moving at the end of your shooting actions doesn’t penalize them – so Drew can squeeze off three short bursts and then run 9m, but if she does this in a different order her shots are horribly penalized. The implication of such a rule is that whether she does 1 action or 6 in a round, Drew only rushes the later actions … this is weird. The revised rule also stops Drew from laying down intense death as soon as combat starts. Instead of her first three of six actions being guaranteed to hit, all of them would need a critical to hit. With three actions at -6, once you factor in the +3 for short bursts, she is still guaranteed to hit with all of them; but adding more actions will make all of them have a high risk of failure. So she actually has to trade off higher possible damage against higher minimum damage, and the combat is much more likely to extend into 2 or 3 rounds, which forces everyone involved to actually do things like look for cover, try to flank enemes, etc. Instead of just walking in and emptying the cartridge on the biggest, toughest dude.
The idea that Drew has to rush all her actions to fit in later ones only really works if she has determined her whole sequence of actions before she starts. Combat rounds in Cyberpunk are really fast – 10 seconds I think – so it makes sense that you can’t run 12 m and then suddenly decide to reel off three unsteady shots. To reflect this, we have a called action house rule. At the beginning of every round, every player has to call the action of their PC for that round, and the GM calls what his characters will do. These actions are called in order of initiative from lowest to highest, so the person acting first in the round will know what everyone else is doing, but the person acting last will not. So if the slowest person says “I’m running across the road to cover” the fastest person can say “I will lay down suppressive fire on the road.” PCs can change their actions halfway through the round, but this uses one action itself, so changing your action halfway through will penalize all remaining actions by -3.
This system took a bit of getting used to but it is really good, because it creates the element of chaos in the battle where everyone is acting in their own little bubble, based on their own perceptions of the fight, and for the non-Solos this usually means that things happen around them that they weren’t expecting, because they can’t act fast enough to comprehend the battle. Usually (assuming she doesn’t roll a 1!) this means Drew stays serenely in command of the battlefield, while people like Ghost and Coyote blunder in and out of fields of fire and shoot at targets who are no longer where they thought they were. It’s a really dramatic and cinematic addition to the rules.
Example: Drew’s head shot
In session 3 Drew took a bullet to the head, in a classic moment of dramatic action that flowed directly from two of these house rules: called actions and the revised luck rules. At this point we hadn’t yet introduced the new rules on multiple actions, which might have saved her, but these two rules alone made a lot of damage happen to her. For this battle Drew had rolled a 1 on her initiative, so she was acting second to last (ahead of Ghost, I think). Lima was down and crawling, but his lackey was still putting up a serious fight. Drew needed to move to a position from which she could gun down this guy and stop him putting suppressing fire on the door, so she declared she would sprint to a new position and fire a couple of three-shot bursts. This dude, being ahead of the initiative, responded to Drew’s recklessness by sinking three three-shot bursts into her as she ran. One of these hit on a critical (one was a normal hit and one missed). I think she took a total of four bullets, from memory. Each bullet has its location rolled randomly, and the GM declared that the first one, being a critical, would be boosted with three of the dude’s Luck points, so it would do 7d6 damage instead of 4d6. The GM rolled the hit location and got … head!
Drew has 24 points of armour on her head but the dude was using armour piercing bullets. This means the armour counts for half but he does half damage. The upshot of this was that Drew took 6 points of damage on her head (he rolled 24 on his damage roll on 7d6!) After her Body is subtracted this leaves 3 points of damage, which on the head is doubled to 6 – almost enough to kill her (8 hits to the head is instant coma). She had to roll a shock check, which she fumbled, and we completely forgot that she could use a Luck point to reroll this. So down she went, and at this point Pops went psycho. Had she remembered the Luck point she could have rerolled the shock check, stayed upright, and probably killed the dude immediately – though then she would want to be keeping her head down, because one more hit there for even one point of damage would be the end of her.
This was a nice example of the combination of called actions and Luck adjustments raining evil fate down on Drew’s pretty little head. Fun times!
Additional rule changes
These rule changes have dragged Luck and MA from the Dump Stat pile, but Cool and Empathy are still there. Empathy is meant to be important, but it doesn’t have any significance to anyone who is not a Fixer, so we need to find a way to make it more important. If we don’t, then basically everyone will cyber up as soon as possible, and Empathy goes from being a measure of your ability to interact with humans to a measure of cybernetic capacity. Given that cyberpsychosis is a core part of the game as it was originally envisaged, the complete uselessness of Empathy as a stat is a bit annoying. We also made some changes to damage rules which I will report in a subsequent post.
With these changes, Cyberpunk offers a really simple and effective system for resolving skills, and an extremely deadly and vicious set of combat rules. It’s a little slow because of all the hit locations and damage rolls, but when you’re in the thick of battle you really feel it. It’s a fun and nasty system, though as originally written it is just frustrating and stupid. So if you are playing Cyberpunk, I recommend trying these House Rules.