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Cyberpunk creator Mike Pondsmith on turning his tabletop game into Cyberpunk 2077

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The so new it’s not even out yet hotness in games is still Cyberpunk 2077, but as the name suggests, it’s not the original Cyberpunk. Although there aren’t 2076 previous entries, there is a robust and well loved tabletop roleplaying game to thank for the existence of CD Projekt Red’s upcoming RPG.

The TRPG was written by Mike Pondsmith, the founder of publisher R. Talsorian Games, and who’s often known to players as Maximum Mike. He is a charming and obviously very clever man, a teller of stories who’d be great at a party, and he is, he said, getting recognised much more often now he’s on the 2077 media circuit. At a sit down interview at Gamescom, during which he cheerfully called both me and Alice L. “AliceAlice”, he told us about his work with CD Projekt Red, the new TRPG edition Cyberpunk Red (the Jumpstart starter set for Red having come out earlier this month), and business meetings in pyjamas.

So, first of all I wanted to ask: why CD Projekt Red?

First of all, you have to understand Cyberpunk’s been optioned since we first printed it. Within that year we had people optioning it for video games. And the thing is most of them missed the joke. They would reskin it as something else, or they didn’t really sense why we had done what we’d done. And there’s a very narrow window of style that has to happen to make this game work.

CDPR turned out to be essentially the perfect match. My wife, who’s our business manager, came to me years and years ago and said ‘I’ve got a bunch of guys who want to do Cyberpunk in Polish.’ And I said ‘Well, that’ll be five copies.’ I’m thinking: Poland, Iron Curtain, not happening. Turned out the five copies went to the guys at CDPR.

Basically by the time I met them my two questions were 1) Were they going to be able to technically do it, and I saw The Witcher 2 and said ‘Yeah, they can technically do it.’ I’ve worked on projects at Microsoft and some of the other studios I’ve worked at that did not have this capability. This beautiful, beautiful tool set.

But in addition, they were fans. I walk through the building and they’re going, “yes, we have to have Alt [Cunningham, a key character in existing Cyberpunk lore] and Johnny [Silverhand; Keanu Reeves] doing this thing, and that..” and I’m going, my God, they are fans. They’re, like, shipping Alt and Johnny. That’s hardcore. So they liked it as much as we liked it — loved it in fact — they had the capability, and they’re really straightforward, honest guys. I like ’em. We describe them as being a lot like us, only they speak Polish and we don’t, because we’re not any good at languages.

So what’s your involvement like now? Are you going over to Poland a lot?

I go over less than I used to. I used to go over about three times a year, and now I go over maybe twice a year. It’s evolved. When I first went over it was just kind of meeting and getting the team. Then I had a lot of weekly meetings, several days a week, with the team via Skype, which was always funny because I’d be in my pyjamas. Literally, it’s like six in the morning, right? And I’d be talking via Skype and they’re all getting ready to leave for the day.

“So Mike, we’ve all gathered together. How come you don’t have your camera on?”

“You don’t wanna see me first thing in the morning, at all.”

So we would discuss and organise things. The story team would come over — twice, I believe, they came over where we just saw everybody, and we went through storyboarding, talking about what was going to happen in the story and getting things organised and all that. Then I started going over a bit more, and some of the team, particularly Adam [Badowski], who’s the story director and studio manager, came over. We spent a marathon week, week and a half, just going through game elements, what worked what didn’t, ideas and stuff like that. He took that all back, talked to people, and I went over a like month later and talked to everybody in the studio.

The process has been ongoing. One reason I think is I’m not just licensing it, but because I worked in video games I can actually offer constructive information. I won’t ask them to do really dumb things because I know how dumb it is. It’s like a discussion Adam and I had a long time ago about the AV-4’s, the flying cars. I said, “Before you step off into that, I worked on Combat Flight Sim. I know what you’re getting yourself into, and you don’t want to do it like this.” So I do bring something to the table more than just, you know, a fun thing.

Are there any other examples of things like the cars, that have changed because of your input?

My favourite is the weapons. When I first saw the weapon stuff people sent over, they were all these shiny raygun things. And I said, “Nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-no. Cyberpunk weapons are large, black, lethal, dangerous things that look distinctly unfriendly, paramilitary, and they’re not shiny, they’re not happy. They look like ‘I’m here to kill you now.’ They should be things that make Darth Vader pee his pants.”

So they went back and I started to see weapons like that. And then the next trip over, which was about three months later, I walked in and they had a wall of weapons, about as long as this wall, that is basically one of those classic, like, in spy movies they open up the wall, and there’s all these guns in racks? They had that. And I’m going “Ooh, shiny”, you know? And that was the reference point, they started looking at real world weapons, which is one of the core elements of the 2020 universe. The weapons are realistic. We try to make it as realistic as possible.

I wanted to ask about Cyberpunk Red as well. The Jumpstart kit just came out earlier in the month, and I understand you developed Red with CDPR to bridge the gap.

Oh yeah. I have an opposite number at CDPR, they’ve given me one guy, Patrick Mills, and Patrick is my go-to now, because everybody is so busy, but I know Patrick’s job is disseminate stuff, and one of the jobs we had to do is coordinate the timelines.

There’s a really big advantage, and many people miss this, in coordinating timelines and making it one timeline. What that allows CDPR to do is to take advantage of the tremendous amount of lore that we built over the years. There’s close to about a hundred books that we’ve done in that world, so we have a very, very broad depth, and they can mine it for whatever they want. But to do that means we have to make it all come out at the end.

So Patrick and my jobs are to look at things that have to happen way up here in 2077, versus back in 2020, or during the Red period, and say, “Okay, so these characters die.”

“Yeah but I need to have this character over here.”

“Okay, I didn’t kill him, but you can have him.”

And also, this is what happens to this area, this is what happens to the world, here’s what the politics are in 2040, 2060, and so forth: “Okay, well I want to have the president leave by 2060, but I want to have this entire big war between Night City and-“

So we coordinate those, and one of the nice things about it is that the fans like that a lot. My social media guy Jay basically started a topic, I guess, called 365 Days of Cyberpunk in which he tells a new lore piece about the 2020 universe, usually context to 2077. And at first people went “What? This is 2077, why are you doing this?” but then they began to realise that these things tied together. So they’d go ‘Oh, so Johnny Silverhand had this background, he did this thing.” And then we could start seeing things like, “wow, I hope this gang is going to be in there”, or “I hope they’re going to be able to show this”, or “are they going to have this backstory?”, which of course gives CDPR more information they can use later on as well.

What’s one of your favourites of those threads that’s going to get explored in 2077?

I’m not sure whether it’s going to get explored or not, but my favourite is the Bozos. The Bozos are a gang, a poser gang, which means they’re cosplay gangs, basically. And they’re clowns.

Now this was before the Juggalos, before Insane Clown Posse. My wife came up with this, which makes me worry sometimes. They’re a crazy clown gang that’s sadistic and frightening. They’re IT from Stephen King, but in groups of two or three hundred.

Somebody got on our boards and said “I hope they don’t have any dumb gangs like the Bozos, I mean clown gangs, that’s dumb!” You know, “arghararghargh.” So the next week Jay posted about the Bozos, he described stuff the Bozos did to people. Like the Bozo gets in the elevator with you, and he puts on a scuba tank, and while you’re standing there the elevator doors close, the elevator gets about half a floor up, and then the elevator begins to fill with salt water. And it continues, and about the time you’re trying to fight the Bozo, the Bozo basically climbs out the top, and then bugs start falling in from the ceiling.

He just started describing all these horrible things that the Bozos do to you. Now you see why I worry about my wife. And people went, “Oh man!” One group said, “wow, I hope we never meet them!” Another group said, “if I meet a Bozo anywhere in the game, I’m shooting him right there.” And other people were saying “I wanna play a Bozo!”

So now that gives CDPR a whole new possibility — and I don’t know whether the Bozos are in there or not, I haven’t seen everything by a long shot. There’s a lot in this game. A staggering amount of stuff. But, now they know that people wouldn’t mind seeing a bunch of really horrific killer clowns that make The Joker look like a wimp.

Are you going to be in the game? Are you maybe voicing a character?

I was voicing a character, and I actually did the voice in it, and they decided the character was too limited. So, next thing I knew, he was cut, or moved. And then they said, “we have something else for you, but it’s going to take a little time to organise it.” So I don’t entirely know what it is yet, I just know I’m supposed to be prepared for it, that’s all.

That’s ominous.

I’m waiting for the script to show up, like, “Oh! Wait, I do this? Woah.”

I wanted to ask you some other things about TRPGs, because I play a lot of tabletop games myself, and I always think there’s a weird difference between TRPGs and video game RPGs. Something like 2077 is single player, it’s just you, and obviously in the TRPG you’re a group. Is it difficult adapting the rules for that change?

Actually, it’s interesting. ‘Lo, many years ago, I actually taught video game design, at DigiPen school in Seattle area, and I remember explaining to my students the differences, because I’d worked in both. And the thing is, in a video game you can show a lot of things, it’s a very broad canvas, but you can’t go very deep. Because there’s only so much can be put together, so many plot threads, so many story threads, and so forth. But in a tabletop, it’s as deep as the referee is willing to let it be, so you can get a tremendously deep picture of the world, and you have to make choices.

You have to say “I’m willing to show this much of the world in a video game,” or “I’m going to have this much background, and I have to communicate that rapidly and clearly.” In addition, you also need to find a way to shorthand and cover for the things that would be visible in a tabletop. Mechanics and things like that.

So there’s Lifepath, for example, in 2077, but it’s never going to be as complex as it would be in the original game, or even in Red, although we have a more simplified version of Red right now. And that is because nobody is going to, in a video game, spend two hours Lifepathing a character. But I get people all the time writing me going “Yeah, I did Lifepath!”, and they’ll do Lifepaths of their character ’til the cows come home, you know. “I made a character! Next character!” They like that. But it’s not a mechanic that works in a video game.

I heard that Netrunning has changed a bit as well.

Yeah. Part of it is, Netrunning, when we did it, we were trying to simulate what everybody had heard about the idea of Netrunning. Remember, this is at a time when the most advanced net, so to speak, would have been CompuServe, okay, very stone age. So at that time, the idea of the kind of architecture we have on our net now didn’t exist. And I was fascinated to look at how the net would have developed in the 2020 universe, and I realised you wouldn’t have had Apple Computer, you wouldn’t have had HyperCard stacks, you wouldn’t have many of the things that are the foundational pieces of the internet we use. It would be more like Usenet or ARPANET, you know, much much simpler, more code based.

When we cut things back, and restructured things in Red, we wanted to get it back to that simplicity. We wanted to get it back to: the Netrunner is part of the party, they have distinct jobs they have to do, they cannot sit on a couch and netrun from five miles away. Their time frames are much closer to that of the party, and they’re in the sharp end. That’s a lot of fun, because what happens is, your Netrunner now might be doing something really desperate to crack into a system or shut something down, and the rest of the party’s over shooting at whatever’s coming to get him.

We have stuff coming in in Red where, there might be party threats, like cyberhounds or something, that are motivated by something that’s actually in the net of that particular area. The Netrunner’s gotta kill the thing that’s motivating the cyberhounds, while the party’s fighting the cyberhounds and keeping them from eating the Netrunner and themselves.

It’s much more interactive now, and that was one of my writing and design rules. Put the guy in the middle of the heat.

Have you played a lot, or any of 2077 yet?

I’ve played some of it. Understand, when I see it, it’s on the drawing boards. What you see is, everybody compiles it, it’s gone through a lot of debugging cycles and all of it like that. I come in and environment guy will go, “Hey! Wanna look around?” Someone else will say, “Hey! Wanna go shoot things?” So I see it piecemeal. And a lot of times I’m as surprised as the audience to see it all at once.

And does it look how you’d imagined Cyberpunk?

Oh yeah, yeah. It actually looks amazingly like that. And I think part of it is that I’ve been involved in the process. If they weren’t going to listen to me I would have known by now. But they obviously are listening, and we’re doing it together, so it comes out to be remarkably close to what I originally saw.

What’s your favourite kind of build for V, then?

Right now I haven’t had a chance to play much with the stealth, Netrunner version. There’s a couple others out there, builds, that we haven’t seen yet. I’m fascinated by the hard solo version of V, partially because the female version looks like my daughter. So I always can imagine: there’s Nolan, tearing a door open.

“Hey honey, come over here and rip the door off the walls!”

“Da-aad!

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