The year is 20X3, and the world is ending (again). The city is poisoned by consumerism as much as it is by pollution and nuclear waste. Nanobots that grant inhuman powers crawl under people’s skins. Ghosts and ads alike swim through the retinal com devices that have replaced everyone’s eyes. This is Cy_Borg, a dystopian RPG where cybernetically-enhanced punks are busy trying to make a buck while the world collapses around them.
As a spin-off of the ENNIE award winning tabletop RPG Mörk Borg, Cy_Borg has a pretty tough act to follow. Publisher Free League was kind enough to send me a copy to review, and I’ve got lots of thoughts about the game as I prepare to run my first session. Namely, Cy_Borg suffers from a slight touch of sequelitis, but the occasional lack of originality is made up for with seamless writing, visual design, and new additions to the system.
What is Cy_Borg
Cy_Borg is a compatible spin-off for the post-apocalyptic fantasy RPG Mörk Borg that uses the same rules-light OSR system. As the Cy_Borg Kickstarter put it, this is a game of “rulings before rules”. It’s also a harsh tabletop experience where death is damn-near certain – a trait that runs in the Borg family.
Instead of Mörk Borg’s mediaeval doomsday setting, Cy_Borg is this system’s take on the cyberpunk genre. There are still cults, but they’re now joined by nu-capitalists. The mega-rich wall themselves off in the high-tech hills while the rest of the city is eaten alive by technology and toxicity. There are quite literally ghosts in the machines, and body mods quickly turn into body horror – Cy_Borg is like Blade Runner if someone had let David Cronenberg get his hands on it.
Like many good sci-fis, Cy_Borg paints a picture of our present rather than just our future (albeit with the help of nanobots). In an era of climate destruction and fake news, unbreathable air and hackable eyeballs don’t seem so far-fetched.
There are pockets of wry humour peppered throughout the book, though at times Cy_Borg’s critique of late-stage capitalism feels a little too blatant. Every ‘hero’ (if the playable characters can be called such) is in debt, and the rich and famous are painted as fairly despicable figures. Everyone wants money in Cy_Borg, but getting it seems to turn you into something evil.
Cults and conglomerates are included in the same index category, and the game’s only unbreakable rule is that players can’t support corps, cops, or capitalism. This is a game that has a very clear point to make – though I do wonder how this rule might limit storytelling after multiple campaigns.
What’s in Cy_Borg
Fans of Mörk Borg will see plenty of similarities in Cy_Borg. Firstly, artist Johan Nohr is back with stunning visual design, adding a splash of neon purple to Borg’s stark black-and-yellow colour scheme. Perhaps the only critique to levy here is that Cy_Borg doesn’t feel as visually original as its predecessor. This is a book that relies heavily on the glowing urban iconography seen many times before in the cyberpunk genre – it’s gorgeous but not necessarily groundbreaking.
Cy_Borg is designed to be system-compatible, so it’s no surprise that the core rules have remained the same too. Character creation, levelling up, and spellcasting are all fairly familiar. Randomised tables are everywhere. The seven psalms are now seven miserable headlines, and the world still ends once the seventh is read. So far, so Borg.
However, there’s plenty of new stuff to chew on. The rules for combat are a smidge chunkier to account for new-fangled things like guns that can autofire or require reloading. Cy_Borg offers significantly more enemy options, making space for combat vehicles, drones, and mechs alongside the more fleshy foes. There’s even a page of optional combat mods that add some crunch, covering rules like range, aiming, and cover.
Outside of combat, you can also expect to see sections on cybertech, body mods, hacker apps for cyberdecks, and drugs. Like Mörk Borg, you can play classless, but Cy_Borg also offers six new character classes to mess around with. You can play disgraced soldiers, abandoned gang members, and burned-out hackers – each class takes archetypal sci-fi ideas and splatters them with blood, gore, and rust.
(I’ve already rolled up a Renegade Cyberslasher with burn scars who reeks of lighter fluid. He searches the world for gauze, band-aids, and self-actualisation. I’m very attached – I sure hope nothing bad happens to him in this famously cruel TTRPG system.)
There’s significantly more to wrap your head around than in Mörk Borg, but explanations are kept pretty concise. This was never a system for fans of mega-crunch, but the fact the team has made efforts to include slightly more complexity for those that enjoy it is a definite positive.
Like Mörk Borg, Cy_Borg really shines when it gets down to the grim and gruesome details. The rules may be old, but the flavour is new and novel. This is also a highlight of the starter adventure. Lucky Flight Takedown is a casino heist that manages to make a glamorous place look gangrenous, sprinkling in enough fetid details to keep exploration interesting throughout. Right now, it’s ranking pretty high on my ‘need-to-play-next’ list of TTRPG scenarios.
Definitely not Cy_Boring
Cy_Borg takes a little too much from existing cyberpunk media to feel truly original, and it’s political message is particularly in-your-face at times. However, the Borg system and visual design is still gruesomely gorgeous, and the new classes, rule tweaks, and adventure module make this well worth picking up.