10 rules to design Variants and Exotics

10 rules to design Variants and Exotics

When I made this collection of variant and exotic weapons, I had to decide on how to make them interesting without absolutely breaking the game. This is a tricky balance to achieve in a game like Cyberpunk RED: while combat is brutal and not meant to be “balanced”, there are still limits to how you can modify weapons.

While I couldn't really find the specific thoughts of the designers on this, there are a few things that the game hints at "being balanced" versus "being OP. For example, most high damage weapons (4d6 and more) don't have a ROF of 2. For these weapon, you can only fire once, or use Autofire. Taking more than one shot per round with these weapons would make them far too deadly. There is also a soft limit of +1 to hit that can be obtained through the gun itself: excellent quality weapons are already “the top” in terms of bonus to hit.

While I am an amateur designer, I can recognize where these limits are. My goal with this arsenal of guns for the game was to provide cool and interesting gear options for Referees and players without breaking the game too much.

It is a tricky balance to achieve, but I hope that, if you like them, you'll be inspired to make your own Variants and Exotics. This is why I have assembled the 10 design rules I tried to follow when I was designing these new weapon variants and exotic weapons.

Obviously, as you should know, these 10 rules can (and should be!) broken to create interesting weapons, but using these rules makes it is easier to decide when and how they should be broken.

Rule #1 Not every weapon needs to be a Variant or an Exotic

AKA "the boring rule".

To explain this rule, let's talk about Iphones and Android phones. We can debate endlessly on the merits of both of these types of cellphones. We can argue about how their price compares, how the user interface feels, which has the best virtual assistant, which has the better customization options... but mechanically, Android smartphones and Iphones do exactly the same thing. You can use them to make calls, text your friends, receive emails, download apps or post things on social media. Yeah, sure, how you do it is a bit different, but the result is the same. Androids and Iphones are flavorfully different, but not mechanically different.

This idea also applies to weapons in Cyberpunk Red. A lot of weapons are flavorfully different from one another, but they all do the same thing. Assault Rifles fire intermediate rifle cartridges and have an effective range of up to 400m. Most service rifles do this. Compare a FAMAS, an AUG, an AR15 and an AK, for example. These guns all have unique quirks, feel different and have different stats. But mechanically? They are Assault Rifles that fire intermediate cartridges and have an effective range of up to 400m.

My point is that not every gun can (or should) become a variant.

Weapon Variants and Exotic Weapons represent weapons which are different enough from their weapon type that additional rules are needed to fully represent them.

Pro tip: if your player wants a specific gun that fits neatly within a category… they can just write that gun’s name instead of, you know, “Heavy Pistol”. Players find shooting a 1911 much cooler than with a “Heavy Pistol”, even though, rules wise, I think they are exactly the same thing.

Rule #2 No ROF increase for high damage weapons without drawback

Cyberpunk RED has a built-in limit to damage at around 5D6 damage per round. Never go over ROF 1 for high damage weapons (4D6 and more) unless there are drawbacks to balance it out.

Relevant example:

In this example, this Exotic (drawback 1) Assault Rifle fires two bullets per round, but it consumes two bullets per shot (drawback 2) jams on a roll of 1 (drawback 3) and has a -1 to hit (drawback 4).

Rule #3 No damage over 5D6 per shot without drawback

Cyberpunk RED has a built-in limit to weapon damage at around 5D6 damage per round. Never go over that damage limit unless there are drawbacks to balance it out

Relevant example:

In this example, this Exotic (drawback 1) deals more damage, but uses the Heavy Weapon Skill (drawback 2) unless the weapon is mounted on something (drawback 3) and it has a high BODY requirement (drawback 4).

Rule #4 Excellent Quality weapons are already the best upgrade

+1 to hit already makes Excellent Quality weapons really good. As a rule of thumb, this should be the best “straightforward upgrade” players can get. Variants and Exotics should strive to be crazier or have conditional bonuses instead of straight up being better than an Excellent Quality weapon.

Relevant example:

In this example, this weapon loses most of its “Assault Rifle” identity to instead become a “short range Sniper Rifle”. To represent this, the weapon loses the ability to Autofire and gains a conditional bonus to hit when making Aimed Shots. A good marksman character can use this weapon very well, but the weapon loses a lot of versatility.

Rule #5 Variants and Exotics are different, not better

Weapon variants should strive to be cool, different or fill a niche, instead of just being better. Of course they can be better than the standard, but they should be better because they do something different, not just because they have bigger bonuses.

Relevant example:

In this example, this Heavy SMG shoots AR rounds and is a powerhouse in close range. Some players might choose to bring it to pack an extra punch in those close combat encounters, but the weapon is very unwieldly when firing Autofire, making it not always ideal. This gun does thing differently, but it's difficult to say if it's always better than an Heavy SMG or an Assault Rifle in these situations.

Rule #6 Utility is more interesting

Playing with weapon damage is fun, but the best way to create interesting weapon upgrades that don’t break the game is through out-of-combat benefits.

Relevant example:

This example is straightforward: this is an upgrade (it is concealable) but the upgrade does not make the gun better after the firefight has started.

Rule #7 Variants are sidegrades or slight upgrades.

Weapon variants are the most interesting when they only change the base weapon a little bit or when they are slightly better or slightly worse than the standard weapons.

Relevant example:

In this example, the revolver has less bullets per magazine (and the magazine size cannot be increased!), but the +1 bonus to damage should be enough to interest many players.

Rule #8 Exotics are crazy.

If weapon variants are small upgrades, Exotics are really really crazy. They can have really cool bonuses, huge drawbacks and weird requirements.

Relevant example:

In this example, the Shotgun weapon type us completely flipped on its head. Instead of being a Shoulder Arms weapon with 4 bullets, it becomes a concealable hand cannon. It is basically nothing like the weapon type it is technically a part of.

Rule #9 Drawbacks make guns interesting

Weapons with big advantages and big drawbacks makes planning missions much more interesting. Players will need to be involved to counterbalance their weapon’s drawbacks while using their weapon's special features.

Relevant example:

In this example, the weapon is unreliable. The weapon is basically inaudible, but it degrades easily, meaning that its barrel needs to be replaced often to maintain the benefit of using the weapon. Unreliability makes this weapon far more interesting than if it had no such drawback.

Rule #10 Style over substance

Some modern weapons (like semi-auto rifles, most revolvers, 20th century bolt-action rifles...) are just worse options, when directly compared to the category of weapon they most resemble. That's ok. These guns can (and should!) still exist in your game, even if they are not optimal. Variants can be worse than the standard weapons, if they have flavor to compensate. If your players want to use them, they'll figure it out. Style over substance, baby.

Relevant example:

In this example, this lever action rifle is definitely worse than the weapon type it is based on. It is a cool lever-action gun, though. Perfect for sci-fi cowboys with a sharp cybereye.

Making +1 swords in Cyberpunk RED – Using the idea of “magic items” to create meaningful weapon variants

Making +1 swords in Cyberpunk Red – Using the idea of “magic items” to create meaningful weapon variants

In many ways, Cyberpunk Red attempts to make with the Cyberpunk TTRPGs what 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons did with its 3rd Edition. A lot of people don't like this, but, for me at least, this is a good thing, since I found Cyberpunk 2020 sometimes too complex for little benefits.

One of the changes I love the most is the changes made to how weapons are listed and categorized in Red. Instead of a massive weapon list, R. Taslorian gave us a list of different weapon types which all use slightly different rules.

While the details and the flavor that came with CP2020’s weapon list was kind of cool, it was also way too much. When every weapon is unique, none of them are, y'know? Using a standardized list of weapon types allows CP Red to be much easier to understand.

However, a lot of the flavor and flair that came with CP2020’s guns are missing from this new system.

There are ways to work complexity, flavor and “the cool factor” back in. That is why I made Gunner's Arsenal. It is meant to be a resource for interesting and unique weapons that add cool guns back in the game without becoming too complex for players.

The basic idea? Add magic items in Cyberpunk RED.

Not actual magic items, mind you. There is no such thing as magic! Rather, I mean that I use the idea, the mechanic of magic items to spice up the guns and allow players to find much more interesting weapons.

This article covers the design choices and philosophies I have chosen to follow for this homebrew resource, as well as how I recommend you use these weapons.

What are magic items?

For those of you who might not be familiar with Dungeons and Dragons (and especially it’s fifth edition), it’s important to understand how magic items in that system have become a core part of player progression.

In 5e, it is expected that the Dungeon Master integrate unique items – weapons, armor, talking teapots – whatever, as loot. This is connected to standard player progression in that game, in addition to the level system. Magic items are actually needed for players to stand up to the bad guys, mathematically speaking. High level players without magic items would actually be underpowered against the thing they are supposed to be fighting! (Fights in 5e are supposed to be “balanced”, a strange concept indeed that has no place in the dark future.)

Magical items, then, are just upgraded versions of equipment the players already have. Players can find a +1 sword, which adds +1 to their roll to hit and to their damage, for example.

Because of this system, DnD comes with a huge catalog of weird, quirky and powerful items, which DMs can pick from and distribute as loot to players.

The big thing to understand how magic items work is the “but” rule.

What makes these items cool for players, is not, in my opinion, the stat increase they provide. For me, these Items are interesting because of the “but” that you add to the rules of standard item to make magic items. Here’s what I mean.

“It is a sword, but it glows when orcs are nearby.”

“It is a shield, but when you throw it, you can use an action to have it fly back into your hand”

“It’s like a thing you know, but cooler.

Introducing Weapon Variants and Exotic Weapons

To create “magical” weapons in Cyberpunk RED, I just took inspiration from what the game already tells us to do. In the Night Market section, there are already a bunch of what I consider to be “magical items”. The 3516 Malorian Arms, for example, is a weapon that behaves uniquely and is much rarer than “normal” guns.

Rules-wise, “magical weapons” are Exotic Weapons: weapons with a unique rule attached to them that modifies how they are used. In this homebrew, I also propose another type of unique weapon, the Weapon Variant.

Weapon Variants are weapons with a weapon type, a quality level (Poor, Standard, Excellent), and a unique rule. Unlike Exotic Weapons, which have some limitations, Variants behave exactly like the weapon type they belong to unless otherwise specified.

The difference between Variants and Exotics is mostly flavor-related, but also slightly changes how these weapons are balanced. Variants usually behave very closely to the weapon type they belong to, while Exotics are much more out there and quirky things to use.

Basically, Variants are usually better than standard weapons or sidegrades with unique characteristics.

For example you could just have a gun... say a heavy pistol, which uses bigger bullets. Instead of dealing 3d6 damage, it deals 3d6+1 damage.

It's like a Heavy Pistol, but it's a revolver, it deals 1 more damage when you hit and it has 6 shots in the magazine instead of 8.

That's a weapon variant. Give it a name, a cool description and you have a weapon variant that players will be really happy to find and use.

Why would some guns in Night City be rare and unique?

Obviously, weapons in Night City are made in factories by underpaid humans, not strange wizards in towers hundreds of years ago. How do we justify “mechanically magical items” to our players?

The best way to introduce “magic guns” is to make them rarer in the fiction. Like magical items in DnD, Variant and Exotic weapons are not everywhere, and it should be rare to stumble upon one. Most guns on the streets are just... normal guns.

For example, Exotic weapons and weapon variants can be military or corporate prototypes that wound up on the streets. Maybe the weapon is easily findable, but just isn’t popular, meaning that few shops and fixers can sell those weapons to the players. These weapons could also just not be sold to civilians, making them rare for edgerunners. Maybe some of these guns are made specifically for military units and police forces, so there is a very small number of them in circulation. Maybe some variants are made by local gunsmiths or criminal organisations, making them much harder to find, unless you are on good terms with these illegal manufacturers.

Basically, variants and exotics should be rare enough that they are impossible to find without looking for them. Even if there are thousands of copies of a specific Weapon Variant in circulation, it shouldn't fall into the player's lap. They'll either need to get in trouble or negotiate with a Fixer to get a hold of a Weapon Variant.

How to introduce Weapon Variants and Exotic Weapons

Here are some general rules to follow:

Variants and Exotics should not be available during character creation

The power of the “but” rule lies in the fact that players need to know and need to have used the normal version of the cool thing they found. A “+1 Sword” is only cool because you had a “Sword” before.

Therefore, players should always start with standard weapons and find variants later.

Variants and Exotics should be found through gameplay encounters.

Related to the last point, Variants and Exotic should be found during gameplay at the table. Players should find Variants and Exotics as loot on slain enemies, or by going through a social encounter at a Night Market or with a Fixer.

No need to hold back.

Unlike a game like Dungeons and Dragons, Cyberpunk Red campaigns and characters do not usually last long. You should start dropping Variants and Exotics as early as the first session. Your players are all one heashot away from death anyway.

Your game might become unbalanced.

Some Variants and Exotics can break combat encounters. Cyberpunk Red combat’s math is carefully balanced in terms of damage and actions. If you are scared of breaking the game in this way, mostly look for Variants and Exotics that add utility to weapons, instead of direct combat benefits.

Don’t give the players exactly what they want.

This is general advice for any game with magical items. While you should give rewards that you know players will be interested in, you shouldn’t give them exactly what they want. If your player uses medium pistols, give them a variant heavy pistol, or an SMG. The game world, after all, doesn’t exist for them. If they find things that don't exactly fit their playstyle, it will make the world feel more real ("It's not the Referee who placed this gun here for me, it's what this character would have on them!")