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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.