This role-playing game is based on the works of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and other authors of the Mirrorshades group. The game includes a number of elements now associated with the 1980s, such as the idea of "Style over Substance" and glam rock.
The game tends to emphasize some aspects of the source material more than others. Much of the focus of the game is paid to combat, high tech weaponry and augmentations (cybernetic body modifications). Performance-enhancing drugs and recreational drug use is either played down or discouraged. Although artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and cloning are barely mentioned in the core rulebook they are reintroduced in later add-ons such as the chromebook manuals.
The range of characters players can adopt is very diverse, ranging from hardwired mercenaries with psycholinked weapons and boosted reflexes, to Armani-wearing corporate mega-yuppies who make and break national economies with the stroke of a pen.
Cyberpunk 2020 is the second edition of the original game, Cyberpunk 2013, often just called "Cyberpunk." Cyberpunk 2020 featured rules updates and changes, and additionally moved the timeline forward by 7 years, to 2020. The game's timeline was also retconned to accommodate the German reunification in 1990.
The basic rules system of Cyberpunk 2020 (called the Interlock System) is skill-based instead of level-based, with players being awarded points to be spent on their skill sets. New skills outside their expertise can be learned, but in-game time needs to be spent on this. A large part of the system is the player characters' ability to augment themselves with cyber-technology and the ensuing loss of humanity as they become more machine than man.
Cyberpunk 2020 claims to lend itself to play in the street level, dark film noir genre, but certain aspects of the basic system can influence game sessions toward a high body-count, 1980s action movie style.
Although each player must choose a character class or "role" from those given in the basic rules, there is enough variation in the skill system so that no two members of the same class are alike. Because Cyberpunk 2020 is skill-based, the choice of skills around the class-specific special ability allows a wide range of character development choices including non-combatants.
The combat system, called Friday Night Firefight, emphasizes lethality. Several pages in the rules are devoted to discussing real combat vs. the illusions often seen on TV. Attempts are made to keep the combat as realistic as possible in a game setting. No matter who the character is, a single bullet can result in a lethal wound. This encourages a more tactically oriented and sneaky game play, which is in accordance to the rough-and-gritty ethos of the Cyberpunk genre. Also, the amount of damage a character can sustain does not increase as the character develops. The only way a character can become more damage resistant is to either become better at not being hit, physically augmenting their body with muscle (trained or implanted) or cybernetics, or wearing armor.