Sunday 29 June 2008

The Changing Face of Cyberpunk

If ever there was a chance of me ditching D&D as my favourite role playing game (there never has been a chance of that, but just for argument's sake) it would have been for Cyberpunk 2020 or Shadowrun. Something about the cyberpunk genre just got its hooks in me at the age of about 14 and didn't let go for quite a few years; whenever I wasn't running AD&D Planescape games during that long post-adolescent nerd period, I was off in the bright lights of Night City or California Free State, haggling with Mr. Jones and hunting cyberpsychos with smartchipped 6.5mm assault rifles. It didn't matter that I didn't even really like Shadowrun (come off it - elves and Gibson?) or most of 2020 (stupidest system ever, outside of combat) but it was cyberpunk and that was all that really mattered.

(During that time I also read William Gibson's first trilogy of books and Burning Chrome at least ten times each; I didn't understand much about them at the age of 14 except that they were brilliant. Whenever anybody criticises sci-fi or fantasy as poorly written I always want to sit them down and force them to read though Burning Chrome twice - before choking them with it.)

Recently a couple of things have made me start thinking about cyberpunk again as something that I should be doing in a game. Firstly, Dr. Rotwang made a post a few days ago in which he basically spewed out a great heap of cyberpunk love into the internet ether, and it reawakened something inside me - something dark, dirty, wearing mirror shades and carrying a railgun. But then, somebody over at Story Games brought up Cyberpunk 2020 as an example of how older games didn't really 'do' their chosen genre properly, and it's only down to Ron Edwards that we are now able to play games that really get to grips with a genre's themes. Well, hey, Cyberpunk 2020 is one of the most flawed games that has ever seen wide distribution, but I'm allowed to say that because I'm a fan; I'm damned if I'm going to hear some johnny-come-lately story-gamer person level criticisms at it, no matter how valid! (And I don't really think they are valid; Cyberpunk 2020 didn't explicitly explore the themes of the literary genre, but it certainly did implicitly.) My goat has well and truly been got; I'm going to dig out my old rulebooks and give the thing another whirl, and devil take the hindmost if anybody says otherwise.

First stop, I put up a thread on entitled Cyberpunk in 2008. Cyberpunk 2020 was released in 1990, but it is 1980's concerns made real - communism, street crime, the rise of Japan, and new international Zaibatsu. Those concerns are not present these days in the same ways; what self-respecting societal reject in 2008 is motivated by incoherent hatred of global megacorporations? But cyberpunk was always about more than that, at root - its heart has always been in what Bruce Sterling called "the victims of the New"; the people who the Brave New World of the Future has left confused, damaged and trodden underfoot. From our perspective in the new millenium, what are the kind of things that will make people into outsiders, rebels, dropouts and scumbags, and what will those people - the ones with the pizazz to do anything, that is - be directing their rage against?

Well, you can always rely on the good folks at to deliver something interesting. You can read through the thread yourself - it's full of goodness - but pick of the bunch has to be this post from E. T. Smith:

IP laws keep getting more strident and more invasive until a Rights Economy dominates all. The only people who really truly own anything anymore are the Rights holders, a tiny percentage of the population who ultimately hold the IP rights to everything, absolutely everything. The shoes on your feet, the clothes on your back, your home, the food on your plate, even the process by which the food is prepared can never ultimately belong to you. Sure you still pay an initial acquisition fee but you're really only leasing it, every individual use recorded by a dusting of nanobots and leading to a incremental debit from your financial worth....

Like that? Pure cyberpunk goodness for the new millenium. But it gets better:

Then there's Inscape. Once you establish high data volume wireless networks, and personal devices receiving constant feed from them, its not too many steps to making the virtual overlay a constant supplement to normal sensory input. Directly fed into your optic and aural centers, the real world gets a virtual overlay and makeover. Data windows drifts in the periphery of your view, remodeling an apartment (or whole building) is just a matter of changing what default 'skin' observers see, and as often as not the minor functionaries (secretaries, waiters) encountered over the course of the day are really just virtual constructs. It also offers real control over personal subjective reality. Set your preference to "Aladdin" and everything around you looks like its from the "1001 Nights". Never want to hear a dirty word again? You won't. Obviously the potential for abuse is enormous. Uptight governments love to 'white-out' sensitive (or just inconvenient) sights, and if Inscape is universal enough and you've got master over-rides, you can kill a target literally in broad daylight in a crowd and be assured that no one saw or heard anything. Worst of all are the ads, they're omnipresent, diabolical both in their ubiquity and subtlety. The ads are one of the only free things in the Rights Economy; it costs to turn them off.

Gold, my friends; pure gold. Ads are the only free things in the Rights economy; it costs to turn them off. That there could be the first line of an entire cyberpunk campaign.

What I chiefly need is a Labyrinth Lord / Rules Cyclopedia based cyberpunk game...

(I'm joking about that bit. But only just.)


  1. Wow, that really is "made of awesome" as the kids say these days.

    In the style of The Matrix or They Live, I could see doing an Edgerunner-type campaign in which the PCs willingly or unwillingly switch off their data overlays and drop out of the system. The "real world" would look much less rosy than they're used to...

  2. That's what I was thinking too. You could have a good mix of the dropouts (people who just couldn't keep up with the bills and so got kicked out of technological society) and those who opt out by choice. Some of them would just be in it for the crime and the money, others might be trying to start a revolution, others might just be Inscape vandals... there are so many possibilities.

  3. I think a great idea (for either one character or maybe the whole group?) would be to have someone who was perfectly content with their life but was sort of forced into the Edgerunner lifestyle by some sort of grand cockup. If it were my character, I'd have them replace their VR delusions with psychological ones, constantly trying to explain away all the messed up stuff they're now seeing for the first time.

  4. That is a cool idea.

    I also like the idea of a group of Marxist revolutionaries, a little like an ultra-violent, criminal version of adbusters, ("militant anti-consumerists"?) who live outside of Inscape but hack into it to fuck around with the advertisements and stage viral attacks on capitalist targets.

  5. LL-based cyberpunk...? Hmm...I don't like classes and levels outside of D&D, but Mutant Future is based on LL and doesn't have classes, so...


  6. You could be onto something, there. Might need to play around a little with the stats, but possibilities, possibilities.

  7. "what self-respecting societal reject in 2008 is motivated by incoherent hatred of global megacorporations?"

    Well, that worm turned. Although I guess the hatred of information giants is not incoherent....

    1. Things look very different 11 years on - although it depends which global megacorporations I suppose.