Sunday, 28 June 2009

Nihilism and Robin Hood in 2020 AD

Mr. faustusnotes, regular hand-wringing cry-me-a-river liberal commenter on my entries (just kidding) in my last entry made the comment that Cyberpunk 2020 encourages nihilism and criminal behaviour. I challenged this, pointing out that most RPGs seem to take this sort of behaviour as standard. He then followed up with the contention:
I don't think most PCs [in most games] are nihilists and criminals. Most PCs cooperate with a group of people to save the world from evil. The fantasy genre context for nihilism is completely different to the cyberpunk context.
Thinking about this, I realised that nihilistic criminals tended to be type of characters my group and I always made up for our CP 2020 campaigns, because we were teenage boys, but the game itself can be played in a moral way - and that this is very consistent with the genre.

Bruce Sterling's introductory essay to William Gibson's short-story collection Burning Chrome is a vital read for anybody who wants to understand cyberpunk as a genre. (In fact Burning Chrome, far more so than Neuromancer, is I think Gibson's true masterpiece. None of the stories dip in quality below excellent; all of them paint a compelling vision of the future.) As I've written several times, the key point that Sterling makes is that Gibson's stories - in contrast to sci-fi's general obsession with the square-jawed two-fisted heroic technocratic Ralph 124C 41+ type - concern themselves with the underbelly of society, the Victims of the New. His characters are those who have been crushed, eaten, chewed up, swallowed, and then spat out again by a society which has no place for them and does not care. This in my opinion is an almost Dickensian mode of fiction writing and highly moral: it says "These are the victims of this bleak future, here is their story, and here is how they win (or lose with defiance)."

CP 2020 can be all about that too. Ideas for Robin Hood style campaigns, off the top of my head:
  • A group of 'nomads' (Roma/Sinti or Travellers in Europe, Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians, tribal communities in Asia) are turfed off their land by the government or a corporation - how do they fight back?
  • The PCs are crusading investigative reporters uncovering dastardly exploitation of land or labour/war crimes/criminal activity/political corruption
  • The PCs are an ambulance crew/vice squad in the roughest part of a major city, trying to do some little good
  • The PCs are a group of vigilantes attempting to restore order in their neighbourhood in the face of police apathy
There are plenty more options for games which focus on stemming the tide of nihilism, rather than require nihilistic behaviour from the PCs.


  1. In a world where people are constantly ruining things with their various faith-based-initiatives, nihilism is inherently heroic.

  2. Burning chrome is such a great collection. Johnny Mnemonic, is perhaps the single best distillation of the trigger-side of things, while Fragments of a Holographic Rose is perhaps the best 'feel'-piece I've read in the sub-genre.

  3. I've never cared much for cyberpunk precisely because so much of it strikes me as so miserably hopeless. This mode you suggest appeals muchly to me.

  4. Very true. What always struck me about old-school cyberpunk (be it Gibsons stories, or Mike Pondsmith's game, or most of the cyberpunkish films that came out in the 80s and 90s) was not the nihilism, but its essentially traditional (almost Western movie derived) morality.

    The protagonists of cyberpunk were usually people trying to 'fight the power' and stop The Man from grinding the little guy underfoot. Sure, this could get a bit "Rage Against the Machine" at times, but the essential link to the existing Christian ethos of the righteous man speaking truth unto power at great risk to himself was clearly there.

    Mike Fiegel (writer of the unimprovable Ninja Burger game) made a case in his thesis Cyberpunk and the New Myth that Cyberpunk was a millennial expression of existing mythic patterns in our culture.

    In the 'if you liked; you'll love' vein. IYL Gibson's Burning Chrome, YL Paul J. McAuley's The Invisible Country

  5. related: Mike Fiegel's series of articles for R.Tal on classics of cyberpunk cinema 1981-2001. Starts with Escape from New York and well worth a read.

    (I could bore on about this crap for hours mind...)

  6. I'm not happy about this! I'm meant to be spending my Sunday evening being productive and doing chores and stuff, and you throw out another challenge that requires me to go do a blog post. And just because Wimbledon is on, must we do this tennis-like back-and-forth?

    But, more seriously, I think my throwaway comment was misleading in the last thread. I don't think that the cyberpunk novels necessarily describe nihilism as a moral plus or anything, and I agree that they clearly (as you and Chris said) present a moral reaction against the society described there. Although I think there's a strain of cyberpunk (genre) boosterism which sometimes dangerously loses track of the critique inherent in the original books.

    But the genre provides temptations to self-indulgent criminal nihilism that is not productive in RPGs. I shall blog upon this weighty matter!

    Also I think 1. is well-suited to Shadowrun.

  7. "But the genre provides temptations to self-indulgent criminal nihilism that is not productive in RPGs."

    Are you serious?


    Dark Dungeons much?

  8. I don't know what you mean by dark dungeons, Zak S. I meant "productive" in that catch-all jargon-speak way that really means "getting stuff done". i.e. it's hard to make any progress through an interesting campaign when the players answer to everything is "we'll buy a bigger gun".

    Maybe you play a different sort of adventuring to me? My point is not so much that cyberpunk is only suited to nihilistic criminal play, but that it encourages other styles of play to head that way, more I think than other genres.

  9. Faustus:
    Ah, we seem to have hit upon a complex game-o-logical point here.

    I have no problem with a game where the solution is always "find a way to kill the other guy". This is, in fact, is the engine of all wargames, my own Road of Knives and a lot of wonderful RPG campaigns.

    What I DO have a problem with is when the game mechanics make it so that the best way to kill the other guy is ALWAYS and ONLY "buying a bigger gun".

    The idea is to make it a game about tactics and problem-solving rather than shopping--which isn;t too hard.

    It is not the cyberpunk genre that causes the "big gun" problem, but the mechanics of the individual system and a lack of creativity on the GM's part.

    In actual real life buying a big gun is NOT the best way to kill someone. Stealth, cleverness and close study is.

    This is largely because of the many overlapping interests of foes who feel it is in their interest to protect and/or avenge your target, and the rather conspicuous nature of your larger firearms.

    A cyberpunk game can EASILY be designed to work this way.

    You see a foe walking down the street--yes, you could shoot him with a bazooka, but then all his mafia buddies would know you shot him with a bazooka and then all hell would therefore break loose--as in a dungeon when you shoot a fireball at a lone goblin guard.

    So instead you do some trickery, role-playing, poisoning, etc. etc.

    The cyberpunk mantra should be: The whole city is a dungeon--fear it as you would the Palace of the Spider Empress.

    What nihilism has to do with any of this escapes me.

  10. Zak: That depends on how you define heroism. (It also depends on your perspective on faith-based initiatives, of course.) As well as going against the grain, I think a core element of heroism is selflessness - whereas nihilism is I think inherently selfish, because in a world without values all that is left is the Self.

    Timeshadows: I love all the stories, but my personal favourite has to be the title story. Perfect noir fiction where the criminal act becomes secondary to getting the girl - whose only concern is the criminal act and the money involved.

    Rach: It's actually the most hopeful of genres in my opinion - about transcendence, really.

    Chris: Excellent article. Nice to know I'm not alone in thinking this.

    The "get big guns and Break Stuff" motif which seems to dominate CP as a role playing genre is, I think, almost entirely down to the preponderence of teenage boys and maladjusted adult men in the hobby, who are kind of angry at the world and think CP is a good opportunity to go apeshit in a safe environment.

    The genre was never about that (Gibson's work is surprisingly low on violence, in fact), but somehow in the rpg world that's what it warped into. Strange.

  11. faustusnotes: I commented on your recent entry.

    The first one could work well with Shadowrun I suppose - although in Shadowrun the American Indians and Aboriginals had become so powerful that it's difficult to imagine it happening. In fact the reverse (white people being disposessed of their lands by indigenous groups) is more likely in Shadowrun!

  12. Noisms: that would be a very interesting counter-scenario. I ran a brief campaign in Middle Earth 4th Age in which a bunch of elven fascists hired the PCs to help them dispossess the Dunlendings of their land and restore an ancient elven kingdom. In the end the Dunlendings were the good guys. It was fun.

  13. I was reminded of this post while reading Rav Hutner's take on the 'precarious nature of good' (second half of this article ) as opposed to Rav Elchanan Wasserman's initial assumption on which he argues.

    Also reminded me a bit of the post on 3d6