Thursday, 3 November 2011

A Walk Down Memory Lane

Like many role playing enthusiasts of my generation, I spent my formative years not so much dicking around with D&D as dicking around with Cyberpunk 2020 and, to a slightly lesser extent, Shadowrun. It's difficult to believe now, because times have changed so much, but these games really were popular back then. At my local Virgin Megastore (which shows how far back in time this is going; not only did Virgin Megastores stop stocking RPG books about 15 years ago, they disappeared entirely about 10 years ago) CP2020 and Shadowrun books were probably second only in volume to AD&D ones, with MERP and Rifts stuff being vastly distant fourth and fifth. Before the hideous rise of Vampire: The Masquerade, I think it's safe to say that CP2020 bore the mantle of the "credible alternative" to AD&D (inasmuch as any role playing game can be "credible"). Where AD&D (by now in its 2nd edition) was seen as stale, cliched, and trite, there was still something edgy about CP2020, with its extremely deadly and realistic combat system, its rules for drug use, and sassy writing style.

Of course, nowadays when you page through the rule-book, the edginess seems amazingly tame and endearingly non-edgy. Mike Pondsmith's authorial voice is still very much in evidence and it's not hard to imagine why my 14-year-old self was impressed with lines like:

[So] you're starting to look over the list of cyberenhancements, and you're thinking, "I don't have the kind of Eurobucks I need to swing this newtech." At this point, you have to ask yourself "How desperate am I? Am I really hard up enough to risk death and dismemberment just to get a lousy cyberarm?"
Sure you are.

In fact, fuck it, I'm still impressed with it now; cheesy it may be, but this guy really knew how to make a rulebook fun to read, and, more importantly, he knew how to make a rulebook make you really want to play the game.

But it's all quite safe and charming, from a 2011 perspective. One of the illustrations has a guy with two guns and a tattoo of a pentagram with '666' on his shoulder (ooh!). In the section on how to design/buy drugs, the reader is reminded that drugs will "mess up [your character] beyond repair - just like in real life". And there's no bad language, so we get hilarious "melon farmer" style quasi-swearing ("Who does this choob think he is?").

More noticeably, of course - and this, ultimately, is probably the reason for the demise of cyberpunk in general as a literary, cinematic, or ludic genre - it's all so very, very wrong about how the future has turned out. Although, notionally, CP2020 was "set" in the year 2020, and we can't say what might happen in the next 9 years, so many of its predictions about how the world would be have turned out to be laughably wrong. (Indeed, I find it neatly ironic that the main message of one of William Gibson's early stories, The Gernsbeck Continuum, which took the piss out of 1930s sci-fi's vision of the future, could quite easily be applied to cyberpunk.)

So, in the CP2020 rulebook, we are told that a cellular phone will cost $400 and a contract for cell phone service $100/month. You are expected to pay $1/minute at a phone-box-esque "Data Term" in order to access newspapers and other information online. Cyberdecks are used not for social networking, creating wikipedia articles, or arguing on forums because "somebody is wrong on the internet", but only for the very limited purposes of data mining and sabotage. Pocket computers have "100 pages of alphanumeric memory" (gasp!). And if you're a music fan, you can buy "digital music chips" containing up to 6 (!) albums to listen to on your "digital chip player".

More significantly perhaps, because these are just cosmetic, cyberpunk as a genre and CP2020 as a game was just wrong in its vision of how society would develop. CP2020 asks us to imagine a future in which the streets are ruled by crazed boostergangs, corporations fight wars against nation-states, nuclear meltdown has made entire areas of the globe uninhabitable, and the Soviet Union is still a dominant force. We don't live in that kind of dystopia, and some blips notwithstanding, our lives are immeasurably better now than they were in 1985.

This is undoubtedly why CP2020 slipped from the minds of role players. Tastes change, and set against the WoD games I suppose it began to seem quaint, old-fashioned, and just a bit naff. Just as you don't see films like Blade Runner being made any more, you don't see cyberpunk having any legs as a genre of RPG; it's not so much that CP2020 has disappeared, it's that nothing has replaced it.

But in a sense none of that really matters, because as a game it did work once, and there's no reason why it can't still work today. Some day I'd like to pick up my old CP2020 rulebook and, like the old school movement did for D&D, play the game on its own merits, warts and all, and see what charms I can discover. Forget the internet; we have cyberspace. Never mind facebook; cyberspace is for hacking into other peoples' bank accounts. Forget ubiquitous iPhones; cell-phones are the preserve of the super-rich and still weigh a kilo. Laptops cost thousands of dollars and, if you're lucky, might hold 8 MB of RAM. And yet at the same time, we're able to literally create replacement eyes out of silicon and metal. Soviet-created bio-plagues and radioactive fallout pass on hideous diseases to the unprotected. And all the while, in the mean streets of vast dystopian cityscapes, anarchy reigns, and cyberpsychos stalk the earth...


  1. Only Cell phones do cost 400$ and 100$ a month! (err, 299$ and 79$ but close enough)

  2. Really? You guys pay for your phones in the States? Here you get 'em for free with your contract, usually. Even iPhones.

  3. I have to say...I LOVE Cyberpunk 2020. I am 30 something, play other games also but CP2020 is something near and dear to me. Mind you I do play D&D, Pathfinder and WoD...but their is something nostalgic about CP2020. Heck...I recently started up a Monday night group for it and introducing it to a whole new group of people who were too young to have heard of it.

  4. If you have a "data plan" (in other words, own a smartphone), your monthly bill can very easily be $100 or more in the US.

  5. I love CP2020 (CPv3, errr..... notsomuch). I have often felt that you could probably take a lot of the stuff in CYBERGENERATION and use it as a "modern" updating of CP2020. That being said, I would LOVE to see someone try to "update" the history of the game, and some of the ideas, to make it more in line with what HAS happened (CP2040, anyone?). At one point, I had created a CP2020 timeline for Canada, and was also involved in the Neo-City Project, which I'm not even sure is still around anymore. I miss this game.

  6. Here in France I'm paying over 100 Euro(buck)s for unlimited data and voice (although at different data rates), and if someone jacked me for my bling or my phone got splintered (has happened, twice) it would cost over 200E(b) to replace. Instead of the Soviet Union threatening us with old-fashioned death and Japan with assimilation, we have an emerging China, which is still in a breathless "shadow rising in Angmar" phase, perfect for cyber-ranger campaigns, and terrorists and Southeast Asian pirates as netrunnery as you like (albeit without the chrome). If you don't think corporations fight wars against nation-states, check out the current credit/banking crisis and Greece (...Italy...Spain...France...UK...) or Chinese investment in Africa. Sure, there's not much wasteful missile-throwing, yet, but I haven't seen such a great environment for paranoid Jamesbondian shenanigans since the Berlin Wall came down. And it may not have had the style or staying power of Blade Runner but Minority Report was an out-and-out Cyberpunk film, Inception was pomo/Prisoner brainhacking. The Matrix..? Bourne, Enemy of the State and any recent Clive Owen vehicle are the same story with the superficial chrome knocked off. I grant, there might have been real investment in those superficies, but those are also the elements that it's easiest to change.

    So yeah, time for a Cyberpunk revival. Maybe it should be called something else, though. Anonymous? Social Fightback?

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  9. (Third time lucky?)

    My introduction to the hobby -- barring some confused attempts at playing Fighting Fantasy as a group -- was Shadowrun, and it was years before I played any form of D&D, so I know where you're coming from.

    Rpg fans on the internet being what they are, there was quite a furore when the newest edition of Shadowrun came out and they'd done away with most of the 80's-tinged futurism in favour of a more plausible vision of the future based on today's projections.

    Putting aside that it's a game with elves and dragons in it, so you know, plausibility is not a strong point anyway, and putting aside that today's projections are likely to be as outmoded in ten years as the original's are now, I still think "updating the future" is unnecessary.

    I don't see the cyberpunk genre -- in its classic mirrorshades and chrome sense -- as being invalid simply because our understanding of what the future will be like has changed. Instead I see it in the same way as all those 1950's rockets-and-rayguns visions of the future; we can be pretty sure that this isn't how the future will turn out, but that doesn't make it any less interesting or fun as a setting.

    The big spiky hair, Bowie-esque androgeny, neon and chrome are all part of what makes cyberpunk flavourful as a setting for me, so I don't have a problem with those aspects being outdated or implausible.

    Plus, I find the genre's literary replacement -- transhumanism -- rather dull, like science fiction written by accountants.

  10. Regarding phones... I got a free BlackBerry with unlimited emails and data and 300 free minutes and SMSs for £25 a month. I guess the UK's market is much more competitive than elsewhere!

    I do think that you could certainly make an "up-to-date" version of CP2020 including all the things that richard mentioned, but what I was trying to get at with this post was that (as Kelvin said) there's a kind of charm in the 80s-ness of the original. So if I was going to run it again I might consider setting it in the 2020 that people imagined in 1985.

    As for transhumanism, I agree. I don't really understand the point of it or what it even is.

  11. A friend of mine borrowed my copy of CP2020 in high school and never gave it back, so my development ran up the opposite branch of the Shadowrun books I still had. Never played much of it, though, due to rule density.

    Just last month I was searching again for a rules-light cyberpunk system and ran across Zaibatsu -

    Which satisfies all my desires. It earns my vote as the most OD&D of such systems. Check out the rules for a gunfight:

    "All combat takes place in 10 second combat "rounds" and is practically simultaneous. Hand-to-hand combat goes first, followed by gunfire, and lastly, by movement. If two characters shoot at each other and hit, they are both wounded and fall over. Clever killers use tactics to get around this rule." There are some modifiers for cover and the rest of the (short) firearms rules are about ambushing and holding a gun on someone.

    Now that's gritty. Skills and cyberware have no numbers attached to them; they're just toggles for 'stuff you can do'. This is from 1998 and I've never heard of it until just now.

    I'm almost tempted to do a mini-conversion of my still-mint copy of Cybergeneration into the lighter Zaibatsu system. The cyber plague where you develop the T-1000 metal limbs is still one of the coolest abilities I've ever heard of.

  12. I had all the Cybergeneration stuff, but I could never figure out how to run the game. It seemed to want to be gritty, but kids with superpowers are still just kids, and aren't a match for an oppressive police state with power armour and machine guns. I didn't see much potential in a game in which the players characters are shot or beaten to death every session.

    The solution, of course, is to run it as a futuristic cyberpunk X-Men, but I was resistant to do so at the time for some reason.

  13. I've just recently re-read William Gibson's first trilogy, and I think that it holds up really well. Sure some details are slightly off now, but a lot of things seem still vaguely possible.

    Some of the setting details of 2020 seem pretty good still, and the combat rules are great: utterly lethal.

  14. CP2020 asks us to imagine a future in which the streets are ruled by crazed boostergangs, corporations fight wars against nation-states, nuclear meltdown has made entire areas of the globe uninhabitable, and the Soviet Union is still a dominant force.

    Give it time. We've a decade or so yet... ;)

    I wasted so much time on CP2020 back in the day. The screwed-up Neo-Cromwellian Britain (fish'n'chips, military government and cyberware!) lurking on the edge of sleek, glossy Eurotopia was an especial favourite. Pure 2000AD/Moorcockian dystopia.

    Possible site of interest:
    A Ghanaian writer who - riffing on Gibson's idea "the future is here, just unevenly distributed" - makes a case that modern Africa is cyberpunk.

  15. "We don't live in that kind of dystopia, and some blips notwithstanding, our lives are immeasurably better now than they were in 1985."

    Can we swap? I'd like to live in your world. In my reality things went horribly wrong around the turn of the millenium, and have been getting worse for more than ten years now.

  16. I really like Mike Pondsmith's writing. I love reading the Mekton books, too much fun.

    I never got to play much Cyberpunk 2020, which is something I've been wanting to remedy. I wasn't too taken by Shadowrun, but that was due to some early edition rules issues as I recall. It's been a long time, so I don't remember specifics. I had good fun with GURPS Cyberpunk.

    I love the genre, I just never get to play it.

  17. I've been reading some of your Cyberpunk 2020 posts, most likely you're annoyed by now because you have to read what you wrote just to make sense of my minor contributions. I've been on a re-reading binge lately, sparked by Norman Spinrad's Little Heroes. Other than Gibson's last trilogy, the others had sat on my shelf for years, shifting slightly as I bought other books by these same authors. None of them still write "cyberpunk," although you find cyberpunk-like books such as Kevin Mcleod's Stone Canal, which is set in a much more distant future, but seems populated with similar characters or Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl which has the tone of cybepunk, but involves different technologies and ultimately is a different world.

    "it's all so very, very wrong about how the future has turned out"

    Well it always is. If you've ever played Gamma World, it's much the same. The Gamma World isn't really so much a realistic post-apocalypse world, such as the Morrow project, which I think could still be played today and even sold as a new game by slapping a Jericho,Jeremiah, or Mad Max label on it. The Gamma World's focus is that odd conceit of the early Cold War, where people actually thought that you'd get cool powers from nuclear radiation and freaky mutations, rather than cancer and spontaneous abortions. It's a world of John Wyndham's Chrysalids. It's Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky with two headed Joe-Jim. It's Piers Anthony's Of Man and Manta series or his Battle Circle series. It's Sean Connery in a red diaper encountering mutants. For that matter, it's the Toxic Avenger getting hit with nuclear waste and becoming a superhero. Even when it came out, it was always a bit of camp, as how can you take a game serious when it has a mutant race of intelligent human sized bunnies?

    Even Traveller seems dated now as it was largely focused on the away missions of Star Trek. A small group landing on alien planets. While it branched out a bit, it was still only to emulate Poul Anderson's Ensign Flandry or Nicholas Van Rijn.

    At the time, cyberpunk seemed somewhat probable. You had a variety of authors all writing similar futures and they were good at what they did. It was a bit of a golden age, a rejuvenation of the genre.

    Yet we forgot the old rule of science fiction, that 1984 isn't about 1984, it's about 1948. Cyberpunk is ultimately about the 70s,80s and 90s. It's about the Clash singing in Red angel Dragnet "who wants to walk in the park at midnight," a populace in fear of the violent city. A populace which was retreating into it's electronics, in their own way as scary a change as those nuclear bombs were once. Game systems and television to keep us safe from the night. Even as the formerly white world (or in the USA white-black)seemed to becoming threateningly different, to be dissolving into a chaotic mix of foreignness and multiculturalism. A world of Japanese anime and Hong Kong Kung fu movies. A world of tattoos, rastafari, and computers.

    Now I admit, I'm optimistic, I think you could strip the game down and rebuild it. Having never seen much of the game, I think you could hammer out a cyberpunk future for today. Maybe one that is a bit less LA Noir-Bladerunner and a bit more Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age. The solution might be for you to sketch out a future where Scotland's secession leads to a balkanized Britain or going the other way into a conservative reaction and a surveillance state.

    Which is most likely how guys end up GMing at gaming conventions trying to sell the new RPG they have a five thousand of int heir garage.

    1. We have nothing to fear but fear itself... which is taking over in all sorts of ways: fear of the lawless, fear of predation, fear of governments, torture, surveillance, rendition, being tarred a criminal. And environmental collapse and corporate genehacking. I've no doubt one could make a good game out of that: one that strikes nearer the heart than cyberpunk ever did.

      One of the ways cyberpunk disappeared was it went mainstream: the hacker is now a standard part of thriller plots, a support character (like a caryatid holding up the alcove where the central model/statue is displayed) - the computer net is a handy tool for villains who don't have to be dangerous in other ways.

    2. I think charter cities might be a good idea in theory and even in practice, but I also think that they are great grist for the dystopian cyberpunk mill. And they're not fantasy: it seems as if there will be one in Honduras sooner or later.

    3. reminds me of good old Corbusier

      Anyone who says "focusing on the potential for startup cities to fast track reform" with a straight face is trouble.
      fast track reform sounds like revolution, but in practice it's a combination of the powerful against the powerless.

    4. Paul Romer is worth listening to: