18
Jun

Write a Breathtaking Cyberpunk Game

With all the hype surrounding CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 video game , your table-top players may be craving some chrome-plated, roleplaying goodness. If you’ve never run or played in a cyberpunk-style world, I’ve put together a little primer to get you and your group plugged in and hacking the Gibson in no time. And if you’ve been running the shadows since the old days (before half the predictions in the books came true), then check out some of the inspirational material below to get you back on that creative subway into Night City.

 

Gimme the PayData, Chummer

What is Cyberpunk? It’s a genre of stories, movies, and games set in a near-future, tech-heavy dystopia where oppressive corporations and governments (often the same thing) are challenged only by the lawless, street-level rebels (the punks). The usual hallmarks include massive urban environments, an abundance of computer technology, and low-life’s surviving by way of crime. It’s compelling because it’s futuristic prospects are plausible and relatable to a modern person, and it’s an interesting gaming environment because the stories are usually focused on scrappy protagonists who are anti-heroes in the eyes of the broken society in which they dwell.

Systems and Screamsheets

There’s a number of mainstream and indy game systems on the market that cater to the cyberpunk genre. Below is a list of the more common titles in no particular order. Any sort of modern, near-future, or futuristic setting could be adapted fairly easily to include mechanics for hacking, cyberware, and similar tropes. What rules-set you choose is entirely up to personal preference, as the real focus of the game will likely be on the theme, plot, and characters.

Threatening Themes and Sprawl Settings

The subject matter of the standard cyberpunk-style game is usually something that revolves around the gutter-dwelling Underdogs versus the Overlord in his Tower of Babel – the former often being the poor, rebellious street heroes and the latter being some type of rich, powerful, corporate entity with an unquenchable thirst for wealth and power. The Big Bad Evil Guy(s) in this setting have already conquered the world in a manner of speaking. They have written the unjust laws that oppress the masses, they control the corporate security forces that brutalize the populace, and they experiment with dangerous technologies to fulfill their greed and hedonism. There are no consequences for them unless the heroes succeed at bringing them to justice in some way. The deck is stacked against the players from the start and you can hammer home the point at every opportunity – show the grinding poverty that forces average people to turn outlaw for survival’s sake, create an environment where the elite seem untouchable, and demonstrate early-on that money equals freedom.

Within this built-in meta-theme, you can also weave other, complimentary threads: the careless destruction of nature; the chaos and decay of an unchecked, urban sprawl; the disposability of the poor; and the inevitable corruption of the desperate. Plot-lines for players might include heists, turf wars, mercenary missions, corporate espionage, and technology run amok, just to name a few. But the core of most cyberpunk games is the disparity between those who have it all and those who have nothing.

Interesting scenes will be important to help set your dystopia apart from the real world. Here are a few to get you started:

  • The Failed Arcology – a collapsed dome of jagged glass, overgrown with weeds and piled high with the ruins of a concrete city-within-a-city; now home to an “experiment” gone wild.
  • The O2 Bar – an oxygen bar and indoor green-space that charges by the minute for (relatively) clean air and a glimpse of carefully protected plant-life; a rarity in the sprawl.
  • Plastic Island – a mass of floating filth just off the coast that has enough stability for a shanty-town to have been built, where outcasts and black markets thrive.
  • The Super-Highway – a high-speed transit corridor with a mag-lev train line running straight down the center; the perfect setting for chases and fast-paced action.
  • Low-Orbit Space Resort – a hyper-expensive getaway for the (literally) untouchable elite and the perfect locale for high-powered business deals.
  • Junkyard Fortress – annexed by a succession of well-armed gangs, this scrap-walled stronghold is a dangerous den of organized outlaws and anarchists.
  • The Sky Bridges – mile-high corridors between skyscrapers, these precarious perches are a kind of neutral ground that exists between rival megacorporations who keep a tenuous peace while they mass their troops for corporate warfare.
  • The Drop – a “borrowed” military drop-ship that occasionally shows up in random spots in the city; crewed by lunatics, it serves as an eclectic shop for rare commodities and a pop-up restaurant.

Rockers and Runners and Riggers, Oh My!

Once you have your places in-place, you’ll need a populace. Characters in a cyberpunk game should feel a little bit broken – damaged by the world and pieced together from whatever scraps they could gather up. Survivalists and sociopaths tend to thrive in environments where brutality puts synth-food on the table, but keep in mind that most people on the “ground level” are still there because they’re not hard enough to rise up through the ranks of society. It’s these people that the Robin Hood heroes may ultimately be fighting for.

Here’s a short list of character ideas:

  • Garbage Miner – a courageous/crazy laborer who uses various drones and suits to carve through the old garbage mountains of the old world, looking for lost resources.
  • Bike Messenger – a city courier who specializes in speed and knows how to get a bit of data or a small package anywhere you want, quickly, quietly, and with as few dead bodies as possible.
  • Audio Joe – an information broker with cybernetic ears; he’s got rumors for sale and a network of contacts who can dig up whatever dirt you need.
  • Surrogate Celebrity – an icon in the world of first-person streaming; you can see and feel everything she does if you have the right implants and a subscription.
  • AR Junkie – an augmented reality addict who seems to zone out, mid-conversation as his favorite cartoon characters join him for lunch.

 

 

  • Tank – a hacker who takes over whatever nearby electronic device he can when he needs to talk to you; in reality he’s in a vat on life support, dying from a disease given to him intentionally by a former corporate employer.
  • The Marksman – a rogue A.I. hunter who specializes in those pesky bots that error out and think they’ve evolved into something that isn’t property.
  • Jimmy Platinumface – a rockerboy wannabe who’s trying to earn enough money to produce his next album and take the stage as the pop idol he always knew he could be.
  • Day Job – a corporate executive by day and a merciless mercenary by night, this adrenaline junkie gets his kicks pretending to be a ruthless bounty hunter with all the best gear.
  • Cyber-Addict – a former special forces operative who reached the end of her shelf life, she now takes ever more risky contracts to get the next piece of cyberware in her endless quest for tech.
  • Scavenger – a former street doc who found there was profit to be made in harvesting cyberware from people who died in shootouts…and a few who didn’t quite die.
  • Xpo – a half-crazy, gonzo journalist who wants to unleash truth upon the world of independent media by putting himself and his cameras into the most dangerous situations imaginable.
  • Dad Bot – an adorable little old man who tinkers with drones and usually has a few dozen little pets buzzing or shambling around at all times; he seems harmless except for those couple of military-grade spiders with pop-out chain guns.

 

Inspiration from the Info Bro

If you need to get in the Megacorporate mindset, check out some of the following media to enhance your SINless sensibilities.

Authors / Books:

  • William Gibson
  • Neal Stephenson
  • Bruce Sterling
  • Philip K. Dick
  • The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
  • The Girl Who Was Plugged In, James Tiptree Jr.
  • The “Ware” Tetralogy, Rudy Rucker
  • Eclipse, John Shirley
  • The Glass Hammer, K. W. Jeter
  • Metrophage, Richard Kadrey
  • Synners, Pat Cadigan
  • Trouble and Her Friends, Melissa Scott

Comics / Graphic Novels:

  • Transmetropolitan
  • The Long Tomorrow
  • Judge Dredd
  • Tokyo Ghost
  • 2020 Visions
  • The Surrogates
  • Ronin

Games:

  • Deus Ex
  • Shadowrun: Dragonfall
  • Metal Gear
  • Frozen Synapse
  • Syndicate Wars
  • System Shock
  • Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon
  • Hacker (Card Game, out of print)
  • Netrunner (Card Game)

Series/Anime:

  • Black Mirror
  • Mr. Robot
  • Ghost in the Shell
  • Altered Carbon
  • The Expanse
  • Westworld
  • Continuum
  • Orphan Black
  • Bubblegum Crisis
  • Appleseed
  • Almost Human
  • Batman Beyond
  • Armitage III

Movies:

  • Johnny Mneumonic
  • Blade Runner
  • Equilibrium
  • The Matrix Trilogy / The Animatrix
  • Robocop
  • Total Recall
  • Terminator
  • The Fifth Element
  • Gattica
  • Elysium
  • Babylon A.D.
  • Minority Report
  • Lawnmower Man
  • The Thirteenth Floor
  • The Circle
  • I, Robot
  • Alita: Battle Angel

Music:

  • Perturbator
  • The Prodigy
  • Lorn
  • Lazerhawk
  • Cybernetika
  • Droid Bishop
  • Bourgeoisie
  • Polymatrix

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