Level One Wonk: Cyberpunk

Style Over Substance. Attitude is Everything. Take it to the Edge. Break the Rules. I’m the Level One Wonk, and today we’re going to the hairy edge, the space between real and digital where high tech and low life mix into a dark future where it’s always raining and everyone wears their mirrorshades at night. That’s right, choombas, we’re going Cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk didn’t crawl gasping out of a clone vat as an RPG genre, but at the same time Cyberpunk literature and Cyberpunk games often seem like they have nothing to do with one another. In some ways, it boggles the mind that William Gibson’s sci-fi send up of Raymond Chandler is somehow responsible for a game where you can use cyberlegs to vertically jump out of skylights and fire guns so large that they need exoskeletal mounts to even aim correctly. And yet, they are related. To see how the chimera of the Cyberpunk RPG came to be, knowing at least a little bit about the books, movies, and yes, anime which made up the genre corpus in the 80s is essential.

A brief history of the Cyberpunk genre

Cyberpunk as a term was coined by Bruce Bethke in 1980, though the eponymous story was first widely published in 1983. The reason it’s important to note both of these dates is that in between, in 1982, Blade Runner premiered and immediately the vision of Cyberpunk was cemented in the cultural consciousness. In 1984 William Gibson wrote Neuromancer and it was off to the races. The story of Case, a hacker, Molly, a mercenary, and their ex-military fixer, Armitage, was instantly popular for both its concrete (and much to Gibson’s dismay, prescient) vision of the future as well as adept homage to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Despite not being the first author to write about computer networks in this way (both Bethke and John Brunner were writing in the space before), Gibson got to become the father of Cyberpunk by cementing it, stylistically, as a fusion of science fiction and hardboiled. Neuromancer was the first novel to win all three of the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards, and Cyberpunk became the most vital and important movement in science fiction at the time.

Cyberpunk as a bona fide literary phenomenon lasted, at first, from 1984 until 1992. In 1992 Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash was released. Snow Crash was itself immensely popular, with its own vision of the future that doubled down yet further on Gibson’s vision of “the Net” and the potential consequences of increasing corporate hegemony. Snow Crash also satirized the original Gibsonian vision of Cyberpunk, something Stephenson would continue to do in his next novel, The Diamond Age (where he gunned down a “Cyberpunk” character in the first chapter as a deliberate allegory). Many critics thought Cyberpunk and its distinctly 80s visions of computers and shifting world powers were now quaint, and more parody than prescient. Near-future sci-fi novels that came after Snow Crash were often termed “post-cyberpunk”, implying that the setting and technological elements were often the same but were typically couched in a different set of themes and storylines, divorcing the movement from its hardboiled beginnings..

The 90s was the era of “post-cyberpunk” but the genre and its themes didn’t die, just changed with the times. While it’s hard to tell exactly when the “Second Wave” of Cyberpunk began, the earliest signpost that many point to is Richard K Morgan’s Altered Carbon, released in 2003. While Takeshi Kovacs filled Case’s anti-hero boots quite nicely, the book also dealt with issues of both staggering wealth inequality as well as transhumanism, and asked hard questions about how these elements would interact. It appeared that Cyberpunk was back in style, now asking political and cultural questions better suited to the 21st century. “The net” became ubiquitous computing, and corporate warfare became more subtle, asking what soft power already existed in the corporate realm. The authorial landscape also became less male and less white, inviting in new visionaries like Lauren Beukes, Malka Older, and Paolo Bacigalupi. The second wave of Cyberpunk is now in full force, using Gibson’s template of “five minutes into the future” to interrogate wealth inequality, globalization, climate change, and social networking, among other topics.

Cyberpunk RPGs exploded in popularity just as Cyberpunk literature was having its first sunset, and as games like Cyberpunk and Shadowrun carried science fiction role-playing into the 1990s, they both waved the banner for Cyberpunk fiction as well as trumpeted its greatest excesses.

A brief history of the Cyberpunk RPG

Cyberpunk gaming came about initially in two forms, as a reaction to the continuing popularity of Dungeons and Dragons and as a celebration of Cyberpunk in broad culture and nerd culture. Cyberpunk was released in 1988 from R. Talsorian Games, written by Mike Pondsmith. Pondsmith was both influenced by gaming predecessors as well as his own nerd culture surroundings…the Lifepath system in Traveller is noted as a particular influence by Pondsmith in many interviews. Another strong influence, and the source material for Pondsmith’s first game, Mekton, was anime. Anime was neither as popular nor as easy to find in mid-80s America as it is now, but Pondsmith’s nerd network and Berkeley, California location made it a bit easier. Japan was having their own Cyberpunk era, with anime like Bubblegum Crisis being produced as early as 1987. Cyberpunk, and later Cyberpunk 2020, combined all these influences, and even had sourcebooks written by noted Cyberpunk authors Walter Jon Williams and George Alec Effinger.

Shadowrun came later than Cyberpunk by a couple years, but became the heavyweight both because of its unique setting and long publication history. Shadowrun took the elements of Cyberpunk being emphasized in, well, Cyberpunk (cyberware, megacorporations, big guns) and mixed in fantasy races and magic, putting a completely different spin on the game. While Cyberpunk and Shadowrun coexisted for quite some time, Cyberpunk died with a whimper with the maligned Cyberpunk v3 while Shadowrun’s Fourth Edition received a shot in the arm from a new publisher, Catalyst Game Labs, and tie-ins to a number of successful video games.

Newer Cyberpunk RPGs have begun to crop up since the early 2010s after a period of relative inactivity. Interface Zero is the current big name in traditional Cyberpunk RPGs, being available for Savage Worlds, Fate, and soon Pathfinder. Several PbtA games have risen up to take the Cyberpunk mantle as well, with The Sprawl and The Veil offering adjacent but unique approaches to the genres, and Headspace emphasizing a very specific Cyberpunk vision in the vein of the TV series Sense8. There are others coming down the pike as well, especially as second wave Cyberpunk is itself jumping from books to other media, most notably with the recent Netflix adaptation of Altered Carbon. And Cyberpunk itself, the original and the juggernaut, is getting a seriously hyped digital adaptation from CD Projekt Red. This video game has Mike Pondsmith himself on the creative team, and it’s been rumoured that success of the game could lead to more Cyberpunk tabletop material.

Game structures

Cyberpunk games mostly have a fairly uniform narrative structure. The player characters are a group of freelance operatives who are contracted by a fixer (or “Mr. Johnson”) to perform illegal work on behalf of a large corporation or organized crime syndicate. The fixer arranges the particulars while keeping the actual customer at arm’s length, and transfers the payment to the characters upon completion of the work. Typical Cyberpunk story arcs involve building relationships with certain fixers only to have them betray the party once the client’s identity has been compromised, and discovering that the goals of their heretofore disconnected missions are actually all a part of something larger and more sinister. Due to both of these tropes, classic Cyberpunk antagonists are slippery fixers and corporate handlers with their own ulterior motives. In typical hardboiled style, while arcs often involve taking down individual actors within corporations, the corporation itself almost always carries on unaffected. In the past this has created opportunities for publisher-driven “metaplots” where the events in the world unfold at a level above that of player characters through advancing timelines in the supplements. Cyberpunk’s Firestorm supplements were focused on this idea, while Shadowrun’s timeline has advanced in every subsequent edition.

While Cyberpunk has always had its base tropes (black operatives, Mr. Johnson betrays the party, etc.), pushing back on these tropes is almost as old as the Cyberpunk RPG itself. Cyberpunk created a number of classes which came from narrative characters but which were often very difficult to integrate into party play. The Rockerboy class was a musician archetype based on a character from John Shirley’s A Song Called Youth trilogy, but their special ability around persuading and leading crowds was only useful in certain situations. Similarly, the media has played a role in many Cyberpunk works, notably the Transmetropolitan comic series. Though it had a strong narrative foundation, within a game the Media class didn’t fit easily. In the Cyberpunk GM’s Guide Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads, Mike Pondsmith and other contributing authors wrote essays on integrating these niche characters (niche compared to the core and straightforward solo, fixer, tech, and medtech classes), but even with good advice the rules support for these characters wasn’t there.

Later games have not moved far from the traditional Cyberpunk party composition. Interface Zero is built on more modern and flexible systems, giving better rules support for a range of character ideas. That said, the typical Interface Zero game still involves black ops player characters taking on missions from shadowy fixer. Both Headspace and The Sprawl double down on this despite the ostensibly significant narrative leeway the PbtA system could give the games.

If you want to run a game in a Cyberpunk setting but organize it around a different conceit than a group of operatives, there are options. The Veil is a much more typical PbtA game than either The Sprawl or Headspace, and especially with its Cascade supplement has many more options for using the game to “play to find out what happens” in a Cyberpunk setting. Cyberpunk 2020 can use its niche characters well, but only if a GM writes for it ahead of time. A media-centric or rockerboy-centric campaign could very well be fantastic, but those characters will fall by the wayside if the GM doesn’t throw them a narrative bone. And if you want the ultimate level of flexibility, GURPS has had great Cyberpunk support since 1990 (after the GURPS Cyberpunk manuscript was infamously seized by the Secret Service). Near-future, gritty games fall into the GURPS mechanical sweet spot without a lot of tweaking.

Technology

There are a few primary technology tropes which drive Cyberpunk games: cybernetic enhancements, computer networking and intrusion, and mind-machine interfaces.

Cybernetic Enhancements

Cybernetic enhancements, or “cyberware”, have been and continue to be mainstays of the Cyberpunk genre, being a Cyberpunk RPG’s closest analogue to magic items. Typical cyberware are things like reflex boosters, enhanced prosthetic limbs, implanted armor, and virtually anything else you could think of to expand or extend the human body’s performance. Cyberware was initially approached as a game balance problem, as it shifted ability expansion ingame away from experience and advancement points (rare, easily controllable) to money (common, much less controllable). The way Mike Pondsmith dealt with the balance issues in Cyberpunk was to introduce Cyberpsychosis: every implant you got dealt you “Humanity Loss”; take enough of it and your character would go insane. The game even devoted many pages to talking about C-SWAT, an elite police unit whose only job was to hunt down cyberpsychos. The problem with cyberpsychosis is simple: it doesn’t make any sense. Still, it enabled a modicum of balance by, at the very least, penalizing the use of large amounts of cybernetics. Shadowrun took a different tack by introducing the Essence stat. Implanting cybernetics would cost Essence, which would place a cap on how much you could implant. More importantly, though, was that Essence was the prime requisite for magic use, making Shadowrun the first of many games where your character build had to choose which side of the tech/magic divide it lay on. Newer games use a lighter touch in regulating cybernetic implants: Interface Zero has a strain mechanic which serves as an upper limit for how many implants your character can physically manage, while The Sprawl and The Veil give every character cybernetics at the start, discouraging an arms race by putting everyone on the same level at the beginning and making further increases expensive and risky. These games also take some of the pressure off cybernetics by giving everyone certain implanted abilities at the start. While Cyberpunk 2020 required that you buy interface plugs to interface with computers and vehicles, Interface Zero assumes your character has the physical interface already in the form of the TAP, or Tendril Access Processor.

Computer Networking and Intrusion

Computer networks and breaking into said networks have been Cyberpunk mainstays since before Cyberpunk was an RPG. The reason Case was Neuromancer’s protagonist was that he was the hacker. The problem with this emphasis on computer hacking is that rules for the activity in-game were often terrible. Cyberpunk used a set of hacking rules that took place in a different timescale, involving the hacker (“netrunner”) using programs almost like spells in order to break into “datafortresses” that were portrayed as actual physical fortresses in the hacker’s mind. While these rules weren’t bad into and of themselves, they didn’t integrate well into the rest of the game, and often resulted in all the other players sitting around while the hacker did their thing. Shadowrun started with similar rules and moved into a more wireless and ubiquitous world with 4th edition, which created its own problems. The game implications that “even your gun can be hacked” strained disbelief by not including off switches for some of these items, and created more paranoia than gameplay opportunities. Newer games tend to have lighter touches on hacking, while trying to balance the utility of hacking between being a do-it-all ability and being limited to specific instances. Both The Sprawl and Genesyseven though the latter is not solely a Cyberpunk game, have hacking rules which nicely balance the power of hacking without superseding the other characters or their abilities.

Mind-Machine Interfaces

Mind-machine interfaces are a type of cyberware, but they enable control of weapons and vehicles, as well as “augmented reality” overlays for sight and sound. Vehicle interfaces in particular are significant parts of cyberpunk, and lead to powered armor, drones, and other unique conveyances playing a large role in many games. Cyberpunk had the Maximum Metal supplement which devoted most of its page count to playing powered armor troopers in what was essentially a cyberpunk/mecha crossover, while the rigger archetype in newer Shadowrun editions was often most effective when controlling swarms of drones and providing firepower in that way. Interface Zero and The Veil are both built on an assumption of ubiquitous mental interfaces and augmented reality, the other important facet of this trope. The Veil drives the game forward in part by letting characters “lift the veil” and discover the real behind the digital, making augmented reality a cornerstone of its setting.

Combat

Combat is a central aspect of most RPGs, and Cyberpunk RPGs are no different. In part due to the system that Mike Pondsmith wrote for Cyberpunk, Friday Night Firefight, the game got a reputation for being particularly lethal which extended to the rest of the genre fairly readily. This is due in large part to both a blanket dismissal of the mechanic of expanding hit points (i.e. in D&D you get additional hit points every time you level up), but also due to the fact that Pondsmith’s starting point for the statistical abstraction of the Cyberpunk combat system was police statistics on gunfights. When you look at a violent encounter with a gun in the modern era, either someone is shot and immediately out of the fight or no one is shot because the accuracy of an untrained shooter is incredibly poor. This led Pondsmith to develop rules in the Friday Night Firefight system like the Stun/Shock save, which can cause characters to drop long before they die, and hit locations, which can produce gruesome (and deadly) limb loss situations with frequency. Shadowrun took the same scaffold of relatively lethal combat and added in fantasy creatures, including their infamous dragons. Player characters should heed the advice to never make a deal with a dragon.

The deadly nature of Cyberpunk combat can be a blessing or a curse depending on how you run the game. Players who treat Cyberpunk like D&D often end up with a sheaf of dead characters remarkably fast. More frustrating is that, due to a relatively swingy dice system, it’s possible to lose even well prepared and equipped characters to a single lucky shot. These aspects encourage engagement with the scenario, though. Cyberpunk players quickly learn that the only way to avoid being shot is to shoot first and not give the other side a chance. It may not encourage risk-taking or heroic deeds, but it is realistic! The inherent danger of foes in all Cyberpunk games encourage planning and tactical decision making, compared to more in-combat strategic decision making engendered by longer-lived, hit point rich D&D characters who may stay alive long enough to learn from their mistakes.

Running a Cyberpunk game

The first thing you must do when introducing a Cyberpunk campaign idea to your players is to make sure they know what it isn’t. Cyberpunk isn’t D&D, where combat is a significant or even central part of the story. Cyberpunk also isn’t a Supers game where the heroes can take a beating and keep going. Cyberpunk is a genre of characters going up against incredible odds and sometimes winning, but at extreme cost. A Cyberpunk GM can blow your character’s arm off because you’ll be able to implant a new one. They’ll kill your character with impunity when that character can be downloaded into a new body. This cycle marries the nihilism inherent in noir with the technology in sci-fi, and helps show why Cyberpunk translates so well as an RPG. It also provides the reasoning for the adage “High Tech, Low Life”.

While characters in fantasy games are adventuring in search of treasure and heroics, Cyberpunk characters are not often in their situation by choice. While it’s entirely possible to run a game with a group of operatives with just stat blocks and no backstories, Cyberpunk for campaign play works best if the characters come from somewhere and are going somewhere. One of my better Cyberpunk campaigns was one I ran for a group of my friends from college that was set in the city we had gone to school in, Pittsburgh. I explained that the corporations were moving in and were going to completely change the city, likely for the worse. My players then wrote characters who each had their own reasons to love their city and be loyal to it, and more importantly reasons and methods to fight for their city.

On the flipside, Cyberpunk isn’t a genre with strong, overriding morality. The game I ran immediately after the game set in Pittsburgh involved several different corporations and shifting loyalties. The characters ended up switching sides twice before the game was done. It is heavily implied that Cyberpunk games take place in a world with weakened national and cultural lines, where the most significant entities (corporations) only engender loyalty through money. Shifting allegiances help add to the intrigue of the setting, and also help drive conflict. This does of course increase the probability of intra-party conflict, which you should be prepared for.

The final thing is just a practical one: take notes. Any urban game, be it Cyberpunk or Dresden Files or Masks, is going to have high information density within the setting. Going through a city means taking in a lot more details than wandering a dungeon or exploring a mysterious forest, and you should be prepared. Have NPCs ready, have locations ready, do whatever you need to do in order to prep, but make sure to keep things consistent after you introduce a new person or location. And when the PCs come up with some crazy theories, write those down too…you never know when they’ll come in handy.


Cyberpunk is a versatile genre for gaming, lending itself equally well to run-and-gun action, mystery and intrigue, or even just straight up sci-fi strangeness. You can draw on literary influences for complex plot lines and social commentary, or on the gaming influences for big guns, powered armor suits, and superhuman cyberware. Cyberpunk is a marriage of over-the-top sci-fi and literary realism that hits a lot of notes: high-tech yet gritty and stylish yet violent, with characters both powerful and powerless at the same time. Not entirely gonzo but not really “realistic” either, Cyberpunk has hit a sweet spot for sci-fi gamers for the last thirty years, and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Though technology keeps moving, there will always be commentary on what our state of the art could mean and how technology and social forces will move us towards a darker future. And as long as there are visions of a dark future, there’s Cyberpunk.

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