System Hack: Putting the Cyber into Cyberpunk Chimera

Cyberpunk as a literary genre has many touchstones, like the role of corporations in society and humanity’s relationship with technology. These have trickled down to tabletop games in different ways, but certain tropes keep coming up. Cybernetic enhancement is *the* subsystem for cyberpunk games, and has generally succeeded in early cyberpunk games where hacking, a complementary subsystem, often failed. Cyberware stands in for magic in most cyberpunk games, giving the characters access to superhuman power, though at a cost. In addition to cyberware, there is usually a digital world aspect of cyberpunk games, adjacent to but not always overlapping with the hacking rules. In early works this was a completely separate virtual world, while in modern games, there is much more focus on augmented reality, and the digital commingling with the real.

As the rules concepts for Cyberpunk Chimera have started coalescing, there hasn’t been much discussion of implied setting. That changes now. How a game treats the digital world and cybernetic enhancement says some things about what to expect in that game world, even if the world a group plays in will be created at the table.

Cyberware

The antique arm whined as it reached for another mug. It was a Russian military prosthesis, a seven-function force-feedback manipulator, cased in grubby pink plastic.

William Gibson, Neuromancer

Cyberpunk’s relationship with transhumanism started early, with cybernetic limbs appearing on the first page of Neuromancer. More than other media, games latched onto this, with a host of body modifications and enhancements gracing the pages of both Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun. The game balance issue with cyberware was acute; though literature provided both a compelling “why” and “why not” to these enhancements, the “why not”, an existential question of body essentialism, didn’t quite translate to game mechanics easily. That’s not to say there weren’t attempts; Cyberpunk 2020’s cyberpsychosis mechanics is the best known and perhaps one of the most questionably executed of these balancing mechanics.

The idea with cyberpsychosis is that when you implant more cyberware, you slowly lose your Humanity, capital H because it’s a stat in the game. Humanity loss both reduces your core social attribute (Empathy) and will eventually make your character go insane. This doesn’t ultimately make much sense, and the game’s attempt to extrapolate this mechanic to their full cyborg conversion bodies resulted in essentially every single cyborg conversion reducing a character’s humanity to 0. The game dodged this with discussions of therapy and high-cost Scandinavian cyber-clinics, but the in-game justifications for departing from the mechanic as-written did not hide the fact that the mechanic as-written didn’t work.

More modern games have essentially given up on contrivances for limiting cyberware. Interface Zero has a Strain mechanic, which models the amount of cybernetics your body can physically support as a function of your strength stat. It makes way more sense, but isn’t interesting. Shadowrun still uses the Essence stat as a way to force characters to choose between Tech and Magic, but even in the most recent edition it’s not well-explained why a character without magical abilities would care about letting their Essence go to 0.

I have a slightly different idea about cyberware, which maintains engagement with the concept while avoiding some of the nonsensical (and likely offensive if you need a real life prosthetic or medical implant) implications of the Humanity system from Cyberpunk 2020. There’s one thing that never seems to come up in gameplay models of cyberware: How do you power cybernetic enhancements?

Electricity for cyberware is almost never discussed in cyberpunk games. It seems like an oversight; pacemakers have batteries after all, and one of the most important innovations in artificial heart design was an internal power supply, mostly because of reduced infection risk. So why have we had games for decades which just assume that cybernetics will have enough power? Human respiration is, while not extremely efficient, a well-tuned chemical pathway for converting our food into energy and carrying it throughout our body. But you can’t use ATP in a battery.

There would be several practical methods to powering cybernetics with electricity. First would be batteries. Battery efficiency and density keeps getting better, and it’s not too outlandish to assume that integral lithium-ion batteries would be able to power something like a cybernetic leg for a typical day, provided that it charges while the user sleeps. Second would be thermoelectric cells. These relatively simple electronics run on heat gradients, and both the relatively high temperature of the human body and the large amount of skin surface area mean that implantable thermoelectric cells are already being developed for medical device applications. The third is more fanciful, a microturbine. A small enough turbine means that a heavily augmented person could ‘gas up’ their cyberware, likely with ethanol due to its (relative to most other fuels) low toxicity.

So what would this mean exactly? Well, an augmented person would have energy requirements, some in food and some in electricity. The electric power requirements could range from 600 watt-hours (~500 calories) for someone who has several prosthetics to 5000 watt-hours (~4300 calories) for a full borg. I won’t go further into the specifics of converting caloric requirements to electricity, but using a 48 volt power system as a basis, we land in a plausible zone for the very convenient contrivance that using augmented limbs for normal human things will get you through a day on battery power, but doing superhuman things like jumping 25 vertical feet and then running at 30 mph will drain that battery much more quickly.

When thinking about powering cyberware in game terms, there are things we want and things we don’t want. We don’t want power to be a micromanagement issue; if we’re worrying about power quantity at all, it should be deliberate, not another background resource to track. We do want players to care about power, though. It seems logical that cybernetic enhancements, especially things like limbs, would have baseline operation as well as enhanced operation. Enhanced operation could easily cost power, giving potent cyberware a ‘mana’ aspect.

Thinking about power as a limitation to cyberware has several advantages. First, it is a real limitation of any of these types of implants, even if it’s been handwaved before. “Cyberpsychosis” is not a thing that exists, and the presence of something akin to dysphoria from cybernetic implants should be employed much more carefully than it was in Cyberpunk 2020. I can fully believe that someone implanted into a borg body will have some really serious psychological problems…but that’s a specific issue. Second, limiting use of cyberware is another way to level the playing field between physical, mental, and social focused characters. It’s likely that the physical cyberware, the limbs and pop-up guns and other cool stuff like that, will simply be more powerful than mental enhancements. Of course, simply more powerful will also mean a higher power requirement. Finally, this provides a basis for the cyberware/bioware split that’s implied (poorly) in many games to actually come to the fore. If bioware doesn’t require power, it means that you have abilities you can use all the time, even if their limits might be somewhat lower. In Cyberpunk 2020, bioware still had a Humanity cost, making the distinction fairly meaningless.

So we have some thoughts about how cybernetic enhancement is limited in the real world. What about the digital world? How do characters interact with the network around them?

The Digital World

The notion of the digital world has changed fairly dramatically since Cyberpunk was first contemporary. No longer do we envision ‘cyberspace’ as a separable environ where physical space is used to represent digital constructs. Instead, as a reflection of our increasingly portable society, the digital world is now an extrapolation of what our personal devices already do to some extent. While now we access information about the area around us through our phones, in the future it could be plastered on the walls and windows around us, breaking down the divide between looking at a screen and looking up. Augmented reality, as this is called, not only already exists in certain applications, but is also less of an extrapolation from how we already access information than “The Net” was back in the 80s. Your phone is already pinged with information based on your physical location; projecting it onto your eye isn’t really a stretch at this point.

In a game context, augmented reality puts a lot of information at the character’s fingertips. Looking at someone could provide a link to their social media profiles, network adapters could show up and be connected to (or broken into) without an intermediate interface, and smartguns can use the eyes of their wielders as sights. Recent games tend to balance the benefits of AR with the potential for the character to be hacked, but this should not be overused so as to make players fear using their AR. There are interesting ways to weaponize AR, like denial-of-service attacks (which may be considered terrorism in the future) and spying, but crossing from AR devices to someone’s body or brain is not going to be easy enough to be commonplace or a realistic threat. There could be advantages to silent running, but people having their AR turned on should be as common as modern people looking at their phones on the subway.

Virtual worlds will still exist. Neal Stephenson once said in an interview that massively multiplayer online games were closer analogues to his “Metaverse” from Snow Crash than anything else that existed; his novel Reamde (the primary subject of the interview) interrogates that idea further. When we think about virtual worlds in a science fiction setting, we have to consider what the appeal would be. Already, we can bridge distances through digital communication. What happens when the virtual is a full sensory experience, not just an audiovisual one from a screen?

Virtual realities here are, for the most part, a setting and cultural element rather than a gameplay one. That said, there are two major considerations for how VR would work in a game context. First, for setting development purposes, how good is VR? Is it full sensorium, or an extension of what we have now? Full sensorium VR could either be a plug in your skull a la The Matrix, or some form of tank that provides touch and muscle stimulation through skin contact. One of these is more plausible than the other, but both are far off compared to contemporary VR systems. Still, if we have full sensorium VR, would some people just never leave? If we assume the full plug-in experience, we’re assuming that everything, be it exotic locations, food, sex, or violence, can be piped into the brain at high fidelity, and more cheaply than producing those experiences in real life. If we’re getting into the classic vision of a Cyberpunk dystopia, VR addiction could be a real issue, one that changes how many people the characters actually see in “real life”. The idea of direct brain jacks also introduces another gameplay question: could you die in VR? If the answer is yes, then there’s an interesting angle about whether one has to kill someone in “meatspace” or could in a VR environment. We can easily assume VR environments would have safety controls for that sort of thing, but circumventing them is likely within the capabilities of player characters. Both wholesale VR addiction and VR murders are interesting, though they change the game concept fairly dramatically.

The intent of Cyberpunk Chimera, for me at least, was to design a sandbox Cyberpunk game where the city can help generate interesting conflicts and storylines. Given that, I think that the implied setting should not include “brain-jack” VR. One could still imagine VR tanks and ubiquitous digital meeting areas, but creating limits (and expense) to full or near-full sensorium VR helps ensure that the real geography of a city is still important, and that we as GMs and players of this game don’t have to contemplate if large swathes of the population stay inside and jacked in for the majority of their existence. If the game is supposed to center around the city, a technological paradigm which sidesteps any need to physically traverse said city should be avoided.


The net result of the two setting conceits which I’ve settled on here are an implied setting which is fairly grounded as far as the cyberpunk genre goes. Cyberware needs electricity, and VR needs large and expensive nerve stimulation “tanks”. In both cases the technologies are there, even omnipresent, but by ensuring that the limitations of said technologies are concrete, we don’t make their use a clear and obvious decision in essentially any scenario. The exact details will have to be hammered out, but taking this approach to technology assumptions helps create opportunities for interesting decisions and solutions without creating obvious ways to sidestep problems or conflict. What comes next for the Cyberpunk Chimera steps outside of characters and the setting, and looks to the players and the GM. For the players, do we want or need mechanics which give the players direct influence over the story? And for the GM, how can we help produce a dynamic setting which makes it easy to introduce conflict and generate story arcs? These questions and others will be answered in future installments of System Hack: Cyberpunk Chimera!

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