System Hack: Cyberpunk Chimera Meta-Game

Welcome back to System Hack! Over the last few months I’ve been slowly but surely building out elements of a Cyberpunk game, inspired by but not really based on Cyberpunk 2020. At this point, we get into the weeds. Until now, the articles published so far have all dealt with simulationist aspects of the game. That is to say, when a character in the game wants to do something, what happens? At this point, we’re going to pivot away from the characters and focus instead on the players.

There are many parts of a game that happen outside of simulating the actions of the characters; this game will involve rules to depict the city and the organizations within in order to give a prospective GM a sturdy scaffold from which to build conflicts and stories. For today, though, the player-facing mechanics we’re going to discuss are those which allow players to control the proceedings in manners other than the direct actions of their characters. Cyberpunk 2020 didn’t have many of these mechanics to speak of; the only meta-game mechanic that exists rules-as-written is the use of the Luck attribute. The Luck attribute lets players give a little nudge to their character action, but the key word there is “little”: When an average player has 5 Luck points to use over an entire gaming session, it’s unlikely that many rolls will seem important enough to waste the points on. Indeed, the common story about Luck points in Cyberpunk 2020 is that they were saved, almost universally, for death saves, when a character was on the line.

When I played Cyberpunk 2020, the Luck attribute was houseruled using an ingenious system developed by someone on the internet. The Luck Deck originally lived at the Blackhammer Cyberpunk Project, and was one of many tweaks I found while getting really into Cyberpunk in the early 2000s. The way it works is that each point of Luck entitles you to one draw from the deck, which has cards with a whole range of different effects. These effects ranged from the same +1, to +3 modifiers you could only use on certain rolls, to crazy effects like bonuses to party betrayal and our favorite, the “Too Much” card (you automatically succeed on one roll, but the GM must determine knock-on effects that make you wish you failed). The most interesting cards in the deck made up only about 10% of the possible cards. These cards introduced in-game events to help the players, or connected them to previously unseen subplots. The subplots, which could affect the characters either well or poorly, also entitled the player to make additional draws from the deck.

One of the reasons that the Luck deck is a more effective mechanic than the straight Luck attribute is that it gives players something to engage with. Every card other than the normal +1 cards gave players a choice. The +3 bonuses might nudge a player towards rolls they may not otherwise try, and the more circumstantial cards made players look for an opportunity to use them. Also, to me, the Luck Deck felt more like, well, luck. These cards represented happenstance that could affect the outcome of events, and in general playing single cards had a much bigger narrative impact than playing single Luck points.

In thinking about what a meta-game system should look like for the Cyberpunk Chimera, not only the approach of the system is important, but also the intent. I realized, after thinking about what this game should play like, that the intent of this system is to dole out but also restrict narrative control. Cyberpunk 2020, like many traditional RPGs, has little to no accommodations for player narrative control outside of what the player’s character does. One consequence of this is that all of the character associations which are made through Lifepath and in-game are completely up to the GM to incorporate. While there are games like Fate that give small allowances for player narrative control, I would personally want something more robust than “spend a fate point to establish a setting detail” but less free-form than most PbtA games, where the GM is expected to turn over narrative control to their players in a limited way quite frequently.

The Luck Deck was something that my players and I enjoyed engaging with, and that property alone makes it superior to a static Luck attribute when considering how to implement a mechanic. Considering that, let us start with a deck of playing cards. I like playing cards for several reasons: first, they have a degree of information density that lets you design some interesting mechanics without editing the cards or relying on a 52-item chart. Second, playing cards do not preclude the design of a fancy card deck should the game get to a place where such a thing is cost-effective. And third, playing cards are everywhere, making this a lot less labor-intensive to develop and playtest. There are many interesting card-based mechanics out there, ranging from the initiative system of Savage Worlds to the core mechanics of Unbound. The Cyberpunk Chimera Luck Deck is going to be on the Savage Worlds end of that spectrum: a separable mechanic intended to enhance play but not be the center of the system.

Based on my experiences playing Cyberpunk 2020 with the Luck Deck as well as what I believe my intent for this mechanic is, I would want the majority of the cards to be used for adding setting elements. That said, part of the reward mechanic for the deck is to have a fair number of bonus cards. Ultimately, there is no “correct” math for this, only through playtesting will the impact of the bonus:setting card ratio be truly felt. For now, I’m going to set the ratio fairly close to 50:50. Twos through Sevens will be setting element cards, Eights through Kings will be bonus cards, and Aces will be our favorite card from the original Luck Deck, Too Much. For the bonus cards, there are three basic bonuses that you can add to a die pool roll: You can allow players to reroll dice, you can give players extra dice, or you can give players extra successes. While I considered having cards give different numbers of these items, having each card be singular is both simpler and makes players a bit less likely to save cards for some “big event” that may or may not occur in a session. And just to make the whole process a bit more tactile and exciting, players can play as many bonus cards as they like on a single roll (setting cards will likely have to be resolved one at a time). The cards will have a frequency based on their power, so eights, nines, and tens will be extra dice, jacks and queens rerolls, and only kings will be free successes.

The setting cards will have a bit more complexity, but not too much. I want to pull in one more detail typically printed on cards, and make red cards “good” and black cards “bad”. In short, if a red card is played, the ensuing detail will help the characters, but if a black card is played it will make their lives more difficult. As there are six cards left undefined in each suit, we can start with three types of setting cards: a new NPC, an important setting detail, and a random event.

In summary:

Card

Red

Black

A

Too Much

2

A friendly NPC appears

A hostile NPC appears

3
4

Random Beneficial Event

Random Complicating Event

5
6

Beneficial Setting Detail

Complicating Setting Detail

7
8

Add One Die To a Roll (Before the Roll)

9
10
J

Reroll One Die

Q
K

Add One Success To a Roll

With the cards defined, the next set of mechanics pertains to how the deck is treated and used. A reasonable starting point here is five cards, which would have been the average number of Luck Cards dealt in 2020. When a player plays a beneficial narrative card, they can replace it with a card from the deck. When they play a negative narrative card, they can draw two cards instead, as an inducement to introduce complications. Too Much can count as one of these, depending on the rate the deck is exhausted.

So what happens when the deck is exhausted? I realized that the act of using Luck Cards would represent the characters pushing themselves and exploring every possible avenue for their success. More literally but also more arbitrarily, the deck of Luck Cards being exhausted also means that the players’ luck has run out. The Luck Deck is a perfect opportunity to work in a tension mechanic. In a previous article, I discussed the utility of a pursuit or “heat” mechanic when considering how the characters operate in regions where they aren’t necessarily liked. The Luck Cards can provide the emulation for this. When we consider hostility levels for regions of our hypothetical Cyberpunk city, it’s likely that, like everything else in this game, the levels of hostility would range from 0 to 5. A score of zero would be reserved for the characters’ home base, while a score of 5 could be cavorting around outside the lobby of a corporation that the characters recently bombed, or in front of a police station after committing a particularly high-profile murder. For each point of heat, the GM removes five cards from the deck. This would mean that at the beginning of a session in an area with a heat rating of 5, four players have drawn a total of 20 cards, and 25 cards have been removed from the deck. That leaves seven cards to draw, or nine if you’re playing with jokers. One could see jokers as being used in a couple of ways: as a way to have everyone draw their hand back up to full, or a reset event that puts the entire deck back into play. Of course, setting the Heat level down to 0 would imply an event severe enough to draw all attention away from the characters…that may be too severe for the only use of jokers. That said, giving the least frequent card in the deck (I’d allow two jokers at most) a couple different functions could work out nicely.

Back to the Heat mechanic itself, when the deck is exhausted, something bad happens. While “something bad” shouldn’t necessarily be a failure state (especially as being in a Heat 5 region would have a typically sized group tottering on the edge from the word go), it should definitely make the characters’ lives difficult. In addition to increasing drama, this provides real and actionable consequences to getting to the higher heat levels, which will change how players plan and what missions they choose to undertake. And also, while tying the Luck Deck into the Heat mechanic isn’t exactly simulating anything, it provides the exact feedback loop we want: Higher heat means fewer opportunities to play Luck Cards, which means more conservative planning.


Though the Luck mechanic and the Heat mechanic weren’t necessarily going to be related at the beginning of this brainstorm, they’re both excellent examples of meta-game, non-diegetic mechanics where the players are engaging with the mechanic directly rather than through their characters. Tying the two together brings in aspects of two of my favorite meta-game mechanics, the above-mentioned Luck Deck and the Doom Pool from Cortex Plus and Cortex Prime. By using both the random event cards as well as a card exhaustion mechanic, we have something that can both encourage player engagement and also model background tension. The mechanic will of course need more fleshing out, but it’s a solid start for examining the role of luck mechanics as well as the ebb and flow of each session’s tension level. While Cyberpunk Chimera isn’t intended to be a particularly narrative game, giving both players and the GM opportunities to lob curveballs will make for some memorable moments and hopefully make the game more fun overall.

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