It is time once again for System Hack! Last time we took a look at the Cyberpunk Chimera, we thought about character creation and saw a lot of things come together. Now, we’re examining one of the more emblematic elements of a near-future or modern RPG: the gear. Cyberpunk 2020 was more than fine with giving players access to all sorts of goodies, like gatling shotguns, net guns, and various high-caliber borg droppers with recoil so powerful you needed cyberarms just to wield them. There was also plenty of other equipment detailed, from electronics to vehicles to cosmetics, not to mention the cyberware. Most of this equipment was either finely detailed (weapons, vehicles) or not detailed at all (pretty much anything that wasn’t implantable, driveable, or could kill people). So when building out a new system and looking at equipment, we need to ask the question: What actually matters?
RPGs are historically poor at providing gear at a level of detail that players actually need. Dungeons and Dragons was infamous for, in an earlier edition, providing a chart of a dozen different polearms, which did nothing for most campaigns other than make sure a new generation of nerds all knew what a bec de corbin was. At the same time, dungeoneering gear which saw extensive use by crafty players, like ten foot poles, rope, and even marbles, generally got single line descriptions. Now, this isn’t to say that you need more than a single line description for marbles, rather that a page for polearms and a line each for all your trap detection devices is a design choice made with no regard to how the game is played. Cyberpunk 2020 was somewhat better in this respect. The detailed systems of combat and netrunning meant very detailed descriptions and mechanics for weapons and cyberdecks, but many other things were still left very simple. The issue with these priorities is that the solo and netrunner got whole chapters, while many other classes, like the techie, had much less to hang their concepts off of.
So how do we go about changing this, and make sure that all characters have interesting gear choices to make? Well, there are two things we have to do. First, we have to look at what characters are actually doing in the game, and figure out how their equipment can support these activities. Second, we have to figure out how we model the broader state of a character’s available resources and what those resources are used for.
For any game, the most pertinent question about gear is “what do we actually need”? Pricing out several kinds of food might make sense in a low fantasy game where every character needs to think about rations for the journey, but in a Cyberpunk game getting enough calories is unlikely to be part of a typical session. On the other hand, guns and vehicles are not only going to be important, but will require some degree of finagling to model how they work in our fictional world. While I want to keep the overall amount of finagling low, I also want to introduce some new levers so that things other than combat and car chases present opportunities for engagement.
One of the difficult elements of making ‘gear’ compelling is that the level of granularity presented in some games simply doesn’t reflect real life. When considering, say, a sword, there is no realistic span of quality (and I’m aware this typically involves magic, but even so) that differentiates ‘sword’ from ‘sword +1’ all the way to ‘sword +5’. This is even more true when looking at non-combat equipment; one could imagine a ‘business suit +3’ but that’s really only going to be more expensive, not more effective. As such, equipment ends up being, if not exactly static, at least consistent. Once a player builds out a character to what they want them to be, they start to fall into one loadout, one typical way of doing things. Then, given particular missions or goals, unique items come into play. An example of this which comes close to being a platonic ideal of the concept at a meta level are the eponymous ‘Cyphers’ from the Cypher System, one-shot items that are supposed to have significant amounts of power.
Building out a set of power-like items doesn’t necessarily jive with me, especially not for a Cyberpunk game. First, with the way we outlined cybernetic enhancements, there’s already likely to be a ‘powers’ system players have to keep track of. Second, ‘one-shot’ items don’t quite click either. Cyberpunk 2020 failed to capitalize on one of the greatest setting elements it invented, the “polymer one-shot” pistol, in part because disposable items don’t always line up with how players relate to their gear (that is to say, how players get attached to their gear). In thinking about gear, there is a balance question to be asked about how easily players can upgrade their equipment. Given the reality of most Cyberpunk RPGs, the answer ends up being “pretty easily” because the biggest vector of difficulty the GM has control over when it comes to opponents is the size of their guns. If making powerful items scarce isn’t internally consistent (at the very least, PCs will always end up at least as well-armed as their opponents), it becomes more important to make equipment decisions carry weight than it does to make equipment upgrades expensive.
I’m not interested in making equipment expensive; fact is that I can at this very moment buy a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle with a 30 round magazine for less than $500. A Cyberpunk game where military-style weapons are out of reach of the common consumer is less, not more, realistic than the alternative. Guns are dirt, dirt cheap, and this is something Pondsmith, Weisman, and others were well aware of when Cyberpunk and Shadowrun were first designed. If you want a combat character with an assault rifle, you got it. You want a hacker with a potent computer, easy. So how do we make this interesting? When I think ‘inventory is interesting’, the first game I always go to is Torchbearer. Now, I don’t think a full slot-based inventory system is right for a Cyberpunk game, but instead we can think about what people can carry from a practical perspective. Realistically a modestly trained combatant can carry two weapons: one in a sling and one in a holster. Even a second holster and walking is already starting to become awkward, especially if you don’t do this all the time. And when you start considering the mobility penalties that Cyberpunk 2020 loved, you realize that you can usually pick two of three of a longarm, a backpack, or armor. Now we’re getting to interesting decisions.
This isn’t to say that you can’t have a heavily-armored assault team rappelling down from a hovercar somewhere. But when you’re talking amateurs, all this gear is heavy and bulky. Now when you step down to being on the street somewhere, how are you going to get around anywhere without setting off alarms (literal or metaphorical)? “Concealed carry” is different than actually concealing a gun, and walking with a 9mm pistol on your hip in a way that won’t set off a gait detection algorithm is really tough (it’s likely easier to spot an armed person than to walk around with a gun on your hip and have nobody notice). While Cyberpunk 2020 talked about the social impacts of walking around armed everywhere, I want them to be mechanized.
If we’re assuming gear is relatively plentiful and easy enough to replace, then we can start to talk about theft. This is dicey because, as I alluded to earlier, players really don’t like having things taken away, no matter how easily they can get them back. Still, if we’re going to be building reputation mechanics and geographical mechanics, one must assume that eventually someone will figure out where the weapons cache is. Hell, it could be fun to broadcast this by having the PCs break into someone else’s weapons cache as an introductory mission. Anyway. I wouldn’t necessarily shy away from theft as an ingame event so long as gear can be easily replaced, just like Cyberpunk 2020 didn’t shy away from limb destruction so long as cybernetic replacements were plentiful. The important thing to make this seem “fair” is that it must at least somewhat be tied to a player decision. Living space security is one thing that could be purchased with a higher cost of living, which starts to get into a discussion of character resources as a whole.
The Resources Stat
As alluded to in the Attributes and Skills article, simply saying gear costs money and the characters have a certain amount of money is the absence of a wealth mechanic, not a mechanic into and of itself. For this game, I’m adopting a mechanic used in Burning Wheel and Fate, among others, where the amount of liquid assets your character can use to acquire gear and services is modeled the same way as a skill. This is a simplification, of course, compared to actually tracking currency, but it should still accomplish the same aim, that is telling you what your character can and can’t afford. Combined with other mechanics, like reputation, it should also give mechanics for buying things, which many games lack.
The Resources skill would work much like any other skill, and in this game that means that personal wealth runs on a scale of 1 to 5. The bounds of the skill will be pushed out for a couple of reasons: First, the Resources skill can have a value of zero, though this would be a special case. Second, the skill should be able to run above five if only to ensure that we can model organizations on the same scale that we do people. We can imagine then that a Resources of 5 would be a very rich person or a modest organization, a Resources of 8 would be a typical multinational corporation or a multi-billionaire, and Resources of 9 and 10 are, for practical purposes, limited to organizations. While the organization mechanics aren’t yet written, one could still imagine that if your Resources expands beyond a certain point, you become the head of an organization out of necessity.
There are two elements used in the game Burning Wheel that I will modify in order to flesh out Resources a bit. First is the concept of tax. If a player fails a resources roll, they can ‘tax’ their Resources a number of dice equal to the number of successes they failed by in order to get the item anyway. This ‘tax’ will act as a temporary penalty to Resources, likely over a given increment of game time. I could also imagine the choice to ‘burn’ Resources, reduce your score by one in order to get something really expensive. The flip side to all this is providing some way by which a character can get paid. For this I’ll borrow another concept from Burning Wheel, cash dice. Cash dice can be spent to augment a Resources roll, meaning that getting an infusion of cash from a mission or the like can make it possible for characters to stretch their budgets quite a bit. Hypothetically, accumulating cash dice would be the way mechanically to advance the Resources stat.
The last thing that Resources can be used to reflect is cost of living. One of the problems with cost of living mechanics in games like Shadowrun is that they’re based on arbitrary timescales like months. Burning Wheel does somewhat better by allowing the GM to set the ‘Resources Cycle’, but it’s still a time-driven mechanic in games where a (real time) four hour session can take weeks in-game one time and then less than an hour in-game the next. Having a beginning of session cost of living roll avoids this issue, and works well as a mechanic so long as the complications it introduces also last for only one session. The important thing for cost of living is making sure that it’s presenting interesting choices and challenges: in every Shadowrun game I ever played it just so happened that every single character was either squatting or homeless to make sure the cost of living expenses were as low as possible. If players are going to have a choice about how well they’re living, it should have benefits and narrative implications, not just be a money sink.
It is hard to have a conversation about Cyberpunk equipment without at least one example that uses weapons. Still, the goals of gear modeling in this game have become more clear. Equipment scarcity is not genre-appropriate in Cyberpunk, so instead of putting emphasis on acquiring gear like in fantasy games, it’s more important to emphasize choices about which and how much equipment the characters are carrying with them. Continuing the focus on decisions, character possessions should not be mere lines in an inventory table, rather opportunities to trigger interesting events and choices. Many of the concepts in Cyberpunk 2020 around a character’s appearance, from the ‘wardrobe and style’ skill to the implied consequences of walking around with armor all the time, deserve more mechanics behind them, while other design decisions, like having so many different guns that an entire supplement could be dedicated to them, should be walked back from. Equipment is such a multifaceted aspect of traditional RPGs that trying to synthesize an entire set of mechanics in less than 3000 words is beyond difficult. Still, while this may not represent even an outline of the equipment mechanics in Cyberpunk Chimera, it puts a stake in the ground: Characters should have to make more interesting decisions about their gear than simply what they’re going to buy.
Want to check out more Cyberpunk Chimera? We’ve got all the articles tagged and easy to find.
Like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? First, you can follow me @LevelOneWonk on Twitter for RPG commentary, relevant retweets, and maybe some rambling. You can also find our Discord channel and drop in to chat with our authors and get every new post as it comes out. Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!