System Hack: Cyberpunk Chimera Organizations

We are here yet again with System Hack! Cyberpunk Chimera is a construction project that’s really gotten off the ground; all the important parts that turn a series of articles into a game have at least been sketched out or brainstormed. There are some key elements, though, that shift the focus of the game in the direction that I’m most interested in. There are two parts of the Cyberpunk genre which are often overlooked in RPG mechanics, either because they’re considered “setting elements” or because they aren’t part of what makes the genre science fiction. These are the cities and the corporations, and their centrality is just as true in games as it is in literature and film.

Cyberpunk 2020 is utterly defined by its corporations and by its city. The worldbuilding of Night City, and similarly of Arasaka, Militech, Petrochem, and Biotechnica, is what makes the world click. Shadowrun is the same with Seattle, and Renraku, Aztechnology, and Saeder-Krupp. Cyberpunk games need these elements, but they especially need the corporations. Good setting is a prerequisite in all RPGs, but the corporation is a plot and conflict element of Cyberpunk that is both unique and irreplaceable.

The challenge posed by the project of the Cyberpunk Chimera is that I am not going to write my own Renraku or my own Arasaka. I do not see the objective of me designing a Cyberpunk game as telling my version of the dark future; as I’ve alluded to before I’m more interested in creating a sandbox where anyone can tell stories that resonate with them. Besides this, the fact is that the genre as a whole has a really uneven history with this. The metaplots of both Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun have left us with a couple great corporations and several forgettable ones, while other games are filled with nothing but forgettable ones. So instead of trying to be 25% of a novelist, let’s build out some tools that make corporations (and any other organization, we do have gangsters and governments to deal with in theory) useful and fun for GM and player alike.

The start of any set of organization rules is definition. Let’s look at a particularly exemplary way to define organizations in an RPG. Reign, by Greg Stolze, has with its company rules arguably some of the best and most flexible organization rules in an RPG extant. Companies in Reign are defined with five attributes; it’s worth noting that characters in the same game are defined with six. These five attributes cover three basic areas: possessions, information and loyalty. Might, Treasure, and Territory are all forms of possessions, equating to manpower, money, and holdings. Influence is the extent of information and information-gathering capability, while Sovereignty is, in essence, the loyalty of the group’s subjects. Reign is a dice pool system, and all company versus company maneuvers (of which there are a fair number) involve building opposing pools using two of these attribute ratings.

Although it’s not a stated design goal, the fact that Reign’s organizations are given the same amount of detail as its characters is based on a good organizational strategy. Of course, Reign characters have way more skills than attributes, so there is still more granularity to the characters. We will want to maintain that, and aim for three organizational attributes plus a few other important details. The first organizational attribute is clearly going to be Resources. As noted in a previous article, Resources for organizations can even be on the same scale as personal Resources, though having it be additive would keep everything in a neat 1-5 scale like the one we’ve been using. There is also clearly a Loyalty attribute, a port of Sovereignty from Reign. Going beyond this gets complicated. The other resources attributes from Reign are archaic for Cyberpunk…corporations don’t hold territory per se, and intelligence is something that can be, like manpower, gathered for the right amount of money. No, I think we’re looking for a hybrid of those two, something that quantifies the corporation’s external influence and perhaps how well it competes. I’d call this something like ‘Mindshare’.

If we continue the extrapolation from Reign, that means that there are three maneuvers which any organization could take: Resources + Loyalty, Resources + Mindshare, and Loyalty + Mindshare. We can expand this a bit, because there are six outcomes which are defined given these attributes as well: Expand one’s own Resources, Loyalty, or Mindshare, or attack a rival’s Resources, Loyalty, or Mindshare. Arbitrarily, I’m going to assign one attack and one enrich to each pool.

Resources + Loyalty: Either expand Mindshare (Marketing) or attack Resources (Attrition)

Resources + Mindshare: Either expand Resources (Advertising) or attack Mindshare (Competition)

Loyalty + Mindshare: Either expand Loyalty (Indoctrination) or attack Loyalty (Antitrust)

I think this has some nice effects. I really appreciate the idea that you can’t buy Loyalty, for one. Now while I gave some appropriate corporate-sounding names to each of these maneuvers, the ground-level effects may depend on details of the company. Attacking Resources may involve literal black ops for an Arasaka-like security firm, but maybe for a financial company it involves insider trading shenanigans. To best simulate this, we’re going to want some details of what companies do. We can imagine here that, in addition to the impacts on the fiction, the type of company may have a subtle impact on how a conflict plays out. In this way, organizations will be modeled the reverse of how characters are: the core attributes define how many dice are rolled, while the ‘skills’ of the organization define what type of dice are rolled. We don’t need to get carried away in drilling down here, though…you can imagine at most half a dozen types of companies, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. If we categorize corporations based on what they provide, we could go with a list like Manpower, Information, Products, Technology, Finance, and Infrastructure. These are super broad (Manpower would cover construction as well as security for example), but for the sake of our mechanics that’s all we need. Beyond the high-level category we could also define one category down, but merely to tell us one important fact: who competes with who? This will become important when using organization rules to define events as they happen in a game.

While one could imagine that player characters may find themselves helping or even running an organization (and we should definitely build rules for this), I believe the most consistent use of organization rules will be to create events and drama in a way that makes the setting feel dynamic. The most significant setpieces of Cyberpunk 2020’s metaplot are corporate wars, so it stands to reason that a Cyberpunk sandbox should have some mechanics behind the scenes to pop off armed conflicts of our own. Now, there is a balance here to be struck; the corporate world as we observe it is one that tends towards equilibrium, even if there’s crazy things going on beneath the surface all the time. Therefore, we want things to feel dynamic but not necessarily wild or unpredictable, and we want there to be a bias towards things that players can act on, rather than just random events that provide background material. What’s better than a corporate war popping off? A corporate war that your players caused popping off.

Like before, I’m going to borrow a principle from elsewhere to set this up. Stars Without Number is a game by Kevin Crawford that casts Traveller-like space opera into an OSR ruleset with some additional innovations. The one we’re going to examine is the Faction Turn. In essence, between sessions the GM follows a set of procedures which govern what the setting’s factions will do, how long it takes them to move ships and equipment, and so on. Given that movement isn’t necessarily an issue, we’re going to use conditional rules to set up when things happen behind the scenes which the GM will use between sessions. For each “turn”, for simplicity’s sake, each organization can make one move. These moves will come in three categories; in addition to “attack” and “expand” as defined above, “defend” against an attack will be its own move. Moves will resolve based on Resources, the smallest organizations acting first. This reflects both organizational nimbleness and the structural tendencies of larger companies to be reactive rather than proactive. Organizations will have priorities, and pursue the most effective way to fulfill that priority. That means that for the sake of comparison “attack” actions should, in some cases at least, have a potential reward, either literal enrichment or, more likely, alignment with more aggressive priorities. In Reign, some hostile actions can enrich the attacker depending on how large or small the defender is in comparison, but conquest is usually justified narratively rather than as quantitative optimization (In Reign as in real life, conquering your enemies tends to be expensive). Conquest isn’t something corporations typically do, but then again, neither is armed extractions of a rival executive. There is a balance between what would be realistic (which may not in fact include the sort of black ops shenanigans we’ve come to expect from cyberpunk) and what would drive the story; in a role-playing game we’ll typically defer, at least a little bit, to the latter. Given that, it’s also worth thinking about the difference between conditions that would trigger events, and conditions that would trigger outreach…in other words, what is the middle ground between action and complacency that would cause a corporation to seek out some ne’er-do-well characters to do their dirty work? At the end of the day, this is all to make the characters’ lives interesting, so at least some of these mechanics should operate in service to that.

Let’s review: organizations are defined by the breadth of their resources, the influence they have on the world at large, and the loyalty they command from within. Using these elements we can determine how they bolster their capabilities, eliminate threats, and exploit external assets to further their goals. Like anything else, the rules hypothesized here will need some tweaking and expansion to give the game the sort of cadence that players want, or the range that they want given different playstyles. That said, the objective is clear: the GM shouldn’t need to write a plot if there is conflict happening all on its own, and the players will gain more attachment to the setting if their actions have consequences which are clear and internally consistent. This may not seem like much in the way of a framework, but you must remember that most RPGs have absolutely none of this. Given the right amount of momentum happening outside of sessions, players will feel like their setting is a chaotic place, and hopefully a place their characters can make it big in. Of course, there is one more rules construct we need to nail that down…and that’s rules for the setting itself. Join us next time, where the notions of a Cyberpunk city get their own System Hack!

Want to check out more Cyberpunk Chimera? We’ve got all the articles tagged and easy to find.

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