System Hack: Cyberpunk Chimera Cities

Cyberpunk lives and dies in the city. The vision and aesthetic that we take for granted as Cyberpunk, especially when considering Cyberpunk in the context of games, is urban, replete with neon, skyscrapers, and bustling crowds of people. Cyberpunk RPGs have leaned into the assumption of an urban setting for some time now, with Night City from Cyberpunk 2020 arguably being one of the best examples in terms of character and development. When approaching the need for a city for the Cyberpunk Chimera, I opted to take a somewhat different path forward. By writing rules for the creation of a city sandbox, my hope is that any group can find a city that sets the tone for their campaign while also making prep easier for the GM.

Group setting creation is having its time in the sun, both through PbtA and the OSR. On the OSR side, random tables are making a comeback as both prep reducers and inspiration sources, while games like Stars Without Number lean hard into random setting creation, in this case having the GM randomly roll a whole sector of space at the beginning. PbtA has always been centered around collaborative campaign design, with an Apocalypse World campaign ideally starting with a “day in the life” session punctuated with a lot of player-facing questions. For my purposes, I’m likely to lean a bit more on the ‘generation’ than ‘collaboration’, though both elements will play a role. Given that the city’s ‘character’ influences the whole campaign, creating a city will be very much like character creation for the GM.

When creating a setting for a game, you’re ultimately creating two things. For one, you are creating a backdrop for your game, and therefore trying to help players imagine what everything looks, sounds, and even tastes and smells like. Much more importantly, though, you’re creating a foundation for the stories that players will tell. In a sandbox, this means you’re laying down all the existing conflicts, hooks where the characters can get involved, and geography that helps these all make sense. This means you need to balance evocative and useful when it comes to the information that your setting creation provides . . . with a bias towards useful.

So let’s talk city generation. Given the diverse layout of cities, especially older cities like those in Europe and the Eastern United States, it’s likely a bad idea to try to define geography, per se. Instead, I’m going to use hexes to represent districts, a method that will be representative and give us the detail we need to fill in the map. Also, a swatch of hexes to represent a city looks cool and in-genre. Before we get into generating individual hexes, we’ll need to define some elements of the city that will drive further generation and gameplay. For a somewhat arbitrary start, I’m going to define three city sizes: Small, Medium, and Large. Medium cities are going to be closest to a typical ‘city’ as understood here in the early 21st century, and will have 12 districts defined. Small cities represent several different paradigms, but two most notably: a larger city ravaged by economic contraction, and an “edge” city which develops from a suburb into its own entity through either rapid population growth or unchecked development. These will have six districts defined. A large city gets us into more of a “cyberpunk megalopolis”, and these cities will represent the economic core of a much larger region, with attendant diversity in development and population. These will have eighteen districts defined.

The district numbers are based mostly on practicality and player engagement…six districts is enough to give a city distinct areas, but small enough that player characters could reasonably be expected to travel all over. 12 is probably getting at the upper limit of how many areas a typical party will travel to over a campaign and feel as distinct. 18 is where the intent is more to make the city feel big, and make intra-city traversal interesting. A not entirely coincidental touchstone is Doskvol from Blades in the Dark, which has 12 districts. This makes it a large city given the tech level of the game, but sensibly mid-range when we’re getting into the dark future.

So after we pick how big the city is going to be, what comes next? Where a city is located is important for how it develops, but within a sandbox paradigm this is fairly abstract. Still, we should determine what the geography around the city looks like, and realistically this means water. The vast majority of cities throughout history have been built around their access to waterways; nine out of the ten largest cities in the world are on either a coast or a river, and that trend continues far down the list. So, at least for larger cities, a ‘water feature’ is going to play a primary role, be that an ocean, large river, or very large lake. Major transport hubs and access to resource-driven industries can also drive city growth; Dallas, Texas is as large as it is mostly due to a confluence of railroad lines in the nineteenth century, while Johannesburg was/is a hub of the South African gold and diamond trades. For Cyberpunk cities we can imagine these situations coming to pass; a city built around a space elevator could be an interesting concept, for instance. For most cities, though, a waterway of some sort is going to be part of the map.

Beyond water, city boundaries come into play. A coastline if so defined might be one of these boundaries, but beyond water there are also other physical boundaries, urban boundaries, and a lack of boundaries. Physical boundaries in this case would almost always mean dramatic changes in elevation, and given proximity to water, this would mean positive changes in elevation, like a mountain range. Urban boundaries would mean that the city is butting up against another city, and no boundaries just means that the city peters out into less organized or unincorporated land. In the case of a mountain range there is an easy answer to why the city stops, but it’s that exact reason that relatively few cities end up butting up against mountain ranges. Urban boundaries are interesting, but only appropriate for games where it makes sense for the setting to either have multiple cities adjacent to each other or be an implied megalopolis of much larger size than the default map settings would imply. In either case, scoping becomes an issue, which is why the “edge city” scenario noted above would make more sense some distance from the core city. We’ll give that specific scenario some more thought later. The final boundary is the city simply petering out, and this is what typically happens, albeit at a fairly large scale. The further you move from a city core, the more resources it takes to get yourself to the city core, which is an important forcing function if said city core is where most of the jobs are located. So what’s outside the city proper? Depends on how the city develops, but generally you’re going to run through a ring of low-value, high crime areas that are too close to the city to be desirable and too far away to be convenient. Since this is Cyberpunk, that gives us the combat zone. What’s going to differentiate the combat zone from some other high-crime areas in the city is going to be the shift from formal to informal economy, but in broader game terms the shift is from having a power structure to having no power structure. 

So we have a few ways to determine our city borders, let’s define what’s in the city. I envision four types of districts that will occupy hexes: commercial, industrial, residential, and special. Yes, I’ve played a lot of SimCity, but the somewhat simplified threefold model of zoning is a good shorthand and for a game all we need is a shorthand. In terms of defining the city, each one of the core districts will represent one of three attributes: wealth (commercial), population (residential), and productivity (industrial). Special districts will be placed based on city size and will represent something unique about the city: a university, major political seat, the space elevator we mentioned above, something with its own character and not quite fitting into the core zones. The rest will be rolled, with equal probabilities as the platonic ideal of a city would be to have a roughly even number of these districts. Of course, your city likely won’t. The ratio of districts will help define the character of the city:

R>I>C: A labor-driven city with one central industry, likely tied to but not completely dependent on local resources. Labor could either be organized and balance corporate forces, or more likely (because this is Cyberpunk) corporate forces are even more significant because of the influence they have over people’s jobs.

R>C>I: An economically potent city jacketed by sprawl, likely over a large footprint. Wealth flows imply underdeveloped infrastructure, creating congestion, pollution, and resource use problems

C>I>R: An education-driven city, money flows as the economy grows. Infrastructure is improving, city affordability being or has been eroded by significant gentrification.

C>R>I: A financial hub, the vast majority of dwellings are too expensive for any but the richest to afford. Looks to be a gem of the world but hides a simmering and resentful underclass. Good infrastructure, oppressive “broken windows” policing.

I>C>R: A hub of corporate infrastructure, where a central industry collides with financial engineering. A corporate planned city, low-skilled labor is imported in whatever way is expedient.

I>R>C: A resource-driven city with one central industry, most wealth leaves the city. Possibly a company town, devastated/nonexistent public infrastructure.

I=R=C: A balanced city, where the conflicting needs of economic growth, human well-being, and corporate wealth are at a degree of equilibrium. Political strength is likely to credit for this, but this means that the underlying corruption in the political, corporate, and organized crime spheres are also in equilibrium, possibly a fragile one.

Note when reading these descriptions that the number of hexes one of the core zone types takes up doesn’t exactly equate to its strength. Cities with the smallest number of commercial zones don’t have weaker corporations, necessarily, but they do have fewer industries where corporations are dominant and this gives them a large chance to be monolithic. New York City is a classic example of a corporate-heavy city, but we don’t think of it as a “finance” city or a “publishing” city or a “television” city even though it is definitely all three of those things (and more). Los Angeles, which we definitely think of as the city where Hollywood is, or Detroit, known for cars above anything else, would both be cities where the commercial zone is less significant, even though the corporations in those cities are still seriously influential.

So we have a setup. What each district needs now, though, are some hooks. The core of the hooks are going to be similar to the core of the touchstones from character creation, namely people, places, and events. We do have to take the long way there, though, detouring through  organizations. It’s hard to say the right number of organizations to include in a city, though if we’re using similar logic to the number of districts, then we should end up with roughly one organization per district, even if they aren’t quite geographically spaced that way. Corporations are an obvious choice, and would probably align with commercial districts. Organized crime is another clear answer, though one we should be careful not to amplify too much. In fact, both sides of the coin should show up here, not just the one that gets to be another evil. Industrial districts will get organized crime, yes, but they’ll also get organized labor. Residential districts may have gangs, but they’ll also have collectives and mutual aid organizations. This way, we have at least three paths through which a player-run organization can ascend in power and influence outside of crime, which is an important avenue to leave open if we want organizations to be more than window dressing. People can be tied to the organizations or they can be tied to locations, which will work best if they help give each district a bit of character. We also have locations from each character’s lifepath to work in, so the hope would be to make each district have a ‘feel’ through the places it consists of.

This is one place where it might be best not to front-load too much. Add in all the locations from lifepath, and then throw another two or three in the district where the characters have a ‘home base’. More can be placed on the map as the game continues through either random encounters or research rolls. This way, the number of locations in a city can be dynamic and adapt to the given campaign, and the number of superfluous or unused locations hovers closer to zero. Another way to make sure each location gets its appropriate time in the sun is to tie at least one hook there. One hook per place and one hook per organization and you already have a sandbox that will keep going for quite some time.

This setup is but a skeleton, but it gets us asking the right questions. Do we need three sizes, and if not, which size is ideal? Are hexes the best choice for geographic representation, or is there something easier? And using what we generate for organizations, people, and places, is the best way to kick off a conflict random or more dependent on the scaffolding that’s built? As you can likely tell, I’m trying to walk a balance between having the GM roll on a bunch of tables and having the party write the city as the game goes on. I feel like the way I’ve done it puts a city down, while still having the players responsible for breathing life into it. Like essentially everything else that’s been part of the Cyberpunk Chimera, the final iteration of this will require more rewriting, testing, and tweaking than can possibly be explained in a sub-3000 word article. The important thing is to place ideas down and see where they go. Have your own thoughts about city generation? Run a Cyberpunk sandbox before? Let us know in the comments. Hope to see you all next time, when we wrap up this series of System Hack!

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. You can travel to DriveThruRPG through one of our fine and elegantly-crafted links, which generates credit that lets us get more games to work with (including the ones needed for this article)! Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!

One thought on “System Hack: Cyberpunk Chimera Cities”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.