Everyone knows Night City, choom. Underneath the glitz and the danger, whatta ya really got? Rent is out of control, every block is already claimed by one booster or another, and if the cops don’t knock you down on your way home Arasaka will. Why live in a city dominated by a security corp anyway? Nah, the midwest is where it’s at. Can’t afford rent? Grab a shipping container and plop it in a nearby contaminated cornfield. Don’t want the cops breathing down your neck? Get a job at the local agricorp, you’ll unlock every door in town. The beer tastes better, the vegetables are real, and there’s plenty of room for everyone. Just fly suborbital into DFW and take the 35 north until you hit Hydropolis.
Night City is undoubtedly the core setting of R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk, from the very first edition all the way to Cyberpunk Red. The dark future is a bigger playground than that, though. In the Cyberpunk 2020 supplement Home of the Brave, the Talsorian team went on a whirlwind tour of the former United States, talking in depth about every region and detailing out cities, old and new, all over the country. One of those cities was Hydropolis. Located in Kansas, Hydropolis was a city owned in part by Biotechnica where cutting-edge hydroponics research was taking place. That was about it as far as description, though the book did put it on a map, somewhere near Wichita. For my current Cyberpunk Red campaign, ten sessions in as of this writing, I decided to flesh this out a bit. Building out a new chunk of setting was part of my grand plan to return to the Cyberpunk universe with my group for the first time since the summer of 2012, when we said goodbye to five years of accumulated Cyberpunk 2020 history with a greatest hits campaign. The new campaign, for reasons that will be clearer later, is called CabbageCorp.
I knew I was going to run Cyberpunk Red for my primary gaming group pretty much since it had a release date. What I wanted to do, though, was really run more of a sandbox. I say ‘really’ because I’ve been calling my Cyberpunk campaigns ‘sandboxes’ forever but rarely made it past session 5 without dropping some sort of big plot bomb that the players would then follow for the rest of the campaign. What would make this time different, though, was not the change in system or the advancement of the timeline, but rather more of a focus on place. If the characters get to know and understand the city, rather than follow specific events, then more hooks can be thrown out and more of them will stay interesting, keeping the campaign free and and at somewhat of a remove from ‘finding the plot’. Enter Hydropolis.
Hydropolis is located, geographically, right on top of El Dorado, Kansas. El Dorado is a sleepy Kansas town which is just a bit too far outside of Wichita to really be a suburb. What’s important about El Dorado for the purposes of the campaign, though (besides being near where the dot is in Home of the Brave), is El Dorado Lake. El Dorado Lake is a fairly large manmade lake, controlled by an Army Corps of Engineers dam on the southern end. It also, incidentally, is a highly suitable body of water for feeding a dark future hydroponics program. In my version of the Cyberpunk setting, Wichita is essentially an abandoned city, in part due to the new dust bowls that took place as described in Cyberpunk lore, and in part due to destruction from the Fourth Corporate War due to the city’s high concentration of airfields. At some point near the beginning of the Time of the Red, a group of budding local entrepreneurs start a hydroponics project on the shore of El Dorado Lake, and they figure out something massive. They immediately seek out investors, and with the help of Biotechnica and others build a multi-billion dollar hydroponic vertical farm and the city-sized infrastructure to support it. The new corp? Jayhawk Agritech. The new city? Hydropolis.
Based on the inclusion of Hydropolis in Home of the Brave, this all happened right at the tail end of the Fourth Corporate War, likely in the mid-2020s. When we reach 2045, the canon year of Cyberpunk Red, Hydropolis is a massive city which has spilled beyond the megastructure Jayhawk built for their vertical farm (the farm’s towers are still the most recognizable shapes on the skyline). In addition to the city proper the population has spread out in multiple directions in unincorporated areas; Potwin and Leon are on the western and eastern shores of the lake, and Benton and Augusta are to the west and southwest of the city. Additionally, go far enough west and the entire former city of Wichita forms the largest combat zone this side of the Mississippi. Jayhawk Agritech is no longer a scrappy startup but an overwhelming presence in the city, controlling the water, power, and even roadworks. Unfortunately for them, the ‘company town’ model doesn’t work well with 3-5 million people.
It is in this new flavor of dystopia where we find our characters. My players, all eight of them, created characters using the standard character creation rules, though I did opt for the character creation mode which allowed full point buy. In addition to the normal lifepath, I added one additional question which immediately conveyed the tone of the campaign: “Why did you just flee the city in the back of a truck?” While a few of the players asked for some leniency in this in order to fit their own premises, it still led to a memorable session 1 where the characters climbed out of an abandoned cabbage truck in the middle of the Wichita Combat Zone and had to work together. And that’s why this campaign, and the edgerunner team on which the campaign is based, is called CabbageCorp.
The characters in the campaign are eclectic; one great thing about just sticking everyone together in a tough situation is that you don’t immediately have to deal with their idiosyncrasies. Here are the seven main characters (the eighth player has had to leave the campaign since this was written):
Mason Muerte, Corp: Mason was an employee of Jayhawk Agritech under the tutelage of a VP, one Mr. Bishop. Mr. Bishop let Mason in on his long con, and the two of them gathered information to defraud Jayhawk in one big score: stealing their THC-infused crop line on behalf of kibble and munchie producer Continental Brands. Of course, the day came that the plant trays were empty, alarms were blaring, and all Mason got was a text message that said ‘sorry, kid’. Needless to say, he had to flee the city and plan his next move.
Jack “Philly” Phillips, Fixer: Philly grew up with corporate parents, but as is wont to occur they found themselves on the wrong end of a deal and ended up broke. Philly still resents this, and as a result is all about the money. Not even about spending it, but about getting it back, about having it. He arranges transport deals in and out of Hydropolis, working with smugglers and nomads to get some things onto trucks and other things to fall off of them. He got a tip from one of his contacts that it was the right time to leave the city quietly and wait for the next big thing to blow over.
Jacob Capone, Media: Jacob came from a clan of Reclaimers, and he knows well what the world used to be like. This is probably what got him into the media gig, speaking truth to power and pointing out the wrongdoers in the world. Of course, Jacob is more interested in hurting the wrongdoers than in making their wrongs right, but we all have to start somewhere. Jacob couldn’t pick only one reason he had to leave the city…sources that went cold, girlfriend that went cyberpsycho, most recent story pissing off someone who knew his address…for a whole multitude of reasons, Jacob needed a change of scenery.
Bubbles, Netrunner: Bubbles, real name Mireille, is the daughter of mid level IEC execs who’s much more interested in hanging out with her friends and hacking computers than in her schooling or the expectations of a corporate family. Of course, that perspective shifted a bit when her parents disappeared. Bubbles got her nickname from an old school friend, and the vibrant personality the nickname came from is her most prominent trait. Fleeing the city was just another bit of trouble after her parents disappeared, but now she has a chance to find out what happened.
Relay: Rockerboy: Relay isn’t a rock star, per se…he’s a famed medium and just so slightly a cult leader. His rise to fame involved a murder gone wrong, which is what got him in the back of the cabbage truck. Even so, nothing stops him from finding fans and skeptical audience members everywhere he goes.
Tyrone King, Nomad, and Doctor Kong, Medtech: King and Kong left their old lives, as a nomad and a medic to a boostergang. In searching for something new they found each other and a bodybuilding gym in Kansas City. It wasn’t long before they went into business together, running a ripperdoc clinic out of the back of a box truck all over Wichita. When they came upon a group of miscreants hiding out in the back of a cabbage truck, though, they saw an opportunity to put their skills to better use.
The campaign is just hitting its stride now, introducing the players to the areas around Hydropolis, its unique quirks as a city, and the organizations which are most influential there. That includes Jayhawk Agritech, of course; the corporation having a finger in every pie has been a constant theme in the campaign. Biotechnica is also a major player; since they’re the main investor in the city according to Home of the Brave I cast them as owning a partial stake in Jayhawk, both controlling the purse strings but also trying to keep the shenanigans in check from a distance. Arasaka has shown up at least a little bit, because of course it has, but so have a number of unique characters, including an organized crime entrepreneur, a Mad Men biosculpt job, and a brace of unique and terrifying boostergangs.
There are two keys to running a city-based campaign well. First is to take notes. I have several different documents I use, one structured by the missions/jobs the characters have taken as well as any plot threads I’ve dangled, and another which is just a list of NPCs. The NPC list isn’t as useful, except it keeps me from forgetting names, which for a GM is a real risk. The plot/mission doc, on the other hand, has been a real boon. For one thing, writing threads you dangle down makes it easier to return to them, which both makes the world seem more alive and cuts down on your prep. For another, it can invite the players to remember who’s in the world and make their own callbacks. My mission/job doc is player facing; all the players can see it and I’ve invited them to write in it in different colored text. This both makes the document more useful, but also keeps me from writing too many secrets too early. If you don’t want a plot-driven campaign, it helps to keep whatever reveals or secrets you have short and not solidified too far in advance.
The second key comes from how to use the source material. Running a game in an existing setting is a combination of reading, writing, and adapting. In the case of Hydropolis, I read all there was to read in the Cyberpunk 2020 library…it was maybe two paragraphs. I also spent long prep sessions before the campaign in Google Maps, looking at this part of Kansas, checking out the area (you’ll notice my unincorporated districts are all named after smaller towns in the area), and doing what was necessary to reconcile the real maps and the Cyberpunk sourcebook. Then came the writing. I used Google MyMaps to create a layer over the real map of El Dorado, Kansas, and start labelling things.
This helped me come up with the ideas for how the city worked and what that looked like. I also read what I could about hydroponics and what it might look like in the future, considering a massive vertical farm is the centerpiece of the city. After both reading and writing came adaptation. This city is in the Cyberpunk setting, so it needed links to the setting. I read the Cyberpunk Red setting material several times, integrating what was known about the midwest and Nomads into how I saw the city working in the broader landscape of America. I chose some corporations to pull in, and wrote a little bit about why they were there. Some of the ones I chose (Biotechnica, Arasaka) have had long plot threads already while others (Ziggurat, Continental Brands) have been secondary so far. Finally, I read the character lifepaths I received. While my players mostly drew within the lines, I was still able to pull in some threads I otherwise wouldn’t have.
The CabbageCorp campaign is off to a great start, and ten sessions in I haven’t kicked anyone out of the sandbox yet. Good prep and good prep maintenance will get you far, but you need it because almost every session someone’s going to want to go another way and your session will be better if you follow them and put your idea away for later. Keeping yourself away from the plot and following where your players want to go makes for an unpredictable but rewarding campaign. Want to see what I mean? Come back later this spring for the next installment of this Adventure Log!
(P.S.: If you want to check out the modified Luck deck being used in this campaign, you can find it here! – Ed.)
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! Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!