Monday, October 5, 2009

Thoughts on Cyberpunk (and Single-Player Games)

I've taken a little break from my other projects to whip up a little Cyberpunk campaign to run solo-a-mano with Des. Now that she's a big bad PhD student, we figure some form of regular distraction would do her brain and sanity some good. Our ongoing D&D campaign we play with two other players is all well and good, but that unfortunate entity known as "real life" keeps conspiring to limit us to an average of about one session every 4-6 weeks.

So after an evening of talking about games we were interested in playing (oh, how I do love those sorts of brainstorming sessions!), we settled on Cyberpunk. Des has never played, but loves the idea of the genre. To be honest, I've never really "played" either, at least not in any serious, committed sense. Just a few one shots here and there. This despite having owned the Cyberpunk 2020 rulebook for the better part of 17 years now. It's one of the oldest books in my collection, and is lovingly dog-eared and beat up, as much from repeated re-reading and passing around to friends as from actual use.

So this has been an exciting process for me, thinking about how I want to approach my first "proper" Cyberpunk campaign. The first thing to decide was whether to update the setting. That decision did not take long.

I think one of the attractions of the cyberpunk genre when it was fresh and new was a feeling of a sort of futuristic verisimilitude. That is, we could all sit around and imagine technology and geo-politics playing out the way the genre forecast. I mean, it was just a matter of time until the Japanese owned all of America, right? Sure. Reading through those future histories was always a kick, a sort of nihilistic thrill. (I chalk this up to being 14, but the implications of having to actually live through the hellish dystopia spelled out in the games and novels never really sunk in at the time. It was mostly, "Coooooool.")

Now that much of what Cyberpunk said would happen didn't (and many more things it ignored have in fact come to pass) there's a tendency to want to update cyberpunk settings so that they still have that plausible verisimilitude. That means abandoning chromed cyber-arms and AV-7 hovercars for things like "transhumanism" and "biotech". Bah, I say! Stuff and nonsense!

In thinking about the genre, I realized it has indeed lost that plausible futurism, but in return it has become a retro-future genre unto itself. No one's going around trying update Buck Rogers, are they? Hell no! So why do the same to 1991's vision of the future? Embrace it, say I!

What I've done with my own retro-vision of the dark future is take several of my favorite dystopian RPG settings and meld them together, like shuffling three or four decks of cards all into one big pile. The two biggest "decks," if you will, come from CP2020 (natch) and Ray Winninger's Underground, a great satirical vision of the near-future crippled by too narrow a focus in gameplay and awful mechanics. I picked out all the great satirical elements (Constitutional amendments sponsored by cola companies, "Tastee Ghoul" cannibal cuisine fast food restaurants, and so forth). I also took the computer/Net tech level from GURPS' Cyberworld setting (since I'm not a huge fan of Netrunning and VR internet browsing and some elements from the cyberpunk setting in All Tomorrow's Zombies. Specifically the zombies--products of a chemical experiment, of course.

Oh, and my world is set in 1985. I mean, why not go whole hog, right?

It's still a typical cyberpunk world. Taking a page from Watchmen, I just fiddled with history a bit. Make the Roswell UFO crash real, and the spacecraft an honest-to-god saucer (similar to the backstory in Underground, which has an alien pod crash-landing in Flordia in 1997 and giving a major technological boost). Since most cyberpunk settings are placed about four decades in the future, the time difference between 1947 Roswell and a 1985 dystopia is perfect. The zombie uprising occurs in 1968 (any guesses as to why?), which drives people into "fortress" cities for their own protection, creating the mega-sprawls and depopulating the countryside save for intrepid packs of Nomad survivors. President Nixon becomes a savior figure with his draconian laws that help speed recovery. Corporations gain autonomy during the post-Rising chaos out of the simple need to protect their assets and not having a reliable government to call upon. And the rest writes itself.

This should be lots of fun.

One other interesting thing I discovered in the course of my background research: there is a metric tonne of CP2020 websites out there! For a game that's been defunct for over a decade (and granting the fact that several of said sites haven't been updated in that long either), that's pretty impressive. Even ignoring all the new gear, weapons, and cyberware, a preliminary pass through several websites yielded a Word document of 79 pages! That's at 10-point font, two-column layout, choomba. Lots of stuff to comb through. Ooh, weapon conversions from the Street Samurai Catalog! (The first cyberpunk-related game book I ever bought, before buying either CP2020 or even the Shadowrun core book. I liked the gun drawings...) Oooh! Corporate fashions and more weapon conversions from Mutant Chronicles! (Another great setting crippled by an awful system.) One thing I'll be using for sure is Gary Astleford's alternate character generation rules. It's obvious that the CP2020 rules system, for all its faults, is robust enough to take lots of tinkering, always a huge plus in my book.

One last thought: now that I've got my setting figured out, and I'm nearing final decisions on what online material to include, I've been thinking a lot about campaign tone and theme and all that high falutin' stuff. Now, this campaign is expressly intended to be a nice bit of high action escapism for Des, so I'll try not to get too high brow about it. On the other hand, it seems that most published cyberpunk adventures pretty much devolve to "your group gets hired to go kill/steal/spy on something; then you get sold out". Kind of boring and kind of a betrayal of the genre, really. Anyone have any suggestions for really good cyberpunk adventures out there?

Of course, another advantage of single-player gaming, other than being able to play whenever we want (living together helps with that, I'll admit), is that we can get way more focused on Des's character, motivations, history, and so forth. I don't know what kind of character she's going to do yet--she was thinking about a sort of punk rock-style Rocker, but hasn't settled on it yet--but I do know that the campaign will at least initially be very street level. Grungy and dirty and desperate. I like that.
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