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Close to the Edit

Once, it was the future...

by Ross Winn
Dec 16,2004


Once, it was the future...

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."
--The first line of Neuromancer, by William Gibson

My name is Ross Winn. From 1992 until 1997, I was the primary developer of RTG's Cyberpunk 2020 RPG. You may know both of these things, but I mention them here to put the whole thing into context. What does it matter, you ask. We will get to that, I promise.

I wrote a letter today to another cyberpunk, current or former I am unsure, but I wanted his help. I said "I have stayed active in the RPG community the entire time, but I really hadn't spent a lot of energy on cyberpunk. These are tabletop RPGs, mind you, not the humming of television screens or computer monitors. Simple people gathered around a table engaging in a form of storytelling not unlike that which Neanderthal used to tell of the hunt. But for a while there was the crackle of revolution, the hum of transistors, and metal poking through skin."

I was walking through GenCon in the fugue state that only that many geeks in a close proximity can engender. I was completely struck by the amount of time that it has been, and people still ask me for my autograph. How weird is that. I mean some geek fan-boy who has an axe to grind being asked for an autograph. It was and is surreal.

It struck as especially surreal when I was talking to Dave Arneson, the creator of Blackmoor and the co-creator of D&D. I mean how cool is that, really. Here is a person who looks like a normal grandfatherly man. A bit of dandruff here and there, and sometimes it seemed that he just drifted off in conversation. Here I was, talking to him, and someone recognized my name. Who gives a rat's ass about me, this is Dave 'fscking' Arneson (thankyouverymuch). Just get down on your knees and thank god for this guy! I got a little choked up while I was talking to him. What do you say to someone who changed your life?

I wrote in my Livejournal "In other news I got to spend an amazing fifteen minutes with Dave Arneson today. How do you look at a man and thank him for your childhood, your passion, and your world. A pretty damned amazing thing. I thought my best question was 'It seems very surreal to me that you are here discussing something you started thirty years ago and have legions of fans. How surreal is it to you?" He answered "At some point when you accidentally create a cultural icon it takes on a life of its own. You just shake your head.'

As I shook his hand and walked away I did feel a tear in my eye, and even now thinking about it brings the same reaction. Can I thank you Dave, for my childhood, for my passion, and my worlds? Without you, I may never have written a word. Do you know what that means to me? I understand if at some point you just shake your head. Yet still, words cannot express the gratitude I have for you, for Gary, and for your contribution to the man I am."

Was it too much? I just do not know. I do know that Dave Arneson is in some way responsible for a lot of geeks, many geek writers, and many RPG geeks at GenCon every year. Mr. Arneson has written something new that is based on ideas he first had more than thirty years ago, Blackmoor. It is still compelling to him. Would the first campaign I ever wrote for publication mean as much to me thirty years down the line? Did it even mean as much to me now?

"There once was a thief, and the thief was God."
--the first line of the Exodus Bible
from Daniel Keyes Moran's The Long Run.

This is how we get here. The first campaign I wrote for publication was an idea called "No 1 2 Love" in 1989. It was the first thing I ever considered great. As I look through it today I sometimes wonder what I was smoking. While there are some parts I am still proud of, other things set my teeth on edge and make me cringe. No 1 2 Love was written for Cyberpunk, published by R. Talsorian Games. Through a series of machinations so intricate that they cannot adequately be expressed without a flip chart, I managed to meet the author of the Cyberpunk RPG, Mike Pondsmith, in the summer of 1990. After a bit of dumb luck that weekend I spent two hours talking to him about Cyberpunk, cyberpunk, and where I thought he should go with it.

Somehow, he did not send me packing like a twelve year-old with no lunch money. He said to me with a straight face, "write me something, and maybe I'll publish it." What can I say? I did, he did, and that was that. A few months later I was published, then again, and again. A year later I had over 110,000 words published. By 1994 I was a machine. I had been writing and opining on all things Cyberpunk 2020 for four years. I was due for a few more. It was the height of cyberpunk gaming.

So now it is ten years later, there are more than a few new cyberpunk RPGs available. Rumor has it that Mike Pondsmith himself is dusting off the word processor for another go at Cyberpunk v3. Well rumor is a little disingenuous. He did announce it on his web site. As I mentioned before, I was walking through GenCon in a fugue state, and I was assaulted by cyberpunks from all sides. Why now? Why cyberpunk? The literati suggest that the genre is dead and buried as a distinct movement within SF; though cyberpunk does still show its influence of SF a fair bit. Punk music has been co-opted, punk cinema too, and now punk SF as well. So why now? Why is now the "Second Renaissance" of cyberpunk RPGs?

"It's the question, Neo. It's the question that drives us. It's the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did."
-- Carrie Ann Moss as Trinity, the Matrix

When I first thought of doing this column I was looking for a yardstick. Cyberpunk 2020 seemed like a natural fit for several reasons. I resisted it for personal reasons; I didn't want to be seen as too partial to one game over another. Then I realized "who was I kidding?" Of course I would be partial, as I should be. It was the game that convinced me that I needed to write. It was the game that popularized the genre in RPGs. I am very proud of the work I did on Cyberpunk 2020, and I do think it is the gold standard of cyberpunk RPGs.

Rather than discussing why Cyberpunk 2020 is the gold standard right away (we will get to that soon enough) I wanted to mention why the games I am disqualifying as a benchmark failed to impress. The only two games with any real claim other than Cyberpunk 2020 itself were GURPS Cyberpunk, and Shadowrun.

Adding the fantasy elements really stripped Shadowrun of any relevance in the discussion. Cyberpunk, like Talislanta, has no elves. Shadowrun was a new idea and a very well visualized one at that. I was always jealous of the art and the style of much of the game. The system was a train wreck in its first edition; a Byzantine array of skills and magic with no clear path to greatness. It was my opinion at the time that without the game's use of templates no one would have been able to generate characters. Later editions corrected much of these larger issues, but never all of them. I still find Shadowrun to be the least intuitive of the RPG systems people refer to as cyberpunk.

Why don't I think Shadowrun was a cyberpunk game? Well, that is an interesting story. You see I always did, or rather I never understood why it wouldn't be. It had cyberware, it had a humanity mechanic (essence) it had dystopia and corporation-states. So I always just assumed it was cyberpunk. Bruce Sterling felt a little differently. I was at DragonCon in 1996 and Bruc, John Shirley, and Steve Brown (the editor of SF Eye) were there as well. I had been drinking a bit, and I noticed these guys sitting there with guest of honor badges in the middle of a crowd of a thousand people, and no one would even make eye contact. Now it was clear that they were talking amongst themselves, but I didn't understand why no one else was approaching them. When I realized that one of them was Sterling I nearly choked. This was a guy that I idolized. One of the sharpest minds in SF. So I drank some courage and walked across the room. Wearing a "Full Leather Jacket", and my guest badge I figured I could bullshit my way into the conversation.

I did bullshit my way into the conversation. However in explaining what the hell I was doing I mentioned that I wrote for a cyberpunk RPG. Sterling looked at me hard through bloodshot eyes. "You don't write for the story with the fscking elves do you? There are no fscking elves in cyberpunk." I was shocked that he even knew there were cyberpunk RPGs. I explained that we had in fact, no elves, and he went off on a rant about Steve Jackson and what a great guy he is. Now I like Steve well enough myself. I also realized that Sterling had written on the Secret Service case, and that explained a lot. I didn't think it was wise to mention that you could use elves in GURPS Cyberpunk. Sterling, Brown, Shirley, and I talked about all manner of things that night while waiting for Shirley's band (The Panther Moderns) to play. We talked of Timothy Leary, L. Ron Hubbard, of Lennon, and Kruschev. We talked pretty much until I ran out of steam. Then I excused myself and walked quietly away.

I slept like the dead that night, slightly intoxicated, but drunk in the knowledge of these men I had met. John Shirley and I corresponded for some time. He sent me a signed copy of Eclipse and Silicon Embrace. Bruce and I exchanged an email or two. A lot of things from that conversation will stay with me forever, but none more than Bruce Sterling saying to me "There are no fscking elves in cyberpunk." Being that he is the guy that pretty much codified the genre as the Editor of Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, he has written some of the most widely read of books of the genre including Schismatrix, The Artificial Kid and Islands in the Net how do you argue with him?

GURPS Cyberpunk also failed to make the grade. There were a lot of things that I appreciated about GURPS Cyberpunk. I appreciated the flexibility of the character generation system. I appreciated the range of options that the modular GURPS meta-system presented to a GM. I appreciated the flexibility of the technology system. For all of these things I still didn't like the game because it is incomplete. GURPS Cyberpunk lacked any real integral setting. The nice people at SJG tried to realize a cp setting with Cyberworld and a few other abortive attempts; yet they never really presented a unified whole, and without this unified whole the game fails to define the genre.

So Shadowrun and GURPS Cyberpunk missed the mark, but why? What made Cyberpunk, and later Cyberpunk 2020, so much better? Three things, actually; style over substance, attitude is everything, and live on the edge. These three precepts for the game really defined how and what cyberpunk was in a roleplaying context for almost a decade. Whether or not this new crop of cyberpunk games that we will be discussing here meets these criteria remains to be seen, but Cyberpunk 2020 always has, and always will.

Style over substance is the first rule of cyberpunk roleplaying. That is that it is more important to look good doing something than to be good at it. Cyberpunk 2020 is a great game from a mechanical standpoint, but it was always presented with a flair that made it look even better. The mechanics looked elegant, even more so than they actually appeared under scrutiny. Amazing considering that it turned out to be one of the more potent base mechanics of the last twenty years.

Attitude is everything is the second rule. The game had to present itself like nothing else could even come close to being as good for cyberpunk themed games. Cyberpunk 2020 has attitude to spare with the core rules and every supplement published for the game.

Live on the edge is the third rule. Cyberpunk 2020 pushed the limits of what a roleplaying game should be with the implementation of the Lifepath system. It pushed the edges of balance, of simplicity, and of depth. I may even want to define those terms in a future column, but not today.

I should mention some games I am consciously omitting from this survey; the new games that are not quite cyberpunk, but deal with Transhumanism. Transhumanism is in effect a reaction to cyberpunk, so it by definition cannot be cyberpunk. To be more clear, Transhumanism is the cyber parts of the equation without the punk; all of the issues of humanity and integration of technology into personality, yet no ethos of personal action and social response.

Blue Planet was the first game that addressed Transhuman themes. Years ahead of its time, it wasn't until almost a decade later that Transhuman Space came along and covered some of the same ground. Not to say that the games are alike, they share some similar themes and concepts, but are very unique in their expressions of them.

The 'New Kids' of cyberpunk are the games that have been released since 2001, and are definitely marketed or perceived by the fans as cyberpunk; whether they are cyberpunk remains to be seen, but we will get to that.

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What do you think?

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