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Hard Science: Science Fiction Gaming

Cyberpunk Done Right

by James Maliszewski
April 24, 2001  

My disdain for the cyberpunk genre -- especially as portrayed in roleplaying games -- is well known to anyone who's read my columns over the last few years. The reasons for my disdain may not be as well known, which is why I'll briefly elucidate them here, along with my suggestions on how to reinvigorate and make the genre workable (at least to my satisfaction). Before getting to either of those topics, here's a little bit of background. Given my oft-mentioned belittling of cyberpunk, why even attempt to resuscitate the genre at all? To be honest, a little book called Big Eyes, Small Mouth Second Edition made me reevaluate my position. 

Without fear of sounding like a slathering fan boy, let me say how much I enjoy this game. In my opinion, it's pretty close to the perfect generic system for any kind of cinematic roleplaying. I'm quite certain BESM2 can handle anything from swords & sorcery to space opera without any trouble. My hat's off to Mark MacKinnon, David Pulver, and the other good folks at Guardians of Order. You see, BESM2 lists "cyberpunk" as one of the core genres used as an example for its variable cost skill system. That got me to thinking about why the authors had included it (beyond the obvious, "It's a standard genre for anime."), which in turn led me to thinking about what cyberpunk is and why I dislike it.

What is Cyberpunk?

This is admittedly a biased interpretation of an entire genre, so bear with me. I offer it not as an absolute definition, but rather as what I see as wrong with the typical use of the genre in roleplaying. For me, cyberpunk is thoroughly rooted in a mid- to late-80s sensibility, a Reagan-era malaise in which a combination of megacorporations and Japan (or Japanese megacorporations) spelled the doom of the American Dream. Couple that with a fetish for chrome and big guns, as well as the usual undirected adolescent rebellion and you have the implausible dark future we call cyberpunk. 

Mind you, I'm being unconscionably flippant here to make my point, namely that cyberpunk roleplaying was more or less exactly what I described above. It took all the paraphernalia associated with literary genre -- the corps, the guns, the ubiquitous Net -- and fixated on them to the point of parody. As little as I think of Gibson as a writer, I don't believe that was the message of Neuromancer, which again raises the question: what is cyberpunk anyway?

Assuming I'm right and it's not about any of the various elements that make it up, I'd have to say that, at its base, cyberpunk is about future shock. It's about the worry that tomorrow won't be a brighter day, but will bring only further degradation to the human condition. The omnipresence of megacorporations and the collapse of national governments is only a metaphor for societal decay. Cybernetics isn't really about technology (although that is part of it). Rather, it's a symbol for dehumanization. Cyberpunk is a deeply pessimistic brand of science fiction; it's not hopeful or utopian. It's all about how the world can go to hell in a hand basket if we're not careful in guarding against our worst instincts. That's probably why it appeals to people of a left-wing political mindset so much. Cyberpunk epitomizes the "anti-80s" in that it suggests rampant greed and consumerism and political cynicism will one day come back and bite us on the bottom. It's also one of the reasons I never took the genre very seriously. I tend to be optimistic in my appraisal of the future, as well as deeply skeptical of radical political movements. It probably doesn't help that I have known far too many people easily swayed by facile arguments about the evils of contemporary Western society and culture.

My opinions to the contrary, there's no denying cyberpunk's themes could spark excellent roleplaying. Unfortunately, no existing cyberpunk game has ever, in my view, done justice to the source material on which they are based. Most concentrate on flashy externals that are easily translatable into game mechanics and statistics. The endless series of Chromebooks produced by R. Talsorian Games is sad proof of this misunderstanding. Cyberpunk games shouldn't only be about skill chips and smart guns and flesh pockets -- except to the extent they serve the themes of future shock and dehumanization. 

But then I fear that the clichs wrought by cyberpunk RPGs are now too deeply ingrained in most gamers' minds. How many roleplayers have actually read Gibson or Sterling or the other founders of the literary genre, for example? Probably no more than those who read Lovecraft before playing Call of Cthulhu. That's why I think cyberpunk as it currently exists is unsalvageable as a roleplaying genre, at least for me. If I were to do justice to the themes and stories I see as essential to the genre, I'd need to reinvent it for the 21st century. 

Cyberpunk for the New Millennium

The first thing I'd do is ditch the "cyber" element of cyberpunk. Not only do I not think it's very plausible technologically, but I think it's one of the primary things munchkin players latch on to -- to the detriment of the game. Besides, it's also an area that's led to all sorts of rules-related goofiness, from Cyberpunk 2.0.2.0's cyberpsychosis (which nearly every subsequent game has ripped off in some form or other -- heck, even West End's wonderful Star Wars RPG had a version of it) to GURPS's inability to handle characters who've been extensively cybered without really inflated point values. That's why I'd replace cybernetics with genetic engineering and bio-tech. I think it's much more scientifically credible and I can see people willingly having genetic surgery and DNA resequencing done on themselves and their children. I've never fathomed why anyone would choose to have a big metallic arm ending in a claw or something, but then I am notoriously out of touch with the world of haute couture.

Then I'd ditch the megacorps and breakdown of nation states. I don't see either as very credible either. That's not entirely true. I do believe in the possibility of megacorps; we have the beginnings of them now. What I don't believe is the omnipresence of such commercial bodies, to the point where they take on the role of governments and so forth. That trope seems like more a hyperbolic reaction to the consumerism of the 1980's rather than a legitimate prognostication of the future. In their place, I'd play up not the breakdown of nation states, so much as the sidestepping of them. This would be a world in which non-governmental organizations would grow in power, like the WTO for example. I suspect that, over time, these sorts of bodies will become more powerful and more common. Eventually, they'll have as much -- if not more -- importance in our lives than will the nations of which we're citizens. In a dark future like this, these NGOs can become bureaucratic and authoritarian. After all, they weren't elected and aren't responsible to anyone but themselves -- and they have the power and influence to back up their decisions.

In a similar vein, I'd include all sorts of subcultures that developed from voluntary societal groupings. They'd be replacements for the weakened governments, religions, and organizations of past eras. This would help create an alien setting, as well as provide the characters with easy "ins" -- contacts and patrons, among other things. That's important to me, since most cyberpunk RPGs assume the characters are rootless "adventurers" that do odd jobs for whoever can give them Eurobucks or Nuyen or whatever stupid currency we're talking about in this setting. I'd prefer a setting in which the characters have a tie, a connection beyond simple greed -- something else cyberpunk RPGs rarely do, sadly.

I'd also ditch the Net as it's usually conceived. Again, it's a goofy pre-Internet anachronism. The idea of "jacking in" and then playing some elaborate video game against a corporate mainframe after which, if you score enough points, it gives you access to its deepest secrets, is just plain goofy. It's another one of those elements of the genre that has more to do with RPGs than with the literature on which the games were based. I'd ditch the concept entirely and come up with something else, perhaps an immersive VR environment that has more in common with genuine hacking than some kind of N64 game from hell. This is an element that eludes me somewhat, partially due to my own inadequacy with computer technology.

So where does this leave us? In a very un-cyberpunk, cyberpunk world. In this setting, humanity is confronted with all sorts of technological changes, most especially the redefinition of what it is to be human. With the regular use of genetic engineering and gene therapy, human beings can cure many diseases and eliminate many ailments -- if you can afford the treatments. NGOs and other transnational bodies have usurped the power of nation states and subtly enforce a world order that favors an influential minority while allowing the majority to suffer. In the midst of all this are the characters, attempting to get by in a world that's rapidly changing and without any of the signposts and assumptions of past ages. It's a hectic, frantic setting in which people must find their own way without the guidance of government or culture or religion. 

Is this cyberpunk? I think so, or at least I think it's the closest to cyberpunk I could ever get without straining credibility. You may disagree. I'd like to hear what people think. Is the unreconstructed cyberpunk genre relevant in this day and age? Or is it a hopeless anachronism? More to the point, is cyberpunk a particularly gameable genre? Is it something that -- plausibility to the contrary -- is fun to play and worth suspending one's disbelief for? We have forums for a reason, so let's use them.

Next Month: Three Perfect Settings

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What do you think?

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All HARD SCIENCE columns by James Maliszewski

  • Esprit de Temps January 30, 2002
  • The Stars are Right . . . December 28, 2001
  • Three Perfect Settings May 29, 2001
  • Cyberpunk Done Right April 24, 2001
  • A Night at the Opera March 30, 2001
  • There's No Place Like Home December 4, 2000
  • Second Anniversary Extravaganza September 18, 2000
  • Philosophy for Geeks July 18, 2000
  • I'll Play Short Round! May 2, 2000
  • Requiem March 8, 2000
  • Last Column (of the Millennium) December 23, 1999
  • Aliens Among Us November 2, 1999
  • Personality Conflict September 28, 1999
  • Keep the Faith August 31, 1999
  • Worlds Enough and Time July 20, 1999
  • The Future is Small May 4, 1999
  • Star Wars: The Phantom Game March 23, 1999 (prereleased before GTS'99, though!)
  • Apocalypse Never February 16, 1999
  • Millennial Angst October 26, 1998
  • The Importance of Setting September 8, 1998
  • The State of the Genre Report July 28, 1998

    Other columns at RPGnet

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