Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Revolt City!

A post about cyberpunk archetypes, teenage heroes and emotional stakes...

Play by Post forum games almost never work out, in my experience. It might be that i'm no good at them. Chat room games have a proud history in my gaming circles but they aren't much better. Now that G+ is a thing, I've decided to leave both forum and chatroom games behind forever. 

That doesn't mean i'm going to forget the struggle to make them work. The Views from the Edge Cyberpunk 2020 forum hosted a number of valiant attempts back in the day, including Revolt City, GMed by VFTE'r Malek77 (who also created the art in this post!).

Revolt City failed as a game - largely because it was primarily a forum game, largely because it was difficult to bring people for what MSN sessions we planned. If you look in the M7Z subforum that contains Revolt City you'll also find B.a.b.1.l.0.n: a game that attempted to grapple with the problems of forum gaming in all sorts of innovative ways, using art, FATE inspired tags and all sorts of other things to make a game which actually worked.

So if Revolt City failed, why commemorate it?

Because it remains the game that i'd most like to try again.


"Will it be Class of 1999 meets Battleship Potemkin, or Battle Royale meets Lord of the Flies?

Will you oppose IP theft, or false scarcity? Freedom of Information, or the Moral Right to Profit?"
Revolt City was a game about high-school kids in a world teetering on the edge of total ecological and civil collapse. It was explicitly about class division and political chaos. Characters were required to detail their origins and pick a political memeplex from a list specifically drawn up for the setting.

The world was incredibly dark - arguably too dark. The ecology was wrecked and the survivors with cash were retreating into Arcologies, open to the wealthy and enfranchised. The big theme was normalized chaos - the kids were still going to school, still dealing with their parents, still pirating music... 

...the government was a totalitarian co-opted nightmare.  Intellectual Property cops patrolled the school, searching computers. The only employers standing were the syndicates and the private security companies. The poor were contained in ghettos and ecogee camps. The implication was that the environment was irrecoverably damaged. 

Revolt City was the Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) of Cyberpunk settings. As in: "I fucking admire the artistry and originality of this thing, but it describes a vision of social apocalypse so deep and totalising that as a pasty white pinko nerdboy from a suburb I really can't relate..."

Personally, I put beacons of hope into my cyberpunk settings. I'm sure there will be internet purists who decry me for that, but... I RUN A REGULAR CAMPAIGN. PEOPLE ACTUALLY WANT TO PLAY IN IT. SCREW YOU, SEMI-HYPOTHETICAL FORUM POSTER! *cough* umm.

Too real for this self absorbed geek!

What inspired me about Revolt City wasn't the Elysium meets The Wire (Season 4) grim-darkness of the setting. It was the characters.

It used to be a running joke about Malek77's campaigns - he explicitly set out to run games centred around massed automatic weapons fire and drone combat and each time he'd end up with a teen drama.

The characters in Revolt City were incredibly constrained in their skills. Every point mattered. These were probably the most underpowered characters in the history of Cyberpunk 2020. Resources were scarce: PCs put aside deep political divisions because of the usual teenage issues but also the desperate need to share resources. Class relationships between ecogees and rich kids became a real roleplaying hook in the few sessions we got to play. I can't remember if anyone actually owned a gun.

One thing that was fascinating about Revolt City (part of the game's conception, as I recall) was the way it opened up the lower echelons of the netrunning world. My character played a music dealer - somewhere between a hacker and a drug dealer, since the DRM was so good you'd need a few points of Interface to crack it. I think it was expected that those skills would have drawn her into a wider world of hacking, but also resulted in her exclusion from school and society - I lived in the expectation of failing an Interface check, being caught by the IP cops, and having her imagined future taken from her (and so driving her into the arms of the extremists or the idealists).

And really damaging her relationship with her mom...

Family relationships made the characters motivations and battles feel extremely personal and very dangerous. You can laugh about the way every crew member in Mass Effect 2 seemed to have a hyperbolic daddy issue, but the fact is everyone understands those stakes. For certain people - myself included, I think! - they can feel more visceral than any threat to the nation or the planet or the universe. The outcome of a loss means grief among loved ones, broken relationships, exclusion...

To be honest, it made the game kinda stressful, and I wonder if it contributed to the premature ending of the campaign. There was a sense the characters were heading for martyrdom or horror, which came from the setting as much as any one character concept. Now i'm all for martyrdom as a character goal, but I think most people prefer to have their semi-idealised PCs die with a purpose!

(I remember a podcast - I believe it was Actual People, Actual Play - once described the thematically similar game Grey Ranks as being super compelling rather than enjoyable, a real distinction that seems useful here...)

I'm sure this all old news to people in the story gaming community, but I've never really been a part of that (recent escapades into Fiasco aside!). Frankly, I like my games crunchy and lethal, and I enjoy the "solidity" of an RPG over, say, a yes-anding improv game. I don't have anything against story games - it's just i'm probably reinventing the wheel a bit thinking about this stuff!


I'm an unashamed fan of Cybergeneration, the CP2020 spin-off about juvenile deliquents (with optional super-powers!). I love the simplified and characterful rules hack, the layout of the book, the Augmented Reality hacking sourcebook that was a decade ahead of its time... I even love the stupidwonderfulstupid "yogangs". 

Teenagers feel like archetypal cyberPUNK characters. YT from Snow Crash is just the most famous example. Cory Doctorow has built a career around them - For the Win, Pirate Cinema, Big Brother and Homeland... Case was in his early 20s and so long past it! The "street-rat" aesthetic has loads of potential for a scrappy game about "low" personal stakes - entire campaigns about Augmented Reality vandalism, petty gang wars, music piracy, music creation... think Jet Set Radio, think Brian Wood's comic Couscous Express, think...

...the CyberBreakfast Club. Revolt City's highest achievement was to turn the high school into a dangerous, unique environment unlike any other - a high-tech, high-surveillance labour camp where moving around illicitly was a major part of the game in itself. 

The enemies change - cliched PMC guards give way to a radical assortment of drug councilors, "moral hygiene officers", IP Cops, graffiti hunting drones, teachers and parents... Ordinary police officers become a threat. Ordinary corp workers become a tutting problem, because the PCs stand-out and represent moral threat simply by trying to live free. I live in a country which seems to be criminalising its youth; where private security officers will remove people with hoodies from theoretically public space, where clubs are closed down, where London is 'comin like a ghost town... 


Jack Womack's novel Random Acts of Senseless Violence is a hidden classic of the genre, about an ordinary twelve year old girl descent into violence as New York likewise changes around her. The other big inspiration has to be Season 4 of the Wire, which sees a group of kids drawn into the Baltimore drug trade one personal catastrophe at a time. So here's the campaign plan...

The stakes start small. Tag the office block, escape the school for an afternoon, score some weed, get the girl, get the boy, figure out which one you want to get...

...but these characters live in the world, in the city. One wrong move and then can get an adult criminal record, losing their prospect of a future. The environment around them can fall apart - their parents might lose their job, the gang wars might spill out into the street. Their friends - NPCs or PCs - turn out to have dark secrets in their family life. 

Chris Partlow: coming for your character's brain
Failure isn't getting caught. The real threat is what happens next. As the kids grow up, as the plan for their future falls apart, the real threats emerge:

  • Extremist political organisations who want the skills they developed hacking school systems or evading cops...
  • Criminal organisations looking for street soldiers...
  • Any number of traffickers, pimps and charlatans...
This sounds incredibly dark and it is - but there's the opportunity to mess around with tone. In an HBO drama or novel, maybe the plot requires the friendship group to be torn apart by the indifferent universe. That's not true for the game. The party might suffer losses along the way but it won't break up until the game ends. 

And then there's PUNK. Fuck former special-forces types. The characters - willing to die for ideals, willing to take crazy risks, willing to stay up planning (and drinking) all night - have the potential to become truly dangerous in their own right. This is especially true for the hackers - the traditional hacker archetype has always been a teenager and for good reason. The youthful characters in Reamde are just the latest literary example.

What ought to stop Random Acts from descending into Revolt City's inescapable bleakness is the possibility of coming out the other side, of winning some victories. Friends can be rescued. Cops can be outmaneuvered. Revolts can become revolutions because games are meant to be fun.

Revolt City failed for a number of reasons, most of the which had no relationship with the actual game. Time for it to rise again!

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