Saturday, 15 November 2014

Cyberpunk 2020 PreGens: Rockerboys

...or girls!

This post contains two part. It begins with three pre-generated characters for Cyberpunk 2020. Being me, I couldn't just post some stat blocks without following it with a bunch of sample contacts, places and villains below, which should be useful to fans of any cyberpunk genre game.

Because I'm going through the roles in the order they appear in the corebook, I'm starting with Cyberpunk 2020's most quixotic class, the Rockerboy. This post includes three Rockerboy Archetypes: the Street Fighting Punk, the Rock and Roll Hero and the Spiritual Warrior MC.

So G+ gaming has exponentially increased the amount I actually get to play games. It's allowed me to run much longer and more regular campaign games than ever before, and try new games I would never have tried for simple opportunity cost reasons. 

At some point I'd like to actually use this space to run Cyberpunk 2020. One of the things getting in the way is the lack of pre-generated characters for the game: Cyberpunk 2020 character creation can take awhile, especially if you aren't familiar with the game. I need characters to hand to people at the beginning of a session (Hardwired had a few, but they seem too specific - I'd like some "archetypes").

So I've decided to make some, and post them here so that anyone and everyone can use them. While my own games tend to have a lot of house rules, I've avoided them here in order that they be as useful to as many people as possible.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Television City

Presented below is Television City, the first long form setting I ever wrote for Cyberpunk 2020, when I was 16. TVC was meant to be a closed system that could encompass all the different facets of RAW Cyberpunk 2020: the net, the common cyberware, the booster street gangs and full borgs. I'm not saying it's GOOD, exactly, but it does have a pretty unique character - all claustrophobic and colourful and full full full of people. It has autonomous communities clinging to sea walls and hanging from roof-tops.  

It's funny to go back and remember teenage obsessions, writ large in a GM document.The main inspirations were definitely City of God and Ghost in the Shell - TVC is really meant to resemble the crowded streets Major Kusanagi contemplates in the famous "Ghost City" sequence of the original movie. Another major influence was Batman of the Future: Emile Tuzenbakh is more like a character from an animated superhero show than any real criminal leader. China Mieville's Perdido Street Station had just blown my mind - you might recognise a few place names. The name "Television City" is taken from Paul DiFilippo's Ribofunk.

And yes, the "Tuzenbakh" comes from Anton Chekhov's play Three Sisters - that's how I know I was 16 when I wrote this: I was studying that play in Theatre Studies!

One final source of ideas was the Dune TV Mini-Series on the Sci-Fi channel. That show had a great "Renaissance meets the Future" vibe which I imagined for TVC (even if the document doesn't ever really mention it). A decade or so later Deus Ex 3 had the same idea, which means I can use the concept art from this game to illustrate this piece!

When I wrote this, I had only run a few game sessions and never seen a well-written RPG city book (or any of the thousand thousand thousand bad ones). Written now, after a dozen sandbox campaigns, TVC would look very different. For one thing, I certainly wouldn't have front-loaded it with two paragraphs about the national constitution! Each city district would have had a list of ongoing adventure hooks to draw in the players; that would have been planned BEFORE any information on the district. I feel like TVC lacks an ongoing "crisis" to immerse the players in from the start. The "Fixer Cartels" lack character; the street gangs and netrunner collectives deserve names. The Darklight Organisation is waaay too monolithic. The idiot who wrote this didn't understand "finance" at all. There's nowhere in the setting to go surfing.

There are a dozen inconsistent design decisions motivated solely by the sort of game I wanted to run back then. Guns are supposedly very hard to get, largely because I was very much into super-serious-write-an-essay-about-your-character Real Roleplaying back then and associated big guns with "munchkinism." Like many of my older Cyberpunk 2020 games, TVC was set in an authoritarian surveillance state (albeit a very corrupt one). I've backed away from those lately, simply for ease of play! 

Still, I haven't edited this document much, except to clear up the prose (and remove some paragraphs about finance: that section is now merely nonsensical, rather than all out BORING). Mostly, this editing meant purging commas. Commas, commas, commas, commas. Say what you like about a liberal arts university education; at least I, learnt, how, to, write, a, readable, sentence,... 

TVC was the setting for a short lived but wonderful PbP game which made me lasting friends in the CP2020 community. The following post is in honour of Weasel, a Floodzone knife-fighter whose story should have lasted longer!

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Review: Psipunk

When people talk about the antecedents of the Cyberpunk genre, there's another science fictional sub-genre that comes to prominence: the psychic detective story. Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, PKD's Minority Report, Larry Niven's The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton... all important precursors of cyberpunk, and all books I've somehow managed not to read. The genre had a brief revival in the 1990s with Katherine Kerr's Polar City Blues and Peter Hamilton's Greg Mandel trilogy. That latter example is something I have read; in fact those stories were my introduction to cyberpunk.

So psychic-cyberpunk (psiberpunk?) story has precedent, but a surprisingly limited history in games - perhaps when faced with Shadowrun, genre purists simply decided to put aside anything that stank of magic. So Jacob Wood's Psi-Punk, successfully crowd-funded last year, is somewhat unusual. It completely escaped my notice, proving that I don't have the encyclopaedic knowledge of every cyberpunk game ever published that I like to claim (if anyone would like to send me a copy of Underground or that French game about underwater colonies, I haven't read them either...). Accessible Games was kind enough to send me a PDF copy for review.

Psi-Punk is based on Fudge, an open system best known these days as the basis of Fate. Fudge already has at least one well regarded cyberpunk conversion, and a DIY ethos which appealed to a certain sort of open-culture advocate cyberpunk fan back in the day. Back in the days when I would bore the Cyberpunk 2020 forum community complaining about complex the rules were, Fudge was the most commonly raised suggestion. As a system, it's very easy to, uh, hack (pun both unintended and unavoidable...).

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Balkanise North America Now!

If there's one aspect of the Shadowrun setting that provokes endless debate, it's the Native American Nations that inherited the American west after the return of magic. Shadowrun draws much of its setting texture from the patchwork of independent, distinctive nations it superimposes over the familiar American continent.

This post isn't going to be a defence of the Native American Nations specifically (believe me, I could write that post, at length, to the benefit of nobody...). Rather, it's going to be a rallying cry for the balkanised Cyberpunk setting. It's going to say "if the NAN did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it." 

What do I mean by a balkanised setting? I mean chaos. I mean a setting where established modern nations have collapsed into successor states, micro-states or failed states, or even a mess of autonomous communities, burbclaves and survivalist isolates.

Cyberpunk settings - especially cyberpunk gaming settings - tend to go in one of two directions when inventing their North American setting. Either, they embrace balkanization (Shadowrun, Interface Zero, the ruined Earth of Jovian Chronicles, Cyberpunk 2020 ...sorta...) or they expand the United States into a gigantic superstate, through international treaties or conquest (GURPS Cyberworld, Underground, Psipunk, Trinity). ICE Cyberspace presents governments as obsolete and emphasises this by devoting little more than a paragraph to the subject in an otherwise extensive world guide. The various innovative settings in Ex Machina explores both ideas taken to their extremes. Kromosome, as ever, has a unique take: a setting completely atomised at a national, economic, even street level, where a few giant regional economic organisations serve mainly as cultural signifiers. 

Because novels aren't required to (and frankly shouldn't!) provide RPG style world guides, it isn't quite so easy to split the literary genre up into such easy categories. This is particularly true of cyberpunk, a genre noted for "show the minimum you need to, tell nothing" storytelling. It's unclear whether the United States still exists in Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy; we know the Pentagon and the CIA have been "Balkanized" and little else. The Bridge Trilogy explicitly describes a world of splintering nation states. According to the Cyberpunk 2020 sourcebook, When Gravity Fails describes a world of dizzying complexity and fractal borders. Islands in the Net is about a world where nation states have been superseded by NGOs and supra-state global institutions. Snow Crash atomises the world on a neighbourhood level. And so on.

If this post is arguing for the "balkanisation" setting style, it is also arguing against the fascistic mega-state model. I'm not saying it's always a bad idea; Ex Machina's "Daedalus" setting provides a wonderful counter-example. It is, however, one with a very specific and very limiting story model. I'm more interested in more generic settings, settings designed to host a variety of different characters and campaigns.

If this post focuses mostly on North America, that's because most cyberpunk game settings do. I suspect many of these Balkanised Americas are inspired by the novel Hardwired. This seems especially true of Shadowrun, given how much earlier editions of the game emphasised "T-bird" GEV smuggling. 

So that's reason number one: every setting should have borders and tariff barriers, so that cyber-linked smugglers in hover-tanks can smash through them at enormous speed. If that somehow isn't reason enough...

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Archetypal Adventures: Techno-Barbarians

Art from Eclipse Phase, used under a Creative Commons license.
The more serious action was taking place in the imbricated global hinterland of enclaves and ministates and company countries; [...] Meanwhile, in the shadowy lands beyond and behind even these anarchic polities, the forests and plains and badlands and shanty towns bristled as the Green neo-barbarians, the marginals and the tribals awoke to the unlooked-for opportunities of this new day. - Ken MacLeod, The Sky Road

The Panther ranged the sea, and the Texan communities shuddered. Laser-comms flickered in the night, with a tale that the chupacabra of the Gulf had found a mate, an iron man whose wrath was that of a wounded mountain lion. And survivors of butchered Korean merchanters named Bêlit with curses, and a warrior with cold metal eyes, so the Chaebol lords remembered this man long and long, and their memory was a bitter tree which bore crimson fruit in the years to come... - Some Idiot, riffing on Robert E Howard...

Time for another Archetype Adventure! Here's one you didn't yet know you wanted: the techno-barbarian. Motorised tribes in plastic yurts, riding pick-up trucks into the burning cities of the disintegrating west. Thieves and gunmen, living off the land, fighting for wealth and power and perhaps a place in the boardrooms of the remaining wealthy. Hardbitten warriors inspired by Gaiseric and Conan, Toyota Wars and deranged John Blanche artwork. Autonomous tribal communities living in the backwoods, printing anti-tank rockets and assault rifles in preparation for the day they swarm the corporate cities in the valley below. 

This post is going to cover a lot of ground. First, we'll discuss what a "barbarian" is, in the context of the Western Roman Empire and the atomising Western civilisation of the average cyberpunk setting. 

Then we'll take a brief diversion and talk about the anti-civilisation "barb" and "naxals" described in Ken MacLeod novels, and an alternate take on the techno-barbarian concept. Anti-techno barbarians!

And finally, a pirate adventure. Another plot hook, called The Sack of San Francisco, grew too long in the telling; it will have to wait for the next post.

One last thing before we start: the name "techno-barbarian" comes from Warhammer 40,000; supposedly techno-barbarians ruled Terra before the rise of the Imperium of Man. They lived in a landscape of "gun-tribes, blood grieves and tek-enclaves" ruled by organisations like the "Terrawatt Clan" and the "Ethnarchy." It ought be a rule that any modern barbarian tribe should have a name at least as baroque and electropunk!


Saturday, 18 October 2014

Six more Bounties on the Board (Ruralpunk Edition)

Flush with cash after the hacker crackdown in Florida, our intrepid cyberpunk era bounty hunters... probably spent it all on booze and cyberware, because genre conventions. That means a road trip!

These bounties all have a Ruralpunk whiff about them (marijuana, pig slurry and coal dust!). This can be attributed to my usual obsessions, and the fact I'm half way through an Elmore Leonard book set in Kentucky.

Featuring: Dog Fighting! Terrorism! Cheerleading!

1. Nancy Fry
Price: $4000
Wanted by: City Police

Nancy Fry is a ripperdoc with an unusual speciality: designing, producing and installing cyberware for fighting animals, particularly dogs. She had a hidden clinic set up in the city, with 3d printers for the materiel and a surgery centre. 

Now she's on the run after animal rights activists located her base of operations and trashed it, revealing it to the police in the process. Right now she's up a strip-mine blasted mountain with the country-Frys (less refined, more inbred than the city-Frys) waiting for the police to forget about her. Her priority is to replace her equipment. The problem isn't money, but acquiring unregistered machines and setting them up somewhere private. Entrepreneurial Bounty Hunters could use her to uncover an entire world of printer-hackers and electricity thieves. 

If you saw Nancy Fry walking down a suburban street you'd make her for a put-upon housewife. She has neuralware, cybereyes with magnification and elaborate tool fingers, but she relies on gun-totin' varmint-huntin' country-Frys for protection. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Cyberpunk Appendix N Part 5: Hardwired!

Another season, another instalment of the Cyberpunk Appendix N, all about cyberpunk, post cyberpunk and sorta-maybe-inspiring-perhaps-maybe? cyberpunk. Once again, the subject of this column isn't what I claimed it would be at the end of the last Appendix N post. I've decided just to give up on making plans for this series. 

The last Appendix N post covered the magical realist tendency in the genre. Today we return to hard, burnished chrome.

This post is about two novels that concern pilots and their futuristic machines. If you're a fan of Shadowrun's rigger class, you want to know all about Hardwired. If your rigger came into eight million nuyen and used it to buy bleeding-edge drones, making you and the rest of the team utterly obsolete, Yukikaze might reflect your mood. Either way, this post is going to be all about jet turbines and heat seeking missiles.

"But he's called himself a citizen of the free and immaculate sky too long to accept the notion that his world of air has bars on it."

When people talk about the Cyberpunk genre - the 1980s literary movement, that lasted roughly a decade from Neuromancer through to Snow Crash - they tend to discuss a canon of classic novels. Neuromancer, Pat Cadigan's Synners, Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and Walter Jon Williams' Hardwired (and Rudy Rucker's Software and John Shirley's unjustly forgotten Eclipse and George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails, before I get angry emails...).

Hardwired even got a classic (some people would argue the best) Cyberpunk 2020 sourcebook, written by the same author. It's a great gaming resource. It put me off reading the novel for years.

The sourcebook made Hardwired seem generic. It had a lead character called "Cowboy" who teams up with a cyber'd up female assassin. The cover made them look like extras in Cherry 2000. In my head I built up Hardwired to be the ur-source of every generic B-movie and bad cyber-hacker-samurai novel to crowd the second hand bookshop shelves where I spend too much of my time. 

The sourcebook had all sorts of neat stuff in it. New "realistic" firearms and armour rules. New "realistic" hacking rules. Some interesting adventures. And maybe a page about Panzerboy smuggling, the subject matter that makes Hardwired into something really special.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

No War but Generation War! (Bounty Board, West Palm Beach edition)

The middle of the 21st century is a great time to be a bounty hunter in the United States. The laws are looser, the targets are more numerous, the paycops less capable of doing their job than ever before. Easy money!

The middle of the 21st century is a terrible time to be a bounty hunter in the United States. The target might be more numerous, but they're also better armed. It's a relatively simple matter for a fugitive with a few friends and a 3d printer to blanket his surroundings in sousveillance systems, giving advanced warning of any arrest attempt. A thousand separatist gangs and survivalist militias will gladly shoot any jumped up Boba Fett wannabe who tries to grab a criminal in their midst.

Bounty hunting takes guts. Or idiocy. Probably more idiocy. Let's be honest here...

The hunters have descended on West Palm Beach in pursuit of two separate targets; the rogue New York ripperdoc Standish Haley and a local gang of online blackmailers called the GitBits

(...of course, the town doesn't have to be West Palm Beach. You could use this motley crew of NPCs anywhere. But you don't need to be told that...)

(...also, while I'm breaking the fourth wall in italics, I have to thank VFTE's very own Interrupt for the gang name "GitBits" and every single one of their hacker handles. Blame him!)

But first, there's one dirty piece of business to take care of....


Saturday, 27 September 2014

Power Dressing! Linear Frames Revisited

Linear Frames. Metal Gear. Power Armour. Powered Spacesuits. Powered Sportsuits! Deep Sea Pressure Suits. Articulated Smartgun Harnesses. Iron Man...

We might not have our flying cars yet, but Cyberpunk 2020's linear frames are just around the corner - there's Lockheed Martin's HULC, the Japanese Hybrid Assistive Limb, the Raytheon Sarcos, to name a few. These things have so many potential uses, I imagine they'll be fairly common within a decade. I imagine them serving dockworkers, construction workers, search and rescue crews, line infantry soldiers, fire fighters, EMTs...

I've been intermittently engaged in a sisyphean task to expand and update the CP2020 equipment lists whenever I have the time and inclination (which isn't often, to be fair!). Powered suits of one sort or other keep coming up - linear frames, but also space suits, environment suits, "metal gear" and others. Each of these systems seemed to require separate rules, so I've decided to condense them. I'm always in favour of reducing everything down to a short statline! 

The rules below cover everything from Vasquez's smartgun harness in Aliens to the Knight Saber suits in Bubblegum Crisis to the deep sea hardsuits in Blue Planet. Personally, I intend to use them as a much simpler alternative to the ACPA rules in Maximum Metal, treating PA suits as Shells with massive SP values and lots of internal option slots. 

In general, I've erred on the side of simplicity. I absolutely did not want to apply any kind of technology assumptions to the rules - they should be able to handle anything from vanilla CP2020 technology through Crysis through Starcraft - or change the rules according to the designed function of the suit. That last decision is down to ideology: as far as I'm concerned, the street finds its own use for things, and that "sports" harness could become an "assault" harness in the hands of a techie very quickly!

It's for all of those reasons that I've decided to ignore the "power question" altogether. The technological variables determining how long a frame's internal batteries should last make my head hurt, frankly. There's an argument for adding an extra segment to the statline - "Power," a number indicating how long a frame will run on a full charge. If you want to, add that with my blessing. As far I'm concerned, a PA's internal batteries last as long as necessary, or until an exciting narrative demands otherwise!

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the prototype rules below (and in this googledoc)! I've included a few sample suits at the bottom, and might just manage to create a follow-up post with more in the next few days...

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Hacker Concepts 2

Part 2 of this series explores the upper reaches of the netrunner community. There seem to be a lot of commandos, cyber-soldiers and people who sit in bunkers murdering people from a distance for profit or power in this list. On the other hand, it also has some of the roles criminal hackers aspire to.

Interface 5

31. Legacy Hacker

The information age is decades old and built on the wreckage of obsolete and lost systems. As much a techie as a netrunner, the legacy hacker knows how to identify ancient systems, how to rescue the information they contain and how to break their forgotten and arcane security protocols.

32. Info Broker

The world runs on information, and Info Brokers make their living hoarding it. They compile the secrets of the world, assess their worth, and sell them on. That requires skill - or the money to buy skill - but then, once you've acquired it, money is no object. You just need to be ready to defend yourself from those who'd prefer some things remain hidden.

33. Commando

When the state sends in special forces, hackers accompany them into the combat zone. The army may not attract the best netrunners but with their optimised training and top of the line equipment, the commando units are something to be feared.

34. Cybersoldier

Drawn from elite "signals" regiments and dedicated electronic warfare outfits, the states and corporations of the world maintain units of hackers to enforce their will on foreign powers. These soldiers have blurred the line between peace and war with their probing raids and some fear that these might be the fools who finally trigger the next world war.

35. DRM Breaker

It's one thing to steal files. Its another to do so without being caught by the increasingly ferocious DRM systems. Activist groups and criminals alike pay for the services of dedicated, high paid programmers who find ways to free the files. It's an extremely dangerous job and one likely to end with a long spell in prison, but a necessary one.

36. Shoemaker

It isn't enough to simply fake a SIN to get a new identity. One has to create an entire electronic identity and insert it seamlessly into the world. This is what the Shoemaker does, at enormous cost.

37. Drone Rigger

Elite drone riggers are similar to security spiders in many ways, but considerably more dedicated to the netrunning aspect of their role. While military teleoperators sit in bunkers with dedicated cybersoldiers to defend them, many mercenary riggers will operate close to the action. An unmarked van in a sidestreet might be the C&C centre for entire fleets of surveillance and attack drones during a corporate war or revolutionary uprising, and the rigger coordinates it all.

38. Cryptographer

Secrecy is obsolete, or so many claim. The Cypherpunk sets out to disprove this. Quantum computing, reactive DRM and hidden networks are all part of her arsenal. Whether she works for a data haven or corporation her services will be valued, if only for their increasing scarcity. 

39. Industrial Agent

Industrial espionage is more about sleight of hand and careful information gathering than flashy stunts, like any espionage. The agent combines social savoir-faire with a focused skill set in order to cultivate contacts, locate and recruit targets for extraction, and steal information for the zaibatsus who trained him.

40. 4th Generation Insurgent

Modern "technological super-empowerment" has brought a huge range of new options to the insurgent warrior. Systems - power, transport, communications - can all be disrupted at great cost to opposition economies. Modern 3d printers can equip armies with powerful weapons derived from open source or stolen plans. Intelligence gathering systems can match those of the enemy. Lightweight drones and automortars have vastly increased the effective firepower of the neighbourhood armies. Tactics can be derived from dozens of different groups in dozens of different conflicts and shared and tested across the world. 

And if the Urban-Reconnaissance teams find you, then death - whether delivered by signal-guided RPG or an air strike - will likely be instant. If they don't take you alive. Pray they don't take you alive...

Monday, 14 July 2014

Hacker Concepts

A few years ago VFTE forumite, graphic and martial artist Interrupt wrote a set of workable, modern netrunning rules called Run.Net which allowed me to actually contemplate running a netrunning game in Cyberpunk 2020.

Run.Net's skill system allowed characters to optimise in different areas of hacking. In doing so, it allowed a character with a low Interface skill to become very effective in her chosen role if she distributed her points properly. The Revolt City game I discussed a couple of months ago was one of the first playtests; in that game the average character had an Interface skill of 2 or 3 (in Cyberpunk 2020 skills are rated between 1 and 10, with 4 being "experienced" and 10 being "inhuman genius")

That experience opened my eyes to the full potential variety of the hacker archetype. It also inspired me to write a list of Netrunner character archetypes across the entire spectrum of the Interface skill, which I've reposted here (after a minor typo clean-up). It feels almost offensive that the Netrunner role has never been afforded the variety that the Solo/Street Samurai concept gets, in a genre that defined and was defined by hackers. While this list has a dozen criminal types ready to fill out the dingy bars and dank darknet forums scattered throughout your campaign world, it also focuses on the opposition - particularly the low level mooks and spooks that PC hackers test themselves against on the way up.

You can tell these were written a few years ago. A modern list would have included more ideas about underground banking and would perhaps have been less disparaging about the capabilities of government hackers. In addition, this list could stand to have a few more law enforcement concepts in general (just to cover Ghost in the Shell...). I'll save that for another another list!

Hopefully, the archetypes below will provide some neat character concepts for PCs and NPCs, whether describing their current profession or former gigs. Without further ado:

Interface 1

1. Pixel Stained Technopeasant

Just occasionally, the wage slaves pick up some technical skills along the way. This guy might be an IT consultant or he might be proficient in installing the latest version of Norton or he might know just enough to get himself into serious trouble (like the writer of this blog, really). 

2. Locust

A few pirated skill chips, some basic l33t "skills" and a lot of teenage attitude (easy to find) is all Anonymous or the street gangs need to create a swarm of angry locusts, tearing their way through the net for the Lulz...

3. AR Janitor

...and when those pricks mess with the Augmented Reality adverts, they never think about the guy who has to go clean it up...

4. Morality Rep

"Now. Downloading pornography is immoral. Downloading music is a crime. We don't allow either in school, and if we look on your computer and find any evidence of indecent behaviour, you are going to be expelled. Do you understand, sonny?"

Friday, 11 July 2014

A Twilight 2000 retrospective

Twilight 2000 is a game that I don't think I could ever play the way it was written. I simply can't keep the rules in my head, frankly. But it holds a place in my gaming heart simply because of the atmosphere, like nothing else I've ever read.

For those who haven't encountered it before, Twilight 2000 is a (very, very) 1980s RPG set in the closing stages of World War III. The nuclear exchanges happened three years ago, but the war didn't end. Days before the campaign begins, the last major American force-in-being in Europe launched a final offensive into Poland; it failed, and now the team are trapped behind enemy lines in a disintegrating world of marauders, ex-military bandits, Warsaw Pact survivors and worse.

Twilight 2000 is a post apocalyptic game, but it has very little in common with Gamma World or Atomic Highway or my personal favourite Other Dust. There are no mutants, no muscle cars (unless you count Humvees), no monsters that aren't human. In fact, you can't really call it post apocalyptic. The apocalypse is ongoing; it's present apocalyptic. When I first encountered the game I was put off by the procedural setting generation and the procedural encounter systems - now, after exposure to OSR, they fascinate me. 

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

10 Villainous Oceanpunk Factions

Picture from Brian Wood's The Massive, just about my favourite ongoing comic

Lately I've been building sandboxes: it's been far too long since I've run Cyberpunk 2020 and both me and some old friends are jonesing for it. Worldbuilding has always been one of my favourite parts of the hobby, and I'm always exploring new methodologies for creating a diverse and "alive" gaming environment. I'll probably have to write about them sometime!

The book which has held my attention lately has been the astonishing Darkness Visible espionage supplement for Stars Without Number. I'm a huge fan of what Sine Nomine publishing does, in just about any format and genre - Kevin Crawford's work has been a huge inspiration for what I've tried to do with this blog. Right now I'm especially besotted by the "maltech cult" generator in Darkness Visible - replace "cult" with "corporation" and it's been a perfect cyberpunk tool.

I really like the format SWN uses to provide sample factions, providing a brief paragraph and then brief hooks below - friends to help the party fight the faction, enemies to bedevil them when they launch their war, complications and things and places to centre the story. It's just the right level of detail for my purposes. I really like them as a framework to inspire the imagination.

One of my players has expressed a desire to head out to sea, so I've put some ideas together for expanding that world. It isn't a setting I've thought much about, except half my favourite sourcebooks seem to be set there: CP2020: Stormfront, Shadowrun's Cyberpirates, Blue Planet's Fluid Mechanics... even Transhuman Space's Under Pressure. It's an evocative environment which really takes the PCs out of their depths... zing. I want privateers, salvagers, radar seeking missiles, rusted ship wrecks, re-purposed military ships. I want to cover the big themes of oceanic stories in science fiction: environmental politics, claustrophobia, offshore freedom and strange underwater discoveries in the last Earthly frontier.

Presented below is the result of my faction brainstorming. Rather than just writing them out in a long list, I thought I'd experiment with the SWN faction format. Next time I do this I'll probably use Cyberpunk V3's "metacharacter" idea, and after that a completely different methodology...

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Archetypal Adventures: the Medtech

The Medtech is a classic cyberpunk role which presents a number of difficulties for the players and GMs who deal with them. I didn't want to talkabout those problems in this post, but five abortive attempts at writing this introduction have proved I can't do that.

If you want to skip the stuff about theory and go straight to the adventure hooks and the "10 Medical Emergencies" table, scroll down below the jump!

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Archetypal Adventures: four netrunner adventures in Sektor:K

All pictures from Starcraft II
Sektor: Korprulu is an eSports bar on the decaying fringe of a central European city, named after a location in the forgotten progenitor game of the eSports scene. Situated in a rusting Soviet-era industrial park, the Sektor is a metallic realm of varnished steel and fading Americana frequented by eSports fans flocking to live broadcasts of Korean, French and Argentine professional matches. 

It is also famous in a different scene: criminal hackers and fixers from across Europe know the bar as a place to wheel and deal and make connections, safe from absent police and protected from underground rivalries. This post covers four netrunning adventures originating in Sektor:K, concerning match-fixing, political violence and the viler side of unlicensed cyberware installation.


Unbeknownst to most of the crowd, the staff and even the owner, the Sektor is located conveniently close to one of the pillars of the local 'runner economy: the underground "black medical" run by the Bandura clan, a Polish operation which manufactures and installs pirated, bespoke and illegal cyberware designs. 

The Bandura clinic attracts 'runners from across the region, possessing a reputation for discretion and competence. The clinic also has some notoriety within the same scene; the people who run it come across as totally amoral. In addition to 'runners - not exactly the most reputable people themselves - they have also been known to supply gear to paramilitary militias, football hooligan gangs and organised criminals. This last client is responsible for much of the special horror surrounding the clinic: the Bandura have been known to perform non-consensual surgery on various captives and "employees" of the Balkan mafias.

The proliferation of 'runners caused by the presence of the Bandura operation gives the Sektor its specific ambience. Situated close to a number of discrete hotels and far from regular policing, the Sektor is a convenient place to rest, recuperate and pass time while waiting for the mercurial Bandura to complete their work. Anyone who pursues a grudge or starts a fight anywhere near the clinic risks smashing the tacit agreements which keep the police away. The Bandura have promised to "blacklist" anyone who does so, so the Sektor remains neutral ground. The presence of so many cyber'd individuals attracts transhuman subculturalists and posers, reinforcing the chromed aura of the place.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Guest Post: Some Derivative Adventures in Banking

For awhile now I've been trying to write posts about a couple of different subjects that I just can't get a handle on. It all comes down to high finance - underground or otherwise - and my basic inability to understand it, whether I'm trying to write an archetype adventure post about criminal Factors or a BitCoin related heist story. You're reading a blog belonging to a GM whose players once made 8 million credits introducing naked short selling to the Star Wars universe!

So I reached out to frequent collaborator and VFTE poster Malek77, and just like that he gave me three campaign hooks straight off the top of his head.

I couldn't not post these. Enjoy!

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Archetypal Adventures: Corporates

Welcome to the second Archetypal Adventures post, covering the most maligned character role in the science fiction gaming universe: the Corporate. The last post in this series covered Limo Drivers; now we're going to explore the people they carry around!

The first part of this post covers the Corporate character's place in the game setting. Corporate Courtiers provides an idiosyncratic take on the Corporate's entourage (player group?) to inspire campaigns and PC ideas. Finally, there are five mini-adventures to round it all out.

It's difficult to think of many hero-hero corporates in science fiction, especially cyberpunk. Julia in Peter Hamilton's Greg Mandel trilogy and...? We need to make an important distinction between corporates and protagonist heroic entrepreneurs. The narrative gives representatives of that character archetype the agency to define themselves and even redefine the world. Whereas the corporate archetype is entirely defined by their relationship to The Company:
  • Corporates work for large corporations, the kind of organisations with giant hierarchies, paramilitary organisation and efficiency measures that stifle innovation
  • in order to rise through the company they've had to adopt the inhuman values of the company, which can lead them to make decisions which can appear unethical or even downright psychopathic (see Charlie Stross' alien invasion theory)
  • in order to survive performance reviews, business failure and management infighting, they always have to appear to be producing more value than their peers. Everyone IRL has experienced an incompetent manager covering up. Statistically everyone has been one, at some point!
It's already common practice for giant companies to use lobbying and lawfare to drive their innovative competitors out of the market, and everyone has been subjected to horrid workplace politics at some point. What differentiates this archetype in gaming from any real white collar professional is that these common events have become suffused with a ridiculous degree of ambient violence. Assassination, corporate espionage, sabotage... 

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Archetypal Adventures: The Limo Driver

My favourite sourcebooks have always been the ones full of character archetypes (for players, contacts and NPCs alike). I've become increasingly fond of sandbox games over the years, but rather than producing a complex map I prefer to place the game in a shifting "human terrain" of relationships. Modern cities are much too large to quantify in any other way.

So that makes character archetypes important. My preferred way of building a city these days is to make a list of likely characters - people the players will need to supply information, equipment and skills - and brainstorm some names, locations and concerns for each archetype. An urban geography tends to grow organically out of the process of placing each person in their surroundings. Plot hooks emerge like weeds in broken concrete. 

And frankly, I don't get to use most of them. So this irregular series is going to be about cyberpunk character archetypes and the sort of plots they inspire. I'm hoping to cover the Shadowrun contact archetypes and CP2020's fixer variants (since those are the two lists I usually combine to fill out my sandboxes), but for now...


Strange Days might be one of the all-time classic cyberpunk films, and Angela Bassett's character is a big part of the reason why. Her character - part bodyguard, part tout, part luxury cab driver - forms the basic inspiration for this archetype. 

Independent limo drivers occupy a strangely liminal place in the metroplex. The city is atomising: disintegrating into a realm of privatized burbclaves, corporate living centres, gated communities, automs, extraterritorialities, special economic zones... each fenced and guarded and segregated from the rest of the sprawl. There are a few people who have a pass into all these regions - select law enforcement agency operatives and the wealthy, predominantly. Unlike those people private limo drivers aren't normally drawn from elite backgrounds, but they still get to move unnoticed between all these different urban enclaves. Walled gardens foster paranoia and fear of the outside world: when the inhabitants deign to leave, they want professional protection and service.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Cyberpunk Appendix N Part 4: The Magical Realists

This series is all about novels to inspire your cyberpunk games. The last entry was all about spies and spooks! This post is going to cover the magical realist tendency in cyberpunk, and traverses some strange territory.

Science fiction has alternated between inner space and outer space for decades now. In the 1960s the British New Wave - Moorcock, Ballard, etc - reached for the inner space of the mind, accessible through drugs or fringe psychiatry. Twenty years later, a new more technological inner space provided the backdrop for Cyberpunk: cyberspace. The British New Wave and Cyberpunk achieved their final synthesis in the Vurt.

I'm just going to come out and say it. Jeff Noon's Pixel Juice is my favourite short story collection ever, above Burning Chrome, above Cyberabad Days and Vermillion Sands and Ribofunk and even the unjustly ignored Mammoth Book of Future Cops. I read it when I was 15, when half my friends were into rave music and hour long electronic mixes shared over MSN Messenger, when I was discovering all pop culture in a rush, soon after I discovered Cyberpunk 2020 and most of the other nonsense on this blog. I brought it along with a copy of Naked Lunch in a railway station in Prague or Dresden or Berlin or somewhere else mitteleuropean, because the English language sections of foreign railway station bookshops are the best fiction bookshops anywhere.

I've made a semi-conscious decision never to read it again, because it can't possibly be as cool now as it seemed when I was a teenager. 

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Bolt Action! The Wrist Crossbow

Part 2 of Liquid Swords is coming along nicely, but I'd like to let it percolate for a little while longer. Instead, here's another weapon straight outta video games for your Cyberpunk 2020 games. (and your Savage Worlds games!) Except this one might have practical uses!

The wrist crossbow is one of Deus Ex's special pleasures, and vitally important for any kind of non-lethal play through. Since then, other games have picked up on the idea: Dishonored has a particularly nice version! The various Bioshock games have their own version - while I haven't played them, there isn't anything stopping me looting the Bioshock wiki for inspiration.

In the event I got carried away - you'll find this weapon isn't great at killing enemy mooks. But with 16 - 16! - different ammo types, it is great at fucking with them!

Monday, 26 May 2014

Liquid Swords 1: Betamax Blades

A post all about swords. In the future!

So I've been away from this blog for awhile, although not for any special reason. Apparently some months I come home from the gym and want to write thousands of words about Neuromancer or Weird Fantasy New Mexico, and other times I just want to spend my free evenings reading a bunch of books about people shooting each other in the future. And even one book about people not shooting each other in the future, which seems like a pretty radical notion. I even took a (needed) break from the Shadowrun campaign.

And then, just as I was ready to return to the world my computer broke. Woop woop.

So now my laptop is working again - sort of - the time has come to write something! There's lots to do - Alienation follow-up posts, Aviationpunk, a whole bunch of stuff about Shadowrun and Dungeons and Dragons and cyberpunk warfare... or I could just write a post about futuristic swords.

Because futuristic swords! Because, to quote Snow Crash, swords need no demonstration.

This post is going to cover the setting assumptions that might allow a character in a science fiction game to actually carry a sword and not look like a sociopath or an idiot or a sociopathic idiot, and then follow up with a survey of different futuristic swords from monoblades to cheap plastic terror weapons and everything in between! 

Dishonored's beautiful, industrial sword

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Neuromancer's amphetamine snare

"It took a month for the gestalt of drugs and tension he moved through to turn those perpetually startled eyes into wells of reflexive need. He'd watched her personality fragment, calving like an iceberg, splinters drifting away, and finally he'd seen the raw need, the hungry armature of addiction. He'd watched her track the next hit with a concentration that reminded him of the mantises they sold in stalls along Shiga, beside tanks of blue mutant carp and crickets caged in bamboo." - Neuromancer

"[When I was a teenager] there was a kind of literary war underway between the British New Wave people and the very conservative American science-fiction writers—who probably wouldn’t even have thought of themselves as very conservative—saying, That’s no good, you can’t do that, you don’t know how to tell a story, and besides you’re a communist. I remember being frightened by that rhetoric. It was the first time I ever saw an art movement, I suppose." - William Gibson

William Gibson's Neuromancer was a wildly influential novel by any standard, arguably the most significant science fiction novel of the late twentieth century. Published in 1984, it determined the language people would use to describe and define the internet over the following two decades. It established so many tropes that a reader coming to it context free, after The Matrix and Inception and a thousand other blunt emulators, might be forgiven for thinking it was just a particularly well written list of clichés. Fans of the novel in the media like to wear their influence on their sleeve - look in the credits of any science fiction film and you're bound to discover that thug#4 just happened to be named Corto...

Other cyberpunk classics like Hardwired and Schismatrix have largely disappeared into obscurity, with only two real exceptions - Pat Cadigan's Synners still has a literary reputation which will keep it in (limited) print for years to come, while Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (1992) was taken as a kind of ideological manifesto by the Silicon Valley techno-libertarian crowd (they're literally still trying to build the Metaverse). So my question is this - if astonishing novels like Islands in the Net and Vacuum Flowers are destined to little more than a forgotten half life in my memory, why has Neuromancer lived on?

I could natter about the prose, or the simple timing of a hacker novel about 20 seconds before computer hacking became a thing people had heard of, or the revolutionary way it treated the "infodump." I could spend even more time talking about cyberpunk's genre swagger; how it had an incredible propagandist in the form of 'my intellectual and literary hero' Bruce Sterling, how he managed to propagate the patently false idea that all science fiction in the early 1980s was crap and Neuromancer had come to save it...

Instead i'm mainly going to make a case about narcotics. Also teenagers. Teenagers on narcotics, in some cases. Nerdy teenagers being accidentally exposed to the whole wide world of transgressive fiction...

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Alienation: the Thingification!

Last week's Alienation post - an alternative cyberware "humanity" system for Cyberpunk 2020 - has received some great feedback which I'd like to answer here. I'm going to save questions about the maths in the Rejection guidelines for a different post, but otherwise i'll try to cover the big stuff here...

The big things in this post:
  • Should INT be the main attribute in the Alienation roll?
  • Expanding the table - including sense/memory loss and more...
  • Different tables for different cyberware. EDIT: forgot to do that. Will deal with it in another post...
For those who missed it, the original rules googledoc is here. 

To recap:
  • The aim of the rules is to replace cyberpsychosis with a more setting neutral system. "Metal turns people into inhuman monsters" is such a defining idea that it becomes central to a cyberpunk setting. It doesn't fit a game based on Neuromancer or Ghost in the Shell or Deus Ex, let alone a more optimistic "transhuman" game. 
  • These rules give cyberware a Rejection rating. When a character installs new cyberware - or has heart bypass surgery, or suffers a serious malfunction, or or - s/he makes an Alienation check. If the check is "failed" s/he rolls against a table to determine the negative effects of the installation.
  • "Alienation" effects represent adaptation problems caused by the discrepancy between the user's new capabilities and physical form and her existing mental architecture/social relationships, etc. A person who dedicates time and energy to adapting - to being "mindful" of his new cyberware - can use the Transhumanism skill to mitigate the risk of Alienation tests.
  • As a side note, these rules don't apply any kind of value judgement to cyberware installation or "metal." A metal robot installing fleshy parts a la The Bicentennial Man would take Alienation tests just like a cyborg...
I'd like to thank a variety of people for looking these rules over, particularly VFTE types Mort, Senior Officer Mikael Van Atta and Malek77, along with Nathan Hawks on G+. Classic artwork in this post from Cyberpunk 2013 owned by R Talsorian Games, used without permission.

So, to get down to responding to and applying feedback: