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:

Monday, 17 March 2014

Littering the galaxy, one sweaty footprint at a time!

The universe is full of trash. There's evidence to suggest life is ten billion years old young in the galaxy at large, with a four billion plus history on Earth. The lifetime of a person or even an interstellar civilisation is nothing. A million cultures could have emerged in that time, expanded across dozens of systems, destroyed themselves with decadence or plague or murderbots or relativistic kill vehicles or trans-sapient speciation or simple ennui (or an ascent transcendence), been forgotten. 

Ruins on Earth, battered by the wind and pollution and microorganisms and looters, can last thousands of years. Here's the thing - on an airless world, or in airless space, or even on atmosphere'd worlds abandoned and lifeless for many centuries - ruins and litter will stand for eonsNeil Armstrong's footprints will last forever (if they aren't disturbed by tourists, which they will be soon). The Voyager probe will continue to drift for an eternity, lost between systems (until it collides with a Sirian generation ark and kills twenty trillion electronic personalities stored within its transport pods). 

The kind of evidence space-faring civilisations leave behind need not be as grandiose as any stark black rectangle or space ark. Any culture embracing regular spaceflight is going to leave behind footprints, mining camps, abandoned machines... even if "regular spaceflight" meant a few atomic rockets burning around a single solar system.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

AviationPunk 1 (A brainstorm)

It isn't like I've got time to run a new campaign at the moment. Shadowrun takes far too long to prep as it is. After a period of abeyance, my DnD campaign looks to be starting up again - and in order to avoid another long halt, I need to set things up so we can easily run games without the entire group about. My solution is move the campaign into an urban sandbox, which needs to be constructed. I probably ought to put the time I've spent writing this post into creating a follow-up to the Alienation discussion (but I'd like to leave it another day to compile everything).

So the following post (and series) is really about constructing a fantasy, for now. 


I want to run a game about fighter pilots and dogfights. About squadrons of aircraft clashing over familiar battlefields or far flung colonial vistas. About internal squadron interpersonal politics and character conflicts. About the fusion of pilot and machine into an indivisible whole. About casualties and heroes.

About beautiful fucking aircraft...!

Friday, 14 March 2014

Appendix N part 3: the indignity of labour!

This is the third part of my Cyberpunk gaming Appendix N series. It was going to be about Leggy Starlitz and Bruce Sterling, buuut... look, I never made any claims to consistency! I'll get around to him.

Part 1 was all about Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy and the 1950s noir that influenced it.
Part 2 deals with cyberpunk inflected spy stories - Gibson's Blue Ant trilogy, Don Delilo, John Le Carre...

Part 3 will be all about novels about work. About employment or professional life, as something other than a spy or soldier or criminal. Or, for that matter, an artist (or a journalist). Novels where work forms the basis of the plot. 

Given how much time the average person spends at work, you'd think more literature would cover the subject. And yes, I meant literature, not just "genre fiction". There's Revolutionary Road and... 

There are clear hurdles to writing this kind of novel. Every profession comes with its own metalanguage, which can be opaque for the reader as well as the researching writer. There are difficulties in plotting - no padding the novel out with gun battles and meteor impacts (probably)! There are even difficulties in finding a readership - escapism is half the reason for reading fiction, and people don't necessarily want to read a novel that sounds like it might be about work. I'm sure genre publishers are scared of it. So the arrival of a novel like this ought to be treasured.

In the swirling world of post-cyberpunk Cory Doctorow is the writer most associated with novels about labour, so we'll start with him!

Thursday, 13 March 2014

YOU'RE WELCOME, terrorists!

There are good reasons why cyberpunk gaming is less popular than fantasy (and why I can't play CP2020 with my regular "RL" group). Not least of which is "it's too close to reality". 

Running a game set in the near future (ostensibly based on reality) means researching stuff. Games tend to be about criminals, for better or worse. 

These two facts combine to mean that my search history must flag up every single iteration of ECHELON or Optic Nerve or or or. If the news is to be believed the NSA have everything, even the dirty web camera footage that ... well, I've never actually sent naked pictures of myself to anybody, over a webcam or otherwise, because i'm not that cruel. But if I had, they'd have it!

In my search history: the Pirate Party! Automatic weapons! Every terrorist organisation to ever come up with a stupid acronym! Japanese criminals! Futuristic body armour! Hacking drones! Uranium smuggling! Detailed maps of the Pacific Northwest! "How to illegally enter Belize!"

Between that and being a member of Stop the War! GCHQ must think i'm an enemy of the state, if not an actual terrorist. "Socially awkward nerd! Apparent interest in firearms! Delusions - thinks "drone hacking is a game!" Was once so unexpectedly polite to a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that the Ikhwan member ran into a shop and brought him four bars of milk chocolate!"

I've decided to embrace this issue. If they want to spy on my ludicrous hobby, i'm going to put it all into the open. The following post will contain a miscellany of suspicious material.

One problem: in my normal life i'm a mild mannered geek who cares about machine guns about as far as I can throw them (which isn't very far, because i'm a mild mannered geek). So this may not live up to the promise above. I'M SORRY, readers!

This post contains:
  • Futuristic mortars!
  • Japanese terror manuals!
  • A guest post about hiding your knife!

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Ruralpunk 6: a funny thing happened on the way through the checkpoint (and more!)

Ruralpunk returns!

I've already had some great feedback in about 8 different places about Alienation. In a few days i'll put up a summary post with changes and ideas for change. Until then...

We've had places. We've had antagonists. What we don't have is an entire post about checkpoints (just because you didn't know you wanted one, doesn't mean you didn't...). Pictures from Far Cry 2, a game which was 20% about fun and 90% about checkpoints. I stand by the maths in that sentence.

Ten encounters at the checkpoint

1. Antisocial behaviour stop. The police are looking for speeding cars, drunk drivers, personafix racers, and so on. A real risk to the PC's carefully constructed, expensive, fake identities...

Monday, 10 March 2014

Alienation - alternative "humanity loss" rules for Cyberpunk 2020

Humanity Loss needs to go!

The following post contains an alternative system for Cyberpunk 2020 cyberware, designed to reflect the psychological effects of cyberware without the hard, arbitrary limits of the humanity loss system. It's designed to be flexible and player facing - presenting the possibility of significant psychological costs while giving the player the choice of determining exactly how they manifest in her PC. 

In addition, these rules don't come with a major setting assumption. This could slot into a game set in the early years of Transhuman Space or Cyberpunk 2020 or even Traveller 2300. It reflects any world where the pace of technological change is determined by corporate competition, where people are filling themselves with prototype gear before the psychological implications are understood or where 'runners find themselves loading up on heavy metal simply to survive. It doesn't force the GM into assuming cyberware has any one effect on people. The negative consequences are based on universal addiction and body image narratives that everyone is familiar with, even if they've been lucky enough not to experience them for themselves.

This post contains the rules - with a link to a googledoc for easier access - and then some designer's notes and philosophical nonsense. I'd love some feedback!

EDIT: A follow-up post full of people's feedback is here.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Breaking into the Datafortress (2020)

Datafortress 2020 is one of the oldest cyberpunk websites, a survivor from the days when the UK cyberpunk project could have a "top 100" list of CP2020 websites. Quite aside from the massive compilation of rules - the Miracle Mile vehicle lists are legendary - sysop Wisdom000 also took it upon himself to save the output of the CP2020 fan community as it declined. The File Project includes 90% of everything ever posted to the web by CP2020 fandom. It's a central resource for any Cyberpunk GM (so is the blog). 

The file project contains hundreds of documents, which is a tad intimidating. Moreover, it's had some hosting problems over the years and is often down, leaving people reliant on emailing Wisdom000 to get specific documents. To help the uninitiated, I thought i'd make a list of my own personal favorites from that giant archive, here below:

Friday, 7 March 2014

Wage slave part 2: the restructuring!

Part 2 of the unexpectedly popular wage slave series - from Kelp Strainer to Window Cleaner...

This seems like a weirder bunch than what came before. Apparently the second half of the alphabet is stranger than the first!

Kelp Strainer - strain kelp in corporate kelp production facilities, using mechanical devices to check nutrient levels and determine whether said kelp is most appropriate for kibble or kelpboard manufacturing. Fun!

Labour Exchange Attendant - in the age of chipped "free" workers (see the last post) someone has to hand out what jobs are going. Either you'll be standing on a street corner with a bus sign or at at a mandated "labour exchange," where you'll hand out skill chips and bus tickets on a first-come, first serve basis. Illegal immigrant workers and construction workers in the Gulf States already have to put up with these people - chipware just brought them into the mainstream. 

Be a jumped up neo-Hitler and take bribes to let people work at cut rate! Establish a relationship with the mob! Arm yourself! 

"Limo" Driver - be like Jamie Foxx in Collateral or Angela Bassett in Strange Days. Transit clients across the dark city. Have meaningful conversations with the psychopath in the back seat.

Meat Puppet - switch off your brain and let a chipped personality control your body for a period. A methodology associated with prostitutes, but surprisingly common among security personnel, prison guards and waitresses. Bunraku in Shadowrun.

Meat Space Attendant - when half the world has retreated into a fully virtual existence, someone has to attend the comatose bodies. Keep the plumbing going!

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Wage slave - entry level jobs for your near future dystopia! (part 1)

Your Cyberpunk 2020 or Shadowrun player character became a gun toting oh-so-cool future criminal for any number of reasons, and unemployment was probably high on that list. 

When half the jobs have been automated and the other half have been outsourced, what are the legitimate options for someone who grew up in the inundated city slums, without access to education or networks? The following list presents a few, in the hope of fleshing out city setting and providing some innocent bystanders to get caught in the inevitable crossfire. 

(As a side note, I compiled about two thirds of this list in a VFTE post back in 2009. I've had to take a few out because they came true...)

3d Printshop Attendant - you work for a shop running a few expensive printers, dealing with jobs that the average home fabricator can't handle. Lose your job if someone gets disguised gun parts past you.

Aid Worker - Fifty million displaced ecogees need food and medicine and paper refugee clothing. You're there to provide it.

Animal Control Officer - hunt down escaped designer pets and malfunctioning cyberanimals. Night vision goggles, chunky motion sensor and a shotgun surprisingly mandatory.

Augmented Reality Designer - design Augmented Reality signs and spaces for small businesses, etc. Not as well paid as you'd imagine because everyone and his uncle (who earns £13563 a week without leaving his desk you could too visit this link) thought this would be their ticket to riches in the early 2020s.

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?"