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.


Every piece of cyberware has an Rejection rating. A character’s total Alienation rating is the combined Rejection total of her cyberware.

Every piece of cyberware/bioware will have its own Rejection rating. In the absence of a full list, I’ve included some guidelines at the end of the rules segment. (1)

Every time a character installs a new piece of cyberware, he must roll an Alienation test.
This is an INT + Resist Torture/Drugs + D10 vs Alienation Rating skill check.

If she fails, she must roll a D10 against the following Alienation Table to determine the outcome. The player should record the result of each failed roll on her character sheet.

The Alienation test is rolled AFTER the cyberware has been installed. This includes any roll to ascertain the rejection value of a particular piece of cyberware. For instance, the ripperdoc installs a Rejection D6 arm. The PC then rolls to ascertain the Rejection value of the arm, followed by the Alienation test.

When installing cyberware at character creation, ascertain the rejection value of all installed cyberware and then make a single Alienation test. 


  • 1 - 2 Adaptation Issue: the character finds himself unexpectedly unable to adapt to the new cyberware - breaking glasses with his cyberhand, tearing a ligament reacting at super speed to the sound of a baby crying, finding it impossible to sleep in a preferred (or comfortable!) position because of the giant new chainsaw arm attachment, etc etc. This increased stress causes the character to be at -2 to all actions for D3 months.

  • 3 - 5 Body Dissociation: the character feels increasingly disassociated from her own body. Increase her Alienation rating by D6.

  • Characters who pick up multiple instances of Body Dissociation run the risk of mental illness. Cyberware addiction is a common result, as is Body Dysmorphia.

  • 6 - 7 Clinical Rejection: the character’s body strongly rejects the implant or suffers an unexpected allergic reaction. The character requires additional time - equal to the original implant time or three days, whichever is longer - to begin using the implant. In addition, she will incur additional medical costs equal to $400 (or its equivalent in giri / whuffies / reputation etc). On a D6 roll of 3 or less the character suffers an additional Adaptation Issue.

  • 8 - 9 Social Dissociation: the character feels increasingly disassociated from ordinary human society. Increase his Alienation rating by D6. Reduce Empathy OR Attractiveness by 1 (player’s choice). In addition, the character may become increasingly susceptible to anti-social, elitist or transhuman eugenicist ideologies (-10 to resist the arguments of Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand or Khan Noonien Singh…!).

  • 10 Mental Illness: the character develops a serious mental illness, determined collaboratively by the GM and PC. Common ailments include cyberware addiction (particularly common among people with body dysmorphia!), grandiose delusions or a messiah complex (I am the future of the human race!), anxiety disorders (especially among people with twitch speedware and enhanced senses) or schizophrenia. In some settings, it may be the dreaded “cyberpsychosis” or “future shock”.

Inevitably, some characters may run up an Alienation rating so high that they cannot pass the Alienation Test. At this point some referees may rule they are so far gone that they should be retired from the game. This rule is optional!

My personal feeling is that a character should simply be allowed to carry on failing alienation tests, deviating further and further from the “normal” (whatever that means!) human experience!


Alienation can be dealt with just like any other mental habit - that is to say, with difficulty and persistence! 

If a character suffers a bad result from newly installed cyberware, she can have it immediately removed after the alienation test results have been applied. In this case he will lose D6 Alienation points from his total.

Cyberware is an emerging science, and the transhuman movement - along with the medical industrial complex and the manufacturers - are always working to help people mentally adapt to the new normal. This often requires as much therapy and mental adaptation as successfully dealing with a mental health disorder.

To reflect this, characters can take a new skill: Transhumanism (Empathy). This reflects their increasing adaptation to their new bodies. (2)

Characters can add their Transhumanism skill to their roll when making an Alienation test. Characters can receive training in Transhumanism from a cybertherapist or even a cult leader, or perhaps simply by taking the time to explore their new capabilities and adapt. 


Characters may be forced to make Alienation tests at other times. These include:

  • If an attack destroys a piece of cyberware.
  • If an attack shuts down a piece of cyberware for a significant amount of time.
  • If a character's cyberware is subverted somehow - brainhacking, hacker induced "alien hand syndrome" and so on.
  • Major surgery of any kind (for instance, heart bypass surgery is famous for making people more emotional and has an rejection rating of 2!).
  • Optional - if a character kills a human after scoring a critical hit using a cyberweapon. The "I AM SUPERIOR TO THE FLESHIES!" special rule.
  • If a loved one reacts badly to cybernetic enhancements or fails to recognise the giant steel monstobot as her son...


  • Invisible medical implants that don’t obviously affect the day to day life of the user (replacement liver, etc): 1
  • Interface Plugs/Jacks: 1 (unless the game is specifically themed around their introduction to the setting)
  • Invisible or concealed implants that improve basic human performance (basic neural processor, optimised lung replacements, improved cyber-eyes, nanotech blood replacements, biotech enhanced limb with muscle enhancement): D3
  • Invisible or concealed implants that radically boost human performance over limited periods (adrenal boosts, drug glands, implanted megaphone etc): D6
  • Small implants that radically change a human sense or capability (sticky gecko feet, tool fingers, ear with sonar capability, social pheromones or analysis system, personality graft): D6+1
  • Large, visible implants that may improve human performance (metal cyberlimbs, cat eyes, prominent “Batou” type cybereyes). Also cheap or poorly chosen grafts: replacing someone’s amputated arm with a cloned/stolen arm of a clearly different skin colour, for instance: D6+1
  • Large implants which change the human form without deviating from the basic hominid structure (permanent underarm chainsaw attachment, implanted wingsuit, coiled whip razortongue, photosynthetic skin, skinweave): D6+3
  • Implants that radically change the way a human interacts with the world at all times (gills, “always-on” speedware, a permanent sixth sense, “telepathy” implants): D6+3
  • Implants which deviate wildly from the human form (extra limbs, gargoyle wings, caterpillar track leg replacements): D10
  • “Full Borg” body replacement: D10 for the basic chassis. Implants added to that chassis require additional rolls. (4)
  • Disembodiment - replacing your physical form with a biopod/”brain in a jar”/ghost to be carried in an inhuman drone form: 2D10

These guidelines assume a setting in which most people conform to the human norm. In some settings, certain ‘ware may be less alienating! For instance, blue photosynthetic skin may rate a mere D6 rejection points in a world where a character’s home nation legally mandated that all citizens receive it at birth two generations ago. These reductions in rejection costs should be small unless human society has totally adapted to their use through generations of social change and mental adaptation.

In that case, the resulting person may be posthuman. Their rejection values should be changed accordingly to reflect the norms of the society he grew up in. For instance, a character with gills who grew up in an underwater society might be enormously alienated by the ability to breathe above the surface!

These rules are included in a googledoc here.

Designer's Notes

(1) There's definitely a case to be made for simply using the Humanity Cost values in Cyberpunk 2020 instead of my mathematically dubious numbers. This will reduce the amount of cyberware a character can safely take, which many GMs will consider a Good Thing. 

(2) This is linked to the Empathy stat for the same reasons that humanity cost was - and also, frankly, because coming to terms with your new cybernetics would require an awareness of your own body, emotional reactions... simply being "present in your own body", something that I struggle with! There's an argument for using Cool instead.

(3) Transhumanism was inspired by two things - my own recent experiences getting into weightlifting, and the mindfulness classes increasingly prescribed for people with anxiety, depression, bipolar etc. 

(4) These numbers reflect both mental and social effects. Visible or inhuman cyberware can't be ignored by either the user or people around him, which is why they get increased Rejection scores.

(5) Definitely a stop-gap rule! Full Borgs deserve their own document...

This entire system is based on the idea that human minds fall into patterns and than human brains will struggle with extra capabilities. However, mental patterns (pseudo-iteratives!) can be changed with work, and Transhumanism reflects that work. I prefer a system that forces a significant IP opportunity cost over the Eurosource therapy rules, which were very open to abuse.

Incidentally, those human patterns are the reason why the Adaptation issue lasts 4 weeks - that's usually how long it takes for a new habit to form, an old habit to be broken, significant changes in muscle mass to become apparent, etc etc.

Why I don't like the Humanity Loss system

  • It ties people to the empathy stat.
  • Because it's too arbitrary. 
  • It has major setting implications - it makes "cyberpsychosis" a central part of the world.
  • It makes a value judgement about people who fill themselves with cyberware.

In Shadowrun that value judgement makes sense. Underneath all the cynicism and grimdarkness Shadowrun's magic system and worldview is based on some surprisingly California-cultural-appropriatin' New Age Hippy stuff, and Essence fits that vibe perfectly. It doesn't mean I want it in my hard-nosed, materialistic espionage game (or my idealistic Deep Space transhuman game, or my biotech conspiracy game, or...).

What the Alienation Table represents

So I've repeatedly asserted that this system doesn't put a value judgement on installing cyberware. No value judgement, just a TABLE THAT MAKES CYBERWARE USERS MENTALLY ILL AS THE CENTREPIECE OF THE RULES.

Some people might call that a contradiction!

The table represents some general human narratives. Some of these alienation stories might be central to the setting; others may not apply at all.
  • The uncanny valley - humans notoriously find things which look not-quite human very creepy. This applies to visible cyberware (as seen by the user and observers!).
  • Humans aren't necessarily great at accommodating difference; people who become isolated from society become alienated from it.
  • Human neural pathways are designed for a very specific shape and set of senses. New cyberware could cause unanticipated problems around these neural systems.
  • People with higher physical or mental capabilities than those around them may lose empathy for people without those capabilities, or simply find it impossible to understand them. This is an old superhero narrative!
  • There are people in the world addicted to tattoos, scarification, altered states and body modification. Certain forms of cyberware will become part of that story!
  • Low body esteem causes people to acquire radical physical alterations now. Plastic surgery addiction is a thing now.
  • Cyberware might come with some specific illnesses according to the setting - cyberpsychosis, addiction, and so on.
In addition, objectification is the original cause of alienation. Science fiction is the genre with the most literal attitude to metaphor - so characters in cyberpunk won't just act like machines to keep up with inhuman capitalist competition, they'll become machines. Molly in Neuromancer won't just be viewed as a sex object by the patriarchy, she'll install a "meat puppet" interface and become a sex object, brain turned off. 

This was the original big cyberpunk theme, and the best. It's where the name of this system comes from.

Two roads not taken

Slots. Video games like Shadowrun Returns and Deus Ex usually limit cyberware through a system of body slots. It's not a bad system - but it is too "gamey". It's much more arbitrary than the humanity loss system, for instance. 

No limits. The idea of simply scrapping the system altogether has occurred to me. However, it's been my experience that a few simple rules are better at stimulating roleplaying than none at all. The system above comes with a simple in-built narrative about alienation derived from addiction and body image stories which people in the west are all-too familiar with these days. It's designed as much as a player aid as it is a power-limiter. 

Power Limitation!

CP2020 is famous for its "munchkin" problem, which humanity loss was designed to rein in. To an extent, this system removes those limits. To that, I say...

  • the mental effects are much more visceral. They change the fundamental nature of the character in a way that a HL number doesn't. 
  • the type of players who like to secure their characters against the world by covering themselves in metal are the same players who will be scared of Alienation tests.
  • there's a new strategy element around Alienation tests and the Transhumanism skill. There's now an opportunity cost to taking large amounts of cyberware. 
  • all of the usual effective counter-munchkin tactics that work against big guns work against cyberware. 
The only thing I really miss is the reduction in social skills brought about by the use of the Empathy stat. The late lamented Kromosome RPG had an optional "monstrosity" rule that made it difficult to characters with lots of bioware to relate to normal people. Given that rejection scores are already higher for visible cyberware, some version of that rule could be implemented fairly easily.

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