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!