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Cyberpunk Gaming

by Steve Jackson

When the cyberpunk movement hit its stride, game creators latched onto it with the ferocity of starving conceptual artists. It was a godsend to the whole science-fiction gaming field. After all, we'd been using the same old future for years and years. Here was a batch of new ideas, new images, new personas to try on. Best of all, the c-punk "attitude" fit the lowest common denominator of roleplaying like a custom dataglove. In the typical hack'n'slash roleplaying campaign, a group of misfits goes wandering around a weird, dangerous landscape, killing other people and taking their property. Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, cyberpunk gaming too often stays at that lowest common denominator. It's easy - maybe too easy - to build a campaign around razor-claws, dirty streets and lots of attitude. The players' fictional alter egos can have a great time swaggering around, bragging about their enhancements and plotting mayhem. Lots of fun . . . no thought required.

A reasonable critic might respond "So what?" Roleplaying is, first and foremost, entertainment. The only way to do it wrong is to be boring.

But cyberpunk is a literature of ideas . . . at least, it started out that way. When the genre became trendy, it was taken over by adventure writers. The big questions - like "What is the human-computer interface doing to individuals and to society?" were replaced by "How far do you think my cyber-arm could throw your head?". And roleplaying adaptations of the genre, without exception, have played up the flash and violence.

Perhaps worse, at least from the standpoint of the "serious" gamer, is the theme of alienation and betrayal that runs through c-punk. In game terms, that means - at least to the "munchkin" style of player - that it's all right to stab your friends. And roleplaying (or at least *good* roleplaying) is also about teamwork and problem-solving. That's what sets it apart from purely passive entertainment like reading or television. That's what can make it valuable as an educational tool. And that's what is lost most easily in a genre where betrayal is the norm.

But that's what *can* happen, not what *has* to happen. Sure, a lot of c-punk gaming - too much - is high-tech hack'n'slash. But some isn't. And some even hits the standard of the first cyberpunk writers, by presenting an all-too-likely future and making the players think, and talk about, "What would *I* do - what *will* I do - when this is real?"

The Marketers from Hell

With flash and gore for the munchkins, and intellectual problems for the adult gamers, cyberpunk has become the most seriously commercial movement in gaming since "Dungeons & Dragons" itself. Fantasy is still the number one genre, largely because it also sells to parents buying for their children, but cyberpunk is certainly Number Two. (Ironically, TSR, the publishers of "Dungeons & Dragons" and the "big gorilla" of the adventure gaming field, has never fielded any sort of cyberpunk release. Persistent rumor has it that staff writers have been working on the project for years, but their every attempt is rejected by management due to "taste problems.")

And those who have succeeded with c-punk games did so, appropriately enough, by abandoning caution and going full-speed after their own particular visions. It hasn't been just "fortune favors the bold.'' Fortune has favored the wholly ballsy.

Opening Moves

I could argue that my own "Car Wars" was the first cyberpunk game. Certainly it depicted a gritty, high-tech future, ground down not by holocaust but by economic collapse, in which life is cheap and blood-sports are a common entertainment. But the fact is, "Car Wars" missed the c-punk boat. We blew it, big time. Like some sad corporate loser in a Gibsonesque world, we failed to make the connection between what we had and what the trends were. C-punk is marketing, and we didn't jump the cyberpunk trend when it came along. For the price of a couple of weeks' rewriting and a cold-blooded facelift, we could have grabbed a big chunk of the market. We didn't.

The designer who saw the trend first, or at least moved fastest to jump it, was Michael Pondsmith of R. Talisorian Games. His roleplaying system, titled simply CYBERPUNK, hit the streets in 1988. It's a good game, and succeeded not just because it was first (though that helped) but because of two thoroughly nervy decisions by Pondsmith. The first was the name - by grabbing the title of the whole genre, and applying for a trademark, he claimed the whole center and forced latecomers to walk wide around him. The second bit of chutzpah - which no doubt speeded game design a great deal - was to forget about any sort of ``realistic'' view of cyberspace. Net movement, intrusion and combat in "Cyberpunk" play almost exactly like "Dungeons & Dragons" magic. You've got "programs" instead of "spells," and that's the whole difference. But hey, it's simple and fun. (The 1990 edition, retitled "Cyberpunk 2020," goes to considerably more effort to depict the net in a realistic manner.)

High Weirdness

Now we jump to 1989. FASA, one of the top roleplaying companies, is working on their own cyberpunk release. But they're late to the table. Talsorian's "Cyberpunk" has grabbed the middle ground; several me-too releases have popped up around the edges. FASA is in a me-too situation, and they don't like that.

So, like Pondsmith before them, they made a nervy decision. To the standard cyberpunk world of eco-disaster, netrunning and corporate intrigue, they added . . . fantasy. Not just magic spells, either. Elves, orcs, dragons. The whole nine yards.

When "Shadowrun" was released, a lot of people laughed. Some are still laughing; it's not politically correct to mix overt fantasy and hard SF. And that's what "Shadowrun" does. The background doesn't wimp out by invoking psionics or some kind of "scientific" explanation for its fantasy elements. The great cycle has turned, magic is loose in the world once again, and that's that.

And, though the intellectuals laughed, the gamers bought, and bought, and bought, and FASA is laughing all the way to the bank. Because the fact is, they pulled it off very well indeed. Now, "Shadowrun" is never going to win any awards for game mechanics. The rules are clunky and intrusive. But that doesn't matter as much as it did ten years ago. Gamers *know* how to roleplay, and if they like the background, they'll play with another set of rules, or make up their own.

And they like the background of "Shadowrun." As they should. It's richly detailed (and FASA supports it very well, with several new releases a year). More important, it's presented (and marketed) with great skill. The writing is imaginative and literate, supported by lots of excellent art. And it just *drips* Attitude. Even if you laugh, it can grab you. "Shadowrun" is still going strong; my guess is that when you look at sales for the whole cyberpunk gaming genre, FASA claims well over half. Nerve paid off.

"This Is Real"

Cut to 1990. SJ Games is about to release its own cyberpunk entry. We'd been *slow.* We were late starting, and the project had already gone through three free-lance writers. By the time we gave up and decided to have Loyd Blankenship finish the job in-house, cyberpunk was really old news in the game field.

So our decision - call it nerve if you like, or call it just stupid - was to go for as much realism as possible in the background and game mechanics. Loyd was uniquely suited to provide that; through his private BBS, the Phoenix Project, he was in touch with the *real* cutting edge of cyberspace cops'n'robbers, from the Legion of Doom to telco security and even a couple of federal agents. And they were happy to comment - at least, the LoD was. Some of them were already gamers, in fact . . .

All of which ended up in a story that you've heard before, with federal raids on Loyd's house and on our office, and Secret Service agents looking at "GURPS Cyberpunk" and saying "This is real." They may not have been looking for that book in the beginning, but when they saw it, though thought they'd found something *wicked.* So the manuscript was not returned immediately, but languished in durance vile. When we finally got it out, though, people liked it. I just hope that not too many people picked it up in the belief that it would teach them how to hack a *real* system . . .

What Now?

No doubt there'll be more cyberpunk game material. R. Talisorian, FASA, SJ Games, Iron Crown, GDW, and the other roleplaying publishers will continue to support their existing releases with adventures and other material. But will there be anything really new?

"Shadowrun" has come full circle; the game, derived from literary SF, has spawned books set in its world. So far, these have been disappointing, apparently written mostly by gamers - not that the world can't be translated to good fiction, but it hasn't happened yet. Don't give up hope.

There have been a few computer games, mostly based on the literary classics like "

". Basically, they're just puzzles - intellectual problems, but essentially sterile entertainment. There's room for something real here.

Experiments with ``virtual reality'' are still a few years away from hitting the mass market. Before long, it'll be technically possible to give a player the *experience* of moving through Gibson's glowing Net. But it will take more than a light show to make a good game.

Wherever the next idea comes from, it will come. There are new concepts still out there, and new ways of playing with the old ones. Next year, or the year after, somebody will come along with an obnoxious idea, and the nerve to push it . . . and it'll be cyberpunk all over again.



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© 1998 The Computer Lab
Gareth Branwyn -

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