Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cyberpunk Literary Tropes and RPGs

Most role-playing games are fan-fiction.

If we define fan fic as stories in which the writer creates new characters and plots in an existing setting, then that includes most published games. In some ways role-playing games serve as active engines for this-- allowing the insertion of a group into that setting. For more classic tropes-- swords and sorcery, golden-age sci fi and superheroes that works fine. More interesting is to see how various role-playing games have adapted notions and forms from particular sub-genres and movements within speculative fiction. To that end I want to look at three of those movements-- Cyberpunk, Steampunk and the New Weird.

Obviously the grand-daddy of role-playing games, Dungeons and Dragons, borrowed liberally from Tolkien. That essentially set the terms for what a fantasy role-playing game would look like. There would be other early fantasy games which would question those conventions. Runequest and Tekumel, for example, began from the ground up to create a rich and unique fantasy setting. However the greater number would follow DnD's lead. We would have Elves, Hobbits (or Haflings as later versions would adopt), Orc, and Dwarves. Just as many (perhaps too many) later fantasy authors would follow that lead, fantasy rpgs tended to stay along those lines.

Eventually there would be adaptations of specific works: Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion cycle, the Thieves World anthologies, Niven's Ringworld, and Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos would be among the earliest licensed adaptations. Notably each of these adaptations came from Chaosium Games, among the first to build a simple generic system (Basic Role-Playing) which could serve as an unobtrusive engine while the rest of the material provided a sourcebook for the relevant source. Other licensed adaptations would follow later- some big names-- Conan and A Game of Thrones in a couple of versions, while others were more obscure or at least niche-- Norton's Witch World, Wolfe's New Sun, Brin's Uplift, Foster's Humanx, and Gerrold's Chtorr. The last notable for being an adaptation of an incomplete series with serious questions unanswered.

Arguably the cross pollination between the two forms has had a strong back and forth. Ann Rice's Interview with the Vampire certainly inspired Vampire the Masquerade. The success of that line and the various additional settings within their “World of Darkness” line laid a strong seedbed that probably helped the growth of modern urban fantasy like Laura K. Hamilton and others. That's manage to come back full circle with some of the new ideas influencing White Wolf's New World of Darkness after they rebooted their game lines.

It is worth noting which novels and works have been adapted and which have not. In many cases it is clearly a question of money. However, there's running rumor among role-players that the reason there's no rpg adaptation for Harry Potter is that Rowling doesn't want other people creating stories in her sandbox. If that's true, certain kinds of fan fic must be particularly disturbing. On the other hand, some games have gotten around that by liberally borrowing the tropes and reworking them. Redhurst Academy of Magic, for example, while steeped in a heady brew of d20 multidimensional settings, presents a school and play structure that clearly owes a huge debt to Hogwarts.

As Tolkien is to a certain kind of deep history high fantasy, so William Gibson's Neuromancer is to cyberpunk. He put all the elements into place that defined the genre- for better or worse.

Gibson's novel came out in 1984, and by 1988 we saw the first serious adaptations of those concepts with R Talsorian Game's Cyberpunk 2013 (later Cyberpunk 2020 as they moved the goalposts). While not a licensed product it wore its sources on its sleeve. For some time Cyberpunk became one of the more popular science fiction role-playing lines available. It took that kind of gaming in a new direction, overturning the dominance of harder science fiction games such as Space Opera, the Star Trek Role-Playing Game, and most importantly Traveller. That last game had been the go to for sci-fi fans who wanted a “realistic” treatment-- interestingly in later editions Traveller would end up fluctuating between a desire to buy into some of the punk grittiness and a desire to remain more stoic and squeaky-clean.

Reading the Cyberpunk rpg material can be an exercise in patience. Much of it seems to be built on two central ideas: Style and Cool as Motivation and Machine Love. The first encourages the players to adapt a “Punk” attitude and live for the moment, being as cool as possible, without concern about the moral motivations. While moral ambiguity remains the accepted norm for players, the bad guys end up drawn with no ambiguity-- essentially everyone, governments, corporations, your dentist, serves evil ends or plots. Self-interest and leaving a pretty corpse take the place of old school rpg alignment systems. And players will leave a pretty corpse, because for all of its talk of style, cool and drama, Cyberpunk remains a horribly unforgiving system. You can die easily-- whether you're a gunrunner or a Netrunner. Its one of the few games I've seen that seems to put a statement about the futility of life in the mechanics themselves.

The other central theme, Machine Love, isn't exclusive to R Talsorian's game, but instead infects most of the other rpg adaptations of the genre. William Gibson's work, and that of other important influences in cyberpunk, presents an ambiguity to the omnipresence of the technology-- real and serious questions about those consequences. That's at the heart of much of the cyberpunk literary genre. In the role-playing games, those questions become reduced to mechanical concerns: how many devices can I have embedded in my body before I have to roll for humanity loss?

So as the series goes on you have an acceleration of that tech love-- with their Chrome Book series detailing, essentially, more and more dangerous stuff as the most poplar supplements for the game. Guns, cybernetics, vehicles, until at the end you have Maximum Metal, the sourcebook for full-body cyborg conversion. By these later supplements one can see the impact newly available anime on the game. Ideas from Akira and Appleseed began to worm their way in-- bringing their take on cyberpunk as a genre to the table.

One can also read this as a response to the pressures of the market. Consider your typical role-playing group. Generally everyone will want to purchase the core book-- or at least it will be useful to them. Materials which cover character creation options-- such as the notorious “splat” books detailing particular classes, professions, races or the like will appeal to a narrower segment of the game buying public. Gamemasters will likely want them, as well as players who will be playing that kind of character-- or might be thinking about playing one. Things like the Cyberpunk Chrome Books appeal to all players-- new toys, loot and character options useful to any class. It serves as a kind of rpg fetish porn for power players. General sourcebooks with background material and additional rules options will appeal to GMs (again) and to completist players. But then there's material written exclusively for gamemasters-- adventures, campaign material, GM screens, adversary sourcebooks, and general guides. These will have a narrower audience. If you're a game publisher, ideally you want to provide a variety of material, but at the same time you want the largest number of potential purchasers. So pandering to those players is a smart move financially.

Cyberpunk stands apart from a couple of other parallel rpgs which came about about the same time in caught on and eventually had the room to pander to its audience. Iron Crown Enterprises tried to copy with its system CyberSpace. That only published a handful of supplements compared to the several dozen R Talsorian did. Steve Jackson Games notoriously attempted GURPs Cyberpunk which earned them a raid from the Secret Service. Their main book remained generic but a couple of supplements tried to provide a more specific foundation, Cyberworld and even CthulhuPunk. While they never supported that as an individual line, they did invest in one of the seed directions that arose from Cyberpunk as a genre with their Transhuman Space setting. Reading something like Charlie Stross' Accelerando, you can see and evolution of the cyberpunk genre in a new direction. Reading Steve Jackson's Transhuman Space elicits the same reaction-- seeing perhaps a more realistic appraisal of what technology might actually mean rather than a specific ethos of paranoia and nihilism.

Ironically, the only other real contender to Cyberpunk as a representative of that genre would be something that looked back in the other direction: FASA's Shadowrun. Instead of a futurist vision of the real consequences of the kinds of developments arising from the technology suggested in the cyberpunk genre, Shadowrun adds Orks, Elves and Dwarves. At the time Shadowrun came out it was fairly revolutionary-- one of the first successful games to really and seriously mash up fantasy and science fiction in a coherent way (though some might argue for the mess that is Spelljammer, released the same year. But they're wrong.).

In some ways the emergence of Shadowrun, which would arguably become the most popular and well distributed of the cyberpunk themed rpgs, demonstrated the dilution of the cyberpunk concepts. They could be reduced to several key concepts, with a visual appeal: plugging into machines, cyber-implants, a semi-apocalyptic future, and big guns. Mix that with dragons and you end up with marketing gold for a certain kind of role-player.

Gibson himself had his own take on this in a 1998 interview, " of the things that we were really conscious of was appropriation. Appropriation as a post-modern aesthetic and entrepreneurial strategy. So we were doing it too. We were happily and gloriously lifting all sorts of flavours and colours from all over popular culture and putting it together to our own ends. So when I see things like Shadowrun, the only negative thing I feel about it is that initial extreme revulsion at seeing my literary DNA mixed with elves. Somewhere somebody's sitting and saying 'I've got it! We're gonna do William Gibson and Tolkien!' Over my dead body! But I don't have to bear any aesthetic responsibility for it. I've never earned a nickel, but I wouldn't sue them. It's a fair cop. I'm sure there are people who could sue me, if they were so inclined, for messing with their stuff. So it's just kind of amusing." (

Some argue that once you're able to reasonably define a genre it has worn out its welcome. Over time more text arrive that can better classed as “products” rather than deeper examinations of those tropes. They ape the conventions and pay lip service to the underlying ideas. Role-playing games, arising from a sense of play and wish fulfillment, may be more susceptible to that than other forms of narrative. R Talsorian's Cyberpunk, in particular has an interesting coda in the form of a sequel rpg setting, CyberGeneration. In that game the players take the role of youthful characters, granted powers through a nanovirus infection and trying to survive and make better the Cyberpunk world. The game explicitly rejects the nihilism and hollow focus on style of the earlier game. While the world remains dark, the campaign presented encourages them to fight against that. That new direction reflects the kinds of new directions authors had begun to take "cyberpunk" within speculative fiction itself.

Next time-- questions of how systemization affects the adaptation and Steampunk; then Indie RPGs and The New Weird.


  1. Oddly-- after writing all this yesterday, this morning I found an article from 1998 in which Gibson references Shadowrun--

  2. The idea that RPGs are fan fiction is revelatory. It ties together ideas I never would have associated. Honestly, I have no urge to play or GM in a licensed setting except for Firefly, which I'm way too much a fanboy of. In essence, it's a fanfic line I'm willing to cross.

    Otherwise, I always feel that I can create my own setting I'd enjoy even more than the licensed ones.

    I liked the Gibson interview, especially his reaction to derivative RPGs.

    I would love to play in a well thought out Transhuman Space campaign. But as you've told me before, it's hard to create create good suspenseful pacing of info drops in a world where everyone has super-advanced internet access built into their SKULLS.

  3. The recent health care disinformation campaign, run by PR firms creating 'astroturf' opposition, seems like a good model for a Transhuman campaign.

    The heroes live in a world where separating truth from myth requires heroic (ie PC) effort. They've got to go up against well funded PR firms, disinformation campaigns, corporate assassins, and zealot mobs ready to kill you if you disturb their idea space. Consider the family of 12 year old Graeme Frost. He spoke out against a Bush SCHIP veto, and the Frosts ended up pilloried by national pundits as welfare cheats and had wingnuts peeking through their home windows. Literally. Right wing bloggers actually posted about what their house looked like inside.

    I doubt you'd want to do something that politically relevant, but taking apart a well oiled PR campaign, defended by murderous mobs, could be a great campaign. A quick example would be saving the life of a missing Deep Throat source who's left a packet of incomplete data for them.

  4. I do like the idea of the PR firm-- I once sketched out a plan for a one or multi-shot where the characters would be corporate agents for S-Mart, trying to handle PR crises and scout out new locations (which would of course have something nefarious there...).

    I think the thing to take away from the idea of Fan-Fic is about power and intentionality-- that a good game allows that kind of space, where bad fan fic can bog one down into continuity. Games and settings are fan-fic in the sense of entering into an existing universe one has read about and trying to insert one's own character in there. I'm not sure entirely what that can tell us about the rp experience-- even non-adaptation settings serve that purpose, Vampire games can be that way-- the appreication for the story and setting. Mutant City Blues, of course, owes more than a little debt to Top Ten, so in its own way that's fan fic.

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