Tuesday, May 23, 2017

History of Cyberpunk RPGs (Part One: 1988-1992)

In the last year, I’ve been turned around on cyberpunk rpgs. Between Kuro, The Sprawl, and especially The Veil, I’ve seen new approaches that dig into the parts of the genre I find interesting. They’re about characters, not loadouts, creds, or maximum metal. The Veil has a Kickstarter going right now, a “post-cyberpunk” add-on for the system. Fraser Simons has done an amazing job synthesizing modern cyberpunk ideas and lit. That pushed me to look at the early rpg sources.

I started this a little reluctantly. On the one hand, it’s a break from the Universal RPG lists (which are slowly killing my soul). On the other, what’s cyberpunk? I’ve confronted this genre definition problem before. But cyberpunk seems the exemplar for loose borders. In the end, rather than go to Wikipedia or draw up tight guidelines, I’ve gone purely subjective. If it feels like cyberpunk I’m putting it in. Since I usually loosen my guidelines on these lists as they roll along, I’m just cutting out the middle step.

So everything here falls into the “cyberpunk” folder in my head. What’s not on this list? Paranoia for one thing. RPG Geek lists it as cyberpunk. The user who inputted that data picked that genre classifications. I can see a little where they’re coming from, but they’re wrong. Paranoia’s its own beast despite the tech, AI, and dystopian vision. Mage the Ascension isn’t either- despite several elements have a cyberpunk feel: Digital Web, Iteration X. They make up a fragment of the Mage setting.

As always: Your Plugged-In Dystopian Future May Vary.

While I’m focusing on core books, I include a few notable sourcebooks and supplements (by my reckoning). Ironically, I only list books with a physical edition. I might include an electronic release if they’re notable and of significant size. Some selections came down to a judgement call. I’m sure I missed some, so if you spot an absent cyberpunk rpg from 1988-1992, leave a note in the comments

1. Cyberpunk 2013 (1988)
First! Cyberpunk 2013's amazing for many reasons. It arrives in the wake of Gibson's work and especially the highly influential Mirrorshades anthology. Beyond books, we hadn't seen cyberpunk themes or styles in other media. In the few places we did, like First Comics' Shatter, they took more from Blade Runner's look than anything else. But CP 2013 breaks now ground and arrives in with so many key ideas in place.

The original's an old-school boxed set with booklets. "Friday Night Firefight" offers the tactical combat engine at the heart of the ‘Interlock’ game engine. It's crunchy, featuring hit location, movement tracking, and detailed weapons. FNF would support one stream of Cyberpunk's future fandom: people who wanted gunbooks and mercenary stories. "View from the Edge" contains the character creation and netrunning rules. It focuses on theme over crunch. The rules emphasize three principles of the setting: style over substance, attitude is everything, and live on the edge. CP 2013 sets the template for most rpgs in this genre: Rockerboys, Media-types, Corporates, Fixers, and more. The netrunning system’s mostly a series of flowcharts. That subsystem requires a lot of prep and it would get more involved in later editions. The final book "Welcome to Night City" sets up the world with a timeline that look especially weird from our present day.

Cyberpunk 2013 establishes and invents the expected mechanics for games in the genre. It also spawns elements which came to characterize cyberpunk as a whole for years to come. There's nothing quite like CP- tonally or mechanically- before this. It's particularly interesting to see that sci-fi authors Melinda Snodgrass and Walter John Williams playtested this. WJW returns again later on this list. The product looks good for the time: clean black and white with an art style highly influenced by Nagel. I also had to laugh when I saw the various tables throughout the book, clearly done on an '80s era Macintosh.

2. CyberSpace (1989)
I'm an acknowledged Rolemaster goof. It's my guilty pleasure RPG. Back in the day I even tried, and quickly gave up on, SpaceMaster. CyberSpace adapts cyberpunk to the arcane mechanics. It is "stand-alone," but I'd hate to jump into this without a deep background in the system. It's streamlined, closer to MERP than core RM or SM. But it still has tons of tables and numbers. There's an endless skill list, detailed weapons, granular experience gain lists, and more. The game throws readability out the window by going for a dense, three-column, small-font presentation.

It's a game where you have to roll to see which is your dominant hand.

CyberSpace has six professions: Sleaze, Sneak, Killer, Net Junkie, Jockey, and Tech Rat. These last three have a lot of overlap which feels weird. The Netrunning mechanics are opaque. They're presented haphazardly, a trait of ICE rules writing. You have to detail out all your programs with their associated size, ratings, and effects. There's a freaking table of computer languages with a couple of dozen entries, each with types, costs, and application restrictions. It's a game that really reflect the late ‘80’s and what some gamers wanted out of systems. More details, more detail, more details.

Despite the weirdness, CyberSpace sold decently. Players who enjoyed Cyberpunk 2013 picked it up because there wasn't much out there. It also had interesting and well developed setting material. That's easier to grok in the supplements (Death Valley Free Prison, Chicago Arcology) than the core book. On the plus side, the first printing has one of my favorite covers, done by legendary Swamp Thing artist Rich Veitch). They'd later drop that for some reason.

I list this because it’s the first of the relatively few cyberpunk "licensed" products. In the future we'd be more likely to see media go the other way with Shadowrun and Cyberpunk material as novels, video games, and card games. Hardwired’s a novel written by Walter Jon Williams, a playtester for CP 2013. You can see how Williams' approach fed into that game. His work leans to action and military sci-fi.

The sourebook itself gives players an entirely new world, with additional roles and new systems for Netrunning. In particular the hacking systems seems more grounded in real world approaches to data structures. The sourcebook also includes sample adventures. Hardwired feels like a natural addition to Cyberpunk. You can see how its concepts and presentation style affected the Cyberpunk’s second edition. But this would end up a one-off supplement, not supported by later books. The following year would see Cyberpunk 2020, rendering some of the rules here incompatible.

In English, “Shadow Divisions.” This French rpg presents the corporate-controlled, dystopian near-future society of 2030. It echoes the style elements of cyberpunk and definitely wants to buy into that genre. But only the cybernetics rules come the close to fitting with that. The game has players as underground agents fighting against the establishment. That includes various alien factions which have landed on our Earth. Also, the PCs are mutants with psychic abilities. I put it on the list because it clearly wants to appeal to cyberpunk fans. LeGrog lists it with the genre as well, so I'm willing to go along.

5. Mutant (1989)
Mutant's the chameleon of Swedish rpgs, shifting through several different versions. Modern gamers can try out two completely distinct descendants in Mutant Chronicles and Mutant Year Zero.

Mutant and Mutant 2, both built in the Gamma World tradition, lead up to this new edition. However with the cyberpunk rage, Target Games decided to release a version of Mutant borrowing from that genre and Judge Dredd. While the game kept its dark, dystopian future with mega-cities, it ditched all of the classic radiation-created craziness. So mutated animals, youthful exploration of ruins, and the like vanished. Mutants still existed but as transformed humans, often discriminated against. Devastated lands between the cities remain, but this aspect is downplayed (as it was in the Judge Dredd rpg).

This version is referred to as New Mutant or Mutant 2089 to distinguish it from the previous versions. It did decently enough to generate about a dozen supplements, several expanding the cyberpunk and netrunning elements. Like Cyberpunk 2020 or Shadowrun, Mutant 2089 shows the "apocalypse as backdrop" or perhaps "shitty future" genre. It's interesting to see how far the dystopia goes in these settings.

6. Shadowrun (1989)
Cyberpunk with magic. It ought to be double mumbo-jumbo, but it works. Shadowrun became hugely popular in our neck of the woods, appealing to younger gamers especially. It created a split between Cyberpunk "purists" and Shadowrun-ners. I still know people who dig the former and scoff at the latter. I know I did for a long time. Shadowrun's interesting in that it embraced the metaplot as well, creating several ongoing stories that hooked players. Eventually Cyberpunk would try that, but never as well there.

Shadowrun's amazing longevity comes with a cost. The rules have become more granular and convoluted over time. Multiple editions from different publishers hasn't helped this. Instead it’s meant players have gotten re-releases of earlier publications with just enough changes or additions to make them necessary. SR's also notorious for bad editing and proofreading. I'll point to my review of Shadowrun Anarchy for more on that. The evolution of real world technology has also changed the setting itself- forcing them to create a meta-event and reboot which brought wi-fi-esque supernatural connections into the rules.

Willaim Gibson had an interesting response to Shadowrun, "...one 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."

Shadowrun's first edition did well and generated a large set of sourcebooks & modules. We'd see a second edition just a few years later in 1992. By that time it'd become clear that Shadowrun was a success. The second edition isn’t a full-scale overhaul. Instead they clarified rules, fixed problems and added some material from the more popular supplements. 1992 also saw the release of a Japanese translation of the game. I’m curious about how well it did over there.

7. Cyber Age (1990)
Subtitle: "28 minutes into the future." A small French rpg, the cover text reads, "Vous avez aimez Blade runner, New York 1997, Outland, Warriors, Tron, Total Recall et Max Headroom. Découvrez Cyber Age le monde tech de l' Europe de 2080.” Even without a translation you can see its sources. The book itself is a cyberpunk sourcebook for the SimulacreS rpg from Casus Belli. They would release a revised edition in 1995.

8. Cyberpunk 2020 (1990)
BOOM. Cyberpunk 2013 lit the fuse and Cyberpunk 2020 walks towards the camera silhouetted by the explosion. It isn't that the rules undergo major revisions. Instead has tweaks, changes to layout & presentation, additional elements (like Medics), and combines the rules into a single sourcebook. All of resulted in a sharp, complete, and useful core book. Smart design and clean DTP work made this great. Cyberpunk 2020’s new look drew attention to the coolness of the rules, for example showcasing the Lifepath system for generating characters.

The number of supplements released by R Talsorian blew up. Players and GMs alike bought the Chromebooks. Imagine a shopping catalog for magic items and you have the draw of these. The company released sourcebooks for the major corporations, guides for different roles, player & GM supplements, guides to netrunning, and more. The setting got deeper treatment with Eurosource, Pacific Rim Sourcebook, Night City and Home of the Brave. Some of that was great; some of it was problematic. R Talsorian also let other companies produce materials for the game, leading to new and interesting directions (the Necrology trilogy for example).

R Talsorian develop other lines and eventually rethink the game itself. A sequel rpg, Cybergeneration, appeared. You can read that game as a distancing from what Cyberpunk had become. The last releases for the Cyberpunk 2020, The Shockwave Trilogy of modules, appeared in 1997. A third edition would be attempted and hated on by the fans. More on that in future lists.

9. Cyborgs (1990)
Another French cyberpunk rpg, this time set in 2020 Brest. Characters enforce law and order for a corporation, using their enhanced cyborg abilities. This is a small product (sixteen pages) with a limited release. According to the Guide du Roliste Galactique, "Cyborgs is the work of a student of the CES of Keranroux in Brest, and was sold at the shop "L'Amusance" of the city in the early 90s. It received the support of the Guild of Britain Games of Simulation, Who took out a second edition in a special issue of his newsletter." It received a similarly small scale supplement, Hard Tech, covering new items and technology.

10. GURPS Cyberpunk (1990)
This is legendary for having sparked an FBI raid of the Steve Jackson Games’ offices, seizing developmental materials and hardware. Apparently their communications and research led the FBI to believe the company had contact with major digital criminals, operated some kind of hacking front, or planned to publish a "how to" book on cybercrime. (Note: this is the story put forward by SJG and passed down in our circles. See the intro of this book for how they framed this. Other sources suggest the raid merely came because of the author's online activities. I'm leaving this with that spin for you to decide). Eventually SJG rebuilt the book and won decisive court victories against the FBI a few years later.

GURPS Cyberpunk is a genre sourcebook. It’s one of the early ones, before SJ Games polished their format and presentation. It has the expected character creation options, world-building advice, and campaign creation ideas. More importantly it has chapters on technology and cyber-implants. The latter's often a sticking point for these early games that want balance and crunch. How do you allow players access to these things? Money? Points? Humanity? Consider the detail here against the streamlined approaches of The Veil and The Sprawl. They skew insanely light in comparison, though more detailed than many PbtA games.

Of course, GURPS Cyberpunk provides a large section on Netrunning. It is detailed, it is dry, it is mechanical. The rules have many options, but at heart they aim for a pseudo-realism. They're great if you want to get a picture of how people saw hacking in the early 1990's. They're also striking if you dig deep and complicated rules with lots of moving parts. Our group loved and ran GURPS for many years, but we avoided these mechanics.

Steve Jackson never released a more modern version of this sourcebook. We did get GURPS Cyberpunk Adventures, GURPS Cyberworld, and GURPS CthulhuPunk. In many ways, the imaginiative space and thinking for cyberpunk in GURPS shifted over to tech books and the standalone Transhuman Space rpg. You also have to wonder if there wasn't a conscious decision to give up trying to stay ahead of the tech curve with these rules.

11. TORG (1990)
The multi-dimensional rpg TORG offers two worlds with a cyberpunk bent. I'm not that familiar with the game, but here's what I can glean. The first, the Cyberpapacy, combines theocratic power with VR reality called the "GodNet." This focus on cyberspace extends to an artificially created hell into which sinners can be cast. Despite the gonzo weirdness of TORG, the Cyberpapacy offers a cyberpunk vision we haven't seen elsewhere. Rather than corporations or fallen governments we have a Church as the corrupt authority to rail against. That Church is the source and supporter of cyberware and VR experiences. It's a lot more Philip K Dick-ian than the usual stuff. This is detailed in The Cyberpapacy and The GodNet supplements, both released in 1991.

The second world, Nippon Tech, is much more a gritty, criminal cyberpunk setting. It is described as the "Mega-Corporate" reality. We get less of the tech as a focus, and more about the society and its hierarchy. Nippon Tech offers a bastardization of Japanese culture. It's a little odd and swings between subtle ideas and over the top concepts. I like the material on corporate wars, but the presentation of pseudo-Asia's less cool. This material is detailed in Nippon Tech (1991) and the Tokyo Citybook (1993).

12. Dark Conspiracy (1991)
Managing a game store for many years educated me in the fandom for different rpgs. You learned the target audience and what elements drew them to the games. Deadlands gamers skewed younger, Rolemaster players had a holier-than-thou attitude, more grognards than you'd expect bought Toon. All of that insight made me avoid some games, in particular Dark Conspiracy. I'm not sure what it was, but in our area it attracted a group of argumentative, trolling, gun-carrying-at-the-table enthusiasts. I recall vividly two of them screaming for an afternoon about Darth Vader vs. Boba Fett.

Dark Conspiracy is marginally cyberpunk. We don't have the usual trappings of a VR cyberspace, hacking, or technology as the disruptive element. Instead we have a near future dystopia with cybernetics, robots, corporate maneuvers and a demonic invasion behind the scenes. I normally wouldn't have put it on the list, since DC doesn't call itself cyberpunk. But reviewers and commentators repeatedly mention cyberpunk in describing it. The cover definitely has that vibe. Some supplements, like DarkTek lean more into these ideas.

13. Heavy Metal (1991)
Not based on the magazine or movie. Instead this is a French game with a thin veneer of cyberpunk. It reminds me a little of Judge Dredd with a mega blocks isolated and at odds. The world's tended by the corporation “Oxygène” and its robots. But there's a sinister truth behind them and the PCs battle against their extermination of humanity. Reviews on Le Grog describe the game as "too political" with a stark dichotomy between eco-freedom fighters and evil capitalists. They also point to the lack of player freedom given the tight premise. Heavy Metal got two supplements, Killing Teknology-- the expected chrome equipment book-- and Urban Guerilla-- a campaign module.

14. When Gravity Fails (1992)
The other Cyberpunk licensed sourcebook, this one is based on a series of novels by George Alec Effinger. It’s a world where “…where Casablanca collides with Blade Runner…”  The Marid Audran books were set in a New Orleans analogue and had a strongly Middle Eastern flavor. At the time I dug the world these novels presented. They were Effinger’s only real foray into cyberpunk. Health problems meant he never published that much (this is an edited correction, see Wikipedia).

When Gravity Fails is a little over 100 pages. It has a timeline up through 2199, a useful presentation of the world & campaign city, several additional character roles, new tech and equipment, and a sample adventure. Some of the tech’s really interesting for its social implications.

For example ‘Daddies’ are socketed chipsets which store memories, training, and sensations. These give users artificial abilities. In the WGF setting, these became ubiquitous, changing labor and expertise. The development of ‘Moddies’ built on that. These allow users to rewire a subject’s brain, an invention originally designed for neurological therapy. Eventually these evolved into artificial personality overlays. You could chip one in and become someone else. Alternately, you could have that done to you. The fallout from this—abuses, addiction, identity theft—forms the backdrop for the novels. It’s a great concept and one worth exploring in play.

The other new element When Gravity Fails brings to the table is a treatment of Arab culture and Islam in the future. This is OK. I’m glad that we have this material. Religion and its associated culture rarely got treated in cyberpunk of this era. The other rpg version we’ve seen is the the cartoonish Cyberpapacy. When Gravity Fails isn’t anywhere near as garish as that. It does suffer from exotification and stereotyping (“ugh, proverbs as the culture touchstone again”). It also assume a regressive version of Islam, with repressive treatment of women.

Finally, the art leans hard in two directions: super-sexy and weirdly stereotypical Arabian. Sometimes both. For the latter there’s some attempt at fusion of fashions, but characters more often look like they came out of Al Qadim. It’s a mixed bag, but overall I think the striking ideas here outweigh the bad stuff. YRMV. If nothing else, it’s a great example of cyberpunk world-building based on a central theme.