Tuesday, September 26, 2017

History of Cyberpunk RPGs (Part Five: 2008-2011)

This header will quickly become dated, but currently DriveThruRPG has setting materials on sale. The event runs through September 30TH, 2017. A search with “cyberpunk” leads to a ton of interesting materials. I’ve picked out a few below which caught my eye. I’m sure others remain to be found.

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 include an electronic release if they’re notable and of significant size. Some selections came down to a judgement call; my definition of cyberpunk’s broad. If the product declares itself that or several online sources give it that label, I put it in. I’m sure I missed some, so if you spot an absent cyberpunk rpg from 2008-2011, leave a note in the comments

1. Interface Zero (2008)
Interface Zero offers a conventional cyberpunk setting, updated for modern sensibilities, used as the go-to bolt-on for several systems. It opens with a geo-political history based on conflict, collapse, and corporate control. The setting embraces a more cutting edge, high-tech approach than earlier cyberpunk games. Two crucial tech elements, nanotechnologies and synthetic persons (i.e. replicants), have shaped this world. It has an Augmented Reality (Veil) citizens exist in called the Hyper-Real world (HR). Interface Zero has a ton of front-loaded history. The Fate version opens with thirty pages of timelines, world events, and terminology.

After getting through that Interface Zero nicely presents colorful options. Its various bio-mod and simulacra forms offer a middle ground between anime spectacle and Cyberpunk 2020 chrome grit. I can’t speak for the other versions, but I'm pretty pleased with the mechanics of the Fate Core edition. It's created a solid system revision which understands how Fate works and sn't just a re-skin.

Interface Zero's one of the best toolboxes out there for modern cyberpunk. It leans a little crunchy. Even the lightest version comes off heavy. But it offers interesting concepts and sub-systems (drones, hacking, etc). If you want a sourcebook across multiple platforms Interface Zero has True20, Savage Worlds, Modern20, Fate Core, and most recently Pathfinder editions. The publisher has released several sourcebooks and modules, primarily done in the Savage Worlds version.

2. MSG™ (2008)
A satirical cyberpunk rpg. MSG plays in a single evening without a set GM. It presents a future where corporations are everything. Your role, reputation, and status within that organization define your worth. Humanity loss here isn't about cybernetics, but instead about ethics, independence, and self-worth. GMing duties rotate; each round one player plays the Company and the others play Reps. The Company's goal is to crush the spirit of the Reps or get their peers to do it for them. The game's loose and diceless with a resource system. Resolution requires bidding those resources, but the "winner" is the character with the most left at the end. It's a clever little game with three editions (original, executive, and the currently available "Deoffensified Edition").

Triple Ace Games has been one of the strongest third-party publishers for Savage Worlds. Beyond settings (All for One, Hellfrost), they've released several adventure series under the "Daring Tales" label. That includes Adventure, Chivalry, the Space Lanes, and the Sprawl. TAG began the line by releasing a free set of SW cyberpunk rules. These offer simple adaptation mechanics and a couple of full-blown add-ons. That includes a list of cyberware packages and rules for hacking. Lead Author Kevin Anderson also worked on Sundered Skies and Wonderland No More. I've run from the former. It has interesting ideas, but comes off little dense and railroady in places.

The actual Sprawl series consists of five adventures, originally released as pdfs. These have been collected together into a Compendium volume. They follow classic cyberpunk role-play patterns: missions, patrons, extractions. If you're looking for resources to drop into Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun, or even The Sprawl these might work.

4. Eclipse Phase (2009)
Eclipse Phase is a monster, a dense sci-fi game spanning multiple genres. The original open-license edition spawned a host of supplements. One of EP’s strengths has been hooking gamers in diverse ways. Some see it as classic sci-fi, some as transhumanist fun-time, some as post-apocalypse. Others read it as a particularly dark sci-fi horror game- one brimming with awful implications for the fate of humanity. That's all in there- you can play any of those. You can even zoom in for a bleeding edge cyberpunk game.

In the future, humanity has lost the Earth. They have spread out through wormhole gates into the greater universe. Some fragmentary structure remains- through a patchwork of authorities and links, strongly corporate. Most people, including the PCs, are disassociated intelligences, sleeved into bodies based on need and wealth. It may seem like a kind of immortality, but there are costs and dangers. Threats exist everywhere from viruses, to fanatics, to monstrous AIs stalking the stars. Eclipse Phase does a great job of setting up what the players could be doing- serving with a group called Firewall fighting threats to humanity's existence. But everything I've read and heard suggests that the game set up, despite being detailed and dense, is also open. You can run many different kinds of campaigns, genres, and styles with the detailed tools it provides.

Judging by online discussion Eclipse Phase has become the go-to cyberpunk game among those looking for a high-crunch system. Some turned to it after the perceived failure of Cyberpunk v3. I've seen a couple threads where players have attempted to combine Cyberpunk 2020's timeline with the Eclipse Phase’s history.

The company launched a highly successful Kickstarter earlier this year. It promises an updated and streamlined approach which remains compatible with the first edition.

5. eCollapse (2009)
2009 was a crazy year for Wild Talents, with four distinct and impressive setting sourcebooks landing. That’s an interesting publishing approach. Rather than build on Wild Talents’ established setting or even the precursor Godlike material, Arc Dream chose to follow up with multiple new ways to play. The approaches read like thought-experiments and eCollapse makes that explicit in its introduction. Here Greg Stolze wants to explore choices and defining ‘good guys’ versus ‘bad guys’. You can see the seeds of his later Better Angels; here he mentions doing a setting based on the behavior of supervillains.

eCollapse presents a near future, post-crash society. It isn’t exactly post-apocalyptic, but more just that everything’s kind of crappy. Slackers, economic decay, erosion of liberties, environmental pollution, full-on surveillance state, etc. But on the plus side, biotech superpowers are readily available…though with some non-monetary costs. The power list is interesting, tightly defined, and full off traps for the unwary player. That’s combined with player-chosen weaknesses and ideologies (what you’re for and against). These deeply flawed characters then strive against the background of this dystopian future- trying to figure out what they stand for and what’s worth actually sacrificing for. eCollapse borrows a little from Cyberpunk, but feels closer to Underground.

The rules include an alternate approach to resolution for those who don’t want to deal with the crunch of Wild Talents. Called “Smear of Destiny,” these mechanics sit just atop the main ones in the book. There’s also a substantial section at the end with a full explanation. Unlike some dual-stat books, one system doesn’t get in the way of the other. Smear of Destiny uses a deck of playing cards for competitive narrative resolution, with the red and black of the suits mirroring the question of black and white in the universe. That’s smart given the dramatic focus of eCollapse.

This is core book for the Otherverse America setting, with d20 Modern and Pathfinder versions available. I'm having trouble wrapping my head around the key concept here. The game comes from Skortched 'Urf, publisher of the Black Tokyo hentai-infused setting. OA shares that edge-lord vibe. While I focus on printed products for this list, the core book's significant and the publisher's released several supplements.

What’s the pitch? The Abortion War is the primary incident sparking the dystopian collapse. As the blurb sums it up, "rival Lifer and Choicer factions build their own unique cultures from what’s left. The differences between pro-life and pro-choice, between liberal and conservative, between Christian and Pagan, have been sharpened to a killing edge." The game's primary focus is on military sci-fi, supported by weird powers and combat technology.

Some of the sourcebooks develop this out in different directions. For example, Sexually Transmitted Future details bio-hacking and genetic engineering. The Otherverse setting has other cyberpunk trappings like the worldwide "mesh", restricted AI development, and the security state. The setting uses exaggerated versions of the culture wars as fodder. How much you giggle at that probably determines how much you'll dig this. It’s not my bag and I find it a little squicky.

7. Spherechild (2009)
A German Universal system, the Spherechild core book includes a cyberpunk setting called Icros. Interestingly this setting undergoes major revisions between the first and second editions of the game. They both focus on genetic manipulation and a race of "Wandler" evading detection. It's interesting to see a generic system go in a nontraditional direction with their included cyberpunk setting.

A complete post-apocalypse horror game with a cyberpunk tinge. Yellow Dawn showcases a near-future world which has suffered collapse, offering an emphasis on tech and the occult. I like it because Yellow Dawn seems to actually play with and apply some of the concepts suggested messily by GURPS Cthulhupunk. Hastur's one of my favorite creations within the greater Cthulhu Mythos (and one with several divergent interpretations, see Delta Green: Countdown). The virus which set off the setting’s collapse not only devastates the population, it changes many into travesties. This creates tribes of monsters in the wilderness outside cities. I appreciate the weird mix of tropes all that creates.

The rulebook includes mechanics for hacking, cyberware, and bioware. That's all given a sinister tinge. Designer David J. Rodger has promised a third edition of this setting, compatible with the new Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition rules. (Note: the first edition of this appeared in 2006 and really belongs on that list, but I missed it. '09 was the 2nd edition release date).

9. FreeMarket (2010)
In 2010 Luke Crane and Jared Sorensen released this final, highly produced version of Freemarket. I hunted down a copy a few years ago. Freemarket comes in a cool boxed set filled with booklets, card decks, and cardboard tokens. Usually I dig all those kinds of bits. Freemarket's beautifully produced. It looks amazing. But it’s also opaque. I tried reading the rulebook several times, each time coming away uncertain of the setting and mechanics. Eventually I traded my copy away. I've had to hunt online for descriptions to even put into words what Freemarket's about.

Let me try-- first, Freemarket's a post-scarcity setting. The characters life on a space station, the children of the first arrivals (the Originals). Anything can be fabricated here via 3D matter printers, including life. In this transhumanist setting, death, poverty, and illness are things of the past. The game asks what you would do with "fovever"? It's an interesting premise. Conflict's built purely on personal agendas. It takes the ideas of transhumanism and the technological support system to its logical end. It's cyberpunk in that it confronts those ideas at least obliquely. The concerns here are philosophical; they're even more abstract than the belief-focused play of The Veil.

One of my favorite posts on Freemarket comes from the blog Stuff for Nonsense. Like me they found a mixed reaction to Freemarket online. They have a nice post about opening the box and looking through it.

10. Kazei 5 (2010)
Kazei 5 is a massive campaign framework for HERO System. It jams together anime, cyberpunk, and a host of other sci-fi tropes to create a world of mixed-up manga transhumanism. Think Cybergeneration with less grit or a more diverse power-source version of Bubblegum Crisis. Recommended for those looking for a crunchy setting with anime roots. That's present in the subtitle, "Animepunk Roleplaying." And there's a Cat-Girl on the cover.

Despite that lighter-tone approach, Kazei 5 offers the crunchy set of tools and resources HERO System players look for. It's the closest HERO 6 gets to a cyberpunk sourcebook. But it doesn't dwell on that-- covering cyberware, cyborgs, cyberspace, espers, and mecha in a little over 60 pages. If you know the system, you'll know that's slim. The rest of the book's given to characters (about 70 pages) and the world (150+ pages). It's a dense book done with the trademark tiny font of latter day HERO releases. If you're looking for a kitchen-sink anime-cyberpunk setting (and mechanical sections don't irritate you) this could work.

11. Remember Tomorrow (2010)
A rules-light game aiming for speed and cyberpunk verisimilitude. It opens with five clear setting points. 1. It plays out in Somewhere, an ‘anyplace’ city twenty minutes into the future. 2. People in the setting travel. They’re always in motion and always caught in-between. 3. Everything has a label, a sense of fashion and brand identity. 4. People are wild and stray into new territories of sex. 5. Everyone’s a foreigner here, everyone’s from somewhere else. Not just the PCs but the figures in the backdrop as well.

Remember Tomorrow rotates GM responsibility between the players. We they’re the GM, they set the scene and type—playing with the PCs and factions established. The system combines that with interesting currency rules using Edge dice. Sessions end when three things, PCs or factions, have been eliminated. That’s considered an episode, though a campaign may have multiple episodes.

Remember Tomorrow defines characters simply. They start with a name/handle, an identity (i.e. archetype), motivation, and gear. The last can include cybernetics. This and most of matters of technology are simply fiction. They’re the basis for narration. RT doesn’t even use the light tag-based approach of recent cyberpunk games. Each character has three stats: Ready, Willing, and Able. They’re like Fate Accelerated approaches. Each has a rating and reducing that to 0 writes the character out.

Characters also have conditions describing their advantages and disads. The character sheet lists twelve negative and twelve positive conditions, with checkboxes for them. Finally each character fleshes out character has a goal at the start. After creating characters each player also develops a faction with a few stats and details. These serve as the opposition the GM can swing into play.

The rules discus scene types and how they’re set up (Introduction, Deal, Face Off). These have a light structure and slightly different ways they interact with the edge die currency. Remember Tomorrow resolves challenges simply. Players roll 3d10 and allocate them to their three ratings. Each one equal or below counts as a success. The type of success influences the narration. The game provides some additional mechanics reflecting the gritty, violent, power struggles involving the characters.

Overall Remember Tomorrow’s an interesting framework for running a cyberpunk-flavored one-shot. The structure for the rotating GMs and the scene economy seems cool and doesn’t go too far into the weeds with mechanics. If you’re looking for a solid story-game, it’s a good choice. RT’s flexible and I’ve seen it adapted for several other contexts.

12. Robotica (2010)
A chunky (360 pages) Polish rpg. And it has an English translation from last year clocking in at 472 pages(!). It is notably sequestered in the adult section of RPGNow. And before I go on, I have to quote from the publisher's blurb there:
Clocks are no more mere time counting tools. Every jolt of the pointer is symbolic - ticking is similar to that of a bomb detonator, promising a sudden explosion... It is just an empty hope for a painless finale. Existence is hard to discern from torture. When a man is at the brink of his limits, the fate kicks him in the corner, leaves him to catch some breath. It is back only when the victim is standing on its own again. It seems that torturing a helpless victim is not providing fatum with enough satisfaction.

In this dark future, Corporations have taken over and then abandoned a devastated Earth. You play characters left behind in this wasteland, monitored by the Corps and battling against DESTRO. (note: Not from Cobra, instead a rogue electronic force). Players can be robots, mutant humans, cyborgs, or even weirder things. The game has several modes: pulp to grimdark and smooth to crunchy. It reminds me a little of Systems Failure and GURPS Reign of Steel. If this kind of mechanical dystopian world appeals to you, read the extensive blurb at RPGNow (which has a book length of "about 1,000,000 characters" as a selling point).

On these lists I’ve crossed paths with various Savage Mojo Suzerian products. Until now I hadn’t seen the ethos to them. Suzerain itself is a multiversal setting, something I hadn’t realized (because I’m an idiot). Several earlier products make more sense now. But more importantly the setting’s about being EPIC. DID YOU HEAR ME? I SAID EPIC. The system adds a new tier to Savage Worlds: DemiGod.

Shanghai Vampocalypse reflects with…epic…new powers and abilities for that tier. You’ll need them. In this world, 2048 saw the creation of a nanovirus usable to create vampiric soldiers. You can guess where that goes. The book contains a Savage Worlds style plot point campaign with the players battling against Vampiric hordes to save this decadent, chrome-out future. It leans more towards the Shadowrun side of things with mystic powers and wire-fu combined with implants and hi-tech missions.

If you’re looking for over-the-top, good news.

14. Polychrome (2011)
I've written a couple of times about Kevin Crawford's interesting reworkings of retro game mechanics. His games offer both stand-alone rpgs and a toolbox for GMs. Stars Without Number's one of Crawford's earliest, a sci-fi game with a distinct setting that can be easily repurposed. It reminds me of Eclipse Phase for that. Polychrome's a world sourcebook for SWN, offering a planet of cyber-implants and corporate control of vital elements.

While the book's focused on that, it also shows how you could easily tune Stars Without Number to a fully cyberpunk game. It's a smart demonstration. It includes many of the usual elements like hacking and such. This year Crawford ran successful Kickstarter for a new edition of SWN. I hope this signals a renaissance for it. Perhaps we might get a fully stand-alone cyberpunk game, similar to Other Dust. That’s an all-in-one post-apocalyptic game set within the SWN universe. For those interested in learning more about Polychrome, check out the excellent Grognardia review.

15. Technoir (2011)
Technoir’s a smart game—well-designed and presented. I’d seen it mentioned in various indie game discussions, but never tracked it down. As the label says it’s about technology, cyberpunk in this case, within a noir world. It doesn’t gloss those concepts; it engages with them. It grabbed my attention by not opening with a sole focus on character creation, mechanics, or endless backstory. Instead it combines the former two with a strong emphasis on the GM side of things.

I don’t know if it’s deliberate, but Technoir amuses me because it puts that GM info so early—talking about the genre, how to present it, and overall techniques and advice. The rules are cleanly set out with markers about what’s being discussed. I feel a little irony that a game about a gritty and discordant world should be presented so clearly.

Technoir covers “hard-nosed characters entrenched in the gritty criminal underground of the near-future. They have illicit technology and the talents to use it. They work contacts, exploit opportunities, play factions against each other, and try to come out ahead. It’s the shady stories of hardboiled crime novels of yesterday set in the dystopian sci-fi cities of tomorrow.” The base system’s interesting. Characters have nine “verb” stats (Coax, Move, Prowl, etc). These are rated from 1 to 5. Additionally they have Adjectives, which function like aspects in Fate. Objects follow a now common pattern—using tags to define gear.

There’s only a little more chrome in the character creation section. Players chose three training programs to generate initial Verbs and Adjectives. They then choose relationships and buy objects. The tags here and factors like debt seem like the most complicated part of the game and they’re fairly simple

Players roll different color d6s for resolution. They use a number of white dice equal the related stat’s rating; black push dice from non-stat sources; and red hurt dice for negative penalties. Players roll this as a pool. For each red die matching a black or white die, they remove the pair. The highest number remaining after all removals is the final action value which is compared to a difficulty or opposition rating. It’s a loose and simple system.

Technoir uses the concept of Transmissions. These are random playbooks for a location with 36 ideas and details called plot nodes. These cover exposition, connections, events, factions, locations, object, and threats. The game shows how to use those to build a scenario. It’s a solid toolkit and one worth stealing for other games. The core book includes the Los Angeles Sprawl, Singapore Sling, and Kilimanjaro Ring.

Overall Technoir looks awesome—as a game and a resource for cyberpunk GMs. Next year I hope to have an alt-cyberpunk month where I try my hand at just running indie or unusual cyberpunk games. This will definitely be on that list.

16. Miscellaneous: PDF Only
Selected cyberpunk electronic-only releases
  • Disgenesia: In a corporate-controlled future, you play as “Tetramorphs,” mutants who do dirty jobs for the corps. A biopunk set-up. By Mexican designer Aldo Ojeda Campos.
  • Geodesic Gnomes: A 24-hour rpg from the amazing Dyson Logos. You play ‘gnomes’ scavenging to survive in technological ruins.
  • idee fixe: A large Polish game. People try to survive on the streets in a dystopian future Poland. The translated blurb says, “In idee fixe there are mixed three main elements: technototalitarism, conspiracy theories and local Polish dirt.”
  • Majellan: One of the breed of sci-fi/post-apocalypse games where the new world the PCs settle on becomes a cyberpunk dystopia.
  • Metropole Luxury Coffin: Life, death, and branding in a cyberpunk capsule hotel. 
  • Mirrors: Bleeding Edge: An add-on for the Chronicles of Darkness supplement, Mirrors. It offers another alternate CoD setting: this time cyberpunk. “Dark Shadows-run.”
  • Modem: Focuses exclusively on the hacking and netrunning side of things. You make runs to earn money to make more runs. I’m surprised we don’t see more games with this framework.
  • Modempunk: Here’s a game I had to track down a copy of. You play as sweet underground hackers in a dystopian 1980’s that never was! Comes bundled with the Joints & Jivers rpg (less interesting).
  • OBLEAK: Sometimes a game bears down so hard on a particular grim tone I can’t tell if its parody or terribly sincere.

17. Miscellaneous: Cyberpunk Adjacent
Adventures or borderline products.
  • BRP Adventures and Blood & Badges: Two Basic Rolelpaying adventure collections covering multiple genres. The former has Ruin Nation: To Bite the Hand That Feeds by Jason Williams. The latter includes Out with a BANG by Tom Lynch, a cyberpunk scenario.
  • Deadline: A French near-future, high-tech espionage game. The twist is that the world ends in 47 years.
  • Hot Chicks: The Roleplaying Game: Cyberpunk trappings in places, see my comments here.
  • Maschine Zeit: A sci-fi horror rpg. The themes of machines vs. humanity work well with a cyberpunk frame.
  • Misspent Youth: Kids rebel against The Authority.
  • Nemezis: A Polish setting book for Savage Worlds. The Mutant Chronicles vibe means it has cyberpunk-esque elements.
  • Psypher 2430 Core Rulebook: A core book for the GameAddikts sci-fi setting. Leans to straight sci-fi with some cyberpunk junk thrown in.

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