Cyberpunk Love Does Not Compute

Slightly worried that I gave the impression yesterday that there are no real options for Cyberpunk RPGs besides run and gun dungeon crawls. That’s not true, and in fairness, it’s never been quite that bad. From my perspective, the big three cyberpunk games (CP20XX, Shadowrun and Cyberspace) set the tone for most of what I’m discussing, but they all have elements that are better and deeper than I give credit for.

What’s more, there are numerous great cyberpunk games that address specific slices of the concept. Want to fight the man? Try Misspent Youth. Want to explore a seedy, connected world of betrayal an intrigue? Tech Noir is the game for you. Want to change the world? See if you can find a copy of Underground. RPGs have been written about Anime like Serial Experiment Lain, and I haven’t even touched on games like Remember Tomorrow, Eclipse Phase, GURPS: Cyberpunk and several more I’m sure I’m forgetting.

All of which is to say that cyberpunk – as an idea – is not poorly served, but there’s a lot of leeway[1] in terms of what shape that service takes. Some of this is just the normal spread of foci within a genre. For example, I’m not hugely interested in the questions of identity that are central to some cyberpunk ideas, but I expect other people are not hugely interested in media manipulation and stock prices (which completely tickle my fancy). This is normal and healthy.

However, I think there’s an underlying structural question which cyberpunk has a difficult time with[2] and that is the question of the default action.

The default action is something that authors don’t usually need to worry about, but RPG setting designers do, as it’s the question that goes “Ok, that’s all interesting and stuff, but what do we do?” For D&D, the default action (go into a dungeon, fight stuff, get treasure) is well established, and D&D settings are full of hooks that provide interesting reasons to do that. It’s not that this is the only thing you can do in the setting, but having a default makes play much easier on many levels.

Few settings have the same clarity as D&D and its ilk, and it’s no great surprise that cyberpunk seized upon it as a default, just replacing caves and dungeons with offices and arcologies. Because without that, there’s a good case to be made that the default action in cyberpunk would be “Watch the author’s vision of the future, then be audience to some world changing event that asks a Big Question about human existence”.

Ok, that’s cynical. If you read other cyberpunk, a perfectly valid answer might be “Drive hovertanks across a heavily patrolled border, like the cyber Duke boys” or “Sneak everywhere then die in a boss fight because all your points are in hacking” and that could be awesome too. But the underlying question remains, and the answer to that is really going to shape what you want out of a cyberpunk game (or any game, really). For me, I want the team of experts, missions based structure, taking steps to try to change the world, and Leverage speaks right to that. But it is FAR from the only way to go about it.


  1. As Seems to so often be the case in anything-punk.  ↩

  2. As do many settings and genres. This is a common problem, but cyberpunk gives us a great example.  ↩

2 thoughts on “Cyberpunk Love Does Not Compute

  1. Lugh

    Personally, I’d love to run something akin to Adventurer Conqueror King in cyberpunk. You start as a runner, graduate to carving out a space for yourself (proactively investigating and attacking rivals), and end up running your own corp. (Especially using Vlad Taltos as a model for making it work, but that goes deep into “personal taste” territory.)

    That kind of arc also resolves the issue you had in an earlier post about “doing it for the cash” being nihilistic. Profit on the mission is not just a goal, but a means towards attaining the greater goal of “leveling up” your team into a corp. Also, rewards can easily be couched in terms of contacts, favors, information, and reputation beyond just the cash.

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  2. maiki

    I wonder if the default action is hard to peg in cyberpunk because it is mostly used as a dressing for singular topics in fiction that don’t hold up as well when one tries to explain away a world with it. Gygaxian ecology has the same issue, I’ve always gotten frustrated with D&D if I zoom out, most fantasy worlds just don’t make any sense to me (how they sustain themselves).

    Identity, stock markets, corporate law, politics, technology, all the common threads of what we considering cyberpunk are complex ideas, and in a small snapshot are easier to digest. I am starting to think that is where it shines, and it may not scale up from there.

    All that despite wanting to believe mirror-shaded street samurai could exist! ^_^

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