Ethical Cyberpunk

I have a profound love of Cyberpunk which is based, I think, on very selective vision. There are lots of pretty lame things about it (most notably that’s it’s basically the suburban white kid vision of urban decay and socio-politics) but for me the beating heart of megacorps, corruption, the divide between the haves and have nots and the disruptive influence of technology really grab me.

The specific chrome (as it were) of cyberblades and mirrorshades doesn’t really do much for me, and this is where I end up at a disconnect from a lot of RPG cyberpunk stuff, especially where it becomes an excuse to really get into extensive weapons catalogs. Now, don’t get me wrong – the D&D model with ninjas, hackers and machine guns is good fun, but it’s not why cyberpunk interests me.

That divide colors a lot of the RPG space surrounding cyberpunk. The reality is that a lot of cyberpunk ideas are feeling uncomfortably close to real life these days, and that’s uncomfortable. It is no great shock that the most successful cyberpunk RPG, Shadowrun, is the most divorced from reality (through the introduction of magic) and historically the most tied to the D&D model of play.[1]

So I got to thinking about what I really would want in a cyberpunk game, because the answer is explicitly not long lists of guns and cyberware, or even extensive rules for virtual reality netrunning.[2] I was surprised to discover that the answer came very quickly, because it (and its source material) already exists in the form of Leverage. Setting aside the color bits, the structure (team of professionals, hard target, emphasis on smarts and planning over resources and overwhelming firepower) hits very close to the mark for what I would consider “ethical cyberpunk”.

Perhaps even more telling is what changes I feel would need to be made.

First, there is an obvious change to the color of things, so as to make it near future. This is largely just a function of changing clothes because the actual mechanics require almost no changes. Thieves, Hitters, Grifters and Masterinds are much as they have always been. It might look like Hackers would need to change, but the reality is that the Hacker role is timeless – changing the technology changes what it looks like, but not how it works.

Second, there would probably need to be some cyberware rules. I just accept this. But they’d be mechanically trivial to support, so this is more of an exercise in “What’s cool?” than anything else.

Third, there might be call for some resource rules, but only if it makes things more interesting. The default Leverage model skips this – the PCs have sufficient resources – but scarcity of supplies and the street finding a use for things are sufficiently key cyberpunk ideas that I’d want to reflect it. Most likely it would be part of scenario design rather than a real rule, so to speak. That is, an additional step for a job would be identifying the resources needed and acquiring them.[3]

This actually introduces an interesting complexity into play. Leverage basically starts from “you have made enough money to retire, so why stay in the game?” which allows skipping over a lot of RPG baggage in favor of purposeful action. If that is removed, a similar check would need to be put in place – in the case of cyberpunk, it would probably be “Here is how much money you could make if you quit this crap and got a day job. So why haven’t you done that?”

The fourth change isn’t a change at all, and revolves around the role of violence. There are already great games that use cyberpunk as an invitation for gunplay, but they do so with a kind of hand wavy thinking about the role of violence in society, the impact of the spread of weapons technology (and counter-technology). All of which is to say that I don’t think cyberpunk should not be violent, but rather, that the violence exists in a context, and context is critically important to the tone.

Leverage has already wrestled this particular bear. It is understandable why Elliot doesn’t use guns in the show – it’s a personal quirk – but why would every other Hitter do the same? Especially when the archetypical RPG badass has twin desert eagles (and katanas) under his trenchcoat. Leverage’s take on this is straightforward – guns escalate problems[4] and while they may be an option, they are very much an option of last recourse because the consequences are much more profound.

Cyberpunk won’t be exactly the same – there are place where the cheapness of life is the point – but that idea of actions (violence in particular) having consequences is part of what makes it cyberpunk for me.

The last change is not a mechanical one, but it’s probably the trickiest, and that has to do with the opposition. In Leverage, your target is a bad person, doing bad things, and taking them down is a positive step towards stopping (and maybe fixing) those bad things. In cyberpunk, the problems are systemic. There might be occasional corporate stooge who is worse than other corporate stooges, but its not like taking him down will drastically improve things. Even if you land a major blow, enough to hurt a corp, then it will just be other corps stepping in to fill.

In short, cyberpunk does not offer the same clear goals and victories that Leverage does, even if the activities are similar. This is dark, appropriately so, but it also demands that the players take a different view on their accomplishments and, perhaps, take a longer view on things. It raises the question of what the endgame is, which is a tough but essential question. Without that, incremental victories may not be enough to get by.

So, if it’s not obvious, I have a lot of love for this kind of game in my heart, and once the cortex plus licensing settles out, I may write a little bit more about the mechanical side of this, but it really doesn’t require much in the way of mechanics at all. It’s all in the clarity of the ideas.

And by extension, cyberpunk may mean something totally different to you. So much so as to make you go “Leverage? Really?” and that’s totally cool. These things happen with made up words. But for me, this is the heart of what I’m looking for.

Also, Riggers turn out to be super prescient, as dumb as I thought they were in the early 90s.

  1. This is not Shadowrun’s fault. For all that it’s got huge helpings of shameless fan service, there is a genuine beating heart of genuine cyberpunk love at the heart of every edition. The old Corporate Datafiles sourcebook is probably my second favorite cyberpunk supplement, and it has almost no rules (first is, of course, I.C.E.’s magnificent Sprawlgangs and Megacorps which is transcendant). Hell, Shadowrun 4e ended up falling flat for me at the table, but I still love it for it’s handling of wireless networks and augmented reality. But the reality is that faster ninjas and bigger guns translate into sales, so the market will drive the focus of the line.  ↩
  2. I also have just enough of a technical background to prefer a little more genuine networking and UX design in my hacking. I’m not a stickler, but “computers are magic!” falls very flat for me. This doesn’t mean no virtual interfaces, but rather, it means asking what the virtual interface provides that makes it worthwhile, rather than just the 2020 version of van painting.  ↩
  3. aka “The Burn Notice Model”.  ↩
  4. Explicitly, they escalate problems in a way that is less fun to play.  ↩

12 thoughts on “Ethical Cyberpunk

  1. Brent P. Newhall

    Great article!

    One thing about the cheapness of life: it may be cheap in the setting, but do you (royal “you”) want it to be cheap to the players during play? If not, build mechanics appropriately.

  2. The Boulder

    Have you tried Jeremy Keller’s Technoir? He did a really good job of making a game that felt like cyberpunk and I think that was because he focused on noir rather than tech. Sure, technology is there. You can jump into the virtual reality or augment your character with cyber gear, but that’s not what the game is really about. It’s about conflicting interests and somehow navigating through a minefield of blackmail, favours and liars.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I have! And the generalizations I make about Cyberpunk absolutely don’t apply to Tech Noir – Jeremy did something amazing with that (as he so often does).

    2. Rickard

      He did a really good job of making a game that felt like cyberpunk and I think that was because he focused on noir rather than tech.

      This is so insightful! Noir is a mood, where tech just is. Sadly, most cyberpunk games focus on the cyber (tech) rather than the punk (mood). I feel the same thing with western games. Sure, it has spurs, horses and six-shooters, but where’s the mood? Where is that Leone feel that I want to experience?

      I remember watching a video about what cyberpunk is, and noir is actually a part of it. Bladerunner with it’s rain. Johnny Mnemonic with it’s dark environment. The keywords that sets the mood are forgotten. Bring me rain. Give me wore down cyberware. Load up the alcohol (or other drugs). Show me the general sassy attitude.

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  4. Ashwath

    So, I’m not sure if this would have any sort of mechanical impact at all, but I think one of the core interesting bits about Cyberpunk is that infrastructure belongs to the elite. It’s possible that being in India has skewed my perspective towards that more, but it’s really, really powerful.

    In gaming, we’re accustomed to thinking about the scarcity of resources, at least a little. But what changes when we think about it as a scarcity of infrastructure? It really cements the subversive role/culture/lifestyles of our heroes, while making them deal with problems in a potentially uncharted way.

    The reason I bring this up is that in the classic Leverage set-up, infrastructure is an area where the Bad Guy is comfortable, but the good guys are expert. It might be good to twist that for a cyberpunk version.

  5. Neil Ford

    Awesome! I’ve been noodling ideas about this very subject recently. Can’t wait to see where you take it.

    – Neil.

  6. Nick

    Have you seen Person of Interest? This could be done easily using Leverage. John Reece is essentially Elliot with a gun.

  7. Sean Holland

    Good thoughts. I am also of the camp that says that the punk (and the noir) of a cyberpunk setting should be emphasized, it is what gives the genre its bite.

    I have always thought that characters in such a world should have an endgame, be it trying to change the world (and probably dying in the process) or even just getting enough ahead to get out. But most players do not seem to plan further ahead than the next score, which may be appropriate but it does not lead to over satisfying long term gaming either.

    I have had character retire upward, into the corporate ranks, and try to hold onto their ethics and remember the view from the bottom . . . but who knows if they succeeded or just became another part of the problem.

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  9. Gorsh

    I know I’m coming in late to this thread, but I just wanted to say your vision of the genre and mine are 99% similar.
    I’ve been running CP2020 games for a long time, de-emphazising what the system does and viceversa, house-ruling all those uncharted zones of system required (IMO) to put some flesh to those facets unlooked. I’m currently trying to put those rules and ideas in a coherent shape as a CP2020 hack (albeit for a “sandbox sim” mode of game). When I have enough material, I’ll sure stop by here to throw a link.

    Can’t wait to see what you make of this line of thought, too.

  10. Dorean T. G. Fubar

    I do share your point of view.
    I’ve just came in touch with Shadowrun after a very long time – and, well, I experienced quite a transformation from my first hopes to my momentary ‘state of disenchantement’.

    One question, that sums many relevant aspects for me up is:
    Regarding this dystopian futuristic world we’re thinking of – what are the means, that help a human charakter to remain human despite of the inhumanity of his surroundings/experiences?
    (Thinking of psychological resiliance: ethics, beliefs, hopes, dreams…)

    Seeing mostly ‘bad’ player characters in a ‘bad’ world context is just kind of boring to me.

    I hope you keep that focus of yours!


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