roleplaying games

Burning Cyberpunk

So if you haven’t noticed, I really like Burning Wheel. One of the things that makes the near-impossibility of putting together a Burning Wheel game somewhat tolerable is the fact that Burning Wheel, like most well-designed games, has many ideas and rules structures that can be adapted to other games without running the system wholesale.

The systems in Burning Wheel that most speak to me are the ones around character. You start with Lifepath character generation to give you a solid idea of where your character came from, go into developing beliefs, instincts and traits to sketch out where they’re going, and then use a very detailed system of skill progression to determine how they get there. Everything else about Burning Wheel is additional flavor bolted on to that core.

Out of those three steps, one is baked in with some genre assumptions, and that’s the skill progression system. Fantasy, especially low fantasy, works very well with the notion that characters overcome challenges and become more powerful by virtue of those challenges. In other genres, say modern technothriller/Cyberpunk, skills are much more weighted towards things the character already has, and emblematic more of their past than future. So to make a theoretical “Burning Cyberpunk”, one would have to figure out how to port the first two and replace the third.

In case the title didn’t give it away, I’ve started to give honest thought to porting certain aspects of Burning Wheel into a Cyberpunk framework. The aim of this is not to create a new game or a product to sell, but to use existing materials I already have to add some depth to a potential future campaign of mine. The entire notion came from two things: first, appreciating how similar the intents (if not outcomes) of Mike Pondsmith and Luke Crane were when they made certain design decisions in their games (Cyberpunk 2020 and Burning Wheel, respectively), and the realization that literally porting Burning Wheel for this genre would be terrible (not the end result necessarily, but certainly the process).

As I mentioned, the skill system is a genre mismatch. So for my starting point, I decided to go with the game I’m familiar with which has the most robust skill system that works well for this genre. That would be GURPS. Less swingy and weird than Cyberpunk 2020, less arcade-y than Savage Worlds, GURPS has the perfect blend of ease of use and depth when talking about skills. Combat too, though Savage Worlds is tighter and Burning Wheel has a more distinct feel thanks to its simultaneous actions. In terms of advancement GURPS is straightforward, and point awards are up to the discretion of the GM to the point that if I wanted to write a different set of advancement mechanics I could with little alteration of the core system.

The biggest disadvantage of GURPS is how front-loaded the character generation system is. That said, if you imagine a version of Burning Wheel where players were allowed to allocate points to skills it would be nigh-impossible due to the way wises work as well as how long the skill list is. Organizing character creation into a lifepath system helps players look at characters from an angle other than the purely mechanical…but it also greatly reduces the number of choices they have to make. Therefore, it stands to reason that writing a lifepath system for GURPS would make character creation easier as well as achieve my goal of making people think more about their characters as people. Win-win.

Writing the lifepath system for GURPS is mechanically simple: write templates and then a logic around which templates each character picks. And I have my choice of how to organize the literal path aspect; both Burning Wheel and Cyberpunk 2020 have variants worth examining. The part of the port that is more complicated is the Beliefs, Instincts and Traits segment. And of that, really the beliefs.

I’ll go through in reverse. GURPS handles some part of what are classified as traits in Burning Wheel through the Advantage/Disadvantage/Perk/Quirk system. Including traits in a similar format to how they’re included in the Burning Wheel lifepath is the easiest way to add some depth using that construct, and I’d probably do just that. Instincts is more nebulous, but probably captured under the same basic mechanics…most of the mechanically intensive Instincts could be modeled in GURPS using the “Shtick” perk. Beliefs, though, are different.

Beliefs in Burning Wheel are structured to be part of the GM-Player dialogue. While Burning Wheel doesn’t discourage writing a plot like Powered by the Apocalypse games do, it does encourage the GM to use the notion of “challenging the characters’ beliefs” as the core way to drive the game forward. This should, when the mechanic works correctly, give the GM a laundry list of elements that the players want their characters to engage. GURPS has the dual issue of being designed as a more GM-driven game, and also (or therefore?) not having mechanics around character motivations.

At the same time, Beliefs as written don’t really work, genre-wise, for a Cyberpunk game! Characters are expected to have second-order needs, so a Belief structured in the traditional Burning Wheel way may not drive the game in the same way. The sort of large, arc-length beliefs that Luke specifically calls out in the codex as a poor example of a Burning Wheel belief are generally more appropriate: a character is doing what others tell them, often in service of a longer term goal. The Sprawl condenses this down to money, which is a simplistic but serviceable mechanic; once you’ve saved up enough, you can get out of this life.

The mechanic that I find would walk the middle ground is borrowed from yet another game, Bully Pulpit’s Fiasco. In Fiasco, the scenario is set up with relationships, objects, locations, and needs. And the needs in Fiasco are a perfect blend between something higher level and keyed into character motivation, while still being direct and actionable enough to impact low-level play.

So now I have a task list for Burning Cyberpunk:

  1. Cement my base GURPS rules for a near-future/Cyberpunk setting (mostly done)
  2. Write a lifepath system that will result in appropriately powered GURPS characters
  3. Write a serviceable character motivation system using Fiasco’s needs as a base

All of these will require cementing some setting expectations, meaning that while writing mechanics, I’m going to be writing assumptions about the world as well. This is where I prove the value of this, really. In creating these subsystems I’m going to be making a declaration about how I’d run near-future/technothriller/Cyberpunk games, and logically a declaration about why I’m not using other available Cyberpunk games. My hope is that I can create something that fits my vision: using the underlying philosophies of Cyberpunk 2020 to create a vision that’s more compatible with technology as we already know it, with mechanics that are both mechanically comprehensive and aware of their interplay with narrative.

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