roleplaying games

Towards a greater Cyberpunk setting

I’ve been reading and acquiring Cyberpunk games and game books at a decent clip. I read through Cyberspace, am currently reading the Fate version of Interface Zero, and also acquired the full run of Cyberpunk 2020’s Corporation Reports, three sourcebooks that detailed some of the largest corporations in the world. In addition to that, I’ve been poring over The Sprawl and preparing for a future campaign. Between my worldbuilding and reading three different systems with their own strong settings, it’s made me think once again about writing out a whole Cyberpunk world, something I’ve tried in the past but never quite succeeded at.

The very first game I ran in college was a Cyberpunk game in a setting that I dubbed “Street Level”. The name came from two places: first, an earlier setting riff I had written (which got incorporated into the game) involved a massive arcology in a skyscraper so tall that the top of it was supported by helium gasbags, which when mapped out was divided into “ground levels” (underground), “street levels” (kind of the middle) and “tower levels” (way up the elevators). Second, I wrote a underlying setting assumption that the most powerful corporations in the world were real estate developers, the largest of which was called “Street Level Development”. Ironically, the entire real estate metaplot wasn’t used in any of the games I ran in this. Anyways. The setting assumptions grew out of the characters that the players wrote, and then I riffed off of them. A lot of the details were very cool, and some of the areas were neat, but there wasn’t a coherent world-space that made sense to me. The three games I ran in the setting each took place in a different part of the world, and it was hard to tell they all were linked together.

After that game, I  linked a number of my games in Cyberpunk 2020’s setting together, getting a feeling for how events connect to each other, and how in Cyberpunk multi-national corporations really are the glue that hold continuity together. The campaigns, all originally intended to be separate, were linked through a corporation that had a minor role in all of them, an investment bank that had been financially exposed to the characters’ shenanigans. Knitting together four campaigns that were supposed to be distinct was an interesting challenge, but I had fun with it. It still didn’t really sate my thirst for more in-depth worldbuilding.

I look at some of the guiding assumptions I’ve laid out for my game in The Sprawl, and realize that the same questions I ask about flooded New York apply to the entire world. A melting of the Antarctic ice sheets would also inundate London. And Shanghai. And Buenos Aires. If I were to take some of the consequences, both grounded and fantastical, and apply them worldwide, there could definitely be a great setting.

But I’m not going to do that just yet. First, this is a game in The Sprawl. The players get to choose the corporations, and say things about the city they’re in. And this doesn’t hamstring me in any way. To the contrary, using the structure of The Sprawl to kickstart the writing will give me some great constraints for building from the bottom up and fleshing out the world more deliberately.

My thoughts around this weren’t completely locked to my intent to run The Sprawl as my next campaign. Of course, writing a whole world implies that you’ll return to it, and running just one game can’t possibly cover even a fraction of the available geography (and travelogues often suffer from lack of focus). No, my idea involves not only a (at least) second game, but a second system.

After I ran my abovementioned “Nexus” game in the Cyberpunk 2020 setting, I had sworn off 2020 as a system. I houseruled it to hell and back, it wasn’t inherently balanced, and my players knew how to exploit it. Now, after either the passage of time or my faulty memory, I want to run it again. Part of it, ironically, comes from reading GURPS. GURPS 4e is an impressively balanced system, but still takes a very active GM to get all the options in line and keep the game where it’s both playable and still interesting. GURPS is, in short, a lot of work. Cyberpunk 2020 has many problems with character creation and inventory creep, but the core combat and skill mechanics are quite elegant, and the game can be run deftly and quickly. This was actually one of the reasons I got fed up with the houserules…the “High Noon Shootout” combat conversion in Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads solved the over-armor issue quite nicely but did so by switching a simple “roll and compare numbers” to “roll and consult this table”. Worse, the mechanic was “roll, consult the table, subtract that number, multiply by 2”. Ugh. Well, running Apocalypse World taught me a very important thing: use spreadsheets. A well-designed spreadsheet will make even dumb table-based systems quick and easy, especially when the majority of the game is still pretty tight. So I have, perhaps stupidly, convinced myself I could run Cyberpunk 2020 again.

My plan would be to re-introduce Cyberpunk 2020 as the group’s second low-quorum game, after Apocalypse World has wrapped up and likely after I’m done running The Sprawl. I’d set it in the same world as The Sprawl, taking the skinning on weapons and whatnot that we come up with in the game and writing up the setting in more detail. I’d also maintain a site on Obsidian Portal across the games, to make it that much easier to do writing and maintain consistency. I could even run one-shots and the like and keep it all grounded in the same place. Last but certainly not least, anything I’d run in this world using any other system besides The Sprawl would have The Sprawl’s corporation clock mechanic ported, because it’s a fantastic way to organize things in a Cyberpunk setting.

I think this whole nutty idea comes from two places. First, I’m more comfortable with the fact that my online group is unlikely to ever do a proper, continuous long-runner. I still clearly want to do that sort of more involved world-building (I just wrote 1000 words on it, if you didn’t notice) and I want that level of continuity, but it doesn’t fit with our style, especially as we have the unusual fortune of actually having multiple people want to GM. Second, I’m getting more comfortable with the tools at my disposal and how to use them. Obsidian Portal is a great tool for campaign and setting planning, and it actually could work even better across games in the same setting. Now that I have more of a handle on player/character buy-in, bottom-up worldbuilding, and the fine art of GM bribery, I feel like I can get the engagement I want, the setting organization I want, and the game experience I want.

The final part of all this is that I’m finally taking comfort in the fact that I as a GM can be a bit boring. I’ve desired experimentation in my settings and campaign premises, but in terms of how I run things, I always seem to gravitate back to settings with more modern assumptions. I’m trying to be OK with being the “near-future guy”, and part of that is feeling like I am giving my own spin on things. Playing in the Cyberpunk 2020 or Interface Zero playground is fun, but having my own setting is the next level.

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