Saturday, October 3, 2009

Cyberpunk 2025 (or, "15 Shitty Years")

Speaking of GM ADD...

I made what I would consider to be a fairly successful FLGS raid last week. I scored a really nice copy of Warhammer City (with the map in) for WFRP, a Role Aids Dwarves module (cool detail on a few dwarven settlements and an adventure for dwarven PCs), the Traveller introductory adventure (I've got tons of supplements, still need to track down the 3BBs) and, most relevant to today's mental meanderings, two Cyberpunk supplements - Rockerboy for Cyberpunk 1e (AKA Cyberpunk 2013) and Eurosource Plus (for Cyberpunk 2020 - an update of a previous CP1 supplement, as I understand it).

Now, it just so happens that while AD&D 2e was my first love, gaming-wise, CP2020 was always the girl on the side. Second game I ever ran, with even less resulting campaign play then AD&D - sessions generally went catastrophically off-script as soon as the players realized they could just run around shooting shit, and tended to culminate in Grand Theft Auto 3-style SWAT showdowns. Everyone always had a blast regardless, but it was irritatingly dissatisfying as a neophyte GM. Anyway, flipping through my newly acquired nerd lore, all kinds of fun one-off ideas started to run through my head. I'll run it in a month or so just once, I told myself. Just once - got a new AD&D campaign to play, after all.

Enter my IT recruiter with a two-day contract working on Blackberries in Boston. This job involves my taking the (stupid fucking) Commuter Rail into Boston, so I have plenty of time to read my new CP crap on the train. What I do not have, however, is time to prepare for the 1e session on Tuesday (not slinging my CZ stuff in a backpack to get banged up), nor the energy or inspiration to freestyle one.

Luckily, I'd just spent two days going back and forth between my slacker metalhead home life and my fast-paced tech-y corporate life, pounding pavement in Boston's glittering yet filthy downtown financial district, working on improbably tiny yet ubiquitous hand-held portable PCs - the kind of experience that drives home how close we really are to the cyberpunk era (and how close Gibson and pals really came to outright prophecy in their fiction). CP2020 inspiration I had in spades (and my players weren't tough to convince), so we whipped up some characters and ran'em through a few introductory encounters (read: gruesome and needless firefights) to get a feeling for the system. (Protip: If you're an unprepared GM who needs time to throw together a quick scenario, hand your players the CP2020 cyberware and/or gun list. Guaranteed at least an hour of drooling while you get your homework done.)

A few things about running CP2020: First, the system is suckawesometastic. By that I mean that it's a great base mechanic (ability 1-10 + skill 1-10 + roll 1-10 to hit a target number anywhere from 10 and up) with a super-brutal and nicely medium-crunchy combat engine built on top, but there are a decent amount of holes in the combat system (forcing GMs to make some tough calls on some pretty basic combat procedures), and the character creation is both inspired and super super super broken. Now, it needs to be said that this was published in 1990 (based on a ruleset from '87 IIRC), and that kind of thing was a lot more acceptable then. If anything, the ambiguities and rough spots give an experienced GM plenty of elbowroom to tinker - and CP is an old school system in that it responds beautifully to careful house ruling (and in that this is almost a necessity in places). However, as a newbie GM in the early '90s, this was a bit beyond me, and as a result combat was slow and often confused, while characters were bristling with guns, cybered to the gills, and world-class combatants to a man.

Then there's the assumed setting, the timeline, the net, and the glam rock. (Oh, the glam rock.) 2020, from 2009, looks hilariously late '80s - the graphics, the lyrics, the culture, etc. The USSR never fell, we got space shit done on time (instead of falling into a post-Challenger funk), the US economy collapsed in the '90s (without the benefit of the dot com boom) and cybernetics are everywhere. The net is pretty much as all-encompassing as it is now - dead-on in places - but the specifics are laughable from where we stand (even if you buy into VR/simstim as a viable consumer interface).

There are three ways to handle this: Draw up your own timeline, say fuck it and call it a divergent timeline (from say 1990 on), or some combination of both. There's a lot to be said for just rolling with the silly - CP works as a game even if the assumptions are a bit off, and the gonzo anime feel you get from the CP2020 setting material is cool in its own right. On the other hand, devising your own timeline is a great mental exercise (I love this shit - extrapolation is what real SF is all about), and you end up with a more plausible future from where we sit. I went with option C, and started drawing up a timeline that takes us from where we are now (with a few "top secret technologies" retconned into the last decade or so) to pretty much where the 2020 book puts us, with a good bit of the Net and other tech stuff given a modern facelift (along with some of the cultural stuff). I was able to come up with a workable sequence of events that gets us there in 15 (admittedly tumultuous) years, giving me a street date of 2025 (which is a nice round number and can also coincidentally refer to the houseruled-to-fuck "version 2.5" that I'm running). I kept most of the classic setting elements (Arasaka and the other friendly corps, hyperviolent and strongly-themed gangs a la "The Warriors", the Sprawl, the Combat Zone, balkanization of the Americas, etc.), I just chose to get us there in a different way. On top of that, I was able to whip up a gutload of new stuff - if there's one thing I can do easily (almost reflexively), it's dream up ways things can go as tragically wrong as possible. I'm also stealing with abandon from the standards - Gibson, Neal Stephenson (especially the strip mall/franchise culture from Snow Crash), etc. I plan on a bit of Appleseed-style hardsuit cop drama (in my Boston, the Highway Patrol has their own reality show - sponsored by Militech, which indidentally provides all their equipment and training), a bunch of street-level craziness (the Bay flooded, and downtown got rebuilt around the elevated highway, so the North End is now a series of canals under the "shelf" of the new downtown), and a good dose of Mad Max highway combat.

Anyway, gotta go - playing in Long Island with my boy's folk rock thing. Here's 3 great CP2020 resources on the web to tide you over:

The Blackhammer Cyberpunk Project:
Datafortress 2020: