Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler



Sleazy glossy high-tech lowlife heroic punks, Part 1

by Allen Varney

[Published in Dragon #185, September 1992]

Prentis slammed the machete down, overhand. It hit the desk with a shriek. The desk's corner flew off and hit the floor, spinning. [...] "Maybe you think that's dangerous, but you don't see it all, yet. It's slash-and-burn agriculture. You know what that might do to what's left of the planet's tropical forests? It'll make every straw-hat Brazilian into Paul Bunyan, that's what. The most dangerous bio-tech in the world is a guy with a goat and an axe. [...] You don't want peasants and slum kids with that kind of technical power. You're afraid of it." He pointed to the machete. "But you can't have it both ways. All tech is dangerous -- even with no moving parts."

-- Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net (1988)

For 18 months I've tried to discuss cyberpunk games. But they pulled my thoughts in about four different directions, and I've only just focused my hazy video view, just optimized this fuzzy-logic wetware, just punched into the right deck -- boy, I've been thinking about this too much.

In 1984 William Gibson's novel Neuromancer hit the science fiction field like a ballistic missile with a payload of fresh air. Ever since, most everyone -- including game designers -- has thought "cyberpunk = Gibson." Dismissing the work's subtle thinking in favor of stylistic flash, readers say "cyberpunk" means dark, gritty, film-noir capers set in burned-out megalopoli and featuring burned-out cybernetic druggie hackers, lots of neon, evil megacorps, rampant sexism, downbeat endings, and, lest we forget, mirrorshades.

Swarms of second-rate imitators dutifully retrofitted all this stuff to routine action-adventure plots, spawning a whole "sci-fiberpunk" sub-category of pulpish science fiction books...and games. The original error spread like a strange meme, an information virus, or a self-organizing high-entropy Prigoginic structure. (I have soaked up too much of this stuff.) In fiction and games cyberpunk, so far as anyone cares today, really is just another way to dress up the same old stuff.

But set aside the jargon and look at not just Gibson, but Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Pat Cadigan, Lewis Shiner, and the other seminal writers of cyberpunk (or, as they preferred to call it, "the Movement"). These futurists wrote adventures of ideas, speculations on the information revolution. Granted, they wrote plenty about fashions and drugs, too, but dark? Gritty? Not always. In Sterling's key Movement story "Green Days in Brunei," the hero sails into the sunrise with a fortune and a princess. I could multiply examples. But this Movement work, not at all the same old stuff, got lost in the sci-fiberpunk fad, especially in its role-playing games.

Still, I guess that's not such a bad thing.

I live less than a mile from Sterling in Austin, Texas. "Chairman Bruce," as some called him during the Movement's heyday, discussed its ideology with me at length. For a long time I found it persuasive, and I sneered at the cyberpunk games that ignored it. The trouble was that while I sneered, these games and their supplements kept getting more and more interesting -- on their own terms, not the Movement's. For a year and a half the contradiction bugged me. Now I've decided that even if the games use cyberpunk elements as window dressing, it's great window dressing on some of the best-looking and most useful game products I've ever seen.

CYBERPUNK 2020 game ("Version")

222-page softcover book; 24-page "Screamsheets" adventure and reference guide; R. Talsorian Games Inc., $20

Writers: Mike Pondsmith, Colin Fisk, Will Moss, Scott Ruggels, Dave Friedland, Mike Blum

Cover: Doug Anderson

Illustrations: Justin Chin, Mike Hernandez, Chris Hockabout, Shon Howell, Sam Liu, Mike Pondsmith, Scott Ruggels

From the talented Mike Pondsmith, who started slow with MEKTON but got better fast, we have this superior update of his strong-selling 1988 release. The handsome second edition features entirely revised combat and netrunning systems, smoother character generation, updated equipment and amplified background -- and no rules for magic, thereby shouldering aside FASA's SHADOWRUN to become the premier "pure" cyberpunk role-playing game.

Set in the year 2020, seven years after the first edition's time-frame, this "adventure game of the dark future" presents all the genre's trappings in a striking monochromatic, sans-serif style. In fact, just as in the first edition, the text begins by proposing three essential features of cyberpunk adventures:

(1) Style over substance.

(2) Attitude is everything.

(3) Live on the edge.

I never decided whether CYBERPUNK's first edition itself suffered from "style over substance." For some time Pondsmith's talent for graphics outstripped his design abilities, I think, but in the last few years he has given much attention to narrative tone and storytelling values. The second edition enhances these, with improved "Lifepath" flowcharts to generate a quick history for your character (the designer's best innovation) and more and better campaign material. This new version excels in substance. Style is a subtler question, one I return to below.

Mechanics: Pondsmith has always seemed to me a magpie designer, borrowing systems and approaches from many other games and sometimes giving them original twists. CYBERPUNK's character generation, for instance, begins with point allocation among nine statistics like Reflexes, Luck, Tech, and Cool. Then the player allots points to skills that are categorized according to the statistics. Players of Steve Jackson Games' TOON, the Cartoon Roleplaying Game, should feel right at home here. Similarly, task resolution calls for a roll of 1d10, plus appropriate statistic and skill numbers, to beat a fixed difficulty number: 15 for average tasks, 20 for "difficult," and so on. You may recognize this from West End's STAR WARS and GHOSTBUSTERS RPGs, among others.

But Pondsmith rises above other me-too designers because his borrowings show intelligence, taste, and a striving for unity of effect. Here he aims for just under a medium level of rules complexity (medium rare?), emphasizing fluid action, individualized characters, and a high death rate. The last two would be incompatible in most RPGs, but together they suit the disposable-future grimness of cyberpunk.

What's more, the designer seems willing to abandon unworkable rules and to craft improved replacements. The "Friday Night Firefight" combat system has jettisoned its three-phase turn, about half its cumbersome tables, its defense rolls, and its abhorrence of hit points. In their place it offers a slick and efficient system of initiative rolls and wound stages (including ten levels of death). Armor remains a flaw, as it is in other modern games: Unarmored characters become pools of blood in ten seconds of combat, but those in flack armor can shrug off submachinegun volleys.

The netrunning system, where intrepid hackers venture into the consensual illusion of computer cyberspace, has improved sharply. The system affords the referee creativity in atmosphere and "data fortress" design, and netrunners have genuine tactical options. The elegant and original virtual reality rules encourage new frontiers of play. And now non-netrunner characters can jack into the runner's cyberdeck and hitchhike on the trip, seeing what he sees. Players need no longer sit in boredom while the referee and one player game out the netrun. It's about time!

Detritus: Still, in the new CYBERPUNK Pondsmith has let stand some lesser flaws. Jarringly, he retains the archaic character classes of netrunners, cops, techies, "rockerboys," et al. The first edition's many typographical errors have only increased. There is still no index.

The notion of "cyberpsychosis" has also stayed: The more technological gimmicks your body has (including contact lenses and tattoos), the crazier you get. This silly rule, which also blights SHADOWRUN, arises naturally from the differing priorities of fiction and games. Characters in the stories, like real people, undoubtedly feel squeamish about chopping off their limbs and organs. But players happily interlard their role-playing characters' bodies with all the heavy hardware they can afford. Without a cyberpsychosis rule or a point-balancing system, pretty soon the whole party turns into robots.

None of these flaws looms large, except the lack of an index. But there remains the troubling issue of cool. "Attitude is everything," says the text (page 4). People "won't be impressed by your new H&K smartgun unless you swagger into the club looking like you know how to use it -- and are just itching for an excuse."

Oh lord, save me from clowns with this attitude. Save me from netrunning rules that assume you can break into Eurobank and embezzle five million bucks, but you better pay your phone bill on time or you're in big trouble (p. 133)! Save me from the "Just Say No" message in the "Drugs" chapter; however admirable, it hardly suits the genre. It puts the text in the curious position of advocating rebellion, but only in socially acceptable ways -- of living on The Edge, but living healthy. Uh-huh.

CYBERPUNK talks endlessly about how life on The Edge is daring and dangerous -- and then, every so often, striking a wiseguy street-smart tone, it offers earnest advice like you get from your grandma. "A job? Yeah, even in the Dark Future, you gotta pay the bills, chombatta. And you want a job..." (p. 48). "You can make a copy [of protected software]...but think what happens if you screw up..." (p. 131). Remember, boys and girls, the path of least resistance is good citizenship.

I find CYBERPUNK's "cool" posture inconsistent at best. But in all candor, I don't feel really qualified to make this call; after all, I sit around my living room playing role-playing games! When I talk to Pondsmith himself, I feel like Beaver Cleaver to his Arsenio Hall. So what do I know?

Evaluation: CYBERPUNK's second edition surpasses its first edition on every count. With its smooth action, "pure" cyberpunk atmosphere, easily accessible setting, and medium-low complexity, this game tops my list as the field's best route to dark near-future adventure.

Night City Sourcebook

184-page softcover book; 2'x3' color map; R. Talsorian Games Inc., $18

Writers: Mike Pondsmith, Ed Bolme, Sam Shirley, Anders Swensen, Colin Fisk, Will Moss, John Smith, Mike Mac Donald, Lisa Pondsmith

Cover: Doug Anderson

Illustrations: Chris Hockabout, Mike Jackson

Map: TK Scott

Art Director: Matt Anacleto

Info burn. This key Movement concept describes the data overload that results from society's increasing pace and overexposure to mass media. Cyberpunks seem to live for info burn, and they'll get enough of it in the Night City Sourcebook to incinerate their forebrains.

Night City is the large corporate-controlled city in the Free State of Northern California that serves as the standard CYBERPUNK campaign setting. South of Monterey and just north of the William Gibson Memorial Freeway, Night City joins the upscale luxury of Westhill Gardens to the looming, inhuman skyscrapers of the Corporate Center and the grotty wastes of Old Downtown. Night City also holds a university, stadium, harbor, movie studio, performing arts center, megalithic police stations and hospitals, and the New Harbor Mallplex micro-arcology. Just for starters, this sourcebook gives you all of these -- mapped -- plus the airport, ferry terminal, bus station, NCART light rail system, and descriptions of every major building on every block.

If you need to locate bus schedules (page 18), traffic regulations (8), the top 10 radio stations (12), bar drinks (23), concert tickets (24), heliports (28), where Corpzoners shop (36), Arasaka Security weaponry (40), turfs of every major boostergang (43), who staffs Holy Angels Church (62), remaindered first-edition CYBERPUNK games (72), the Chinese Consulate (100), floorplans of the Network News 54 building ("forty-three stories of canned heat," 104), the best hotel in town (112), the cyberpsycho who heads the police Cyberpsycho Squad (118), layouts of local nightclubs (119), mirrorshades (133), the city's best karoke sing-along bar (148), a geomancer (156), the Libertine Lanes bowling alley (163), the Hacienda Casino (168), telephone exchange prefixes (182), and a couple hundred NPCs and urban encounters (passim), get this book.

We've seen elaborate city guides before, from the venerable Judges Guild/Mayfair Games City-State of the Invincible Overlord to Chaosium's excellent CALL OF CTHULHU supplement Arkham Unveiled. But no one, until now, has treated the modern city with this depth, range, style, and attention to playability. Though inconsistent in quality and grammar, the Night City Sourcebook presents a convincing city, a happening place. Adventure ideas grab the referee on almost every page. Send a team of cyberpunks in search of a random NPC, give them a lead to some restaurant or mall in these pages, and they'll stumble into enough trouble to fill the longest play session.

The package looks great, too -- not just the wonderful Doug Anderson cover, but the skillful art direction of Matt Anacleto. This talented young man has transformed the Talsorian line, which always looked good, into the slickest product gallery of any of the field's small companies. This is terrific work!

Evaluation: For anyone running a mainstream (that is, non-magical) cyberpunk game, the Night City Sourcebook provides a ready-to-run campaign of unmatched accessibility, or a huge info burn of settings, characters, and ideas for your existing campaign. According to 2020 pricing, a hardcopy dataterm printout would run you over 72 eurobucks. At $18 it's the best value in the field.

Note: The Night City Sourcebook prompts interesting comparisons with two similar, and similarly excellent, supplements for FASA's SHADOWRUN game: the Seattle Sourcebook and Sprawl Sites. The three together make an unbeatable combination. I hope to discuss these and a long slate of more recent SHADOWRUN supplements in an upcoming column. [2002 NOTE: I published this followup column in DRAGON #187, November 1992. But I have misplaced that file. Sorry. -- AV]

HACKER: The Computer Crime Card Game

110 coated cards; 172 die-cut cardboard markers; cardstock sheet of 53 consoles, counters, and markers, not die-cut (boo!); two "Network" ID cards; two dice and ziplock bag, boxed; Steve Jackson Games, $19.95

Design: Steve Jackson

Cover: Jeffrey K. Starling

Now here's a real "cyberpunk" game!

I submitted a rough and unworkable game about computer crime, variously called Hacker and Megacrash, to Steve Jackson back in 1984. I modelled it closely on Jackson's masterpiece, the classic ILLUMINATI card game of world conspiracy. I couldn't make my design work, but I felt sure he could. It frustrated me that he showed no interest in the topic. Eventually I discarded the idea.

A misguided U.S. Secret Service/Chicago Computer Crime Bureau raid on the SJG offices in March 1990 changed Jackson's mind on the subject. (The whole sordid story of that raid, part of the nationwide "Operation Sun Devil," appears in Bruce Sterling's forthcoming nonfiction book, The Hacker Crackdown.) Jackson kindly offered me another try at the design. Because of prior obligations I passed up the chance, so he designed his own, superior take on the idea. "Since the day of the raid, gamers have been asking us, `When are you going to make a game about it?"' he writes in HACKER's introduction. "Okay. We give up. Here it is." Jackson's approach bears cosmetic similarities to mine, though I'm glad to say he indeed made it work better than I ever did. That said, it still doesn't work well.

The course of play: After the flashy posturing of the role-playing products above, what a relief to find a game that's actually about technology. In HACKER, three to six players become hackers, invaders of computer systems. In a significant and inexplicable omission, the game doesn't give the hackers unique names or special abilities. Players take turns laying out a "network" of cards representing computer systems like NORAD, the Pentagon, Malefactors Handover Bank, Wong Numbers, and Warehouse 666. Each card has a security level and, in some cases, ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics) designed to trace intruders. Players roll dice to enter "indial" systems and thus infiltrate the net; some of the many special cards give certain players "hidden indials." Some systems are network hubs, giving greater access elsewhere, or grant special abilities.

In a turn players can hack new systems or crash them, upgrade equipment, "phreak" (help others onto systems they've already found), and "nark" on each other to the authorities. Large numbers of hackers in a system trigger "housecleaning," and most players experience at least one FBI or Secret Service raid. If you get busted three times, you're out of the game. "You win by gaining active access to 12 systems, declaring yourself a Master Hacker, and retiring while you still can. [...] The fewer times you have been busted, the better the win is. Winning with no busts qualifies you for a Silicon Valley startup." Games can last three hours or more, but the box includes rules for a short game.

As you might expect from the description, play resembles ILLUMINATI in smoothness, abstraction, and general feel. HACKER emphasizes cooperation more than its progenitor, at least early on. Of course, the narking gets ferocious near the endgame. But the flavor here is weak and the play options more limited, for two reasons.

Problems: First, the topic doesn't lend itself to a highly interactive multi-player game. Never mind "simulation" -- this game hardly mimics the actual hacking process, but that's no big deal. Rather, the activity of hacking is solitary and basically repetitive, not cumulative. Play options don't change or develop much as the game proceeds; it's a game of inches. There's little sense of building a power base, and players can't try the all-or-nothing big strike toward victory that makes ILLUMINATI so dramatic. When a HACKER player pulls ahead of the pack and becomes "Net Ninja," the others can bring down the Ninja easily, leading to a draggy war of attrition.

More important, HACKER offers little world-view, unlike Jackson's most successful designs. When you play ILLUMINATI or CAR WARS, the rules conjure the mindset of a world conspirator or car-combat veteran. But here? All the players and most of the systems look alike, and the victory conditions ignore the prestige value of breaking into high-security systems or foiling high-power ICE. Jackson has made a fair hack at the subject (better than I ever managed myself), but he should have debugged a few more times before running it.

Evaluation: HACKER relates more closely to real-world "cyberpunks" than the role-playing products above. But its shallow design just shows how little suited the topic is to social gaming. Would-be hackers would do better buying this game's inspiration, the splendid ILLUMINATI.

Short and Sweet

THE ARASAKA BRAINWORM, by Thomas M. Kane (Atlas Games, $7.95). Atlas has published several supplements for the ARS MAGICA fantasy RPG; Atlas's majordomo, John Nephew, co-designed it. Now Nephew has published his first licensed supplement for CYBERPUNK, a featherweight 32-page scenario involving a corporate extraction from a biotech facility on a remote Pacific atoll. The booklet hits all the bases -- the hook, the journey there, maps of the facility, patrol schedules, the computer system, predictable complications, and the finish -- and you've seen it all 50 times before. Sorry, was I yawning? I didn't mean to be rude.

INTERFACE Magazine (Prometheus Press Inc.). "The Magazine for the CYBERPUNK Enthusiast." R. Talsorian Games has licensed some enthusiastic gamers to produce this 56-page magazine. (It's supposedly quarterly, but not yet.) Highlights in the densely-packed issue at hand (#3) include a long, meaty article on Artificial Intelligences; a profile of the Inmate Penal Corps; and new character classes, cyberware, designer drugs, and netrunning programs. Some material here falls distinctly below the median (a cyberleg with a wet bar? armed taxicabs? an arcology in Antarctica?); even the good articles could stand more pizazz; and the editorial style needs a lot more polish. Still, this fan magazine offers remarkable value for the dedicated CYBERPUNK referee. [1999 NOTE: Now defunct.]

DARKTEK Sourcebook, by Charles E. Gannon (GDW, $12). I can usually take or leave equipment catalogues, but this DARK CONSPIRACY supplement shows a shivery imagination that conveys the game's flavor better than the rulebook did. Dark Races and ETs get organic spaceships, insectile robotic drones, "Slaughterbots" (little robots that sit on your brain and make you kill people), bulbous pistols that fire lightning bolts, rods that turn you into a gelatinous blob, vampiric swords, antigravity disks, empathic viral assassins, and monofilament machetes. Humans gets planes, consumer electronics, a sawed-off shotgun, and the corporate patrol robot called the Watchdog (price: half a billion dollars). Every piece is well illustrated, and John Zeleznik's cover is super-eerie. Put an Obedience Bug (page 16) in your DC referee's ear and compel him or her to get this book.

CLASSIC ORGANIZATIONS, edited by Rob Bell and Chad Brinkley (Hero Games/Iron Crown Enterprises, $18). This supplement for the CHAMPIONS superhero RPG is a worthy companion to the essential Classic Enemies book. Classic Organizations gets high marks for creativity, or re-creativity, in its updates of five comic-book organizations established in past supplements. Longtime players will goggle when they encounter a Mechanon robot as Sanctuary's new short-order cook -- and see DEMON finally refocused as the spooky cult it should have been -- and find that CLOWN, the Criminal Legion of Wacky Non-conformists, has actually become sorta-kinda amusing. The writers also get brownie points for valiantly trying to update Red Doom, the Soviet super group, for the post-Cold War world -- but now, a few months after publication, it's obsolete again! Oh well, its characters can still participate, along with the players and some 75 (!) other heroes and villains, in the colossal "Assault on Sanctuary" free-for-all. With 35 more scenarios and 60 characters, all freshly created or converted for the CHAMPIONS Fourth Edition rules, Classic Organizations provides enough material to sate the most voracious campaign.

TOONIVERSAL TOUR GUIDE, by Robert "Doc" Cross (Steve Jackson Games, $19.95). SJ Games continues its desecration of its lovely TOON cartoon RPG with this painfully unfunny collection of leaden game parodies:"CarToon Wars," cyberpunk, giant robots, et al. (Parody, the first refuge of the humor-impaired.) An optional rule sets the tone, advising Animators to keep characters who Fall Down out of the game for three actions, not three minutes -- a rule to keep players out of the game longer so they'll have less fun! Likewise, the CALL OF CTHULHU parody has characters "go sane," meaning dull and boring. Does that sound funny? Try playing it. Reader Advisory: The parts of this book I read pained me so much that I would not go on, even for the princely sum this magazine pays. So the rest may be a real laugh riot. (Want to bet?) TOON's supplements threaten to surpass West End Games' PARANOIA line for speed of deterioration. Sad, sad.

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Copyright ©1992 Allen Varney