Thursday, August 31, 2017

History of Cyberpunk RPGs (Part Four: 2004-2007)

Cyberpunk isn’t just for role-playing; here are ten selected board games that try to emulate the genre.
1. Hacker: Old-school Steve Jackson game with tons of rules and bits. Slightly out of date and built with some knowledge of real world operations, so you might find yourself hacking a BBS.
2. Shadowrun Duels: A deadly battle between 6” tall dolls in the DMZ. Play dress up with weapons and duke it out.
3. Rogue Agent: Not a deduction game, instead one of worker-placement and resource management. You play freelance police tasked with keeping down crime in 2048’s Rain City.
4. Cyberpunk CCG: Not to be confused with Netrunner. This was a sort-lived attempt from 2003 to revive the IP for card games. Not successful.
5. Edge City: A game I saw in discount bins and trade offers for years and years. Demonstrates why a rhombus is not a good packaging choice. You try to develop your character as the ultimate “Data Ripper.”
6. Mechanisburgo: A cult-favorite heavy Euro-game. Originally released in 2008, had a new edition in 2016. If you’d like fill your entire table with eye-burning boards and graphics, check it out. Honestly I can’t even tell what you’re doing in this game.
7. Shadowrun: Crossfire: An actually decent deck-building game based on Shadowrun. Has an interesting gimmick in that your characters grow via experience over time. You mark advances with stickers ala Legacy games. You play cooperatively against a mission.
8. Android: The kick-off game for FFG’s Android line. This is a massive game where you compete to “solve” a crime in a near future corporate world. And by solve I mean pin the guilt on someone.
9. Android: Netrunner: FFG reskinned the old (and amazing) Netrunner CCG into this Living Card Game. Very cool and I bought everything for the first several months. But I got tired of getting smacked around since I didn’t play enough. Has 40+ supplements at this point.
10. Android Infiltration: A push-your-luck game. Players pick actions trying to drill down into data fortresses.

While I’m focusing on core books, I include a few notable sourcebooks and supplements (by my reckoning). Ironically, I only list books with a physical edition. I might include an electronic release if they’re notable and of significant size. Some selections came down to a judgement call. I’m sure I missed some, so if you spot an absent cyberpunk rpg from 2004-2007, leave a note in the comments

1. Ex Machina (2004)
Guardians of Order had problems. As I mentioned on other lists, those included issues with freelancer payments and more importantly questions about their use of licenses. George R.R. Martin had to involve himself with the Game of Thrones rpg after GOO declared bankruptcy. The company’s disjointed releases showed up in discount bins for years, starting before they went out of business. They boundced around from line to line: Silver Age Sentinels, Big Eyes, Small Mouth, a host of anime supplements, AGoT, etc.

Out of this chaos came several gems, including Ex Machina. It is a stand-alone rpg built on the Tri-Stat system. It follows BESM's mechanics: point-buy abilities and powers from a set menu. It's a descriptor-based approach rather than an effect-defined one. Ex Machina's a hefty book, but only the about first third covers character creation and resolution rules. The rest presents ideas for cyberpunk in general, including GMing the genre, cybernetics, and netrunning.

The most interesting part of the book comes in the four extensive and richly described cyberpunk worlds. "Heaven Over Mountain" brings together biotech and orbital elevators with an Asian flavor. The urban center you operate in is the "beanstalk" running from Earth to space. "Underworld" contains an oppressive dystopia with the underclass kept in vast, subterranean prison shelters. "Ioshi" considers subcultures and information-- it reminds me the most of The Veil. It's written by Jenna Moran-- as Rebecca Borgstorm here-- author of mind-stretching rpgs like Chuubo, Nobilis, and Legends of Wulin. Finally "Daedelus", by Michelle Lyons, has a utopia built on eliminating freedoms, a surveillance paradise written in the wake of 9/11. They're all solid settings with lots of ideas to steal for existing cyberpunk games. The're also some of the most experimental settings published. Fates Worse Than Death comes to mind as the next closest in experimentation.

This is a dynamite and overlooked book. I'm not saying it is a great game; I don't dig Tri-Stat that much. But as a sourcebook for cyberpunk, few can match it

2. Generation Gap (2004)
As I mention below, Cyberpunk v3 moves the setting twenty years down the road. But it also maintains continuity with the Cyberpunk/Cybergeneration universe. In particular the Firestorm Incident and the Fourth Corporate War, detailed in some of the last CP modules, set up the Cybergen world. But there’s clearly a break within the lines. Many products fell off R Talsorian’s schedule in the late 90's, meaning they simply got shelved.

In the 2000's Firestorm Ink popped to release some of those products. They only got Generation Gap and Researching Medicine out the door before the company shut things down. It's unclear if that was a business or licensing decision. The result is that these products have become Holy Grail items due to their short print runs. They're almost impossible to find at a reasonable price and completely unavailable as pdfs. I couldn't even find reviews for these supplements; I thought they were vaporware until I found some sale listings. It's especially bad that we don't have access to Generation Gap. While it apparently had been written in the late 90's, they was supposed to serve as a bridge between Cyberpunk 2020 and Cybergeneration.

3 AmnesYa 2k51 (2005)
A near-future French rpg in which you play mutated humans called "Dopplegangers." GROG lists this as cyberpunk, but I'm unsure if it's that or more adjacent. It definitely has the corporate dystopian future down. The mutation system of the game has a parallel with the cyber-based humanity loss seen in other cyberpunk games. The more powers you have, the harder it is to blend with society. AmnesYa has those elements as well, called Leganthropy. This includes a variety of bio-modifications and transhumanist upgrades. A least one reviewer mentions a "Cronenebergian" feel to the material. The line got several releases including a module, GM screen, a free rules update, setting sourcebook for future Washington, and a world overview sourcebook.

4. Charme (2005)
I give you now the best summary statement from RPGGeek, "An Italian erotic cyberpunk-science fiction roleplaying game, containing adult imagery and a detailed system for seduction and sexual intercourse."

Holy shit.

Beyond that I couldn't locate any more information in English or auto-translated. Not sure if I should be sorry or relieved.

5. Cyberpunk V3.0 (2005)
By the time Cyberpunk 3.0 came out, I'd already moved away from Cyberpunk 2020. The GM in our group who'd been the instigator for these games had shifted over to Fuzion. That experiment burned all of us out. Except for a few last sessions, cyberpunk would be a dead genre until 2015. Therefore I missed the anger and negative reaction to v3.0- at least directly. I had a few fanatics in my online gaming circles. They ranted about it but I never picked up more than “it wasn't what they wanted.”

Mike Pondsmith had an unenviable task with this revision. He had to satisfy an audience steeped in their long running series. But not a monolithic audience. Instead different players had different visions of the genre. Add to that the need to update technology-wise without falling into the traps of the original game (16MB computers and the like). Pondsmith opens with a tight page addressing this. He cites the influence of video game design and the goal of making the game playable fast. And he pushes the setting in a new direction,

"It’s a world some ten to twenty years after the original classic Cyberpunk 2020—a world where the vast Net has collapsed, the Megacorps are struggling to regain their stranglehold, and humanity has broken into divided, often warring factions, each centered around a new definition of what it means to be a Cyberpunk."

That means a more defined and set world. Cyberpunk v3.0 focuses on transhumanism and culture groups. You can still pull out a classic Cyberpunk set up, but that requires much more digging. Pondsmith's approach is radical and I can see why some folks didn't like it. It doesn't succeed in some of its ambitions. It remains a dense game, with lots of crunch and numbers. It doesn't feel particularly accessible.

It's also- and I don't say this lightly-- kind of ugly. I've always admired R Talsorian for their striking designs. Cyberpunk 2020 set the template for sci-fi games in the decades following. Castle Falkenstein is a work of art. But this game doesn't hold together: color choices, weirdly bulky page borders, CG & action figure art. There's a cool game here, but the physical presentation doesn't help it.

Despite all that, Cyberpunk v3 does draw me in. I want to sit down and give it another read through just for the setting. I think it has ideas worth taking a look at. Also, if you haven't yet read it, you should check out this recent interview with Mike Pondsmith.

6. d20 Cyberscape (2005)
This supplement builds on both d20 Modern and d20 Future, focusing primarily on cybernetics and cyberware. It takes the same approach as d20 Future-- cyberware is gear, but with additional consequences for use. The rules also include other options for handling that (like cap limits). But it’s interesting to see a d20 game shift away from a purely level, feat, and class approach to these central elements. Three of the five chapters deal with these rules: the basics, armory, and variant cybersystems (necrotech, nanites, alchemy, wetware). Each of these offer interesting ideas, but they're give only a short treatment.

The other two chapters cover Networks and Campaign Settings. The former focuses on a VR approach to online stuff. It's a parallel world, handled with many of the same rules rather than creating a distinct sub-system (as Cyberpunk or Cyberspace do). There are some additional rules and systems, but it’s more a minor retooling than a full system. The final chapter talks about running cyberpunk campaigns in general. It offers a fairly by-the-numbers setting called CyberRave.White it suggests mentions a few variations, but that's the main world on offer.

d20 Cyberscape follows one of the distinct paths for "cyberpunk" games-- technology as the central feature. On the other end of the spectrum we get something like Fates Worse Than Death or even The Veil. Those have the tech but that's much less important than the social and emotional life & implications. Cybperunk 2020, through most of its lifespan, managed to find a middle path with brief slides towards the chrome side of things.

7. Future Lost (2005)
There's an anomaly with this game. It seems to go by the name Future Lost, that's how the designer refers to it in interviews. But the cover and the blurb on Amazon calls it Dark Future, despite being the sale page for “Future Lost”. And while Venture Land has other products available on DTRPG, they don't sell this one. It appears to have been d20 based, but there was little info out there beyond that. But then I found a copy online.

Future Lost came out late in the d20 bubble as interest in the system waned. It looks better than many "first product" d20 genre releases. It uses a simple, almost MS Word layout, but to its credit that's uncluttered and relatively easy to read. It's just a little stark and boring. So it's probably up to my own level of DTP layout skill.

Future Lost's much more about mechanical additions than setting. We have four races (Gen-Ens, Mutants, Super Soldiers as well as humans), nine classes (including Street Preacher which I hadn't seen before), 27 prestige classes (including Go-to-Guy, Mqachine Man, and Totem Lord), and a massive section on psychic powers and items. Those abilities get much more attention than cybernetics or equipment, weird for these kinds of games. Only fifteen pages out of 270 actually cover the world and setting. If you're looking for general cyberpunk material, this isn't as useful as other d20 cyberpunk supplements.

8. Shadowrun 4th Edition (2005)
I don't stop off to mention all editions, but I thought it was worth pointing out Shadowrun 4th, the first one fully overseen by FanPro. When FASA closed up shop in 2001, it sold the rights to Shadowrun to WizKids. They turned around and made the doll-fighting game Shadowrun Duels (hindsight is 20/20…). Eventually Topps would buy WizKids and license out SR to FanPro, which is how we arrive at this version.

I want to stress this again: Shadowrun's a monster. Where other cyberpunk games came and went it remained. Nearly every year has seen a new release of some kinds: sourcebooks, updated materials, modules, revisions for new editions. There's a metric shit-ton of stuff out there for it...spread across multiple contradictory editions.

FanPro was a German operation with an American component. Shadowrun had remained strong in the German market (something Phillip Neitzel mentioned to me in my interview with him). Shadowrun 4th is an attempt to revamp and rewrite the core SR rules-- or at least bring together all the materials from dozens of scattered sources. That meant simplifying the game mechanics. Some fans didn't dig the changes, but enough did to make this a highly successful version. A couple years later FanPro released a 20th Anniversary edition-- essentially the same book with full color interiors. Nice work if you can get it.

Shadowrun 4th also updated the setting on several fronts. It pushed the metaplot forward. If you read the Shadowrun Alamanac, you can see the accelerated shifts here. It worked to make technology more universal and up to date. Just as Cyberpunk 2020 had fallen behind the curve of the real world, even this magical setting had not kept up with the everyday. The biggest change: now people could operate wirelessly. Woot!

9. Corporation (2006)
In Corporation, the world of 2500 has been entirely corporatized. "A country (such as Mexico) does not have its own Government or laws, nor is it treated differently from any other place owned by the parent Corporation. The United International Government dictates law across the civilised world." You play Agents, cyber and bio-enhanced persons working for the Corporations. They handle dirty work on the ground, far below the attention or interest level of their masters at the highest echelons.

It's a solid premise and puts the player in a position of questionable power at the start. They're potent and have access to resources, but at the same time must obey and become entangled in the struggles between these organizations. I like how the corporations serve as a kind of clan, racial, or ethnic identity in the setting. It reminds me most of Legend of the Five Rings.

The game itself seems middle-weight. You have a point-buy system and figured stats, but a relatively small skill list. The details don't feel heavy and there's an emphasis on concept and thinking about who your character is that reminds me of Storyteller. The weirdest thing about the game is that, at least with the revised edition, you don't get any real explanation or understanding of the system mechanics until page 138. I'm used to games putting the full resolution mechanics late in the book. But at least explain the basics to us before you throw us into equipment, character creation, skills, etc. It left me confused as I read through.

Corporation appears to still be in print and getting supplements. The revised edition appeared in 2009 and the company continues to release sourcebooks and modules.

10. Perfect Horizon (2006)
Perfect Horizon's publisher describes this as "cyberpop." I think they mean that it borrows more from anime than gritty cyberpunk sources. It has your typical corporate, near-future dystopia heavily influenced by Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell. The world itself looks high-tech and chromed. A glance at the ToC shows lots of agencies, acronyms, off-world settlements, and showcase tech. Perfect Horizon's a sourcebook for the HDL System. It's a fairly crunchy game: 11 base stats plus figured ones, health levels measured by location, big skill list, etc. The publisher's released a new version of that base engine and a second edition of this supplement as well. If you want a summary of the game contents Flames Rising has you covered. They walk through the basics of Perfect Horizon as well all the other HDL games of the time.

Note: What do you think about dense tables of contents? Sometimes I hate ToCs that have clearly been generated by Word. I know because I've used them. Rather than a quick outline of the material, it gives a listing of every heading and sub-heading. In this case, there’s 2 1/2 pages of ToC for a book of less than 100 pages. I feels more like an index to me. I don't know why it bugs me.

The sci-fi sourcebook for All Flesh Must Be Eaten. It opens with a long section detailing all the tech, space, and skill bolt-ons for the game. AFMBE uses an advantage/disad system for defining abilities (like Savage Worlds or GURPS). But it's always felt super kitchen-sinky. Just throw a ton of abilities, called Qualities and Drawbacks, and GMs will pull things together. The scattering across sourcebooks reminds me of the Rolemaster Companions, seven volumes of disconnected optional rules spread out over years.

That being said, there's a lot of interesting stuff here. Implants, nanotech, and cyberware are handled as powers. The rules also include Psionics to cover those kinds of stories. There's some discussion of netrunning, but it isn't given a fully fleshed sub-system. "The Cybered Dead" presents a cyberpunk Deadworld setting in 18 pages. There corporations contained a zombie outbreak. They prevent new infections, but have now turned to exploiting zombies as soldiers and sources of labor. The zombie elements are pretty thin here, but turn on an interesting premise: humanity loss from implants can lead to characters becoming cybered up zombies. Most of other actual z-bits come from a scenario set in the location of the initial outbreak. The idea of mixing the two genres isn't bad-- I sketched out a lighter take on it a few years ago. Overall All Tomorrow's Zombies brings some neat tech to AFMBE, but doesn't add a lot for those hunting new cyberpunk approaches.

12. Kuro (2007)
 A French rpg, with an English translation released in 2012 from Cubicle7. That line’s now sadly discontinued and out of print. I'm hesitant to summarize Kuro for a couple of reasons. First, it's a game with some secrets built in. They aren't vital, but provide wild color to surprise players with. Second, Kuro has so much going on that summaries inevitably leave something out. I'd read many before I finally picked up the core book and discovered it wasn't what I expected. The short pitch is this, though: a near-future cyberpunk horror game set in an isolated Japan.

The slightly longer pitch goes like this: In 2046, during the accidental launch of two nuclear missiles, the weapon targeting Japan vanishes. The international community demands this shield tech, but the government claims they know nothing. Various nations impose a blockade and embargo. The Japanese survive by focusing on recycling tech, alternate energy, and new food sources. But this world has begun to fray and come apart due to breakdown, decay and fear.

And they have good reason to be afraid. Something else came along with the mysterious intervention. Since the "Kuro" incident things have begun to change. Strange rumors, vanishings, mysterious visitations. The gates to something else have been opened. Those that worry have begun to turn to new technologies and means of protecting themselves: Occultech. This combines old traditions with more modern approaches. Hell cricket-based detectors, holographic pentacles, consecrated salt grenades, etc.

There's more-- for a fuller write up, see my review here: Running Kuro: J-Horror with a Cyberpunk Edge. It's a dynamite game, full of all kinds of crunchy cyberpunk details. These focus more on daily life than many other games. It also provides horror with a unique flavor. Kuro isn't perfect. The resolution system grinds through too many details and the sample scenarios are more predictable than evocative. But overall it’s a great resource for cyberpunk and horror GMs.

13.  Strikeforce: 2136 (2007)
An rpg with only two release. The Strike Manual appears to be the system guide, with character creation and basic resolution. The Tech Manual supplements that with equipment, weapons, implants, etc. Strikeforce takes place in a higher-tech future world, again closer to Appleseed than the near-future of many other games. It's still gritty, but technology’s less a questionable tool and more an awesome source of cool shit. Think Maxiumum Metal from Cyberpunk 2020. The hook line for the game is "The System Dominates. Will You Fight It?" The blurbs focus on conspiracies and power struggles involving corporations, with the PCs caught in the middle.

It also has literally the densest and most involved character sheet I have ever seen in my entire life. Nine cluttered pages with several fonts, multi-colored boxes, and almost no page margins. Page one has your 16 primary and secondary attributes, plus a listing of the game's 150 or so skills and sub-skills. {Page two has room for all of your devices, armor, armor totals, armor areas, medical kits, a distinct scanner track, weapons (with twenty stats each), and more. Then there’s a second device page, and then a third. And then there’s even more combat and weapon stuff. I can’t even…

14. Cyberpunk Adjacent
A few games aren’t cyberpunk exactly, but right up to the edge or overlap in interesting ways.
  • a|state: Somehow I've managed to leave a|state off of any of my previous lists. It could have shown up on the Horror, Steampunk & Victoriana, or Post-Apocalyptic lists. But it isn't exactly any of those. Instead it is a weird Venn diagram of influences and ideas. That being said, I'm still not entirely certain what this game's about. Every time I look at it is seems to be something different. Many sources list it as cyberpunk. While I see some echoes, I've not entirely sure. One of those times I find myself squinting hard trying to "get" a game.
  • Control: The Game of Absolute Power: A storygame about confronting a world-spanning conspiracy. Adjacent in that it can easily be reframed to a cyberpunk struggle.
  • Etherscope: d20-based steampunk and pseudo-Victorian setting set in the year 1984. It has ideas worth borrowing, the most striking bring cyberpunk concepts into the setting. In particular, the titular Etherscope is a virtual reality space- a parallel plane which can be manipulated by human will. Effectively this creates the internet and the full-on hackable Net of cyberpunk novels and games. In that respect it is pretty brilliant. Technology runs wild here with genetically engineered beings and consciousness transfers. The authors cite Dark City, In the Mouth of Madness, and The Adventures of Luther Arkwright as inspirations. In some ways Etherscope's as close as any game to being Perdido Street Station, while still being alternate history.
  • Lacuna: Mentioned in some resources as cyberpunk, I don't really think it fits. The connected concept boils down to the characters fighting back against an entrenched force in a pseudo-future setting. I'll let you be the judge. This newb's review expresses much of my uncertainty about the game.
  • Shock: Social Science Fiction: A generic storygame for science fiction play. Shock focuses on the social aspects and implications of the world. While most rpg cyberpunk leans to the guns & chrome side, other media have made this a place for interesting social thinking about humanity and technology. Shock works in that space.

15. Electronic Only
As this is a slightly shorter list, I thought it'd be good to mention a few substantive pdf-only cyberpunk releases in this span.
  • Black Market: A d20 Modern Gear book. Includes cyberpunk weapons, services, and vehicles.
  • Cybernetics: d20 resource from the always reliable Skortched Urf' Studios. Includes "Sexual implants that open the host to an incredible new world of pleasure."
  • Espionage Genre Toolkit: Cybermillennium: A d20 Modern cyberpunk campaign setting. While it's listed as part of the publisher's Espionage Genre Toolkit line, it looks like a conventional backdrop.
  • Knivblänk i Prag: A web-published setting supplement for the Swedish rpg, Parallel Worlds. Set in a Kafka-esque cyberpunk 1984 Prague.
  • Netspace: A d20 sourcebook for handling virtual reality. Essentially refames VR space as a secondary space with the same rules. Includes new character types and classes.
  • TACTICAL IMPLANT: Another Adamant Entertainment release. This sourcebook adds new combat options for cyberpunk games (morale, cyborgs, combat frames, nanotech, etc).
  • True20 Cybernetics: True20 didn't do that many of these smaller, pdf-only niche supplements. Doesn't just rely on a feat-based approach. Has some additional ideas for supernatural elements and new character paths.