Thursday, November 07, 2019

My Life With Cyberpunk Gaming

photo by cheng feng
While I had read a few of his short stories in OMNI without knowing really who he was, my introduction to William Gibson came when I picked up a copy of the paperback of the novel Neuromancer when I flew off to my freshman year of college. I picked up the book after I had read a review of it, and an interview with Gibson, in Rolling Stone a month or two before hand. It blew my mind, and was probably the book that I've had copies stolen from me the most.

Before that I had seen Blade Runner in the theaters. I don't think that it really resonated with me until I was able to see it more than once, thanks to cable, and we received a slightly better film in some of the director's cuts that came after the initial release. But, we are now living in the future so I thought that I would write a little about how my interests in cyberpunk and gaming developed.

I have said on a number of occasions that I am a big fan of the R. Talsorian Games role-playing game Cyberpunk 2020. It wasn't the first cyberpunk game that I tried: our college group drifted through the SpaceTime game by Greg Porter (which was honestly more of an exercise in mathematics than it was a role-playing game) and there was a brief flirtation with Iron Crown's foray into cyberpunk gaming Cyberspace. Neither really suited our group, and I probably would have just given up on cyberpunk role-playing, or just kitbashed something from whatever generic system we were interested in at the time, except that I found the first edition of the Cyberpunk game, then known as Cyberpunk 2013.

Next year is going to be 2020, so it is weird to live in the world that we thought that the game represented. So much was wrong about the technology, particularly regarding anything computerized, but it had other things that were so right.

Despite a well deserved reputation for gun fondling, Cyberpunk was also a role-playing forward game that encouraged you to create and explore the personality and life of your character. The Lifepath system that the game used to help create the non-mechanical parts of your character, inspired by similar systems in Marc Miller's Traveller, were a series of tables that let you come up with family and life events that marked your character's past. These were things that could come back to complicate your character's present, or give them motivation to do things.

The world of Cyberpunk was also a rich one, and probably the first game world that I invested into the lore of in any sort of depth. It might also have been the last, outside of the worlds of Warhammer/40K.

The mechanics of the game are simple and robust. Even after a couple of decades, the game still holds up well in play. Back a few years ago I ran an online game that unfortunately only went for a couple of sessions because of real life. It was a fun game because we played around with some of the concepts of the game itself. That's one of the nice things about Cyberpunk is that you can take a hammer to it, to fit into into the type of setting that you might be more comfortable with, and the rules don't fall apart under the attempt.

It probably won't surprise anyone, but a big part of why I am interested in cyberpunk stuff is two-fold. First, cyberpunk is about communities. Those communities can be as small as a group of friends, or as large as an enclave organizing to push back against the world. Second, there is the fight against the status quo, against the powers that be. Like in the movie Network, cyberpunk is about people who are mad as hell, and aren't going to take it anymore. These are people who draw upon the strengths of their communities, and use it as a fuel for their fights.

Fuck the lone wolves, because that doesn't get the world into a better place, regardless of what some people might think. Strength comes from being a part of the community, lifting it up as it lifts you up as well. But, being part of a community doesn't mean being a cog in the machine. Knowing when to stand up, when to assert your individuality makes that community stronger.

I know that there's a lot of people for whom the genre, whether in fiction or movies or gaming or whatever is about big guns equaling big dick energy. But I think that is comes from a gross misunderstanding of not just the literature (the word literature standing in for all those things I just mentioned in the previous sentence) but the creators as well. People shouldn't let a surface read interpreted to agree with their biases become a dogmatic approach for them.

I am sure that many of you are thinking right now...what in the hell does this have to do with cyberpunk gaming? It has a lot to do with it. Chad Walker, the designer of the Cryptomancer and Sigmata role-playing games recently had a tweet thread that made some good points.

That struggle is central to cyberpunk and, frankly, without it you no longer have cyberpunk. I guess that what you have is a science fiction action movie. Which is fine, but it stops becoming cyberpunk.

As someone who has played the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game for a good portion of my life, I see this same sort of struggle as being as inherent in Mythos role-playing as it is in cyberpunk role-playing (the two have many more things in common with each other than they do differences). For me, the heroism of a game like Call of Cthulhu, or in cyberpunk gaming, comes from the fact that your characters do not struggle because they know they will win, but they struggle because they want to make the world into a better place. Regardless of whether or not they win right now.

This is just like how fighting in the real world works. You aren't fighting for a better place because you will get acclaim or "attaboys" from the "important people." No, you do it because you want to do the right thing, and you want a better world. You do it because your friends and family and associates make you stronger, and you make them stronger, and together you are something bigger and better. It isn't easy, and it isn't fun, but it is the right thing to do.

And this is what cyberpunk is all about. You're fighting the man. You're fighting the machine. You're fighting to carve out a better place for you and yours. One of the many reasons that R. Talsorian's game has lasted for so long, and has become as important as it is to so many people, is because it understands that these fights are important, and that doing it together with the people important to you is as much of a weapon in the fight as any automatic weapon ever will be.

We're in a cyberpunk world now, and not just because we're living in the same year that Blade Runner was set, or because in a few months we'll be in the same year that Cyberpunk 2020 was set. We're in a cyberpunk world because the gulfs between the haves and the have nots keep growing. Because the disenfranchised become more at danger with each passing moment.