In our modern era of generative AI, cybercriminals, and tech company failings, and the metaverse as far away as ever, I thought it would be a good time to dive into the genre that has been one of the most requested since I started this blog — cyberpunk!
Not having played a cyberpunk game for a while, writing this month’s adventure was harder than I thought. I came away believing that cyberpunk is a joyful, easy RPG genre in some ways, but tricky in many more ways.
The Easy Stuff
- High-tech, low-life scum. Cyberpunk characters are fun to play. Much like my rules on pirate games, cyberpunk characters have to be underdogs for it to feel right. Low-level punk characters armed with powerful guns generally make for excellent RPGs.
- It’s familiar. Even though it’s rooted in 1980s subculture, cyberpunk still feels familiar to players. Massive urban sprawl, unstopped corporate greed, drones, hacking, street crime — it is all something players can relate to. You don’t have to teach players a deep backstory, world lore, or magic rules — players can just jump in and play without much explanation.
- It’s ripe for rich, crazy characters. While cyberpunk used to be edgy, gonzo elements have creeped in over time. It’s a loose genre now, which makes it a joy to create fun, crazy NPCs. Any quirky personality, obsession, fashion sense, and hardware attachment can all belong in cyberpunk.
But Here’s Where It Gets Hard
- Infiltration. Because the characters are underdogs, and everyone in a cyberpunk world is armed to the teeth, missions tend to be ones where the PCs have to infiltrate high-security locations. Like heists, these adventures are tough to write and GM. GM’s have to accommodate most types of play — sneaky stealth types, social roleplayers, and the players who just really want to gun in guns blazing. Oh and also…
- The #$&*! Hackers. I’m of firm belief that no RPG has successfully pulled off good hacking rules. They either exist in different game mechanics, which double the amount of rules groups have to learn, and do a good job of giving one player 30 minutes to shine while the rest of the other players sit around and watch. And hacking scenes are hard to describe in a fun way, even for someone like me who literally works in tech. Accommodating hackers is hard, and yet they are absolutely vital to the genre. (Disagree that all the hacking rules are bad…? let me know a favorite system that you think works really well in the comments below!)
- City’s Are Huge and Open-Ended. Cyberpunk adventures take place in sprawling cities with thousands of locations, which means PCs will think of wild ideas that are outside the GM’s comfort zone. When I ran this month’s adventure, Amethyst Reign, my players had a wonderful idea to break into a condo of random corporate vice president to hold him hostage until the company wired money to them. This was awesome, and fun to GM, but turned a one session adventure into a three session adventure, and novice GMs might find the improvisation difficult while keeping the players on track.
Kill the Saviour of Synth-Pop in Amethyst Reign
This month’s adventure sends some street toughs on a ridiculously difficult mission — assassinate one of the world’s most famous musicians, hours before he releases his hotly-anticipated new album. He’s holed himself up in a secret recording studio, and now the PCs need to track him down and kill him before his new album influences a new generation.
The adventure maneuvers between some of the issues that I point out in the genre. I placed enough hooks in there that experienced GMs can send the PCs off into the city on side-quests… but it’s also easy to guide them back on track. A single bonus location — a warehouse filled with mutant cyborg monstrosities — can double as the secret location of many of those sidequests, making it easy for a GM to create something on the fly.
I didn’t try to solve the hacking issue. There’s lots of places hackers can shine, but I fell back to standard contested skill rolls (in GURPS) or Knowledge rolls (CY_BORG) to get the work done. GMs can easily substitute in their own favorite hacking systems, or just roll the dice and move on. It’s up to them.
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Related: Cyberpunk vs. Swashbucklers