Cyberpunk without the Cyber
Cyberpunk started out as a literary genre in science fiction, known variously as “the Movement” and “the Mirrorshades Group.” It took a hip, post-modern look at science fiction and combined the futuristic vision of sci-fi with the in-your-face aesthetic of punk music to create a dark future where “the street finds its own uses for things” and technology changed far more than the kind of gun you carried or the kind of car you drove.
In seminal works like Neuromancer, cyberpunk looked at the impact of rapid technological change on human society and the individual with ideas like cyberspace, designer drugs, genetic engineering and, many a gamer’s favorite, cyberware. Cyberpunk gave technology the potential to alter humanity in strange and radical ways that had not been considered before.
The “high-tech, low-life” cyberpunk genre has been fertile ground for role-playing, producing many popular RPGs such as R.Talsorian’s Cyberpunk, GURPS Cyberpunk from Steve Jackson Games, and FASA’s popular cyberpunk/fantasy fusion Shadowrun. Cyberpunk games have also appeared from numerous other game companies, some of which have more recently fallen by the wayside, like GDW’s Dark Conspiracy, or Mayfair’s Underground.
One consistent feature of most cyberpunk games is a long list of cybernetic and bionic modifications that player characters can acquire, some of which fill entire sourcebooks with “cyber-toys” for the up-and-coming street samurai or razorboy. The proliferation of cyberware in some cyberpunk games is so great that there are rules for characters to completely replace their human bodies, with the exception of the brain and central nervous system (and I hear they’ve got somebody working on that one). Characters become more machine than human, armed with weapons that would make the Terminator green with envy.
In some games, this approach works fine, and “borgs” and other heavily-cybered characters don’t pose a problem. Other groups might prefer to take a “cyber-lite” approach to their cyberpunk games. As it so happens, most of the characters in cyberpunk fiction actually have very little cyberware compared with the average player character from a cyberpunk RPG. In Neuromancer, Case the console cowboy had only his cyberdeck and some plugs in his liver to keep him from abusing drugs. Molly, the razorgirl from Neuromancer and other stories by Gibson, had cybereyes, razor claws and some chipware and she was considered pretty cybered-up for the Sprawl!
Some gaming groups might even decide to eliminate cyberware from their games entirely, or allow only a very limited selection of cyber. Is it possible to play cyberpunk without any cyberware? As the source-fiction of the genre shows, it’s very possible. Cyberpunk is about the impact of technology on humanity and the dramatic struggle of characters against the larger forces in their lives, both of which can be done without giving characters access to all kinds of bionic implants. Cybernetics is certainly not the only technology with the potential to transform human society, and powerful forces can act against characters in almost any dramatic campaign setting.
Described below are some possible variations on the cyberpunk setting that feature little if any actual “cyberware.” The settings do all contain forces that transform the lives of people living in them and provide something for player characters to struggle against in their own stories. Some offer alternative modifications and special abilities in place of cyberware while some force the player characters to rely on other resources. They are by no means the only options, and interested players and gamemasters are invited to explore some of the source fiction and games mentioned in this article for variations of their own.
It is possible to run a cyberpunk campaign with no artificial implants or enhancements of any kind, where the player characters are “just human” living in a dark future world of high technology. Implants simply might not exist or they might be too expensive or experimental for the street, reserved only for the truly rich and powerful (in other words: the player characters’ enemies). Characters must rely on their skills and natural abilities to survive in such a setting and it makes the characters more than simply lists of equipment.
The movie Bladerunner, considered a quintessential cyberpunk film by many, features a world like this. The protagonist Deckard is a normal human with no special abilities, simply a lot of experience in his career of “retiring” rogue androids. The same is true of the main character of Mick Farren’s novel Vickers, where the main character is a “corpse” or paid corporate assassin who has no artificial enhancements or abilities apart from his own skills. There are many other examples of cyberpunk fiction where the main characters do not have access to any artificial enhancements.
A cyberpunk campaign where the characters are just human takes on a strong film-noir feel of a small group of individuals surviving on their wits and skill in a dark and harsh world. Player characters may still have extraordinary levels of skill and ability-they are the main characters, after all-but without the near-superhuman abilities bestowed by cyberware, the game tends to take on a grittier and more realistic tone.
Gamemasters running this type of cyberpunk game have the challenge of making it interesting and keeping all of the player characters from looking the same. Without any additional “toys” like cyber, many of the characters will tend to have the same skills and abilities. Just like other modern RPGs, such as espionage role-playing, the importance of designing the player characters as a group comes to the fore. Characters should compliment each others’ skills and abilities and give each character a role in the group or else you will end up with a team of loner detectives all dressed in black.
One new genre of sci-fi calls itself “ribofunk” and it focuses less on the hard chrome and hard punk attitude of cyberpunk. Ribofunk’s influences are biotechnology, wet and organic, and funk music, hot and hip. The genre focuses on how advancements in biotechnology will affect human life and culture in the future and suggests that we will modify ourselves more through genetics, enzymes and chemicals than with implants and metal. Where cyberpunk follows the credo “metal is better than meat,” ribofunk turns it around and claims the opposite.
A ribofunk campaign presents many similarities but also many differences from a cyberpunk game. Some RPGs like Underground, Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun already include some ribofunk elements to them that can be brought out by gamemasters looking to emphasize the theme.
A ribofunk setting works much like a cyberpunk game, with different modifications available to the player characters. These modifications are not based on adding machinery to the body, but by modifying the human body in different ways through genetics, biochemistry and biological grafts. The “exotics” from Cyberpunk 2020, people who have had their bodies biologically altered to become cat-people, dog-people or lizard- or even shark-people are one possibility for a ribofunk campaign, allowing players to even have “elf” and “ork” player characters in an otherwise un-magical world if they so desire. The bioware offered in Shadowrun and even the “booster” modifications from Underground offer similar biological alterations of the human form.
Some of the other possibilities for ribofunk include different biological adaptations based on animal templates or modifications of existing human abilities such as cat-like eyes to see in the dark, retractable bone claws, re-engineered skeletal system for greater lifting strength, altered glands to produce adrenaline or pain-killing hormones at will and so forth. TSR’s Kromosome setting for their defunct Amazing Engine system includes a fair list of different biological modifications, as do many cyberpunk games.
Paul DiTillo’s short fiction, particularly the collection entitled Ribofunk, provide some excellent ideas for a ribofunk campaign setting. Bruce Stirling’s Shaper/Mechanist stories, such as Schismatrix, show a split in human society between the Mechanists, cyberpunks who alter themselves with machinery, and the Shapers, who use biotechnology, genetic engineering and other “wet” technology to improve the human form. The setting would make an excellent basis for a campaign.
Related to ribofunk is the idea that our knowledge of genetics and biochemistry will allow us to alter our bodies, our abilities and even our moods and memories with drugs and other chemicals virtually at will. Philip K. Dick has characters in his “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” (the basis for the movie Bladerunner) setting their “mood dials” in the morning for their desired moods for their day. Cyberpunk 2020 has fairly extensive rules for drugs and biochemicals, as does GURPS Cyberpunk. The gamemaster can also take a look at the “Juicers” from Palladium’s Rifts for an example of how to augment a person with drugs.
With artificial adrenaline to boost strength and speed, beta-endorphins to kill pain and induce euphoria, drugs to alter moods, anabolic steroids to increase muscle growth, “smart drugs” to improve intelligence and memory and numerous other designer chemicals to provide different experiences and modifications to the human body from the recreational to the practical, a campaign can provide many of the same “enhancements” available from cyberware in the form of drugs or biochemicals. Some exotic biochemicals might even induce permanent changes or even open the doors of perception to give the user paranormal abilities like psionic powers (see “psiberpunk,” below).
Some role-players will find a setting where heavy drug-use is the norm objectionable while others will find it an interesting challenge. It is possible that there are many serious long- and short-term side effects and disadvantages to using certain chemicals (just as there is today) or it might be that many, if not all, of the biochemicals in a Juicer future are perfectly safe, provided you follow the instructions on the label, that is…
Along the lines of expanding the mind, an interesting cyberpunk campaign can be had where the major advances in technology are in the realm of computers and virtual reality (VR). From an all-netrunner setting with no other kind of bionics to a full-blow “virtuality” game.
Vernor Vinge’s classic story True Names features a developed virtual world that characters could adventure in, as does Gibson with his cyberspace matrix in Neuromancer and other sprawl novels. Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash also provides an interested virtual world in the form of the Metaverse. The player characters in a virtual reality setting could all be deckers or netrunners who work to hack into protected databases and make off with valuable information. The Netrunner card-game from Wizards of the Coast provides many ideas for running a scenario involving just netrunner characters and R.Talsorian’s latest netrunning supplement for Cyberpunk 2020 (Rache Bartmoss’ Brainware Blowout) even includes material on using the card-game for netruns in the role-playing game.
A VR setting could develop into a world where different VR games are a staple of modern life and the player characters are some of the best players around, such as in R.Talsorian’s Dream Park RPG, based on the sci-fi novels of Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. The players can play characters who are themselves playing different characters in a VR role-playing game of the future! In such a campaign, each player would have a “core” character who in turn plays different virtual characters who might all have different abilities depending on the setting for that particular virtual game. Such a setting allows a gamemaster to run many different kinds of games in different genres while keeping some continuity to the campaign outside of “the Game” and possibly even working plotlines that take place in both the real and virtual worlds.
Virtual reality can also begin to “spill over” into the real world as the all-encompassing Internet grows more and more pervasive and includes all forms of communication; from television to advertising to telephones. This setting is called “virtuality” in R.Talsorian’s CyberGeneration and shows up in other fictional settings.
In virtuality, VR implants or receptors are so common everyone is a part of the virtual experience of the Net! VR and the real world begin to blend, as portrayed in Walter John Williams’ novel Aristoi or R. Talsorian’s CyberGeneration setting. VR images and ICE become like “spirits” that people can interact with on the street or in their home or office and “net wizards” might really have the ability to fling electron spells at people who can pick up their VR transmissions or summon “net daemons” to do their bidding.
Anime (also known as “Japanamation”) is a genre of cartoons produced in Japan and generally set in a futuristic world full of super-robots, battle-suits and other technology and featuring a characters who are usually cute girls with an attitude or young men looking to prove themselves.
An anime-style campaign, such as R. Talsorian’s Bubblegum Crisis RPG, takes place in a cyberpunk-ish setting like Neo-Tokyo, but the player characters do not have cyberware or other implants. Instead, they make use of high-technology such as battle-suits, blasters and other gear to fight powerful opponents who might themselves have cybernetic implants or even be powerful androids like the Boomers from Bubblegum Crisis. Other anime games like R.Talsorian’s Mekton or Dream Pod Nine’s Heavy Gear, tend to focus more on the “mecha” genre of anime that features giant battling robots, which tends to stray pretty far from the cyberpunk genre, although games could explore an interesting fusion of the two.
An anime campaign can be dark and gritty like other cyberpunk games, but many anime stories and settings feature more super-heroic action and fast-paced fight scenes like a martial-arts action movie. Some anime is even downright silly, such as Project A-ko or Ranma 1/2, which turn some of the ideas of the anime genre on their ear and can provide some hilarious inspiration for role-playing games (including the Project A-ko Role-playing Game).
Steampunk uses fantastical technology in a Victorian-era setting, such as R.Talsorian’s Castle Falkenstein, Pinnacle Entertainment’s Deadlands or GDW now-defunct Space: 1889. The first two games also include magic and magical creatures as part of their setting while Space:1889 relies purely on technology and the Victorian exploration of space.
In steampunk, the cyberpunk theme of the effects of technological advancement on humanity still apply, and so might the sprawling cities filled with crime and corruption and the greedy corporations grasping for profit. But the technology doesn’t generally support implants because it is too clunky and baroque, covered with polished brass fittings and knobs and hissing steam. The characters are generally self-reliant and the technology forms part of the background and perhaps the equipment of the player characters, but does not alter them considerably, unless the gamemaster is interested in adding things like clockwork prosthetics and other “cyberware” options to the game.
A steampunk game can focus on many of the same issues that a regular cyberpunk game would, only with the added twist of a setting practically alien to most modern gamers. Gibson and Stirling’s novel The Difference Engine, presents an excellent view of a steampunk world in which the computer revolution comes almost a century early. K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Engines, is also a good resource for steampunk games, as are the role-playing games mentioned above, particularly the Steam Age and Comme Il Faut sourcebooks for Castle Falkenstein.
An extension of the ribofunk concept is a cyberpunk world where characters have true super-human powers. Many comic books have presented a near-future superhero setting like Judge Dredd, American Flagg, Marvel 2099 and the Watchmen. TSR’s F.R.E.E.Lancers supplements, out of print but the basis for a new series of novels by Mel Odom, are also a good example of a near-future world where “metabiles” take the place of most of the cybered “street samurai” of cyberpunk games.
Imagine taking the Wild Cards shared-fiction setting , where many people on Earth have been mutated and given super powers by an alien virus, advancing its history fifty years into the 21st century and seeing what happens. R.Talsorian’s CyberGeneration takes a similar route when a mysterious nanotechnology known as “the Carbon Plague” is released that kills adults but mutates children to give them super-human powers.
Mayfair Games’ Underworld RPG takes the unique approach of super-powered “comic book” characters in a dark and cyberpunk-ish world. Alien biotechnology salvaged from a crashed scout ship in the hands of the United States government becomes the basis for “boosting” combat soldiers to give them super-humans powers ranging from super-strength to pyrokinesis, invisibility and natural body-armor.
These soldiers are then trained in a virtual reality world where they believe themselves to be actual super-heroes and learn to use their powers. This naturally causes some conflicts (some comical, others tragic) when the super-soldiers then try and apply some of the mortality and “physics” that they learned in their virtual experiences to the real world.
A particularly cruel gamemaster could kick off a superpunk campaign by setting up a normal four-color superhero game and slowly over time having the player characters notice certain inconsistencies in their world as it becomes stranger and stranger, only to meet up with a man who tells them that he is from the “real world” and that the characters are living in a computer-generated fantasy. The wires are disconnected and the player characters awaken to discover they are soldiers in the employ of some government or corporation and that they have been given super-powers similar to those possessed by their “comic book” counterparts. Now they’re expected to use those powers-not for Truth and Justice-but to fight in some bush war in South America in the name of the employers they’ve signed a lifetime contract with.
A superpunk setting can be a backdrop for more conventional super-hero role-playing using a game such as Champions (especially their “Dark Champions” supplement) or it can take a more realistic look at super-humans in a dark future, considering the impact of near-godlike beings on our world, as in many comic-series such as Kingdom Come or those mentioned above or using low-powered supers with some abilities similar to those of the cybered-up rebels and punks of a regular cyberpunk setting.
Parapsychology is becoming a more respectable science and many scientists admit to the possibility of undreamed-of abilities lurking in the human mind. A psiberpunk campaign focuses on the frontiers of the mind being expended, perhaps through drugs or virtual reality technology mentioned above or maybe by new ideas, philosophies or evolutionary mutations resulting from our modern, technological age.
If ordinary people develop paranormal mental abilities and society needs to find ways to deal with them; the cyberpunk theme of how changes in technology bring about changes in humanity. This can lead to a totalitarian normals vs. psis setting such as the out-of-print PsiWorld by FGU or the “Phoenix Project” from Steve Jackson Games GURPS Psionics sourcebook. Such settings also abound in science-fiction, like Marvel Comics’ X-Men or A.E. VanVogt’s novel Slan about normals vs. a new race of psis. Joan Vinge’s novels Psion and particularly it’s sequel Catspaw, involve a psionic character in a world of cyberpunk technology who even learns to telepathically interface with the Net!
“Psionics” might also arise from cybernetic or biological implant technology, creating some kind of “mechanical telepathy” or the like through telecommunications. David Gerrold’s “War Against the Chtorr” series of novels (adapted for gaming in GURPS War Against the Chtorr) features a cadre of “telepaths” created by brain implants that allow them to transmit their thoughts as electromagnetic signals over the world satellite network, allowing them to read the mind of anyone with an implant and even switch bodies with them! R.Talsorian’s CyberGeneration has “scanners” able to use their nano-altered central nervous system to pick up the electrical impulses of other brains, letting them read thoughts and emotions and even produce powerful “neural shocks” as a means of attack.
The kind of psionic resources available to player characters and their power-level can affect the feel of a psiberpunk game. At the low-level with only “ESP” abilities like telepathy or clairvoyance available, the player characters are otherwise normal humans and are forced to use subtlety and caution, since they are no more invulnerable to bullets than anyone else. In a setting where powerful psychokinetic abilities like telekinesis or pyrokinesis are allowed, along with higher powered telepathic abilities, psis become more like mages from Shadowrun or the super-humans from a superpunk setting, able to take out most normals at will.
An interesting psiberpunk game can be set up where the player characters start out in one genre, such a “just human” campaign or a normal cyberpunk setting and slowly begin to discover they are not “just human,” that they can do strange things and that there are other people out there who can do them to, who want the player characters to join them… or else.
Groups can also have fun with a psiberpunk game where the psis are the bad guys and none of the player characters have psionic abilities. Perhaps the development of psi always drives people insane, forcing the normals to hunt down psis before they can do any harm. Or perhaps the normals simply hate and fear psis and the player characters will have to eventually decide about the rightness of their actions. More interesting still if the regular exposure to hunted psis awakens latent abilities in the player characters and the hunters become the hunted…
The last, and perhaps most outlandish, option for a non-cyber cyberpunk campaign is to replace the technology with magic. “zauberpunk” focuses on a setting where enhancements are actually enchantments. Perhaps there was an “awakening” (a la Shadowrun) and technology stopped working, forcing people to learn magic in order to survive. Perhaps the game doesn’t take place on Earth at all, but on a fantasy world with a hard edge and a cyberpunk attitude. Instead of cyberware, characters use magical tattoos, ritual scarification, implanted talismans and the like to gain their power. Some of the blood magic from FASA’s Earthdawn game has this kind of punk edge to it.
Take a cyberpunk world and put a magical spin on things. Instead of the Net, there is a magical “astral plane” or “otherworld” that certain wizards (hackers) can project themselves into in order to obtain knowledge and power, overcoming guardian spirits (ICE programs) and other wizards in order to do so. The most powerful of these wizards make up important guilds (corporations) that control the flow of information and magical power to the general populace and are the real power behind the weak and puppet king (government). The agents of the guilds have blood runes, enchanted metal limbs and amulets (cyberware) that give them the ability to enforce the guilds’ wills and some guilds even have golems or undead (robots or cyber-zombies) at their command.
The general populace lives in fear and ignorance of the powerful guilds, going quietly about their daily lives in sprawling, overcrowded cities built around the centers of the wizards’ power. They waste the little leisure time they have watching magical illusions (television or VR) or downing the latest alchemical formula intended to bring happiness (drugs/chemicals). Youth gangs roam the streets, made up of the bored and privileged children of the wizardly elite out for some fun or the desperate and feral children of the streets, seeking only to survive.
But there are some rogue wizards who abandon the guild structure for their own purposes. Either they wish to pursue some field of study that is forbidden by the guilds, sell their services for profit outside of the restrictive guild structure or become in other illegal activities. These rogues, like cyberpunk hackers or street techies, steal secrets and power from the guilds. They also provide enchantments and amulets to their allies and those able to pay, creating the “street samurai” of the world who are “sell-swords” for hire to the highest bidder. Throw in some other characters with some magical knacks and perhaps a fantasy creature or two (what if one of the guilds is run by a dragon, for example?) and you have an interesting party of characters for a magical zauberpunk game.
Technology in a zauberpunk setting might not be entirely absent. FASA’s Shadowrun blends both magic and technology in the same setting and a zauberpunk campaign could do the same, adding in technology that is inferior, equal or even superior to the power of magic (although superior technology tends to limit the effectiveness and flavor of a zauberpunk setting). Imagine combining a steam-punk game with zauberpunk magic and attitude to create a new spin on a setting like Castle Falkenstein or Deadlands.
Alternately, technology could be highly suspect in a zauberpunk game with those who believe in such things as using moldy bread (penicillin) to treat illness treated as charlatans, especially when a good magical healer is available (for a price). Ruling magical guilds might ruthlessly suppress any technological development that could threaten their supremacy or, worse yet, provide the mundane populace with power to equal theirs. Player characters could be part of a faction that wants to let certain technological information out that could benefit the world and overthrow the wizard overlords.
But will technology prove the answer to their world’s problems or more of a problem than it solves? That’s a good question for starting a cyberpunk campaign.