The Dark Future in Four-Color
The dark future dystopia of cyberpunk has lent itself to being blended with many other genres, from the fantasy magic of Shadowrun to the creeping eldrich horror ofCthulupunk. Genre combinations seem to thrive on contrast between two vastly different worlds colliding and melding to create a world that works. One of the potentially strangest combinations is when cyberpunk meets the four-color world of comic book super-heroes. This article presents just such a world.
A lot of the history of the Superpunk world is different from our own, sometimes radically different. The world is also a very good example of the fact that the victors write the history. Much of the history leading up to the present-day world is rather obscure and should remain that way for a while to provide gamemasters with a few mysteries.
The 20th Century was a shining time when the Age of Heroes began and probably ended. Stories are still told about how there were many men and women with powers far beyond those of their fellow humans, who used their abilities in the cause of truth and justice. They fought other supers bent on the destruction and domination of others and triumphed. They are legends, like the gods of the ancient past. And like all gods, they eventually came to their Ragnarok.
Sometime near the end of the 20th Century or the beginning of the 21st, no one is quite sure, came the Dark Times. Something happened to the heroes of the world. They faced a final crisis that even their amazing powers could not overcome. Perhaps a villain’s master scheme finally came to a successful conclusion. Perhaps some cosmic disaster attacked the Earth. No one knows. What is known is that Earth’s superheroes and many of its villains disappeared, killed or taken away. In the aftermath of the Dark Times, the world suffered years of chaos, starvation, plague and conflict. Governments rose and fell and the frightened people were more concerned with survival over history.
Eventually, humanity persevered and emerged from the chaos of the Dark Time into a more stable world. Order was restored by the multinational corporations that had been the prime survivors of the conflicts. They shored up and assisted weak and crippled governments in providing for the people and in exchange took hold of the reigns of power. A world as dark as any imagined by a would be world conqueror had come about and there were no more heroes left to prevent it.
Superhumans still exist, but none of them have the kind of legendary power associated with the heroes of the past. Some blame the thinning of the metahuman gene pool while others talk about the fading of the flame of hope and faith that people once placed in those costumed heroes to protect and save them. A great many supers work for the corps or the government, using their powers to maintain order. Others become criminals or businessmen, mercenaries or even vigilantes trying to resurrect some of the spirit of heroes of old.
Gamemasters looking to develop a Superpunk campaign can create a whole new campaign world or make use of an existing campaign world and simply modify it to account for the Age of Heroes and the events that led to its downfall as described above. Superhero campaigns can be advanced into a Superpunk era by projecting them 50 to 100 years into the future and cyberpunk campaign worlds can be modified by adding some additional background to them to account for the presence of metahumans and super-powers.
For example, the GURPS Cyberworld setting can be made into a Superpunk campaign fairly easily by assuming that it was once a world not unlike the IST world described in GURPS Supers, with metahuman heroes and villains. Perhaps the Tolliver’s Disease epidemic that occurred in the late 20th and early 21st Century had a devastating effect on metahumans in particular, attacking and killing them mercilessly. The greater concentration of meta-genes the victim had the more likely they were to succumb the disease and die. This undermined the United Nation’s IST program to such an extent that their plans for world peace and government cooperation began to crumble. The events that followed like the Grand Slam brought the power of the U.N. crashing down.
When the Provisional Government took power in the United States, the hammer fell on superhumans in addition to other sub-cultures, and supers are genetically tested for and required to register with the government and the NERCC. The Pro-Gov has plenty of their own “pet” supers that they use for espionage and black ops. So do the korps and most of the organized crime factions. Some few supers escape detection and become vigilantes, rebels or mercenaries.
The TD plague could have been genetically engineered. Part of a plot to destroy the IST and cripple the U.N. or it could have been accidental or even the natural result of rampantly mutating Seeder genes out of control. The Provisional Government and the conquest of the United States might also be the result of some villainous plot or the work of more mundane forces. Perhaps a super-villain or two have gone underground and are now the forces behind Pro-Gov and the NERCC.
The presence of supers has provided the technological advancements to make things like bionics and the net a reality, and the technology in this world might be even more advanced than the original Cyberworld, perhaps “mature” Tech Level 8 on its way to TL9.
Gamemasters can find several different sources of inspiration for Superpunk worlds in the Source Material listing at the end of this article.
Power and prejudice
Super abilities are something of a mixed blessing in the 21st Century. For some people, supers evoke memories of the legendary heroes of the past, shining examples of all that was good in humanity. For others those memories are bitter and they recall only those who abused their power and how the heroes of the world failed to save it in its hour of need. Supers who display their powers openly will be the subject of awe and respect or envy and prejudice (usually both). Few people react blandly upon meeting a super.
Masks and code-names
In memory of the Age of Heroes, many supers still maintain the tradition of wearing costumes and masks and having colorful code names. Sometimes this is strictly for show and PR, other times it is necessary for a vigilante or criminal super to protect their identity from the authorities. Code-names have become sort of nicknames that supers acquire based on their powers, that they use as a street handle or sometimes a stage or professional name.
Psionic abilities are among the most common of super-powers, and many researchers believe that psi is the basis for virtually all powers that do involve physical mutations (and even some that do). The existence of psionic abilities since the Age of Heroes and the Establishment’s considerable paranoia over telepathy has led to the development of some low-level psionic technology (see below).
21st Century scholars speculate the “magic” as it was known in the Age of Heroes was nothing more than misunderstood psionic ability cloaked in mysticism. The various magical incantations and spells were simply the means by which some psionic supers focused their concentration. This has lead to the “magic is dead” school of thought that says that not only doesn’t magic exist, it never did. Rumors from the streets and dark corners of the globe suggest that magic may still exist but that something happened during the dark times that changed or eliminated the wielders of the power. These rumors range from magic-users leaving Earth for another, more hospitable, dimension to underground groups of mages biding their time and waiting to unleash their hordes of magical creatures on an unsuspecting world.
The Role of Supers
Supers in this world take up all of the roles you expect to find in a cyberpunk setting: Special Ops (for the government, organized crime and the corps), Mercenaries, Rebels, Criminals, Vigilantes and Celebrities of all kinds.
The Superpunk world has all of the normal cyberpunk levels of technology (Tech Level 8 in GURPS). There is cyberware and advanced personal weapons and body armor. This technology can make heavily cybered characters an even match for many supers.
The cyberware described in GURPS Cyberpunk is available. Full cyborg replacement bodies are still in the experimental stage, but bionic limb and organ replacements have been around for years, along with neural interfaces and similar equipment. Characters are required to pay character points for cybernetics, but there is no Unusual Background cost associated with them because they are common technology.
The Net has become a fully realized virtual reality with environmental interfaces through neural links. All of the world’s telecommunications are routed through a massive and complex communications grid. Gamemasters can consult the systems from GURPS Cyberpunk for handling netruns and computer hacking on the Net. Some supers with the Cyberpsi ability exist and can become fearsome hackers with even a small measure of power and skill.
Rumor on the street speaks of the existence of a pirate BBS known as HeroNet, which functions as a clearing house of data on supers and matters concerning them, especially any information that may have survived about the Age of Heroes. The BBS moves around a great deal to avoid being closed down by the authorities, but skilled or connected characters can track it down and access its stores of information for clues about little-known super abilities or bits of near-legendary information about the supers of the past.
The existence of psionic supers has led to the development of some psi-tech, mostly to defend against hostile psis. Psionic detectors can be used to detect if a person has psi abilities, psi-shielding helmets (in common use by government and corporate troops) and various psionic dampening fields and impeders. Generally, all of the TL8 psionic technology from GURPS Psionics is available.
Superpunk characters are built on 250 points. This allows for the creation of a moderately powerful super or a very capable cybered or “off the rack” normal. This does not include the 30 point Unusual Background cost for being a super. Supers are in many ways more common (albeit weaker than they were in the Age of Heroes) due to mutagens in the environment and similar factors bringing metahuman abilities into expression. This brings the base points for Superpunk characters to 280 plus up to 60 points in Disadvantages.
Note that very competent super-normal characters can be built on 280 points and that the possession of cyberware or other TL8 equipment does not require an Unusual Background unless the equipment is experimental or especially unusual.
The disaster that ended the Age of Heroes caused a “thinning-out” of the metahuman genes. The supers of the Superpunk world are not as powerful as their predecessors and have some limits on their abilities. Enhanced attributes are fairly common, but Enhanced Strength cannot exceed 30 and other attributes cannot exceed 25. Psionic abilities are limited to Power 10, except for Teleportation, which may go up to Power 15. Powers other than psi are generally limited to Power 6 for damaging powers and Power 12 for non-combat abilities.
Magic does actually still exist, but mages have become very rare. There is a 50 point Unusual Background cost to purchase Magical Aptitude. The world is at a level of Normal Mana, with High and Low Mana at a few places and times. Magery and spells are purchased from GURPS Magic. Note that learning magic can be a very catch-as-catch-can process and that magical abilities are often not affected by normal super-powered or psionic resistance, they can catch people by surprise if they think the mage is “just” a super.
The player characters travel back in time with the aid of an ancient gadget from the Age of Heroes or perhaps with the help of a new super with time travel powers. They go back to attempt to prevent the fall of the Age of Heroes and stop their world from coming about. Will they succeed? If they do, will they be trapped in a world that is not their own? Superpunk character would have an interesting time trying to fit into a world of four-color supers who are more powerful than they are and governed by a stricter moral code.
The Cosmic Super
Rumors have hit the streets about a new super who has only recently discovered her powers. The stories say that she is incredibly powerful, on par with some of the heroes from distant past. Stories of her exploits are rapidly attracting the attention of the government and the corporations, all of whom want to secure her for themselves, or eliminate her as a possible threat. Can the player characters help her escape and use her powers to fight for change?
Aliens Have Landed
One of their number lived among us for many years (as a hero or perhaps villain of the Age of Heroes), now they’ve come to find out what became of their brother, only to find he is long dead and the primitive world he was living on is developing at an alarming rate. Any number of comic-book alien races would take an interest in a Superpunk world. Some might wish to contain and help tame such a place while others might see it as ripe for conquest. Who knows? Perhaps the disaster that ended the Age of Heroes was just the prelude for a long-term alien invasion plan. For example, a collapse of Earth civilization could have some interesting effects on the Earth-Meeranon alliance fromGURPS IST.
This scenario could rapidly turn a Superpunk campaign into an outer-space science fiction adventure as well!
The Villain Awakens
A powerful super-villain from the Age of Heroes had the forethought to protect himself from the disaster that led to the Superpunk era, perhaps he even engineered it to eliminate all of his foes and leave a world ripe for conquest. The villain awakens from cryogenic sleep in his hidden lair and begins taking stock of the world and making new plans for conquest. The most powerful heroes of the last Age only barely defeated his plans. What can this new crop of weakling supers do to stop him? Fight dirty, that’s what.
On Halloween night there are strange sightings and incidents all over the Sprawl. Rumors are buzzing about a new underground cult that claims to have real mages among its leadership. They are planning a massive ritual that will summon a powerful demon and his horde from the netherhells on All Hallows Eve. The cult might just be a cover from some bizarre scam or a front for a group of psionic supers but it might also be for real, in which case it’s going to be a real hot time in the old town tonight.
In addition to GURPS, a Superpunk campaign could be set up in any major super-hero game system, notably Champions by Hero Games. Brave gamemasters could also liven up a cyberpunk campaign by “revealing” the hidden history of the Age of Heroes and adding in super-powers or creating a Superpunk campaign with an event that leads to the creation of supers in the game world, such as a biotech experiment gone wrong or genetic tampering by alien or even an AI.
The following source material can give gamemasters some inspiration for characters and adventures in a Superpunk setting.
Cybergeneration, R.Talsorian Games. A nanotech virus gives the youth of the cyberpunk world superhuman powers to fight the evil corporate state.
Dark Champions, Hero Games. Champions supplement for vigilante super-heroes on the mean streets of the city. Good source material for a near-future campaign in general.
F.R.E.E.Lancers, TSR, Inc. A long out-of-print supplement for the Top Secret/SI game that featured a dark-future with “metabiles,” super-humans working as mercenaries. More recently resurrected in a novel of the same name by Mel Odom.
Marvel 2099 Comics, Marvel Comics. The future of the Marvel Universe in a cyberpunkish sort of world, with new versions of many favorite characters. The Spider-Man, X-Men, Doom and X-Nation titles are especially inspirational for a SuperPunk game.
Underground, Mayfair Games. A weird combination of a dark dystopic future and genetically engineered war vets with super powers who think they’re really comic book characters.
Watchmen, DC Comics. Alan Moore’s classic dark-present comic book about how badly the presence of real superheroes could mess up our world.
Wild Cards, George R.R. Martin’s anthology series of super-humans created from exposure to an alien genetic virus. Releasing the Wild Card plague (through alien intervention or nanotechnology) on your cyberpunk campaign could lead to some very strange and interesting results, as could taking the Wilds Cards universe presented in the books and advancing it to the year 2030 or so. Some of the characters from the books (like the immortal Golden Boy) would still be alive and kicking!
The Uncanny X-Men, Marvel Comics. Especially useful are the “Days of Future Past” and “Age of Apocalypse” storylines, about an alternate dark-futures where mutants are hunted criminals.