Thursday, June 29, 2017

History of Cyberpunk RPGs (Part Two: 1993-1994)

HACK THE RAINBOW
Since my last installment of this list, I’ve had run both The Veil and The Sprawl, two of the most recent cyberpunk games. It’s amazing that despite sharing root mechanics (both are PbtA), they feel completely different. In the 1990’s I thought cyberpunk only covered a narrow range of theme and aesthetics. You could do some mashing up (add Elves, add Vampires), but generally what you did and how it felt remained the same. Even the anime-influenced cyberpunk I saw felt monolithic: focusing on mechs and fighting.

Speaking of the good old days, even as I’m writing this the Cyberpunk 2020 Bundle of Holding ticks to a close. It contains the core book, several role guides, many setting sourcebooks, the Chrome guides, and even Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads! That last one’s a great GM guide and a window to how gamers thought in the mid 1990’s. There’s also a separate Mutant Chronicles bundle worth checking out. I mention that here since Mutant Chronicles arose from the Mutant RPG’s hard turn into cyberpunk. Even now you can see some of that DNA in MC’s setting.


GEAR UP
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 1993-1994, leave a note in the comments


1. Cyber HERO (1993)
A sourcebook for HERO System 4th edition. When this came out Ice Crown Enterprises and HERO Games had a joint distribution deal. As a result this uses the same setting and backdrop as CyberSpace. It's an odd switch. CyberSpace has a dense and gritty aesthetic, reflected in the graphic design and tone. Cyber HERO just doesn't. It sticks with the Champions house style with sunny and open pages. Here you get a compressed version of the setting with the most corroded chrome scraped away. The supplement focuses on disappointing rules for netrunning and hacking. The end goal is to add that to the HERO toolbox. Lots of points, builds and lists.

Oddly Cyber HERO remains an early product not available as a pdf. And HERO Games has Robot Warriors up for sale, so it isn't a question of sales. I wonder if the complicated relationship between ICE and HERO meant IP issues. The setting has some legs. As recently as 2007, the HERO Games site had people talking about Cyber HERO and identifying resources for it.

Cyberpunk 2020 brought the feel and character of Gibson and company's literary movement to the gaming table, but kept their own focus and feel. The original game aimed to be dark and a little nihilistic, emphasizing how decay had led to style over substance and everyday violence. Technology helped and dehumanized- a consequences of daily life. Over time some of the cautionary and critical nature of cyberpunk got filed away. That left flash, techno-fetishism, gun-love, and an emphasis on super-slick, high powered violence and weaponry. That was the nature of an evolving genre and a game line moving to answer its audience's desires (more guns, more cyber mods, etc).

Cybergeneration as an rpg is an explicit response to that. It reboots the Cyberpunk setting in a direction which many players and GMs did not like. Instead of the lethal, modded up, cybercycle-riding mercenaries, you had youths, torn out of their element, given strange talents and forced into crusade against the powers that be. Cybergeneration emphasizes hope and standing up against nihilism and corporatism. It points out the flaws and problems of "dark games" and tries to provide an antidote. It feels like the design of someone who met their actual buying audience and didn't like them very much.

The players take the role of youths infected with a nano-virus giving them these remarkable powers. They use these to fight against both the corruption of the corporations and the jaded hopelessness of Edgerunners and their ilk. As the back cover blurb says, "My Parents Became Cyberpunks and All They left me Was This Dark Future." Imagine a more political version of the X-Men (like an X-Men 2099) or near future version of Local. It uses CP's base system but adds interesting abilities- with some hitches. The Lifepaths in here are even more insane and you have to choose which themed street gang you belonged to. R. Talsorian supported the line lightly with the “Documents of the Revolution series.” Some of the Cyberpunk modules could be adapted as well. In 1995 they released a second edition of the corebook- expanded by about 20%. In 2004 Firestorm Ink released a couple of supplements, including one (Generation Gap) to mix old and new PCs. However they no longer have the license. Will Hutton has a nice look back at this game which deserves an update.

3. CYBERJUNK (1993)
An obscure one, I could only find RPGGeek's user summary, which I'll quote in full,
"One of five different minimalist RPG games using three stats: MIND, BODY and SPIRIT. Each game gives rules for a different genre and includes a short rulebook, an even shorter adventure book and a folded 8.5" x 11" containing charts, tables and a blank, square grid. Each game has "666th Edition" printed on the cover. The creators of these games only identify themselves as "WHA*T*HE*LL PROD." and "Pantherine Writers' Group" of Kansas City, MO. "CYBERJUNK" is designed for playing in the Cyberpunk genre. It includes a 34-page rulebook and a 10-page adventure ("THE PACKAGE")."
It's a tiny zine-like product, coming in at 2.2 x 3 inches. The cover has that late '80s, early '90s underground look. That's not something we saw a lot of in role-playing at the time.

4. Fanhunter (1993)
Based on a Spanish parody comic which still runs today. It tells the story of a world under the authority of a mad Pope who has banned any form of entertainment. His end goal: total boredom. Now a handful fight back against this tyranny. They have to battle an elite team, the Fanhunters, dedicated to pulling every collectible from its box, tearing up every mint comic, and erasing every fan-fiction message board.

Fanhunter began as a small, self-published zine distributed to comic book shops in Spain. It parodied popular culture and the active world of Spanish comic fandom. It quickly grew in popularity, gaining wide distribution. The simple and stylized art reminds me of John Kovalic. In 2015 they released a miniatures board game, so the IP has stayed strong.

The rpg was fan-made and distributed in '92, with this more formal edition coming out the following year. Subtitled, "the epic decadent role-playing game" it received seven supplements and two spinoffs. It feels like a cross between Paranoia, Cyberpunk 2020, and Misspent Youth, with the characters battling against a darkly comedic joy-destroying authority. It's worth looking at the Wikipedia page for more on the setting.

Based on a movie I skipped in the theater at a time when I saw just about every piece of horror and spec-fic that released. I later caught bits of it on cable, but tried best to avoid it. The Lawnmover Man RPG arrived at the game shop I worked at and sat there, unloved, before finally drifting into the bargain bin. It was still there when I left.

The Lawnmower Man movie’s “based” on a Stephen King short story. But it literally has nothing to do with that story, save that both feature a lawnmower. New Line Cinema had rights to the name and slapped it on a sci-fi film You can hear more about this in a recent episode of How Did This Get Made, well worth listening to. The movie features a mentally retarded gardener-- Jobe-- who is given a brain-alerting VR treatment and becomes god of the internet. Or something.

The RPG's tangentially cyberpunk in that it heavily features VR, hence the subtitle "Virtual Reality Role Playing Game." It comes from Leading Edge games, known for insanely crunchy games from the same period-- Living Steel and Phoenix Command. In this same period they also licensed Aliens, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Army of Darkness for games. The Lawnmower Man RPG has a world where CyberJobe(tm) has taken other the net to start a war for virtual reality and control of the global network. Players can take the fight to Jobe, though apparently there's only a 10% chance in character creation that you'll be able to use VR.

TLMM wants to be a techno-military game, combining LEG's penchant for war rpgs with the new hotness of cyberpunk. The few comments on this I've seen stress the pages and pages of guns in the game, as well as bizarre character creation. I'll point you to this extensive review from the Non-Playable Characters blog.

Surprisingly this never got any expansions, despite the existence of a sequel film: Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace.

6. NeoTech (1993)
A Swedish rpg. In his G+ series on the History of Swedish RPGs Olav Nygard says, "Basically modelled on Cyberpunk 2020 Neotech became an instant success, in no small part because it incorporated the open-ended die-roll of Viking throughout the rules. As a bonus: the CEO of Neogames designed the cover himself." He also mentions tension between the writers of the game.

NeoTech liberally borrows the Cyberpunk 2020 post-crash dystopia, but with a powerful European Union as the major power following the fall of the US and USSR. The original game came in a boxed set and the publisher supported it with several supplements though '95 at least, including the obligatory Japan sourcebook. A revised edition, NeoTech 2, released in 1999. Products from the first worked with it after some modification. That edition received a handful of supplements. The RPG Geek page mentions fan attempts to publish a third edition (having not learned a lesson from Cyberpunk 2020). There's a "Skuggspel Webshop" page for it, but I can't tell from that they’re offering pdfs of the older material or something else.

7. Night's Edge (1993)
"People are buying cyberpunk+fantasy what else can we mash it with?" "Ummm...Vampire the Masquerade?"

R Talsorian only licensed two publishers for Cyberpunk afaik. Atlus produced several modules; Ianus did the same but created a distinct feel and approach for them. Their Night's Edge sourcebook sets out ideas they would further develop with later releases (Grimm's Cybertales, the Necrology trilogy). They developed an "alternate reality" for Cyberpunk which added horror and supernatural elements. It unofficially mashes that up with White Wolf’s Vampire and Werewolf. Unfortunately while Ianus had striking and smart graphic design for their other covers, this one went straight to improbable undead boobies.

The volume’s split into several connected mini-sourcebooks. These cover vampire hunters, vampire PCs, vampires in Cyberpunk's world, psychic powers, werewolves, and three sample adventures. One of those is an introductory "Choose Your Own Adventure" where you play a vampire netrunner. The undead echo VtM, with a weakness to fire, various mental powers, and groups called covens (aka coteries). Overall Night’s Edge has a lot of mechanics. If you're looking for ideas on how to bring the supernatural into a cyberpunk game you'll have to get through that. Regardless it stands out for the new directions it embraces.

Ianus had many releases for Cyberpunk 2020 which were "very well-received, and were considered by many to be better than R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk work at the time." (Designers & Dragons Vol III). The company eventually split, creating Dream Pod 9, which followed the company's other focus on anime and mecha. The other half continued their Protoculture Addicts fanzine for Robotech.

8. SLA Industries (1993)
The 90's brought a wave of "mature reader" games. From Vampire to HOL to Kult to SLA Industries; there you can see echoes of Clive Barker, Steve Bissette, and mid-period Alan Moore. SLA Industries in particular had the most rabid fans I knew; they delighted in the ultra-violence, over-the-top parody, nihilism, and grimdark humor. The back cover blurb opens up the rabbit hole of this rpg: "Operative, Employee, Contract Killer, Mecanthrope, Ebon, Biogenetic, Corporate. These are the lifestyles available to you when you enter SLA Industries' World of Progress."

The titular SLA Industries is a massive, all controlling corporation, managed by the supernatural Mr. Slayer. It takes place on that company’s "main industrial world" Mort, which is in space...I think. There's a lot of material to get through and it lost me in places. The game opens with an explanation of role-playing is, but it takes a long time to tell you what you'll actually be doing. Instead you'll hear about how the "rain pours constantly like tears from a sorrowful god" and that "the barriers between pleasure and pain are very thin" here.

Angels, aliens, biogenics, torture industries, undead, and so on. You have to get through 30+ pages before reaching the most minor statement of what you actually do at the table. You'll be freelance operatives working for this massive and hideously corrupt corporation. Luckily you get two dozen pages giving you the full backstory on that. After that you finally you hit the system, presented in a strange order and filled with minutia. They character creation filled with skills, races, powers, and weapons.

This is cyberpunk by way of early Warhammer 40K without the charming goofiness or maker aesthetic of the latter. It's detail and mechanics heavy, with all the combat crunch players want. You have hacking, cybernetics, monstrous bodies, alien races, and more. It really isn't my bag, I freely admit that. SLA literally gave me a headache going through it. But I have to acknowledge the enthusiasm it generated in some. The rpg has gone through a strange and varied publishing history. At one point WotC bought and distributed it. It's worth reading the Wikiedia page details to see the chaos. Currently Nightfall Games has the SLA license back and has put out several pdf-only products for it.

As Brian Engard said on G+ today, “Lots of folks understand edginess as being deliberately offensive or vulgar, including lots of sex and violence in your art, or being completely unapologetic about any choice you make.
But that's not edgy; it's the status quo. Our status quo is offensive, vulgar, steeped in sex and violence, and unapologetic about any of it.”

9. Tokyo Nova (1993)
A Japanese rpg Andy Kitkowski describes as, "(a) real anime-inspired distinctly Japanese take on the cyberpunk genre." It takes place in the titular city, after a polar shift called "The Hazards" brings about a tech-dystopian future via a new Ice Age. That metroplex, located in modern Dejima, is the only one non-Japanese can enter. A archived forum post I found sums it up, "You can play lots of things in this setting, like a Vasara who has magical abilities a Katana who can slice a mecha in half, or a mutant who lives on the outskirts of society yet possesses amazing powers. Or all three, as the system lets you pick (up to) three different "styles" to fill out your character."

The game is diceless, using playing cards for resolution. It includes a nod to tarot as well; each character archetype option has an associated a Major Arcana. For resolution, you add a card value to character elements against a task number. You can draw these randomly or play them from your hand. Tokyo Nova has some other concepts and I've hunted around for a fan translation with no luck. One existed, but seems to have vanished into the dark realms of the net.

Tokyo Nova's first edition appeared in '93, with a second in '95. The most recent versions, 4e "The Detonation", came out in 2003. I draw this rough summary from Kitkowski's write up and a couple of other sources. I encourage you to check out his complete post at the J-RPG Blog. He goes through the whole book there.

10. Underground (1993)
To many, myself included, Underground looks like the rpg version the Marshall Law comic: from premise to art design. Yet in a recent overview which includes Ray Winninger’s insights, he never mentions it. Instead he cites the desire to create a political rpg, with superheroes as the skin. So the truth's mixed- and maybe Underground's unfairly labeled. Even if it isn't a direct inspiration, Marshal Law serves as a touchstone for an incredible game. In some ways, Underground's closer to Gibson's vision of the world from Neuromancer than Cyberpunk. Instead of fetishishing tech, chrome, and guns, this game offers a compelling dystopian world painted in bright colors. It is simultaneously truly funny and truly eff'd up.

There's much to like here. The art's striking and consistent- from a Geoff Darrow cover and interior bits to stuff that looks like Charles Burns doing superhero propaganda. Everything deserves a second look. Underground has a simple system, with striking concepts- especially the way they handle scale and time. The powers section sells the tone of the game. Yes, you can have cool powers but they will wear you down and saddle you with fairly horrible limitation. Make no mistake, Underground's a dark comedy of horrifically powerful beings hobbled by those powers and a society which doesn't know what to do with them. I don't know if I could run a campaign this dark. It feels like Paul Verhoeven at his most satirical. You should read the rules for the political and cultural commentary. Where other satirical games devolve into stupidity (HōL) sustains itself pretty smartly. There’s a striking contrast between the kitchen sink “edgy” approach of SLA Industries and this coherent & smart satire.

Underground’s also a strikingly well-produced rpg, taking what Mayfair had learned from DC Heroes and advancing several steps. Text design and iconography make this stand out from every other game. The Notebook's an ambitious project, designed to be expanded by later supplements. Underground supplied a mix of books and box sets designed to appeal to gamers who loved cool stuff. After the line ceased active production you could find cheap bundled sets cheaply for many years. I bought a full set which vape'd in the house fire. These days Underground’s harder to find, but I managed to track down a used copy of the core book. For some interesting discussion of it and ideas on how to adapt it, see Phil Vecchione's articles.

I'd forgotten this release for Amazing Engine. By the time it released, AM had already become a clear underperformer at the shop and I don't think we even carried it. That's too bad-- Kromosome comes from gaming workhorse Wolfgang Bauer and has a striking early Brom cover. It also has sharp interior illustrations that remind me a little of Bill Sienkiewicz. Those are undercut a little by the horrific clip-art Amazing Engine headers which eat the top two inches of every page. Kromosome opens with the integrated AE rules, rather than the separate booklets of earlier volumes. These draw examples from across the sourcebooks. I'd forgotten Amazing Engine includes rules for moving your characters across the different universes.

Kromosome calls itself biopunk. You can read it as cyberpunk with a lot of organic technology, but it goes further than that. This is a world of biological badlands and tiny preserved "bioregions." The dystopian, globalized world of the setting has cool details,
"Everything is subject to the invisible hand of capital and everyone has his or her price. Life is not sacred: it is something that can be studied, dissected, and rearranged at the genetic level. People are collections of genetic messages, and for the first time humans have the power to rewrite them. The rich tolerate the masses as sources of genetic diversity and as experimental subjects. Rumors claim that some powerful special interest groups encourage pollution and mutations, hoping for new genes that the wealthy can engineer into their own bodies."

Though Kromosome doesn't explicitly address it, there's some problematic stuff here. Eugenics and biological determinism have been dangerous forces used to repress and decimate marginalized groups. Racial, ablest, and gender discrimination arguments build on this. That's why some of Kromosome’s ideas and terminology bug me. If you come from a particular ethnic group, you may gain a free genemod based on that group (like Brain-jacks for Euros, Melaskin or Endorphin Control for Africans). Yeah, not so sure about that. Characters can also declare themselves loyal to no ethnic group, becoming "mongrels." Yikes.

Kromosome has striking ideas, worth exploring and more importantly updating. It would be interesting to run this as an exploration of the problematic uses of biology literally and politically. There's a lot of mechanical stuff here- bioware, cyberimplants, netgear-- but enough background to make it worth hunting down.

12. Cyberworld (1994)
Remember, remember there was a time when people LARP'd cyberpunk. let us return to those halcyon days when folks had to role play they lived in a dystopian future...

In Cyberworld players choose a role, with Power Armor Pilot and Power Armor Tech added to the default roster set by Cyberpunk 2020. Characters have stats and skills (1-10) and resolution borrows from Mind's Eye Theatre's "Rock-Paper-Scissors" approach. An RPGNet review says, "Too much record keeping for the larpers and not enough system for the sit down crowd." It seems to simply copy Cyberpunk 2020, adding little original setting concepts. Except of course the part where a new US President sparks off the dystopian future by building a wall between the US and Mexico. Yup.

Cyberworld follows the traditional path of live-action books, leaning on photos of players in action for illustration. That always seems like a good idea, but it isn't. Also the book's an abomination unto editors. AND IT’S IN ALL CAPS.

To my joy, the System Mastery podcast covered Cyberworld last year. "In today’s episode we gather to pass judgement down upon Cyberworld, the story of a distant future where an emperor that bizarrely shares the first AND last name of the book’s author (what a coincidence!) rules both North and South America with an iron fist that probably has a snap bracelet on it and an Alice in Chains CD clutched in it (1992 jokes people)."

13. Digital Web (1994)
More hypocrisy from me. Last list I said I'd leave out some tangential releases which hinted at cyberpunk elements but couldn't really be called cyberpunk. I mentioned Mage the Ascension in particular. And it’s true; I don't think Mage falls into this category. But it does have some cyberpunk-ish sourcebooks like the Virtual Adepts splat book and Digital Web. This sourcebook defines VR as another world with different rules and expectations. Rather than a place for simple runs and operations, Digital Web offers a complete setting for existence. It embraces immersion and takes more hits from Snow Crash's pipe than Neuromancer.

If you want to have a fully fleshed online world the characters can interact with, Digital Web has you covered. You have factions, zones, self-built areas, hubs, secondary realities (la Sword Art or Horizon Log). While all of this is built around the paradigm of mages and magick, you can easily discard that. Just replace any mechanics with programs, bots, purchased add-ons, or new feature packages. Or just skip all those mechanics and buy into the fiction. Digital Web's a rich source of ideas-- and the revised edition, Digital Web 2.0 is even stronger.

14. Khaotic (1994)
"A Schizotronic Role-Playing Game"

Maybe first thing you'll notice about Khaotic is that you play members of the International Society of Enlightened Scientists aka ISES. The next might be how difficult it can be to grasp what you're actually doing in play. Khaotic splits into two parts. On the one hand, you're agents and military operatives fighting against an alien incursion in 2030. The monstrous foes come through gates striking at isolated settlements and areas. Though it doesn't have robust organizational support, this part reminds me a little of X-Com.

But the other half of play has your consciousness beamed into the body of one of these invaders on their "tech noir" homeworld. You can research, sabotage, infiltrate and even jump bodies. What you can't do is have the team occupy more than one alien at a time. When you transport, one character becomes the "Boss" and makes decisions for the possessed body. The other players become "Crickets" who can chime in and use some knowledge skills, but otherwise have to sit there and wait.

The world of Earth and "Xenos" both have more advanced technologies, including cybernetics. They have some distinct differences, but there's a ton of history and backstory to wade through. The short of it is that Xenos is pretty gross, with a mind-raping, forced-breeding Queen preying on humans there.

The game has typical '90s design traits: long walls of text with background and setting explanation; 114 distinct skills to know; and thirteen pages of weapons. But it's also semi-diceless. Like more recent games, in Khaotic only the players roll. The GM adjudicates and sets the difficulties, but only players resolve random events.

Is Khaotic cyberpunk? I came to it because I'd seen it called that in a couple of places. I think it is, but purely in the context of this period. Here you could make it feel cyberpunky genre just by having certain tech elements like cybernetics and the feel of a group fighting against an authority (i.e. the Xenos stuff). Itts not a great game and much of it hasn't aged well. If you want to check it out, you can find the full pdf available online for free here.

15. Marauder 2107 (1994)
Sometimes I look at an rpg cover and think, "awww, honey...no..." More than some of these games, Marauder 2107 shows its age. The artwork reflects a fascination with Appleseed and Bubblegum Crisis. There's a page at the start detailing the systems used to create this, part of the "desktop publishing phenomenon which has taken the world by storm." Maelstrom Hobby used an Apple Macintosh LCII and a Quadra 800 with MS Word and Aldus Pagemaker. In case you wanted to know. There are thank you’s to various rec.dot communities in the forward (like rec.games.frp.misc).

The game opens with a lengthy historical overview stretching back to the 2000's. Lots happens, including a nuclear war. Eventually we focus in on the game's main setting, Citystate Pacifica, an arcology within the Nikko National Park. We have an isolated, technology advanced city and metroplex surrounded by wasteland, war, and genetically engineered foes known as Breeders (an unfortunate term).

The game's fairly crunchy, putting most of that into character creation. It has just a few stats, but massive space on the character sheet to record all the Cybernetics, Equipment and Skills you're going to have. It's a point-based game, so you can trick out your character as you wish. The game has 89 skills, less than Khaotic. There's a "strike assessment chart" on you character sheet in what looks to be 4pt font, maybe smaller. Everything centers around combat, with cyberstuff used to make that cooler and more dangerous. It lacks netrunning, but has mecha.

16. Via Prudensiae (1994)

A Danish Universal rpg. According to RPG Geek the designers aimed it for use with convention scenarios. I iunclude it because of the seperate game-worlds presented in the book. The 126-page core includes setting material for a cyberpunk as well as scenarios. It uses multiple dice combined with a point-buy system. Via Prudensiae also used a tick-based initiative system (like Exalted 2e or Feng Shui). The combat system takes up about a third of the book, suggesting serious crunch. If your ead Danish you can check out the back cover which likely has more info. On the other hand, if you know rpgs and Danish you probably know this game.