For the most part, cyberpunk just wasn’t concurrent with the old-school style of play. The literary genre came later, and by the time the genre had filtered into pop consciousness enough for someone to publish (for profit!) an RPG or two based on the genre, most RPGs already skewed heroic and story driven. the genre’s main representatives, Cyberpunk and Shadowrun, never had much of a funnel, both of them are on the crunchy side, they’ve got their love handles and they’re the kind of games that people build characters for at their desktop, finicking with the build options.

Which is really only to say that the old-school style and cyberpunk sort of passed each other by, that they never had much of an opportunity to meet until the OSR. And this is interesting, because there’s a lot about them that happen to suit one another.

Cyberpunk is a gritty genre, and you’d imagine that a high-lethality, unforgiving sort of framework would be well-suited to it. The classic old-school funnel— a whole series of unfortunate scoundrels in the right place at the wrong time, dying for a couple bucks— just fits, more snugly than it does in fantasy or space opera. The crunchier cyberpunk RPGs always ran into an issue with this, in my experience, where lethality was possible, but punches tended to be pulled, because characters were fairly involved pieces of work. Even if you’re especially committed to lethality and grit (and I tried), it’s just too cumbersome to make the process rewarding, rather than tedious.

The rewards of that heroic-RPG focus on customization are, to my eyes, also a bit limited in the genre. Cyberpunk protagonists don’t really need to be special— it’s enough for them to be profit-motivated scumbags without any better options, which is what you get when you roll stats in order and slap them together real quick. I don’t mind having more bespoke characters around, but at the very least it feels like they’re not as natural here as they are in fantasy.

And finally, I’ve always gathered the feeling that cyberpunk as a genre ends up skewing towards heavy niche-protection— you’ve got your smooth-talkers, your hackers, your borged-out combat freaks, and they all tend to do their thing in different ways— which itself isn’t especially old-school, but many of these niches aren’t combat-specific, and the big 80s and 90s combat resolution systems end up taking so long that the session can become very lopsided in favor of people whose thing’ is shooting guns a lot. Pulling off strong niches in old-school systems can be tricky, but certainly it’s gotta be easier than balancing combat and non-combat in systems where you roll four sets of dice per attack, right?

The hard part is that the excellently-engineered dungeon crawl at the heart of most of those old games is absolutely worthless to us, to say nothing of the hexcrawl. Stars Without Number and Traveller also use stellar system maps which don’t do much to help us, either. The entire sense of space, of moving from place to place and finding out what’s there, seems more or less absent in cyberpunk game sessions— players navigate through an indeterminate soup of urban sprawl, drifting ashore at unkept bars and mounting raids upon corporate facilities which exist nowhere-in-particular. I think this is enough for the sorts of ultramodern storygames that are more willing to acquiesce to the GM, who tells the party you get a phone call from the Plot Department”. But for old-school games, it seems like we’re going to want some way to reclaim space, to give the table something to navigate through. It feels to me that the binary accept/decline” for job offers in most of these games is just going to feel unsatisfying in an old-school framework. But that, being the hardest problem to crack open, I want to think about more at some other time.

For now, I’m going to hack Mothership into an ad-hoc cyberpunk RPG. Wish me luck.

And don’t get me wrong— I think those storygames, things like Technoir and The Sprawl, are where cyberpunk RPGs are headed, in the grand arc of gaming history.

August 10, 2023