Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Tale of Two Dystopias - Part 1

I remember seeing the first advertisements for the Shadowrun roleplaying game. I was appalled. Whereas the pictures did show people struggling through a dangerous high-tech near-future neo-urban environment, those people seemed to be elves and orcs and wizards.

I knew what cyberpunk was. Cyberpunk was (and is) Blade Runner, and Neuromancer, and Max Headroom. The Shadowrun art looked like someone's D&D campaign, with guns.

When R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk game came out, however, I snatched it up as soon as I saw it. The reasons for this may not be immediately apparent, particularly if you went to the web site I just linked to. But believe me, the first edition of Cyberpunk was fantastic.

Reading the first edition Cyberpunk rules told me that the game designers really understood what cyberpunk was supposed to be about. Cyberpunk should be about telling stories of a dark future where traditional governments have been replaced by mega-corporations, and the overcrowded cities of the world have become little more than prisons for impoverished and oppressed workers. Cyberpunk should be telling stories about the victory of technology over humanity, and of the digital world over the physical world. Cyberpunk is about what it means to be human when your limbs are replaced by machinery and your brain is connected to a computer network.

The art in the Cyberpunk books was excellent: sleek and stylish. The books themselves had a sort of desktop-published feel to them; the layout was clean and professional, but it had a low-budget feel that I found endearing. This wasn't a glossy game produced by a big company in order to hit a target demographic; this was a game produced by folks because they loved it, they'd worked hard on it, and they wanted to share it with you.

The rules were straightforward and quick to play, with only a few glitches (Solo-class characters, for instance, could dodge bullets, and were thus nearly immune to any threat less than a tactical air strike). I could go on and on about the good things I remember about the first edition of Cyberpunk, but unfortunately, this isn't a story that has a happy ending.

When the second edition of the game came out (Cyberpunk I naturally bought it on first sight. A few of the rules had been cleaned up, but the rest of the book was somewhat disappointing. The new art for the book was abysmal: it looked as if it had been done at the last minute, by the lowest bidder, with a broken pencil. Some of the original art from the first edition was still in there, which just made the new art look worse by contrast. The layout had lost its unique "I did this at home on my Mac" look.

Then came the supplement books for the second edition, which were a seemingly bottomless assortment of weapons and cybernetics, each more potent and overpowered than the last. It was clear that the developers were trying to appeal to gamers who had been watching Bubblegum Crisis or Ghost in the Shell. It seemed as if the new game wanted you to play a cybered-up assassin who jumps out of VTOL's into hot combat zones with a platoon's worth of firepower strapped to his back.

I wanted to be Rick Deckard, hiding in a shot-up building with a pistol and two broken fingers, waiting for a synthetic superhuman to find him and kill him.

Sure, you could still play a classic cyberpunk-type story using the Cyberpunk rules, but you had to throw out most of the equipment and a fair amount of the implied setting. The game may have suggested that a lot of the military-scale equipment in the books were hard for a character to come by, but if they really meant for that sort of weaponry and armor to be rare, why did they spend so many pages and words describing it? And you can't really use that kind of gear if you're in a police state where your every move is monitored, and you live and die at the whim of corporate executives who live in orbital habitats because the Earth has become a trash dump.

The books seemed to be encouraging you to run your game in the wild places, in the ruins of old cities and in the wastelands beyond, where there is no law, no authority only than your own strength. Out in these uncontrolled territories, murderous gangs of savages run wild, violence is an everyday occurrence, and exceptional weapons and armor are required in order to survive and triumph.

Which sounds like someone's D&D campaign, with guns.

There was a third edition of Cyberpunk, which I haven't seen in person, but I've heard nothing good about it. I've heard that the art consists of photographs of action figures dress up like Cyberpunk characters. I've heard that the developers were trying to incorporate some transhumanist elements, that there was nanotech with near-magical powers, that there were shark-men. I chose to get off this particular bus. I didn't care for where it was headed.

I've heard that CD Projekt is going to be producing a computer game in the R. Talsorian Cyberpunk setting. I'm keeping my eye on it; I hope that they're able to retain the noirish, cautionary-tale style that good cyberpunk is based on. But apart from that particular bright spark, it looks as if Cyberpunk's star is fading.

Shadowrun, on the other hand ...

But I'll talk about that tomorrow.