Intrigue in the desert

We just wrapped up our first session of the Flux.
The player characters got sucked into the great warping mystery that is The Flux — and their Shadowrun world of 2050 fluxed into another world and/or time… the world of Acid Death Fantasy. In my book, that world is a crazy jambalaya of Dune, stoner rock, the Heavy Metal movies and Zardoz.

When the echoing sounds of horns faded and they were able to see again… they found themselves in the middle of a desert. A short while later, someone on a six-legged camel showed up and greeted them: he obviously knew them, and he talked about old times when they were kids…. so the world changed, but the people didn’t notice. The only ones who noticed are the player characters…

Game prep
Nothing. I started with the characters I had prepared for my players. Those Acid Death Fantasy characters are very rough in-world equivalents to their Shadowrun characters (the former troll headhunter became a huge Sultanless Guard, the private eye and wolf shaman became a Dosed Prophet with six disciples, and the newbie decker turned into a Companion Droid with technical skills).

I used the “First Session” chapter of Apocalypse World 2nd edition to kickstart tonight’s game: I simply offered my players to follow their characters around for a day. And I asked questions. Loaded questions. Like, “And’aam, what happened to your Lady? Aren’t you supposed to be a good companion droid and be with her?”, or “Tib el Hiri, what happened to your job? A sultanless guard? Why did you get kicked?”, and so on.

And boy. Oh boy. The answers I got were pure gold… and established many interesting details of our game world. Like, companion droids come in two versions: the old ones, with synthskin and chemical receptors that enable them to feel the effects of drugs. Those droids have a built-in perception filter and don’t know they’re robots. This is hardwired. The new ones know they’re machines….

Or, in the last four moons, there were several attempts on the sultan’s life — all of them by droids whose circuits were tampered with and who recognized what they really are. Or, the sultanless guard was kicked because he impregnated the sultan’s main concubine… And, the companion droid lost his client because the old lady fell to death in a tragic accident… but her son claims the droid had pushed her down the stairs…

And so, in only two and a half hours, we had co-created a rich tapestry of the world, and old enemies and threats.
Those go on the Apocalypse World threat map, a tool that I can’t recommend highly enough. Once you have filled out the map, it becomes clear what will happen next. The opponents become real persons with real motivations and desires.

Wallah, what a beautiful game night it was!

Tech the way the cyberpunk godfathers intended it

Right at the outset, cyberpunk adventure games lost track.

They lost track of what really counted in the literature that spawned them: the story, the characters, the drama. Instead, we got pages upon pages of gear lists, “cyberware” lists, cyberdeck lists.

Instead of drama, action and character (which are, at least, sometimes, interchangeable in the novels), we got shopping.

Personally, I want that to be gone.

Looking at Gibson’s cyberpunk oeuvre, I count 11 cyberware technologies mentioned in his books (biosofts, dustplugs, Implanted Microprocessor Monitors, Muscle Grafts, Korsakov’s, microsofts, mirrshades, neural cut-out chips, cultivated eyes, sculpted teeth, and toothbud implants). Eleven. And dustplugs don’t really count (because they’re exactly what they sound like, dustplugs for your jacks), Korsakov’s is a mind-control technology used illegally in prisons, and neural cut-out chips are blackmarket chips used to turn human beings into “meat puppets” without will and memory.

So we’re down to eight “cyberware” technologies suitable for the heroes mentioned in ALL of Gibson’s books. And only a couple of them is mentioned by brand name.

Now let’s take a look at the original Cyberpunk rpg (“2013”), written by Mike Pondsmith. Suddenly, we get four pages filled with more than 30 cyberware options. Plus, we have six pages of ice and icebreakers (I went into some detail about them yesterday) in the rulebook. That’s what I call ‘option bloat’!

But let’s not forget my beloved Shadowrun first edition. Let me count real quick: we get seven pages full of shopping lists for equipment and “cyberware” (more than 50 options just in that book alone), plus many dozens of pages filled with walls of text explaining their function. A bookkeeper’s wet dream.

As we all know, William Gibson greenlighted the Cyberpunk game. And so did Walter Jon Williams, whose “Hardwired” novels belong to the best cyberpunk books ever written. Williams wrote the “Hardwired” supplement for Cyberpunk 2013 himself. If you look at the “equipment section” in his book, you’ll find exactly one page with sample prices for 13 categories – one of them being “cybertech”, listed with four entries. That’s all you really need.

Do you remember the first Shadowrun trilogy? I do, and I have re-read it many, many times (and just yesterday, I downloaded the audiobook version on Audible). Those stories, ALL of the Shadowrun stories, are not about shopping. What remains after reading them is the memory of cool adventures, of characters overcoming obstacles.

THAT’s my cyberpunk. THAT’s my Shadowrun.

Shadowrun is no dungeon crawl: revisited

Last week, I modified an existing pbtA “move” for my Shadowrun.

Today, I’m changing it to fit into a truly FKR style game.

The “move” is this:

When you attempt to navigate the labyrinthine twists of the corporate building, describe how you do it, and then roll 2d6. Add nothing if you have no intel. Add +1 if you have okay intel. Add +2 if you have good intel. Add +3 if you have top-notch intel. Add –3 if you have fake or incorrect intel.

*On a 12+, hold 2. *On a 10+, hold 1. *On a 7-9, hold 1, but you encounter a guard/drone and/or find yourself in a bad place. *On a 6-, the security system is one step closer to detecting your presence and location! This is in addition to any hard move the GM has in mind.

Spend 1 hold to find something valuable or useful. (Spend 2 for both.) Spend 2 hold to get a clue as to the whereabouts of your target. Spend 5 hold to get a clue as to how you might elegantly retrieve what you’re looking for.

Spend 5 hold to find a safe exit or locate the CEO HQ.

One person rolls each time you navigate. The group’s hold from multiple rolls is pooled together.

Let’s FKRify it:

When you attempt to navigate the labyrinthine twists of the corporate building, describe how you do it, and roll 2d6 vs. my 2d6. Add +1 if you have okay intel. Add +2 if you have good intel. Add +3 if you have top-notch intel. Add –3 if you have fake or incorrect intel.

Roll each time you navigate.
Before you start, I write down how many “wins” you need to get what you want.

If you roll higher, you win, and something advantageous happens: you might find something useful, or you might find clues as to where in the building your target is at the moment. To gain a really BIG advantage, you have win several times during your run.

If you roll lower, you lose, and I’ll send my guards, drones, and autodefenses: the works.

More data on Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics

Re-reading Gibson.
If you want to play ICE like Bill, keep the following quotes from Neuromancer in mind:

With his deck waiting, back in the loft, an Ono-Sendai Cyberspace 7.  They’d left the place littered with the abstract white forms of the foam packing units, with crumpled plastic film and hundreds of tiny foam beads. The Ono-Sendai; next year’s most expensive Hosaka computer; a Sony monitor; a dozen disks of corporate-grade ice; a Braun coffee maker. 

See? So my obsession with cassettepunk is pretty much spot-on. Ice on disks… how on earth can something as powerful and dangerous as ice fit on twelve disks? Simple. Here’s the reason:

“Just thinking out loud . . . How smart’s an Al, Case?”
“Depends. Some aren’t much smarter than dogs. Pets. Cost a fortune anyway. The real smart ones are as smart as the Turing heat is willing to let ’em get.”
“Look, you’re a cowboy. How come you aren’t just flat-out fascinated with those things?”
“Well,” he said, “for starts, they’re rare. Most of them are military, the bright ones, and we can’t crack the ice. That’s where ice all comes from, you know? (…)

“You got it. Corporate core data for Tessier-Ashpool S.A., and that ice is generated by their two friendly Al’s. On par with anything in the military sector, looks to me. That’s king hell ice, Case, black as the grave and slick as glass. Fry your brain soon as look at you. We get any closer now, it’ll have tracers up our ass and out both ears, be tellin’ the boys in the T-A boardroom the size of your shoes and how long your dick” 

Ice is made by Artificial Intelligences. But it gets better:

Case sighed. “Well, I got a user-friendly Chinese icebreaker here, a one shot cassette. Some people in Frankfurt say it’ll cut an Al.” 

Ice on cassettes. Of course. I know Godfather Gibson probably didn’t mean it that way, but that’s my selective interpretation of the source.

And ice can be brute force, or really sneaky:

“I did, once. Just an idea, back then. But that’s what ol’ Kuang’s all about. This ain’t bore and inject, it’s more like we interface with the ice so slow, the ice doesn’t feel it. The face of the Kuang logics kinda sleazes up to the target and mutates, so it gets to be exactly like the ice fabric. Then we lock on and the main programs cut in, start talking circles ’round the logics in the ice. We go Siamese twin on ’em before they even get restless.” 

Another fun fact: You don’t read dozens and dozens of brand names for ice. We know Gibson loves doing that, but NOT for ice, and icebreakers. Ice is monolithic, off-the-shelf, illegal drek hot shit, and so are icebreakers.

Which brings me to a conclusion:

In my cassettepunk Shadowrun games, I won’t be using any brand names for ice, not even different kinds of ice, as both Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2013/2020/3/Red are doing. Breaking or melting ice will be a single die roll, or, if it’s really tough, several dice rolls. The hacker/decker MUST be successful in every single roll, or the ice will do horrible things to him and/or his deck.

Time for an automated random table:

Move: After the run

If you make it out of … in one piece and have retrieved the item you were told to, but have no idea what it does, pick one among your ranks to roll 2d6. Add +1 if you have Powers watching over you. Subtract 1 if the corporation you pissed off is small fish. Subtract 3 if it’s a Big Player. *10+, your theft simply shifts business advantage from one corporation to another. *7–9, business equilibrium is shifted as above, but the corporation is on y’all’s asses now, actively. *6–, the item is the cause of a major corporation war that’s building up slowly.

Shadowrun is no dungeon crawl

Yesterday, we played the fourth or fifth session of our cassettepunk Shadowrun campaign.

It was huge fun, the characters had one interesting fight against two corp goons (during which the troll ex-bounty hunter finally could show what he was made of… impaling a physad elf on his horn, is all I’m saying), and they finally gathered all information they needed to start the run.

I treated legwork very handwavey. If they narrated cool stuff and/or rolled well, I gave them a piece of information. This worked beautifully.

But then it hit me.

I could handle this way simpler.

And I remembered Ray Otus’s variant of the so-called “dungeon move” for Dungeon World. The premise is as simple as promising: How can we skip tedious dungeon crawls and cut right to where the meat is? I know, this sentence disqualifies me in the eyes of many OSR fans, but if I’ve always, ALWAYS, hated one thing about old school fantasy – it is the godforsaken dungeon crawling. It doesn’t hold any fascination for me. Okay, back to Ray.

For the Plundergrounds zine, Ray’s fantastic OSR zine, he wrote this dungeon move:

When you attempt to navigate the labyrinthine twists of the dragon hoard, describe how you do it, and then roll+INT. *On a 12+, hold 2. *On a 10+, hold 1. *On a 7-9, hold 1, but you encounter a hoard denizen and/or find yourself in a bad place. *On a 6-, the dragon is one step closer to detecting your presence and location! This is in addition to any hard move the GM has in mind.

Spend 1 hold to find something valuable or useful. (Spend 2 for both.) Spend 2 hold to get a clue as to the dragon’s whereabouts. Spend 4 hold to get a clue as to how you might possibly harm the dragon.

Spend 5 hold to find an exit, locate the dragon, or find her nest.

One person rolls each time you navigate. The group’s hold from multiple rolls is pooled together.

So, let’s adapt this baby for Shadowrun:

When you attempt to navigate the labyrinthine twists of the corporate building, describe how you do it, and then roll 2d6. Add nothing if you have no intel. Add +1 if you have okay intel. Add +2 if you have good intel. Add +3 if you have top-notch intel. Add –3 if you have fake or incorrect intel.

*On a 12+, hold 2. *On a 10+, hold 1. *On a 7-9, hold 1, but you encounter a guard/drone and/or find yourself in a bad place. *On a 6-, the security system is one step closer to detecting your presence and location! This is in addition to any hard move the GM has in mind.

Spend 1 hold to find something valuable or useful. (Spend 2 for both.) Spend 2 hold to get a clue as to the whereabouts of your target. Spend 5 hold to get a clue as to how you might elegantly retrieve what you’re looking for.

Spend 5 hold to find a safe exit or locate the CEO HQ.

One person rolls each time you navigate. The group’s hold from multiple rolls is pooled together.

 

Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics, the way godfather Gibson intended it ;)

…ICE patterns formed and reformed on the screen as he probed for gaps, skirted the most obvious traps, and mapped the route he’d take through Sense/Net’s ICE. It was good ICE. Wonderful ICE…

…His program had reached the fifth gate. He watched as his icebreaker strobed and shifted in front of him, only faintly aware of his hands playing across the deck, making minor adjustments. Translucent planes of color shuffled like a trick deck. Take a card, he thought, any card.

The gate blurred past. He laughed. The Sense/Net ice had accepted his entry as a routine transfer from the consortium’s Los Angeles complex. He was inside. Behind him, viral subprograms peeled off, meshing with the gate’s code fabric, ready to deflect the real Los Angeles data when it arrived.

From Neuromancer, by William Gibson.

Alright. You’ll have noticed the smiley in the headline… that said, there is no right way to emulate ICE in a cyberpunk game. But there is a way to use them literature-appropriately.

Gibson doesn’t use names for ICE. They’re a monolithic complex of intrusion countermeasure electronics. Massive on the outside, packed with things that hurt hackers and their equipment on the inside. 

Icebreakers get the same treatment by Gibson. Brand names? No, of course not. This is not Amazon. Mega corps have their own wage slaves to write code for them. And hackers write or trade their own software. 

So, to stay close to literature: protect systems with ICE. No names. No virtual, shared hallucination watch dogs or whatever. Just one big monolithic block. Surrounding sensible corp data like a massive wall with built-in weapons. That’s the reason Cyberpunk and Cyberpunk 2020 had ‘data fortresses’. Let’s keep that. In Gibson’s novels, once the walls of the fortress were breached, the netrunner could control the system. I’ll keep that, as well.