Interview: Joshua A.C. Newman talks about the Cyberpunk RPG

In which I talk to Joshua A.C. Newman about the Cyberpunk RPG.

I owned the Cyberpunk RPG too and remember how sexy it was to a teenager. You could play a rock star with a metal arm and have a hot lady-friend with…a metal arm. What do you most remember about Cyberpunk? What drew you in then and what draws you back to that game now?

At the time, I was excited about the ideas that have come to be called “transhumanity”, but I had this really hazy understanding of what it meant. I liked the idea that microbots could clean your bloodstream and that you could improve your body with add-ons and replacements. By 1988 or ’89, I was familiar with Rudy Rucker’s Ware books (the ones that existed so far — might have just been Software at the time) and I wanted a game that would give me that kind of adventure.

What I found, of course, was a detailed system of combat and how to kill people in ways that were more graphic than other RPGs. Yeah, you could play a Media or a Rockerboy, but TV broadcasting and rock music (so quaint!) didn’t each get their own separate book in the box like combat did, complete with detailed gun illustrations and descriptions. There was also a typo that gave a particular bullet — the 7.62 — enormous murderpower and I exploited that with glee. And the robot blender/snake that you kept in your throat. And a dartgun in the eye.

But that simple system — stat + skill + roll vs. objective — showed me a lot about how games work, about how the rules give you these certain ways to do things. I started applying it to all sorts of stuff. It became my go-to system.

Later, I realized that its core moral arena — whether you “improve” yourself at the cost of empathy — was a huge copout. Not only is it grossly insulting (people with prosthetic limbs are less human than natural people?), but it’s also already given you the answer. Not only does it cost you empathy, but Empathy and Cool stats are used for the same thing. It actually doesn’t cost you anything because the world is fucked because everyone is upgrading and losing their humanity.

Ben Lehman used to play a great way, though. I don’t think this was in the rules, but it’s great: anyone on your “contacts” list, you deal with using Empathy. Anyone else, you deal with using Cool. Sure, the system still manhandles you into a moral position, but at least you can see what it’s getting at. For any players I knew, Empathy was just your tank for how much cyberware you could handle before your character died.

Now, though, on the eve of 2013, I’m thinking differently. You don’t make change with guns anymore. You make change with communication. It’s not like Jonny Mnemonic, with its weapons and secret data. It’s like Max Headroom, with its ubiquitous cameras and leaking data. Only we’re all TV stations now. There are networks, sure, and they’re big and powerful, OK. But Mubarak’s Egypt didn’t fall because they took over state TV. It didn’t even fall because of Twitter. It fell because of the people tweeting. It fell because we could all see what was happening and the people on the ground could communicate and coordinate. Even Mubarak’s military could see that writing on the wall, so they backed the winning horse.

So now I’m working on a cyberpunk game for 2013, in honor of Cyberpunk. It will be all about the powers we have as transhumans to shape our world through our information networks. It won’t be VR and guns. It’ll be celldrones, meshnets, bamboo phones, and hagfish slime 3D printers. It will assume that Moore’s Law affects every part of society. It will be political and it will be ragged. You know. Punk. Like it said on the box.

For the time being, I am going to beat back my enthusiasm about the idea of you writing a cyberpunk RPG and ask what kind of campaigns you ran or characters you played?

Let’s see. There were a lot of “sneak in, kill the guy, steal the thing, blow the place up” kinds of adventures. Those are mostly lost to memory because the interesting details were tactical (or faux-tactical). Two that I remember, though, were with my friend Nye. In the first one, we decided to do a noir detective story. It started with him waking up at a bar with the guy across the table telling the end of a story. He’d been drugged and needed to figure out who he was. Really, what was happening was that his best friend, the guy across the table, had drugged him and was manipulating him into doing his dirty work. A lot like Memento, now that I think of it. Neither Nye nor I knew what the character’s capabilities were. We assigned stats, cyberware, and skills as we went. I think I had some principles, like why the guy had hired him, “therefore he must have at least an 8 in this”, or whatever.

Another was a breaking and entering thing, with one corporation hiring a nobody private eye (Nye’s character, naturally) to steal a thing. He smelled a rat, so he hired the rest of the PCs as his muscle. Those guys thought they were in charge because their guns were large, so they literally didn’t get past the lobby. Nye’s character is telling them, “Hey, guys, hey, something stinks here, hey, let’s get in the flying car, hey, OK, fuck this. I get in the car and fly away.” He’s the only one who survived. The other players didn’t much like that, so we didn’t play again, but if I recall, Nye’s character had his own story where he figured out what went wrong (aside from no one listening to their netrunner when the security system was still running and using concussion grenades in an attempt at sneaking in.) If I recall, it was an attempt to scandalize the company, drive its stock prices down, then buy the company with the industrial secret macguffin still in hand.

There was another thing with an orbital smuggler who had the cure for a manufactured plague. The purveyors of the treatment (and the plague, if I recall) didn’t want the cure spread around, so they intercepted him in low orbit. The smuggler got out of his spacecraft to do something, I don’t remember what, fumbled an Ag roll, lost grip on his spacecraft, and floated away to overheat, suffocate, or re-enter.

You can probably see the frustration I was experiencing using that system. I mean, that’s a really excellent death for a character! It’s about the extraordinary power of the status quo and how hard any individual has to work to make a difference, and how all it takes on the part of the individual is a tiny mistake to make all your efforts turn to dust. It’s a Wire-like ending. But it was my friend’s character. It probably took two hours to design that guy, figure out his spacecraft and everything. The only reward was going to be XP and cash and he got neither because, for a genre about irony, the game sure wants to be triumphalist. You know, while tut-tutting you for engaging the cool thing about the setting — the cyberware.

Ooh, that’s right, your Humanity went down the more prosthesis you had, which is really an awful message for folks who get around on them. Nowadays it seems prothesis are all around us and here’s a game in our history that says they are becoming closer and closer to going on a Terminator-rampage. Was that the gist?

I wonder if cyberpunk, in those early days in particular, had an advantage in that the genre wasn’t as expansive, so you wouldn’t have one player wanting to do Tolkien and another wanting Howard having clashing expectations.
Nowadays you could get into all kinds of conflicts of visions, with early Sterling and Gibson alongside Stephenson and Doctorow. Is your current design about that evolution of the genre or born from wanting to see those artists and reporters have more mechanical muscle to change the world?

Yeah, Empathy, yeah. And apparently, you lose it when you get an artificial leg or a hearing aid. ☄ The More You Know ☄

You know, at that point, in the late 80s, you still had Walter Jon Williams, whose stuff was all actiony; Gibson, whose characters are cold and alienated; and Sterling, whose characters are thriving on the changing world. They’re very different. When Bubblegum Crisis called itself “cyberpunk”, I literally said out loud, “Oh, well. That was neat while it lasted.” It seemed to completely miss the point. It’s some sort of cyberconsumerist or something; it’s as punk as Avril Levigne and Nickelback.

Yeah, it’s always my hope that the people with the most humane, beautiful vision get a say in our society, too. To a great extent, Occupy and Anonymous are art movements, even if they’re often ugly, and they undeniably have an impact on our society. Sterling’s vision is often, “Here’s this guy, he fixes people’s bicycles in trade, has an awesome life in the postapocalypse,” or “Here’s this guy, he digitizes decaying video tapes in trade, but mostly lives in a gift economy as a happy slacker.” They’re people who get by humanely as craftspeople who are, on the whole, able to roll with it when the world changes.

But Sterling’s Distraction and Holy Fire are about people who want to change the world. Those two, with a sprinkling of Max Headroom are my biggest genre influences on this project. The others are Brian Woods’ DMZ, and Steve Olexa and David Axe’s War Fix.

Is this upcoming cyberpunk joint going to be built on a Shock: chassis or a riff on the stat + skill of the game that inspired it?

It’s certainly starting with Shock: but is diverging even more than Human Contact does. The basic skills of play should apply, but it will have a lot of stuff going on that strengthens the fiction/procedure feedback loop.

Tell me about the types of characters you’d see as iconic. Who is your cyberpunk RPG’s Johhny Silverhand?

And most importantly, can I play my bad-ass solo character (weren’t the gun-toting street samurai called solo’s?)?

I’m seeing the archetypal character as being a punk kid. A character you’d expect to see in a game of Misspent Youth. They have a YouTube channel and a pile of other media outlets. They might live in a tent or otherwise on the byproducts of society. They’re cash-poor but can fabricate what they need. They dumpster dive but use and create the highest technologies. They operate in a pay-it-forward informal economy.

You’re basically an illegal person. The corporations that control the government have made them a terrorist, a criminal, a foreign combatant.

So what do they do? What can’t be taken away? What chaps the ass of a corporation? You can damage their stock price with a LOLcat. You can shame Senators into investigating them. You can make it so their board members’ cars won’t start, their mistresses email each other, their bodyguards have to field a hundred pizza deliveries, one of which is inserting the drone that will read the industrial secrets off their laptops and paste them into an encrypted, signed, decentralized distributor so now everyone knows them.

And what do they do in return? They can’t take away your money — they already did. They might be able to imprison you, but the government still needs to act like a plausible democracy and that means it’s subject to public outcry. They might wound you, but your medical technology is all Open Source or operating in defiance of patent. Your jailbroken spex broadcast every injustice done to you, your 3D printed artificial arm launches drones from your fingertip and cuts the zipties that hold you in the back of a police car.

Want to play a Solo? Congratulations. You got a job. They give you enough money to get to your next paycheck and medical insurance that covers the side effects of the surveillance system that fills your body. You’re just like anyone else working for the corporation. Think you can change the system from the inside? As McNulty how that went.

You wrote:
But that simple system — stat + skill + roll vs. objective — showed me a lot about how games work, about how the rules give you these certain ways to do things.
Could you talk more about that? What did that simple system show you?

It showed me that you can make different things happen by changing those numbers. It also showed me that the linearity of that system, while apparently easy to understand, winds up representing weird things. Like, if you spend x points to bring up a stat by 1, the value of that expenditure goes down as your skill gets higher. So if I have a stat of 10 and a skill of 5, and I want to buy it to 6, my skill goes up by 1/15. If I buy it to 7, my skill goes up by 1/16. That means that it gets more and more expensive to increase my chance of success. And that means that, since everyone winds up having skills that approach each other in value as they get too expensive to matter, the only differentiation is at low levels and your one class skill.

So, since you can succeed by avoiding the rules — by telling the GM a neato story about a cool thing that you did — it lays bare the lie that this expenditure is worth something, at all. And since some GMs wouldn’t allow you to do something cool if you didn’t make the roll, it meant that this system could, at best, infrequently prevent you from doing cool stuff, it made it clear that what this system did — determine if you succeeded in doing something hard — didn’t produce the effects that I wanted in an RPG. That cognitive dissonance was one of the things that started me thinking about how (and even if) I wanted to use mechanical systems in RPGs.

Joshua, I am reading over this interview and it sounds like we are fake-smiling, talking about this game we liked as kids in a condescending manner and then saying it is offensive to people with prosthetic limbs and has a system that doesn’t work. Is that what is going on here?

Are we living up to the indie RPG snob d-bag stereotype here?

Well, there’s no fake smiling. My enjoyment of that game is very real. This is a game that brought me many ecstatic, immersed hours of joy as a teenager. It satisfied my power fantasies and gave me a lot of reason to play and create with my friends. But 25 years of retrospect would be pointless if I weren’t able to look at it critically, too. We can like things that we’re critical of; in fact, it’s our duty as consumers and fans to look critically at the things we love, including their flaws. I mean, who can understand those things better than fans so devoted that they’ve been inspired to create their own responses?

Like, I like Conan, but that doesn’t mean Howard wasn’t horribly racist and misogynistic. Admitting that doesn’t damage Howard’s stories (the Tower of the Elephant is one of my favorite short stories, ever!); He did that when he wrote racist, misogynistic things that I can choose to acknowledge and then move on to the good parts. That lets me look at it as a whole thing, as a creation of its time, and as something I can engage with by making new things that are, themselves, products of their time and context.

Thanks for taking the time to chat, Joshua. If you want to discuss this further, please do so in the comments or over on Google + (link).
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One thought on “Interview: Joshua A.C. Newman talks about the Cyberpunk RPG

  1. Pingback: G-8 and His Battle Aces Vol.28, No.2 (June, 1944) | The Great Pulp Magazine Index

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