Key Lime Tartlet
Naril's Guide to Settings - Issue One: Cyberpunk!
Building your game's world is one of the most important parts of firing up a role-play, right after choosing your setting. It doesn't always need to be terribly complex, and oftentimes much of the work has been done for you, especially with fandoms. That said, there's been more than a few people who struggle with this part of game creation, or who don't do certain kinds of settings because they're so unfamiliar with them that they're uncomfortable with the very idea. I spend a lot of time building worlds in my head or thinking about what makes settings tick, looking at what works and what doesn't - so I thought I'd put some of it down, in the hope that it helps someone along the way.
Knowing how your game world functions is something most people can understand easily enough. In its most basic sense, this is the feeling that the setting "makes sense." Internal consistency is something that, for me, can make or break a story; my disbelief suspenders fall off when that consistency is broken. This, in turn, is generated by your game's setting - whether it's a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a high fantasy kingdom, or a detective's office in New York, what goes on has to feel "right". For example, not every high-fantasy setting needs dragons - and if you've built your tone to suggest there are no dragons, then suddenly having a pack of them show up would be, at the least, startling. Even more startling, and what would shatter the internal consistency, would the denizens of those world not reacting to how weird that is.
That last part is one of the major tripping points. You need to thoroughly understand where your game takes place, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to understand the tropes and generalizations associated with whatever it is you've chosen as your setting. Not every urban fantasy is The Dresden Files, not every cyberpunk story is Ghost in the Shell, and not every realistic setting is LA Confidential. Still, there are general aspects of different settings, and it's helpful to understand at least the very high-level look at them and use them as foundations to build upon. I'll also be including examples of each setting, so that you can get an idea of what kind stories already built there.
So, without any further ado, here we are with Naril's Guide to Settings! I am going to try to do these on something like a regular basis until I run out of ideas or someone tells me to stop. Not all of them will be quite this long, but I hope to be reasonably comprehensive as I gibber away.
Issue One: Cyberpunk
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.
Cyberpunk is enormous. Given that, it can be overwhelming to start a game in a cyberpunk setting, even if it's something you know you enjoy. There are so many different themes, and so many different aspects, that it can be difficult to tease apart what you want your game to be and start planning accordingly.
First, let's start with a little background. Cyberpunk originated in the 1980s, a time of social uncertainty (remember, the Cold War was still going strong), technological revolution (Personal computers were just arriving on the scene and the fetal Internet was gestating) and rising corporatization was changing the world's economy in unprecedented ways. It is perhaps unsurprising that the worlds depicted by cyberpunk are reflections of these realities; by extrapolating and extending the world of its genesis into the future, it becomes a branch of speculative fiction, science fiction, and often alternate history. One of the things that makes cyberpunk so ephemeral is that, unlike a Tolkien fantasy, cyberpunk is something that evolved out of a feeling, the desperation and nihilism of its origins. As such, while there may be some set pieces that help your game, it will be up to you and your players to evoke - and that is an important word - the emotional buzz of cyberpunk.
Probably the seminal work of early cyberpunk is the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner, loosely based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. This film shows one of the strongest tropes of cyberpunk, which has been condensed into the idea of high tech, low life. In other words, the world of Blade Runner is obviously very highly technologically advanced - the vast electronic billboards, the flying cars, and, of course, the artificially-engineered Replicants, around whom the story centers. However, unlike Star Trek's sterile, bright aesthetic, the world of future Los Angeles is one that is dark and dirty, where rain sheets down through secondhand light onto piles of trash, the homeless, and the destitute. It is a world where a man who has the knowledge and will to create entirely new, living, sentient beings lives in an abandoned hotel, all but unnoticed and forgotten by the society around him.
The film's protagonist, too, does not exist in the glittering towers of the corporate elite. Indeed, when he finds himself in the one of the spires of privilege, he seems singularly out of place, an alien being in the presence of a man who exerts so much influence over the world he may as well be a minor god. The protagonist is a character who is most comfortable on the gritty, dirty streets; he is rumpled, narrow-eyed and suspicious. His existence is definitely high-tech - but he is not one of the elite, he is a street-pounding hunter, surrounded by the low life of the city. Depending on your view of the story, the protagonist himself is one of those low-lifes - certainly the violence he metes out isn't socially acceptable, save for who his targets happen to be. Then again, those targets are completely indistinguishable from normal humans at a quick glance…
The idea of high tech, low life is only one thread of cyberpunk, although it is one of the most prominent. By focusing on characters that are generally outsiders - whether literal outcasts, deliberate loners, or, very often, actually criminals - cyberpunk brings another one of its facets into sharp relief. In general, the status quo of the world is portrayed as one that is teetering on the edge, sometimes of revolution, sometimes of stasis, sometimes of apocalyptic significance. The protagonists often find themselves as the catalyst, if not the outright engine, of that change - although, from their place relative to the system they are altering, they very rarely meet any kind of direct benefit from that change. In other words, they themselves are not revolutionaries, but their actions are revolutionary.
Cyberpunk stories are destabilizing, effecting change in one way or another through the course of their story arcs. As noted above, the characters in the story are often outside the system, or willing to look deeper at the world around them and discover startling truths, or tease apart threads of mystery that they follow to some revelation or epiphany. However the story plays out, hand in hand with the destabilizing results of the character's actions there is usually some part of it that either the characters get no direct benefit from, or it's something that nobody will ever believe, and their actions will rarely be recognized by an outside entity. While this may sound like nihilism, it plays strongly into existing tropes of silent heroes.
Evidence of this is present in many stories that are either direct cyberpunk stories, or have elements of them. In William Gibson's novel Neuromancer, the protagonist, Case, brings about a new kind of artificially intelligent life, one that can possibly control every aspect of the world's digital counterpart, but ultimately he remains nothing but a hacker for hire. He does not sit at the right hand of a risen God, and his accomplishments are so tangential to his own life that he would be unlikely to talk about it in the first place, even if there were anyone who would believe the tale. His story takes place almost entirely in the background of society, and while it is a revolutionary story, it is unlikely to ever impact him directly. Another example can be found in The Matrix - despite its exciting action sequences, overtly messianic message and perfectly-choreographed gun-fu, to the vast majority of humans, Neo's actions have very little effect. Like Case, Neo's story takes place in the literal background of the the titular Matrix - it is not dismantled at the end of the film, the billions of lives contained within it are not meaningfully altered, and outside of the computer simulation, Neo remains a pallid, skinny man with the muscle tone of a jellyfish, eating gruel that tastes like 'runny eggs.' For the purposes of this, I am not considering the sequels, which go into other settings and genres with a sort of frosting of cyberpunk over the top.
However, both Case and Neo do share traits in that they discover something that is outside of what they might expect; they both tug at threads of truth until something amazing is revealed. This kind of truth-seeking is another strong thread of cyberpunk, borrowed almost directly from the film noir era. To a greater or lesser extent, some kind of hunt for a buried truth runs through many cyberpunk stories, where the characters will piece together clues and fragments to arrive at their destabilizing or revolutionary ends. Sometimes it is the nature of reality, sometimes it is uncovering a vast conspiracy, or sometimes it is simply questioning what you've been told and finding the man behind the curtain. The search for knowledge, for truth, for poking at something and figuring out how it works (often because you've been specifically told not to do exactly that) drives the stories and the characters, and is carefully unfolded, each layer peeled away carefully until only the naked truth remains. Whether or not it's a truth the characters want is entirely another story.
That should give you a fairly good overview of the very high-level aspects of cyberpunk. From here, we'll go into some specific subsets - these can be mixed and matched, but you should never feel like you have to jam every part of cyberpunk into a single story. You run the risk of trying to be like an octopus playing the drums - too many things to think about, not enough time to develop it. The above tropes, however, are are some of the most universal and strongest of the set, and the rest are built on top of them; they are the foundation that the story rests on.
Look at you, hacker.
The first cyberpunk novel that found mass appeal was William Gibson's Neuromancer, which centered around a man whose defining skill was that of being a computer hacker. However, instead of a keyboard and screen, Case interacted with a vastly complex world - a virtual reality made of abstract representations of data flows called the Matrix, in fact - through implants in his brain and nervous system, in effect projecting an avatar of himself into the Matrix to manipulate it. Much of the action, such as it is, in Neuromancer takes place in this digital realm, advancing what is first only another job, and later into a trawl and penetration into secrets, lies, information he was never meant to have, and discovering things he never expected.
This is probably the version of cyberpunk most people are familiar with. The characters are generally criminals, and might even be considered terrorists, depending on what their histories or plans are. The existence of a global, highly advanced data-transmission and communication system is presupposed, as are the development of functional brain-computer interfaces. The characters, therefore, often rely on the strength of their mind and will, rather than strength of arms or of body, to advance the story, with conflicts almost always being digital projections of themselves, often bypassing some kind of elaborate security system to advance the story. There is almost always the express threat that if the character's digital projection is killed, deleted, or purged, that the connected hacker will in turn become a vegetable. Occasionally the hacker will be able to upload their consciousness into the global information system, becoming an avatar of nothing but information; this permutation is fairly rare.
This kind of cyberpunk story, if it is only in this vein, is probably best-suited for a 1x1 or a very small group. From the outside, objectively, much of the story would be fairly boring. Looking at someone lying on the ground with a bunch of wires coming out of their head, twitching now and then, isn't terribly interesting.
Novels: The Sprawl Trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive), William Gibson
Tabletop role-playing games: Shadowrun
Video games: The System Shock series
Am I more than human? Or less?
There have been more than a few cyberpunk stories that deal with the questions of transhumanism. We, as creatures, have an unparalleled ability to control our environment, to not only adapt and change to our lot, but to change the world around us to suit us better on a vast and permanent scale. However, we are limited by our bodies, by ourselves as a product of evolution. Transhumanism examines the practical, ethical, and philosophical questions surrounding what happens when we surmount that barrier, when we become capable of making ourselves stronger, faster, smarter, or tougher. Since cyberpunk takes place in a future that has seen vast technological improvements, the idea of transhuman artificial enhancements is a natural extension of the form.
Cyberpunk stories dealing with transhumanism often take place during, or shortly after, the introduction of a real, viable technology that enables people to be "more than human." This means something that is more than a prototypical invention, more than a lone experiment being let loose on the streets, it has to be something that is widely-available. Not necessarily 'available to everyone' - cyberpunk often has themes of a strong distinction between the haves and the have-nots - but available, all the same. These are important, as asking questions about what these technologies mean becomes much more difficult if the story takes place after the revolution, when or if these kind of things become the norm. As in all stories, there has to be some kind of conflict. For example, one side of the debate will argue that the technology is 'man's reach exceeding his grasp,' while another will see it as the natural extension of the human condition. This is only one example; there are many, many directions to take it.
Another facet of transhuman themed cyberpunk is the idea of the Singularity, a technological achievement which changes the basic idea of humanity forever. In essence, it is the moment when an intelligent system (a human with enhanced intelligence thanks to artificial enhancements, a wholly artificial intelligence, etc.) independently designs a successor that is, objectively, superior to itself. This 'intelligence explosion' can lead to computer systems capable of uploading a human mind to an information system, of generating machines that are of human or greater intelligence, and generally changing the world such that humanity is not the only self-perpetuating sentient 'species.' In fact, intelligences arising from the Singularity will typically have the ability to evolve much faster than their human counterparts, resulting in a sort of intellectual arms race. This further dilutes the line between humanity and machines, or whatever their combined progeny may be.
Characters for a transhuman cyberpunk game do not need to be brooding, introverted loners, although a certain amount of introspection wouldn't be out of place. Typically the story will focus on how this technology is changing the world, and will follow a path that demonstrates the outcome one way or another; this can be one of the most 'revolutionary' settings. Your character(s) will be at the focal point of showing whether the risks are too great or whether one can retain their humanity when given abilities far outside their original capabilities. How they demonstrate this is, of course, put to you.
Anime/Manga: Ghost in the Shell
Video games: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Novels: The Difference Engine (William Gibson and Bruce Sterling)
Films: Gattaca (The use of eugenics is so prominent in this film that the characters certainly are 'more than human')
I fight for the Users!
"Trapped in a computer simulation" is the most natural evolution of Gibson's Neuromancer. Unlike the source work, where the protagonist spends some meaningful time outside the virtual reality he's plugged into, this kind of story takes place almost entirely within the computer itself. Sometimes the player-characters have the original intention of changing something within the simulation, other times they are unwitting (and often unwilling) participants in a game controlled by a larger entity and unable to escape. Another option is that the characters are originally not aware (either through memory modification or from being installed into the simulation from birth) that they are part of the simulation, and discover the true nature of the world piece by piece.
There are several directions to go with this kind of story - returning to the 'real world,' remaining in the digital universe and trying to make things better for the people inside it, or outright destroying the simulation are all options. You can weave strong threads of conspiracy and deceit into the world if you want a more mysterious campaign (this is an excellent candidate for tech-noir or neon noir) or have very strong action sequences while the characters fight for their goals. In this setting, your worldbuilding will be more focused on the computer simulation than the real world, at least in the beginning.
A variation of this has been used several times in Star Trek. any of the "Holodeck Episodes" use many of the tropes of the "trapped in a computer" setting and even examine many of the same themes. However, they generally did so without the sinister overtones that the cyberpunk versions carry. This sort of story can probably trace its origins back to Plato's Allegory of the Cave, which is one of the first philosophical examinations of the nature of reality and our perceptions of it.
Films: The Matrix, Tron
Video games: The .hack series
Novels: Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)
She's a runaway of The Establishment, Incorporated
Some of the most compelling cyberpunk stories have been set in a dystopic speculative future. In these worlds, there has been a collapse of the usual social order, sometimes heralded by war, sometimes by terrorism, sometimes by economic collapse. In more sinister versions, the collapse has been deliberately engineered to shift the balance of power from one group to another. Governments no longer function, or have been reduced to powerless, token entities that have no real force in the world. In these settings, the only functioning, multinational entities with the capability to maintain infrastructure on any kind of scale are mega-corporations, and their interest extends only as far as it is profitable to do so.
As a reaction to the corporate attitudes that developed during cyberpunk's origins, the megacorps of this flavor of cyberpunk are ruthless, inhuman, driven only by profit and with minimal consideration for human well-being. Depending on the version of the story, the corporation is an extension of the will of a sociopathic absolute leader, or the spineless machinations of a group of people who believe that nobody is really at fault, because there were so many people in the room. In other versions, the machinations are controlled by wholly inhuman means - artificial intelligence, or rarely extraterrestrial interest.
In all versions of this, however, there is a sharp line between the corporate-funded city-states and decaying ruin outside of them. People who work for the megacorps live and work in the city-states, and enjoy relative comfort and safety compared to what's available outside. Freedoms are maintained only so far as they are profitable, leading to the overall dystopic atmosphere; laws have nothing to do with what is right or wrong and everything to do with convenience for those in power. If you are part of the System - one of the megacorps - you are safe, but limited. If you are outside the system, your life is much harder, but you enjoy the freedom you never would inside one of the city-states.
Characters for these settings are generally outsiders, certainly not part of the System, and by those standards almost certainly are criminals and terrorists. In general, the protagonists will see the world in a state of stasis, and take actions to rock the status quo, not always with a clear plan as to what is meant to happen afterward. Your characters will be fist-in-the-air revolutionaries, and their ability to effect change in this world is limited only to how the story is meant to be told. These are not stories of gentle power shifts, they are stories of radicalism, not of making the world how they see fit, but unmaking the world as they see unfit. There is often a strong current of anarchism in these works if the world is so far along that the megacorps hold all the power, or of revolution if the status quo is shifting, and the characters aim to shift it back.
Graphic Novels: V for Vendetta (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons) - in this case a government takes the place of a corporation, but the anarchic themes parallel.
Novels: The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi), METAtropolis (Various)
In the end, they'll beg us to save them.
Conspiracy, voices in the shadows, puppets who can't even see their strings. This is the setting that probably has the most noir feel to it; a detective story that will bring world-spanning organizations to their knees - or lift them to even higher power. This will take some effort to write and probably should not be done on the fly; the characters will be meant to unravel a web of lies, half-truths and hidden clues to advance the story.
Conspiracy theories are, of course, nothing new in storytelling. The Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group, military or intelligence communities, all are rich sources of conspiracy without even looking at the world of deliberate fiction. The defining factors of a cyberpunk conspiracy primarily centre around the sheer reach and influence the uncovered conspiracy has. In many cases, a small group of very powerful individuals will wield power over world governments, economies, and militaries; their resources and reach will be apparently endless. The scheme will be largely transparent and invisible to the world at large; those in the grip of the conspiracy will often not realize it. In many cases, the conspiracy moves the world with only the lightest touch, subtly influencing events to their ultimate long-term benefit rather than short-term smash-and-grab routines. A common way of showing the protagonists how close they are getting to a massive conspiracy is a shift from gentle persuasion to direct intervention, as a signal that they're getting on someone's nerves.
It will be up to the characters to uncover the conspiracy, to dodge the minions sent after them, to find the truth and either bring it to light - or of course, join it. In either event, this is one of the settings where what the characters do may have very little visible effect to the general populace, regardless of how world-shaking the events may actually be. The meat of the story is in the journey, not necessarily in the destination.
Films: Strange Days
Video games: Deus Ex
I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end.
Cyberpunk is a lot of fun, and there are some amazing stories to be told in the environment. It is, however, complex - understanding the world you create is a critical link in making sure your story is compelling. You don't always have to go into the nitty-gritty of every little piece, especially in the beginning, but you need to make sure you have a strong idea of the high-level basics at least. This should have helped you with that, or that's what I hope, anyway. Creating stories can be one of the most difficult things - but the more you know, the easier and more rewarding it will be.
I leave you with this: The most important thing about cyberpunk is the feel of the world. It isn't just advanced prosthetics or brain-computer interfaces, it isn't just trash on the streets or murder by the flickering light of electronic billboards. There is no collection of things that you can simply throw in a blender and say "This is cyberpunk." It takes effort, but can also deliver fantastic rewards. I encourage you to give it a shot.
Like the man said, where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.
Very informative I liked it!
Why are you reading this?
I agree. This was a fun read! Good pull quotes, great examples.
Key Lime Tartlet
Oh wow, someone actually waded through the wall of text. I'm working on one for fantasy right now, so I hope you'll tune in then, too.