Roleplayer
Roleplayer #9, March 1988

High-Tech Low-Life:

Running a Cyberpunk GURPS Campaign

by Earl S. Cooley III

Cyberpunk. C-Word. Mirrorshades SF. It's science fiction, all right, but it's not your mainstream, "gee whiz" sort of mindless drivel; neither is it your neo-Nazi, jumping jingo, militaristic tripe. It's high-tech SF played harder and faster than ever before. In this "high-tech, low life" world, you will have to deal with the cynical machinations of globe-spanning power-hungry corporations. On a more personal level, the dehumanizing effects of rampant technology will hit below the belt and between the eyes every day. Individuality is at a premium in this kind of campaign, and is a strong motivating factor for the players.

Cyberpunk Rules

To set up a GURPS cyberpunk campaign, start with the GURPS Autoduel worldbook – SJ Games' vision of a crumbling, near-future America has a strong cyberpunk flavor. Some rules, weapons and equipment from the GURPS Humanx worldbook may also be useful, until the release of GURPS Space later this spring. Where these books leave off, the GM must fill the gap, creating the gritty, disintegrating society in which his cynical, bio-enhanced PCs must survive.

So, how do you build these kind of characters in GURPS? For the most part, cyberpunk characters are just like those from any high-tech campaign – they'll have a variety of advantages, disadvantages and skills appropriate to the technology of their environment. Technical skills like Computer Operation, Driving, Guns, Beam Weapons, Engineering, and Science Skills will be common, as will urban survival skills such as Acting, Area Knowledge, Disguise, Stealth, and Streetwise. But the advanced medical and computer science of the cyberpunk milieu adds another opportunity for personal development – cybernetic implants, also known as wetware.

Many of the advantages listed in GURPS can be artificially built into the bodies of the characters. If the implant has no detrimental effects on the character, then the character pays the normal point-cost for the advantage – that the ability is mechanical rather than natural is not important. But if the implant has some obvious negative impact on the character's life, then the GM should determine a reasonable "discount" on the point cost of the advantage, based on the degree of inconvenience the device causes. Enhanced senses are a common example of a type of implant which can be purchased at a "wetware discount," due to the unsightliness of the mechanical sensory apparatus.

Another sort of wetware is the "jack" – a plug in the skull which allows the user to directly access electronic media or cyberspace, without any other equipment. There are two types of jacks – the "data jack" and the "interface jack." Each is described below.

Sensory Implants . . . . . Variable Point Cost

Any of the following advantages may be purchased as wetware implants at half the normal point cost: Absolute Direction, Absolute Timing, Acute Hearing, Acute Taste and Smell, Acute Vision, Alertness, Combat Reflexes, Night Vision, and Peripheral Vision.

When purchased at half price, these enhanced senses are implanted in the form of obviously artificial lenses or other appropriate devices, located in place of the natural sensory organs. The more advantages put into the implant, the larger and more obvious it becomes. Sensory implants containing 10 or fewer points worth of advantages (5 real character points) can be hidden with a hat or sunglasses; implants with more than 10 points worth of advantages cannot be concealed with anything less than a full hood or ski mask.

Sensory implants have other disadvantages as well. Many people associate them with street samurai and corporate assassins, viewing implants as the mark of a dangerous, semi-criminal individual. Even the most well-designed implants are obviously inhuman, giving their owners a sinister look. Thus, a character with sensory implants takes a -1 reaction for every 10 points worth of advantages, rounded up, in the implant. For example, a character with implants containing Acute Vision +3 and Night Vision, worth a total of 16 points, takes a -2 on all reactions for his artificial, chrome-plated eyes.

Sensory implants may be added after character creation at normal point cost, though the GM should make them financially expensive. Similarly, implants may be replaced with different implants, containing different advantages worth the same point total, at no point cost, though such an exchange will cost nearly as much money as the original implants. Adding sensory implants involves complex surgery, with appropriate convalescence.

In a society in which no stigma or reputation is attached to Sensory Implants, they are purchased at the normal point cost for the advantages they convey – although they can be added or replaced after character creation, as described above.

Data Jack . . . . . Variable Point Cost

A data jack is an implant which allows a person to "jack in" various miniaturized electronic media, called modules. These contain information which may then be accessed as if it were part of the user's natural memory or training. Data commonly available on modules includes foreign languages, specialized knowledge of scientific fields, and a variety of relatively mundane skills such as Area Knowledge, Driving, Cooking, and Computer Operation. Combat skills, Computer Programming, Gambling, and other more unusual skills, as well as certain restricted information, can be found on modules, but such modules are usually very expensive and often illegal.

For every two points a character has invested in his data jack, he may jack in one point of skill. Thus, a "3-point data jack" costs 6 character points. Once he has jacked in a skill, he may use it as if he had invested points in that skill. If a character jacks in a module which contains more skill points than his jack can handle, he must roll vs. IQ, -1 for every point by which the module overloads his jack, or be mentally stunned. Even if he makes this roll, the information on the jack will be too confusing and disorienting to be useful. For example, a character has invested 12 character points in a 6-point data jack. He plugs in a module containing 6 points worth of Chinese. While he has this module jacked in, he functions as if he spoke Chinese at IQ+2 (Chinese is a Mental/Average skill). If the module contained 8 points of Chinese, it would be useless to the character – if he attempted to jack it in, it would overload his jack and might stun him.

A special type of data module – the personality module, or PM – allows a character to jack in extra skill points and even mental advantages, with a certain drawback. PMs are taped directly from the minds of other human beings, and may come with mental disadvantages. A PM can contain any number of skill points, as long as it contains enough disadvantages to balance them back down to a practical net point value. The danger of a PM is that your own personality may be dominated by that of the person from whose brain the module was taped; all PMs carry the -10-point Split Personality disadvantage.

A "Spy" personality module might contain Stealth-DX+2 (8 points), Shadowing-IQ+2 (6 points), Disguise-IQ+1 (4 points), Guns/TL8 (Automatic Pistols)-DX+2 (4 points) and Absolute Timing (5 points), as well as the disadvantages Split Personality (-10 points) and Paranoia (-10 points). The value of this module nets out to 2 points, so it could be used by anyone who has 2-point or better data jack.

A character using a module may remove it from his jack at any time, immediately losing the benefit of the module. The only exception to this is a personality module user who has failed an IQ roll to control the PM's Split Personality disadvantage, and has become dominated by the module's personality. Such a character may not voluntarily remove the jack until his own personality has regained control over the PM personality (see Split Personality, p. B28).

Interface Jack . . . . . 10 points

This advantage gives the character the ability to interact directly with a computer or computer-controlled device or vehicle. Jacked into a console connected to the global computer matrix, an interface jack allows the character to venture into cyberspace (described below), a must-have item for console cowboys. When not used to jack into computer matrices, an interface jack can be used as a 3-point data jack, allowing the character to jack in 3 character points worth of abilities.

Both data and interface jacks may be added or enlarged after character creation, just as sensory implants can. In addition to character points, a character adding or improving a jack must come up with enough money to buy the equipment and pay his surgical bill. The GM must set the financial cost of such improvements.

The GM should feel free to devise new cybernetic advantages, using these as models.

Player Characters

The role-models of the genre are not the kind of people you'd want to bring home to mama, but then again, neither is your average blood-spattered fantasy barbarian. Here are a few typical cyberpunk roles:

The Fixer

This person is a leader, a focus for the activities of others in the group. The fixer oversees the "dirty work" for world-spanning mega-corporations and high-tech terrorist groups. Of course, he isn't adverse to getting down in the trenches with the rest of the group – in fact, the Fixer is often the only PC with any real military experience. He seems larger than life at times – a dystopian Doe Savage, perhaps. Turner, from Count Zero, is an example of this type. Or the GM might prefer to run this character type as an NPC, like the unstable Armitage from Neuromancer.

Advantages: Alertness, Charisma, Common Sense, Data Jack, Intuition, Luck, Patron, Reputation or Strong Will are typical.

Disadvantages: Duty, Enemy, Overconfidence and Sense of Duty are appropriate.

Skills: The Fixer will find weapon skill, Computer Operation, Leadership, Savoir-Faire, Sex Appeal, Strategy, and Tactics useful.

The Console Cowboy

A futuristic computer hacker who respects nothing, the console cowboy lives for the thrill of tackling dangerous computer security systems. These systems aren't the kind you can crack with a couple of skill rolls, though – the computers involved are so sophisticated as to project whole internalized worlds of imagination. Console cowboys usually have picturesque "handles," like those that exist today in CB radio or computer bulletin board circles. The cowboy, along with the street samurai, is the type of character most likely to have himself physically modified to make his work easier: the "jack," or computer interface plug, is no more remarkable in the world of cyberpunk than phone jack in your house or the pocket pager on your belt. Case, from Neuromancer, is the classic console cowboy; Grillbert Beep, from the Car Warriors character book, also qualifies. Check Walter Jon Williams' Hardwired for a different type of cowboy: the plugged-in, tank-driving courier.

Advantages: Absolute Timing, Alertness, Combat Reflexes, Data Jack, and Intuition are all useful in the computer matrix; an Interface Jack is essential.

Disadvantages: Addiction, Kleptomania, Odious Personal Habits, Paranoia, and Phobias are all appropriate disadvantages for an eccentric computer jock.

Skills: Computer Operation and Programming go without saying; Driving, Fast-Talk and Streetwise are also useful.

The Street Samurai

A specialist in physical security techniques and a dealer in lightning-quick death, this character finds the mystique of the historical samurai attractive. Though it is usually fatal to trifle with the samurai, one occasionally finds a heart of gold under that mask of hard-bitten cynicism. The samurai is the character most likely to have his physical abilities artificially enhanced; jacks, internalized weaponry, and sensory enhancements are all common. Molly, from Neuromancer, fits the bill here. So does the Artificial Kid, from Bruce Sterling's novel of the same name, after a fashion.

Advantages: A samurai will often have Alertness, Combat Reflexes, Danger Sense, High Pain Threshold, and Toughness.

Disadvantages: Bad Temper, Bully, Duty, Enemy, Fanaticism, Overconfidence, and Sadism are frequent failings of street samurai.

Skills: The samurai will possess a wide variety of weapon and hand-to-hand combat skills, and may also have Acrobatics, Climbing, Escape, Fast-Draw, Interrogation, Lockpicking, Poisons, Running, Stealth, Streetwise, Shadowing and Tactics.

The Kid

A gang member with vast street contacts. The kid often looks to one of the other characters as a hero or role-model, though he'd never admit it. Gangs in this milieu can have wildly eccentric characteristics. For examples of this, see the story "400 Boys," by Marc Laidlaw, in the Mirrorshades anthology. Street gangs also have an impact in Gibson's "Sprawl" books.

Advantages: Absolute Direction, Combat Reflexes, Common Sense, Danger Sense, Luck, Patron (the gang, of course) and Toughness are all strong survival traits for the kid.

Disadvantages: Cowardice, Enemy, Greed, and Impulsiveness are common; Poverty, Skinny, and Youth are almost prerequisites.

Skills: Acting, Brawling, Detect Lies, Escape, Fast-Talk, Pickpocket, Scrounging, Sleight of Hand, Stealth, and Streetwise all come in handy in a life on the street.

The Detective

Look to books by Raymond Chandler for examples of this type. High-tech hellfire doesn't faze him a bit. This one has almost as many street contacts as the kid, and may have connections in high places like the fixer. Audran, from George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails, is a "Third Wave" detective, as is Decker, from the movie Bladerunner. (Although Philip K. Dick's novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" is not precisely cyberpunk, the feel of the Bladerunner movie adaptation is still quite apt to the genre.)

Advantages: A latter-day private-eye can use Charisma, Common Sense, Danger Sense, Intuition, and Luck.

Disadvantages: Age, Enemy, Overconfidence and Stubbornness are all common among detectives.

Skills: He'll also need skills like Acting, Computer Operation, Criminology, Detect Lies, Disguise, Fast-Talk, Forensics, Forgery, Interrogation, Lockpicking, Shadowing, Stealth, and Streetwise, as well as a combat skill or two.

The Opposition

What will the PCs be up against? Not your everyday evil sorcerer or crime lord. Cyberpunk pits man against the superhuman villains of tomorrow – the worldwide megacorp, and the inhuman Artificial Intelligence computer.

Controlling wealth and power beyond the comprehension of any human being, the megacorp of cyberpunk literature has evolved into a vast, multi-brained organism. Though political governments still exist, in name at least, the real power in a cyberpunk milieu is in the hands of the megacorps, as they vie for economic domination of the world market. Many of these conglomerates have grown so large that no single individual – human or computer – can possibly track all the corp's holdings and activities. Often, a megacorp's conspiracies are as much a surprise to its executives as they are to its rivals.

Governments no longer fight wars; in cyberpunk, the battles, the conspiracies, the rebellions all pit one corporation against another. In their never-ending struggle to corner every market, the megacorps plot against each other, stealing each others' top secrets and personnel. The cyberpunk soldier, and the spy, work for business not for government.

The other classic cyberpunk antagonist is the AI – the artificial intelligence computer. Just coming into their own, new AIs struggle to gain a measure of identity and independence from their creators. No mere mortal, not even the hottest console cowboy, can hope to rival an AI's proficiency and power within the world computer matrix. With its unparalleled ability to control a technology-dependent world through cyberspace, and its freedom from human foibles like conscience and ethics, the AI presents PCs with a different challenge – to evade, and eventually defeat, the ultimate technological foe, with little or no reliance on technology!

The minions of the cyberpunk villain are many and varied, though they are – usually, at least – human. Actually, they bear a disquieting resemblance to the PCs. The corporate assassin, the console cowboy, the high-tech samurai, the street gang – all these types can be found in the employ of both the megacorp and the AI.

Perhaps safer for the PCs, or at least less threatening, are the independent members of the urban underworld which is home to many of cyberpunk's most colorful NPCs. All the members of today's criminal society – fences, thieves, pimps, prostitutes, thugs, racketeers – can be found in the c-word environment, sporting mirrorshades and the latest fashion in cosmetic surgery. Not that this subculture is a safe place to be, but at least you know where you stand in it. After all, a small time crime boss may want you dead, but at least he'll shoot you in the back with an honest pistol, instead of frying your mind in cyberspace, as an AI would.

Cyberspace

The main thing that makes running a cyberpunk campaign different from regular SF roleplaying is the existence of cyberspace – a consensual illusion shared by the people and computers that directly access a worldwide computer network. The nature of that illusion varies from author to author; it may be a Tron-like abstraction, in which everything is represented by three-dimensional shapes and colors, or a complete, pseudo-magical world, as in True Names. Regardless of the vision of cyberspace you choose for your campaign, it is important to make it both distinctly different from the physical world and internally consistent and "real."

Cyberspace is not a video game – it's a dangerous alternate world. Everything in the world computer matrix is represented in this world. As the more physical, combat-oriented characters move through the "real" world, the group's console cowboy follows them through cyberspace, taking down security systems, relaying information, and heading off attack by computer-controlled foes. When running a group of cyberpunk PCs through an adventure that is taking place both in the physical world and in cyberspace, it is important to pay attention to pacing. Strike a balance between events in cyberspace and in the physical world, cutting back and forth often enough to keep everyone interested in what's going on.

The hazards in cyberspace include virus programs, which can destroy the software that allows the console cowboys to enter and leave the computer matrix; hunter-killer programs, designed to seek and destroy the cowboy's cyberspace image; Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics, or ICE, the sophisticated defensive programs surrounding the most sensitive databases in cyberspace, capable of tracing a cowboy back to his console in the physical world or delivering lethal biofeedback; rival cowboys, capable of engaging each other in deadly cybernetic struggles; and the most deadly foe in cyberspace, the AI, an entity native to cyberspace, infinitely faster and more experienced than the hottest cowboy. A cowboy must always remember that what happens in cyberspace is just as real as what goes on in the physical world; foolish errors lead to pain, injury, and even death as fast in the computer matrix as they do in the world of flesh.

Afterword

Cyberpunk roleplaying is not for the faint of heart. It is a world of both physical and mental violence, which the GM must keep moving at a fever pitch going from bad to worse to hopeless and back again, events unfolding like an origami scorpion. If you're tough enough, fast enough, alert enough, a Cyberpunk GURPS campaign is for you!

Bibliography

Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, ed. Bruce Sterling. The definitive anthology of the genre, its preface is a manifesto of the cyberpunk movement which should be shouted from the rooftops.

The "Sprawl" Trilogy: Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, by William Gibson. This is the most fully realized milieu for a c-word RPG campaign, bar none. ML Overdrive will be available sometime in 1988.

Blood Music, by Greg Bear. Genetic engineering runs wild.

Eclipse, by John Shirley. The future is a conventional World War III, with Europe falling to pieces. A survivalist's dream.

Frontera, by Lewis Shiner. A gritty, cynical dystopian future that takes you to Mars and back.

Mindplayers, by Pat Cadigan. Lends a mindtech perspective to the genre; the main gizmo allows electronic telepathy.

Schismatrix, by Bruce Sterling. The Shapers, who alter their own genetic structure to improve themselves, come into conflict with the Mechanists, who rely on the great and powerful Oz of technology.

True Names, by Vernor Vinge. This book is a bit too soft to be categorized as cyberpunk, but it does offer an interesting view of cyberspace.

Vacuum Flowers, by Michael Swanwick. A spacefaring novel, little of its action happens on Earth – which now is comprised of billions of mindlinked people, a universal mind desiring to encompass the Solar System.

When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger. What happens to the Third World in a Cyberpunk future? Raymond Chandler hits the future at full tilt in this one.

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