HIGH TECH, LOW LIFE
While technology and transhumanism are huge selling points for the Cyberpunk franchise, another one is the underdog who barks at its master; the urchin who challenges the king. One of the core tenets of the genre has always been “high tech, low life,” and its depictions of the streets have been affected by the impacts of drug culture, technology’s progress, the sexual revolution, as well as the 1980s punk rock scene. Cyberpunk was defined by its core tenets, and the grittiness and edge that was established in the 80s help define the genre to this day.
Cyberpunk, as depicted in the RPG, is dystopian. Not because it necessarily has to be, but because the underdog perspective needs it to be. Because one of the core concepts of Cyberpunk is to play as the urchin who challenges the king, it becomes important to portray the urchin as victimized by the king’s tyranny. In similar vein, the streets of Night City are the results of warring intelligence agencies, uncaring governments, and corporate greed. The more a setting pays attention to the consequences of structural inequality, the more apparent it becomes who the enemy is. In Cyberpunk, being “low life” means that you have a stake in the game; it means that your own actions become justified because your hands are being forced; the more you’re oppressed by the ruling class, the more absolved you become of your own sins. To survive in Night City, you need to be both a good guy and a bad guy; most often you’ll be navigating the blurry lines between the two.
Despite the fact that this world is clearly made to be dystopian, it also has an alluring quality. Cyberpunk’s depiction of “high tech, low life” not only paints characters as victims of oppression, but it also liberates them from that oppression. The Night City streets are violent and ruthless, but they’re also beaming with expression: people embrace fashion and vices, and they don’t care what others think. While people are social creatures, individualism signals independence, and independence signals strength. Despite being oppressed by the ruling class, Cyberpunk allows people to live free. I think that one of the reasons why people are drawn to the genre is to immerse themselves in liberation and expression, which is highlighted by the contrasting oppression.
When it comes to the depiction of “low life,” Cyberpunk Red focuses on urban and moral decay. The corebook mentions how bodies should be lying in the gutters, how wild-eyed lunatics roam the streets, and people’s apartments and vehicles are regularly broken into. The urban streets are like a battlefield, the sky is full of hydrocarbons, and the ocean is full of sludge. I mentioned how Cyberpunk can be an immersion in liberation and expression, but people rejecting human connection in favor of isolation and individualism is also breeding paranoia. The world is dangerous. That’s been established. But when things have gone to shit, there’s a real fear of betrayal and knives in the back, as people only look after themselves.
I also mention this in the article Creating Your Own Setting, but one of the best ways to portray a setting that you want to associate with a particular feeling—like how Cyberpunk Red wants to portray Night City’s combat zones as shitholes—is to also present a contrast to that image. In that article, I state that the contrast between the Shire and Mordor helps the readers understand Sauron’s evil and what is to be lost if he wins. The same goes for a setting like Cyberpunk. In order to let players understand why Night City is a shit place to live, you should present the contrast to that shit show. Distant skyscrapers stand like glittering citadels and the corps within them are enjoying luxuries while you’re out there standing in someone’s puke. This contrast not only shows the players how the streets are bad, but they also show them that the powers at be don’t care that the streets are bad. In fact, they may be enjoying their luxuries because the streets remain bad. It is first when the players are becoming aware of this contrasting reality that the setting they are in can start evoking the feeling that you want it to evoke. And once the players start experiencing the negative consequences of this contrasting setting more directly, they will start creating their own villains even without your direct input.
Cyberpunk Red also puts a lot of emphasis on the possibility of player death. This is where I and R Talsorian Games diverge a little bit. R Talsorian Games writes in the corebook that you shouldn’t be afraid to kill off player characters, that you should constantly get them in fights, traps, and betrayals. There should be no one that they can trust entirely, and no place should be absolutely safe. You should never let them rest. R Talsorian Games writes: “If they can’t handle the pressure, they shouldn’t be playing Cyberpunk. Send them back to that nice roleplaying game with the happy elves and the singing birds.” I think that not only is R Talsorian Games completely off base with this statement, but they’re also disrespecting fantasy games as being for people who can’t handle pressure. Their focus on the GM “not being afraid to kill off player characters” can also give the impression that the GM should put themselves in an antagonistic position rather than in a position as narrative facilitator.
In my opinion, presenting a Cyberpunk story comes back to atmosphere and the aforementioned contrast. Putting the player characters in dangerous situations can help to highlight that contrast, to remind them that the world has gone to shit and that they’re in the middle of it. But when it comes to storytelling, there’s nothing that suggests that the dangers in this game should be inherently more deadly than, for example, the dangers in one of those happy elf games that they were mentioning. As a matter of fact, placing the players in situations designed to relieve the pressure helps to further highlight this contrast. The moment the player feels safe, they can start reflecting over how dangerous the alternative is. By never letting them relieve pressure, the danger becomes the norm—and it loses impact. I also think it’s completely counterproductive for R Talsorian Games to state in their book that “this is how you play Cyberpunk,” when the golden rule should be applicable to every game: you play the game as you wish. Yes, showing the players that their characters can die is a good thing to add suspense and present a grittier experience, but portraying the game as if player death is the norm creates an obstacle towards character immersion and investment. Why should I care about this character if they’re going to die anyway? In my opinion, R Talsorian Games should have said that “this is how you can play Cyberpunk” instead of stating it as fact.
I see my own GM style as being a narrative facilitator rather than an antagonist. I aim to treat the player characters as protagonists in the story, and I aim to present challenges that feel like challenges but that also lead to pleasant rewards. I aim to present a game where the players feel like there are actual tangible risks while, at the same time, not feeling afraid to invest in their character and dare having long-term ambitions. The players feel like they get more out of the experience, I get to portray more aspects of the setting, and yes, I am still playing Cyberpunk and I am in no way playing less Cyberpunk because the book’s interpretation isn’t for me. The streets are still shit. People still betray you. Bullets still hurt. But the fact that you actually grow attached to this character of yours and don’t expect them to die in any moment makes their potential death, or the grim realities of Cyberpunk’s dystopian setting, having a much greater impact. When your inevitable death isn’t the norm, your potential death will become much more memorable. And in my opinion, the experience will be both better and feel more like Cyberpunk, because you ultimately end up hurting more now when the stakes are higher.
If you want your Cyberpunk game to feel fresh, I recommend experimenting with additional themes that may either complement or contrast the suggested Cyberpunk grit. None of these additional themes will contradict the game’s setting or system. Instead, they’ll provide more options to think about when structuring a campaign.
The first theme is action: This theme introduces a conflict incorporating suspense and danger, just like Cyberpunk does, but it places more focus on exciting action sequences. Action often involves risk-taking and there’s a possibility that players in a fairly lethal game avoid risk-taking because of the associated lethality. In this case, you could motivate more risk-taking without necessarily tuning down the lethality by presenting rewards that encourage the risk-taking behavior. One such reward could be a “stunt bonus” that gives the player a Luck point if they’re engaging in a particularly cool or over-the-top action sequence.
Another theme that often goes hand in hand with action is adventure: By adding this theme to the game, you should encourage exploration and mystery. It’s possible to add a sense of adventure to a Cyberpunk game without adding the happy elves by instead having them explore metropolitan underbellies, abandoned laboratories, or maybe have them awaken an AI only to learn that it was disabled for a reason.
By incorporating an apocalyptic theme, you would have the players face off against a challenge that has a risk of large-scale life-changing impact. Maybe they learn that there’s a pocket nuke on a timer that they need to find and disarm. Apocalyptic games add a sense of urgency to the story. Related to this is the post-apocalyptic theme which takes place after the disaster has struck. Cyberpunk is post-apocalyptic in a sense, because people are still sifting through the debris left in the wake of disaster. If you want to make your Cyberpunk game feel more post-apocalyptic, put more emphasis on the fact that the players are in a world that is the consequence of disaster.
Cyberpunk focuses on man integrating with machine, but the technological surge created more than just cyberware and new gadgets. You could shift your focus towards more of a biopunk theme by putting more emphasis on the negative aspects of biotechnology, such as synthetic organisms, mutations, and evil experiments breaking out from their labs. Another related theme is nanopunk which shifts the focus towards the negative aspects of nanotechnology instead, but are otherwise similar in atmosphere and theme. There’s nothing preventing you from having a mix of cyberpunk, biopunk, and nanopunk in your story.
The crime genre focuses on criminal acts and investigations, and Cyberpunk opens up a spectrum of new possibilities for such stories. The core concept of the crime theme is to focus on the investigation itself, with players piecing clues together in order to solve a mystery. This is also related to the mystery genre, with the difference being that the latter often has the answers presented early (such as a closed circle of suspects) and more emphasis is placed on solving the puzzle than chasing after the bad guy.
By focusing more on the dystopian theme, you emphasize that Cyberpunk’s setting is violent, dehumanizing, and governed by tyrannical forces. This is an inherent theme in Cyberpunk already, but you can highlight it more by shifting the focus more towards questions regarding politics, economics, and technology—as well as the nature of the human condition. There are options for a more utopian theme to be added to your Cyberpunk game as well by presenting the high class luxuries as utopian pockets within a larger dystopian world, and then invite the PCs to these pockets.
Feminist sci-fi is a subgenre that includes themes such as gender inequality, sexuality, ethnicity, and economics. It’s also known for exploring both stories where there are no traditional patriarchal structures as well as stories where such structures are intensified. Cyberpunk allows for stories on both of those spectrums—the technological and societal shifts could have both provided opportunities for challenging structures of oppression as well as created new tools for oppression or even entirely new forms of oppression.
The way R Talsorian Games presents Cyberpunk in the book is more aligned with the grimdark theme, in my opinion. By incorporating this into your game, you emphasize ultraviolence and nihilism. No one can be trusted, and everyone is out for themselves. In a grimdark game, you turn up the volume on dystopia and make things so gritty, dark, and amoral that players can even get away with atrocious acts without moral responsibility.
It’s even possible to turn your Cyberpunk game into a horror game. This theme is meant to evoke emotions of dread and discomfort where you depict an eerie atmosphere to get the adrenaline pumping. Horror can be psychological and thrilling, it can be gruesome and violent, but it’s also the perfect opportunity to make players sit at the edge of their seats.
Perhaps something more unexpected is the idea of mannerpunk. Here you move away from intense and gritty action in favor of human intrigue. In this type of story, the player characters engage in the society they live in, overcoming everyday challenges, and competing with others around them. There’s nothing preventing you from turning your Cyberpunk game into an exercise in community building.
You could turn your game into a military sci-fi where the players are soldiers instead of Edgerunners. Here you play a story focusing on life in active duty where players are equipped with military weapons and technologies. If the players want more expensive toys to play with than what they can find in Night City’s streets, this could be an interesting campaign to play.
What about a romance game? Now, roleplaying romance can be tricky to get right and it’s not something that will be appropriate for every group. Because of how immersive these types of games can be, it’s important that everyone knows that the romance is strictly in character between consenting players and not something to be misinterpreted as real romance between the players themselves. When the game triggers real emotions, it’s important that the players are able to rationalize those emotions to avoid having them impact a player’s real life. However, if the group is mature enough to be able to handle bringing romance to the game, it can provide a rewarding experience that adds a new level of emotional depth to the story.
There are other aspects of a social theme as well, where you’re taking a step away from the gritty action for the benefit of an exploration of society as a whole. By adding this element to your Cyberpunk game, you encourage the players to explore and experience society in a way that lets you construct narratives surrounding the different ethical implications associated with that society. This is related to the aforementioned mannerpunk but puts more emphasis on the political, economical, ideological, and ethical implications of Cyberpunk society.
As mentioned, there are many ways to play Cyberpunk and while I do respect R Talsorian Games for the theme they want to portray—it’s their game and their vision—I want with this article show potential players and game masters that there are endless opportunities for Cyberpunk stories and that I hope that the book’s presentation doesn’t deter you from exploring the game in your own way. Cyberpunk has a great world and a great system, and while Cyberpunk Red is still fairly new, I did explore Cyberpunk 2020 in many different themes with different levels of grittiness. If you want to play the game the way the book presents it, then go for it, but I recommend trying to mix in additional themes and experimenting more with the narrative structure to give yourself more options for diverse stories.
Art is from the Cyberpunk Red corebook