Wednesday, April 20

Cyberpunk Roleplaying

Cory Doctorow blogged about cyberpunk roleplaying the other day, and as Fraxas could probably tell you, boy does that take me back.
As a genre, cyberpunk has the kind of potential for wish-fulfillment and adventure that appeals to a lot of us, and it's a short step from daydreaming about embedded neural interfaces, reflex augmentation, and dystopian gang-wars to playing them out in collaborative gaming experiences
Before I go further, I'd like to preface this post with an introduction. And before the introduction, a prelude. And before the prelude, a disclaimer. We all know that roleplaying is horribly geeky. But you already now that we play Magic:the Gathering --online, no less-- so the damage is already done. Besides, we wear our geekiness on our sleeves. No longer are we awkward teenagers, starved for acceptance. We are confident, married, and hygenic adults; therefore, there is no shame in the following admission.

Like Cory, Fraxas and I are both lapsed roleplayers. In fact, we maintained a campaign that lasted 7 years of real world time and 20-some years in the world of our game, a fantastic cyberpunk vehicle called Underground that has since dropped off the face of the planet. Here are the last remaining remnants of this game to be found on the web:

  • The publisher's abandoned order site
  • An old unfavourable review of the game - maybe I'll rebut it sometime
  • An old semi-favourable review
  • The book's pen-and-paper database entry
  • The Amazon page for the rulebook, including some customer reviews
In his post, Cory Doctorow raves over the details and flavour of a particular game, but the completeness of its rulespace makes him a little uneasy:
The rules then take apart all the themes in every flavor of cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, SIngularity and what-have-you fiction and expose their formulaic roots, literally reducing them to numerical expressions of, for example, the comparative bad-assness of Hiro Protagonist's Metaverse bike and Molly Mirrorshades's retracting claws. It made me a little squeamish, seeing it all turned into quantities and formulae like that. . .
Quantities and formulae. I have two things to say about that as they related to the old High-School Era Underground Campaign.

First, it's exactly the quantities and formulae that form roleplaying's initial appeal to the budding Grade Nine geek. As in, we already really liked all the tropes of cyberbunk (or fantasy, or perhaps vampire-gothism) But what really hooked us was this: our first encounter with an RPG rulebook, leafing through the oversize pages, absorbing all the rules, filtering the numbers and equations through our geeky forebrains. In other words, it was the action of rules-processing that triggerred us into believing that we could be part of that world; the mathematical rules, tailored to our minds, confined our imaginations to a sector of plausibility, and hence roleplayability. The Underground book excelled in this case; funny, colourful, bitingly satirical, and full of near-future dystopian cyberpunky goodness, bundled with a logarithmic rules scheme that made for fast game-action.

My second point is this: the rules --the quantities and formulae-- hamstring the estrwhile roleplayer as speedily as they entince him. The concepts of mini-maxing, hack-n-slashing, or metagaming in any sense surface very quickly in pen-and-paper roleplaying, and those are plenty of reasons to let the Quanties and Formulae make you feel queasy. But good gamers don't let that happen, or at the very least, they don't let it interfere with quality of narrative and gameplay.

What is roleplaying? It's basically improvisational, collaborative storytelling. That's all it is, really. Not everybody needs dice for that - Fraxas and I abandoned the dice very early in our campaign. In so doing, we also pretty much ignored the "rules." We even came to ignore the provided framework and setting of the game itself (as GM, in a twist on the player, I moved the action ahead 9 years, effectively changing the world), chosing to craft one of our own as we went along.

So while we no longer feel ashamed of our geekiness, it turns out that roleplaying isn't necessarily that geeky. Sure, when you call it roleplaying, you're conjuring images of fat unwashed men pretending to be elves or munchkins in their parent's basement. But "improvisational, collaborative storytelling"? I'll bet some of the world's greatest stories were conceived in just that fashion.

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