Welcome to Building a Better World Part 12. I have never been a fan of the cyberpunk genre, I hate dystopian futures, I hate the idea of megacorps and I detest the idea of whacking off your limbs to attach machine parts. It is just something that I fundamentally dislike and I’ve yet to have anyone explain to me rationally what is so exciting about the cyberpunk genre. However, my gaming group was most active at the height of the cyberpunk movement, back when William Gibson wrote Neuromancer, Bruce Sterling put out Mirrorshades and Neal Stephenson did Snow Crash. Whereas cyberpunk was, in large part, a vehement reaction against utopian science fiction, that’s really where my interest lies.
Of course, lots of people loved cyberpunk back in the day and desperately wanted to include some elements in my science fiction universe. My players, while certainly not fanatics, fell into this general category. This is how I essentially worked around this desire until it subsided.
First, let’s define what cyberpunk was. The following quote is generally accurate:
“Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.” – Lawrence Person
Of course, that isn’t what I wanted, I wanted a generally positive and bright future where science and technology improved the lives of people and even though you couldn’t consider my universe utopian, it certainly wasn’t dystopian either. You still had war and disease and economic and social problems, but the people were generally happy and the world was generally improving and that’s just not conducive to a cyberpunk game.
I did, to a certain degree, let my players play around a little bit with certain cyberpunk motifs. While society would never be run by megacorps, I did allow them to deal with a little bit of body modification, but only where it really made sense. Nobody “accidentally” got their arm chopped off so they could slap a robotic version in its place. I didn’t let them attach military-grade hardware to their cauterized stump, just because they wanted it. What they had access to, even on the black market, wasn’t significantly better than what they had in their own natural body. Sure, you might be able to incorporate a weapon into your artificial arm but the second you opened up with it, you were left with shredded flesh that had to be professionally repaired at a not inconsiderable cost and left it blatantly obvious who was causing all the trouble. You might have a plug in the back of your neck (this is before the advent of “the chip”), but just because you could hard-wire your brain to a computer doesn’t mean that you get to float off into virtual reality. The benefits were really pretty minor and the downsides were often quite severe, such that people really didn’t react well to people who had non-human-looking limbs and they lost points on reaction rolls, that it didn’t take long for players to learn that they had to be very careful what they modified and how they modified it, such that everything looked perfectly normal.
Now that’s not to say that mechanical limbs and the like were completely unacceptable in society. People in the military, especially in special forces units, would routinely change out their limbs to become better fighters. It wasn’t all that unusual to get pretty high-powered weapons built into arms or legs, very similar to what happened in Timothy Zahn’s Cobra books, but that technology was owned by the government and when you left the service, they took it back. Luckily, by that time, cloning technology was very good and when they took off their artificial arm, they could easily regrow a biological arm identical to your original. People entered the military as normal men and women and left the same way, but they were highly weaponized killing machines in the middle.
Eventually, people stopped needing artificial replacement body parts because it was more difficulty than it was worth. Besides, they could carry much more powerful weapons than they could have built in and if they were really serious, they could just step into a powered armor suit that did 10x more than any artificial limb on the market. In the long run, my players started respecting the human body and it was a matter of pride to be completely human. Biological replacements became much more preferable than artificial ones and the fake stuff was only used while the real stuff was being grown in a vat. 100% home-grown human became the ideal, just as I had always wanted it to be.
Sure, as time went on, “the chip” came along and provided a lot of that “hacker” feel that the cyberpunk fans wanted, but by that time, the excitement of fighting against “the man” had largely worn off. We moved away from the architypical “anti-hero” that permeates so much of cyberpunk, toward real characters with real motivations and realistic expectations. In short, they started roleplaying actual individual characters and not stereotypes.
Isn’t that the way it ought to be?