Adam Edwards is a third year PhD researcher in English Literature from the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the growing popularity of the Cyberpunk genre of Science Fiction. He is particularly interested in how it responds to rapidly developing real-world digital technologies and how Cyberpunk can be used to critique these technologies’ potential role in the exploitation of their users.
“So, you wanna be a Cyberpunk?” How Tabletop RPGs Provoke Storytelling in Their Players
This discussion has been copied from the Discord server, names have been reduced to first name, discussion threads have been grouped and edited for better readability.
Josh: Hi Adam, I liked the way you laid out the affordances of the 5e hit point system and its impact on narrative structure!
Katherine: Hi Adam, I was really interested in your analysis of cyberpunk TTRPGs as opposed to other RPGs not in the cyberpunk subgenre. Why does the subgenre afford a focus on relationships and precarity?
Adam: Thank you. I think Cyberpunk RPGs have a particular importance in the genre from the emphasis it gives on self-expression, whether through style or resistance. Both of these elements have come up across the talks for the past 2 days, but I think the ability for players to get into the thick of these interactions is part of the uniqueness of the medium itself.
Katherine: ah right, that makes sense– sort of like Josh was saying in his presentation. I guess I don’t know all that much about the world of RPGs but I found myself wondering if D&D audiences are very different from CP2020 audiences, or whether the same people would end up playing very different games
Adam: To the issue of affordances in particular, I think there’s an interesting break where traditional early Cyberpunk tends to foreground loners, that unusually RPGs, at least Cyberpunk ones, don’t play into, I think one major factor in this is the support for Games Masters, fleshing out families etc to provide points of tension for the players is a useful ‘tool’ for extending stories, but merely confirming that detail ingrains characters in their world.
Josh: Several of the key character abilities ain CP 2020 actually work entirely through social connections, which is highly unusual. The Nomad role, for example, can call on a clan network as their “big” power move
Josh: Do you think this emphasis on precarity holds up through later editions of the Cyberpunk game? I don’t know if the comparison of CP2020 to D&D 5e is entirely fair, as there has been a general move away from disposability and character death in TRPGs. I think your argument re: hitpoints and scaling still works using 2nd ed AD&D, but character death was much more casual back in the day accross the board
Adam: for sure there’s been a real move away from this dynamic on the whole, particularly from D&D itself. From what I’ve read of Cyberpunk RED (It’s still in press release until later this year) it uses very similar systems. The Combat system (Friday Night FireFight) is more of a refinement (I think it has even a similar jokey name). So this transition away kind of stays true in Cyberpunk more than D&D I don’t know if you’re familiar with Powered By The Apocalypse games? The Sprawl as I believe Evan Torner mentioned in this chat, is a great example. It sticks to this disposability/high lethality mindset which the popular high fantasy verision Dungeon World (built out of the same ruleset) also moves away from with higher hit points and survivability in its characters
Josh: I know there has been a move back towards precarity recently, pushing back against the style of “smooth progression” gaming. I suspect it is related (at least indirectly) to the similar boom in gritty fantasy (Sam Sykes, Joe Abercrombie, Morgan’s The Steel Remains) during the last 10 years.
Adam: that’s a really interesting point, that I hadn’t considered. I think also however, there’s a big push in the indie development area to continue towards ‘smooth progression’ as such, and I think it was Carmen’s talk about inclusive game design has got me thinking if there’s a similar push in the non-digital game environment
Evan: One of the ways that Powered By The Apocalypse games work is to adapt the dynamics of an HBO-style (Game of Thrones or Spartacus, if you will) TV series, which hardwires characters into dramatic conflict to achieve their goals, continuously offers difficult “Yes but” decisions to the players, and always ends on a cliffhanger. It’s built into how the system handles task resolution, and PbtA hacks such as The Sprawl are simply grafting that system onto cyberpunk material.
Adam: Also in response to Evan, there’s obvious connections in how Powered by the Apocalypse games structure themselves around dramatic pacing, but as you said ‘grafting’ is I think really key as a term for how they fit differently across their respective genres. As a small example, Dungeon World includes a character drive, so acting towards the main purpose of your character gives you XP. For the Sprawl, it will be, for example, ‘when your previous involvement with X gets in your way’ mark XP. There’s an overall similarity, but Sprawl encourages the world moving against/around the character in a way that has not been grafted into the high fantasy version
Esko: Adam, could you comment on the other kind of precarity vs CP2020 characters. Namely, as edgerunners, are they still encouraged to play out mundane life and the challenges it provides them with as illegals and precarious gigi-workers of a sort?
Adam: I think one of the weakpoints of these systems, CP2020 in particular, is how these precarities in employment are often implied more than overstated. The guidelines Pondsmith provides suggest a number of different group dynamics for the ‘day jobs’ for example of characters, but the example adventure takes the form of a traditional revenge plot. It sets up these relations and enourages GMs to not let their players rest, but then doesn’t directly show these strings being pulled I think as much as it probably should
Esko: Extremely interesting!
Pawel: (This is all so bloody interesting – taking tons of notes!)
Josh: In some ways Shadowrun is a little more on top of this, with its concept of Social Identification Numbers as a proxy for documented status.
Esko: Well… Kind of, but I can’t recall how they encourage you to play those complications out (instead of just run after the other).
Adam: Which Shadowrun: Hong Kong more directly emphasises. Just plugging a good game too
Esko: Well this I do recognize!
Josh: I enjoyed all three, but Hong Kong did the best social thinking of the bunch for sure
Evan: Hi Adam — Thanks for this! 2 questions: 1. How does the specificity of 5e’s cultural moment factor into your analysis? CP2020 is a creation of the late 1980s in response to Traveller; D&D 5e a creation of the mid-2010s in response to growing nostalgia for the early 80s and the grassroots OSR dev community. 2. Have you taken a look at Zagal and Altizer’s work on character progression?
Adam: Thank you. First off I hadn’t looked at Zagal and Altizer’s work yet actually, thank you so much for the link. Out of curiousity what games do they use for their analysis in that?
Evan: They use CP2020, D&D, Vampire — the usual! CoC is in there (I always historicize 5e because of course #FireMikeMearls and also much of the indie innovations of the early 2010s were appropriated in it without attribution, and now it’s selling more copies than ever)
Josh: Call of Cthuhlu is the classic of negative progression. I believe, but can’t prove, that the sanity mechanic was at least an indirect influence on Humanity cost And re: D&D—In my anecdotal experience, lot of the success of 5e is its release time in relation to the mainstreaming of Settlers and other “Euro-style” games. Thats the reason I was able to get new players, more than the rule updates
mlex: I love that one of the basic strategies in CoC is to go insane.
Adam: To your question— it was always going to be a little more awkward comparing those particular editions due to their time gap. For conciseness in the talk 5e D&D had a much more inclusive DM introduction than AD&D did (the one contemporary to CP2020), so in its actual audience direction made a better immediate comparison. And Cyberpunk RED’s stuff is not yet fully fleshed out with a full release. However interestingly there are large parts of CP2020 lifted almost verbatim into the new release, particularly in the introduction. As a short answer to your question, I think there’s a similarity in the audience’s familiarity with the texts, for an early RPG release such as CP2020 and the boon in RPG culture in the mid 2010s, but my foremost thought for the comparison was purpose of text
Josh: This point about the text addressing not just players but the GM is a great one!!!
Katherine: Can I ask a noob question? I want to learn more about TTRPGs in general, and specifically want to see some people who stream them so that I can get a sense of how all the handbooks result in stories. Can anyone recommend a series / podcast / stream or something that I can watch that is relatively well executed?
Josh: I would recommend Dimension20’s Escape from the Bloodkeep. 2 reasons: 1: It is a cracked version of Tolkien, which makes it fun and accessible 2: several of the players are also new to the system, so game concepts are not taken for granted.
Adam: There’s loads around at the moment. Twitch and youtube are great for it. I think one thing to consider is the length of them, Critical Role is a really famous one. And one I really enjoy. But is long ongoing and has 4hr long episodes which are a bit much for me
Josh: I love critical role, but it is truly the unfiltered TTRPG experience, including 45 minutes shopping and 90 minute “so what are we doing” convos…
Adam: Oh so much this. Sometimes I’m in the mood for that to wash over me but many times there’s just….so much
Adam: Actually, if you like Cyberpunk, a nice starting place might be Polygon’s Youtube. I think it’s Stina who brings them up too, but their plays of Cyberpunk RED are really fun and a pretty good representation of it for intro
Evan: I would also recommend Alex Robert’s podcast Backstory on the many creators working in the tabletop RPG and larp space today (The One Shot network also has excellent actual play streams)
Katherine: Thank you thank you, all! I really appreciate the specific examples. I will definitely check out escape from the bloodkeep, and I’ll maybe scan through critical role and check out the polygon channel!
Emily: Very interesting talk. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the system that MindJammer uses – this also uses a system that is very grounded in the setting through the use of aspects as a mechanic that can apply to a person, environment or object.
Adam: I have to admit, Mindjammer is a game that’s been on my periphery, but not one I have found time to dig into yet. Would you be able to expand a little on aspects in it and what it does with them?
Emily: So aspects about the environment can be used to the character’s advantage. The players help the GM describe what the place their in looks like – say you are on a planet with lots of forest – great for stealth! You invoke the aspect of the place to allow you to achieve goals in the game. The same goes for characters – if you say your character has a core aspect – personality trait – you can invoke this in order to achieve something. Say the aspect is “the most dangerous assassin in the galaxy” then you can invoke this aspect of your character in order to pull off an assassination in the game, etc.
Evan: Mindjammer is Fate Core, which is built on the bones of Amber: DTRPG — Characters are badass and cool! We want to show off their coolness!
Josh: Amber is forever the best and weirdest of times.
Josh: Back to the specifics of your presentation, for a moment, but I do want to push a little bit on your statement that the build progression in CP2020 is lateral. I know what you mean, but I think you state it too strongly. I mean, almost every skill description block includes a vertical scaling from +1 noob to +10 legend. I think this might just be an issue of softening your wording.
Adam: I do agree I think in my desire to be concise I was too sweeping with that comparison. I do think however that a focus on broad skill development in the way CP2020 represents it gears towards handling challenges at a similar level for longer than the repeated gaining of abilities (or moves) as in other games, which tends to ramp up challenge scaling differently. But yes, the development isn’t entirely lateral, I guess a less steep gradient might be a better imagery for it
Josh: For sure. And climbing the gradient isn’t the experience that is centered.
Evan: CP2020 is also very GURPS-y — You’ve got a big array of skills, you advance by advancing those, and pretty much always you will never feel like your character has mastered enough. Very Wilhelm Meister….
Adam: I really love seeing Grant Howitt’s design process, as I think he is really interesting for his direct statements of play experience, and what stories he tries to create Thinking of Spire and Heart, his co-designed games more than the one-sheets like honey heist
Evan: Grant Howitt! Darling of the itch.io scene
Adam: GURPS is also really good for the social reaction things too I believe? It’s game I’ve only recently actually got any experience with, but the social reaction roll I think GMs make when you meet people really reminded me of CP2020’s use of reputation, for how you style/present yourself
Josh: If you mean, “GURPS has crunch related to x we can analyze” the answer is yes, whatever x is
Adam: Interesting. I like how it abstracts this, for characters, into what’s important for their conception of themself, if I follow right. Spellbound Kingdoms uses a similar idea for Histories, where you can invoke a history you have for bonuses, but I really like the idea of moving it away from past experience to this conception of self. Also for extending that to the environment As there’s a lull I just wanted to write here a massive thank you to everyone who watched my paper, for the thoughtful discussion and for all the chatter across this chaotic server :stuck_out_tongue: I’m going to stick around and I’ll keep checking this channel for as long as it’s live too but I wanted to take a second and say thanks to you all 🙂 It’s not really a plug so I’ll put it here, I tweet infrequently on @The_euphemism I’m trying to follow many of you from here to keep up with this fantastic community this has put together so hopefully twitter will help with that too
Evan: I’d love to try a distanced TRPG with @Adam Edwards and anyone else who’d like to give it a go! I think a short campaign might be interesting.