"The inevitable collision of punk sensibility - the unrest, the rebellion - with desk-top computers"
Cyberpunk is a genre that began to establish as a genre of it's own and not just as another extension of science fiction only in the last two decades, primarily thanks to the efforts of William Gibson and his devoted student Bruce Sterling. In this article I will try to explain how to create a worthy cyberpunk campaign, and how to avoid the canonical pitfalls of the genre.
The primary idea you should keep in mind is that cyberpunk is a genre based on exaggerations. If you're looking for a genre to explore the theoretical issues of the space-time continuum, quantum physics and the nature of the universe - you've come to the wrong place. The essence of cyberpunk is to take existing trends and issues of our own world and exaggerate them ten fold, more often than not to grotesque levels.
In the word "Cyberpunk" the word "Cyber" comes before the word "Punk", but in their importance to the genre the order must be the other way round. What differentiates true cyberpunk from "normal science fiction" is the atmosphere and the feel, or in other words - The Punk.
As I noted earlier, cyberpunk is a genre of exaggerations. All you need to do in order to get the right atmosphere is to take the existing social, economical and political trends of nowadays (or, to be more accurate - the trends of the late eighties and early nineties that still continue today), and exaggerate them, either slightly or greatly.
The first issue to address is the erosion of the middle class - in cyberpunk, the rich are filthy rich and the poor are dirt poor. In fact, the rich have replaced the governments with their mega-cooperations and the common people are their citizens.
In a situation like this, where the cooperation's declared objective is profit (even though it's owner can no longer count his money) terms like Social Security or Human Rights have become no more than a distant memory. The low value of human life does not end here, but extends into all aspects of life, from the most popular TV shows (which would probably be reality shows where you win by killing all the other participants) to grocery stores that hold special offers on hand guns - by two and get a clip for free.
Naturally, such a Culture would encourage a vast counter-culture movement. If nowadays counter-culture includes an unconventional dress code, appealing to the media and political action in attempt to influence legislation, cyberpunk exaggerates these trends to the level of violent protests, physical detachment for society and welfare services (who are offered only to the paying customers, anyway) and pirate the media to distribute subversive messages.
However, the sad truth is that most of this protesting is in vain. The mega-cooperations are so big and so established that until the entire population of a cooperation unites against it in a violent revolution, it is inconceivable to imagine it falling. And who would want to give up on his more or less comfortable life for ideology and a life in the sewers? Moreover - the cooperations are aware of this fact, and don't take any active action to suppress this resistance. It's always useful to show the citizens the alternative, and a common enemy can act as an uniting factor in a society that doesn't have much reasons for unity except money and comfort. In addition, some problems can be best solved by someone not listed in any cooperate database and that the association with him could be easily denied.
If cyberpunk social and economical trends are exaggerated in cyberpunk, then technological trends are exaggerated ten fold. Usually, cyberpunk deals with technological quantum leaps in three main fields - communications, cybernetics (artificial implants) and biotechnology. Before discussing each fields in depth, it's important to remember the totality of the genre - technology has not only advanced, it's everywhere and impossible to ignore. The sky, blackened from industrial pollution, is hidden behind rows after rows of skyscrapers and the noise of cars and plains doesn't leave a single second of silent throughout the day. Wherever you turn, huge screen will bombard you with advertisements for products you don't need and all your financial and legal actions could only be performed through the central computer system.
If nowadays it seems as though the internet is connect to everywhere, in cyberpunk the net is really connected to everywhere and everything. Every computer, terminal, cellular phone, traffic light and ATM machine are connected to the same global network. Each and every action of the characters is recorded and stored for future research. In fact, some would claim that the real world has stopped running the net years ago, and now the net runs the real world.
The interface to the web has long ceased to be by text and sound, and is now video for the poorer people and Virtual Reality for the richer ones. In fact, in classic cyberpunk, the interfaces to the net have improved to the extent that they can provide an experience that is so realistic that it is indistinguishable from the real world, and it is not uncommon for people of the proper financial means to become addicted to their virtual life. In the most extreme cases, a person can survive for month by the use of infusions while connected to the net, and all but give up on his life in the real world.
The two other fields to have advanced considerably in cyberpunk are, as noted previously, cybernetics and biotechnology.
Cybernetics is the science of making artificial implants in human and other organisms. Nowadays, modern medicine can implant pacemakers to help damaged hearts to function properly or barely replace and repair bones and joints that where broken or damaged, but this is still a fairly new field of science. In cyberpunk, each and every organ, perhaps besides the brain, can be replaced. However cybernetics does not limit itself to replace damaged organs, but offers also to improve the human body. Armor plated skin, artificial eyes that can see in the dark, retractable metal claws and direct neural interfaces to the net are not an uncommon sight in cyberpunk, at least for those with the means to buy them.
The advanced biotechnology of the cyberpunk genre follows the same trends and offers a thriving black market (or even more grotesque - a legal one) of poor people selling their organs to richer people who want to live forever, but it too does not stop there. When designing the technology level of your cyberpunk campaign, it is always important to remember the urban decadence that is characteristic of the cyberpunk genre - an implant does not have to be functional, but can also be a simple patch of chameleon skin used to attract attention in the upcoming rave.
In this article I have attempted to give you the tools to create your own cyberpunk campaign, but I will not end it without leaving you with some guidelines as to how to go on from here. It is not hard to find sources of inspiration for cyberpunk campaigns, and every science fiction story or movie taking place in the 21st century could probably give you some good ideas. However, I suggest not to stop there. As I claimed in the beginning of this article, in most cyberpunk campaigns, the punk element is more important than the cyber one. Don't limit yourself to science fiction, but explore and learn from the social and cultural thinkers of our age. Watching Michael Moore's films or reading Douglas Coupland's Generation X would probably leave you with more ideas than you wanted. Take whichever you see fit, and feel free to add or subtract from them as you please. In the spirit of Generation X that gave birth to the cyberpunk genre - if you think it is cyberpunk, it probably really is cyberpunk.
This article first appeared in the ICon special edition of issue #14 of The Orc.