It’s twenty minutes into the future. The geographical region once known as the United States (we used the East Coast of the United States because we’re familiar with it, but pick someplace you’re familiar with, and preferably that you like) has shed the former social structure in favor of a confederation of corporate city-states. Fear not, though! The relentless march of technology has allowed a near-perfect flow of information. There are no secrets that a corporation can keep from the populace, and there’s enough freedom of choice and ubiquitous access to alternatives that the citizenry can in fact police the corporations by voting with their dollar. This is a laissez-faire capitalist utopia played straight. The city-states each have their own social order, some are nearly anarchic, some highly hierarchical, but one law is sacrosanct: No citizen can be restrained against their will.
If you live in a highly regulated theocratic nation, it’s because you want to. If you live in a hereditary monarchy with a genetically engineered aristocracy designed to be better and smarter than everyone else, it’s because you’ve decided to live there. At any time you may sign into a corporate charter and join the society. Nearly everyone is happy, because if they become discontent with the standard of living provided, they leave. It’s not a perfect society, but it is a great one: nobody is hungry (technology has mostly gotten rid of scarcity), nobody is oppressed (freedom of information means nobody can get away with straight-up oppression) and everyone is at least content. It’s a utopia.
Next door is the cyberpunk dystopia: the West Coast. Again, we chose a region we’re fairly familiar with; pick some place you’d enjoy severely altering. Pick a longstanding cultural enemy or rival, and make them guilty of the worst things you can manage to include in a game. Again, technology is ubiquitous, but there are no safeguards there to prevent all the exploitation and straight-up cyberpunk tropes from rearing their ugly heads.
While movement is free between members of the Utopian Confederation, the border with the Western Territories is not. It’s closely guarded by both sides – the Confederation needs to assign refugees from the Territories to the society that suits them best, while the Territories need to maintain their population, by any means necessary. Imagine if everything American propaganda said about itself and the USSR were true – but with robot bits.
The players live in the Utopian Confederation and have, each for their own reasons, joined the Border Patrol. Some might be true believers, patriots who understand that in order to maintain their society, someone has to guard it. Some might be missionaries, trying to uplift the poor benighted people of the Territories. Some might be outcasts, visionaries with no society in the Confederation that suits them properly, out to show just how wonderful their vision of society could be for those who sign on. Some may just be in it because it’s the only real challenge left. And some may be monsters, sociopaths with no place in the Confederation but to do what dirty work needs to be done.
The Border Patrol safeguards the Confederation, but the best way to do that is to get the enemy to join the Confederation. To that end, the Border Patrol splits its resources between counterterrorism, counter-espionage against agents of the Territories, and cultural warfare. Instead of your bog-standard “get into as much trouble as possible and shoot your way out” cyberpunk technology-porn, the Border Patrol infiltrates a region of the neighboring enemy and plants the seeds of revolution, as bloodlessly as possible.
- Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer
- George Orwell’s 1984
- Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale
- Ursula K. LeGuinn’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
- Max Barry‘s Jennifer Government
Playing the Game:
Players may all be from the same nation-state, or part of a coalition force. If you feel like adding complexity, bear in mind that in most cases, characters who are functional are going to be True Believers in the rightness of their society. If you like party conflict, each character in a coalition force may pull to have their own views on how the society should work prevail. If you don’t like party conflict but enjoy factionalism, the party should all be from a single nation-state, and the Storyteller should control another team out there as a foil.
You should decide what nation-states are present in the Confederation. Some characters may be looking to start a new one carved out of the neighboring territories. Everyone should contribute something they’d like to see in a perfect society – after all, you want something worth fighting for.
Similarly, to design the neighboring dystopia, have everyone go around the table and contribute a social aspect or attitude that rides that thin line between making your blood boil without being too traumatizing to really deal with in game. Respect other players triggers, but make it the kind of society that you’d feel motivated to go out and fix, if you saw a way to do it.
Burning Empires has the best Large-Scale Social Combat system we’ve seen, but let us know of others!
Shadowrun, Freemarket, and GURPS Cyberpunk are probably your best sources for the techno-porn that you just can’t have cyberpunk without.
Cold City delivers the Soviet Spy-era Shadow-War vibe very nicely.
FATE is fantastic for a low-maintenance crunch-light system.
- Shadowrun by FASA
- Cold City
by Contested Ground Studios
- FATE Core by Evil Hat Productions
- Burning Empires
by Luke Crane
- Gurps Cyberpunk
- Reign RPG
by Greg Stolze
Drink: MacAllen 12
Voyage III – The Space Between Us – Wake Up – The Kyoto Connection