A Game Per Year: Cyberpunk (1990)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the original American edition of Cyberpunk The cover of the Finnish version is almost identical, the only difference a small FGH logo in the lower right corner.

I must confess that I cheated. The game for 1990 is Cyberpunk which indeed came out in 1990. However, I read it in the Finnish translation by Joona Vainio, which was released in 1991.

Cyberpunk is a seminal roleplaying game for both the artform as a whole and the scene where I originate in particular. It’s also a perfect game to read in the context of this project because having read all the games from previous years, I really appreciate what Cyberpunk does.

Cyberpunk sells its ideas with prose style, with attitude, with visuals. It’s not a cold exercise in tedious game mechanics but an all spectrum assault, using everything you can do in a printed product to engage the imagination. This is a beautiful thing.

It’s also an interesting game because its influence in terms of the cyberpunk genre is so broad. Although cyberpunk was originally defined by movies and novels, I’d argue that few works encapsulate it in such a pure form as does Cyberpunk

For me, the core of the game is the four tenets expressed early on. In the English original, they are:

  1. Style Over Substance
  2. Attitude is Everything
  3. Always take it to the Edge
  4. Break the Rules

The game mechanics of Cyberpunk were sidelined long ago. The setting is dated. Yet I think these ideas live on, in the type of roleplaying that’s been going on in my community for over 25 years now. If you look at it right, that could also be a manifesto for a certain type of Nordic Larp.

(The other game that defined my corner of the Finnish scene was Vampire, of course.)

The translation for the Finnish edition is generally held to be the best of any roleplaying game translated into Finnish, and for good reason. It’s rough and ready, capturing the energy and attitude of the source material perfectly. When I was growing up, there were two geek books where the Finnish version was considered better than the original. One was this and the other was Lord of the Rings.

Reading Cyberpunk now, with one year to go before we reach 2020, is an exercise in futures gone past. In terms of the setting, the hacking system is bittersweet because it now feels kinda silly with its long-distance phone calls and data fortresses, but its also cool and visual. Online is a fantasy world, not the everyday reality it is for us.

Back in the Nineties when I played this game a few times, we were laser focused on two character types in particular: the solo and the netrunner. The solo is the badass killer in a trenchcoat, a katana and an Uzi. The netrunner is the hacker. Reading the book now, most of the game’s systems are given over to these two character types.

Yet there are others who now seem much more interesting. The rockerboys, the medias, the corporates, the fixers and the nomads seem far richer in experiential potential. I feel like I want to run a game of Cyberpunk just because I think now it would be much more nuanced than when I was fourteen.

Although to be honest, at fourteen the katanas and the cybertech were certainly fascinating enough!

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