SwanCon XV: The Dark Future and RPGs

Pages 29 and 30 of the SwanCon XV Program book contains an article by Lev Lafayette (as Anthony Anderson). Running head on page 29 is “Personally, Nothing Tops Metamorphosis Alpha”.


In a fairly similar development to that of literature, a small number of science fiction RPG’s have broken away from classical space opera style games. This article provides a brief overview of the “Dark Future” role playing games that are currently available and the strengths and flaws that are common to all of them.

It is arguable that the easy science fiction RPG’s did have a dark future orientation. For example, it is quite evident that Traveller was influenced in a direction that made it similar to the “Blake’s Seven” T.V. series. However, the overall emphasis in science fiction RPG’s in the late 70’s and early 80’s was very much a case of meeting patrons in a bar, galactic wars and capitalist empires. These forms of RPG’s have been modified slightly, but essentially remain the same. In fact, the “big three” science fiction RPG’s (2300AD, MegaTraveller and Spacemaster) still maintain the classical orientation, as do other significant SF RPG’s (GURPS Space, Star Hero and Warhammer 40,000 – if it can be called an RPG).

Whereas the larger gaming companies have shown a tendancy [sic] to promote space opera campaigns, it is not surprising that a small and relatively unknown company, R. Talsorian Games, produced the first dark future RPG, Cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk is, in my opinion, still one of the best of the dark future RPG’s. Whereas the game mechanics are simple, they are adequate. Cyberpunk was the first game to introduce cyberspace programs in a fashion similar to fantasy RPG’s spells, making Netrunners into “wizards”. It is a concept which has followed over to nearly all other similar RPG’s.

Characters in Cyberpunk can expect to have quite a few bionics as they are comparitively [sic] cheap. Also a fairly detailed “lifepath” is given to determine a character’s background. The game has a near-future setting (2013) where the “old-powers” still exist but on a much reduced scale. In doing so, Cyberpunk creates an environment sufficient for players to handle the new world.

Finally, Cyberpunk is still the best game for style. All the artwork, all the text, and yes, even the black box the game came in positively reeks of a very radical and very cynical future.

Every day should be grim, gloomy and overcast. The stars never come out. The sun never shines. Ther [sic] are no singing birds, laughing children. The last bird died in 2008 and kids are grown in vats.

Cyberpunk the RPG was very successful product. It is therefore not surprising that soon after CyberTech, a supplement for 2300AD, appeared. But as the old adage goes, you can’t trust a book by it’s [sic] cover. And CyberTech has a very good cover. For the people of 2300AD, with their own pre-fab universe, cyberpunk had to be made to fit them. As a result, the only explaination [sic] they could give was that cyberpunks were a bunch of middle-class kids who will settle down some day. Throw in a few pieces of tech, and viola! here’s to the dark future. 2300AD is a universe where the great American dream becomes a science fiction reality. If you wish to run a cyberpunk campaign, avoid this book at all costs.

The next dark future RPG to come available was Shadowrun by FASA. I don’t claim to have a great knowledge of the game itself, but essentially it is a combination of fantasy and dark future science fiction. Elven net-runners, orcish mercenaries etc. run rampant. Typically for FASA, its mechanics seem fairly simple but, again like FASA usually does, fail a few “reality checks”. Shadowrun promises to be a popular game due to the marketing push behind it and games can expect quite a few supplements to come out. If a combination of magic and tech in a grotty environment is your thing, then Shadowrun is your game. Personally, I think it has kitsch value.

The latest dark future RPG to come out is Cyberspace by I.C.E. Now this game really surprised me. I.C.E. are notorious for their high fantasy games (Role Master, Middle Earth RPG) and space opera science fiction (Space Master). Given this I couldn’t possibly credit them with being capable of producing a game where good and evil aren’t clear cut as chalk and cheese. Besides, the mechanics of a game, which these people love, would slow the game down too much. I was wrong. Very wrong.

Cyberspace uses a much streamlined version of the traditional I.C.E. games to speed up play and design of characters. Also, unlike their usual games, a character’s social class has a huge effect on play. In addition, Cyberspace does manage to present the attitudes of the dark future quite well and incorporate them into game mechanics. Whereas it is not as hard-hitting or as powerful as the original Cyberpunk game, it is a definite improvement over some so-called offerings of the genre.

And now for a glimpse of the Dark Future itself…

As you would know from reading the Program Book and Progress Reports, SwanCon has received a playtest copy of GURPS Cyberpunk. In all honesty, it’s not that great. Character generation is stereotypical with minimal gleaming of dark future attitudes and issues. Bionics feature strongly, at prices out of reach of poor characters, making the game one of wealthy cyborgs. The text itself is without style and substance giving little entertainment value.

Where GURPS Cyberpunk is successful is in dealing with cyberspace and the effects, in game terms, of characters operating (literally) at the speed of light. There are also quite a few useful tips in organising a Cyberpunk campaign. It is worth remembering, however, that this is only a playtest copy. And the future always has a few surprises.

At best, cyberpunk RPG’s have managed to do what the literature has done: create a sensory overload where the scientific changes are so disturbing, so upsetting, that players can, through their characters, see the potential abuse of technology. At worst, the games create a form of cyberpunk “chic” where the space opera/high fantasy syndrome comes into effect; an environment the players would want to live in.

If you are a gamer who likes to see your players upset, disappointed, crushed . . . and actually learn something about the world and the way it could be, I recommend the following dark future games in order of preference: Cyberpunk, Cyberspace, GURPS Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, CyberTech

If you like a glorified future where all characters are winners, simply reverse the order.

See you at the future, smartboy.

About australian sf-history

ASFDAP was set up in 2011 after the rediscovery by the wider SF community of an impressive hoard of Australian SF community related ephemera, fanzines and other materials in the Murdoch University basement.
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