I’ve played a few sci-fi and cyberpunk campaigns in my time, and DM’d some too, and I certainly enjoyed them, but I think there are some aspects of sci-fi as a genre – and Cyberpunk particularly – that encourage[1] a kind of criminal nihilistic campaigning which I don’t generally find enjoyable[2], particularly when I’m DMing. Other recent commentators on cyberpunk probably think this is because I am a bleeding-heart liberal, but this is not the reason at all. I don’t like it when I’m DMing because

  • Nihilistic campaigns tend to deviate significantly from the plot, and DMing without preparation is a much more varied practice – with greater rewards sometimes but also a lot of the time it falls flat
  • It’s really hard to set a challenge for the PCs when they can just arm up to face it, they don’t care about dying or the solution would inevitably put them into conflict with the law
  • It’s really hard to interfere with PCs actions coherently, because in any sci-fi future the power of the state is so overwhelming that the one consistent thing criminal PCs can expect is that they will die horribly and probably before they even know what happened; but there’s no reward in doing this, so you have to contort your story to enable them to escape and still be challenged

Here are 2 examples of the type of nihilism I mean, from my DMing experience:

  1. The PCs were meant to bust a drug deal, and I set up a complex trap for them which would put them into a seriously challenging combat. This was a low law-level world in Traveller, so they simply scraped up all their money and bought a suit of combat armour.  The battle ended when the main fighter just stepped into the middle of the room, in full view of all the gang, and gunned them all down while their bullets bounced off.
  2. The PCs wanted to negotiate with a local crime boss, and his goons were hanging out the front of the disused apartment complex waiting to cause trouble. The characters, unafraid of dying, just marched up and demanded admittance. Of course I should have just denied them, but then the adventure was killed dead; so I tried to engage them in some kind of diplomacy-style intimidation effort. The players ignored it and just started a firefight in the middle of the street.

This kind of stuff is fun when it happens occasionally[3] but when the players start to do this too much, not only does DMing become a bit boring but one gets the felling that the main pleasure the players are deriving is from bucking the DM’s plans (which they must consistently be, since the main way they wouldn’t buck your plans in most sci-fi worlds is by being eviscerated from orbit). So why do I think this nihilism-drift happens?

  • Guns and money. There is a mechanic in sci-fi gaming – and particularly in cyberpunk, but also quite blatantly in Traveller – in which guns are easy to come by, and so is capital advantage. In fantasy role-playing you have to work long and hard up a chain of increasingly powerful bad guys[4] to get your +3 vorpal sword; in a lot of sci-fi games, you just need a PC in your group who has a rich mummy, and a jaunt to the bad side of town/Mexico/low law-level planet. And when players rock up to their law level 3 planet and you won’t sell them Battle Dress they always seem to get pissy. This is because they, like you, expect consistency in the game, and a consistent feature of much of the sci-fi genre is dirty guns done dirt cheap
  • Crime as necessity: Fantasy role-playing games have a much more odious property than this, because they have genocide as a good outcome. But this isn’t nihilistic because the people you slaughter are chaotic evil, right, which is the definition of anarchic badness. On the other hand, in sci-fi games committing criminal acts is either part of the genre (Cyberpunk) or a necessity in some places. It’s just like the problem of illegal dope – you just want a small high, but to get it you have to associate with shady people. In time the criminality sticks, or the players spend a lot of time pushing the grey line. This is fine – it’s nice that we can play criminals in our fantasy worlds and don’t have to in real life – but I have noticed that it tends to lead to a kind of fatalism about the necessity of crime. Once you’ve committed a few frauds, gang-banged some lowly perps, and hacked someone’s computer, why not mug a passer-by?  And, especially, once you’ve run into trouble with the law, all bets are off. A lot of cop-killing and gratuitous stuff happens as the law enforcement pressure increases. Morally not an issue, I suppose, since it’s only a game, but it’s at this point – the “hung for a sheep not a lamb” part where players realise there’s no going back – that force starts to rise up the list of solutions to common problems, and the main solution to this – killing them as chastisement – falls into my definition of bad DMing. [5]
  • Isolation and neo-piracy: There’s a strong sense of cultural and social isolation in the underbelly of cyberpunk, and a strong sense of physical isolation in Space Opera campaigns, which encourages people to think of their PCs as a law unto themselves. Space Opera often has a strong feeling of semi-legal privateering about it, kind of the 17th Century in space. Again, this is fun to play and offers lots of opportunities for adventure; but it also encourages people to go native/ go AWOL/ go psycho/ go pirate. And this can spoil the fun. Fantasy role-playing tends to remove this sense of isolation by setting the characters as heroes in a religious and cultural context, or giving them an alignment they pay dearly for straying outside of. No such luck with sci-fi.

I am a big fan of morally grey settings – this blog is named after one – but I think they are easier with constraints on them in order to keep some basic structure in the role-playing. Fantasy role-playing has a lot, built in through levelling and monster power and alignment and scarcity; but, short of constantly chastising the PCs through the use of heavy weaponry (which is no fun) it’s much more difficult to maintain these constraints in a lot of sci-fi settings, and especially in cyberpunk. And unless your idea of fun DMing is “this week will be a bigger battle than last week”, the relentless pursuit of heavier firepower and more money begins to look a bit boring after a while[6]. Which is why I am leery of DMing cyberpunk campaigns.

fn1: Note the use of the word encourage here, as opposed to other words like require or support or valorise.

fn2: Although recently I played in a Traveller campaign where I was the one encouraging the nihilistic criminal enterprise. Oh look! A kettle!

fn3: I still maintain that my nihilistic criminal suggestion from footnote 2 would have been more interesting – and have delivered a lot more virgins – than the campaign written in the book

fn4: Quite improbably, obviously, but because it’s part of the genre style no-one really cares

fn5: Serenity is an example of a story in which this happens, but it’s an adventure or a short campaign only, and there are quite a few moments in Serenity where Mal has a brilliant idea that 99% of players would completely fail to think of. Instead, they would decide to arm up and face down the next fleet to come their way, which gets really difficult to DM in a way that’s fun. This makes it hard to have the kind of over-arching mystery-story campaigns – like Serenity – in reality, because the PCs spend too much time finding blunt, brutal “solutions” to the elegant problems you set them. Though if you can carry this off, the feeling at the end of the campaign is truly awesome.

fn6: Actually, this sounds quite a bit like a lot of peoples’ fantasy RPG campaigns, doesn’t it? Especially, dare I say it, old-school campaigns…