Cyberpunk, dystopian, and horror games are unique from other TTRPGs in one omnipresent way, the setting itself.
More than other genres the cyberpunk setting is an antagonist for the players. The future world is filled with dark alleys, acid rain, streets filled with gangs looking for trouble, officers who shoot first and mercenary groups who don’t bother to discern what’s right from what’s profitable. While the stage and atmosphere can’t replace a strong memorable antagonist, it should always act as a multiplier, increasing the tension, the excitement, and the impact of what would normally be mundane tasks.
Below are just a few of the ways that the setting of cyberpunk can be used to help you create an interesting and tension filled adventure. You can use them by themselves as random events, or intertwine them with combat, skill checks, role playing, or other encounters to make a slightly more interesting event.
Use the harsh environment to increase the tension or put the mission on the clock.
Dystopian futures and cyberpunk share a harsh prediction for the future of the planet and the species that remain. While the causes range from climate change to scientific catastrophe the results are always a future in which the world is not as habitable as it was before. During any adventure or scene, throw in an environmental hazard to up the impact and remind the players that they are survivors in a dark world.
The classic environmental risks are often still some of the best. Outside of the city and chasing a bounty through the wastes? Sandstorms, earthquakes, floods or landslides can add just enough to the atmosphere to make the world feel as if it is on the edge of the cliff. Who likes keeping the world classic though in a cyberpunk world? After all, if everything about the world is dialed up to eleven, shouldn’t the world itself be as well?
Looking for a bounty outside the city? Have the wreckage from the last space station dump falling from the sky like missiles. Need to meet with the leader of a local gang? Have them headquartered out of the lowlands that due to the city waste systems and rising sea levels is now a swamp of toxic waste. Just pissed off a group of rogue androids after digging around near the dump and think things couldn’t get any worse? Sounds like the perfect time for a sprinkle of acid rain.
Last but most definitely not least is the ever present theme regarding the abuse of science and technology that prevails in future worlds. Just cornered that contact the team has been hunting for? Have a large genetically modified house cat attack him and put him on the edge of life. Now the team has to deal with a feral monster and figure out how to get the goon to a ripper doc before he bleeds out. Have the team sent to collect an important piece of software for a local fixer, only to find out the software is roaming murderous AI trapped in a vintage android body from the 2020’s.
The utility of a harsh environment shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to roleplaying, hooks, or random events as well. If you need the team to have a conversation with their mark before they have to make the crucial decision of who to hand them over to, have a deadly waste spill occur outside causing the team to be huddled for hours. Create friendly connections with new NPCs by having them help the team out after being attacked by a swarm of highly intelligent microchipped rats that escaped the nearby lab. Once they successfully beat back the vermin, have the npc begin to take samples and attempt to hire the crew to break into the lab to confirm their suspicions.
Use the buildings and structures of a gritty future world in a way that thrills the players.
Steel towers that stand over everything, the flickerless flames of the neon lights, and the quickly changing labyrinth of construction create the living cities of the cyberpunk world. In most games and campaigns, the city will be the most prevalent and obvious way to build the setting. The winding alleyways and constant buzz of activity give the game master plenty of material to feed the players desire for world building.
Throughout the city are the expected, but not necessarily boring, locations to set a scene. Large arcology buildings scatter the modern landscape creating great opportunities to interject different cultures and uncommon settings into your sessions. Whole stories can be played out in a single arcology. The family of a fixer known to the party may need an outside group to investigate a crime that occurred and while the people of the building don’t trust the police, they have agreed to let your party uncover what happened.
A staple of the future cities are the run down and deadly efficient mass transportation systems to help get your players from one side of the town to the other, but what other secrets do those systems hide? There might be no better way for a group of NET runners to stay one step ahead of the police than by having a mobile command center inside of a city bus that runs it’s routes like normal, but never stops. Corporations might use an unmarked and off schedule bullet train to move questionable cargo around the city. There are plenty of interesting ways to use a classic system to create something more cyberpunk.
Another aspect of the over industrialized cities that make up the cyberpunk world that goes under used is the idea of constant and expedited construction. Buildings are often being destroyed or built in order to meet the ever growing demands of the populace. It wouldn’t be unheard of to think that a group of protesters and homeless would take over a partially constructed building in order to find shelter or shine a light on corporate overreach. That corporation would want to evict the squatters as quickly and quietly as possible, which is a good place to offer your players the chance to earn a few dollars.
Constant progress also means that the mega corps and city elite are always looking for new projects to gobble up. Think of how this would impact the area of your players and the people who reside there. Families would be angry about being displaced and want justice, slum lords would be looking to take advantage of those out in the cold, and the fixers who know the areas best would be looking to cash in on the heavy coffers of the eager business people who value speed over cost.
Even though most of the cyberpunk tropes take place inside the chilling walls of a metropolis, the structures, or what remains of them, in less populous areas help to reveal what type of dangers lurk among the landscape.Your team has to find that mark? Have them hiding out inside an old power building that is dumping radiation into the air. Playing on the idea of abandoned or damaged structures when on the outskirts of the city will help to establish the idea that the team is no longer among the well oiled population center, as well as shows how the world left alone can be even more dangerous.
One item that often gets overlooked for the dark and grim atmosphere of dystopian science fiction and cyberpunk, is that there is rarely a dark moment. The illuminating force of neon, holograms, always on video screens, twenty-four hour entertainment cycles, glow fashion, and all of the electronics in the world will keep the even the darkest of bright. Even during the day hours, add how the lights play with the surroundings in your descriptions of the scene.
The lighting, video screens, and advertisements can play an active role in your scenes as well. Hidden people or objects can be seen because of the light caused by the screen color changes in a bar. Key cards could be lifted during the darkness caused by the strobing lights of the club. An ill timed advertisement can give away the recent search history of a player or NPC right in the middle of negotiations. Even the tried and true secret messages hidden inside the commercials can be a great way to set the cyberpunk tone if executed well.
Citizens should help direct and derail simple missions.
The surroundings of a good cyberpunk campaign wouldn’t be complete without the innumerable denizens of the world. A safe trope to stick to is that whenever in a city, the crowds should be present and so constant that they are only noticeable once they are not present.
As a GM, you have probably already been using the people of your world as contacts, allies, enemies, targets, and other story devices, but you may not have been using them as a piece of the atmosphere. Bar patrons can be used just as equally to set the expectations of a scene as a description of the surroundings itself.
Along with defining the setting, the citizens of yoru game can be used in a much more blunt method. Overzealous detectives who are sure that your team is the culprit of the crime that just happened down the street, to the ever present street gangs who show up just to defend their turf, the people are the easiest setting instrument to up the ante of danger as well as drive the game forward.
There are plenty of examples of using npc’s or other individuals in your game as a random hazard or setting. Most of the primary game books including the original Cyberpunk 2020 and Cyberpunk RED have a handful of encounter tables. Because this method is so common and broad I won’t go into too much depth here, but I am sure this particular setting piece will be a center of many suggestions and adventure stories to come!
One technique that is a good place to start and will give you a ton of mileage for the work, is to sit down before you start your adventure and create a brief set of ‘throwaway’ NPCs. These characters should be entirely separate from any of the NPCs that you have planned to drop into your adventure, and they should be ones that you don’t feel so attached to that if the players never speak to or see them again you will feel disappointed. Include a handful of ‘ally’ motivations, or characters that wouldn’t be antagonistic to the group as well as a handful of characters that would put the party on alert, that way you are ready for any occasion.
Jot down a name, class, one line motivation, and personality quirk, and then keep them handy. As soon as one of your players asks the inevitable question to that bartender, junk shop keeper, garage repairman, or front desk assistant, ‘and what’s your name?”, then look down your list and throw out one of your NPCs. At this point you can start peppering the character with the personality flaw that you gave them, and if the conversation goes deeper you can even include a quick mention or two to that character’s motivation. Sometimes these throwaway NPC’s will become a staple in your game or lead to your next adventure.
Hollow on the outside, layers of metaphor on the inside.
Remember ultimately that cyberpunk is a setting that is flamboyant, louder than real life, and oftentimes over the top in a lot ways, but that the themes at the core touch the deep truths of existence in a modern world.
The struggle between the haves and the have nots is hidden behind a facade of glitzy virtual reality, fancy technology, and an easily accessible hedonistic lifestyle. Bright lights and clinically targeted emotionally wrenching advertisements hide the truth of how inhumane the leech of capitalist corporations suck the life, money, and future from the people it claims to serve. In a digital world where profits are the bottom line, the people are nothing but a string of numbers to those who want to know just how much farther they can be pushed and stretched to maximize the value to someone else.
While technology can connect directly to the human brain and communication is faster and easier than ever before, people feel more alone than ever. Seeing someone else approaching on the street or standing outside of an apartment induces angst instead of excitement. As people walk down the cement roads lined by megaliths, they see only dark alleys and predatory sales tactics, not the giant monoliths that stand out as beacons to the incredible ingenuity of humanity.
Cyberpunk is, and should always be, about the bright lights, big scores, and imaginative sights. Don’t forget though that all of those flashy images are wrapped around a dark and dangerous core of what the world could be like if the darker elements of humanity are allowed to flourish.