Roger Burton West
3 October 2001

Cybergeneration / 192pp / R. Talsorian Games, 1993

Why doesn't Cybergeneration work?

It ought to. It was designed by Mike Pondsmith, who also produced Cyberpunk, the first cyberpunk game to reach a wide audience. It's got some of Talsorian's best staff lised as contributors. It builds on massive experience of writing for and running that game.

Maybe that's the problem.

It's made very clear, throughout the book, that Pondsmith doesn't like what the players have done with his game. From the introduction to the snide comments every few pages, it becomes apparent that the idea of competent professionals doing things well isn't part of the Pondsmith Vision. It seems that a few munchkins telling stories of all the neat toys they have have convinced Pondsmith that the Cyberpunk game needs a total redesign: hence Cybergeneration.

Unfortunately, he's been heavy-handed. Whenever he's found something he doesn't like, there's a rule against it. "Why can't I do X?" "You just can't." It is assumed that all Cyberpunk games suffer from the same problems; "Most of the time you've been a judge, not a storyteller, concentrating on the rules of the Game rather than the flow of the plot." "We think you've spent too much time calculating the velocity of a 10mm slug through layered Kevlar. We want you to loosen up and roleplay." Excuse me? Yes, I've been in games like that. They were pretty bad, so I didn't go back. That doesn't mean that every Cyberpunk game out there is that bad; and if the other players in those games were enjoying them...

Perhaps the most telling quote of all: "We wanted to get back to the lone hero with a gun and an attitude, up against the brutal world around him, instead of a cyber superdude battling some megacorp with the assets of the Legion of Supervillains." Odd, that: the latter is just what the published adventures seemed to promote, and the former is what every Cyberpunk player and GM I know was quietly getting on with. Keep the power levels low: that way you can have physical challenge without the latest Big Book O' Guns (published, oddly enough, by the creators of the game)...

But let's assume that this paternalistic and authoritarian style of game design can work. What does Cybergeneration need to do to achieve its goals, and how well does it do it?

Character generation takes up most of the book (138 pages). There used to be a debate on how a game book should be laid out, for learning the game or for reference while playing it: that was pretty conclusively resolved when it was pointed out that each player and GM learns the game once, and can take his time over it, but (ideally) plays it several times, and wants vital information quickly. Cybergeneration is laid out for learning. To get the details on a "genius gun", a standard weapon, means checking the combat rules, the technology description, and the "shopping mall" (equipment listing). (And lots of "see page XX", which with modern layout systems is unforgiveable. No index, of course.)

Generation starts, not with stats, but with gang affiliation. Much like White Wolf's systems, every character is a member of a gang of some sort; 18 are given. Fortunately, these are closer to Cyberpunk's professions than they appear; each gang has a specialist skill and an equipment list, but there is some room to flesh them out. (Oddly, this possibility is not emphasised.) Some of the gangs seem thoroughly inappropriate for the life in hiding that is implied later on - the children of corporates and the child stars, for example - but there is a reasonable selection.

The next stage is a practical exercise, moving the PC group from one location to another; the idea is to force players to role-play. Maybe some groups will benefit from this sort of kick-start; it certainly hasn't been necessary or wanted in any group with which I've been involved. And if the players need to be forced into role-playing, why bother? Isn't this supposed to be for fun?

Following this is stat and skill generation. Stats are much as in Cyberpunk, but skills are rather broader. They are condescendingly named ("Schoolin'", "Thief Stuff", "Gogo"), and noted as being used at half value against someone with the equivalent "adult" skill (e.g. Education, Pick Lock, Driving). There's one problem here: why should this be the case? An Education/Schoolin' roll is hardly likely to be a contest, unless it's "who can remember more trivia". And surely a Blend (Stealth) attempt is more likely to be against someone else's Perception than against his own Stealth skill? It's an interesting idea, but has the feel of not having been thought out.

At this point we're told to force more role-playing. Enough said on that score already. The next stage is the acquisition of equipment: but rather than give us a standard price list, we have seven double-page spreads of "shops in the Mall". One could make the point that, at least, one knows what the equipment looks like; on the other hand, most role-players are quite used to visualising things for themselves. (This falls down completely when we get to guns, since, being "blackmarket" (sic), they're not on display.)

We have a section called "New Tech 2027". This is among the worst-thought-out sections of the entire work: technologies which look "cool" are introduced here, with no thought for their effects on the world. For example: Microfactories. These are a fairly standard idea: insert raw material, insert design specification, remove product. We're told that these items have largely replaced retail-store inventories: they're that cheap. (Oh, sorry, they're "extremely expensive", $50K or more for the simplest. But they're still "in many stores".) So why do items still have anything like conventional price tags on them? Would it not make more sense to charge purely for the royalty on the design, with perhaps a small extra fee based on the amount of raw material used? Why does the price list look just like a standard Cyberpunk one, with price increasing mostly with game utility? One could certainly write excuses for this. Instead, it's been ignored.

We're also told that power storage has improved vastly. Small laser weapons are entirely practicable. And yet vehicles still run on alcohol or avgas, and guns fire chemically-propelled bullets rather than having switched to magnetic propulsion - there's no sign of this wondrous power storage anywhere, except in the laser weapons.

But perhaps the silliest idea is Virtuality. The idea of this is that the Net has been tied into a 1:1 correspondence with the physical world, allowing the overlay of extra visual (and possibly other sensory, it isn't made clear) data. Quite why this is better than the holographic projectors already available in the Cyberpunk universe - to the point of being worth the massive investment implied - is glossed over. Certainly, the combat rules deal extensively with the hazards of being vulnerable to easily-projected illusions.

The primary input device has become the "sensornet", an advanced proximity sensor. This is a pretty concept, but completely ignores the problems that absence of tactile feedback causes. Consider, for example, that on a sensornet keyboard, touch typing would be impossible. Again, reasonable idea, not thought through.

The final step in character generation is Cybergeneration's primary gimmick, taking the role of cyberware in Cyberpunk: the Carbon Plague. This is presented as a nanotech-based infection, which transforms its victims into one of five enhanced forms. (There are vague hints that other forms exist, but no suggestions are given as to how one might go about designing one.) For those of us used to designing the characters we want to play, it is a little disturbing to find that the GM is absolutely prohibited from allowing his players to choose the form their characters take; rather, he is encouraged to roll randomly, build a balanced party, or (as an afterthought) consider the personalities of the characters (actually he's told to use the personalities of the players).

The transformations themselves must be considered reasonable, simply because there's no basis for evaluating their plausibility - this is the classical sufficiently advanced technology. The various adaptations mostly seem balanced, though the mind-reading Scanners look rather weak; indeed, they've had reflex boost added to try to fix this, though this is somewhat at variance with the remainder of the concept.

The other transformations are Tinmen, a melee warrior class; Wizards, a biological netrunner class (and Virtuality cracker, which is perhaps the only reason for Virtuality to exist); Bolters, a ranged-weapon warrior class; and Alchemists, of whom more later.

The Bolters are perhaps the most obvious example of a push via game rules. They can shoot high-tensile conductive wires at a target, and then charge them with high-voltage electricity to stun or kill it. Fair enough. But, just after we're told how strong these wires are (several times stronger then steel), we're told that they can't be used as a garrotte, or to swing on. Why? They just can't.

However, probably the most overpowered class is the Alchemist. These characters can manipulate the molecular arangement of matter, so as to break apart or form compounds, and at scales higher than that (so reshaping and construction of items is possible). While some restrictions have been placed (it doesn't work on living flesh. Why? It just doesn't) the potential for abuse is enormous. Consider the possibilities: instant synthesis of small quantities of explosives at whim, poisons (there are two classes of poison, we find later: save-or-die, or just die), acids, many drugs... certainly, the character will need some Chemistry skill, but acquiring such will surely be a top priority. The Alchemist has no disadvantages to balance this tremendous power.

This seems to be a setting for conflict among players; some classes will have a lot more general utility than others, and some players are very likely to feel left out. The suggestion that some PCs might have no transformation at all seems unlikely to help remedy this.

Now character generation's finally over - though to be fair we've encompassed equipment and technology as well. Next comes the combat system, Saturday Nite Skuffle. Is there anything about it which could compensate for that name? Well, actually, yes. I'm a wargamer at heart, and I had no problem with Cyberpunk's combat system, but I can see that people might want a simpler version, particularly if running big firefights; and this certainly is that. There are only four categories of weapon range (handgun, SMG, shotgun, rifle); damage is a d10 cross-indexed against one of nine weapon types; everybody gets one, and only one, action per round... it's all pretty clean and simple, and doesn't take much space to explain. For a game that's not meant to be focussed on combat, this is great; it'll get it out of the way quickly and deliver reasonable results. Is Cybergeneration meant not to be focussed on combat? That's a little harder to say.

The live-combat rules take a total of four pages, about half of which is special cases. Three more pages cover netrunning, which (given Virtuality) is now pretty much tied to the real world - to the extent that there are now "codeguns", physical gun-shaped items, which are used to deliver an attack program to a virtual target... I can't go on. It's just too silly.

Next, and the last section before we delve into the game world in depth, is the GM's chapter. This is where Pondsmith lets himself go, and managed to embarrass himself thoroughly in the process. You're playing kids, because kids feel everything more strongly than adults and your emotions are closer to the surface; and you're less competent, you'll make mistakes, like accidentally getting pregnant. "Soap opera subplots should run throughout Cybergeneration adventures as often as firefights"...

In short, cool competence is out, emotional confusion is in. "It's about people, not hardware" - because the munchkins have been boasting about their superpowered characters, the hardware's gone and now we have... erm... superpowered characters. Cyberpunk, done right, asked questions about man/machine boundaries, ethics and honour; but that's not good enough, so out it goes and in come a bunch of kids with shiny metal skin. At the same time, there are more flat prohibitions: the kids don't have cyberware because it won't work with a growing body... the kids don't do drugs because they've seen what drugs did to their parents. (Yeah, right. You just didn't want to include drugs in a game about kids, Mike.)

There's a pile of talk about idealism, which mostly boils down to "characters in this game do stuff because they believe in the broader goal that it's leading to". Sounds like an ideal recipe for cult followers to me... then there's Plotpath, which is Cyberpunk's Lifepath with the numbers filed off.

Now we get into the world itself. Cult followers, did I say? Now we meet the cult leaders... Talsorian's own NPCs from Cyberpunk (Johnny Silverhand, Rache Bartmoss, and some more) are now leading the revolution. There's not much about that here - about as much as you'd see in a recruitment pamphlet - but lots about how cool the leaders are...

The rest of the world information is broken down by organisation - we've got the government (apparently the corporations got fed up with running things from behind the scenes) and some of its agencies, the major corporations, and so on. None of it goes into much detail, but it's enough to get started; I'd expect a lot of diversity in Cybergeneration campaigns based only on this material.

The presentation throughout suffers from Pondsmith's usual addiction to using too many fonts, badly laid out text, and poor illustrations. But that isn't what breaks the book, for me: it's just too forced. You must be a kid; you must be in one of these gangs; you must have one of these mutant powers; you must be emotional and irrational... no. Sorry; there were some good ideas in here, and it had potential, but overall it falls apart in the implementation.