Cyberpunk Red: Why I Blew the Sucker Up
Art by Doug Shuler
So, it’s 1997 and I have a problem…
See, we’ve been cruising the mean streets of Night City since 1984. We’ve fought the Megacorps to a standstill, cybered ourselves to the very limit of psychosis, and have even climbed to the heights of the Arasaka Towers to pimp smack old Saburo upside his bald head.
This is one of the problems all designers who work within a self-created world face: terminal stagnation. Your players have done everything, fought everything, and seen everything you can offer in the original iteration of your world and there’s not much left to do.
In Cyberpunk, my solution was to treat the entire world like a giant comic book, divided up into roughly ten year story arcs. The Cyberpunk world goes to hell beginning in 1993, starting with the invention of modern cyberwear and the attack on the World Trade Center in New York by Colombian narco terrorists. We start the main Cyberpunk story (what I call the Never Fade Away Arc) ten years later in 2013 with the culmination of being Johnny Silverhand’s invasion of the Arasaka Tower in an attempt to rescue his girlfriend, Alt Cunningham. Ten more years pass and then begins the Cyberpunk 2020 Arc (which I call the Fall of the Towers Arc… starting to see a pattern here, what with me destroying big buildings all the time?) by the end of which the Cyberpunk world is totally disrupted in 2023.
Working in story arcs is useful. It allows you to keep the main world operational while creating new storylines and introducing new characters. You get to build on what is already there and familiar. But by the end of the 2020 Arc, I had a bigger problem. It wasn’t going to be enough just start a new storyline. I had to deal with the fact that much of the existing world had been mined out and needed a reset.
The obvious thing was to just destroy the world entirely—blow it back to a Mad Max style post-holocaust with guys on cyberbikes roaming the endless deserts wearing hockey masks and ass-less leather chaps. But that seemed pretty—well—frankly, a cheap trope. So, I sat down and asked myself a question. How can I get rid of all the major players and set up a new paradigm without wrecking the entire world?
The answer was buried in the 4th Corporate War. See, the most destructive thing about the 4th Corp War isn’t that it’s a bloody fight all over the planet. No, it’s more subtle than that. The 4th Corp War was carefully designed to be a surgical strike at the infrastructure of the existing 2020 universe.
Let’s look at what really went down:
- The War’s many cyber assaults on the infrastructure of the NET broke the back of the interconnected Net culture that made international corps and information possible. On top of that, Rache Bartmoss’ R.A.B.I.D invasion made the NET almost impossible to navigate, forcing Netrunners to become more localized than they’d been before.
- Rache’s Datakrash scattered much of the information of the 2020 world to the winds, forcing Megacorps, Governments, and Edgerunners alike to scramble for what they could recover. Think of it as forcing all the players in the previous poker game to play with a whole new hand of cards.
- The first part of the 4th Corp War was deliberately designed to take place mostly at sea. Not just because stuff done underwater is cool, but also because most of the world depends on worldwide shipping to get anything done. Stop those big cargo ships from delivering things to their waiting factories, and corporations, stores, and factories grind to a halt. Sure, the tech, stores, factories, and so on are still intact; they just can’t get things to market. So much for easy access to guns, gear, ammo, drugs, even food above the bare minimum that can be locally produced. Players have to scuffle to get things and can’t assume they will be able to just buy it off the rack anymore.
- The second part of the War was designed to knock the Megacorps back to a lower level of power, and to raise the aspect of national government interference again. No longer were Arasaka and Militech untouchable kingdoms—they faced real competition and had to struggle to survive. A struggling corp is no longer untouchable, but in its desperation is far more likely to be a nastier opponent than a fat, powerful, and complacent one. Yet this also means that Edgerunners like you can actually hurt the big guys in ways that matter.
- Lastly, the War was designed to kill off the major characters of the 2020 Arc, making way for a new cast of heroes and villains that players can interact with. Since almost no one knows exactly what happened that fateful day on the top of the Arasaka Towers, the previous heroes can become legends that shape the new world only indirectly. There’s room for new Silverhands, Blackhands, and Arasaka hordes—and the chance for players to be Big Damn Heroes themselves.
Cyberpunk Red doesn’t wreck the world. But it resets many of the elements of that world without having to make it unrecognizable. The product of literally hundreds of hours of real world research and planning, Red gives us a new arc where almost all the elements of the Cyberpunk we all love are still present, but in new forms and with some fun new twists. The mean streets of Night City are still there, but there will be new Players and new challenges walking the shadows.
And that’s what I’ll be talking about in the next Maximum Mike Minute.