Monkeying Monday–“Cyberpunk Magic” in Fate

TL;DR: Fate has an implied minimal magic system and by the same token, a minimal hacking system, and if you don’t care how I sorted it out, you can jump right to it.

I played my share of cyberpunk games in the late 1990s and early 2000s, mostly CP2020 and GURPS. Contrary to what the clickbait title might suggest, I only played Shadowrun once, enjoyed it immensely, and decided there was no point repeating the experience. Cyberpunk (as a genre) has sufficiently advanced technology that is not yet indiscernible from magic—and that’s the point; it’s not transhumanism just yet. Hacking is already “cyberpunk magic.” So, adding plain magic on top kinda defeats the purpose of both hacking and capping the tech. 

Not long ago, a handful of folks talked me into running a Fate-based online Cyberpunk game. With one exception, all the PC concepts included some form of hacking/decking. Fate has an implicit minimal magic system, so I figured I could co-opt it for “cyberpunk magic.”

Before I get to it, there’s an unusually long semi-abstract bit about lessons learned, but you can skip it and jump right to the practical stuff.

The Semi-Abstract Bit: Rules and Fairness

I recently interacted with an editor of Fate Condensed about what I thought was a rule gap between player-created Aspects and Obstacles (Blocks and Hazards). Their response was twofold: first, not including a rule was by design. It was easy to extrapolate, and Obstacles are an optional rule anyway. Second, an 8-year old blog post had addressed the issue already.

That’s fair. The relation between Aspects and Obstacles is easy to figure out (I did it, didn’t I?). So I get the argument about omitting it in a rule-light book. The blog post, I’m not sure. Like I said to my interlocutor, you can’t fault me for reinventing the wheel if the blueprint—or the link to the blueprint—is missing from the book (and they didn’t object to that).

Somewhat lost in the discussion was the potential issue with players, having to do research or extrapolation before playing. Maybe my interlocutor never ran into situations where it went from potential to actual.

But that’s not me. Within days of publishing that piece, I ran into one such situation—with the aforementioned Fate-based Cyberpunk game.

Long story short, I forgot my principles and proposed what I thought would be generous hacking-and-cyberdeck house rules instead of defaulting to a minimal system. Why? Three reasons: tunnel vision, pride, and a misplaced sense of fairness.

Tunnel vision. I had just blogged about an advanced system (for crafting and magic) and used it in a campaign. And hacking is “cyberpunk magic.” I had a magic hammer, and cyberpunk hacking looked like a nail. It was just the wrong magic hammer.

Pride. I was still basking in the validation from my players for the crafting system. Folks I had interacted with about the blog post seemed to have liked it. Folks who hadn’t had remained silent. I may have tried to prolong the experience—“may” because I’m unsure; I have powerful rationalizations. Still, I did not write “might.”

Misplaced sense of Fairness. This one is a tad more convoluted. So let’s backtrack a bit. When I discussed my interaction with the Fate Condensed editor with one of my fellow players-and-GM, they reacted as follows:

“Well I like to do research… and I did… for different mechanics to portray this and that.. and at the end of my research I came to the conclusion.. just handwave it away and have fun.”

That’s a very sensible approach. But I have one principled problem with handwaving: it’s GM arbitrariness by another name. That’s my rationale to lay down rules as part of a “contract” with the players. But my fellow player-and-GM objected that there’s another way a GM can be fair (I’ll come to that in a minute), and that’s the option I took eventually.

At that point, it may be worth mentioning that I don’t have a fetish for rules. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. I have professional training in game theory—and that’s how I think about games—and there’s no equivalent for (explicit) “game rules” in it. But I like explicit rules in RPGs as conversation-breakers and shared constraints on the fiction. When a restriction is common knowledge among players, it’s easier to focus on telling a story instead of arguing about game mechanics. (I’m using “common knowledge” in the technical sense of game theory, because why wouldn’t I).

Now, my fellow player-and-GM convinced me that there’s a roundabout way to Fairness: be arbitrary but consistent. The GM is the conversation-breaker. They can break it the way they want. And if they do it by stating the same thing repeatedly (in similar situations), it turns into a rule. This approach eschews the pre-game negotiation—for which there is (by definition) no conversation-breaker. The drawback is that consistency does not guarantee Fairness. If the GM is a jerk, they can repeatedly state the same unfair thing.

But I’m no jerk, ain’t I? So I don’t need to worry about that. And so I backtracked, nuked the discussion about house rules, and introduced a minimal hacking system that I could defend by being consistent.

A Minimal Hacking System for Fate

My go-to solution for game mechanics not explicit in the Fate books is to build from what’s already explicitly in the book with:

  • Character Aspects, for narrative permission; and:
  • Skills, and the Create an Advantage action.

This is not entirely sufficient for Cyberpunk-style hacking, though. Hacking is also an attack and defense skill. Fate seldom allows for both Attack and Defense actions without a Stunt (Fight is the exception) but we’ll allow for both with a Stunt.

Now, that’s somewhat generous, but you don’t have to follow my steps. That’s just how I fixed the parameters for my campaign. Feel free to be more conservative or to take another approach entirely. With that said, here we go.

The Basic Stuff

I’m relatively conservative with the Fate Skill economy, so I would not add a Hacking skill without taking something out (see The Fine Prints). Actually, I wouldn’t add a Hacking skill tout court. It’s too specific and does not cover enough grounds in a cyberpunk setting. Instead, I’d go for the following, that I’d substitute to Lore:

[Net-Fu]The know-how of accessing information about any type of subject via [the Network]. It does not include evaluating data or other research skills as Academics and Investigate. Still, it gives access to topics beyond it–pop-culture trivia, occult , conspiracy theories, etc.

Feel free to substitute [Net-Fu] and [the Network] with any gimmick name that fits your setting. [Net-Fu] represents how folks access knowledge short of formal education or sleuth training (Academics or Investigate, respectively) via touchscreen, cortical implants, or similar means. It may even recover what was discarded with Lore.

[Net-Fu] is an Overcome and Create-an-Advantage skill, and cyberpunk hacking is about “cyberattacks” and “cyber-defenses.”  Not all of them are mechanically Attack and Defense actions (see The Fine Prints) but if you want some of them to do so, you’ll need a Stunt. Here’s one, with an FAE/Condensed write-up.

[Netrunner:] Because I know the code under the UI, I can use [Net-Fu] to Attack and Defend when I have a backdoor to [a network].

Again, feel free to substitute [Netrunner], [Net-Fu], and [a network] with gimmicky names that fit your understanding of a cyberpunk setting. And with these choices, we topple over into advanced stuff.

Edit: Alberto Guardián volunteered on the Fate Community on Facebook a more correct technical description from his experience as an IT security professional. A “backdoor” is something someone sets up after they found an exploit or a bug. So, gameplay-wise, N/PCs should (narratively or mechanically) find a bug-or-exploit first. Since CaA can be used as a “discovery” action, I did not modify the descriptions inthe next section. Once the N/PCs have information about a bug-or-exploit in [a network], let them use whatever skill they discovered the existence of the bug-or-exploit with to “discover” the Aspect A Backdoor in [a network] as a CaA action on a (unknown) aspect. Thanks again to Alberto for the insights and feedback.

The (Slightly) Advanced Stuff

The first two word substitutions in the Stunt above—[Netrunner] and [Net-Fu]—are style choices. However, the word substitution for [a network] and what constitutes a backdoor are substance choices that profoundly affect gameplay. Since this post is about a minimal hacking system, I will eschew the details here. But I’ll give you a bracket with a top option and a bottom option.

  • Top: [a network] is [the Network] and A Backdoor is an Aspect created with [Net-Fu]. That’s high-end CP2020-2077 hacking (although in CP2077, [the Network] is technically not a thing). Hack into anything. From anywhere. Unlimited hacking power at the tip of your fingers on a touchscreen. Hacking wizardry with a brush of your silicon-enhanced mind.
  • Bottom: [a network] is a LAN, and A Backdoor is an Aspect that must be discovered not with [Net-Fu]. That’s semi-realistic hacking, where LANs (including LANs of folks) have reasonable protection. Finding a backdoor is a matter of discovering a vulnerability in the code, security protocol, or whatnot through social engineering or good old theft.

Readers who actually read classic cyberpunk stuff will recognize those options. “Top” is William Gibson’s Neuromancer and “Johnny Mnemonic” on steroids. “Bottom” would be Walter Jon Williams’ Hardwired and Voice of the Whirlwind. Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net would be somewhere in-between.

The only question left to be dealt with at that point is remote hacking causing Stress and Consequences to N/PCs. That’s well beyond this post’s scope. There are too many moving parts and choices to take between options. But I’ll touch upon them in The Fine Prints because I don’t want to just leave you hanging to dry.

The Fine Prints

Fate Skill Economy. I’m a fan of the 55-percent rule in Fate. If you’ve never heard about it, that’s absolutely natural: it’s a “metagame” rule, not a “game” rule. Also, it became the 52.6-percent rule with Fate Condensed. But hey, one gotta differentiate between Academics and Lore. The long and short of it is that you can mess up the skill economy by adding or removing skills. I could sacrifice the Lore skill because I’m not going for either Shadowrun-style magic or Chthulhupunk-style horror. If you want to keep Lore, you can dig into the minutiae of the 52.6-percent rule and add a subfield of Academics, say Informatics (because extra skills that split more general ones do not count, by the metagame rule). Or you can decide that all Investigate is computer-assisted and re-skin the [Netrunner] Stunt for Investigate so construed. Or you can mess up with the Skill economy after all. That’s your game. Parametrize it as you want.

[Netrunning] Attacks and Defenses. I used scare quotes for “cyberattacks” and “cyber-defenses” because some are notionally attacks and defenses, not mechanically so. An “attack” on [a network] might be an Overcome action against a Rated (+n) Firewall Block. ICE could be Hazards to Overcome that do not trigger a Conflict. But both could be (Bronze-Rule) NPCs with Stress Tracks, and you’d had “netrunning combat” with Attacks and Defenses. Now, what your players will be more interested in is, most likely, regular, not Bronze-Rule Arasaka operatives, and I’ll wrap up on that. It is pretty uncommon in my games—I’m of the Hardwired school—and that’s why my Stunt is generous. If you’re of the Neuromancer school, you may want to split the Stunt in two, say [Intruder] and [SysOp], or even introduce two skills for Intrusion and Firewall—as subskills of [Net-Fu] to avoid breaking the skill economy.

Wrapping Up

I opened on Shadowrun and hacking being “cyberpunk magic” and I’d like to conclude on that. Let’s be honest. The kind of remote hacking some players will expect is a CRPG thing. It’s D&D high-fantasy magic in disguise. As much as I dislike D&D magic, I rolled with it in CP2077. What can I say? My standards for suspension of disbelief are lower for CRPGs than TTRPGs. Also, I had bought that sorry excuse for a game the price of several TTRPG books, all for a one-time solo campaign.

I eventually lost motivation to keep playing CP2077 due to immersion issues, but that’s another story, and it was not because of the hacking. That being said, even in a cinematic TTRPG, I wouldn’t buy a top Arasaka operative NPC who’s not firewalled to the gills against intrusion as a PC. And I don’t give my players what I would not accept myself. Unless they know A Backdoor In the Firmware for the Arasaka small-unit tactics implant, what they’re going to be able to achieve remotely fits in one word: zip.

That being said, no one said that there is no vulnerability in the Arasaka firmware. But finding it would be an adventure on its own. And I’m not talking netrunner-solo-matrix-adventure-while-the-rest-of-the-party-is-waiting-in-the-real-world. I’m talking straight-up Stealth-and-Burglary skullduggery. No player is going to switch from Fari to Netflix on my watch.

And that’s all for today, folks.

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