TL;DR: Cyberpunk is all about quick gains and even quicker losses and counting your bullets, but you don’t want to turn it into a bookkeeping fest. Here’s how to have your cybercake, and eat it too.
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Unless all the players want to play Corporats, scarcity is one of the best GM tools to put the “-punk” in Cyberpunk. But if we’re playing Fate, no one should have to bookkeep loot, ammo, and ‘ware (hard, soft, or cyber). I’m okay with it when it’s part of the contract—like “we’re going to play GURPS” —but bookkeeping is usually out of the we’re-going-to-play-Fate contract, and I like to keep it that way.
But I don’t want to pull the rugs from under my feet either. I want my Cyberpunk GM scarcity tricks. Otherwise, it’s not Cyberpunk anymore—it’s the TTRPG equivalent of CP2077 with the easy money exploit. So, I came up with scarcity “dials” that don’t add to bookkeeping unless players want to. And give me what I need. A short part clarifies the playstyle I’m after, but you can skip it if you just care for scarcity mechanics.
Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads!!!! (The Skippable Bit)
There’s no point GM-ing cyberpunk if you don’t go for the PCs’ throats. Granted, back in the CP2020 days, it was a matter of escalation. Long before cyberpsychosis hit, PCs would meat-grind NPCs to the point that it wouldn’t be that fun anymore. So every major NPC would be a cybered-up solo, every gang of NPCs, a bunch of cybered-up solos, and we’d fudge the rules with the big bosses.
Come to think of it, that’s pretty much what the game design of CP2077 carried over from the TTRPG. While V is immune to cyberpsychosis, the mini-bosses are not, nor the Maelstroms and the Tyger Claws, all cybered-up to the gills, and Adam Smasher is immune to headshots. (How many perks points did you spend on that sniper built? Too bad, choomba!)
Even back in the day, we had better options than that. We had Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads!!!! In a nutshell: misdirection, deception, fighting dirty, and explosives. Not escalation. Ok, explosives may be borderline escalating. Anywho, the books’ advice is CP2020-specific, and even if I guess it would apply to CP-RED, that game design is a bit behind the curve for Fate players. So it has not aged well—that title, tho.
Fortunately, in the age of collaborative storytelling, we have Apocalypse World. For Cyberpunk, I follow The Principles of Apocalypse World (AW 2E, p.82) to the letter. And you know what comes before “be a fan of the players’ characters”? That:
Respond with fuckery and intermittent rewards. As in “fuck around with,” not “fuck over.”D. Vincent Baker & Meguey Baker, Apocalypse World 2E, p. 85
AW is the player-centric, collaborative-storytelling, 2010s-game-design update of Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads!!!! Also, it puts in writing what I’ve been doing by instinct for more than three decades because I cut my GM teeth with CP2020. That’s just common sense. You can’t fuck around with the PCs if your ultima ratio is Total Party Kill. There would be nobody left to fuck around with.
So, as a Fate/Cyberpunk GM, what fuckery am I looking for? PCs reaching for dead NPCs’ pockets for a reason. Guns compelled Out of Ammo at the worst of times—and PCs running for Cover! to reload. And cyberlimbs with Tased-Up Servos that don’t use up a Consequence slot—the PCs will need every single one of them “On [Their] Way To The Major League.” (Yup, the players asked for this Setting Aspect. Ain’t I lucky?)
And so, I want subsystems for resources, equipment, and implants that let me do just that.
If “minimal” means “minimally intrusive” for the rules as written (RAW), any “minimal Fate system for X” will have free parameters—or “dials.” Indeed, Fate is flexible enough to capture any X with Aspect spam at the low end and full-blown Extras at the high-end. Now, I also take minimal to mean “with the lowest possible number of moving parts.”
I’m biased towards the low-end (Extras may have a lot of moving parts) but Aspect spam does not always cut it. I’m okay with cranking up the dials for fairness and fun on occasion, so I’ll stick to low-end options, but offer crank-up suggestions.
Traditionally, Cyberpunk hacking is decoupled from the tech level. Walter Jon Williams’ Hardwired and Voice of the Whirlwind (the latter, borderline transhuman) don’t have Tron-like cyberspace, although set farther in the future than William Gibson’s Neuromancer and “Johnny Mnemonic,” that do have it. Still, Reno (from Hardwired) is way cooler than Dixie Flatline (Neuromancer). To find out why, select the text below, but, be advised: mega-spoilers.
Dixie died (“flatlined,” hence the nickname) while going toe-to-toe with an A.I. before the events of Neuromancer, but his consciousness was stored as ROM, and Case and Molly, the main protagonists of the book, steal the recording to access his intel on the A.I. Reno’s body is destroyed while online, and he survives by hiding his consciousness in the Net. Eventually, he reaches out to Cowboy, one of the main protagonists, who briefly believes he’s haunted by a ghost. And there’s an even juicier bit that I won’t spoil. So, who needs Tron-like cyberspace?
I laid down options for cyberpunk hacking elsewhere and won’t detail them here. With “Top-Down” hacking, the hacker “dives down” in a network to find a way in. With “Bottom-Up” hacking, they must open a backdoor and “crawl up” the data structure. Either way, a re-skinned Skill and a Stunt adding Attacks and Defenses to it are all you need. You could add more—cyberdecks as Extras, with Intrusion and Firewall Skills—but you don’t need to.
Gears, Weapons, and Ammo
I hate counting ammo. Both as a player or as a GM. I’m well aware that there’s a hack for ammo tracks in the Fate Codex. But didn’t I just say that I hate counting ammo? Also, I know that I can compel guns Out of Ammo! by fiat, but where’s the fun with that (remember: fuck around with, not over). AW is both challenging, fair, and fun because GM’s “hard moves” have triggers. I want that, too, for guns, gear malfunction, and armor wear-and-tear. My low-end option is this:
- I rate Gear Aspects on the ladder. If player-created, I use the difficulty the player beat to create it. If it’s found or bought, it reflects the quality.
- I assume found Gear was CaA-ed. I play around with quality: the regular stuff gets nothing (tie on CaA), the good stuff, a free invoke (Success), the quality stuff, two (Success With Style). That’s Fate’s story-based gear, indexed to quality.
- I let PCs use up the free invokes. They add to the Defend actions (armor), Overcome or CaA (tools), Attacks (weapons). When it’s spent, armor, tools, knives and guns become cosmetic.
So far, it’s a watered-down ammo track. But it also add options. First, I have a fair AW-style narrative trigger for “hard GM moves”: Compel armor into a Dead Weight, tools into Bent and Useless shit, and blades and guns into All Dull or Out of Ammo! crap. Second, players can choose to go the extra mile when narratively possible. Re-adjust armor, straighten tools, sharpen blades, and reload dramatically (CaA). Or soldier on with naked Skills. All they have to say is, “I reload!”
I could see real-high-end gear having Stress and Consequences slots, or even skills for passive resistance and diceless resolution (see Cred and IOUs below), but at the time of writing, no PC in my mini-campaign is crafting stuff like that.
Cyberware, like netrunning, deserves special treatment. Although none of the PCs had (initially) cyberware, I needed a low-end option because I let players have Relation Aspects with NPCs. One of them chose “[NPC Name] Still Owes Me For Those Mantis Blades,” and they expressed wishes for beefing up cyberware compared to standard gear in Session Zero.
My low-end Chrome-as-gear-on-steroids option is an Aspect with free Invokes and a Stunt that refreshes them under [condition]. The aspect is (implicitly) an Extra—upgradable with Stunts adding a Stress Track or a Condition slot (as per Condensed rules). So, if players want or need some Chrome, I’m ready for it. Fig. 1 shows the NPC. If you guess from her name where the campaign takes place, you get a (fortune) cookie.
Cred and IOUs (aka Resources)
Sometimes, I bless chemo for messing with my memory. For instance, I half-remember reading something about transactions as “resource conflicts” with Attacks and Defenses and Stress and Consequences and… and honestly, who the fuck could think it’s a fun idea? But I forgot the reference, so I don’t have to include it here, and thus I can forget about that question and stay friendly. Granted, the Fate Toolkit added a few guidelines for Wealth that make a Resources Stress Track enjoyable (as extra effort resources).
Now, if I want players to collect loot and reach the NPCs’ pockets for a reason, I still need to track Cred somehow. But I have a relatively unobtrusive resolution, based (again) on Aspect spam:
- Diceless resolution for Resource actions (using the Waiving Rules I posted a while back).
- Rated Aspects for loot, where the rating doubles as value.
- Resources Stress Track determined the standard way as per Physique/Will (see Fig.2)
I owe the idea of Rated loot to user @Mithriltabby from the Fate Tabletop RPG Discord server (also https://www.mithriltabby.com/), although what I’m using is a highly simplified version of their Resource hack. When a PC wants to:
- Buy stuff: I make up a rated Aspect, compare the PC’s Resource Skill with the Rating, and apply the Waiving rules. Success at a [minor/major] cost causes Resource [Stress/pseudo-Consequence] (more on that later).
- Sell stuff: I look at the Rating of the stuff, compares the PC’s Resource Skill with that of the buyer, and apply the Waiving rules. Success at a [minor/major] cost sells the stuff for [less/much less]. Selling price refreshes Resource Track and may buy off pseudo-Consequences.
- Bargain stuff: for one-time use, an n-Aspect can:
- substitute to a PC’s Resources, if n > Resources
- add +2 to Resource, if Resources rating=n or >n
- Reach into their pockets: Resource Stress can be spent 1-for-1 for +1 to Cred. Stress refreshes on Pay Day or by pawning loot.
I don’t use Condition slots: a pseudo-condition is a rated Aspect. So, I’d just add two more Stress boxes for Superb (+5) Resources and above. I don’t have rigid rating rules or guidelines on how many “credit” aspects the PCs can take. I’ll go for whatever’s dramatically appropriate.
Wrapping Up: Aspect Spam
As the previous section implies, I’m okay with Aspect spam. In fact, I welcome it. Aspect spam is the flipside of Create-an-Advantage (CaA) actions. It’s just another name for “player creativity,” and I never complain about that. I may bitch a little if players go for Cybered Up to the Gills (CaA with Craft) and Armed to the Teeth (Fight or Shoot), but only because it’s too easy to fuck around with that (who’s In MaxTac’s Crosshair now?). That’s the downside of Aspect Spam. Not bookkeeping.
As it were, I know enough about the neuroscience of creativity (from my day job) to understand that creative processes are “neuron spam” to begin with—a specific type of memory neurons, sometimes called neurds. Neurd-spamming produces about 99% of useless crap, but it’s the only way to get the 1% of great stuff. You can scratch your neurds and get 99 near-identical variations of A Chair, but what a find when you’re the first to get A Beanbag Chair.
Well, that’s the same with Aspects. Let your players CaA 99 bland 3D Printed Guns, and one day, one will be give you “Now, I have a 3D-Printed Machine Gun, Ho! Ho! Ho!”
And that will be all for today, folks.