TL;DR: GM-ing a cyberpunk game has always meant going for the PCs’ throats. Mining Apocalypse World for advice lets you do it the collaborative way (<5 min. read).
Proactive characters are a cyberpunk trope. If you need convincing, check the cast of William Gibson’s Neuromancer or the plot summary for Walter Jon Williams’ Hardwired. Fate captures that trope with the third paragraph of the intro section of Fate Core.
“Fate doesn’t come with a default setting, but it works best with any premise where the characters are proactive, capable people leading dramatic lives.”Fate Core, p.2
Another cyberpunk trope is being in it way over one’s head. So, it’s not a cyberpunk game if you don’t go for the PCs’ throats to reflect that. It’s cyber-glam punk. Nobody wants glam punk.
Good Old Days, Not
Back in the CP2020 days, GMs’ priorities were slightly skewed by the game system: the GM’s job was, mostly, preventing NPCs from dying too fast, and waiting for cyberpsychosis to hit the PCs, then push the “reset” button when it (invariably) did.
In 1994, R. Talsorian Game published Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads!!!!—a bible in nastiness that made GM-ing CP2020 great again. No more gangs of cybered-up-to-the-gills NPCs, no more fudging rules for BBEGs. Instead, deception, misdirection, fighting dirty, and explosives. (CD Projekt Red must have skipped that entry on the reading list.)
Listen Up… could still work with Cyberpunk RED. But if you don’t dig the 1980s-90s game design and its obsession for critical failure (“fumbles”), you’re better off looking elsewhere. I get fumbles as game-balance devices (NPCs can fumble too) and random plot generators. Only, they make the GM kinda one-dimensional: manager of opposition (hostile NPCs) and bringer of bad news (PCs fumbles), mitigated by occasional relief (NPCs fumbles).
With the ratio of PCs-to-NPCs rolls typical of 1980s-90s RPG design (which Cyberpunk RED sadly still represents), bad news has a much higher frequency than good news. Granted, N/PCs critical-succeed, too, but that’s more bad news (when NPCs do), and the GM gets no credit for reading critical success tables for PCs.
Fuck around with, not over
RPG game design has improved in the 2000s-10s. Systems like Fate introduced “success at a cost,” which works just as well as fumbles for N/PCs balancing and is better from a collaborative storytelling standpoint—at least if cost is negotiable. Apocalypse World (AW) goes even further and dispenses with NPC rolls altogether.
Fate’s symmetric rules let the GM lead by example with NPCs (e.g., Create Advantages). More generally, Fate does a better job than AW at setting a stage for “proactive, capable” PCs: it lets players influence and leverage the fiction mechanically (with Aspects and Invokes), which AW does not. Cortex Prime is the only system that does it just as well (and possibly better) but that’s a topic for another day.
Still, AW does many things better than Fate—including teaching newbies how to play the game (and about that other day: Cortex Prime does better at that, too). AW’s sections on the Master/Mistress of Ceremony (MC, the AW jargon for GM) contain top-shelf advice for GM-ing collaborative storytelling games where the PCs’ life is not unicorns and rainbows.
All I need, at that point, is to flash a screengrab of AW’s list of MC/GM moves, give you a mental gymnastic translation scheme, and be done with it. Here’s one: read Fig. 2 replacing…
- … “apocalypse” and “apocalyptica” with cyberpunk and Cybernetica;
- … “threats” with NPCs (you’d have to bronze-rule a few);
- … any mention of making a “move” with taking an Action with a strong bias for Creating an Advantage or Declaring a Story detail—or, on the GM side, placing an Aspect or Compelling one of the PCs’.
Bam! Job done.
Well, almost. You’d have to figure details by yourself. Still, if you want more inspiration, grab a copy of AW 2E (not a sponsored link).
Wrapping up: Listen Up, You Proactive, Capable Screwheads!
A GM in a collaborative storytelling game does not necessarily play nice. This applies to cyberpunk games because it’s part of the cyberpunk tropes. But it applies to other settings as well. Actually, “with any premise where the characters are proactive, capable people leading dramatic lives.”
Simply put, proactive, capable characters don’t do milk runs. Thus, they don’t run into milkmen.
And that’s all for today, folks.