TL;DR: This post illustrates a point about narrative TTRPGs’ pacing and turns Walter Jon Williams’ Hardwired into a game—thanks to the Cortex Prime engine, almost literally so..
The last time I scratched a cyberpunk itch, it was with a serviceable Fate RPG homebrew (here). The players enjoyed the story, but they did not unanimously cheer for the mechanics. So when considering giving the mini-campaign another chapter, I pondered over a system switch.
A cursory review of off-the-shelf alternatives convinced me to whip up my own Cortex build. To cut a long argument short, the gameplay I’m looking for is easier to obtain from Cortex than any other TTRPG game engine but Apocalypse World—and I’ll come clean about why not going that route. Before anything else, though, two caveats.
- the build is a response to a particular gaming group’s preferences, including my own as GM for that group: it’s not an optimal cyberpunk build, and might even qualify as a “meme build”;
- the post is about how mechanics come into play, not what they are or how they play during the (hopefully) brief time the conversation is on hold, and the dice are rolling on the table.
The last point presupposes D. Vincent Baker’s table-conversation framework and nothing I say is too game-engine-specific: pacing issues would pop up with any conversation-centric game engine, where detours through the table risk breaking the conversation flow.
Any cyberpunk/something genre mash-up is possible. Folks bought into Shadowrun after all, didn’t they? So I guess another caveat is in order: this post reflects rather stereotypical setting constraints for the cyberpunk genre, and a particular sub-genre, at that.
Still, I’ll rely on what logicians call “implicit definition”: rather than defining the genre by a set of characteristics, I’ll pick a few references, and you should be able to extrapolate from them what I’m after.
The setting constraints below emerged from an actual game’s extensive session zero, preceded by multiple one-on-one discussions with soon-to-be players. They worked well the first time around, so there’s no ground to alter them.
- Competent protagonists. A narrative-centric RPG staple. Challenges arise from unforeseen changes in circumstances (including classic double- or triple-crosses) and the need to adapt, improvise, and overcome, so: not the learning curve modeled by XP grind.
- Opportunistic mercenaries. Player characters (PCs) know one another, but are not a tight-knit group and are banding together based on mission needs; this keeps the player roster open-ended (always a good thing) and makes division of labor part of gameplay.
- Heavy on tech, light on hacking. Less William Gibson, Neuromancer/Johnny Mnemonic, more Walter Jon Williams Hardwired/Voice of the Whirlwind, with a pinch of George Alec Effinger When Gravity Fails. So, no 3D “consensual hallucination” cyberspace.
- No cyberpsychosis nonsense. Cyberpsychosis has never been a thing outside of game engines where it “balances” cybernetics power-creep, but it’s a deplorable take on mental health, second only to Chtulhu Mythos’ “sanity,” and I want no part in that crap.
To anyone familiar with Fate RPG, that’s precisely the engine’s intended use case. Fate captures competent characters, offers great pacing options for goal-oriented scenes, and encourages teamwork (if not making it OP).
But Fate relies heavily on wording game assets, and this alone can slow the game’s pace when creating them (see the Fine Print). More pertinently, they’re tallied after opposed dice rolls (for both parties) and require metacurrency spending, leading to relevance arguments and bidding wars. This narration-mechanics loop may hurt pacing when using assets (and did with my group).
The streamlined gameplay experience I was looking for, as a result of dissatisfaction with my earlier try, amounts to spending less game time on wording assets and more on making moves, yielding the following wishlist.
- Narration first. Players narrate the PCs’ efforts, and the GM cuts in when it’s time to let the dice roll and model Nature’s variance—and (possibly) introduce complications.
- Easy pattern-recognition. GM’s cut-ins should not turn into arguments—otherwise, it’s Fate’s asset-wording hurdles all over again.
- Respecting player’s agency. Players should have the option to decline to make a particular move and be allowed to rephrase; otherwise, it’s railroading (at best, a GM compel).
To anyone familiar with Apocalypse World and its offspring, that’s precisely the game engine’s intended use case. It’s pretty much the “if you do it, you do it, so make with the dice” principle spread over three bullet points. Then again, Cortex can do that too (argument here) and I stuck to it for personal GM preferences and ease of design.
Preferences are a matter of taste, not fact, so I don’t have much to add. As for design, obtaining a playable outline took about one hour, most of it spent on acronym-fitting (that’s the “meme” aspect of the build). This is way faster than obtaining a PbtA playable outline, but there’s a trade-off (see the Fine Print).
Choosing Cortex Prime Trait sets is a topic of its own, but the previous section should suffice to understand the selection. I’ll treat dice mechanics as a black box and focus exclusively on how dice rolls enter the conversation. In pictures, relative to the diagram below, I’m only interested in the trigger for the black arrow.
Pattern recognition and question-based GM-ing
My solution for pacing, short of creating a PbtA game with playbooks and moves, boils down to splitting traits into three groups.
- Identity. Straight from my Fate RPG roots, I like a trio with a High Concept, a Trouble, and a “wild card” functioning like Fate’s character Aspects.
- Group dynamics. Who’s on point, in reserve, or anything in between. Assuming a party, this division of labor is always there, easy to spot, and still offers options to players.
- Skillset. In-party division of labor, redux. RPGs with class-exclusive traits don’t capture Williams-Effinger character types too well (at least in my opinion), but roles do (see examples in the next section).
With the above, players can narrate PCs’ actions, and the GM can cut in when their outcome would alter the status quo. Specifically, the GM should be able to suggest one of the following.
- An identity trait, by answering the question: which of the PC’s High Concept, Trouble, or Wild Card best fits what the player is describing their PC’s doing?
- A group dynamics trait, by answering the question: which relative position in the group best characterizes what the player is describing their PC’s doing?
- A role trait, by answering the question: which approach seems most appropriate to accomplish what the player is describing their PC’s doing?
In a PbtA game, 1 and 3 are implicit in the playbook and playbook moves, and 3 is encoded in the moves trigger. Cortex encodes all three sets with dice and requires more mental gymnastics. On the upside, if the GM draws a blank—or prioritizes player agency over pacing—they may address the questions to the player.
Cortex is designed to run with three prime trait sets, so identity, group dynamics, and role are just what’s necessary mechanically. Then again, I’ll leave the mechanics aside and go through what the trait sets stand for, rather than how they’re used (or why you’d need three).
Identity traits are straightforward. The High Concept is a stereotype, the Trouble often lands the character in hot waters, but they’re prepared to face it, and the “wild card” makes them stand out among their peers.
Rather than glossing, here are a few examples from Walter Jon Williams’ Hardwired and Voice of the Whirlwind. They sum up my GM understanding of the characters (Cowboy’s High Concept is a bit lazy, but the alternative Panzerboy who dreams of flying seemed a bit too foreshadow-y).
Cowboy: Panzerboy Extraordinaire (High Concept), In It For The Road, Not The Cargo (Trouble), The Road Is Not Everything (Wild Card)
Sarah: One-Woman Tactical Unit (High Concept), Gotta Get Daud Out Of Here (Trouble), Nobody Expects a Cybercobra (Wild Card)
Etienne Njagi Steward: Object War Veteran, Minus the Memories (High Concept), Knowledge Implies Action (Trouble), Not A Moral Zombie After All (Wild Card)
Rheese: Object War Veteran (High Concept), With friends like These… (Trouble), Credentials, Her Specialty (Wild Card)
Group dynamics traits re-skin an option for Relations (Fate Condensed) or Affiliations (Marvel Heroic, Cortex Prime). The acronym fitting is not perfect, but it’s not too bad either and has the right “meme build” flavor.
- Honcho. As in “head honcho.” Taking the lead, whether by planning ahead, or barking orders.
- Assist. Acting in coordination with others while retaining real-time decision-making.
- Reserve. Acting in support according to a pre-existing plan, or following barked orders.
- Desperado. Going all-in, either ignoring others or just making no effort at coordination.
Since I’m handwaving mechanics, a partial ordering suffices for character definition. Below are, again, my personal understanding of Cowboy and Sarah—although I’m ready to stand corrected if someone thinks I’m too far off—with traits ordered as ++, +, and -, which should be self-explanatory.
Cowboy: Cowboy works with a support crew but plans his own routes (Honcho ++), and sometimes acts recklessly (Desperado +). Still, he knows how to work alongside others (Assist +), although he does not like taking orders (Reserve -).
Sarah: Sarah is on her own most of the time and more often on the edge than not (Desperado ++), but plans to one day get wired for small-unit tactics (Assist +). Mercenary work taught her to follow orders (Reserve +), not so much to give them (Honcho -).
Steward and Rheese are loners, and their team-ups are few and far between. So I’d use a more introspective trait set (like Values) for Voice of the Whirlwind and Wolf Time, emphasizing ambiguous motivations. Cowboy and Sarah’s motivations in Hardwired change throughout the story, and a Value set with Statements could reflect that, but I prioritized action over drama for that build, and so, on to role traits.
- Warhead. CP 2020’s “solo,” a role Cowboy, Sarah, Steward, and Rheese can all take—Cowboy could be boosted in a Panzer or a Delta or debuffed outside but seems a capable fighter (if Luis Rojo’s cover illustration is to be trusted).
- Infiltrator. The rogue, spy, or scout who uses deception, gadgets, disguises, and pretenses. Steward has the gear (cloaking suit) and the skillset (duct tape, not velcro), so does Rheese (credentials, her specialty), and even Sarah (cf. the Danica job).
- Recycler. CP 2020’s techie, a role that Steward and Rheese definitely fill on board the Max Born, and (probably) Cowboy when fixing his panzer after a hard run.
- Eavesdropper. The rogue or spy of the remote variety. Steward showcases the skillset hacking into Curzon’s memory banks, and Cowboy uses SIGINT skills during his “damnation alley” panzer run. Rheese may have relied off-screen (or off-page) on similar training to track Steward after his kidnapping by Pulsar, but Sarah seems to rely mostly on intel provided by others.
- Diplomat. Wrapping up the “people’s skill” side of things, displayed by Cowboy and Sarah in their interactions with Roone or by Steward in his (multiple) negotiations—although Warhead or Infiltrator could model his negotiation style.
Conspicuously missing is CP2020’s netrunner, but it’s more Gibson than Williams or Effinger. But you could still fit it in, with a player group less interested in hardware (substitute Runner for Recycler), or social engineering (substitute Decker for Diplomat).
As a parting gift, below are two teaser-like character sheets for Cowboy and Sarah, made with everyone’s favorite Cortex Prime character maker. I plan to revisit them in the future (in particular, the gear section), but the HARD/WIRED trait sets will stand. Again, that’s my GM interpretation for them, as NPCs.
The Fine Print
Cyberpunk Fate in a nutshell. Fate RPG rewards building assets ahead of a scene and using them later. The mechanics, Create an Advantage, stores a skill bonus with a tag (called an Aspect) determining the narrative permission for using said bonus. Since Aspects have no shelf life, they can be used multiple times in multiple scenes. So, when storylines hinge on preparations ahead of a mission, gameplay tends to collapse on wording versatile, multi-purpose Aspects, to maximize their usefulness comes time to use them. Cortex’s and Apocalypse World‘s asset-creation mechanics are less dependent on the wording and give them a shorter shelf life, so less time is spent optimizing a description (for some differences, see here).
Why not Pbta? With a build leaning on the “if you do it, you do it” playstyle pioneered by Apocalypse World, and emulating PbtA moves (see this post), why not a PbtA Hardwired? Simply put, and preferences aside: time constraints. Making up moves and playbooks is more time-intensive than picking trait sets. The trade-off is that Cortex-based moves require more GM in-game improvisation—although trait sets for HARD/WIRED streamline that process. But given time (and taste), the right collection of moves and playbooks emphasize essential actions (moves), recurring circumstances (move triggers), and intended division of labor (playbooks) better than any other game engine, and can smooth gameplay in any genre.
Wrapping Up: Pattern-Recognition Pacing
Pattern-recognition-based GM-ing applies (mutatis mutandis) to any system with Aspects (or aspects), Traits (or traits), skills, or whatnot, that gives PCs narrative permissions and/or allow the GM to compel them to do stuff, like:
- Fate RPG, where Aspects determine which PC can use which Skill for what, and can be compelled by the GM, or self-compelled;
- PbtA clones, where moves single out possibly disruptive situations (cf. D. Vincent Baker’s “arenas of conflict”) and compel players to roll the dice if they take possibly disruptive actions.
When the onus is on the GM to call out disruptive situations and/or actions, I prefer Cortex to PbtA because Trait sets distribute pattern recognition into multiple sub-tasks, which I find easier than using broadly-defined moves like Apocalypse World‘s acting under fire, for instance. But that’s me.
Now, the above is still short of a full game build, but it’s an example of quick design for paced-up gameplay, and that’s all for today, folks.