Subtitled "The Unexpurgated Cyberpunk Referee's Guide", this is a rather chatty guide through the art and science of running your Cyberpunk game. However many rules there are in the core rulebook and supplements, as soon as the game actually starts to interact with players, questions arise. Can you do this thing? And if so, how does it work? Yet role-playing games by their very nature are not rules-bound. If there isn't a rule for a thing, make it up. If you don't care for the rule that is there for that thing, discard it and substitute your own. It's not a sporting contest where the rules are set in stone and known by all participants. This is role-playing, and the whole point is to have fun.
There's a whole bunch of material here, including running long-term campaigns, the whole style and atmosphere you're trying to create, maintaining control of a game with 'power players' in it, the sociology of cyberpunk, fleshing out the lifepath, working in fringe characters, whether running games set on the street or in a skyscraper (i.e. at a corporate level) are best suited to you, and winding up with Mike Pondsmith's collection of dirty tricks and some actual new rules. Quite a lot to feed your inner Referee on!
We start off with a piece about getting the party together in the first place. What is going to make them bond into a team rather than a bunch of chance associates? Some novel ideas including having them all by chance be somewhere that comes under attack and only by working together will they survive long enough to take vengeance on the attackers. Or you can manipulate the Lifepath so that they have a common background event or other link. Or they all have rooms in the same building. The possibilies are endless. Sneaky referees will make Lifepath event rolls for their players, telling them the outcome with or without reference to the actual tables. You also may have a campaign goal in end, so you'll need to work out how this motley band are going to get there. This is followed by a piece on creating successful plots, especially where there is no readily-identifiable 'bad guy'. Lots of good advice here. Next is a piece on how a Cyberpunk is not, and should not, be run on the same lines as, say, a game of Dungeons & Dragons. There's also a lot of good advice about creating a plot arc appropriate for Cyberpunk which makes excellent reading. Interestingly, as is the case throughout the book, each section is written by a different author, so there is a refreshing diversity of opinions. Read through, decide what you want to use, discard anything you don't, very much in the spirit of the entire supplement.
Next is a selection of articles around the Cyberpunk Milieu: Style and Atmosphere. Core, says the first one, is the tech. Most people - players, referees and indeed characters - won't really understand it, they just know what it can do for them. Here there's an attempt to present some of the overarching tech themes and show how they can work in your game... and what the drawbacks are. Like if you have skinweave, don't lose or gain weight dramatically, 'cos your skinweave will not change size along with you! The next article gets to the essence of the genre: style over substance. It's a world-feel, and within this world we run our adventures. But if they are not firmly rooted in this world, they are not Cyberpunk they are merely action-adventure with a bit of future-tech spin. There's a second article here on the same lnes, with ideas for mining different areas of literature to create your edgy, gadget-obsessed world. Remember, even in 2020, cyberpunk is a subculture. Not everyone lives that way even though the characters do. High tech, attitude, looking cool whatever you're doing, this is what makes the setting work.
This is followed by a chapter on Gun Control and the Power Player Problem. This reminds me of teacher training, 'cos it talks about establishing control over the game without abusing your power. Be subtle about the tools you use. The law and the cost of whatever the party wants are good ones. Someone who insists on lots of armour and open-carry of field-grade weapons is likely to find a MAX-TAC squad waiting for them. If you need something quick, or illegal, it's going to cost more (and then some, if it's both!). Yet if you don't look good, reactions are going to be negative, so you have to invest in what's stylish right now. And that's expensive. Encouirage role-play and modify tasks accordingly. What about problem players (as opposed to their characters)? You can make life difficult for their characters, but be inventive about it. If they are power-playing, think of it as using good role-playing to correct their poor role-playing, that's all. There's a bit of a discussion about various levels of tech from completely ubiquitous to world-changing and how to handle them well... and control it when necessary. Then there's a piece about power-players and how to deal with them, starting with the concept that a power-player is more of a war-gamer seeking a win than a role-player looking for a shared alternate reality, and that they see the referee as an opponent rather than a guide to that reality. This doesn't mean someone who can think tactically in a fight scene, many players have military experience or wargame and use that knowledge when it is appropriate to do so. Several examples of power play are given with examples of how to steer them into being useful, stop them messing up the game or completely neutralising what they are trying to do. Useful examples of player-handling that should improve your game mastery irrespective of what system you are running. There are also ways of using tech against characters who use that to power-play. Another voice provides a second spin on these concepts, mostly looking at how to stop game-breaking schemes by your players (without just saying NO, it's more entertaining than that!)... some real nasty tricks here. And who says you'll keep them for power-players. Many will work well in the game anyway. The opposition ought to be playing hardball.
Then comes Cyberpunk Sociology. This is an essay on the underlying philosphy of the game by Mike Pondsmith himself. He defines what he means by cyberpunk. It's about hard choices, emerging technologies, about how information is used and abused, and about rebellion. Get those straight, and you too will be cyberpunk. A few other voices then chip in with their opinions. Things like the place of honour, about never being alone... things to think about, about a troubled world. It's fascinating to read this in 2019 and decide if this world is worse off or better off than the real one.
Next there's a chapter on Running Combat in Cyberpunk. This looks at fights as an integral part of the game, at putting the correct spin on your brawls - rather than a review of the rules, although it does talk about how to use them creatively... and some hints and tips to make the referee's life easier during combat. There are also some sound combat tactics that you may not know, especially if you don't happen to have a military background at the elite forces level - something that applies to most of us. Interestingly, it also covers providing quiet advice to players whose characters know a lot more about combat than they do!
Then there's a chapter on Fleshing out the Lifepath... how to make it an integral part of the game you are playing, not just the character's backstory that ended once play began. This chapter, from Pondsmith again, draws on material devised for Cybergeneration and retrofits it to the parent game to excellent effect. There's a lot crammed into a few pages that can make role-playing ramp up amazingly. You may want to retool it for other games too, it's that good. And it also shows how to go beyond mere mechanical tools when you or a player has a good idea not contained within the tables. Make it happen!
The next chapter Working in the Fringe Characters rather puzzles me. It talks about some character roles as if they were peripheral, and how to weave them into your game. Rockers, Techies, Medtechies, and Netrunners are taken as examples... heck, in my games they already have a part to play! To be fair there are some good ideas to mine here. Of particular use to the fair fre referees who ban Netrunners because they find them too hard to manage properly. Other contributions run through all the roles, showing how they all have a part to play. There's also material to help you cope with a character concept that doesn't fall neatly into one of the standard roles. It ends with ways to use existing roles in unusual ways... and how to winkle the netrunner out into the field. Unfortunately, I think my referees have all read this bit!
Then there's a look at Cyberpunk Campaigns: Street or Skyscraper? The idea is most games revolve about cybered-up mercenaries doing dangerous jobs... and that can be great fun. If you are getting bored with that, though, there are ways to breathe fresh life into your game. Things you might want to try anyway to stretch the players. There are some excellent ideas for novel campaigns here.
Finally, we get Down and Dirty with Mike Pondsmith. Mind blown. Plenty here to make your players sit up and notice. Finally there's a chapter of New Rules. This includes a variant combat system called High Noon Shootout, and a section on explosives. Oh, and how to run a good bar fight or other slugging match. Just because almost everyone's packing they don't HAVE to start shooting. A good punch-up is sometimes more appropriate. This includes some new martial arts styles.
This is one of the most interesting 'Referee Advice' books that I've read. While much is tied into the setting, understanding what's here will make you a better game master whatever you run. Listen up, you primitive screwheads, you need to get hold of this. Just keep it away from your players!
Return to Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads!!!! page.
Reviewed: 9 January 2019