Check for Traps
Smash the System!

Alexander Macris | 18 Jan 2011 22:00
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As our second smash-up, let's turn to Mike Pondsmith's Cyberpunk 2020. Cyberpunk 2020 defined the cyberpunk genre in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of its most widely-imitated mechanics is the concept of "cyberpsychosis" and "humanity loss." Each character in Cyberpunk has an Empathy attribute (abbreviated EMP), which controls persuasion, seduction, diplomacy, and other social skills (similar to D&D's Charisma score). As characters are upgraded with cybernetics such as Boosted Reflexes or Grafted Muscles, they incur Humanity Loss, which permanently lowers their EMP. The more cybered up a character gets, the less able he is to interact with fellow humans. Characters whose EMP drops to 0 become "cyberpsychos" and are generally killed by elite Blade Runner-type cops. While EMP is not directly useful to combat or action-oriented characters, it serves as a cap on how upgraded such a character can become through cybernetics.

If you've played a lot of Cyberpunk, it's impossible to read the rules to Chaosium's Runequest without comparing that game's POW mechanic to Cyberpunk's EMP. In Runequest, each character has a POW attribute (short for "Power") that measures their psychic strength. Characters need POW to cast spells, but they can also permanently sacrifice points of POW to bind demons, create magic items, and join cults. This is our "hook" - the similarity of EMP and POW. What if we had magical "cybernetics" that drained POW?

To "blend" them together, we sketch out the form of these "cybernetics." Inspired by the edgy aesthetic of Cyberpunk, we'll make them "flesh runes" (tattooed glyphs on the flesh) and "soul jewelry" (like magical rings and amulets, but they must be pierced through the flesh to have permanent effect). Like cybernetics, flesh runes and soul jewelry can augment a character's strength (Grafted Muscles) or speed (Boosted Reflexes), provide natural armor (Subdermal Armor), the ability to see in the dark (Nightvision Optics) and so on. Each of these upgrades will require a permanent sacrifice of POW, based on the benefit gained; if a character's POW drops to 0, he becomes soulless zombie (the equivalent of a cyberpsychos).

Now we'll "double check". We note that a character's current POW is the basis for his magical resistance, meaning that characters which have "cybernetics" will be very susceptible to all forms of magic. Since this is very punitive and would make the flesh runes largely useless, we'll have to adjust the magic resistance rules - the easiest method probably being to have magic resistance be based on the character's POW plus the value of the POW imbued in any "cybernetics". Voila! Runepunk.

Like Driver, a version of Runepunk does exist - I ran it as a campaign in 2008. Message me privately if you want to check out the rules.

Smash the System!

Hopefully these two examples have demonstrated what smashing-up is all about. To prompt some discussion, I thought I'd end this column with some systems that I think are ripe for a smash-up:

  • Dragon Age RPG and GURPs
  • Barbarians of Lemuria and Star Wars D6
  • Marvel Super Heroes and Warhammer Fantasy Battle

Let me know if you see a smash-up hook in these ideas - and be sure to share your own. Once you know to start looking for smash-up hooks, your collection of RPGs transforms from "games you probably won't ever play" to "systems for the smashing!"

Next column, I'll be turning from the practice of game-mastering to discuss the theoretical considerations underlying the art of game design and game judging. Having reviewed much of the commentary on my columns, I'm coming to realize that bad RPG theory is for many people leading to bad GM practices. In the meantime, happy gaming!


Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.

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