While working on a gaming concept recently, I realized I was mimicking part of the format of cyberpunk games, which lead me to realize I really enjoy that format as both a player and a GM. To be honest, most of my cyberpunk gaming experience is from Shadowrun, specifically 4th edition, although I don’t think edition matters so much for this topic.
For those of you not familiar, in Shadowrun and other cyberpunk games, the players are typically professional “deniable assets.” Mercenary spies, soldiers, thieves, and saboteurs; people hired to do a dangerous and typically illegal job because the client can’t be seen to do the task themselves. Most missions start with an agent of some kind, typically representing a massive multinational corporation but generally not wanting to say which one, hiring a team of mercenary specialists to complete a mission against some other massive corporation. Note that this format is entirely without moral judgments. The client, the target, and players are all amoral by default. They might be hired to sabotage a facility, to steal a prototype, to extract (kidnap) a researcher, or even to assassinate a key target. The major motivation for everyone involved is typically money. The players take the gig for the paycheck. The client is hiring the team to improve their business/harm their competitors, and the target is resisting the mission because it will harm their business. Now not all missions work that way, nor are all “runners” amoral mercenaries, but those are the exceptions to the very amoral mercenary default.
In my opinion, it’s frankly a really great way to format a game. The players’ fixer calls them up and says there is a job they’d be a good fit for, and lets them know some broad general details including probable pay. The characters show up, listen to the pitch from the client, negotiate the details including pay and bonuses, and then head off to go do whatever it is. After they are done, they meet back up with the client who either pays them for success or is very disappointed in them if things didn’t go well. A single session can typically cover a single mission, although some missions can break down into a lot of little missions or be strung together in a related series of events. The mission format also helps explain how the team forms, and how it can change over time. The team is actually a group of specialists hired to do a job. Hackers, soldiers, drivers, thieves, con-artists, etc. If a particular player wants to try out a new character, then a different specialist is brought in for a mission. If a character gets killed, a replacement team member needs to be hired. Because everyone is a mercenary, no special motivations are needed to bring in these new characters. This format is actually an acknowledge part of the setting, right down to the client’s agent having a default anonymous name: Mr. Johnson, a name that is both generic and hints at the phallic personality many of them exude. A Johnson is a title more than a name in the setting.
The missions presented can easily vary between open-ended “here’s the objective, you figure it out” to “we have a plan, we just need a team able to pull it off” directed scenarios. One mission might end up formatted like a classic dungeon crawl: The characters go to a place, kick or hack the door, and proceed to fight everything they encounter until they get to their objective. Another mission could be extremely open-ended: like find this missing person and bring them back alive. Many missions have bonuses for secondary objectives, like being paid to steal research with a bonus for destroying the labs and records on you way out, or being hired to sabotage a facility with a bonus for making it look like an accident instead of mission. Better still, because no one involved is 100% trustworthy, there are typically twists, betrayals, and counter intelligence issues. No mission ever seems to go according to plan. While not every Johnson lies, nearly all of them omit information, and a few won’t pay you… or worse may attempt to kill you off as a loose end. Players often don’t know what they are getting into until they’ve already agreed to take the mission, and often once you’ve broken into a secret research facility, you encounter things that you wish you hadn’t. The client may even be sending you on a suicide mission, not expecting you to succeed or return, but instead using you as cover for some other activity.
The amoral baseline for the games also allows players and gamer master alike to really play around with morality. Taking a mission to sabotage a sinister corporation is easy to get on board with, but what if you are hired to frame a cop that refused to be bought? What about if a rival pharmaceutical company hires you to assassinate a cancer researcher that is on the cusp of a breakthrough? What if you are hired to steal some prototype biotech organs, and discover it’s actually a genetically altered cloned 12-year-old kid? Do you risk your paycheck and reputation to do what is right? Can you convince everyone in the group to your point of view? Do you leave that kid in the lab or try to smuggle him away from both corps to try to live a real life?
As game formats go, it’s a really effective setup, and one I’m not ashamed to borrow from.