Cyberware and Free Will – a houserule for cyberpunk games

Cyberware HumanCyberware dehumanises. This claim – in one form or another – can be found in any number of dark future and cyberpunk rpgs. Sometimes it’s part of a game’s core concepts, sometimes mere window dressing, and at others it is a way to disguise and explain balancing mechanisms.

No matter whether focus, atmosphere, or balance is the main issue, the idea almost always is present in the rules of the game as well. Depending on the game in question we see dedicated stats being decreased (like with Shadowrun’s Essence or Cyberpunk’s Humanity), XP being reduced (as seen in d20 Cyberscape), rolls being made on berserker tables (TORG), and more options besides.

The more cerebral concept of how this actually dehumanises a character – and going from there, what humanity is meant to be – is often coded into these game effects, either explicitly in the texts or at least implicitly. Shadowrun with its side dish of traditional fantasy makes out the dehumanisation in damage to a person’s magical integrity and thus her soul, while other games see a loss of empathy or the development of mental disorders caused by a growing disassociation from one’s body as the underlying issues.

Is this really the great and terrible dehumanising experience? Is it something to be not only understood in an abstract sense but actually felt by me, as a player?

Perhaps it is.

One possible aspect of what humanity – of what being human – means is not touched upon by any of these approaches. Or, if one of them takes it into account for once, then this happens only in its last, final, and unplayable consequence (the relegation of a character to npc status). This aspect is free will.

Dehumanisation not as a loss of some fantastic metaphysical quality, of empathy, or mental health but as a loss of the freedom to choose – how is that supposed to work? How should that, how can that be translated into a game that is meant to be playable?

For starters, let us take a look at one of the ideas behind this and construct a pair of opposites.

On one side, we have free will, the ability to consciously decide one’s course of action. On the other side, we place unconscious action, instinct, reflex – that what we do without thinking, without deciding, and without even being able to decide in the first place. Dehumanisation, then, means to lose our free will to have it replaced by the constraints of instinctual behaviour. Step by step, cyberware pushes us away from the voluntary and towards the involuntary.

‘How?’ you ask.

Let’s take a look at one of the timeless classics of the genre: The smartgun.

In the metaphysical model, this implant dehumanises the user purely by its presence within the body because it disrupts the flow of vital energy. In the empathic model, it dehumanises because viewed through its crosshairs people are reduced to targets. In the health model it dehumanises by increasing violent if not downright psychotic tendencies.

In the free will model, it doesn’t disrupt and it doesn’t estrange. It integrates itself. It is there. It becomes a natural part of the bearer’s perception and her actions. If somebody throws us a ball, we catch it. If she looks at someone… …she locks him. Unconsciously. Naturally. Instinctually.

Cyberware dehumanises by bringing us back to where we came from; by filling our atavisitic fight-or-flight response with new purpose; by giving back to us the sharp teeth, fast legs, keen noses which we once traded in for intelligence, consciousness, and voluntary decisions.

This way, the ‘urban predator’ doesn’t remain a romantic image fully chromed and biogenetically altered cyber warriors like to paint of themselves. It becomes a reality. The reality of humans who returned at least some of their free will to a nature, chrome in tooth and claw.

So far the idea, the theory. Practice in rpgs also means rules, though, and these can be derived and realised for this concept pretty easily and in a format that can be used with a variety of different game systems.

The basic concept is obvious: Normally a player has free reign over his character’s actions. Cyberware takes away some of that freedom and prescribes certain actions.

The question remains when it does that and what kind of actions are prescribed.

The already mentioned phrase ‘fight-or-flight’ gives us a good hint regarding the when: The limitation goes into force whenever combat starts or a surprise situation occurs – in many games this can be neatly replaced by the rule of thumb ‘always when initiative is rolled (for the first time)’.

The type of action is a bit more difficult but not by that much, really. Each piece of cyberware can be associated with a specific action, related to the function of the implant (the smartgun from our example could be associated with ‘taking aim’ (if the game has rules for aiming) or the more general ‘shoot’).

This approach works but it can result in a large amount of work, determining what action should go with which implant. Again taking a cue from our fight-or-flight line of thought results in the following handy simplification: Actions are classified into two broad categories, that of ‘aggressive actions’ and that of ‘defensive actions’. These can be split once more into the sub-categories of the familiar ‘ranged combat’ and ‘melee combat’ (for aggressive actions), and ‘active flight’ (running away, that is) and ‘passive flight’ (staying put, hiding, raising alertness). The common cyberware implants from most games can be easily assigned to these categories – and it doesn’t matter if you cannot decide where to put a specific implant, just assign it to two (or even more) categories.

This still doesn’t solve the question what a character actually does when his cybernetic instincts take over, though.

To decide this, the character’s numbers of implants in the different categories are tallied. The category with the most implants corresponds to his dominant instincts, the ones that will be triggered in a (stress) situation. Whenever this happens (see ‘when?’ above), the character has to act according to the dictates of his dominant instinct. If the character is loaded for bear with offensive melee implants, he has to charge into close combat and start laying about. In case of ranged combat instincts he has to ready his weapon and take up firing. In active flight mode he has to run away as far and fast as possible, and in passive defence he has to stay down and take stock of the situation (which makes this kind of the ‘human instinct’ to try and evaluate and rationalise in a way – just without a chance to do something else instead).

The next question would be for how long the character has to follow his instincts. How many rounds or actions does he have to spend on them?

This should depend on two factors, mostly: The rules set you want to use the idea with, and how much screen time you want to give to this whole ‘What does it mean to be human? And what has that to do with free will anyway?’ thing in your group.

In game systems where characters only get to act rarely or when the question of free will is really just an interesting sideline for you, it’s probably best to have only the very first action (or the first round of actions) dictated in that way. If the rules allow for a larger number of multiple actions or the free will idea really hit a nerve with you, then one action (or one round) per implant in the dominant category (or even per implant total!) seems to be a good rule of thumb.

Especially the latter, more brutal implementation can make it extremely important for players to rethink their character’s actions, even outside combat. Otherwise, unwanted actions – and results! – are bound to mount if no ‘fail saves’ of sorts against the character’s instincts are implemented. Walking around the sprawl with a loaded gun and the safety off gets a lot trickier when you are bound to start shooting every time someone startles you…

Talking of this, how about a little practical demonstration – or at least a more hands on example using an official sample character?

For our specimen, I selected the street samurai archetype from the Shadowrun 4 core rules:

This character possesses wired reflexes, dermal plating, muscle replacements, and cyber eyes (complete with flare compensation, low light vision, protective covers, smartlink (here we go again), and thermographic vision). Levels and quality grades are of no concern to us here.

The wired reflexes, muscle replacements, dermal plating, and cyber eyes are all ‘fight’ implants. Wired reflexes and the smartlink-carrying eyes are ranged, wires, plating, and muscles are melee.

Wired reflexes, dermal plating, and cyber eyes can be considered ‘flight’ implants. Plating and eyes are more on the passive side, the wired reflexes are active.

We end up with 3 melee implants, 2 each for ranged combat and passive defence, and finally 1 active flight implant.

Three implants in the dominant category results in – using a somewhat aggressive implementation of the rule – three instinctual actions. Funnily enough, our street sam has exactly three initiative passes per round (thanks to his cyberware, obviously). So, what does he do? … and why does he do it?

Let’s take one of those standard scenarios:

The runner team has just completed its primary objective and now they are heading towards their drop off location at the harbour, to get rid of their package asap – and without the former owners getting wind of it.

In this situation our samurai notices a sudden movement in the alley between two of the warehouses (good thing to have cyber eyes, right?) – roll for initiative!

First initiative pass: Draw katana and sprint towards movement. (All the while the (un-enhanced) others look about (trying to figure out what is going on), draw weapons, or take cover.)
Second initiative pass: Hit it!
Third initiative pass: Hit it again!

Congratulations, you managed to slay the squatter.

The example may be a bit on the simplistic side but there it is: The practical side to the loss of free will, the dehumanisation.

PS: Of course, all the usual rules of a game system for (or is it against?) cyberware can be used together with this idea. Alternatively, you could also drop them and use just the concepts presented here. If you do that, you will probably be able to pack tremendous amounts of chrome into a single character… …all for the price of sitting by and watching while he instinctually tears through all opposition, real or imagined.

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