Thursday, March 31, 2011

Nth wave, a game of cyberpunk past

The following is an outlined recollection of gaming-past.

It was early-mid 90's, the spring before I met the mother of my first child, I was living in a former rural town turned outer suburban bedroom community making my way as a technical illustrator, micro publisher and going to school for Applied Mathematics (which was taking forever as I was a continuing-ed student) and I was really into RPGs. I had a really smoking PC with 20 megs of RAM (people would ask me what I did with all that memory), a Mac only a model or so back from top of the line with a massive 80 meg drive with a CMYK monitor and used my really fast dial-up modem to hook up to BBSes and AOL . A buddy of mine was trying to get together a tabletop RPG group of area NERO players but they couldn't find anyone with a campaign ready to go or who was willing to GM, I volunteered. We decided on cyberpunk and I said "sure no problem I have a few Ideas"...

I had nothing solid just a bunch of ideas, not even a game system. I had seen a couple of things on cyberpunk games but had never played one except for maybe a couple of sessions of shadowrun. I dug into some of my fiction notes and not begin afraid of plagiarizing for an RPG session that may turn into a campaign I whipped up a lite game system and a setting for cyberpunk adventures.

The game and setting I whipped up in about a week was "N-th Wave". I read a lot of science fiction in those days, a lot and i "borrowed" a lot of elements and hammered them together to build the game and campaign.

The setting for N-th wave was Boston sometime in the 21st century, the seas had risen thanks to global warming and parts of the city sinking Venice of boardwalks and canals. Multinational alliances and corporate shenanigans have all but broken the back of the traditional nation-state. The U.S.A. has gone the way of the naru jacket and the 45 record. Municipal and even regional security and policing has been given over to corporate-run police agencies.

The technologies of the past are relics and kitch collectibles. There are cyborgs out there but it's old technology leaving behind half-human veterans of the Indonesian and Australian wars who held back communism before the eastern-bloc an communism just blew away on the wind ( a system can only maintain itself for so long with people pretending to work so others can pretend to pay them). Cybernetics are available at swap-meets, charity clinics and back alley shops; in the world of N-th wave we are the hardware and genes are the code.

Almost unbelievable progress in biological manipulation has saved the ecology of the world (more or less) and is transforming humanity. There are still tools a-plenty out there but the real cutting edge is transformation. Bodies are manipulated and reshaped for to follow fashion; there are gangs of toughs out there with animal heads (often poorly crafted) and eight foot tall fashion models with bio-luminescent skin.

Common tools included flippies (portable computers you can fold up and shove in a shirt pocket), phones are earring-buds (no bluetooth buds then) and almost everyone hauls their monitor around with themselves as a pair of glasses that can scroll news, e-mail and commercials all day long. The internet was everywhere but not the 3D-virtual landscape it was the ever present squawking mass of people and tools, avatars were for business meetings and games. Like Gibson and most sci-fi authors I failed to realize how ubiquitous cell-phones were going to become.

Into this world are shoved the PCs who are meant to be private security contractors, body guards, cat-burglars and all-around survivors (The typical grungy, violent, sociopath, kleptomaniacs that so much RPG seems to focus on).

There were no character classes. PCs were defined by a semi random method where ability score were rolled and a set of points were given to tweak scores, assign skills, wealth and gear.

Resolution was based on a modified % system where the dice scores rolled determined magnitude of success along with chance that might not rise to the difficulty of the task. If one had a 41 in a skill they roll percentile dice and would succeed on a roll of 41 or less and determined the magnitude of that success by totaling the two separate dice to get a score from 2 or more . If one rolled a 3 and a 9 they would have a score of 12 for the task at hand, if one had double they had half the original chance to add to the magnitude. Some task allowed continuing rolls until one completed the task on hand, some allowed minor continuing improvement and some were a one-shot affair. Combat worked off the same resolution system where magnitude of a hit roll determined the base damage, 2 or 3 shots was enough to take most folks out of a fight.

A few of the players found themselves employed by a multi-national entertainment corporation (that started with the letter D) that was going into a big retro 20th century children's show revival trend. The players would pose as a certain group of amphibian martial arts experts (in costume not as hacked- morphs) to provide additional security escort for Bernie a pink bio-res dinosaur that could sing corporation owned songs. I'm not going to give away more of the adventure as it's a good one I might still want to make use of some day.

Along with that (plagiarized) adventure the PCs discovered a terrible secret that impacted every person in the world, there was a "vampire" stalking the homeless and a terrorist gang had hacked a solar transmission satellite and was planning on using it to burn a swath of the city. Along with that action there is some player motivated cyber-jacking and sales to a back alley shop and a feud with a animal-morph gang in the PC's neighborhood.

The game and campaign were well received, better then I had hoped for (someone out there has/had a photocopied set of the rules). I think it did well because I used a lot of the tropes of cyberpunk and related sci-fi but didn't tie the game down to any popular subset and the rule system was "innovative" but simple. Because of chaining lifestyles and the semi-nomadic lifestyle of 20-30 year old's in the circles I ran with at the time N-th Wave saw only a handful of sessions (most of them played in a shabby little rundown factory city not too far from Boston). I still remember those sessions fondly as a high spot in my gaming life.


  1. wow, I grew up in a shabby run down factory city not far from Boston : )


  2. Lucky you DaveL. When I moved to that city (well, the one I moved to) there was a documentary film made about drug use and crime just down the street from me.