Recently, I've been going through a process of kicking off a cyberpunk RPG campaign with some friends. But unlike your standard D&D campaign, where the players' involvement in world building is primarily through their character, this campaign has forced the entire group to shell out what our world looks like. It's been a wonderful, refreshing change.
Don't get me wrong: I've got nothing against D&D. It's also a huge advantage, especially for new players, to have prebuilt worlds and settings players can just jump into. Tabletop RPGs can be very overwhelming: Not only do you have to wrap your head around the mechanics of what you can do in any given moment, there's also the process of having a strong vision of what your player should be like, how they should behave, how that functions within the group, and the natural human politics of group play and roleplay.
But with a few years experience under my belt, it's fun to explore new options. So when a friend suggested a Kickstarter RPG called The Veil, I was extremely on board.
The Veil is built on the same systems as Apocalypse World, which uses 2d6 to determine the difficulty of objectives, actions and various emotional states for the player. What's especially cool is that it's a soft setting. The game gives players a series of questions to answer, about themselves and what their world looks like, and that lays out some of the objectives and inflection points for the DM to move the story along. All of this takes place before the first session, too.
It starts with the environment. Does your campaign start in the desert? A coastal area, the slums, by a river, or in a forest? We eventually settled for more of a classic cyberpunk-style slum setting - think the initial episodes of The Expanse, Blade Runner, or a super futuristic, but lower socioeconomic version of Hong Kong - where pollution permeated much of the lower atmosphere. Ripping directly from Altered Carbon, the wealthy would be living on plots of land or high rises extending well into the sky.
One constant for The Veil, however, is the existence of The Veil. The Veil is basically a mixed reality that takes the form of the internet - it's a virtual society of sorts that I immediately likened to the internet from Ghost in the Shell:
As well as the persistent illusion, The Veil encompasses the digital world. The players can dive into it and treat it as physical space ripe for creative exploration. How information is perceived and interacted with, as well as the incredible physical and mental feats possible in a world where your mind is the only limitation, is up to you and your friends.
"Sweet," I thought when this was first explained into me.
And this was how our world building process began: With the internet. The game stresses that everyone is jacked into the internet at all times, but our group adjusted it to more of a class warfare situation. Intelligence operatives and most military personnel, for instance, would have portable devices - much like a smartphone, or think the firewall-type boxes Section 9 would carry around with them in Ghost in the Shell - that would let them jack in remotely.
Regular, lower-class consumers could get those devices as well. But there has to be a cost, our DM noted, so what did that look like? Were they less secure? Was there a limit on the range? Were they restricted to particular parts of The Veil?
And speaking of The Veil ... what did we want our version of the cyberpunk future to look like?
It was the kind of world building experience that, to date, I haven't had in D&D. Or a D&D type game. It's fascinating as fuck: I feel more invested in building out The Veil and the society around it than my own character.
After nutting out more details about the government and their relationship with The Veil - we eventually settled on a decentralised internet that the government had a part in, but didn't wholly control - we also settled on a thornier question.
If people were permanently jacked in, or had the ability to at least practically live constantly in this digital environment - remembering the persistent illusion outlined by the creators of this RPG - what did that mean for people's consciousness? As it turned out, part of the character building process was to outline a general mission or objective.
Having established as your typical information broker-style character, I landed on a mission to connect two cultures. I'd be responsible for connecting the corporate world to a new society operating wholly within The Veil, one existing wholly of human consciousnesses that had been uploaded to The Veil and left their physical bodies (or whose bodies had died).
It's very much the same principle as "ghosts" from Ghost in the Shell. But in a nice twist, and because I'd established myself as more of a mercenary figure, our DM decreed that my talents would be put to something wholly inadequate: I was being tasked to connect to this virtual culture, so a mega corporation could help advertise and marketing their latest sporting streaming services.
Not having a physical presence doesn't mean you're not into sport, y'know.
Our group hasn't had our first session yet. The sessions we have had so far - basically three meetings, if you will, tacked onto board game days - have all been about shelling out different elements of this world. We've had discussions about what corporations look like in this dystopian setting; we've come up with names and mock suggestions for their products. We had a chat for over an hour about cyberisation and pecific prosthetics. Do our characters have advanced hearing or visual capacities because of implants or other cyberisation, and what are the failure points for those?
Importantly, we also had to set a series of beliefs and goals. Apart from establishing the crux of our character is like, it's also a key component for levelling - at the end of every session, if a belief had either been validated or challenged significantly enough that our character had changed course, we'd be rewarded with XP.
The Veil is a cracking setting. But what's been so much fun is nutting out what that looks like, not just from a theoretical standpoint but down to the small things, like consuming food, grocery shopping, day to day minutia. It's been more like sitting in a writers' room, hammering out details for a scene on an episode, wondering where characters should be standing, what they're wearing, how those materials would affect their movement, and keeping that in line with a broader narrative.
It's been fun as hell. I'm not sure if I'll end up enjoying the machinations of The Veil quite as much as the world I've built, but it's one of the best tabletop experiences I've had by far.