Cy_Borg is a ‘nano-infested’ cyberpunk RPG by Christian Sahlén, based on the rules of Mork Börg, and published in 2022. Layout and art by Johan Nohr, perhaps even more ambitious and out there than in the aforementioned Mork Börg. Let’s not mince words – this book is pretty, but what does it bring to the cyberpunk games and genre as a whole? As a bonus I go on a tangent about character moral choices.
Entering the Cy
Cy is the cyberpunk future megacity where the game takes place. It is divided into regions such as the toxic industries, or the high end hills. It reminded me of Bastionland, in the way that the city is the main focus of the game. Beyond Cy the world is basically uninhabitable.
Each region is provided with half a page of description and a unique illustration. The art by Johan Nohr does a lot to communicate the vibes of each location, but the text also gives some hooks for your imagination to latch on to. For example the region G0 has a music club within its walls that’s tied to a secret society faction. I only wish there were more descriptions like that.
In a way, the setting of Cy_Borg assumes you are familiar with the cyberpunk genre, in the same way Mork Borg assumes you are familiar with fantasy. It provides minimal details for its Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner inspired world, with the idea that the GM fills in the gaps to suit their needs.
As the campaign progresses, the GM will roll on a table of Miserable Headlines, which change Cy in one way or another. For example rolling 6.5 on d66 will cause a solar storm to shut down all communications. When the 7th headline is rolled, the last (and intriguing) headline is rolled. I enjoy systems that provide a way for the world to change, the characters never get too comfortable and have to adapt. The only issue I find in Cy_Borg is that it provides no way to determine when to roll for these headlines. Yes the game says to roll every night, but how many actions do the characters take per day? Can they just never roll if the whole campaign occurs within one very eventful day? The GM will have to think of a way to track time that suits them.
Another theme with Cy is the layering of past structures, commonly present in OSR fantasy settings. Cy is full of ruins, abandoned buildings and maze-like tunnels, waiting to trap unlucky explorers. Overall it’s a great catch-all setting which allows for any variety of cyberpunk action.
System of Cy
The game system chapter opens with this paragraph:
You are encouraged to break every rule in this book except this one: Player Characters cannot be loyal to or have sympathy for the corps, the cops, or the capitalist system. They might find themselves reluctantly forced to do missions for them or their minions. But make no mistake—they are the enemy.
As Ben Milton points out, I get that they are trying to put you into the headspace of a rebel in the cyberpunk world, but it’s an odd rule. I think that (1) it takes away a decision point for players without providing any new ones, (2) it assumes that characters have to be anticapitalist to assume anticapitalist themes and (3) in these ways it is counter to a lot of media in the cyberpunk genre.
Let’s compare it to another cyberpunk rpg. In Cyberpunk 2020 you can get any cybernetics you want in exchange for eternal servitude to a corporation that will give you only the most dangerous and rigged missions (Pondsmith et al., 1990, p. 94):
You don’t have a choice. You just sold your soul. Welcome to 2020, smartboy.
2020 is a game about shopping for cybernetics and the cruel nature of capitalism. It does not stop you from being loyal to anyone really, but it lets you know that it will be a nightmare. In 2020, it is a decision to refuse the perks of corp loyalty.
Dreaming Dragonslayer provides an alternative by giving characters XP for working against the system. I also do not think that it is a solid solution. As Zedeck Siew has written in Lorn Song of the Bachelor (2019, p. 46):
Lorn Song of the Bachelor tries not to prompt players one way or the other. If I offered a mechanical incentive for you to fight colonial invaders, you wouldn’t be making a moral decision, but a mercenary one.
I agree with Siew in that if characters receive bonuses for working against the corporations, it defeats the point of the choice. Working against the corporations in a cyberpunk ultra-capitalist world is the harder alternative, and I think a system should reflect that.
A better way to use an XP system would be to focus on motivations, instead of morality. Cy_Borg has a great motivation table on page 57 (entries such as mayhem, love, freedom, burn it all down). Characters may get XP for actions that align with their motivations. In effect, they still get XP for working against the system, but the characters retain the right of moral choice.
I found another interesting way of tackling working for the “wrong side” in Vultures (Batts, 2020, p.14):
[…] a Vulture’s job is not a good one, and definitely not something to be proud of. And the job of the game is to see how long it takes before the system turns the players into rebels. From there they live outside the rules, as the rules are written by Space Mom for the use of being bounty hunters. What happens when you use those systems against something not detailed in the book. How do you rebel against the system? How do you rebel against the game?
In Vultures, characters start loyal to the system, and they do not have mechanical incentives to do otherwise. However, the game prompts the GM to explore the process of characters turning into rebels. The GM can do that by highlighting the humanity of the bounty hunters’ targets for instance.
To me the cyberpunk genre is fundamentally about making a choice. For instance (the most famous cyberpunk choice of all time) in The Matrix, the choice was between continuing being loyal to the system, or taking a hard path of working against it.
So what do characters actually do in Cy_Borg? Characters start with a debt they have to pay (similar to games such as Bastionland), which will be their primary motivation for completing missions. The character classes have unique abilities, but they are all very focused on fighting. Games in the cyberpunk genre usually include classes focused on social skills, such as fixers, but Cy_Borg seems to be exclusively focused on the slasher aspect. The game is firmly built around combat encounters and does not provide any rules for rebellious activity.
There are rules for combat, hacking and the cyberpunk equivalent of magic which are soaked in flavour. Followed by many pages of foes and corporations those abilities can be used against. However, the game doesn’t provide any tools for the characters to influence the world. There is a table of events for the city and the net, which are superb hooks, but they happen independently from character actions. Mechanically speaking, characters in Cy_Borg are powerless against the system.
I would solve this by using a faction system (such as the one in Mausritter) to advance corporation goals. The corp index in appendix 1 could be used for that. Characters could then hinder corporation progress, or exploit their rivalries to find weaknesses. Then they could actually work to change Cy, instead of aimlessly slashing cops.
Heisting in Cy
Lucky Flight Takedown is an introductory heist included in the book. It is a casino that includes a variety of environments, such a dirty club sort of setting and luxury VIP lounges. I enjoyed how it was described both when it is closed and when it’s open, featuring different encounters and consequences. Since I used a system where every action costs time (akin to clocks), this created an interesting choice; do the characters go in when the casino is closed and safer, but they race against the clock, or when it’s open so they can take it slow, but surrounded by security.
The casino has several entrances/exits, which also allows for heist flexibility. The layout overall is quite open, that is if the players find a way to get into the staff only areas. Most violence will lead to security forces swiftly arriving, so players will have to be sneaky and/or persuade their way in.
The adventure’s aftermath provides some hooks for the players to continue their campaign. I should also note that the PDF is wonderfully hyperlinked and a pleasure to use. Overall it is a great introductory mission with interactive rooms and many consequences. My only issue during play was how it meshes with the rest of Cy_Borg’s system, as the players are geared towards combat, which is discouraged in the heist.
All in all, Cy_Borg will suit players and GMs familiar with Mork Börg (or other rules-light games) who want to play a cyberpunk action adventure. If the group wants to pursue a more social oriented experience, the GM will have to work to adapt the system to their needs.