Hacking in Cyberpunk games

Paris City Grid card from the game "Netrunner" As I’ve written two weeks ago I am thinking about developing a Cyberpunk game powered by my Gears system. But there’s one thing that I don’t like about most Cyberpunk games: Hacking. Usually these games assume that the internet of the future is looking much like Second Life. You have an avatar that travels through subnets that look like futuristic cities. Intrusion countermeasure software looks like snakes, guard dogs, knights in shining armor that you fight with attack programs looking like weapons. While this sounded cool in the 1980s I don’t think this makes much sense – neither from a technical nor a gameplay standpoint.

The main problem with the “virtual world” concept is that you separate your hacker from the rest of the group. This always increases work for the GM and slows down play. When I remember correctly the latest edition of Shadowrun tried to remedy that issue by making the Matrix wireless and by adding “augmented reality”. Now hackers could do their “magic” in the real world. And at least from a gameplay standpoint that makes a lot of sense.

For my Cyberpunk setting I am considering something similar. While there are still normal desktop computers, portable computers, smartphones etc. you can also use special glasses or contact lenses to make use of “augmented reality”. When you look at a house, all necessary information is overlaid onto what you see. If you look at a person, you see all the details they make publically available. Business cards are basically a thing of the past.

When it comes to hacking devices you usually have to be in close vicinity to do so. While this may sound odd at first, it’s the best way to do it.No sane person would connect a server where the really interesting data is stored to the internet, so in order to access this data, you need to be at least in the same building to hack into it. So the hacker has to accompany his group when they try to steal the rival corporations research data. In a way, the hacker becomes the modern version of D&D’s thief. Overcoming security systems, hacking into CCTV cameras, disabling robot drones is the modern equivalent of disarming traps and picking locks. While this may break with one of the basic Cyberpunk tropes, it makes things much easier.

In the classic Cyberpunk genre, hackers usually still use keyboards (even when connected to the Cyberspace by a neural interface). From today’s standpoint touchscreen interfaces, gesture controls and perhaps even holographic displays seem more reasonable. While this is basically window-dressing, it’s still an important part of making the setting more modern and unique.

Rules wise I think it’s best to handle most easy hacking tasks like you simple skill rolls. Hacking a CCTV camera to make it show a freeze frame is just a simple check of the Hacking skill. Hacking into a secured server may be more like a skill challenge that starts with doing some basic research, writing custom tools, looking for backdoors etc. that are simulated by a couple of rolls on various skills.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

6 thoughts on “Hacking in Cyberpunk games”

  1. In my upcoming cyberpunk campaign (assuming I finish writing it some day) I will use the classic way of hacking, although slightly simplified.

    If you want to hack something from home, you connect (via your data-jack obviously) to the server you want to hack (though if it's a server with secret info it will most likely require local access, as it usually is in real life) and make a hack roll vs the sysadmins hack roll (assuming there is a sysadmin, otherwise just a normal hack roll).

    If you win, you make the hack and can find what you're looking for, if not, depending on how badly you fail, you're detected or just don't gain access and can try again at a minus.

    That's all I'll use, no entering a cyberworld or anything, just a simple (or not so simple) roll and you're done.

    (I do believe that's the same way they do it in WoD, I'm too lazy to look in the rulebook to confirm it though.)

    Then again, I'm not going to use classes either, everyone can be anything, they just need to learn the skills first. That way the 'hacker' will most likely be a useful part of the team in more situations.

  2. I love this idea! I totally agree that the digital world is moving towards complete wireless and augmented reality. We are already halfway there with all of these next-generation smartphones.

    Since this is cyberpunk, why not have interface implants? A set of small sensors can be placed near the metatarsals in the hands to detect hand position and finger movement. You can interact with your programs via hand gesture and you can enter text via "air keyboard."

    For those that don't have the implant, you whip out your mobile device (which will essentially be a cell phone.) It will likely have a mini-keyboard and touch screen just like today's phones.
    .-= DeadGod´s last blog ..Game Mechanics for Personality (for any edition of D&D) =-.

  3. Read Daniel Suarez's Daemon and Freedom (TM). They both go into great detail on augmented reality and how a "hacker" could interact with the physical world through a global network. Freedom (TM) has a lot of good ideas to be borrowed for a cyperpunk campaign.

  4. First, try and carve out a few hours sometime and browse the internet for information on current wearable computer, augmented reality, and related technologies. You will be stunned and amazed at what is already available, and at what is just on the cusp of being available. I'm running an espionage game, and I have trouble keeping the super-science gadgets actually ahead of commercially available stuff.

    As for the mechanics of hacking, there are a few good bits that I've found in various rules sets over the years. As already noted, physical access to the system is often, if not absolutely necessary, at least highly beneficial. Get the rest of the team involved at this point (social engineering, physical intrusion, etc.). Any hacking attempt should be a complex skill check versus the security of the system, possibly including a human counter-hacker. This should be exactly as tense and thrilling as a car chase, even if the other players can't contribute directly. Spycraft 2.0 has great rules for doing this. Also, don't force a full-on hack attempt for every piece of information. An awful lot of information can be gleaned from public (or at least easily penetrated) sources.

    Give the hacker the ability to collect "back doors." These are systems that she has previously hacked, and can get back into at will. This is an excellent way to reward hackers as they level up.

    The hacker also needs to think outside the box. It's not just about collecting information, it's about controlling it. Wipe out a target's credit rating. Send emails from his account to the police confessing to non-existent crimes. Create false electronic trails for your teammates to give them perfect alibis.

    Watch Leverage, Enemy of the State, Italian Job (the new one with Mark Wahlberg and Seth Green), and NCIS (well, only three or four episodes a season really give good fodder for a hacker, but it's really good fodder). It is a bit terrifying to realize just how easy it is to track someone electronically, and then completely reshape their world.
    .-= Lugh´s last blog ..“All The Great Hits” – Jimmy Buffett =-.

  5. Take a look at the hacking rules for GURPS Transhuman Space (I think they're in FIfth Wave). They're relatively realistic and were written by someone with a background in computer security.

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