Cyberpunk’s Nomads Part 1
A few days ago, I wrote a lengthy article about Nomads in Cyberpunk. Why? Because while Nomads are a perennial favourite role in the game, they’ve always been more challenging than other roles in the game for several reasons this article will explore. Except then I had an epiphany about Nomads while driving home, because apparently after midnight on a highway is where you have these realizations. So let’s talk about Nomads.
The origin of this whole analysis came from playing and watching playthroughs of Cyberpunk 2077 and reading the new Cyberpunk RED book. In the former, it really hit me about how small Nomad clans had become, and how their perception in public was broadly negative. In the former, it seemed odd to me that in a game notable for its “figure out how they fit together” approach to group composition that the Nomad had to have a section called “Nomads in a City Game”, where no other roles needed the depth of explanation for why they’d be present in a conventional game or in a wasteland game. The write up itself felt, well, forced. Like it was scrambling to fit Nomads into RED. Now interested, I dug deeper into the lore and representation of Nomads in the media around the game.
Nomads are one of the original roles in Cyberpunk, tracing their existence all the way back to 1988’s Cyberpunk 2013, and to be honest they kind of worked then. How? Cyberpunk 2013 was an intensely “small” game in terms of scope. Heavily influenced by Hardwired (and even having a supplement for that novel), Cyberpunk 2013 was intensely focused on Night City, the USA, and Orbit. Yes, other parts of the world were briefly covered, but many developments, like Nomads, were unique to the USA and North America. So within the narrow world focus of Cyberpunk 2013, Nomads sort of worked.
Things started to go sideways in Cyberpunk 2020 though. The new edition enthusiastically (and often problematically) expanded the world to encompass the Pacific Rim, Europe, the UK, and got deeper into the weeds around North America itself. And that expansion started the problem. Most roles were relatively easy to slot into the cultural paradigms outside North America. Even niche ones like Media and Corporates only need mild adjustment. Nomads posed a distinct challenge because they directly resulted from specific socioeconomic conditions in the USA. But to make them work, and because of their special ability, Family, Nomads were templated over everything. Roma in Europe? Nomads. East and Southeast Asians who live on boats? Nomads. The fit was poor and felt like it was being forced in an effort to keep the core book roles applicable to the whole planet.
Cyberpunk RED has Nomads as the heroes who suddenly saved Night City and other places by being a ready labour force during the rebuilding after the 4th Corporate War. In keeping with the shifts in Cyberpunk 2077, their special ability is no longer family, but instead an incredibly broad driving and piloting ability. But there’s more, they’re also the main source of cargo transit in 2045. But they also feel more out of place than in the 2020 era. Where the 2020 books just smashed things into a Nomad shaped hole, in RED, they need more support to function than any other role.
Cyberpunk 2077 and Edgerunners, in my opinion, shows the end of Nomad culture. Once a large population in North America, they’re now scattered families with low numbers. Many appear to have turned to banditry. But the big thing that came from this era, to me, is that Nomads weren’t all mechanically “Nomads”. They were other roles, even legacy ones from 2020 like Panzerboys. And it was thinking about that aspect of their representation that made something click for me.
BIG NOTE: For the purposes of this examination, I am discussing North American Nomads. I will touch briefly on the groups labeled Nomads outside North America in a later article.
Cultures and Roles
Time to put on my sociology hat. In sociology, there are things called roles and statuses. A status is something that you are. Ascribed or achieved, it’s a permanent “thing”. Roles are what you “do” in the sense of occupation or activities. For example, I have the statuses of being a Black cishet male, a divemaster, and I’m a veteran. Those are ascribed and achieved statuses. In terms of roles, I’m a parent, diver, soldier, and creator. They’re roles I have in the larger society I live in. If you want to dig deeper, hit this site. But what does this have to do with Nomads?
Unlike every other role in the Cyberpunk game, Nomads are a “status”. They’re an entire culture; they have unique social structures, their own internal norms, mores, taboos and laws. It’s a complete lifeway that was created in response to the most dire socioeconomic situation the USA has seen since the Great Depression. But they’re treated like a role. Their culture is conflated with specific game mechanics, and no other roles are like that.
And I think this is the root of the challenge around them. In no other instance in the game is a culture conflated with a role, and as a result, they impact the game dramatically.
The Challenge Nomads Bring
It was most pronounced in Cyberpunk 2020, but remains an issue in Cyberpunk RED, and it’s the simple fact that many GMs have discovered through the years. Having a player play a Nomad means that eventually, it’s going to be a Nomad themed game. Nomads carry far more story affecting baggage than other roles, and it’s because of a combination of factors.
The conflation of Nomad culture with a role means that a Nomad is never a single entity with a small number of NPCs in their background that a lifepath generates. There’s always the Pack, Family, and Nation behind them, giving them access to info, weapons, vehicles, gear and more; all in exchange for future assistance or jobs. And within the atomistic, individualistic, self-interested world of Cyberpunk, this changes the game. This was most pronounced in Cyberpunk 2020 with the Family mechanic, but remains active in RED with the way that accessing family vehicles works.
Can Nomads Work?
Yes and no. The problem with their current design is that they’re mechanically the driver/wheelman member of an edgerunner crew but have an unwieldy amount of cultural and story baggage attached to them because they’re a legacy aspect of the game. I think that Nomads could work if “Nomad” was a complete background option in the game specifically for running Nomad games and not a role, a few possibilities on the lifepath chart, and a lot of implied aspects. Within this framework, there would need to be a replacement role for Nomads that carried on the vehicle handling aspect, and probably a sourcebook for Nomad adventures and jobs.
Nomads aren’t likely going anywhere in the near or foreseeable future. They’re a legacy role that’s considered to be iconic and as a result people aren’t likely to be friendly to them being cut or recast in the game, no matter how kludged up they are. So with that reality in mind, I’ll be following this post up with a deep dive into Nomad history and offer a plausible timeline of events and cultural developments that make them make sense as much that’s possible.
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