Cyberpunk’s Nomads Part 2
In my last post on the subject of Nomads in the Cyberpunk universe, I outlined some of the issues they’ve had past and present in terms of gameplay. I also touched on the issue of their simultaneous status of being both a full-blown culture and an in game role (read: class). But to dig down into what I think a better approach to Nomads would have been, we need to understand Nomads in the game. So it’s time to go in depth on the lore of Nomads in Cyberpunk.
An Overview of Nomads in Cyberpunk Editions and Games
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 are covered, but by and large, many developments, like Nomads, are 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 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 different challenge, because they were the direct result of specific socioeconomic conditions in the USA. But in an effort to make them work, and because of their special ability, Family, “Nomad” was applied as a template for IRL groups globally.
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, as they’re also the main source of cargo transit in 2045.
Cyberpunk 2077 is, in my opinion, showing the end of Nomad culture. Families are folding and amalgamating just to survive. Members going static is endemic. Far from being the heroes who rebuilt the world after the 4th Corporate War, Nomads are now broadly regarded as little better than bandits or black market hookups and smugglers.
So, Who are the Nomads?
This is a loaded question, because I think that the term “Nomad” has been applied and is maintained too widely to really have meaning. In short, there’s too many people who are called Nomads. To me, Nomads are the undocumented, motorized transient population of the USA/NUSA, Canada, and Mexico. And the reason is simple, these are the places that had the specific socioeconomic pressures to create them. The UK, EEC, USSR, China, Hong Kong, Australia, Africa, and others all had very different experiences that were, somehow, not as bad as what went down in North America and the American Territories. Were things bad? Yes. Did they suddenly see 25% of their populations rendered homeless and pushed into the grey and black economies of the world to make it by? No. So Nomads are uniquely North American.
And to be absolutely clear, the effort to template “Nomad” over IRL cultures in Cyberpunk 2020 books, such as the Roma of Europe and Travellers of the UK, and pretty much any ethnic group vaguely associated with “pirates” was one of the most problematic decisions for world building that R. Talsorian made. A lot of these populations are already negatively stigmatized IRL, and this didn’t help. I think it was done in an effort to keep all the roles “active” in every book, but where Nomads are a fit (to a degree) in North America because of the world building efforts, they feel badly welded on elsewhere.
Nomad Population Challenge!
Based on what I’ve read and the dots I’ve connected on the conspiracy wall, I think that there’s four main populations who are described as being “Nomads”, but in reality, only two of them are.
Motor Nomads: these are the traditional “Nomads” seen in books, games, and anime. They’re a largely undocumented, transient population that flows through the American Midwest, West, Southwest, and Pacific Coast in convoys of armed, Mad Max style vehicles. They also make up the leadership and de facto aristocracy of Nomad culture. Number wise, until the years leading up to 2077, they’re a minority that enjoys dominant status in the population.
Squatter-Settler “Nomads”: when it all fell apart, there were ghost towns and abandoned city zones for days, and these areas were rapidly populated by the people rendered homeless by the Stock Market Crash in 1994, and were prime “settling grounds” for early Motor Nomads looking to leave the life and return to their old ones between 1996 and 2013. This population are seen by people who didn’t lose it all as “Nomads”, but they aren’t. They lead rough lives and live in the grey economy, but they’re also on the forefront of the NUSA “revitalization” and sudden ability to reoccupy “ghost towns”.
Labourer Nomads: this is the overwhelming bulk of the Nomad population, but they’re not “Nomads” in the traditional sense. They’re semi-static, and their relationship with their Clans, Tribes, and Nations is more akin to association with a union or corporate entity who offers access to jobs and resources in addition to security. They often remain in a single place for years until the contract is over, then move to the next job that the Motor Nomads have arranged. They’re affiliated, but also prone to going static more than the Motor Nomads. Their participation in Nomad culture is limited and represents a significant subordinate culture. They’re also the primary money makers for their respective Nations.
MetaCorp: they’re not Nomads. They’re a successful revolutionary group that the USA and NUSA treat like, well, normal Americans for the most part. Founded by disgruntled military members and Gen 1 Nomads (people who were adults or teens when the Stock Market Crashed in 1994), they aren’t Nomads in any way except that they compete with Nomad Nations for work. Honestly, how they were “recognized” as a Nomad Nation needs to be its own novel series as one man, Jonathan Meta, successfully leads a revolution that no one notices and then gets to have his cake and eat it too.
What Happened to the Nomad Population?
The next component to acknowledge is that, simply, between 1996 and the emergence of the first Nomad Packs in California and 2045, where the rebuilding of Night City and other devastated areas is at maximum, Nomads saw massive population shrinkage. By the time we see Nomads in Cyberpunk Edgerunners (2076) and in Cyberpunk 2077, they’re a shadow of what they were even in 2045. So what happened? Where did a known 67.4 million people go?
Foremost, many of the initial population identified as “Nomads” simply weren’t. 25% of the USA’s population (and an unknown number of Canadians and Mexicans) can’t just become mobile and the culture and social structures of Nomads didn’t emerge overnight. Between the 2nd Central American War, the occupation of Ghost Towns and Cities by squatters on a large scale creating undocumented and unmonitored population centres, the Wasting Plague, and then the booming economy from 2013-2025, the founding of MetaKey, the overwhelming bulk of people simply didn’t become “Nomads”. Were they marginalized? Absolutely. Outside the law (especially MetaCorp)? Yes. But they weren’t Nomads, even if they became affiliated with them for labour and protection.
After the 4th Corporate War, things get worse for the Nomads. The USA rebrands to NUSA and embarks on lowkey then aggressive unification efforts to bring the West, Midwest, Southwest, and Pacific Coast back into compliance with the federal government. This all culminates in the Unification War in 2069 to 2070. That’s counter to Nomad lifeways. Then there’s jobs. Reconstruction, salvage, construction, smuggling, some legitimate shipping… All things that aren’t conductive to being nomadic and that need permanent, sedentary populations. Now, I know some people are shaking their heads, but even the Neo Corps of RED aren’t going to tolerate or use unreliable actors or groups to try to make money. Access to resources, protection, and reliable income combined with political pressures to control lands and their populations are strong pressures, especially in a world that’s increasingly environmentally hostile.
Deus Ex Machina, On Repeat
So, Nomads are in a weak position coming into Cyberpunk RED. They were a mess in Cyberpunk 2020, and it’s clear there an inordinate amount of effort went into them in Cyberpunk RED. But what do I mean by this? Well, Nomads are literally everywhere and have been hammered into the fabric of the world in an effort to make them “work”.
In the core book, they’re the only role that has an entire sidebar to explain how “Nomads in a City Campaign” can work. No other role has this. Why? Because all the other roles are jobs. They’re not cultures or lifeways, they’re jobs. A Solo or Tech or Exec can be fit organically into functionally any type of campaign. Even more specifically themed roles like Rockerboys, Lawmen, and Fixers are relatively easy to match up. But Nomads, because of the dual nature of their existence as a culture and role in the game, need extra help. Not a good sign.
Next is that they’re literally the world’s saviours in Cyberpunk RED. Formerly marginalized, outlaw organizations and smugglers, they suddenly come out of nowhere to form the backbone of both the skilled and unskilled labour needed for reconstruction, salvage, and more. While that’s going down, they simultaneously take over the world’s shipping and cargo transport industries, using their “secret knowledge” of the land, sea, and air to create new trade routes only they know about and somehow in a world that’s otherwise pretty logical internally, this all passes muster. The impression I get is that Nomads, who have been on or near the edge since the original game, reaped the benefit of writers being told they had to make them work no matter what.
Culture or Role?
Here’s where I get to say, out loud, that I 100% support Nomads in the game as a culture, as part of a character’s background, as part of the combined historical, cultural, and economic tapestry of North America in the Cyberpunk Universe. I think that there should be a whole separate background section for characters coming from a Nomad background, because it’s a legit culture that’s been developed in game that has impacts outside the more “normal” origins of characters from Night City, the Pacifica Confederation, Japan, or the EEC to name a few. But as a role? No. Part of it is the conflation between role and culture, and the other part is that because of that conflation, problematic world building becomes normalized.
What About the Role Then?
That’s tricky. The old “Family” special skill was a problem, as I talked about in the last post. The new special skill, Moto, to me, is a bit OP because it encompasses so much. It’s the combined special skills from a number of 2020 era roles. So how to approach it?
To me, a dedicated driver/pilot role is something that Cyberpunk needs as a game. What I’m working on for my game are Tuners. Their ability is Moto Zen, where like the Solo’s Combat Awareness, they have a pool of points that they can distribute to their driving/tech skills, plus some specialist skills like Stunt Driving/Piloting, Gunnery, and Sensor Sweep. There’s also a baseline bonus for each rank that simply applies to all skills, and I’m incorporating the existing vehicle mod rules. Replacing the family’s vehicles are the Garage’s, so each Tuner is associated to a Garage. It’s a work in progress but I’m happy with the directions its going because it’s proving easier so far to fit anywhere as opposed to the standard Nomad role.
But the World Building?
It’s not a huge departure from what’s there really. In terms of labour, that still tracks. Salvage? 100%! But there just needs to be a recognition in these areas that they spell a serious change in Nomad culture. They’re tasks that encourage “static” existence, they place Nomads and their kids in close proximity to and influence from non-Nomad cultures, and when combined with the political actions of the world around them, promote an end to the existing Nomad Lifeway. And I’m not saying they’d lose their Packs, Families, Clans, Tribes, or Nations. By 2045 those are well and established. What I am saying is they would adapt to the new static lifestyle and retain these structures as they adapted them as well. So I see lots of areas of Night City for example that would be identified as “Nomad Blocks”, places where Nomad culture is the norm and evolving to meet its new challenges.
The transport/cargo aspect is slightly more complicated but still very workable. I think, and how I plan to approach it in my game, that in the decade immediately after the 4th Corporate War, Nomads played both sides of the fence. They offered guides and limited cargo transport, but also acted as bandits and pirates. The Neo Corps caught on fast, and soon “massaged” the more reputable Nomads into positions as cargo masters, shippers, and operators with corporate affiliations. The narrative that spun out of it all was that Nomads had taken over and were doing everything, but in reality the Neo Corps and Mega Corps (when they returned) were just learning the new routes and indoctrinating their new “friends”. By 2045, Nomads are “in charge of shipping” in the sense that they’re part of the operation and a valuable public narrative. Fast forward to 2076 and 2077, and things are back to normal in that corporations are now 100% running their own cargo, Nomads are armed escorts, smugglers, bandits, or pirates, and small time cargo runners between settlements in the wastelands.
And all of this tracks with what we see in Cyberpunk 2077, where the Aldecaldos are facing serious issues in the deserts outside Night City between pressures to have access to needed resources, and the dangers of the Raffen Shiv who have gone completely over to banditry.
I love Cyberpunk, and I love the efforts that the R. Talsorian Games team has gone to with their world building. They’ve done and continue to do a lot of heavy lifting in the setting, sweeping out so much of the older problematic stuff and developing new canon that’s exciting to the new players and familiar to the older ones. But I also think that the Nomad is a mess that needed better handling. Nomads are still a part of the world, but I think that their evolution as a role is a weak spot in otherwise outstanding game design. Now, obviously, you can homebrew to address this, which is what I’m doing, but I think better clarity and a willingness to take a risk on changing a core role to a more developed background would have gone far in making the world more stable. That said, I also understand why they retained an iconic role, even with its problematic aspects; maintaining the iconic is a part of game design. So stay tuned for my homebrew on it and how it all integrates smoothly!