It’s a simple reality that some tabletop RPGs can become associated with a particular setting or part of a setting. In Shadowrun, it’s Seattle. For D&D, it’s Forgotten Realms and specifically the northwest bit of Faerûn. Cyberpunk also has this challenge, as it’s almost inextricably associated with Night City. But there’s a much wider world out there, and it’s time to look at it.
Cyberpunk as an RPG has always had a wider world, even back in the original 1988 release of Cyberpunk 2013. That edition detailed Night City first; but also came out swinging with the excellent Near Orbit book, and the Cyberpunk adaptation of Walter Jon Williams’ Hardwired novel. Both of the latter books breathed a huge amount of detail into the world and offered a glimpse into the larger setting. Both were also pretty much ignored by many because “Night City!”
With Cyberpunk 2020, the world got more details. Deep Space took the setting to Mars and sent manned missions to the moons of Jupiter. Eurosource Plus and Eurotour fleshed out the European scene. Rough Guide to the UK was exactly that. And then there was the Pacific Rim Sourcebook. Even the Fourth Corporate War books added more, laying out the undersea world of Cyberpunk. However, the primary focus of the game, even as a start/finish location, remained Night City.
Now we’re in Cyberpunk RED, and have premonitions of the timeline’s future from the Cyberpunk Edgerunners anime and the Cyberpunk 2077 videogame. And RED gives an extremely good rundown of the larger world, setting up a lot of plot hooks and dangling threads for GMs to go for. However, the main focus of the game, through its DLC and releases, remains on Night City.
Setting fatigue, that’s what. As early as 2017, I was already hearing the 5e D&D fanbase complain that Faerûn was “boring” and that it was too “limited”. But when I dug deeper, what was really happening was that they were only being exposed to the Sword Coast and Heartlands regions, while the other 90% of the world got single paragraph entries before being forgotten by Wizards. And when they first ventured out of those regions in a big way, with Tomb of Annihilation being in Chult, they dropped the world building ball hard. A similar thing is happening in Cyberpunk.
When a becomes too focused on a small part of its setting, it starts to lose people’s interest. You can have the best game in the world with an amazing world, but if all people immediately associate with it is a narrow set of stories and potential because of this, there’s a issue. And that’s what I’ve been seeing crop up with Cyberpunk. People a talking about how they like the game, but feel constrained by its focus on Night City and the stories that are happening there.
At a base level, there’s four sub-settings in the Cyberpunk world, each with a prime location that can act as an alternative to Night City.
Night City is the obvious one. This 24km² strip of urban development, industrial pollution, and overcrowding is the default sub-setting. In Cyberpunk RED, it’s deep in recovery mode and reconstruction, but still offers a lot of the same jobs, hazards, and momentary pleasures it always has. Is it possible to dig into to some different stories and game experiences with Night City? Yes. Absolutely. Is it easy? Not so much, because so much of the narrative and design around the game overlaps with Night City. This means there’s a significant bias to address and bypass to get the job done. The prime location here, naturally, is Night City and its immediate environs.
I connect the Drift Nations and Deepdown as a single sub-setting, as I think there’s a strong link between the two. Combined, they’re the aquatic sub-setting for Cyberpunk. The Drift Nations are (usually) independent artificial floating islands, and the Deepdown are subsea facilities that may or may not be independent. This sub-setting re-prioritizes the importance of different roles in the game, because life at or under sea is a different operation. Can you tell regular Cyberpunk stories here? Yes. Can it focus on different stories easily? Also yes. A lot of the “punk” in Cyberpunk is happening here in my opinion, because the collapse of the Old NET and independence of orbital facilities has made the high seas a viable hiding spot. Its prime location, in my mind, is Aqua Delphi off of Hawai’i.
Orbit is the oldest sub-setting, and the largest by far, and in Cyberpunk RED, it’s the Highrider Confederation. This sub-setting extends from all levels of orbit to Luna to Mars to the asteroid belt to Jupiter. Something a lot of people miss when distracted by the lights and firefights of Night City is that Cyberpunk is an early stellar setting. In 2045, despite all the fallout (literal and figurative) from the Fourth Corporate War, there are nascent colonies on Mars. There’s also sufficient industry and resources in orbit and beyond for them to be independent of Earth for the overwhelming majority of what they need to survive and build. Now, again, this sub-setting changes things up from the usual mix for roles, and it also offers a blend of stories. This is, in my opinion, the most political and roleplay heavy sub-setting, because there is pressure from all sides for control. Now, as much as I love the orbital stations and O’Neill Cylinders, I think the prime location for this sub-setting is Tycho/Lunar Colony, the larger of the two lunar colonies.
The final sub-setting is a bit of a weak entry, but I’ll explain. It’s “the rest of Earth”. There’s so much happening in North America, South America, Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Pacific that it’s not even funny. Even keeping it local, a move north of Night City into the Pacifica Confederation seriously changes the vibe and feel of the game. The reason I describe this as a “weak entry” is because it’s really multiple articles on its own in order to give it justice. Just sticking with the Pacifica Confederation gives the Vancouver-Seattle-Victoria triangle to work with as the prime location, and that’s an exponentially larger area than Night City.
As I wrote this, I realized that it’s going to be a multi-part series, and that I need to write an article about what the world of Cyberpunk is like in terms of climate and how this would likely affect people and how they live. So… that’s going to be a thing. I’m not launching another Aquatic Summer though, so theses will be interspersed with regular articles. But back on topic.
Cyberpunk is a much, much larger setting than it gets credit for being, and to succeed as a game, it needs to highlight those other areas just as hard as it highlights and lavishes detail on Night City. Because being an Edgerunner isn’t unique to that one locale and there’s a lot more stories and themes that the game can run. And a lot of these sub-settings lean hard into the larger sci-fi of Cyberpunk past the streets where many games start and end. So I’ll definitely be exploring all of this more in the future!