2400 devlog: Inner System Blues

Inner System Blues (on Itch and DriveThruRPG) is a microgame about cyberpunk freelancers in a grainy retro-future. It’s an action/adventure RPG soaked in neon-glow nostalgia and a grim determination to survive in a world that’s just as messed up as sci-fi authors warned us about (but at least you’ve got a cool computer).

But also, it’s really, really short — only 3 pages and a cover, fitting on both sides of a letter-sized page — so the most I can really do imply all that. It is extremely dense (even compared to later 2400 games), making it something of a typographic/UX design nightmare. It was the first 2400 game, and I wasn’t sure how many more I’d manage to make, so I wanted to fit in as much as possible.

I wrote a few devlog updates for Inner System Blues on Itch awhile back (for v1.1, v1.2, and v1.4), but those were more nitty-gritty explanations of specific rules tweaks, format options, and technical corrections. I never did a devlog about the actual design process that went into this game. As I’m moving old devlogs over to this blog, I felt like now would be a good time to write up a bit more on this game, and how I decided what needed to be in it: the cover, rules, character creation, GM prompts.

The cover

Putting a cover on your microgame is not just a graphic design decision, and not just a marketing decision. It is a game design decision. It is the decision to occupy that space with one kind of content instead of another. It is trusting that a picture might be worth a thousand words (at least in the context of accompanying a thousand other, actual words). And I think it was the right decision for 2400. (And if you don’t believe me, listen to Chris McDowall’s Bastionland Broadcast on 2400. Go ahead, I’ll wait over here, blushing.)

In such a small format, our first instinct may be that every inch of the game ought to deliver content. That’s a lot of space that words could have gone! But the cover catches your eye, tells you what kind of game it’ll be, and maybe even inspires you, gives you ideas, gets you in the mood to play. It is certainly what got me interested in making some of these games.

The cover to Inner System Blues, like most 2400 games, is a slightly edited version of artwork by Mike Winkelmann, a.k.a. Beeple. I chose it because, at the time, I’d been misinformed that it was Creative Commons licensed. (Don’t believe everything you read on Discord, kids. Or Instagram. Or my Twitter feed, before I figured out I was wrong.) Later, some contributors to the 24XX Jam heard back from Mike that he’s okay with independent creators using his stuff in their projects, so I kept using it.

Of course, that means I sometimes see other games using the same art I’m using. And some months after I started using it, Mike’s art became influential in the crypto/NFT scene, which I know changes how some people react to the images. (Can’t blame them. I’m very anti-NFT myself.)

I’m not sure what the lesson here should be. Be careful where you steal from, maybe? Or, perhaps, if you can afford to commission art, consider doing so. As much as I love this cover, I suspect that may be in the cards for 2400 book somewhere down the line.

The rules

It sounds like a no-brainer — of course the game needed rules! — but that wasn’t actually originally the plan.

As I wrote about in my first blog post about 2400, 2400 was born out of a number of different projects and desires, but my initial plan for it was not a series of self-contained microgames. Rather, I started work on an art-free, generic, Knave-style core rules document, which I intended to release one-page updates for over time as optional, modular expansions — for cyberware, aliens, robots, psi powers, etc.

I actually made decent headway on that project before I lost interest. I still wanted a modular rules toolkit that would be trivial to convert sci-fi adventures into — but my own lack of excitement, and the yawn I got back when I asked for feedback online, got me thinking it might be more useful if the modules were complete games in themselves, designed to be quick and easy to get to the table. It would be modular, but each module would be an example of how the toolkit might be used, like a box of Legos for building a specific thing (unless you’d rather use those blocks to build a different thing). The rules would be mostly the same from module to module, but tweaked to add a little something extra usable in other games.

I’ll write a bit more in another post about why the rules in 2400 are what they are. For now, I’ll focus on why Inner System Blues, specifically, is what it is. And here’s the one rule specific to this game:

If you get paid, each character gains d6 credits (₡) and +1 corp rep. If you fought injustice, gain +1 street rep. Roll d20 ≤ a fitting rep to check if someone recognizes you.

I wanted to reserve the option to play this as an unapologetic power fantasy, but also recognize that the punk part of cyberpunk is about unequal distribution of power. Cyberpunk protagonists in RPGs are basically bargain bin superheroes, which raises questions of how you’d use a little bit of power in a system designed to deprive you of it. This rule reminds you to raise that question, but doesn’t really demand an answer for it. As I wrote about in the original devlog for my second 2400 cyberpunk game, Resistors:

Inner System Blues unabashedly revels in the style of cyberpunk; the tables have you picking out flashy clothes and doing tropey jobs for untrustworthy clients in suits. It’s meant to be a wry, self-aware take on “no ethical consumption under capitalism.” You might get recognition for helping out the little guy, but the game’s intentionally agnostic about trying to do good as a struggling gig worker.

I have often wondered whether that makes Inner System Blues an amoral or unsophisticated game. Feeling influenced by politics when you design a game isn’t the same thing as actually designing a game to intelligently comment upon politics. But I also think sharing a darkly comedic power fantasy with some buddies every now and then is valuable in and of itself, at least for my own mental health, so I’m glad I made this game.

(As a side note, I will add that I chose the “₡” symbol because it looks like a “C” — the first letter of “credits” in my native language” — and also because it’s associated with the “colón” currency. It seemed fitting to me, especially in a cyberpunk game, for the symbol for “filthy lucre” to come from a currency named after Christopher Columbus, a brutal murderer and colonizer — and all the more fitting to steal that symbol and erase its history.)

Characters

I have decided both of the following can and must be true:

  • I fit a lot into Inner System Blues, and some people really appreciate getting to dig into all the character creation options.
  • It is a nightmare to try to find anything in paragraphs of densely-packed text like these.

Inner System Blues has a longer list of … well, pretty much everything … than other 2400 games. More specialties, more gear, more skill suggestions, more weirdly specific outfits, most of it jam-packed into paragraphs. I tried to hit every trope I could think of from every cyberpunk game and movie I had enjoyed, and then I threw in a couple more when people asked where they were. (I had never heard the term “rigger” used in the context it’s used in here, and I am still a little unclear on why “rockers” are such a thing in cyberpunk, but I can recognize the value in having a mechanic and an internet-famous person on your crew.)

I try not to format 2400 games like this anymore. I got it out of my system here. Now I feel like I can take a breath and break things down into bulleted lists and the like. Give them some breathing room. Let people skim.

That said, I do feel like Inner System Blues trusts readers more than some later 2400 games, and I wonder sometimes if I need to shift back in that direction in my design — explaining less, trusting more. You know what I mean when I write out “tethered grappling hand” as a cyber-arm upgrade even though you’ve never seen one before, right?

GM prompts

People occasionally ask me how much they ought to prep for a 2400 game. My answer is typically that it’s up to you, but personally, I don’t usually prep. Sometimes I run published adventures with 2400, but mostly I just roll on some tables with the players right in front of me, and improvise on the fly. At least, that’s what I do now that working on Inner System Blues helped me determine the bare minimum I personally need to give me something to run with, and which parts I find hardest to improvise without a prompt.

I find it tough to come up with an interesting person whole-cloth, so I made 20 people and tried to give each one a simple descriptor that I knew would make it easy for me to inhabit them.

I find it tough to come up with adventure seeds from scratch, so there’s a table of jobs, and a procedure for getting new jobs (with some rules to encourage penny pinching and highlight why you’re constantly hustling).

I am terrible at coming up with interesting locations on the fly, so I tried to imagine places that sounded like you might go in a cyberpunk city.

And cyberpunk jobs pretty much always go wrong, but it’s tough for me to think of ways they might go wrong without doing the most cliche thing every time, and it’s dull as dirt when every client betrays you, so here are 19 other twists (plus that cliche one).

I hoped this would be enough, and that GMs would intuit that you can use this to put together a whole scenario starter in the form of, “a contact wants you to do a job in a location, but there’s a twist.” I have heard that it is enough for some people, and not quite enough for others.

Two years later, I’m still trying to figure out how to strike that balance between too much instruction and not enough. That’s 2400 development in a nutshell.

Combining with other 2400 games

Even if you don’t plan to run a cyberpunk game, Inner System Blues has the most options for gear, cybernetics, and character specialties of any 2400 game. The short lists of equipment options in the other games are mostly just highlights lists from this first gear list. The lists of people and jobs on the back page would fit in many other 2400 games as well.

Cyberpunk settings are sometimes a mishmash of tropes from across the spectrum of sci-fi, so there are a lot of different ways you could expand Inner System Blues if you want even more options. Consider pulling in any of the following…

Options for characters:

Spaceships from Cosmic Highway
Powers (from psi or tech) from Project Ikaros and mods in Data Loss
Talents (upgrade options akin to D&D “feats”) from Eos and/or Legends
Species characteristics from Xenolith and/or Legends
Uplifted animal options from ALT
Robot body options from ALT
Alien species options from Xenolith
VR exploits from Codebreakers
Hacking programs from Resistors
Mutations (called “alterations”) from Zone
Magic spells (for Shadowrun-style cyberpunk) from Legends
Alien artifacts from Exiles, Zone, and/or Xot

Additional rules and procedures:

Teammate bonds from Eos
Mind backups from ALT or Data Loss
Hacking rules from Resistors
Heist rules from The Venusian Job
Slower advancement rules from Resistors or Xot
Stress rules from Orbital Decay
Traits and vocations as skills from Xot and/or Battle Moon
Combat rules guidance from Battle Moon, Emergency Rules, and the Combat in 24XX blog post, plus “boss fight” examples in Data Loss

Additional GM prompts:

Space station locations and residents from Habs & Gardens
Outer space locations from Cosmic Highway, Xenolith, Eos, and ALT
Not-quite-humans from Xenolith, Eos, ALT, and Exiles
Named underground contacts from Codebreakers, Zone, and Resistors
Named security, cops, or military from Zone, Resistors, The Venusian Job, and Project Ikaros

Featured image edited from original by Beeple (Mike Winkelmann).

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