There has been a lot of discussion in the past year about cyberpunk as a genre, and the core purpose of the genre. Much of this discussion has focused on the comparison of cyberpunk as an aesthetic versus cyberpunk as a parable. Is it about looking cool as the world burns down around you, or is it about trying to put out the fire even if there is no way you can do so before everything you love is gone?
Headspace, a Powered by the Apocalypse game about Operatives who are linked to each other’s minds and share emotional space with one another, definitely frames the narrative as one of putting out fires. The core game assumes a world where the PCs were part of the machine that they are now trying to pull apart. The game assumes several corporate bad actors, an incident that has made the current world what it is, and various projects that the corporations are attempting to achieve. While the players are working against one corporation, another is advancing their agenda, so it may not be possible to put out all of the fires, just manage which ones rage out of control.
The core game introduces settings that can be used for the game, but the product we’re looking at today, Dystopian Dreams, introduces more settings that can be used for the game, including multiple new corporations, agendas, opposing agents, and even a new playbook.
Disclaimer and Content Warning
A few of my fellow gnomes had their hands in this product, either in writing the intro or one of the settings. I wasn’t in contact with them about this review, and the PDF that I’m reviewing was one of my own purchase, but I wanted that to be known upfront.
These settings deal with some tough issues, including violence, drug trafficking, the marginalization of groups of people, and harm to animals. I’m not going to go into too many details about any of these things, and for the most part, the settings don’t do a deep dive into the description of these things, but the themes are present in various settings.
This review is based on the PDF version of the product. It is 133 pages, with black and white pages and art, containing customized borders, sidebars, and text that looks almost like a computer interface. There is a three-page section at the back that credits and highlights the various contributors to the book.
Like the core book, the artwork is by Brian Patterson, and not only does this serve to unify the look from the core book, but the artwork does a great deal to convey the bridge between a dark future with looming threats, and characters that are trying to create a brighter tomorrow.
Settings and Overview
This section of the book explains the structure of each setting, and how it conforms to the assumptions of the core game. Each setting has four corporations, with an agent (which acts as the face for that organization) and an agenda for each corporation. Each setting also has five events, five issues, and five corporate issues.
I love this kind of standardized presentation of setting information, because one of the issues that I often have with setting books is, “what do you want me to do with this information?” Sometimes it is self-evident, but I wish more setting information for RPGs was written acknowledging the conceit that the information is for use in a game, rather than being presented as a travelogue of a fictional reality, divorced from the tone and genre assumed by the game itself.
Neo-Tokyo Pleasure Dome Ultra 20XX
This setting assumes that World War III has come and gone, and Japan has become an insular state, with many of its citizens living almost entirely in cyberspace. Many of the corporations that have come to power in this environment are corporations that help to maintain and protect society while citizens are living their lives inside the digital realm. Humans in the Cyberzone still need their physical bodies cared for, and this becomes big business.
The corporations include Oroshi Medtech, Nikumono Custodial Services, Delicious Future Nutritional Assistance Corporation, and Brilliant Diamond Technologies. With human beings spending so much time in the Cyberzone, these corporations are moving into areas like flash cloning, industrial espionage, and the ability to get a wider number of people to be compatible with the Cyberzone.
Overall, I like the concept of corporations fighting over the real world while an increasing number of humans are living their lives completely in the Cyberzone. It’s a manifest analogy for people not seeing what is going on in the world, leaving the “real” world to the corporate agents and the protagonist operators.
Compared to the core setting corporations and events, the corporations in this setting feel a little more generally bad, rather than horrifically bad. Wanting to reduce humans to products is terrible, but contributing to the war machine that everyone else in the world participated in, or hiding corporate incompetence feels like less of a personal gut-punch versus some of the corporate crimes in the core book. Some of the Japanese tropes in the setting also feel a little on the nose, such as the naming conventions for some of the corporations and organizations.
Hieroglyph of the Whale
This setting posits a world where humans are desperate to develop space travel, because they have allowed Global Warming to hit apocalyptic thresholds. Surface mining can’t produce what is needed for this industry, so underwater mining operations and archologies are developed to find more resources. Cetaceans are pressed into service in the mining operations, and eventually the whales have an uprising, which leads to the abandonment of the facilities. At the assumed beginning of the campaign, corporations are attempting to re-establish contact with the archology’s survivors and restart mining operations.
The corporations in this setting are Taneo Exploracion, Invector Biogen, Chidao Corporation Global, and Polyorceanus Deci Corps. The corporate goals include making the re-founded archology into a desirable upscale living space, killing any surviving cetacean workers, sabotaging the efforts of anyone else trying to mine the location, and making humans into better, more pliable workers to subvert the need for the less reliable cetacean workforce.
I love the spin put on undersea cyberpunk in this setting, and the quandary of co-opting cetacean lifeforms into an unwilling workforce. The corporations have the right balance of understandable public goals and nastier agendas under the surface (so to speak). I don’t know if this is a criticism so much as a challenge, but unlike most of the other settings presented for the game, Operatives won’t be part of an established population, but infiltrating organizations that are attempting to make contact with, and reestablish, an archology, which may play out a bit differently than the more traditional cyberpunk assumptions of the core game.
Artifice and Ice
This setting presents a world where the arctic is being developed as premium vacation and living space, but corporate incompetence and greed leads to a sparsely populated wasteland with a failing economy. Unlike the other settings in the book, the introductory information on the setting is presented as the ruminations of a citizen of the region, thinking about everything that has gone, and is going, wrong.
The corporations involved in this setting are Oceanix Unlimited, Nexen, Tower Shield & Sword, and Green Surf. The corporations are involved in trying to start a new housing boom in the region, intentionally undermining government for greater corporate control, floating a conspiracy theory to justify defense expenditures, and hidden ecoterrorism to bring to light corporate and government mistakes in the region.
This is an odd mix for me as I read it. The most compelling secret to me is the conspiracy theory that keeps the security firm going, but two of the corporations feel like general “bad actors,” and the big event of the setting is that the place never caught on the way the corporations wanted. There is also an interesting quandary presented (which appears in a few more settings later), where one corporate entity might not be always working against what the Operators’ interests are, so it may be okay to let their agenda move forward once in a while, curbing the more zealous aspects of its implementation.
New Motor City
New Motor City is set in the Detroit of the future, where abandoned buildings are used for urban farming, and electric street racing is part of the culture. Corporations promote real-time streaming events covering aspects of the city, like the street racing scene.
The corporations at play are Agricum, Nusafe, XO Velocity, and LiveEye. Their interests are urban farming, security, the electronic automotive industry, and reality entertainment. The less savory elements at play involve poisoning habitats with pesticides, manipulation of human brain waves to pacify them, unsafe vehicular manufacture, and eliminating public entertainers that become problematic.
I’m not doing this setting justice in trying to explain it. I greatly enjoy this one. I love it when a setting can walk the fine line of framing the traditional aspects of a genre, and then finding just enough aspects to change and personalize to give the setting its personality. The idea of the high rise reclaimed farms, street racing culture, and a setting where “influencers” might get offed because they are influencing “improperly” really resonates with what I love about cyberpunk and it’s possibilities and adding a new spin to them.
In this setting, a section of the Amazon has been placed under a dome, and there is a return to monarchy, as well as an upswing in criminal activity, as living spaces are defined in the region.
A lot is going on in this setting. The “corporations” are Seibetsu Technology, The Satans, Petrocorp, and Orleans Braganca Construction. I put corporations in quotes because The Satans are a crime syndicate, and the Orleans Braganca Construction company is strongly tied to the interests of the resurgent monarchy.
The corporate interests of the setting involve tracking immigrants via technology, establishing a caste system to make the restriction of land and influences a quantified aspect of the government, and to exploit the maintenance of the biodome to produce exclusive biotechnology, which then becomes necessary for everyday life.
This is a fascinating setting, but there is also a lot going on, and it feels a little constrained by trying to reframe it into the normal Headspace definitions. This is another setting where one of the corporations, the Satans in this case, may have projects going on that the PCs want to come to fruition, adding nuance but also a little bit of confusion to the overall expected structure of the game.
This setting takes place in New Zealand, after a series of disastrous turns including earthquakes, uprisings, and a gene plague spread by corporate modified foodstuff. New Zealand has been divided into Green, Orange, and Red zones, based on the safety of the people in the region and the relative comfort of their lives. One assumption of this setting is that there are displaced rebels in the Red zone that may be allies to the Operatives.
The corporations here are Maturanga Digital, Always Tikanga, Kaitiakitanga Solutions, and Clearwater Developments. Corporate goals include recovering telecommunication data from reclassified Red zone regions, inter-corporation fighting over the ownership of land, stopping smuggled resources from reaching the “wrong” hands, and securing the rights to the Red zone to completely remake that region under corporate control.
One particularly interesting aspect of this setting is that, unlike some of the others, it expressly mentions Operators as part of the assumed description of the Red zone resistance, while many of the other settings are more open to how the group is going to integrate Operators into the established setting story.
The final setting of the book details a U.S./Mexican border struggle that has been exacerbated by ecological disasters, the collapse of the Mexican government and the rise of cartel control of the country, and U.S. political unrest that has led to civilian vigilante groups and a militarized border agency.
This is another case where “corporation” is a very loose term for the power groups in the setting. Las Calaveras Blancas is the new cartel overlords of Mexico, BORTAC is the US border agency, Hard Light is the organized civilian vigilante force, and Las Sombras De La Serpente is a civilian organization in Mexico opposing the cartels.
As might be expected, this setting feels a lot different than the assumed structure of Headspace. The “secret” that Las Sombras De La Serpente has is more a matter of them not thinking through the consequences of their actions, and while some of the other settings have “gray” organizations that the PCs may not mind advancing some of their agendas, Las Sombras De La Serpente is way closer to a benevolent faction than just about any of the other “corporations” in the book.
Aside from the credits, the final chapter in the book details a new playbook for the game, The Insider. The playbook immediately got my attention when it mentioned Transmetropolitan as an influence, because I loved that comic.
The Insider is about knowing dirt and people and planting dirt on people. The edges involve having corporate contacts, dirt that can be sent to the media if anything happens to you, flexible IDs, strong followings, lots of wealth, or lots of drugs.
Interestingly, this takes is inspiration from Transmetropolitan, but the character is not just a journalist. You can see how you could model that since Spider knows a ton of people and where the bodies are buried, but the playbook is flexible regarding exactly how you come by your dirt and the nature of your connections.
The flavor of some of the edges does reinforce how pushing the limits on what is defined as a “corporation” changes the core assumptions of the game. For example, the Insider can have an edge where they know all of the communications officers for the corporations, but what does that look like when two of your factions are essentially civilian militias, or one of them is an expansive crime syndicate?
This is a great collection of settings. I love the game focused structure of the presentation. While all of the settings offer an interesting and unique twist to a cyberpunk setting, I particularly love The Hieroglyph of the Whale and New Motor City settings, and I’ll admit my biases as an American in the current political climate make Carteles Unidos a compelling setting to examine. I always love new playbooks in PBTA games, especially when they are well defined and draw on recognizable tropes.
Stress Not only would I recommend this for giving you more options in your Headspace games, but if you have even a fleeting interest in cyberpunk or near-future science fiction, you may want to read through this book as well.
Pushing the boundaries on how “corporations” are defined makes me a little less sure how the core assumptions will work with those entities, or what the consequences are when the PCs might feel a little safer letting some corporate clocks slide. Given the tightly integrated number of playbooks in the core book, as much as I love The Insider as a concept, I’m not sure if I should add the playbook as someone else present as a “ghost” if the group doesn’t take the playbook, or if it should replace one of the core playbooks for this purpose. Its internal integration is fine, I’m just wondering a little about the nuance of the integration into the game as a whole.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
This is a great wellspring of setting information for cyberpunk games. Not only would I recommend this for giving you more options in your Headspace games, but if you have even a fleeting interest in cyberpunk or near-future science fiction, you may want to read through this book as well. The ideas on where the future could be heading, as well as the concisely formatted goals and directions of various power groups, make this useful as a setting book beyond the game for which it was designed.
What are your favorite cyberpunk settings? What are your favorite subversions in cyberpunk settings? What are some of the best ways you have seen modern issues translated into the cyberpunk genre? We would love to hear your thoughts below!