How "Maximum Mike" Pondsmith created the pen-and-paper RPG that inspired the developers of 'The Witcher' to tackle it as their next big game
How "Maximum Mike" Pondsmith created the pen-and-paper RPG that inspired the developers of 'The Witcher' to tackle it as their next big game
In 2013, CD Projekt Red, creators of the successful Witcher franchise, announced that their next project would be based on a 25-year-old tabletop roleplaying game called Cyberpunk. The Polish development studio released a teaser trailer of their adaptation, which showed off the near future milieu of Night City, a high tech dystopia located in the Free State of Northern California. Special teams of police called Psycho Squads empty their guns into a stunning woman who's been driven crazy by her robotic upgrades. Their bullets bounce harmlessly off of her cyborg body.
The razzle dazzle trailer filled many gamers with anticipation. But for old school tabletop RPG fans, the mere fact that the new game would be based on the beloved pen-and-paper classic was enough to get them worked up. The 1988 release of Cyberpunk was a watershed that helped to pull tabletop RPGs away from a reliance on fantasy tropes. Instead of Dungeon Masters guiding elves and dwarves on quests for treasure, this enormously popular sci-fi game had "referees" who guided players through shootouts on top of skyscrapers, riots at rock concerts, and hacking expeditions in cyberspace.
The game was created by the prolific designer – and key collaborator on CD Projekt Red's upcoming video game – Mike Pondsmith, who had been a fan of the cyberpunk genre and its aesthetic ever since he saw Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner. "I remember thinking that somebody should make a game out of that," he says, "and that's what I tried to do. I wanted to get that feeling of perpetual midnight, the neon reflected in the rain-slick streets, that sense that everything is in flux and there's a constant threat of violence."
He succeeded. His RPG became a cornerstone of the cyberpunk movement. For many gamers, it was as much of a genre touchstone as William Gibson's best-selling novel Neuromancer. It was also a milestone in the move away from stat-heavy number crunching to RPGs that focused on story and character.
Mike Pondsmith himself is a character – literally. In the pages of the Cyberpunk rulebook, he addresses the reader directly through his alter ego "Maximum Mike." He writes that the formula for a great cyberpunk experience is "a combination of doomed romance, fast action, glittering parties, mean streets, and quixotic quests to do the right thing against all odds." At game conventions, Maximum Mike was a notorious presence in his all-black wardrobe and his mirrored sunglasses. "People think I'm far cooler than I really am," he says with a chuckle.
SCI-FI, ANIME AND PSYCHOLOGY
Pondsmith is one of the most prominent African American designers in tabletop gaming. (He says that race was never an issue or a problem in any of the gamer circles he moved in.) He didn't set out to become a game maker. He was a military kid who ping ponged around the globe, an ardent reader who was prone to falling down research rabbit holes whenever he happened upon a topic that fascinated him. And he was – and is – a huge nerd. He discovered science fiction at age eleven. "Our school librarian turned me onto Heinlein," he says. He was soon subscribing to Analog, Asimov's Science Fiction, and every other genre mag he could get his hands on.
Pondsmith was also an early anime fan. In 1979, a chance encounter with the TV series Star Blazers led to a deep and abiding love for Japanese animation and comic books. He pored over imported issues of Mobile Suit Gundam manga, even though he couldn't read the Japanese text. "I had no idea what was going on, but I loved them," he says.
He and some friends published one of America's first anime fan magazines. "We even started a black market deal with people in Japan where we'd trade tapes across the Pacific," says Pondsmith. "We would get cool anime with giant robots, and they would get episodes of Dukes of Hazard and Charlie's Angels. I think we got the better part of that deal."
In the mid-1970s, a buddy who'd visited the Great Lakes area, where Gary Gygax first launched Dungeons & Dragons, introduced Pondsmith to tabletop RPGs. Mike was soon hooked. It's how he met his wife Lisa, an ardent D&D player. "Her old boyfriend tried to kill me a ton of times," says Mike with a chuckle. (That was in game sessions, assumedly.)
Pondsmith loved the roleplaying and battle strategizing, but he yearned for a compelling science fiction RPG. There were slim pickings, and when he did find one in the shape of Traveller by Game Designers' Workshop, he felt that the space combat was unsatisfying. So he devised his own rule system for the game, rewriting it for personal use and calling it Imperial Star. That led directly to his first commercial release.
"I got together $500 from my mother and some friends, sold out my first run, and printed more," he says. "Games were a moneymaking proposition for me from the get-go."
The thing that I've always been most struck by with his work is how he could look around him and find things that were about to become really culturally important, and grab a hold of them before anyone else did.
In college, he had studied behavioral psychology and graphic design – which he initially leveraged for his first job designing packaging and advertising materials for California Pacific Computer Company, a role that included creating early designs for Richard Garriott's first Ultima in 1980. Both qualifications would prove to be useful in his new career. The graphic design background allowed him to typeset and lay out professional looking tabletop game materials by himself. "And every game designer needs to be psychologist," he insists. "You need that to deal with overall design ideas, but also to figure out why people play, what they're interested in, what they're looking to get from the experience."
His wife Lisa became a business manager in his publishing business, which was named R. Talsorian Games after one of his investors. "I was very lucky to have her, because she's cunning and canny," he says.
What is it that sets Pondsmith's games apart? For starters, his choice of subject matter. "Mike is an amazing visionary," says Shannon Appelcline, an RPG historian and author of Designers & Dragons. "The thing that I've always been most struck by with his work is how he could look around him and find things that were about to become really culturally important, and grab a hold of them before anyone else did."
"I have historically been pretty good at judging the market climate and getting there first," allows Pondsmith. His 1984 release Mekton was a pioneering giant mech combat RPG, one that beat rivals like BattleTech and Robotech to store shelves. The game was all about pitched bot battles, but it also featured a system for generating a compelling backstory for characters. "We assumed that nobody knew anything about anime, and we were going to have to force-feed them all the tropes," says Pondsmith. "The character creation stuff was like training wheels – you have this tormented young man who climbs into a giant mech because he's driven to exact vengeance for something in his past." That sort of character system would figure heavily in many of Pondsmith's future games.
In 1987, he released Teenagers from Outer Space, an RPG full of wacky hijinks and cartoonish violence. It successfully captured the spirit of comedy animes by Rumiko Takahashi. His 1990s title Castle Falkenstein was a key popularizer of the retrofuturist steampunk genre, and was so loose and free-form in its storytelling that some compare it to live-action roleplaying. But it was his 1988 game Cyberpunk that would prove to be his most popular and enduring creation.
CYBERPUNK'S PRESCIENT VISION OF THE FUTURE
The game was released just as cyberpunk was coming into its own as a sci-fi subgenre. Cyberpunk fiction was the antithesis of the classic space opera. Many sci-fi stories in the past had been utopian, or at least optimistic about the future. The cyberpunk stories were decidedly not utopian. The backdrop was often societal breakdown, governmental collapse, and disorientingly rapid technological change.
The mood and tone of most cyberpunk storylines was also a departure from Golden Age sci-fi, owing more to detective stories by Raymond Chandler than to Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. "It was much more romantic, like film noir," says Pondsmith. "It was about lost causes, people on the edge with the odds stacked against them, gentleman losers making a last-ditch stand against the corporations."
The sourcebook for the tabletop game sets the scene: "The Corporations control the world from their skyscraper fortresses, enforcing their rule with armies of cyborg assassins. On the street, Boostergangs roam a shattered urban wilderness, killing and looting. Fashion-model beautiful techies rub biosculpt jobs with battle armored roadwarriors."
Flipping through the sourcebook, the first thing you notice is that it's so clearly a product of its time. As it sketches out its futuristic game world, it heralds the fax machine as "the letter writing mode of the future," and describes a 21st Century in which the Soviet Union still exists and Germany is still split in half. (That was retconned away a couple of years later in the updated Cyberpunk 2020 edition.) But in other respects, Pondsmith's vision of the future is uncannily prescient. At a time when cellular phones were enormous bricks with protruding antennas, he successfully predicted the function and form factor of more modern mobiles.
There's a handy glossary to help you with the street slang, which is also endearingly dated. In the world of Cyberpunk, you don't say, "I visited a surgeon to get outfitted with cyborg upgrades, and then my boyfriend and I beat up some heavy metal fans." You'd say, "I hit the ripperdoc to get chipped, and then me and my input flatlined some chromers."
The clean and simple illustrations in the sourcebook are deeply indebted to the artwork of 1980s icon Patrick Nagel. The characters accessorize their robotic limbs with clothing suitable to the genre and era: The guys wear top coats and skinny ties, and the women wear negligees and stiletto boots. "What you look like is what you are," declares the sourcebook. "Fashion is action, and style is everything." In fact, wardrobe is the first thing you nail down when you roll a new character. Based on a few throws of the dice, you could wind up in a miniskirt, with a tinted hair and cybernetic contact lenses. Or you could be kitted out in bag lady chic, with a shaven head and ritual scarring. Or you could be naked except for your mohawk and your fingerless leather gloves.
There are twelve character classes to choose from in Cyberpunk, and they're a far cry from the druids and bards and barbarians of Dungeons & Dragons. There are mercenaries, corporate raiders, med-techs who can graft machinery onto flesh, Max Headroom-like media manipulators, Netrunners who can jack into computer systems to disrupt or delete or steal data.
Some of the character types sound lame until you read the fine print. Rockerboys, who are essentially glammed-out pop stars, have a Charismatic Leadership skill that allows them to control crowds. At Level 5, you could incite thousands of people at an arena concert to destroy a neighborhood. At level 9, you have "the same sort of mesmeric ability as an Adolph HitIer – you can raise armies, start movements, and destroy nations."
One of the most innovative features in Cyberpunk is something called Lifepath, a system for generating an elaborate backstory for your character. Several rolls of the dice could determine that you're a secretive Bulgarian who is desperately in love with a professional rival that hates your guts. Different die rolls could result in you being an arrogant and aloof Micronesian whose CEO father sold you into bondage when his fortunes crashed, and now you don't trust anyone except for your digitally enhanced doberman.
"I wanted you to be able to sculpt an interesting character," says Pondsmith. "Nowadays, it seems like everybody does that – lifepath is everywhere."
Cyberpunk also had an innovative combat system called Friday Night Firefight. "Most RPGs have really complex combat," says Appelcline. "Like, you'll play for four hours, and spend couple of those hours on a single battle. Pondsmith created a combat system that was really quick and bloody and dirty and gritty – really true to cyberpunk."
One thing I've learned is that I don't talk about anything before it's ready. I pioneered some genres, and people started paying attention to what I say. I don't want to help the competition.
"I didn't want people to have to deal with a lot of numbers," says Pondsmith. "And I wanted to make it like a real gunfight. The average one takes place at 12 feet distance, and it's not like movies where every shot connects and guns never run out of ammo – most cops throw 30 rounds down line and hit with two of them." A bullet that actually connects in the game is very likely to be lethal. "In Cyberpunk, you hoped you didn't get into a fight, and when you did, you tried to get out of it as fast as you could," says Appelcline.
Upgrading your body for combat is a core feature of Cyberpunk and a perfect fit for the kind of games CD Projekt Red has been making for years – The Witcher series is known for its deep character development systems – but Pondsmith tried to make sure that every cyborg enhancement was a carefully considered decision for players. "That's not just because of control of play and game balance," he says. "If you wanna maim yourself so you can be Robocop, you're gonna pay the price."
The Cyberpunk sourcebook literally lays out the Humanity Cost associated with each bodily upgrade: "Say I add four new cybernetic devices for a total Humanity Cost of 36. I will lose 3 points of Empathy." When your Empathy score hits zero, you enter a state called cyberpsychosis. At that point, players no longer control their character – the referee takes over, and describes their descent into fits of rage, split personality, kleptomania, even cannibalism. Someone suffering from cyberpsychosis needs to be subdued by a Psycho Squad and undergo weeks of aversion therapy and braindance simulation before they rediscover the vestiges of their humanity. Quite how this will play out in video game form is – as with almost everything else at this point – unknown, but in The Witcher series, taking too many combat-enhancing potions during a fight could lead to slowdown or even death for hero Geralt, so it's not impossible to imagine something similar in Cyberpunk 2077.
Pondsmith's RPG proved to be so popular that the market was soon flooded with cyberpunk games. FASA released Shadowrun, an urban fantasy RPG set in a futuristic milieu that was turned into a brilliant game for the Super Nintendo in 1993. Steve Jackson games offered GURPS Cyberpunk – though its release was delayed after the final draft was confiscated in a Secret Service raid, an attempt to crack down on actual hacker activity. The rulebook was not returned for years because the Secret Service alleged that it was "a manual for computer crime."
Cyberpunk also provided the basis for the immensely popular modern collectible card game Netrunner, designed by Magic the Gathering creator Richard Garfield. "I didn't have involvement in that – I figured Richard would do something brilliant, and he did," says Pondsmith. "He and I started hanging out more recently, going out for Indian food and stuff. I realized that he does game design like I do. He asks himself, 'How can I get this effect, how can I make the player feel this thing I want them to feel?'"
Pondsmith says that since its release, Cyberpunk has been under option almost constantly for a video game adaptation. "The closest we got was a mobile game," he says, "but they wanted to change it way, way, way too much." CDPR are the first to see it through.
"My wife told me that these guys in Poland wrote to us and said they wanted to do a Cyberpunk game," says Pondsmith. "They told me that the game was really important to them back in the Iron Curtain days – back then, they had Cyberpunk and communism. What impressed us was not just their capabilities and their well-organized toolsets, but that they knew and loved the material. I said, let's do this thing."
"I go over there pretty regularly," says Pondsmith. "I'll probably go back in the next couple of months. I'm in a room with a hundred people, all firing ideas back and forth. We jump up and down on the systems and see how well they work. I really got lucky."
Meanwhile, Pondsmith's son Cody is working on a Witcher tabletop RPG. "He developed into a very good designer! I didn't realize he was paying any attention to what dad did."
There are rumors that Pondsmith is also working on a new version of the tabletop game that will be released alongside CDPR's Cyberpunk 2077. "There will be more Cyberpunk stuff coming, yes," he says cryptically. "One thing I've learned is that I don't talk about anything before it's ready. I pioneered some genres, and people started paying attention to what I say. I don't want to help the competition."