I've been quietly experimenting with idea of RuralPunk since last fall. There's always been a disconnect between me and traditional cyberpunk caused by its urban focus. I've spent most of my life in small towns and rural communities. While many of the stressors of the future between urban and rural places are connected, they manifest in different ways.
So that's the question that has teased me for months: what would a cyberpunk future look like in a rural setting?
I decided this month I need to dive in and explore that space. I am going to revise the Karma in the Dark rules and focus them on a ruralpunk setting. Immediately, I realized that this process would mirror my original process of adapting Blades in the Dark to a cyberpunk setting. Many mechanics will stay the same, but many others will need to be tweaked to fit this new setting.
The question became: what needs to change? And what does that look like?
The answer, I realized, is based on how I see and want to explore this ruralpunk future.
I am, at heart, a speculative fiction writer. When I started to work on defining a ruralpunk future, my mind instantly went to the more flashy changes and consequences. Specifically, what would happen if genetic experiments slipped from our control.
I don't see this as "evil scientist mutates world"; I see this more as an extension of humanity's past and current impact on ecosystems. There are numerous examples of people introducing a new lifeform to an existing ecosystem. This can be by accident or design. The result? The system is knocked off balance by the invasive species. We've seen this with the gypsy moth in North America, the yellow star-thistle outside of Eurasia, pythons in Florida, etc.
Each time the invasive species enters, spreads, and destroys. Eventually, a new ecosystem develops. But in the beginning? The effects are dramatic, out of control, and often frightening.
That is the feeling I want with the Wild Strain but amped up: genetically modified plants and creatures become an invasive species. The difference? They hunt humans and human technology.
The First Pitch
My first summary of this future focused on this mutation and invasion:
I decided this was enough of a setting sketch to start defining the core rules. The game, like Karma in the Dark, is inspired by Blades in the Dark which has an antagonistic faction system. In other words, the game world is populated by factions, and the players focus on improving their own crew-based faction, often by attacking, taking down, exploiting, or negotiating with these other factions. The antagonism is written into the rules: if you want to increase your crew's turf, you have to take it from someone else. All turf is controlled by someone.
While I don't need to adopt the exact same faction system, it does raise the question: who is the antagonist in my game?
I mean, if this is a game about rebelling against an oppressive system, who is the oppressor?
At first the answer seemed simple: cyberpunk is about corporations. Surely in my game, you would be fighting corporations as well.
I started to define my rural towns and factions based on this assumption. Immediately it felt off. Do corporations impact rural communities? Sure. But as I thought about the conflict and struggles in the communities I knew, corporations were rarely the primary player. Corporations impact rural communities, but often in an indirect or second-order effect fashion.
So in a ruralpunk setting, who is the antagonist?
I turned to studying history and reality to rethink my ruralpunk setting. After all, cyberpunk as a genre focused primarily on the urban experience. It projected and explored an urban future. This would be fundamentally different if we focus on rural experiences and a rural future.
Surprising perhaps no one familiar with U.S. politics, the struggles and future of rural America have been a focus of significant political attention. And where there is political attention, there are think-tank operations conducting analysis and recommending solutions.
Reading about the challenges for the future of rural America gave words to many of my own experiences. For example, the research shows that economic stability in rural communities relies on small businesses. Since the economy and opportunity is more finite than urban centers, the "don't put your eggs in one basket" threat is much bigger. What do I mean? If a corporation is employing the majority of a town's workforce, if they go under the fallout is orders of magnitude greater than in urban centers. And there is no easy recovery from that fallout.
The longterm viability of those corporations is barely affected by that town's reality; it is affected by their performance across the entire country. Meaning the corporate business can be thriving in the small town, but if they can't compete in the urban center, they will go under.
We saw this in one of my towns. Originally, the town had half a dozen bookstores run by local families. A major book chain moved into town. With its broader stock, ability to run major sales, and larger footprint (in terms of employees and physical space), the book chain put all of the local bookstores out of business. Then Amazon put that chain out of business, and suddenly our town lost a major employer and no longer had any bookstores. It takes money and other investments to start a small business, so it wasn't like those family shops could spring back to life. For years, the hole in the economy remained.
The catch? Our local town wasn't buying its books from Amazon. That book chain had been extremely successful in our community. Even though it was a chain, we knew everyone who worked there, and valued the in-person experience. But it didn't matter; for corporations, the larger economic battle mattered.
In a ruralpunk setting, corporations will matter, but it's less about the direct impact, and more about the ways urban corporate battles have ripple effects on rural economy.
Desperation of the Now
Rural economies in the U.S. have higher rates of poverty, disability, and worse mortality rates. Government support services are less available or less effective. Health care is scarce and more expensive. This creates a nexus of stressors that create a sense of urgency to meet basic needs.
This was extremely apparent when I worked for the district court of a rural county. I would constantly work with families trying to make decisions between basic necessities. For example, a woman didn't buy food for herself for several days so she could buy $10 worth of gas to drive to court for a hearing about child custody. There is no public transporation, and the court was 30 miles away from her home. We gave her food the day of the hearing both so she wasn't starving and so she could focus better on the hearing before the judge. But we were some of the people employed by the government and thus with steady income; most of the people living near her didn't have the funds or food to spare to help her.
All of this is part of why rural communities will sometime invite in and protect commerical ventures that others want to condem: prisons, oil and mining companies, destructive agriculture. With less oversight in these spaces, the companies can often get away with practices on the edge of legal or completely outside legal regulations. Whistleblowing is always hard, but if this is literally the only employer in your area?
Are you going to choose your family's immediate ability to eat or protesting unregulated practices? And even if you try to bring attention, you're usually going up against a company with infinitely more resources and lawyers, so are you going to risk feeding your family for a protest that might be doomed to fail anyway?
The different stressors in rural communities continue. Travel is an additional challenge: roads can be worse quality; public transportation doens't exist; resources are further apart and thus more expensive because of travel costs. Internet progress lags: high-speed connections are less available and the broadband monopolies are even more apparent. There are multiple healthcare concerns: a higher pecentage of people are disabled; doctors are less available and often require significant travel to access; healthcare costs are higher. So far, advances in production technology have signficantly increased production in most rural industries while also leading to fewer job positions...so the business profits are growing, while local employment drops.
With all of these factors, I decided to draft another description of the setting.
I am still developing, drafting, refining the setting description. The final setting will be a mix of the two: the speculative horror of an invasive species we created, that has made us its prey; and the local tensions and oppressions of the rural economy.
Right now I have enough to define the antagonists and start writing my factions...which means one step closer to defining what the faction game of RuralPunk will look like.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.