Blackout GM Diary 01 – System, Setting and Tone

Written by Jake Shultz

Early into our previous campaign, Tomb of Annihilation, we started to consider what our next game would be. We’ve played together as a group for about 15 years now, and we usually have ideas percolating about what games or genres or systems we were interested in trying, but this time was a little different. Now, we’re producing these games for the podcast – we have a schedule, technical/format requirements, and an audience. There was a lot more to think about!

That said, it was important for us to find that balance between production and genuine actual play that we aim for, so our first and foremost priority was to focus on what excites us, and devise a campaign we could all buy into. To that end, we ultimately decided to build our own setting and story, and over the coming weeks I’ll be exploring what went in to creating our next campaign: Blackout. 


When the discussion about what to play next first started, we went back and forth on a lot of settings and systems. Star Wars, Legend of the Five Rings, Spelljammer, westerns, Dark Sun, Stars without Number… eventually, we decided on cyberpunk. It was something we all had at least a passing interest in, but not much experience. And so, I started binging cyberpunk media (Snow Crash is my favourite now) and looking at RPG systems.

One of the main things I was looking for in the system was the feeling that characters are disposable, at least from the world’s point of view. There are a million other hot-shot street thugs with a cobbled together deck and questionable morals, ready to take your place the moment you flatline. Because of that, systems with the kind of character power level that most d20 games have didn’t feel right to me. The characters are heroes, but not one man armies – they’ll succeed through guile, clever thinking, quick action, balls of steel and sheer determination, not with +1 damage modifiers. I also wanted a system that allowed the players some narrative input. If I want everybody to buy in, then letting them have some ownership over the world and story makes a big difference.

When I found Hamish Cameron’s Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) hack The Sprawl, I was pretty quickly convinced this was the system for us. I was already a big fan of PBTA, and it fits the requirements and tone I had in mind. But what really sold me on it was the countdown clock mechanic. In short, these clocks measure a number of things in the game, from character health, looming threats, time limits, mission progress, and more. They can advance for a number of reasons, but usually as a result of a poor player roll or in-fiction consequence. A clock advancing might represent rumors getting out about an upcoming mission, more security assets being deployed, a corporation’s interest in the player characters growing, a target escaping, and so on. When they reach midnight, serious consequences occur. A harm clock at midnight means your character “needs an ambulance – right fucking now”, an action clock at midnight means the characters face overwhelming opposition and the mission will fail. They’re a great mechanic for building tension as the precious few slots on a clock fill up, for establishing short and long-term consequences for a character’s actions, and giving a nice story structure to your missions. This last bit is particularly useful for an episodic podcast, where we want a natural story arc that can fit in one session. 

The two most common countdown clocks – legwork, and action


With the system decided, next was figuring out our setting. I looked at some established worlds, but nothing felt exactly right. One of the most important things about cyberpunk for me was a sense of familiarity. It’s similar to the world as we know it, but extrapolated, exaggerated, ramped up to 11 and subtly twisted. To maximise that familiarity, I decided to set the campaign in an alternate-history future of an area we know well, Vancouver. None of us actually live there, but we’ve all been at least once. We can all picture it in our heads, and subsequently picture the alternate version we created.

In order to start drilling down into the details of our new setting, I sent out a simple survey made in Google forms to the rest of the group. The survey asked them about their preferences, expectations, desires, and what cyberpunk means to them. I asked opinions about tech level, space travel, robotics, big brother, timeframe and more. Cyberpunk is a vast genre, the meaning is somewhat diluted, so it was important to me to really discover what it meant to each player. 

The first question of our survey.


Next, I wanted to make sure we were all on the same page tonally. This is super important in starting any campaign, but it felt particularly so since we were treading into relatively new territory for us. Personally, and this may be an unpopular opinion, but I find a lot of classic cyberpunk media to be a little too gloomy and gritty. (Confession: I didn’t really like Blade Runner.) I’ve always felt strongly that you need some contrast for the gloom and grit to be truly effective. There needs to be some light for the dark to be impactful. Additionally, as an extension of our world today, I wanted there to be a pretty significant population that live totally normal (as we would call it), if uninspired and bland, lives. The cyberpunk story exists in the extremes certainly – at the very bottom in the ghettos, and at the very top in the arcologies. But these are fringe elements, and that’s what makes it interesting and significant.

The other element of tone that I wanted to look at was, for lack of better phrasing, the goofy/serious ratio. As I said, we’ve all been friends for a long time, we dick around a LOT during games. And I’m pretty guilty as a GM for not being too strict and letting things get away from us sometimes. Humour is a part of our brand for sure, and something we want to have. But we don’t need to actively seek it: it’s going to happen one way or another.

Goofy is going to happen. 

Setting Primer and Filling in the Blanks

With our initial research and discussion done, I set out to compile all opinions and turn it into a baseline setting. Thus, the VanTle Megaplex was born. I typed out a couple page primer with a high level overview of the setting, technology and culture. I built it with the PBTA mantras of “draw maps, leave blanks” and “Play to find out” in mind; lots of details were left blank for us to fill in as we play. Over the next few months I’d occasionally pop into the discord server and ask a question: “Flying cars?”, “who is somebody your character admires?”, “what kind of drugs are popular in VanTle?”, “what kind of music is popular atm?” and so on to further develop the setting, keep the players thinking about the world, and continue to improve and grow the world.

Next week, I’ll be sharing the setting primer and going into detail about particular elements of the world, my inspirations and more. Following that, you can expect reports on the corporations we created as a group, the characters, and what we’ve done going forward to enhance our game.