Blackout GM Diary 02 – Inspirations, Questions and Primers

Written by Jake Shultz

Last post, I talked about some of the groundwork we did laying the foundation for BLACKOUT. We had conversations about what we wanted to see in the setting, the tone of the game, the system to use and so on. Today, I’ll be going into more depth about the setting, VanTle, and some of the inspirations and questions that led to it.

I’m going to go ahead and put a ***MINOR, NON-PLOT SPOILER ALERT*** for the podcast here. I won’t be talking about the story at all, and what I do show of the setting will be pretty surface level. But if you’re somebody who really likes to go in blind, then maybe save this for after you’ve listened to a few episodes.

If you’re not particularly interested in the commentary, then you can jump right to the VanTle doc here.


First things first, I wanted to do more research. I’ve always been a Sci-fi fan, but had relatively little exposure to cyberpunk as a genre. So I hit up my local library, favorite local game store,  digital game stores, and streaming sites, leaving with an cyberarmful of goodies to dive into. I won’t go through them all, but there were a few that I think had a bigger impact on me.

I already had some experience with the Android setting through Netrunner and the board game, but I picked up some of the setting books too. There’s a lot I liked about Android; the futuristic tech level, the cybernoir theme, and a level of grit that’s ever present but not heavy handed. As I mentioned in the last post, some of the classic cyberpunk experiences always felt a little too grim for me. I think a balance is important, and Android handles that well. 

When it comes to video games, I had played Deus Ex and Human Revolution before, but a replay was in order. I love the aesthetic of Human Revolution: a great mix of futuristic and old fashioned. A world that’s recognizable but altered. I also picked up a small indie game called Spinnortality. This was a unique experience from the corporate point of view. I really enjoyed seeing some of the mundane aspects of megacorporate life.

Ultimately, the piece of media that really spoke to me was Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Snow Crash featured some great examples of taking modern day ideas and exaggerating them, without crossing the line to silly. A grim world but through a realistic point of view without being painfully edgy.  

What’s Familiar and What’s Different?

There are a few questions I always ask myself when I start working on a setting. The first, is how is this similar to what we’re used to, and how is it not? We had already decided the campaign would take place in a familiar location, the North American west coast, but an alternate version that came about after a different history. We knew it would involve extrapolated versions of technologies, ideas, and media to what know today. We knew that like most cyberpunk there will be huge disparity between the top echelons of society and the bottom, but what about the middle? I wanted a quiet, simple majority to contrast the fringe elements that are the corporations and mega rich on one end and the ‘punks’, so to speak, on the other. What’s familiar and what’s different is a question I will continue to ask myself throughout the whole process.

Why here and now? 

The second question is why here and why now? What’s significant about this location, or this time frame, that makes it the setting for our adventure? Of all the spatial and temporal coordinates of this world, why did we choose this one? In this case, I wasn’t as concerned about the timing. We decided to leave the year compared to our own somewhat vague. Ultimately, since this is an alternative history, it really doesn’t matter what year it is. But I wanted there to be a good reason for VanTle to be so massive in size and importance. My group had expressed some interest in space travel being a part of the setting so I let VanTle be the center of transport for the early days of humanity’s transformation into a space faring race. 

What’s going on?

This is kind of a follow up question to the previous one, but I always try to set the scene for a new setting by providing a few current events. I like to leave a lot of blanks for us to fill in as we play, but having some high level threads to follow gives us a place to start. We may follow this thread to the end, or it may unravel in favor of new developments as the game progresses. The major thread I introduced, which ended up inspiring the name of the campaign, was a series of unexplained blackouts. The idea was sparked by a line in the first few pages of one of the first books I read during my cyberpunk media binge:

As Case was picking up his beer, one of those strange instants of silence descended, as though a hundred unrelated conversations had simultaneously arrived at the same pause. Then the whore’s giggle rang out, tinged with certain hysteria.  Ratz grunted. “An angel has passed.”  

-William Gibson, Neuromancer

I hadn’t heard the expression “an angel passing” before, but it’s as Gibson describes it. It’s those moments where suddenly everything goes quiet. All the conversations in the bar stop, the radio is in between songs, there’s no traffic outside, all simultaneously. I thought this was particularly interesting in a cyberpunk world, where there’s generally an unending and uninterrupted torrent of stimulation. I wanted to expand it beyond just noise, it affects everything from the lights to your WiFi signal, to your pacemaker and your cybereyes. But at the same time, highlight the localized and fleeting aspect. Thus, narrow, roaming, ephemeral disruptions of tech that feel unnatural and unexplainable. Some say it’s simply a natural phenomenon, some think it’s the corps up to no good, but then others believe it’s a supernatural occurrence: like the passing of an angel. 

The Setting Primer

After all that consideration, I wrote up a quick, high level overview of the setting and provided it to my group, linked above. You can read it here, if you like. It’s fairly rough, as mentioned before, it’s just a starting place. Somewhere for us to build off of, and you’ll hear all the cool things we built off of it in the podcast, starting soon!

In the next post, I’ll talk about the corporations we designed as a group, how they came to be and changed over time.