Telling Stories through Cards – Part 2: Netrunner

We’ve got one more pit stop on the way to talking about storytelling with FAB cards, and it’s for what might be my pick for best card game ever: Netrunner (well at least before its final couple years). Magic positions the player as a sort of godlike presence (you were originally supposed to be a planeswalker back in the day, but I have no idea what the flavor is supposed to be like these days now that planeswalkers are more mundane). Netrunner meanwhile has you playing a particular person half the time and a giant corporation the other half of the time, both of which have parallels to elements of FAB.

Characters with Character

As noted above, Netrunner matches involve two types of characters: a runner and corp. When you play runner, it’s very much like Flesh and Blood in that you are represented by a specific character with their own distinct appearance and lore. However, while corps might sound sort of abstract and generalized, that turns out not to be the case. The game features four corporations that are all well-defined through their cards. It’s cyberpunk, so they’re all evil, but there is a huge difference between NBN’s media empire permeating every aspect of your life and owning all your person information so that they can track your location at all times and Weyland sending a hitman to put a bullet in the back of your skull for hacking their servers (if they’re trying to be neat about it). Between corps and runners, we can see a lot of methods of storytelling and world building that could be applied to FAB. Runners are a good hero analog, and corps do well as a comparison point for FAB’s regions (larger entities with distinct themes and flavors).

We’ll start on characters since they’re more intuitive. Netrunner told the stories of its characters through inserts in their data packs (usually a single page story) as well as some other media – there’s a world book a bit like FAB’s lore book as well as some novels –Netrunner is somewhat confusingly set in the Android universe which is an IP that Fantasy Flight Games already owned and used to set their version of Netrunner in. Netrunner itself was licensed from Wizards of the Coast (yeah, it’s convoluted). Runners each have their own card that sort of sets up the baseline including their stats and abilities, and then they show up on other cards, either directly and/or in flavor test (are you seeing the FAB parallels?). Some cards build out their characters generally, and some of them tell specific stories. For instance we have MaxX:

Maybe I’m just partial to her because she is the exact sort of mess a younger me would have dated given the chance. Her “Fuck you, motherfucker” flavor text and punk rock styling is a very much an angsty 20’s something vibe that immediately gives you an idea of what she’s like if you have any of the referents. What’s interesting is that mechanically her runner card plays into her aesthetic. In Netrunner your stack is your deck; there are a few ways to recur cards, but, in general, when you burn through your stack, that’s likely game over. So MaxX plays fast but dangerously, which segues into Amped Up. Thematically punk rock and drug use are a natural pairing, but the card also presents a package that is a meld of flavor and mechanics that work to reinforce MaxX’s character – you get Clicks (which are action points) but at the cost of brain damage (this permanently reduces you maximum hand size). And then we have Day Job which is one of my all-time favorite pieces of CCG art (you might remember it as the image from my playmat article). Again, such a great blend of theme and flavor. You burn an entire turn playing the card, but you get 10 credits out of it –because even punks sometimes need to go to their shitty jobs so they can pay the bills.

Let’s hop over to a character with a ton of card appearances that when strung together tell a whole narrative arc over the course of a few years.

Wait, in the bleak dystopian future, we have an upbeat kid and her modified dinosaur console? When she was released, Chaos Theory provided a fairly sharp juxtaposition to the other runners in the game. Shapers, as a faction, run for the sake of the run, it’s hacking as performance art or extreme sport. And early Chaos Theory cards depicted this pure love of exploration and discovery with cards like Exploratory Romp depicting her adventures in cyberspace. There was something sweet about this little girl and her dinosaur having a great time in a world where other runners were engaged in heavier pursuits, like trying to bring corporations to justice by exposing their plans or getting the money they need from executive coffers.

Meanwhile, Chaos Theory was off having a blast. We even get a brief respite in Power Nap as a nice blend of her obsession with hacking and a reminder that she is just a kid after all. These first four cards are a cute little saga of a girl and her heavily modified plush dinosaur and their happy journey. But, because we’re in a dystopia after all, things didn’t remain sunny forever. Shattered Remains depicts the heartbreaking results of a run gone awry –or potentially some corp thugs breaking in and trashing her rig (the Netrunner community was very up in arms when this art first appeared). The destruction of her rig after getting caught flows right into some potentially-related financial trouble her dads suddenly find themselves in, and right there in her arms is Dinosaurus with a band aid over his eye and his fluff stitched back in, and –and, guys, I can’t even, this is just too sad.

BUT! IT’S OK AFTERALL, PEOPLE! When FFG did the revised core set, they rotated out the original core set Shaper, Kate, and replaced her with Chaos Theory now aged up a few years. And who’s that on her shoulder? OMG Dinosaurus is back, and he’s got a tiny eyepatch and bandana! It’s too adorable; I’m dead! We even see the rebuild process happening between Modded and Test Run.

Alright, let’s have an aside for a quick fun story that may be apocrypha. Matt Zeilinger allegedly had to be assured that Dinosaurus would be OK when he was commissioned to create Shattered Remains, which, if you consider this except from an interview he did in he did in 2015, years before Shatter Remains, is totally believable:

FFG: Do you have a favorite among the Runner IDs that you’ve created? What makes that Runner your favorite?

MZ: I have to admit: I’ve got a soft spot for Chaos Theory and Dinosaurus.

Anytime I get to illustrate anything involving C.T. and Dino, I get a little giddy inside. There’s something so fun and intriguing about her connection to her rig, and I feel like there’s a story there that I want to know more about.

Building Better Worlds

Oh yeah, what about the corps? The corps are absolute bastards. Like I said earlier, they’re all differently evil, but we don’t have time to talk about them all so we’ve got to make some tough choices, and I’ve decided we’re going to talk about Weyland. If you’re reading this, you’re probably some flavor of nerd, so you might have spotted the reference to Weyland-Yutani (the giant evil corporation from Alien). Yeah these guys are pretty much them. Some corporations are subtle in their manipulations, some are insidious, Weyland is scorched earth… literally.

Netrunner has three types of damage. The permanent brain damage we discussed earlier with MaxX; net damage, which represents feedback from failed hacking; and meat damage, which is your body getting messed up. Tags represent a corporation figuring out where the runner is, and different corporations use them in different ways –so, if you’re Chaos Theory and you piss off NBN, they might zero your parents’ accounts. But, if Weyland finds out where you are, they’ll just blow up the whole damn building. And when they need to spin that as a tragic accident, they hire someone like Elizabeth Mills to handle the press. All of this exists as a marriage of theme and mechanics.

And that isn’t to say that Weyland only does violence, they’re perfectly capable of leveraging their vast wealth to get what they want. They will absolutely shut down your frozen yogurt shop. They just won’t be particularly subtle about it. And what are they trying to achieve? Well, agendas are cards that represent corporate goals. They win by scoring seven points worth of them; meanwhile, the runner is trying to steal them for money/fame/leverage. If you take a look at the things Weyland is trying to do, they are, let’s say “comically evil.”

Which isn’t to say that other corporations aren’t evil. NBN is doing stuff like trying to open University of Phoenix, project their logo onto the moon (like you do), and make TOTALLY UNTRACABLE crypto currency. Again, it’s all shady, but it’s a different brand of evil from Weyland’s strong-arm sledgehammer approach.

Looping back, like the Chaos Theory narrative, Weyland has its own stores that played out over years of the game. And this sets a nice little call back to the story of Greven and Vhati from the end of the previous piece.

Whizzard was a runner who was quite powerful over a variety of metas. Despite being in the game from the first expansion on, he appears in person on very few cards, so we have a very succinct narrative arc for him. He was slated to rotate out of play not too long after Boom! (his third card appearance) was printed. So, again, we close out with a very simply story. Essentially, Whizzard fucked around and found out.

*Header Image Reality Threedee by Kate Laird

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