Cyberpunk worlds represent a near future dystopian landscape. They feature severe economic disparity and highlight protagonists and antagonists that represent the lowest and highest classes of society. Here you will find struggles against a system that never changes and is always oppressive. Technology has advanced to astonishing new heights, but rather than lifting humankind towards utopia, it has been commercialized and sold with ever increasing profit margins.
The Five Central Districts of Cyberpunk Worlds
Cyberpunk worlds can generally be divided into five separate areas: the crowded metropolis, the virtual world, the wealthy district, the devastated rural community, and space (though not all of these are always present in a single world).
The Crowded Metropolis
Cyberpunk worlds are home to cities with buildings that tower above all and slums that house the lowliest of the low. These massive metropolises harbor a diverse array of buildings and cultures. Typically, apartments are small and densely packed, and outdoor areas are flooded with neon advertisements. When designing cyberpunk cities, consider the use of skyscrapers, dark and narrow alleyways, interconnected rooftops, and a claustrophobic density of massive buildings. Megastructures may also be present. Coat everything with at least one layer of grime.
Stop & Consider the Following:
- Power Systems
- Water & Sewage Systems
- Transportation Systems
For a list of buildings to use when constructing a crowded metropolis, see Common Buildings and Locations. This will provide ideas for what to populate your city with.
The Virtual World
Virtual reality offers an escape from the oppressive environment of the cyberpunk world. Often this world within a world is fully rendered, with three dimensional models representing both inhabitants that have logged in as well as more conceptual ideas such as viruses, artificial intelligences, the flow of data, and computer programs. Anti-virus software, for example, may be represented as a wall of static, a bouncer, or a flying observer. This can be an area where both rich and poor can intermingle, and often the people who have little to nothing in the outside world may possess digital objects of value within the virtual world. When designing such a virtual world, how it will be built is the first question to be answered. While often there is real world ‘physics’ and locations that resemble the offline world, there is no reason this needs to be the case.
Consider who designed the virtual space within your cyberpunk world and what they would have wanted it to resemble.
The Wealthy Sector
Cyberpunk worlds are usually home a small and immensely powerful upper class. The wealthy district represents a world above the muck and grime of the metropolis that approaches a utopia for those capable of affording it. Whether the people here work to perpetuate a system that keeps them in power, whether they fight against it from within, or whether they are ignorant is something to be considered. These are areas that are usually clean, beautiful, expansive and stand in stark contrast to the rest of the world.
The Devastated Rural Community
If featured at all in cyberpunk worlds, rural areas tend to be ravished by the all-consuming socioeconomic juggernaut of the cyberpunk reality. These likely feature desolate locations perhaps left razed, or expansive infrastructure necessary to sustain those living in the metropolis. Consider what life is like outside of your metropolis. Who or what inhabits these areas?
Space is generally a smaller element in cyberpunk worlds, with the most focus placed on terrestrial metropolises. It can however be found to small degrees. There may be off-world mining colonies staffed by either synthetic humanoids or the poorest of the poor. There also may be satellites or habitation rings orbiting earth, with these being inhabited by the rich. When building a cyberpunk world, consider if space is present, to what degree, and who or what inhabits it.
Society in cyberpunk worlds tends to be focused around the economy. First, individuals can usually be divided into either the wealthy elite or the poorer classes. Second, the priorities of individuals tend to be economically motivated. The wealthy concern themselves with the activities of the major corporations while the less fortunate live paycheck to paycheck and work odd jobs to get by (if they haven’t turned to crime or some other hustle to supplement their income). For game-oriented worlds this makes for a natural explanation for quests or missions and their rewards. For narrative-driven worlds, financial pressure can drive the story forward.
Consider the easy and hard ways to make money in your world.
With such class disparity prevalent in cyberpunk worlds, crime is naturally abundant. While this will include cybercrime, corporate sabotage and intellectual theft, street crime will also likely be present such as gang violence, drug industries, and weapons black markets. Consider how crime and what criminal elements fit into your cyberpunk world.
On the flip-side of this, the law in cyberpunk worlds is often apathetic, corrupt, underfunded, or entirely privatized. Wealthy individuals and corporations may have their own security forces.
Cyberpunk worlds are often homes to new religions. People in dire circumstances seek out something to give them comfort, and are often taken advantage of by grifters hocking new and improved afterlives.
Relations between those employed and those doing the employing are generally not good in cyberpunk worlds. Oftentimes the workers have very little to no power in the dynamic with threat of firing and resulting destitution keeping them in line and performing tasks that are demeaning, grueling, and perhaps dangerous. Union formation, strikes, and union-busting are all events at home in a cyberpunk world. Disruptions due to such events, such as infrastructure shutdowns, may be present.
The political state of the cyberpunk world tends to fall into two categories: either a corporation or group of organizations has wrested power from the central governments and rules (either openly or through connections to corrupt politicians), or the political dynamic exists in flux or poised for dramatic change with many forces vying for complete control. In the latter case there may be coup attempts, there may be foreign involvement, there may be upstart populist politicians promising drastic change, there may be corporate interests at stake. Consider the various factions in your world, the various degrees of power they exert, and their various desires. Oftentimes cyberpunk worlds are on the edge of total chaos.
What political factions exist in your world and to what lengths are they willing to go to see change brought about?
Technology in cyberpunk worlds falls into two main categories, tech that is used in their real world, and tech that is used to either access or within the virtual world. For the former, body modifications, weaponry, high tech clothing, and transportation are common. For the latter, access ports, programs, viruses, and digital goods are often seen. Consider what technologies are present in your own world and how prevalent they all are.
For worldbuilders incorporating visual elements, cyberpunk worlds have historically been a combination of gritty dark colors intermixed with bright neon hues. This supports the dark themes where only the advertisements shine though. Other areas, such as the wealthy sector, may have their own aesthetic.