You are survivors trapped on the edge of the Wild, living in the graveyard of rural towns left behind by the cyberpunk future. There’s crumbling roads, unpredictable digital networks, experimental livestock escaped into the woods, rusting cyberware, and hungry monsters stalking the perimeter.
In many ways, the Ruralpunk world is basically just like ours. The main difference is technological progress is amplified and with it, the consequences came due.
Humanity unlocked the key to limitless resource production...and mutated nature in the process. Called the Wild Strain, it warped nature into an apex predator that feeds on civilization.
Those who could, fled to urban sanctuaries and virtual realities. There, everything they do is recorded by the digital Feed, and everything they perceive is filtered by it. This means people have unprecedented control on defining reality...free of facts.
But this isn’t their story. This is the story of those who stayed—by choice, or by misfortune—to scratch out a living in the unpaved places.
The high-tech life is now. Cyberware. Immersive virtual realities. Synthesized memories. Machines evolved into personalities. Life always online, and always recorded.
In the metropolis, life is defined by the Feed. The culmination of technology, it aggregates all of the world’s information into one source. It contains the social media shares, the world-wide surveillance, the propaganda of every faction, the fingerprints of every business deal. If it happened, the Feed knows.
The most powerful factions decide what parts of the Feed are available to the public. They carefully bury certain information, distort other aspects, and highlight what benefits their agenda the most. Since the Feed is seen as all information in the world, it is considered reality. What the Feed shows is what happened. While the elite can edit the public Feed, nothing can be deleted once it’s recorded. There is an entire shadow industry built around information deep diving.
When someone is born, they are given a keysync implant by a corporate sponsor. It allows them to sync with the Feed anywhere, at any time. The only cost is exposure to advertisements by their sponsor.
As the Feed advanced, humanity became concerned with the generation, presentation, and profit from information and synthetic experience. Physical labor was relegated primarily to drones and other AI. Humanity, after all, was better suited to the art of reality-design.
This digital paradise required an elaborate architecture, best provided within the metropolis. Even before the Wild attacks, the majority of humanity had migrated into urban centers.
Remote communities could not afford the same level of digital infrastructure. As a result, most rural towns depended on a single corporation to sponsor their Feed access. The bulk of their network was filled with corporate advertising and local Feed recordings, often spliced together with suboptimal tech. More traditional forms of communication were largely pushed out so the towns were forced to rely on their corporate sponsor more. These monopolies trapped them in a system of unreliable, low quality augmented reality (AR).
A number of charities and well intentioned initiatives brought cyberware to rural populations. But without nearby biomedical facilities to provide care, damaged parts often went unfixed and normal wear-and-tear diminished its effectiveness. Locals devised hacks and repairs of their own. As a result, most cyberware appears one-of-a-kind, a puzzle of original tech and patches.
As the rest of world consolidated, most people disposed of their vehicles. Some they sold to rural industries, others they dumped into remote junkyards where rural folks reclaimed and refurbished them. The production of vehicles stopped being profitable for the metropolis majority, but remained vital for the far-flung communities in the open country. Vehicles and machines are carefully cleaned and maintained. For many families, their livelihood depends on their continued mobility.
Open Spaces: open experimentation
Remote communities offered the allure of decreased regulatory oversight. Numerous corporate and government entities took advantage of this fact to establish boundary-pushing (some would say illegal) research and development facilities. For many communities, these facilities are their primary employer.
That means the town often looks away when something...problematic occurs. Maybe one day they arrive to empty livestock pens, with the gates bashed down by a creature of terrifying strength. Maybe employees fall sick too often from an undiagnosable illness. Maybe fish start going belly-up in the nearby river. Maybe a child shows up to class with a mysterious weapon, absently discarded into a waste bin.
People become very good at looking the other way when it puts food on their table. Over time, the habit of looking away seeps into the culture. And every town becomes a maze of half-truths and unspoken horrors.
The Nutriment Revolution was supposed to save the world. Nutricorp unlocked the key to infinite food, built inside a laboratory. After their breakthrough, synthetic generation exploded as a commercial field. The corporations announced the end of scarcity: food, water, energy, they could fabricate it all.
Threatened by the approaching end to their industry, agriculture corporations responded with radical experiments of their own.
At first everyone celebrated the age of innovation.
Produce mutated first. Corporations and their legal teams labeled the reports of disfigured fruits and vegetables as freak incidents. They dismissed the claims of people falling sick as unfounded rumors—and surely not their liability.
Animals caught the effect next. Twisting in size, sprouting extra body parts, developing odd features like fur on fish and scales on deer. The effects spread out from the research laboratories, most in remote locations, so the news was originally discarded as no more real than the next Bigfoot or Loch Ness Monster. They attacked rural communities, feeding off their power lines and fiber cables. These were explained away as human scavengers. Then they attacked people, rending cyberware from their bodies. These were, of course, the horrible assault of synth-addicts, deranged by virtual memories.
The first human mutations were dramatic: people spontaneously combusting, but unhurt; others able to jump to supernatural heights; some began to report voices speaking to them from the Wild. Calling their name. Calling them home.
The deviant effects multiplied as they spread, altering life—and natural laws—beyond recognition.
It became known as the Wild Strain: to some it was a twist of science, to others the resurgence of something magical, and to still others, a new form of the divine.
But everyone agreed on one thing: it was dangerous.
By the end of the first generation, a new order established itself. Some wildlife developed human-level sentience. With their intelligence and ingenuity, these creatures known as the Chimera ruled over the rest of the Wild. Under their command, the Wild became the new apex predator.
It also became clear that the Wild fed on a mix of organic and synthetic sources. Technology drew them; the more advanced the tech, the faster it seemed to call their attention.
Military experiments produced technology that could hold the Wild off, but it was expensive. The elite leadership decided to focus protection on the most efficient course: protect the urban centers. They built blockades and a militarized defense zone around each major metropolis.
Those outside the defense zone?
Left on their own.
Some built up their own militias. Some built hidden shelters. Some banned the use of technology. Others took the side of the Wild, and made pacts with their local Chimera.
Still other communities turned to corporations and the wealthy elite. They accepted exploitative deals for the construction of private prisons, experimental laboratories, military bases, entertainment estates for the wealthy, and more, in exchange for protection.
Everyone chose a different strategy but shared one goal: survive.
Dependent but divided. Rural communities are as entangled as they are contentious. You need each other as much as you resent each other for generations worth of conflicts and slights. Most days you have only each other: to hurt, or to help.
The acceleration in technological evolution defined each generation in distinct ways. Now, society is fragmented along generational lines. These fractures are thrown in sharp relief in smaller communities where no one can escape from each other.
Blame. A lot of the older generations are obsessed with it. Blame the trade wars that made it impossible to export products. Blame the corporations who swept into town, consumed the local businesses, then collapsed when they lost the urban market wars. Blame the obsession with efficiency over people, that ballooned production while cutting down on jobs. Blame the free education initiatives that lured their first born to metropolitan institutions and taught them only to value achievement and wealth.
Blame the children for never coming home.
Admit it. The younger folks want accountability from their parents and grandparents. Admit they leased land out to penal and military institutions rife with abuse. Admit they invited in the corporations’ R&D divisions whose risky experiments make their future more dangerous. Admit they turned a blind eye to the carelessness, the dumping, the spreading illness caused by those labs. Admit they are why the unpaved places are now the topic of horror stories. The reason no tourists leave the metropolis bubble anymore.
They are the ones who sold out the future for momentum now.
Blame. Admit. The shouting between sides froze conversation. Loyalty, to your generation or your town or your gang, became the only message that mattered. And in the noise of infinite information within the Feed, and endless threats from the Wild, volume became the great distinguisher.
Either you control the conversation, or you are irrelevant.
Rural towns remain desperate for any opportunity...and have little bargaining power. The corporations exploit their need to survive by leasing land for unsavory, escalating operations: warehouses for rogue AI; military test sites; mock-kingdoms for wealthy elite; hunting safaris of captured Chimera.
Criminal operations offer unmatched opportunity to the disaffected with one hand, and brutal violence to their opposition with the other.
Radical militias preach resistance but demand unquestioning, bloody loyalty.
You cannot leave. Maybe you are too poor to move. Maybe you are too bound to this place called home. Maybe you can’t leave behind family. Maybe you committed crimes that bar you from any opportunities where the law keeps a closer watch. Maybe you are stubborn. Or stuck. Or hopeful. Or love this place, despite all the pain.
But you are here now. This is your home.
And the question is: how do you save it?
Playing with Technology
Technology in Ruralpunk is a mix of futuristic invention and old-time necessity.
Creatures mutated by the Wild Strain feed on a mix of organics and technology. The more advanced the technology, the more appetizing. As a result, technology levels are heavily tied to the level of military protection and thus geography.
The metropolis thrives on artificial creation: synthetic memories, augmented reality, the Feed capturing (and remixing) every moment, self-driving vehicles, artificial cosmetics allowing people to refashion and recolor their body on a whim, even rumors of organic androids.
They are safe behind the military safe zone. The Wild cannot reach them.
Technology fades the further you get away from the metropolis. The suburbs rely mostly on contained or short-range systems: personal cybernetics, room-based virtual reality, and wired electronics.
In rural communities, almost all modern technology has been eaten or ripped apart. People rely on refurbished items from their great grandparents’ generation. Cyberware looks obviously mechanical. Computers are laptop-sized or bigger and usually wired. Walkie-talkies and radios are the preferred forms of communication.
Machines are powered off except when being used. Most towns have a relay tower to connect to the Feed, but there are strict rules about when it can be powered on and for how long. In those moments, people hurriedly log on to download messages, news, and entertainment. This means most communication takes at least a day to reach town. And if a Chimera has been spotted? Towns may go silent for weeks.
People use two strategies to work around the threat of the Wild. First, most machines are wired. As a result, people collect and protect their portable generators. They can plug a plethora of items into it, using it was a central hub that can be powered down and packed up, giving the sense of mobility. Second, tech is built from a jumble of remains, constantly being destroyed and patched with new salvage. The result is often as mixed as its parts: sunglasses that project flickering augmented reality images; headphones that pipe in tinny audio versions of Feed text and video; cyber-legs that run on car parts, requiring gas.
Does [X] exist?
Ruralpunk is a world of futuristic tech. If you imagine it, it can exist. Think about how it can be spliced with older tech or remixed with old gen limitations. Or keep it cutting edge—the Wild will come for it.
How does hacking work?
There are two flavors of hacking: breaking through digital security and overcoming the limits of existing tech.
The first version will only come into play when characters face off with factions from the metropolis who also have elite levels of security. In general, advanced technology is a beacon for the Wild and thus a gamble with death. Unless a character was raised in the metropolis, they usually won’t have the experience or exposure to break that level of security. Characters will need to break through security using special abilities or creative solutions.
The second version is the lifeblood of rural communities. They overcome technological limits on a daily basis. They are the bridge between futuristic and old-gen tech. Most devices are a fusion of the two: a virtual reality machine rigged to a hiking pack for mobility; keyboards fused with augmented reality so you can write digital images that only exist while the town relay station is powered on; decommissioned AI robots rigged with remote controls to turn them into advanced surveillance drones. All of technology in Ruralpunk is about innovating old with new to adapt to the threat of the Wild and lack of access to new devices.
Playing the Wild Strain
The Wild Strain is left purposefully ambiguous so your group can invent details that match the tone of your game. There are only three essential elements: the Wild mutates life in some fashion; these mutants target technology, with more speed and intensity on futuristic tech; and some mutants, called Chimera, have become as intelligent and complex as humans.
The Strain can be painted in a more horror style. Mutations are more grotesque or bizarre. Focus on the way the Wild hunts humanity. The motives of the Chimera remain mysterious, beyond human understanding. Emphasize the Strain Status of players and NPCs, and play up the fear towards human mutations. PCs who use Strain powers may hear whispers of nearby Chimera or dream of joining them.
The Strain can be presented in more fantastical direction. Mutations reflect creatures of mythology or fantasy. The motives of the Chimera make as much sense as humanity; perhaps they even follow a sort of code or formal etiquette players can learn. Position the Strain Status of players as primarily cosmetic. The use of Strain powers may resemble magic or an intuitive art.
The game also has space to weave together elements of horror and fantasy. The effects of the Wild Strain, and its mutants, can reflect the complexity of the characters’ town: just as conflict and caring mix together, some mutant distortions can appear striking or beautiful while others seem strange or scary.
Talk as a group at the start of the campaign about a general tone. Continue that discussion through the sessions, checking in with people’s comfort and enjoyment of the Strain elements.
Pitfalls of the weird
People frequently associate “unsettling” or “weird” with “outside the norm.” This can naturally lead to using images of disability, mental health, or other real-world markers of marginalized groups as “weird” in a hurtful and stigmatizing way.
When your group wants to explore the Wild, try and replace “strange” with “unexpected.” Instead of describing a bear that is hunched, twisted, and limping, think of a bear covered in fish scales and patches of decaying forest. Think about mixing textures, colors, smells, or sounds in unexpected ways.
The Wild Strain has warped all forms of life from plants to animals to humans. The unexpected can take the form of deceptively mundane items being carriers of the Strain: grass with teeth; weeds that speak; or chickens with roots into the ground instead of feet.
Initial sign posts
The group may find it helpful to define a few touchstones for the Wild Strain before you begin playing. As a group, you can answer three questions during the 1st session: