What is 'punk' and how is it applied to RPGs?

I've heard of:

  • Cyberpunk
  • Steampunk
  • Clockworkpunk
  • Gothicpunk
  • Dieselpunk

And I'm sure there are others.

What main streams are there, and what is the 'punk' that is the common denominator?


5 Answers 5


Originally coined for Bruce Bethke's unpublished book of the same name, “cyberpunk” was used to describe a high-tech setting full of lowlifes. The -punk suffix is therefore used to invoke the seedy or criminal element which has become associated with the “gritty” feel of a lot of games in this genre. The other subgenres, like steampunk and biopunk, simply identify different sources for the high-tech components.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Oddly, cyberpunk existed before the term was coined. While it was truly coined in 1983, it is a derivative of earlier works (like Phillip K. Dick 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and William Gibson's 1982 short story, Burning Chrome). \$\endgroup\$
    – Wyrmwood
    Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 16:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ “Seedy or criminal” does a great disservice to the punk movement as a short description; it’s there more to point out that the characters are counter-cultural, and it’s also about the aesthetic. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 27, 2023 at 20:43

Tobias, I am glad you asked, as this question is near and dear to my heart (as I am writing a game called Steampunk Crescendo).

To me, 'punk is about the following:

  1. There needs to be a dystopia (power concentrated into a central hub and denied to the outlying segments of society).

  2. There needs to be a status quo that sucks compared to the current standards

  3. There needs to be a groundswell of people willing to do bad things for good reasons.

Good Cyberpunk has that when it is a parody of modern times.

Good Steampunk has that when it focuses on the rampant oppression and repression of the era and the activists trying to change the staus quo.

Good Runepunk has this when magic is the instrument of change.

Good Dungeonpunk has it when the dungeoneering is a threat to a central authority.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ If I could upvote this 10 times I would and still want to upvote it more. \$\endgroup\$
    – Canageek
    Commented Nov 8, 2011 at 4:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ If only there could be two "best answers". I think this and the asker-picked would make a great combined answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 15:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes both of these are good answers. My only contention is that the word punk came long before the music genre. Punk as a noun means "worthless person" as an insult, and as an adjective it means "poor, sick, ill, or low quality". Punk rock kinda usurped the word's place as common parlance. \$\endgroup\$
    – Escoce
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 17:07

A couple of thoughts:

A key component of "punk" that stems from its origins in punk rock is the notion that you don't wait around for someone else to tell you what you can or can't do. You do it yourself. You don't go to a stylist to get your hair spiked, you get some Knox gelatin and go to town. Want to start a band but don't now how to play the guitar? Learn it by doing it. Get the band going now, learn as you go. Extending this into RPG situations, the protagonists are people who do not sit around waiting to be told what to do and how to do it. They're not in the army, they're the guerillas. They're not engineers, they're tinkerers. This doesn't mean they can't be very skilled, it just means that they eschew hierarchies, particularly those that emphasize control over creativity.

Over time the "punk" moniker has become primarily associated with individuals and small groups working for social change or doing good, but when punk rock started, it was primarily a reaction to existing norms. It wasn't trying to change the world, it was an enraged middle finger pointed at middle class values and acceptance of the norm. In RPG situations this means the player characters are likely to be uninterested in accumulating power, either for good or for evil. They are concerned with authenticity and individual responsibility. They can be out to help the common cause, or primarily interested only in advancing their own narrow goals (adventure, mayhem, exploration, etc.). This Wikipedia entry is flawed, but provides some useful insights into the various flavors of punk mentality: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punk_ideologies

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a great encapsulation. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 27, 2023 at 20:44

All genres that have punk off the end of their name are derivatives of cyberpunk. The name itself, Cyberpunk, is “low life, high tech.” The very word cyberpunk is itself a portmanteau of cybernetics, the science and technology of the system, and punk, the philosophy of rebellion against the system. Many of the derivative genres are simply cyberpunk stories transported into a different time period with technology X standing in for cyberspace, body-modification, and other genre staples.

If you're looking to study up

Watch: Blade Runner, The Matrix, Terminator (only the first one), Robocop, Dredd (still in theaters most likely), Looper, and the Ghost in the Shell series;

Read: Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, Neruomancer by William Gibson, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, and Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling.

Play: Cyperpunk 2020 hands down the best capture of cyberpunk style in an RPG.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree re: Cyberpunk 2020. It's the definitive cyberpunk RPG. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 15:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ I actually reference it beyond RPGs too, between the banter on the side margins and the overall style of the book text I think its worth just reading even if you never play it. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 17:14

From Wikipedia:

–punk as a suffix can also be used to describe cyberpunk derivatives, several different literary genres whose names derive from the "cyberpunk" genre


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