Cybermen are one of the most iconic Doctor Who villains but have never gained the same status as the Daleks. When these two arch enemies of the Doctor did finally confront each other the Cybermen came out worst.
Their recent redesign is striking but makes them resemble robots. Ironically the Cybermen are the one alien race who should look like men in suits. For them to truly be effective we have to remember that they were once like us.
In order to use them in a roleplaying game I believe we need to look back at their origins and rediscover what made them scary. What sparks the imagination isn’t that there is a lot of them or that they are tough to fight. It is the idea behind them.
Originally the Cybermen were as close to human as you could get, born on Earth’s twin planet of Mondas. Through surgical procedures their bodies where made stronger and their brains altered to remove emotions.
In the 1960s this seemed monstrous but by the 1980s cyber-punk fiction featured heroes who replaced limbs and put computer chips in their brains. In the real world great advances are being made with prosthetic limbs, the gap between man and machine becoming ever narrower.
In theory who wouldn’t want to be better? We already use technology to make our lives easier, why not take it to it’s logical extreme? The Cybermen represent the end result of replacing all the things that make us week.
The conversion process shouldn’t be a form of attack, like a vampire turning a victim into the undead, but a tempting offer. Player character’s might reject it but others might choose to become like the Cybermen.
This can create an interesting tension in a game, especially when those who want to be converted are people close to the player characters. Can the player characters really deny people the chance to walk again with new legs or to see with electronic eyes?
Someone obsessed with computers might leap at the chance at being able to link his mind with machines. The fact he’d be encased in a bullet proof metal shell and have super strength is just a bonus.
It isn’t the upgrades that make the idea of conversion repellent, it is the loss of personality. I suggest re-examining ‘The Tenth Planet’ where the Cybermen did still seem to be individuals. If people knew they’d still be them and not mindless drones there would be less hesitation to changed.
Not that they should come out as the same person. Without emotions they’d make different decision, even if they can still think for themselves. They wouldn’t see the point of families, no longer able to feel anything for those they once loved.
A good model for this is the film ‘The Invasion’. In that film people become infected with any alien virus that removed their emotions. They were still had the same memories but behaved differently. Having emotions became a liability, tipping off the infected that they were not one of them.
Unity among the cybermen shouldn’t come because of pre-programmed obedience but because without human emotions no one acts for selfish reasons, only for the common good.
‘The audio drama ‘Spare Parts’, detailing the creation of the Cybermen on Mondas, illustrates how this can go badly for the minority. When the majority disagrees with you there is little you can do to resist.
Adopting this way of viewing how the Cybermen act then we open up their motives and, as a result, the stories that can be told with them. Most Cybermen stories can be boiled down to the aliens wanting to make more Cybermen.
Their core motivation should be survival but that doesn’t mean they need to keep attacking. The only times when the Cybermen should do this is when it they are suffering looses that would make them extinct if they didn’t add to their number and they have the resources to enable them to carry out their plan.
For example the cybermen could take control of a planet and concentrate on building a stable infrastructure rather than attacking a nearby human colony. Unless the human’s attacked them they’d be no reason to try to convert them and risk losing the forces they have.
This could lead to an interesting situation if the human colony suffered a disaster and were offered aide by the Cybermen. Will the injured colonists join Cybermen in exchange for replacement cybernetic limbs? Did the Cybermen engineer the disaster or is that just paranoia?
It is what Cybermen represent that instils them with menace, rather than their actions. Instead of invading what if a ship of Cybermen arrived at a planet and offered free conversions?
What would the planet’s government do as more and more of their people became machines? People would be healthier and stronger. Governments would no longer have authority as their population began to think in cold, logical terms.
Not that the Cybermen should ever feel safe. Lacking emotions they behave differently to us, taking actions that would horrify us. If a person is beyond medical help a Cyberman would find it more logical to kill them rather than drain resources to try and get them help. If a human would be more efficient with implants a Cyberman would try to convert them, even if they didn’t want them.
Placing player characters in positions where they have to work alongside Cybermen but always be mindful of what they might do could produce very tense games. They’d have to produce a very logical argument why the Cybermen shouldn’t carry out their plans if it adversely effects them.
Vulcan’s from Star Trek are a good example of how to portray a logic alien race. Using this as a template there is no reason that the player characters can’t run into a starship with a single Cyberman crewmate who has never hurt anyone.
Seeing a Cybermen working alongside them the player characters might even begin to appreciate them and become jealous of their abilities. They to might want to be free of their frail bodies, to feel the strength of steel.
This is a Cyberman’s true power. In the end we will all be like them.