An interesting conceit, this sourcebook is based on the fiction of George A. Effinger and the man himself has collaborated in bringing his setting to life within the confines of the game. His foreword to the work shows how the very idea appealed to him. Set in the Middle East (which has barely been touched upon within Cyberpunk 2020 so far, apart from a note that it suffered heavy bombing) it presents a new facet- dark and mysterious, less neon and chrome, but just as dangerous and exciting!
The Introduction talks about the way in which Effinger's work appeals to those who like the cyberpunk genre, in particular his setting of a dark and dangerous Middle East, where modern technology rubs shoulders with ancient traditions and of course the Islamic faith. Of course, it's recommended that you go and read the novels, but this book should contain all you need to know to visit this fascinating corner of the world in your game. Naturally some stuff has had to be invented for the purposes of the game, and later novels may contradict it... although Effinger has approved everything that's here.
Chapter 1: History of a Alternate World presents the timeline, which runs through to 2202 - which for this setting is the 'present day' based on when the books were set. This of course makes it incompatible with the rest of the world of Cyberpunk 2020, which is of course in the year 2020... but that's not insurmountable. Fudge your dates, run it as a standalone campaign, whatever you please. In this reality, most of the world is balkanised, with monarchs and dictators replacing democracy; and our stories are set in an unnamed Middle Eastern city near enough to the Arab Federation to see its prosperity, far enough away not to share in it. There are corporations around - and a few are listed here. They operate pretty much like the 21st century ones we're used to in the game. A lot of commerce is via barter. Global warming has caused sea levels to rise, and the rest of the environment is pretty battered too. Rather than nations, it's mostly city-states and tribal areas; and there's a good overview of the state of the world in 2202.
Next, we read of the City that's at the centre of this setting. Location is deliberately left vague, but the picture painted is one of a bustling Arabian city, tradition and modernity side by side, sprawling at the edge of an unnamed desert and home to a couple of million people. Communications with the rest of the world are via an airport, railways and canals. Various areas of the city are described. Of note is the Budayeen, which is where you can indulge your vices. This area has two gates - one faces the religious quarter, the other the cemetary. Rooms for rent by the hour, places where you can gamble, bars and opium dens abound. More respectable eating places and other businesses are found here as well. There are even herb shops patronised by witches - magic is still believed in by many here. Whilst some of it only works if you do believe, other tradions use drugs and so can affect anyone. We also learn of City politics, public services and (of course) the underworld. Notable residents (many from the novels) are also presented. Then come some encounter tables for day and night in the City in general or in the Budayeen.
OK, more background with Chapter 3: Arabic Culture and Islam. Essential if you want the look and feel of your game to be suitably exotic (assuming your group isn't Arab or Muslim of course...). It describes the basic tenets of Islam, pretty accurately as far as I can tell, then looks at how they influence the rest of culture and life in general, including Sharia law, family ties and etiquette... and the role of women. Strage and oppressive to Western eyes, it's actually based on feelings of respect and an urge to protect. All is handled respectfully both to the faith and culture and indeed to those feminists who feel that the way women is treated is incorrect. Here we are being told what is... like any game, change what doesn't suit, but you risk losing the specific flavour if you deviate too much from this background. There's a glossary of (mostly) Arabic words you can toss in to conversation and a collection of Arabic proverbs.
Chapter 4 is Role-playing in the 23rd Century, and suggests that this setting is best suited to role-playing and problem solving. Of course combat and general action have their place but shouldn't be the main focus of the game. There are plenty violent people here who won't hesitate to use deadly force... but concentrate on the 'why', look at what they are trying to accomplish. A fight shouldn't just rack up the body count, how does it advance the plot? There's a lot about the sort of feel to evoke, and some sample plot ideas. There are also some new character classes - administrators, runners, investigators and spies - as well as a discussion of how the regular Roles fit in here.
Then Chapter 5: To the Cutting Edge and Back Again looks at technology in this setting. In particular there are skill-chips and others that can also embue personality, moddies and daddies in common slang parlance. There's a look at their sweeping effect on society. You may decide that you'd like them in a mainstream game, or keep them here, but however you want to use them you'll find everything you'll need here including sample chips and details of how to construct your own. There are also notes on sex change modifications, cyberware, bioware and biomechanics; as well as more general material on medical treatment.
Chapter 6: Hacking Through the Future caters for netrunners. In 2202 it's a very different scene. Instead of a global net there are gaping holes and fragmentation. People still search for money and information, but things are a bit different now. There's an overview of the current state of affairs and the ways in which to accomplish what you are trying to do. This chapter also contains a gear section, not just for netrunners but for everyone - weapons, vehicles, armour, entertainment and more.
Finally, there's a ready-to-play adventure, Silken Nights. Nobody's quite what they seem...
This makes for a fascinating and unique setting. You can use it as a stand-alone game world, or shave off the extra future history - maybe wind back some of the technological advances like the moddies and daddies (or have them just appearing, a good reason to visit in the first place!) and make this part of your regular Cyberpunk setting.
[5 of 5 Stars!]