Review: The Sprawl

The Sprawl  by Hamish Cameron is my favorite RPG and a Powered by the Apocalypse System like Dungeon World and Monster of the Week, focused on cyberpunk missions and heists.  While the basic mechanics and moves are familiar, there is more focus on the meta game – for example players have access to moves that allow retroactive decisions and focus heavily on meta mechanics like threat and mission clocks – and the game is significantly more lethal.  My campaign in The Sprawl is the first time I’ve had player deaths that were not directly the result of friendly fire.

As a PbTA game, the familiar 2d6 dice mechanic to resolve all rolls returns- 10+ is an unqualified success, 7-9 is success with a complication, and on a 6- the Game Master makes a move.  There is an emphasis on partial success and “failing forward” that keeps every mission fast-paced and uncertain.  Players take on the roll of skilled agents in a cyberpunk dystopia, pursuing their profit and ideologies via social manipulation, stealth, and violence on the backdrop of a high-tech world dominated by corporations and a decaying society.

What stuck out to me about The Sprawl, perhaps because the genre is close to the original Apocalypse World, is how everything in the game fits together so well.  All the mechanics work well together and are inter-related, referencing each other- nothing feels unnecessary.

In contrast, the Dungeons and Dragons mechanics in Dungeon World, while part of its charm, don’t quite feel like they belong.  The multi-page spell lists feel exceptionally clunky in a game engine where most characters run off their character sheet and the basic moves, no other references needed.  Monster of the Week’s mysteries, which must at some level be scripted, frequently clash with the improvisational nature of PbtA games.  This may be my perspective – if you’ve read my Monster of the Week review you’ll know my group wasn’t really buying into the whole mystery thing.

And that is the great strength of The Sprawl, is that its unit, the mission – which is for it what dungeons are for DnD and Dungeon World, and mysteries for Monster of the Week – is so robust to players trying to burn it down.  It provides structure while being flexible to the group’s desires.  A mission can be a smoothly executed spy operation straight out of Burn Notice, a mission to avoid the mission, or a bloody dumpster fire like Reservoir Dogs, and the game still feels like it is running smoothly and as intended.  The mission structure works without being on rails, this Let’s Play has a good example of how flexible things are- the party cobbles together a job for itself rather than getting one from a corporation.

The system has to be robust- players have access to a lot of firepower, both narratively and mechanically.  Tanks, helicopters with missile launchers, large gangs, control of corporate security systems, infiltration secure locations off a single roll, retroactively chosen gear and information- all of these things are available without a level up and a smart group will tear apart planned opposition.  Game Masters should be prepared to raise the stakes and players should know the system is high powered and relatively lethal for NPCs and PCs alike.  Like all PbTA games, the players have a great deal of agency in shaping the story, down to picking the corporations that shape the tone and feeling of the campaign world.

Meta – gaming is supposed to be a dirty word, but I found the ways it is incorporated into The Sprawl made for a better game play experience, at least for my group.  The mission and corporation clocks are counters that tell how close the party is to blowing a mission and inviting retribution from the all-powerful corporations, respectively.  I found they give both the players and GM a clear idea of what was happening, make it easy to run a session with little to no prep and are highly responsive to player actions.  It makes expectations for the length of a session and its difficulty clear from the get go.  The Gear and Intel mechanics, which are currencies that can be spent to have an item or piece of information retroactively, makes bookkeeping simple and lets the characters be competent without combing through an equipment list before every mission.

In contrast to Dungeon World and Monster of the Week, the moves give a great deal of structure and good cues to the GM.  Outcomes of 7-9 rolls are listed instead of the Game Master being forced to improvise repeatedly, weapon tags are clearly defined, and clear limits are set out for NPC help and equipment.  Flexibility is the great strength of PbtA games, and The Sprawl strikes a good balance between clear rules and leaving room to maneuver.

Basing experience on mission success rather than failed roles along with the high lethality change the tenor of the game, creating a focus on playing more carefully than in Dungeon World and MoTW where easy access to magic healing, luck points, and experience awarded for failed rolls encourage taking risks.

It’s not all perfect – for instance, rules on how to keep track of damage to vehicles are non-existent, but it’s a small point to improvise on.  The one great flaw of the Sprawl is rules for the Hacker, which is not just a class but also a clunky Matrix subsystem dealing with the structure of computer networks.  Obviously the Hacker has to be in a cyberpunk game, but in trying to capture the hacking sequences from Neuromancer, Cameron has bolted on an unintuitive subgame that excludes everyone but the Hacker, forcing awkward switch-offs and makes DW’s spellcasting seem perfectly integrated.

Compared to the elegance of the rest of the system, it feels like it was inserted by another person at the printers.  The Flake from Monster of the Week is an example of how to handle this better- the  Netfriends move gives hold that can be spent for information from consulting online allies.  The Hacker needs a little more flavor than that but the Matrix rules sheet is longer than the basic moves; it’s in need of downsizing.  I would recommend not using the Hacker playbook or the Matrix unless you rework it, compressing the Matrix moves into a few Hacker moves- something like the optional conduct operation rules which abstract a lot of setup.

TL,DR: If you like cyberpunk, heists, PbtA games, or fast paced urban games pick this elegantly simple game up.  Image from my copy of The Sprawl, source & purchase link at the start of the article and here, and my thoughts on some actual play here.

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The Sprawl: A Cyberpunk Gametale

I’ve been working on a review for the Powered by the Apocalypse game The Sprawl, and while that is in the works I thought I would post a recording of one of my sessions.  It’s one of the best ways to understand how a system works.

In a nutshell, The Sprawl handles spontaneous, episodic sessions very well- it’s ideal if not everyone can make it to every session or you need to get rolling without a lot of prep.  It runs cyberpunk tabletop gaming well in a system that is a lot easier to pick up that Shadowrun.  Sadly I haven’t found or had a chance to try anything as elegant for space opera.  This is one of my favorite if not my favorite system – if you are interested, I suggest you give it a listen or take a look at one of Eric Vulgaris’ let’s plays.

No Space

This is a combination of Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction prompt from http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/08/02/flash-fiction-challenge-somethingpunk/ and an an idea I’ve been kicking around for roughly six months now.

It ended up being much longer than I expected.  I may continue it at some point, though most likely with major changes.

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Marco stretched and resettled himself under the overhang, flat against the wall.  Shoppers rushed past, trying in vain to keep dry as rain and gutter drains sprayed their legs.  Water trickled down grey rubber boots Marco had bought because they were cheap- like his frayed jeans, garish yellow raincoat and head-enveloping filtration mask.  On the smart goggles, he had splurged- they had to be able to block drone cameras, no cutting corners.

He could see his target out of the corner of his eye- a gaudy electronics storefront.  It was tiny, five feet according to the range finder in the goggles, most of it devoted to displays; the average consumer might be able to fit through sideways.  The VR headsets that dominated the storefront were obvious counterfeits, done in the bright primary colors of a cheap 3-D print.  A large poster for InterX, the intersex DJ, done with a completely different color scheme, served only to highlight the attempted deceit.   But they still worked and a branded DJ InterX headset cost $2000.  More importantly it was nowhere near where Marco usually worked.  He didn’t have to bother with any legwork.  Leaning back, he used his power.

The headphones disappeared, one into each ‘pocket’, leaving the gaudy red stands forlorn.  Minor Persistent Dimensional Folding, the doctor had called it.  That failed to describe how it felt- They had no specific location, and weighed nothing, but still Marco was aware of them through a pressure they exerted. The backing poster blocked the cashier’s view of the display case, and the mall camera couldn’t see in the window.  It could be hours until the theft was noticed.  By which time he would be long gone.

Marco turned and walked off into the rain, auto cars silently adjusting to let him pass as he cleared the first row of parked cars, a spring in his step.  Past the second row he ran into a car.  The driver door popped open.  It was a manual model; those had been phased out twenty years ago, deathtraps with seats in the front!  Good feelings evaporated at the sight of the driver.  He was a rare man indeed, pale white with orange hair and thin as a vid screen.  An armory hung at his waist- flashbangs, dartgun, at three net guns among them; everything was legal with a class B firearms license:  bounty hunter.  The driver kept the brick-sized Taser with a rifle stock steadily pointed at Marco’s chest as he exited the car.

“Nice goggles.  You buy military surplus?”  If the man reacted, it was only behind the massive lenses over half his face. Marco’s eyebrow raised behind the goggles as he looked at the Taser.  “Compensating for something?”

“You are under arrest grand larceny.”  Marco acted before the man could finish pulling the trigger.  Stunning someone and dragging them to a bounty office was not technically legal, but that small flaw in standard operating procedure was usually overlooked if the person brought in had any evidence against them.  Nothing could be proved against Marco, but all powers were on public record, and assumption was enough to get him on a high priority surveillance list- making life very hard.  So Marco compressed the seven of the twenty-one ‘pockets’ he wasn’t using, and opened them all right in front of the hunter’s face.

The resulting vacuum jogged the blaster up and sucked away the holder’s breath as Marco dove left.  A shot went wide and struck a parked car in the first row of the strip mall’s lot.  Within a second every car in the lot registered weapons fire and began moving to whisk their owners to safety.  Sensing his movement, the tide of cars abandoning their spots left a narrow corridor for Marco.  Mr. Manual Car, bent over and gasping, was not so lucky.  Manuals didn’t transmit a drive plan, so the autos assumed it wasn’t going anywhere, boxing it and the driver in within seconds.  With protective shutters deploying over windows, there was no possible way to even see Marco.

Networked cars would clear the jam in only a few minutes, but Marco slowed to a brisk walk as he entered the skyway.  The walkway above and paralleling the street gave an excellent view in addition to moving all pedestrian traffic.  His abeulo had always grumbled about how sidewalks had been better, but Marco didn’t understand the appeal.  He also didn’t understand what had turned the bounty hunter on to him.  People had been talking about a bounty hunter named Torch, one of the last men with orange hair.  He’d brought quite a few people in, even Can-opener.  Not that his power was… had been good for fighting.

Distracted, he glanced right.  The window walls of the skyway offered stunning view of the city.  Only three stories up, buildings and roads easily topped it, but not to the point that the skyline was hidden, dazzling in the ever present rain, condensed exhaust from the spaceport.  Video-boards and faux-neon covered every available surface, advertising for businesses on every level and for larger corporations.  Light refracted by the water that coated the window, the mystic gem of a city blazed and shifted.  A scupper clung to the outside of the skyway, insectoid body translucent except for the pollution in its gut, a patch of darkness on a blazing background.  Hard to believe that a creature of another world had become an ordinary part of life, a sub-human janitor faded into the background.    He left the stream of pedestrians, partly for a closer look and partly to avoid being trampled.

Heat kissed the back of Marco’s neck.  From the corner of his eye, he saw a Taser blast striking the man who had been behind him in the face.  At least three hundred pounds, the thump of his landing could have carried for miles in the sudden dead silence.  Torch, ahead of Marco in the buffer, growled gutturally.  He rose from a kneeling position, clearly preparing another shot.  Shock consumed Marco; only instinct drove him to use his power.  The thirteenth pocket, filled with raw car exhaust and a dozen other smogs blended and compressed, burst on Torch’s head.  Without the constraint of a dimensional pocket it expanded rapidly, triggering environmental sensors.  Filtration masks provided some protection to most of the pedestrians, but Torch stood among the minority bent double and coughing.  Marco dove back and crawled to the right, passing through the deploying emergency exit.  The window swung up and out, allowing Marco to roll onto the deploying hyper-compressed slide.  Torch simply stared out the window, unable to work his way through the crush of bodies to the slide.

Marco didn’t wave mockingly or give any sign of acknowledgment as he scurried into the one of the buildings along the street- a continuous mall on the first three floors with office space above.  No, Marco hunched down, hands in pockets and mind lost in rumination.  How had Torch caught up with him, much less found him out the first place?  He had always been careful, spacing out uses of his power and planting stolen goods on store employees and more common thieves, always a suspect or faulty record keeping easily at hand to blame.  But researching the opposition?  That had been beneath him.  Had.  Now it was time to rent a spot at a cyber café for a few days, lay real low while looking up registered bounty hunters and supers.

He had a real advantage- red hair was a recessive gene and the list of people with it expressed in the melting pot of the Florida metro area was a short one.  With his investments Marco could afford to focus on this Torch- who walked in on the far side of the building, red hair clearly visible. Marco broke right, deeper into the mall and towards the food court.  Sweat beaded under the smart goggles as Torch followed at a leisurely pace- arrogant in his nonchalance, not even wearing a mask against bacterial infection.  How had he gotten one street over so quickly?  Any number of powers or devices could have allowed it- all reserved for military use, and he wasn’t coughing.  No medical booth could give that fast of a turnaround.

Blood pounded in Marco’s eardrums as he slipped into a Spacey’s, using a cloud of tourists as cover.  Gaudy murals clashed with Greco-Roman columns- the Apollo missions, the moon sensor station, bridge of the Mars colony ship, and a view of New Plymouth springing up around said ship.  Supers left on earth were largely ignored, novelty and potential both long gone.  Had he somehow drawn attention to himself?  Overplayed his hand, the consequences delayed until now?  Several close shaves came to mind- the gold bullion siphoned from the armored car, fresh from the space port.  Shaking his head, he quickly jogged past the hostess, weaving between tables and booths.  Unbidden, his thoughts turned to the fourteenth pocket.  It almost certainly was bugged with a tracker, but too valuable and delicate to have it removed.  But he had never used it, hadn’t even taken it out in years.  Marco took the stairs to the upper dining level two at a time, slamming into a table at the top.  Wrapped silverware danced over the dockyards at the top of the Ted Kennedy Space Elevator, depicted beneath acrylic at the blessedly unoccupied table.  A glance back revealed not a red hair in the restaurant- and then Marco rushed the second floor exit, caution thrown to the wind. Torch stood on the platform outside, between the escalators down to the sidewalk and up to the skyway, swinging his Taser rifle as if it were a spike.

Marco began to scream before the electrified barrel connected- the raincoat blunted the shock, but he still went down hard against Spacey’s external exit.  Torch leveled the gun barrel with an air port on Marco’s mask. He only stared for a moment, then spoke.  “Resisting arrest and assault are added to your charges- will you come quietly?”

His whole body hurt, though his shallow breathing had more to do with fear than injury.  “One questions first.”  Torch remained still as a corpse while Marco took a shuddering breath.

“Did the navy send you?”  At this, Torch’s face showed an expression besides indifference or anger.  Confusion, only for a moment; and that was all he needed.  Marco felt a weight lift from his chest as he emptied the fourteenth pocket.  The crude freeze-ray now in his hands looked more like a do-it-yourself birdcage than cutting edge technology- curved rods extended haphazardly from a tangled mess of wires covered in permafrost.  He shot Torch with no visible projectile or effect, which was the point.

Crude for maker tech, the freeze ray was still the product of a super whose power let them create things that defied physics; whether in quantity as with Smother’s conjured asteroids, complexity with Heavenly Serpents’ navigation programs or both in Atlas’ ability to produce spaceships from piddling amounts of sheet metal which had launched the Earth Navy.

The freeze ray was returned to its pocket as soon as it was used. Anyone watching surveillance footage of the event wouldn’t even notice it. Torch did not move as Marco slowly got up, using the door as support.  Nor did he so much as twitch when Marco began to walk away, turned back and methodically relieved the bounty hunter of his possessions, dropping them off the platform and suctioning them up before they hit the ground.  He left him standing there- the ray would probably wear off in an hour or two.  The thief descended to ground level and summoned a cab from one of the many kiosks, riding in silence after giving the nav computer his destination.

Chuck’s Pawn was a hole in the wall store in a part of town where cars could still backfire and grunge held the scuppers at bay.  Here the neon and advertisements were the only light, mildew stains dominating the bare patches on the buildings.   Bare walls space was usually a privilege for the rich; not many people wanted to advertise here.  It had no name, only a number- 333rd street.  The store itself appeared to be of even poorer repute than the one Marco had just robbed, though it was larger.  ‘PAWN’ hung above the door in real neon- Chuck refused to say where he had gotten it or how many regulations he had broken doing so.  No displays hung behind the bullet-proof and laser-grounded glass.

Inside, a thin corridor ran between counters of either side of the room, with racks mounted above and behind them.  Plain fluorescents lent an air of gravitas of the shop; only the most serious of business shunned colored lights.  A menagerie of objects occupied them- ornamental body parts, jewelry, paper displays and VR headsets, bone hilt knives, stuffed alligator heads, even old-timey Rolex watches. The only unifying element among them was value- Chuck didn’t deal in small ticket items.  The man himself sat pooled in a wheezy old hover chair, looking at a book through a magnifying glass.

“Chuck, I need to use your burn room quick-like.”

“You usually do that at your place, Pockets. What’s wrong?”  Chuck’s face looked inquisitive rather than concerned beneath a gleaming bald dome.

“It’s not for merchandise; I had to use my freeze ray.”

“Shit-“ Chuck muttered ”get in there right now!  And don’t come out till I fritz the cameras!”  Marco strode the corridor and smoothly vaulted the counter next to Chuck, passing through the curtain to the back.  Boxes of bulk goods alternated with pawned items on steel shelves.  He stripped and shoved his clothes- except the goggles, Chuck would reskin them- through a panel into a faux fireplace on one of the walls.  It incinerated them, piping the fumes away.  By the time Marco had helped himself to clothes from a box just for the purpose- a Miami dolphins t-shirt, jeans and bright orange sandals- the fireplace showed no evidence that it was in any way functional.  He skipped the box of masks and head coverings- not subtle enough- and stepped into a heavy rusted cabinet next to the fireplace.  It buzzed; Chuck kept it back here because any phone within five feet when it turned on got fried.

Chuck was standing in the back room when Marco got out of the cabinet.  “How much do I owe you?”

“Just tell me what happened Pockets.”

“Torch was on me- he’s a teleporter, Chuck, and he’s read my file.”

“What?  A hopper?  That shouldn’t be a problem for you-“

“No, he was doing whole blocks at a time, multiple jumps.”

“Bullshit!  He would have been drafted.”

“Maybe he dodged, all I know is he is a teleporter.”

“Do you really think that, P?  Would any super turn a draft down?  I know you still have that letter in one of your pockets.”  Marco had the letter in his hand before he realized what he had done, fifteenth pocket empty.  Earth navy letterhead, a Goode-Homolsine projection emblazoned across the top in gold.  Real tree paper, not electronic or that environmentally friendly crap.  As usual, only one line stuck out to Marco.  Power:  Minor Persistent Dimensional Folding.  Insufficient power to warrant service.  It whipped from his hand with a crackle, returned to its hiding place.

“So what are you going to do now?”

Pockets looked at Chuck and clicked his tongue.  “Can you handle some VR counterfeits if Torch is looking for them?”

“Since they won’t have serials, yes, but I’ll still need a discount for the heat-“

“What about for store credit?”

“I could do that Pockets, but do you want me to?  When have you ever bought anything besides food?”

“Things change.  I want to look at the weapons Chuck; I’m going hunting.”