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.

Review: Monster of the Week

Monster of the Week is a Powered by the Apocalypse (or PbtA) tabletop gaming system by Michael Sands in which players tell a collaborative story about monster hunters, a la Supernatural or the Dresden Files.  This is the same engine used in Dungeon World , so the basic mechanics are similar, though Monster of the Week rejects the classes and combat of Dungeons and Dragons while Dungeon World borrows heavily from it. For example damage rolls, full attribute scores and inventories are not present, favoring the simplicity of most PbtA games.  Everything you need is included in the single book for the system, and character sheets with included instructions for making a character are both in the book and easily available online.

All rolls are decided using 2d6, with 10+ being a pure success, 7-9 being a success with a complication or cost, and 6- being a failure where the Game Master – or Keeper as they are called in the book – makes a move.  Fighting is treated as another skill check with the Kick Some Ass move, which sacrifices some combat detail for streamlining and making playbooks – classes in PbtA – that aren’t combat focused viable.  Investigation and protecting bystanders are both important enough to have one of the 8 basic moves devoted to them, with a bevy of playbook moves also focused on protecting, investigation, and finding or bypassing the monster’s weakness.  The monster mystery genre is baked into this system.   Adapting this system to other genres is unlikely to work unless there is a reason for mysteries, monsters, and some analogue to a magic system- the game rules assume the presence of all three and are built around it.

Combat is portrayed as fast and lethal- but in practice the hunters are fairly beefy; the only deaths in the campaign I ran were when the characters turned on each other.  Players always take damage when fighting and die when they run out of hit points, no save, though they have a limited number of “get out of jail free cards” in luck points.  However this danger may be eliminated by some game breaking move combinations, especially from the Monstrous playbook- it does not fit the overall tone or power level of the game very well, and I had a very hard time balancing encounters involving it.  I would recommend banning the Monstrous playbook if you are running the game.

In contrast to Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeon World, Monster of the Week offers detailed instructions on setting up individual sessions, a notable improvement that should make this game runnable even by someone who has never played it before.  The Sprawl’s planing system is even easier to use but MoTW’s suggested planning gives a more complete map of what could happen in the session.

However, it is necessary since the mystery format of MoTW involves a great deal more preparation than Dungeon World or other games, where the dungeon structure can simplify preparation greatly.  The mystery structure forces a certain amount of rail roading- the players only have agency within the confines of solving the mystery, or the system breaks down; if your players do not like structure this may be a problem.  Additionally the “Use Magic” move is the most open ended move in any of the PbtA systems- it needs some attention from the GM both to keep things balanced and to prevent players from getting lost in the endless possibilities.

If you do the prep, 30 minutes on average for me, or use a premade mystery from the book or online, the mystery flows well.  There’s time for investigation, social scenes and several fights in a 3 hour session.  A 2 hour session is possible but will require the Keeper to manage time carefully and keep things moving.  I liked running the system a great deal and it reproduced the balance of investigation and fighting while trying to keep the public from catching on you would expect from a monster TV show or an urban fantasy novel in an exciting fashion, feeling true to the genre without being bogged down into mechanics.

Where I ran into trouble was a clash of expectations.  Monster of the Week needs more player buy in into the genre than a swords and sorcery game or something else less plot focused.  My group essentially had two factions, the people trying to solve the mystery and a team of black ops murder hobos.  Since some playbooks trade combat effectiveness for investigation the clash was more serious than in Dungeon World or Dungeons and Dragons where all classes are built and have tools for traditional dungeon delving and adventuring.  When violence became the default solution to problems the investigation team felt left out, and the murder hobos felt bored during the investigations.

This management of expectations is always important but is much more so in Monster of the Week where investigation is the meat of the genre.  I should have been more aggressive in getting the group on the same page; the book recommends banning certain classes to give a campaign a certain feel.  Coming from a Dungeons and Dragons background this felt strange and I didn’t do it, which was a mistake.  I’m not saying some playbooks can’t coexist, but the players have cooperate to make it happen – tell this to your group and if you think it isn’t likely, restrict the playbooks to keep everyone on the same page.  Obviously the Keeper can create different challenges for different players but if the Monstrous shape shifts during an attempted social encounter or a hunter assaults a journalist trying to interview them its hard to stop things from devolving into combat without breaking immersion.

Dungeon World’s quick leveling is present here as well – experience gain is slower but requirements do not increase as the players level, so campaigns must be planned to be short to keep challenges from being trivialized; that or forced retirement of characters.  I ran a 10 session campaign and all the characters were into their advanced moves despite lots of absences.

While Monster of the Week is quick and flexible compared to Dungeons & Dragons and other crunchier systems, it feels very slow compared to other PbtA games.  I have played and prefer Dungeon World and The Sprawl to Monster of the Week, though it may simply be that the genre wasn’t what my group and I were looking for.  It is a good system so if monster hunting seems like something you would like, give it a try.

TL,DR; A fast, streamlined, and easy system- pick it up if you like the monster mystery/hunting genre.

Purchase page and image source are linked at the start of the article.

Review: Dungeon World

Dungeon World, by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel, is a tabletop role-playing game that focuses on storytelling and ease of use.  One game master and 3-5 players collaborate to tell a low fantasy story.  Anyone who has played some flavor of Dungeons & Dragons (aka DnD), or really any RPG, will recognize most of the tropes but the system is highly streamlined.

Character sheets are simple, with 1 to 2 pages containing all information so the players don’t have to refer back to the book.  There is no skill list, all players instead sharing a list of common moves that use their attributes without training modifiers.  All outcomes are determined by rolling 2d6 as opposed to a d20, with an added wrinkle- only the players roll for actions.  Players failing a roll is the main opportunity for the opposition to make moves, and also the main generator of experience.  It creates an interesting and spontaneous game, where the players are the primary movers of events.  Failed rolls giving experience also acts as a good equalizer and takes some of the sting out of failure.  Dungeon World emphasizes failing forwards, so the story keeps evolving instead of coming to a grinding halt when a roll fails.

The downside is that the GM needs to be very comfortable adjusting scenes and encounters on the fly or simply making them up as they go along.  Collaborative world building is encouraged, but in my experience players react poorly to being put on the spot- if they offer something it can be integrated but the bulk still falls on the game master.  The game master’s section offers some excellent instructions on this and running a game in general but you still need to be comfortable improvising.

In the same vein, combat is much simpler than in most games- no battle mat required, which helps keep things fast.  Hit point pools are small so things don’t drag on.  This makes things more lethal for the players as well but the simplicity of the rules makes it simple to adjust encounters on the fly.  There is no recommended monster budget for encounters as in DnD, in part because not all the classes are balanced for combat- the game master will need to create situations where the more utility focused classes shine, assuming they are being played.

Conversely, if you are coming from another Powered by the Apocalypse Game, Dungeon World will have longer and less lethal combat than you are used to.

Something to be aware of with the system is how quick the leveling is; not a problem itself but players start to gain access to game-breaking abilities around level 7 or 8, which can quite easily be reached in 10 sessions.  At this point players will be able to one shot even the toughest monsters in the book, teleport unlimited distances, succeed on most roles involving their main attribute, and in general trivialize any challenge thrown their way.  You’ll need to plan campaigns to end at or shortly after 10 sessions to keep power creep from making things boring.  I just wrapped up a 13 session campaign and my players dealt with the worst the book had to offer without too much difficulty.

The games themselves are also shorter- I’ve always tried to keep my sessions to four hours, as have most of the people I’ve played with.  Pathfinder and DnD always strained against this, especially 4th edition DnD, where you can really only do one combat encounter in a session.  Dungeon World’s simpler rules let you run numerous combats in a session with plenty of time for exploring and character development as well, something I love about the system but people who enjoy tactical combat may not.  There is also no set initiative- I tried to give everyone turns and only making GM moves on failed rolls but ended up having to play a little loose and fast with the monster’s actions to keep things interesting

Price wise its no contest, $10 for a Dungeon World PDF, or twice that for the paperback, which includes all the playbooks and, gamemaster material, and bestiary, vs at least $30 for even a player’s handbook for more popular systems, and you need several hardback books to run 5th edition DnD.  Obviously if you pirate the books this isn’t an issue, which is a fairly common practice in the RPG community, but I like having books to hold and they aren’t much cheaper used.

TL,DR:  A light on rules & story focused system.  Ideal for newer players but the game master needs to be able to improvise.  The price is right so give it a try if it sounds interesting to you.

Picture source and paperback purchase, or you can purchase the PDF.