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.

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.