Friday, September 15, 2017

The Sprawl: Cyberpunk Hard Moves

So they get into a face-off with a corporate kill-team on an oil rig facility. The PCs have a superior position and they "Play Hardball." They want these guys to surrender and let them enter into the undersea research station to extract a target. The roll’s successful, the enemy team stands down. Then team leader from the corp groups makes them a counter-offer. He'll transfer 60 credits (a lot) to them immediately if they turn around and leave. He tells them the research station's infected with a bioweapon; they're heading down to neutralize it. The corp team's willing to blow themselves up rather than let it get loose.

The PCs proceed to as you might say, "dick around"

They push the guy, keep asking questions, bicker among themselves on and off comms. They stall while they try to make some contact with the cut off station. They don’t disarm these guys. Eventually the PCs push the leader to offer 75 credits.

They keep dicking around.

Finally one of the players again gets in the leader dude's face --- who they haven't disarmed mind you-- and tries to Fast Talk him for more money,

"I think you've got more to offer" he says.

The guy doesn't, but he says "I do have one more thing for you."

"Oh good. What's that?"

"The thirty seconds I'm giving you to get out of here because I triggered my bomb"

We hit session nine of ten last night for our campaign of The Sprawl. I expected a different game when I first played it. I’d imagined something more abstract, operating at a broader level. After two sessions as a player, I couldn’t decide what I thought. But it stuck with me and I put it on offer when I changed campaigns earlier this year.

The Sprawl’s a weird connector between two other games I’ve been running—The Veil and Blades in the Dark. It has the setting and technology of the former and the mission structure of the latter. The Veil’s has deeper world building via characters and explores issues I’m not sure The Sprawl would handle well. Blades in the Dark has a strong building element—your gang—it’s risky but you something more permanent.

In The Sprawl you’re standing on cracking ice. You have to keep moving or you’ll go under. It emulates the ethos and energy of classic cyberpunk: CP 2020, Shadowrun, CyberSpace. Those aren’t games I dug when they came out. I played them because the group liked them, but I never picked them first. I realized that I disliked long-term games where everything could blow up in an instant. That had happened several times. I once called these nihilistic games, but I’m not sure that’s the right term.

So why would I dig The Sprawl?

The Sprawl uses PbtA mechanics for stories about teams of operatives carrying out missions. It has all the expected cyberpunk archetypes: Fixer, Infiltrator, Tech, Drive, Hacker, Soldier. It adds to that a few more Killer (purely focused on mayhem), Hunter (skilled at tracking down targets), Reporter (using media tools to reveal the truth), and Pusher (a media figure playing with influence). The characters have badass skills, but also potentially serious obligations hanging over them. In character creation everyone creates a corporation. These will be most of the targets and employers for the campaign. If you start with cyberware you have to figure out how you paid for it. That means a connection to a corp who might own or be hunting your chromed ass.

Generally a session works like this. The team gets offered a job. They make a roll to see what they can negotiate out of the meet with the employer (better pay, more info, knowing who actually hired them). They then move to the Legwork phase. Here players investigate and plan out their op. They can get specific info as well as two resources: Intel (spend for a roll bonus) and Gear (spend to produce equipment). The group can keep doing this as long as they like, but they risk moving the “Legwork Clock” up. Like all clocks in The Sprawl, this has six segments. Filling the Legwork clocks means alerting your target to your actions.

Eventually the team has a plan and they move to the Action Phase. This covers more specific moves-- dealing with security, hacking systems, killing folks—to carry out objectives. There’s a Mission Clock for this as well. Hitting certain levels triggers different responses. Filling the Mission Clock means everything’s gone wrong—the mission’s blown and the group has to escape.

Assuming they’ve succeeded, the players can go to get paid. This is another roll, using the number of unfilled segments in the Legwork Clock as a bonus. High rolls give you more options (like marking XP, getting paid in full, not attracting attention, not being ambushed). In between mission time will likely be devoted to repairs, medical efforts, buying new equipment & cyberware, and getting revenge.

There’s more to the game. The Sprawl uses clocks in many interesting ways throughout. It has a solid tag-based approach to cyberware and equipment that’s easy to handle and track. The hacking system’s more extensive and detailed than you might expect from a PbtA game. The Sprawl’s XP system also has striking qualities. Advances cost ten points, where many others stick with 5 XP for an advance. That increase gives the system more room to drop XP bennies throughout the game. You mark XP when you take a job, make a plan, finish a job. More importantly each playbook has a set of Directives to choose from. These give XP when your character does something specific (“When you endanger the mission for financial gain, mark XP.”)

I’ve run The Sprawl for my Wednesday night online gaming group. It’s five players, all of whom have been playing together for 10+ years. Most I knew from f2f groups in the 20th Century; one I still play with locally. We’ve done Mutant & Masterminds and 13th Age. They’ve also played Numenera and WotC’s Gamma World together. After The Sprawl they’re switching over to Pathfinder. Three of the five players have really only played trad games. PbtA’s a big switch for them, but they have been down for it.

I wanted to keep some continuity with our last campaign. That had been an M&M 3e supers game with a tremendously effed up world. We’d used Microscope to build the 18 month gap between this supers campaign and the ones before it. As sometimes happens, the group had gone dark with their input. For The Sprawl I jumped forward 82 years, to 2099 in the same world. But there wouldn’t be any supers. We’d leave that an open question: why had they vanished? Where had they gone? I’d let that simmer in the background. It would be a straight cyberpunk game but with slight homage to Marvel’s 2099 series (Spider Man 2099, Punisher 2099, etc) and Batman Beyond.

I’ve posted the sessions so far on YouTube. You can see the video playlist here. We used Roll20 which has an amazing automated character. It’s one of the best. I used the clocks created by Fake_Alex_Blue. They’re great. In the recording you only see the Roll20 board—we use Roll20’s video/audio feed because I continue to have major problems with that (despite being a high level paid subscriber). That means you can’t see the players. OOH neither could I as the GM. This group doesn’t use cameras so I can’t see their faces. It makes things ten times harder as you may notice if you watch any of the sessions.

I loved The Sprawl, much more than I thought I would. It does mission-driven cyberpunk better than any other game I’ve played. It’s fun, mean, frenetic, and full of interesting choices. I like the play structure, the use of resources, and the variety in the playbooks.

If you’re looking for mean, wicked, mission-based cyberpunk, look to The Sprawl. I recommend it even if you’re not a PbtA GM. It has a ton of ideas and mechanics for handling situations in dynamic ways. There’s a ton you can steal from it.

I’m glad I bought it.

1. Because of the mission structure and challenge of running when you can’t see your players, I rush through some parts of the game. It’s a group that, after ten years, still has issues of talking over one another from time to time. Players will step away from the mic or mute themselves without an indicator. Sometimes they text or mention brb, but that can get lost when I’m running. So I’m never entirely sure if someone’s actually “at the table.” That makes me tense.

2. That rush meant I didn’t get create the cyberpunk atmosphere as richly as I could have. I have some good detail bits and I had a solid vision in my head of what the world was like. But I didn’t get that across as well as I could have. At times I focused so strongly on moving the heist/job/mission forward that it ended up a more generic thriller sequence.

3. I needed to vary my GM Moves more. In the latter half of the campaign I got better about putting hard choices out there and using soft GM moves to create atmosphere. Often I fell back to a couple of defaults—putting a physical threat in place, dealing harm, and moving clocks forward. The game has other tools and options. I should have explored those further.

4. We had a strange mix of characters: Infiltrator, Pusher, Hacker, Tech…and Killer. Having one PC strongly focused on force & combat made mission choice more difficult. If they went in quiet, then the Killer often could only look menacing, losing the opportunity to use many of their moves. On the other hand, if violence broke out, it made things more difficult for the other four characters to use their talents. I’m not sure I handled that balance well. There are a couple of other “combat” archetypes with some better non-com elements. Maybe I should have steered the player more that direction.

5. I don’t think I did a great job with the Hacking rules. I often ended up short-handing those elements. The game has a rich sub-system, but I often moved the hacker to the same set of things. When I run this again, I really need to be ready to handle that better.

1. More tools for generating missions. There’s a supplement, November Metric, but it focuses on new locales and campaign frames. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the excellent Augmented Reality. It’s a supplement every cyberpunk GM should have in their collection and great for The Sprawl. But I’d also like something more involved. Andrew Shields has done an amazing PnP “Heist Deck” for Blades in the Dark. It has detailed obstacles, treasures, and important people. I think something like that for The Sprawl would be awesome. I’d likely follow that same structure.

2. I have to go back and look again, but I’d like more support on two fronts for the non-mission parts of the game. The basic moves are smartly directed at the mission structure. I’d like some optional moves for life outside of that, though I don’t know exactly what that would look like. Moves for finding and setting up missions could be awesome. Right now the default is that someone approaches the group. I’d like to see a little more support for PC proactivity.

3. More ideas for Directives, one of the key XP generators. Several of my players hit up against these and had a difficult time. They work for players who know PbtA games and those who want to hard exploit the system. They’re also nastier and more chaos causing in other games. I wonder if something like Dungeon World’s Flags might be better or if that would just dull the edge.


Again, to recap I dig The Sprawl. It’s a set of rules for a specific kind of game and it does that well. It isn’t a universal cyberpunk rpg and that’s for the better. It has a rich flavor with has tricks and tools you could steal for games like Leverage & Blades in the Dark. Or you could use those to enhance it. Good stuff. 

Oh, but I didn't mention the uplifted cyber-lemur who ripped out The Pusher's eye...

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