The Sprawl

We worked through setup and our first mission in The Sprawl last night. It’s pretty good! But there are some rough edges I need to polish down a little, still.

Setup is sharp: you start by talking about what big megacorps or similarly-sized monstrosities of power are at work in the world. We kind of did that, as well as the general political shape of our setting, at the same time. Those things informed each other really well. We settled on a future North America that’s been broken up into smaller nations, somewhat similar to Richard Morgan’s Thirteen/Black Man set up but also our own thing: A big sprawling megacity/nation-state along the eastern seaboard (the USians), a technophile progressive-looking-but-haha-not-really counterbalancing nation along the west coast (Pacifica), the bellicose despots of Greater Texas, the walled city of New Chicago, and the vast middle where really nobody is in charge and the corporations run their agribusiness and black labs unwatched and unhindered.

The world-making stuff works just great. We came up with four good megacorps (a biotech group out of New Chicago that runs those farms and uses the small towns of middle America as its private labs; the government of Greater Texas; a military hardware/security/fear-generating corp; and an extranational media conglomerate). Then we did the playbook picking, talked through move choices like always, and then did the bit where you establish links.

Now, I’m a big fan of the traditional PbtA framed-questions relationship-map-making type setup. You know: who saved you, who do you trust, who are you sleeping with, stuff like that. But I gotta say, given the team-focused play of The Sprawl, the procedure here is terrific. Each player describes a job in the team’s past in which their character took the lead, and then everyone else chimes in with how they helped (if they want). That not only sets your starting Hx Link but also helps the players figure out how their team actually works before the game begins. That’s huge! It also gave me ideas about the kinds of missions they’d be expecting, which is also huge. Top marks.

Playing through the first session of course reveals all the weaknesses in my own reading of the game. It always does. I felt like things went just fine, but I did notice a few things:

* There are quite a few unexplained bits in the rules. I’m going to go back through and hopefully prove myself wrong, but I feel like I know the text quite well now. Biggest offender: how often can you earn XPs for your Personal Directives? No idea! I guessed that it was a per-scene thing. The only instructions in the book are that the GM should really try to frame a scene up around every directive every mission. That’s good advice but hard to live by. I missed a couple, or framed them so softly that the choices were easy to ignore. Learning!

* Another one: what exactly does “start a clock” actually mean? Hit the first tick of the clock? Just write it down?

* Another one: do clocks “start” at 1200 or at 1500? I ask because there are these swanky looking clocks, with digital readouts and stuff, and the first step you can mark is at 1500. Buuut the Mission worksheet has a Legwork Clock and an Action clock and those start at 1200. So uh…do you mark down 1200 when the phase starts? That was my best guess. That’d mean that, yes, at 1200 on Legwork that “everything’s cool.” It’s fine but inconsistent.

* Like with all PbtA games, getting the fiction and the moves to fit together and guide each other is tricky that first session. Not terrible and not unexpected! Probably Urban Shadows has the least-difficult (for me) set of moves, by comparison. But like…we just weren’t sure if there was a way beyond “Declare a Contact” to add new contacts to the game. Dunno! Everyone only gets Declare once per mission unless your playbook says otherwise, and I can’t tell if that’s an interesting and purposeful constraint or not. There’s also the strong implication that the MC cooks up a complication along with that Contact, but it’s not really explicitly, procedurally described that way. Again, easy enough to just do, but it jumped out at me as missing.

* I also think there’s a strong implication that you kind of need a hacker along on every gig every time, but nowhere is there a discussion of what it looks like when you don’t bring a hacker along. I mean obviously that’s a whole new avenue of complications you can explore, but the game does not lack for complications.

* There’s this really nice bit of tech that ticks down various clocks when you miss. Miss a Legwork roll? Tick the Legwork clock. Eventually the Legwork ticks also fire off Action Clock and, ultimately, threat and corporation clocks.

That’s great and all but a couple things jump out at me as problems I don’t know how to solve. For one, it punishes team size: the more people are rolling, the greater a chance they’ll rack up misses. I suppose that incentivizes the players to minimize their rolls and really nail down everyone’s contribution to the mission. But any incentive to roll less in PbtA seems … bad, I guess? Hard to get the moves to snowball if nobody rolls. Or it means that a single scene’s worth of snowballing can wreck the whole fucking mission, which is just what happened in our mission. There are some moves that probably ought not tick up the Mission clocks, specifically the Harm move but also maybe Buy the Farm and arguably Apply First Aid (although doing so obviously is time-consuming in a way that might for-real threaten the Mission).

The other thing that jumps out has to do with the advancement of the Mission Clocks themselves. Per traditional PbtA, they’re supposed to be prescriptive and descriptive, i.e. if you do something in the fiction that’d match up with a stage of a clock that’s further up the chain than what’s next, then you bypass the intermediate steps. Well…given the mission itself comes to an end at midnight (0000), that seems fast and punitive. This is a big difference with similar tech in Blades in the Dark, where the various clocks are just countdowns.

Additionally, and this is where I think the Mission Clock rules are overwrought, the hardness of the MC moves goes up as the Mission Clock advances. Like nearly all your moves should be hard once you’ve hit 1800, I think. Jesus! So let’s just add all that up: they tick up on every failure, they might tick up faster if the fiction describes a later tick, the moves are accelerating in their hardness based on where the clock is, and the whole fuckin’ thing is over if you hit 0000.

As a practical matter, moves are probably already hardening up anyway if you’re making misses. That’s not the most egregious. It’s just a really brutal combination along with the rest of the issues.

In play it turned out okay. They failed their mission, largely due to chasing personal directives. I didn’t harden up the moves relative to clock position, nor did I advance them descriptively. I’ll probably just play that way going forward.

* Mission failure rules are much softer than I was expecting. It’s clever! Like, if you actually achieved the mission directive you can still get paid, but hitting 0000 means narrative is now over. Did you get out alive, get captured, or die? And those choices all have consequences. It’s sharp. I like it.

Our starter mission was easy-peasy just to get everyone up to speed on the rules: shut down the satellite dish farm outside Dallas precisely between 1830 and 0211 on a specific date. Guarded by drones and human guards in tactical golf carts. Misses introduced a big Occupy-type group that was already protesting outside the dish farm, so they became the game’s first Threat. An early miss meant that the Hunter had to drag along his retired Hunter grandpa on “one last mission,” which led to hilarious and horrible misses and complications later.

It was a fun night! And really we only had about 2-ish hours to get the mission done. I’m looking forward to seeing what a longer mission might look like, especially when we have the breathing room to let everyone’s lives complicate the missions a little more. It’s in there, and you do have to work to bring it in, but I’m satisfied that the game already supports it enough.

The Sprawl
Upon Further Reading

Okay, I’ve been through the text a couple more times. A few things jumped out at me that I wanted to share, mostly because when I type things they stick in my own head better. Also there are questions and maybe the hardened old vets in the audience can help me out.

* +owned doesn’t seem to actually mean anything specific, and is a fictional positioning tag like +hunted. True? How are folks using +owned? What implications and consequences are there for ignoring your owners? I was kinda sorta thinking defying either of those tags might have clock implications (legwork, action, threat or corporate) and I suppose prescriptively/descriptively they can and should. Anyway, looking for advice here.

* Turns out there are some attempts at pulling in non-job content in a more formal/procedural way. The stuff Jason Morningstar was talking about — the cross-talk, the using tech and scene design — is also nicely covered in the text itself. But also that happens, formally, when you cash in your Links for an XP. There is a downtime phase but it’s never called out as such in the list of phases.

* On that note, there are a few things that are mentioned only once. The text requires a pretty close reading to get it all! The big one for me is staking your own Cred on a mission when you take it. It’s mentioned in Assets (and oh I do love it, especially the “if you stake 3 you also advance your Legwork clock” rule), but lordy it really ought to have been brought up whenever the Get the Job move is mentioned.

* There are a lot more clocks in motion than I first realized. Wow. Threats look like they crop up pretty organically as well, both as reasonable and interesting wrinkles during your first-session setup stuff, and as a result of various moves. That’s great! But I confess I’m feeling intimidated about doodling up prescriptive/descriptive details for every clock at every tick. That’s dozens and dozens of fictional triggers. I suspect, Blades in the Dark style, they’ll end up being all-or-nothing tickers: oh hey, the yakuza’s clock hit midnight, okay game on. Which means giving up on the descriptive upticks.

* I feel iffy about Conduct an Operation. Is that just a one-and-done thing for side gigs where everyone agrees you could just kind of offscreen it? The way it’s listed in with the Mission Packages chapter is a little confusing: I thought those were session frameworks! But they’re probably more flexible than that, yeah? I do love camera-control rules like this so it’ll probably prove to be super-useful, right now it just feels vague.

* Really liking Hamish Cameron’s take on the Blades thing where you abstract out most of the mission planning. The [intel] and [gear] economy is really sharp. Top marks. My players ground up against abstracted mission planning in Blades because they didn’t understand flashbacks, and once they did understand flashbacks the sessions got weighed down by consequence failures in the flashbacks, ugh. This looks much slicker. Looking forward to playing with it.

* I am a tiny bit dismayed that nearly all the Get Paid outcomes strongly imply that clients want to screw their contractors. Thematically and genre-loyalty-wise I totally get it. That’s what Gibson does a lot. But that also kind of grinds up, in my mind, against a couple things. One, it makes being +owned a universally bad thing. Nobody wants to be +owned, whereas in The Real World there are many, many people who deeply crave loyalty and stability. I think it would be an interesting ethical choice, you know? Like, maybe you really do want to be +owned and you’re okay with it (and as a result, you get +1 forward on Get Paid if you’re the mission lead negotiating that). It probably says a lot about the sheer volume of criminal operators if they’re so disposable that you can assume you’ll be disposed of.

For another, it raises very old questions that have always lurked at the back of my mind about one of my favorite genres: where’s the punk in cyberpunk? Maybe that emerges organically from the Personal Directives? The fact that everyone’s scraping up Cred to (probably) retire in peace strikes me as just un-punk, maybe even anti-punk, as the rest of the genre. This isn’t the game where that gets answered, but it sure is the game where it gets asked again.

I suppose we should take “corporate employers” as very broad, and that dogmatically organized groups of any kind can and would hire criminal specialists to do things. Maybe not anarchists, they can’t get their shit together. But well organized leftists, radical environmentalists, whatevs, I guess they can be employers too. I’ll need to prompt that a little, I think, during first-session setup talk, otherwise we’ll end up with five Evil Corporations.

Anyway! Super looking forward to our three session run. Fingers crossed.

Dungeon World
Green Law of Varkith

Brendan Conway name-drops Mieville’s Bas-Lag and Vandermeer’s Ambergris in his inspiration graf? Oh my word.

Straight to the top of my to-play pile if/when I get around to actually taking Dungeon World out for a spin.

Chuubo Talk
Quest Design

I’ve been through the book a few times now and I’m working my way through one of my absurd flowchart-y things that lays out how the economy works. It’s all pretty straightforward once you’ve yanked it out of Jenna-speak. But like always, the process reveals weirdnesses in ways that I don’t always suss out just from reading.

One big part of the game is that your character is pursuing a series of Quests, and by fulfilling Quests you’re ultimately pursuing an Arc. The Arc is a big thematic thing so not all your Quests necessarily add into the Arc. It’s kind of an ad-hoc thing.

So. Anyway. It reads to me like designing Quests at the table is the assumed behavior in the game. That said, there’s really almost no guidance at all in terms of what goals might look like, how many XPs it might take to complete them, what Perks you can earn and so on. It feels really under-explored.

In actual play, do folks just use the sample quests in the book? Because I gotta say, they’re really vague. That’s probably a feature and not a bug, right? Since it seems like a big creative contribution opportunity is figuring out how to link together quests under an Arc. I’m fine with that, just wondering if that’s the done thing. One reason I think this is what’s done is this extraordinary resource I stumbled into:

Or is quest-writing way more straightforward and I just need to swing back around on it?

In researching and poking at this confounded and confounding game, I’ve run into a short list of superfans I want to pull in specifically: M. P. O’Sullivan, Tony Lower-Basch, James Stuart, Bret Gillan.

I feel like if I can nail down this quest business, I can run the game. I’m feeling skeptical of the explicitly conflict-free play (I had a similar problem with Freemarket) but that’s a reflection of my own creative limitations, not a flaw in the game itself.