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.