The Sprawl: Setup/S01E01

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.

0 thoughts on “The Sprawl: Setup/S01E01”

  1. That “start clock” thing confused me as well when I ran this as a one-shot in between sessions of Mythender. I’m still not completely clear what it means.

    I did not read the rules as mandating that a failure during Legwork meant a tick on the Legwork clock (or Action for that matter). I took that as an important option. See top of page 180 about clocks being an “invitation”. Did I miss that rule? When I ran this, I probably advanced the clock every other failure or so on average, mostly when there was not another immediate soft/hard move that seemed more interesting, or when a tick of the clock seemed an obvious corollary to what was happening.

  2. I should have said this in last comment: I really liked the Sprawl as well, and I’m glad you enjoyed yourself!

    Another thing that confused me was this sentence on page 211: “Keep the full version of the Legwork Clock secret, but also show its current value where the players can see it.” I have no idea what that means. What is the “full version”?

  3. From my understanding Legwork and Mission clocks can be ticked on a miss or you can make a different GM move. Like ticking the clock is your move if you choose that. There’s an example about a meeting with a gang that goes south. And the example points out there is misses here, but the GM uses it to escalate the situation instead of ticking the clock. (pg. 212) So I don’t think its suppose to be a constant tightening, as much as when the fiction dictates it so.

    Groups with large numbers can be hard but you can also get more assistance on a roll.

    If no one in the group selected the hacker I might play down how big cyber security is. Like if no one selects the driver, cars aren’t as important then. Or you can go with the classical shadowrun set up and have them make a hacker contact that helps them with the mission.

    Great write up.

  4. Oho! I’m seeing that, as well as the warning that it’s a hard move so maybe don’t do that every time. Thanks for the heads-up.

    As a counterpoint, let me direct you to page 211: “The Legwork Clock determines whether investigating the particulars of the mission tips off the corporation. It advances as the players miss legwork rolls and when the fiction dictates.”

    Then it says to signal the advancement of the clock by making one of a couple moves (show the gun, complicate their lives). Which tbh is confusing to me because I thought the clock was advancing because of misses anyway?

    The Action Clock writeup is a little more nuanced but I didn’t see it beyond the Legwork writeup. That one says:

    “When a character misses and the MC has a chance to make a mission move that represents the increasing awareness and alertness of the target (moves like raise the alarm, seal the complex, or call for backup), she will advance the clock.”

    As a practical matter, I actually did kind of do that. Twice, on a 7-9 Play Hardball roll, I chose the “advance the clock” option. That’s clear and unambiguous.

    So obviously I need to revisit just how those clocks work. I think the Legwork graf is misleading and probably should read “The MC may advance the clock as the players miss legwork rolls and when the fiction dictates.”

    That also makes using them prescriptively a little easier.

  5. The full version would probably be the preparations they make if you kick up too much dust. The prep notes you have for if legwork goes really south.

    There’s something nicely ominous about just a digital countdown ticking towards your doom.

  6. Aaron Berger yeah, agreed re Hacker. I feel like every playbook is a purely stylistic statement and the fiction needs to conform around those choices. Like, big activists groups aren’t necessarily even a thing absent our Pusher.

    That’s how it played, although the Pusher did Declare a Contact as a hacker among her believers. But then I wasn’t sure what to do with that NPC! Start introducing Matrix-side threats? That seems more punitive than “hey, good thing you brought that hacker along to deal with those problems!”

  7. I’m not sure if there is advice for that specifically in the Sprawl, but the idea that jumps to my mind is. “Leave your bloody fingerprints over everything”.

  8. Yeah, that’s a popular principle to toss out there but IMO one of the least useful. It doesn’t actually mean anything practical in my mind but it’s nice to say.

  9. Hans Messersmith “full version” I assume is the one where you wrote down the fictional triggers/events at each stage.

    I just used the default/example Legwork clock from “Running the Mission,” page 211.

  10. Yeah procedurally its vague. In my mind it means that soft or hard moves can come through this NPC. Like a soft move on a missed assess, might be NPC hacker chiming in saying he sees some nice paydata that he’s going to go poke. If they leave it be, maybe inadvertently he triggers an extra alarm.

    This makes the NPC hacker kind of a net loss though. Maybe its best just to use “Hit the Street” every time they need the hacker NPC’s help, then just follow the move.

  11. Even with only one session under my belt as a player and one as GM, I can’t imagine the game working well long term if you increased the Legwork and Action clocks with every single miss. It drives hard, but that would be too much. I think there needs to be some judgement with respect to pacing on the part of the GM.

  12. Oh no, agreed, and I totally agree that your page 180 reference is the correct reference. There’s no way the clocks can advance on every miss.

    My current understanding is:

    * Indicate a mission clock has started by marking 1200. That’s a start-of-phase thing. Other clocks start at 1500 when you write them down.

    * The fiction might mandate that you move the clock up to where it matches the fiction. Move the clock up and make your show the barrel/complicate now move to illustrate it. That kinda-sorta breaks PbtA doctrine because it’s an unstated fourth trigger for the MC to make a move (albeit very specific and narrow) because you’re actually making two MC moves in a row: the tick, and then what the tick requires.

    * You might move the clock up as an MC move (resulting from miss, waiting for the MC to say something, or the fiction demands) and then execute the matching description, i.e. it’s kind of a one-use move. So if I move my Legwork to 2200 as a result of a miss, then in the fiction I indicate that the target “has reliable information about the time of the mission” by showing the barrel/complicating now.

    * The further up the clock, the harder all the MC moves ought to be. But that’s a six-step gradation and tbh I’m not sure I can really tell the difference between a 1/3rd-hard move and a 1/2-hard move.

    The rules are good! And I’ll be doing it a little different going forward.

    I know my close-read breakdowns make some folks crazy but get used to it if you’re gonna read this collection. 🙂

  13. Welp, I love these reports of yours anyway, but it just so happens I bought the game this morning, after listening to Richard Rogers ‘ +1 Forward podcast which featured the Sprawl.

    Which means I am now even MORE interested in these reports, Paul. Will start reading the rules soon. 🙂

  14. The +1 forward podcast Eloy mentions directives. Apparently the chief influence is keys from Lady Blackbird. Most of the directives have a “when they hamper the mission”. For the ones that don’t it would have to be significant. I think your idea of once per scene is probably right on.

  15. I think I just assumed personal directives worked like Alignment in DW, that is, at end of session you would check and earn at most 1 XP per directive per session.

    But re-reading Chapter 7 just now, I think I was wrong. It is not completely clear from the rules text itself, but the wording of the personal directives themselves would seem to indicate you earn an XP whenever they trigger, like Keys in TSoY or Milestones in Marvel Heroic.

    My instinct is this needs some kind of per session cap, but who knows? I’d have to play it that way over several sessions and see what happens.

  16. I think I would just let it roll and see what happens. Throw popcorn if it seems like someone is trying to grub for trigger, but if a person is really hitting that thing like 5 times in a scene, score!

    After a couple of sessions, you’ll see how many advances each player has and you can all think about whether a house rule/clarification is necessary. But after re-reading Chap 7, I think the best bet is to not to try to fix it until your sure it is a problem.

  17. Everyone earned 7 XP for the session: the 5 mission XP and the 2 PDs.

    Actually I think one player missed one.

    But that’s looking like 2 advances every 3 sessions. Seems reasonable.

  18. Also, I just noticed something else that makes me think letting it roll is the right thing. I cannot see anywhere in the rules where it says you earn an XP on a miss (which again, I just assumed from my Dungeon World acculturation). If you are only earning XP from mission and personal directives, letting it trigger more than once per scene seems like no big deal to me.

    EDIT: I am always making assumptions about rules instead of actually reading them. On my “biggest flaws as a GM” list.

  19. Just weighing in but I liked the run up on the legwork phase. It made the planning part of the mission feel like it meant something. Yes I could have rolled more dice but the giant “in your face” move to finish the mission was necessitated by me not wanting to roll anymore on the legwork phase to get the Chip/slot that would allow me to do the tech work myself. So the clock forced us to modify our operation. As stated I liked that a lot.

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