The Sprawl: S01E02

We played another session of The Sprawl yesterday and it was pretty fun! Now that we’ve been through setting creation and built a little bit of momentum, I’m getting a much clearer idea of how the game works going forward.

I felt a tiny bit blah about how the game mechanically operates, and I couldn’t figure out why until today. My working theory is that its basic moves aren’t very genre-evocative. Like…they cover the same ground Apocalypse World covers: using violence to get your way, extracting useful situational information from the GM, keeping your cool under pressure. A couple moves do stand out: Research and Hit the Streets. Research feels like Assess without the right-now urgency, and Hit the Streets is…well, it’s okay. It’s the main way you get your Contacts to do anything, with a small chance of generating more intel/gear.

The moves are okay. But they’re not really evocative of anything distinctly and thematically cyberpunk at all. They facilitate the doing-of-missions, for sure. And given The Sprawl’s tight focus on missions, I can’t really fault the choice.

In some ways that’s a very good thing! It means that you need almost no shift in perspective at all from playing straight Apocalypse World. Just add the intel/gear economies to the game and you’re off and running.

But if you’ve been reading me a while, you know I do love seeing a tighter marriage between a game’s themes and its procedures.

The playbook moves are good. Quite good! We’re running a Hunter, an Infiltrator and a Pusher, and they feel different and interesting in play. There’s some functional overlap between the Infiltrator and the Hunter but it’s not bad. And the Pusher’s little gang of activists/criminals is weird and interesting. Top marks for those playbooks, at least.

But playbook moves aren’t really bread and butter. The Hunter gets his intel/gear points when the action phase starts and that’s great, but it’s not rolled, it’s not a point of tension or uncertainty, and it’s pretty abstract. I do like those economies, though. Again, really good support for the doing-of-missions.

This has gotten me thinking about my favorite AW hacks and how much deeper they feel. Urban Shadows has moves like Let It Out that just don’t appear anywhere else. Very distinctive! Or the interactive moves in Night Witches built around opening up to one another. Or literally everything about Sagas of the Icelanders.

I guess the tl;dr is that The Sprawl feels most like a reskin of any of the PbtA games I’ve played yet. And because of my own aesthetics, that leaves me feeling blah about it.

We’re gonna play one more session of it for sure. And the campaign-y stuff we’ve set up is really great! I’m loving the corporations we cooked up, and it’s really fun to interweave everyone’s Contacts (although I fear it plays out out like Urban Shadows’ tendency toward overcomplicated relationship maps after a few sessions). It’s a fun challenge to get everyone’s Personal Directives into play, and that’s maybe my favorite part of the game — but they also feel a little generic.

Anyway, enjoying it, probably great for cons.

0 thoughts on “The Sprawl: S01E02”

  1. Quick protip on Directives – the ones they have are just suggested – right in the book they also tell you to write your own – so you can mix those up if need be (a little Key magic goes a long way). Also I totally agree with most of what you have here – much of the flavor is in the GM moves for me.

    I’m also not a fan of Links (period).

  2. Stras Acimovic I can’t really tell Links apart from Hx, except there are even fewer ways to build them than in AW.

    I kind of like the bit at the end where you tell someone what they learned about you. That’s produced some good results, although folks can get left out.

  3. Jason Corley the “turn on your team” stuff is in the Personal Directives. It’s all xp-incentivized stuff, not sure it’s actually that effective, but it’s there.

    Good call re getting robbed tho.

  4. Plus I think betrayal in cyberpunk is a little more variable, right? It’s not noir detective shit where the PC with the most recent birthday gets the One Righteous Man playbook and everybody else is double-dealing. I think there’s an entirely valid genre->game mapping where betrayal should be external, a question of GM moves and principles rather than PVP.

    In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I think a straightforward turn-on-your-team-for-corp-rat-cash setup is probably destructive. (Not that you were advocating that per se, of course.)  If you’re going to do a heavy can-I-trust-these-bastards-around-my-table thing, being open and honest about core values and letting the guessing game be “will he back me so we can get X thing that we both want, or does he value Y more than X?”  instead of, I don’t know, “did he secretly get a better offer when I was in the bathroom?”

    (In a PtbA context, I think you might be able to get a little more cloak to go with your dagger via some sort of assess-hidden-leverage phase, prolly tied to Hx/whatever, where you know this guy needs the money to keep his mom in the good hospital, and you know he hates some other corp that doesn’t matter for this gig, but you also know you didn’t ace the roll and he’s got some other handles out there. Maybe nothing that matters, maybe some little bit of history he wants to wipe from the servers while you’re inside the perimeter (and maybe that’s a problem or maybe not), but also maybe his kid sister’s held hostage by the security firm guarding the building and he’s gonna do you to keep her safe.)

  5. I’m only halfway through the rules right now, but, FWIW, there’s this interview by Rich Rogers with the creator of the game, where Hamish Cameron explains his intent for the game: a mission based game that you can run in four hour sessions.

    A structured system, meant to emulate the cyberpunk RPG genre, rather than the actual cyberpunk genre itself, which is far more about individuals who have their own problems and push against each other. He actually recommends reskinning AW for that kind of game.

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