Hamish Cameron’s The Sprawl became available in print yesterday. I’ve been watching this game so intently that when I saw the Tweet from @TheSprawl_RPG, I clicked straight over to DrivethruRPG and bought it.
This is a warning that, for multiple reasons, this review may seem biased.
You see, I love the Cyberpunk genre. I’m a cynic and a futurist, which is a perfect combination to get drawn into the worlds imagined by Gibson, Stephenson, Effinger, Cadigan, Sterling, Beukes, Bacigalupi…the list goes on, and well into the present. Literary theorists may disagree, but I do not see Cyberpunk as a movement restricted to the 80s.
Cyberpunk 2020, though, was a game restricted to the 80s. While the thematic material and system kept my group playing 2020 into 2011, it is dated, in terms of setting and to a lesser degree mechanics. Ever since I wrote my first Cyberpunk 2020 conversion for GURPS, I’ve been searching for a replacement.
Cyberpunk games have all been “mission-based” to one extent or another. Until I read The Sprawl, I didn’t quite understand why the game was highlighting this, and was a little worried that I had bought a game that was more narrow than my campaigns would mesh with. Once I read the game and understood how it was designed, I was pleasantly surprised.
Cyberpunk games follow a typical arc, one that was pioneered more by Shadowrun than anyone else. The characters are a team of professionals who are contacted by a fixer (known colloquially in Shadowrun as a “Mr. Johnson”) who has a job for them. The job involves discretion and often violence, and there is a promise of a payout at the end. The characters go and do the job, dealing with obstacles in the form of guards, automated defense systems, computer security, and whatever else is in their way. As they make their way to the objective, they then must escape the environment with their lives and the target, be it data, money, a piece of technology, or a person. At the end, they try to get paid, and often the Mr. Johnson betrays them or the corporation they just infiltrated follows them to the rendezvous and ambushes them in a hope to knock off both the team and whoever was paying for the job. Being betrayed by the Mr. Johnson is definitely a Shadowrun trope.
The Sprawl takes this arc, and all of the conflicts that happen within it (finding a job, prepping for the job, doing the job, dealing with the fallout, trying to get paid) and mechanizes all of them. And because this is Powered by the Apocalypse, it does so without feeling overwhelming. But the big thing for me is that now I have mechanical tools to do things that otherwise I was just keeping track of in ad hoc ways. Which corporations have it out for the characters? There are corporation clocks to tell you that, and rules for advancing them. Will the target of an op figure out something is up? The legwork clock tells you that. When does the mission go tits-up as the security squad arrives? Consult the action clock. This game has given me rules for everything in a cyberpunk game that has made me say “I wish I was keeping track of that better” in previous games. The rules interaction with the countdown clocks is also more concrete than it is in Apocalypse World, something some GMs may see as unnecessary but I find quite welcome.
Another reason I believe (though this one may need to be tested in play) a Powered by the Apocalypse system works so well for Cyberpunk came from a conversation I was having with one of my players about 2020. He said 2020 was his favorite system for Cyberpunk because the lethality gave it a level of tension, and random events made things interesting. Tension and lethality are two things Apocalypse World does very, very well. We are wrapping up a campaign in Interface Zero, and while I like the game quite a bit, Savage Worlds as a system is designed for genres where the characters are heroes that will succeed. Fights against mooks are too easy, and fights against named wild card NPCs, while much more challenging, begin to violate cyberpunk genre expectations if they’re used too often. The new version of Interface Zero in Fate may work better, but only due to the social contract between players and the GM…Fate has the same genre inclinations as Savage Worlds.
So The Sprawl uses mechanics and feel from Powered by the Apocalypse to emulate cyberpunk games that have come before it. And core mechanics, namely social and combat mechanics, are mostly unchanged from Apocalypse World, using moves that require a 2d6 roll. Beyond that, there are a few things added. First are personal directives. Personal directives are, essentially, motivations for the character outside of getting the mission done. Things like money, family, vengeance…now, this structure isn’t new, in fact it’s kind of a throwback to personality constructs from World of Darkness games. The fact that the author chose to include personal directives in this game indicates two departures from Apocalypse World: structure and scope. In the case of structure, the addition of personal directives serves the same purpose as including more explicit instructions to advance countdown clocks. In Apocalypse World, players are encouraged to think about their characters base desires, and gives mechanical allowance (but little direction) to act on them. Cyberpunk as a genre is not about desire, or survival. Every character in The Sprawl is given the same long term goal (Get out, retire, etc.), and personal directives give them a personal spin on this. Between personal directives and links, the character relationships seem more detached in this game than in Apocalypse World. While that’s certainly genre-appropriate, I don’t think it’s how I’d play it when I do run.
The second major addition is a set of hacking rules. Now, hacking is the thing every cyberpunk game tries to add, and most of them fail at. Cyberpunk 2020 had a very complicated system that while genre-appropriate and kind of interesting, fell flat in actual play. Shadowrun’s hacking system was similar, saved by the grace of everything in that system being equally complicated; equally bad does not lead to good, however. Interface Zero had a more usable hacking system that was simplified enough, but fell prey to the Shadowrun 4th/5th gambit of “even your guns are hackable” which strained reality and made players paranoid instead of encouraging engagement with the system. The Sprawl has a hacking system which is complicated enough to be interesting, simple enough to be fun, and keeps the risks logical. Cyberdecks have four stats which determine its defense, power, and visibility. When the MC uses ICE, he can attack programs or the hacker themselves, but must get through the deck defenses first. And only when connected to another network is the hacker at risk of getting their cyberware hacked. Though the 80s tropes of the VR matrix of computers is used in the text, the rules treat computer networks more like filesystems, which satisfies my suspension of disbelief. Being so different than most of the other Apocalypse World-derived rules, I will say that hacking looks good, but will reserve judgment on how it works until I run a game that uses it.
All in all, I’m excited about The Sprawl. I have a lot of ideas about what I’d want to do with it, and coincidentally it fits in to a niche my group needs right now with its session-by-session structure and solid links between episodic and continuous play. I may give an update once I’ve actually played the game, but between how well it read and the bones it’s built on, I think I have enough information to be properly enthusiastic.