This weekend’s game was out of left-field for me. Extremely…I didn’t think I’d be running at all. We got online for an Age of Rebellion session when it became clear that the GM, who had just moved, hadn’t gotten his internet working quite right. After it took an hour to even get through the session starting materials, we gave up and scratched the session. The other six of us were on for about five minutes before I hear “soooo…want to run The Sprawl?”
Character creation is relatively smooth for this and pretty much all Powered by the Apocalypse systems, though doing it over voice chat makes it harder to know when people are ready to move on. Adding to the complication is that Google Sheets is not nearly as smooth in collaboration mode as Google Docs is. Despite all that, character creation went without any major hiccups, and then we were ready to play. I thought up a quick mission based on the corporations that the players suggested, and immediately went into the legwork phase. The team cased out the research facility they were tasked with breaking into, and immediately showed grasp of how [intel] and [gear] holds are supposed to work. The legwork clock also did its job, keeping the team from spending too much time over-planning.
The action phase is where things got interesting, and also where the system shone. The hacker, the killer and the medtech snuck in using disguises obtained in the legwork phase, while the infiltrator used their covert ops move to slip in the back on their own. So far, so good. The hacker gained access to the easy, employee-facing section of the computer network, and began trying to plan their infiltration. The infiltrator made some guesses and slipped into the lab to plant a network intercept device that had been cobbled together earlier.
This is where things went wrong. The infiltrator got the intercept device installed, but a group of shiny prototype weapons caught his eye. The player chose to mark experience for his “financial” directive and swipe the guns. Unfortunately, one of the lab scientists spotted him…and said scientist happened to be testing a big gun. The infiltrator got shot in the chest, and was barely able to get himself out of the lab. Of course, as he left he heard the scientists talk about “tracking bullets”. Uh oh.
The hacker used the network interceptor and picked up the required data as well as some paydata. At this point security had been alerted, but the disguises were still holding. As the primary team tried to make their exit, they were stopped and asked for biometrics. The hacker quickly disabled the security checkpoint, making use of the distraction and his stealth-focused cyberdeck. This bought them enough time to escape.
The team met back up at the extraction point, with a vectored-thrust vehicle chasing them. The driver made some quick moves, the medic attempted some field medicine, and the group escaped, alive but suffering from a clearly raised profile.
As far as “games I wrote nothing for”, this was one of the best. The structure of The Sprawl with the clocks and the more delineated mission format makes it much easier to come up with things on the fly with even less background information that I have even in other PbtA games. It ran quickly, there was only one moment where I got tied up with rules references (the rules for staking cred on a mission), and the players were into it. Still, there were things I could have done better.
The legwork phase felt a bit easy. There were reasons for this, including a mistake I made (one of the players declared a contact and we went without a roll…there should have been a “hit the streets” roll after the contact was declared). The biggest reason, though, had to do with the choice of playbooks and the characters’ style. Passive legwork moves (Assess, Research) don’t really trigger the legwork clock unless there’s a miss. Active moves, however (hardball, fast talk, Hunter and Reporter moves) do. So, my players were being conservative and had good passive playbooks for it. They also rolled well.
Beyond that, Legwork was where I could have started some better spotlight management. I let the players lead in legwork, but this is where I should have taken a page out of Apocalypse World and pressed on each character individually. It doesn’t force players to the forefront, but it gives them an opportunity to be there. I didn’t do this as well as I could have, so the traditionally more outgoing/aggressive players dominated to some degree.
This carried over into the Action phase. The characters who did the most legwork had the most to do in the second half, which makes sense. So while I could have pressed more, in reality the legwork phase was where I needed to set up what each character would be doing. It also helped highlight how this sort of thing happened in other Cyberpunk games I’ve run, which was illuminating.
In terms of the action phase itself, I’m still trying to figure out if it felt too smooth and too easy. I need to reread the hacking rules, but even without a reread I know there were more chances to press on the hacker a bit. Still, without the network intercept device the hacker’s job would have been significantly more dangerous, so at least there’s a place another character contributed to the hacker’s success. I will also say that the hacking rules encourage engagement with them, which is great. The hacking system in The Sprawl gives decks a set of stats, but they behave fairly simply. The hacking moves also work just like any other set of moves in the game. The result is not a whole other subsystem to learn, but a crunchy gizmo to play with on par with a holding in Apocalypse World or a gang in any number of PbtA games.
When players did roll less well, I put the hammer down and it felt like it. Having the infiltrator get shot once changed the entire timbre of the game, and that’s exactly the sort of impact I want a gunshot wound to have. I also had a player say “man, when they say ugly choice in the rules, they aren’t kidding.” Balancing softness and hardness of moves is a commonly cited difficulty by GMs of PbtA games, but it’s part that I seem to be doing all right with. The tension level was cited as a positive by several players, both due to the dice mechanics and the clocks. And for whatever reason, keeping the tension level flowing came easier to me here than it has in the past. I think that has less to do with the system and more to do with finally having a bit of PbtA experience under my belt.
One thing I did notice from the game is just how high the corporate clocks can get relatively early in the game. This is of course a choice on the part of the players, but it occurred to me looking at these clocks that if this game were to continue as a campaign, there wouldn’t be a guarantee of the characters surviving to the point where they could start buying down corporate clocks, especially not if I as the GM started pressing on the high clocks more. This implies that a campaign in The Sprawl is high-burn and dangerous by default, and also implies (based on the Links section of character creation) that the more the team has already worked together, the more likely it is that someone has it out for them. While I like having that instant storyline available, it makes me think that running a very long Sprawl campaign would be somewhat difficult. Or if not difficult, at least stressful. This clearly was not an issue for this single session, but it’s given me something to think about going forward.
I’m very glad I got a chance to run a session of The Sprawl this soon after getting the book, especially since I didn’t think it would happen with our relatively full GMing slate. The game has some clear differences from other PbtA games, but it still delivers a gaming experience that my group enjoys and that I enjoy running. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to run something more campaign-like in the future.