I really appreciate the format of Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games when it comes to story. The principle of “play to find out what happens” is well aligned with my GMing style, and the game provides some great resources to make it easier. The biggest problem with it is that I’m denied my scheming and brainstorming that I usually do months before a campaign. And without a plan, I feel like even as we start there’s too much uncertainty over the campaign’s feel and direction.
When I think about running my next Cyberpunk game using The Sprawl, this is the primary problem. When I’ve run Cyberpunk games in the past, I offer a premise which narrows the possibilities in where players can go. That said, system plays into the feel a lot as well, so relying on the fact that the players interpret the setting the same way I do rarely works as well as I think it will. In cases where I’ve been very lax with these interpretations, we’ve gotten very silly. When this happened for the game “Escape from New Jersey”, I doubled down on the silliness and everyone had a great time. For a future campaign, and a potential long-runner at that, I don’t want to do that.
The one time I’ve run The Sprawl, things went well but got a little silly. The corporation the team was running against was “Disney Imagineers work on weapons development”, and we doubled down on it. The characters used Disney character fursuits as disguises, the weapons prototypes were all named after Disney characters, it was crazy in a fun way. For a campaign, though, that style would be a bit…much.
The main difference between The Sprawl and both Apocalypse World and Urban Shadows is that Apocalypse World and Urban Shadows both present worlds with supernatural elements and many ways to interpret them. In Apocalypse World, the psychic maelstrom gives leeway to a lot of relatively wacky concepts, like a mechanic who talks to his machines or a deluded professor leading a cult of “grad students”, and grounds them to the setting. In Urban Shadows, the entire character creation process is a palette of supernatural creatures, secret cabals, and potent abilities, all of which have the ability to be customized based on the mythos you want to follow.
The Sprawl plays it relatively straight. And Cyberpunk is a genre that takes itself too seriously, leading to strong temptation to go way over the top. As much as I like this and as much as I will enjoy letting my players run free in the setting, I want to keep things grounded enough that the game will play out similar to my current Apocalypse World game. When things get too cartoonish, the human drama doesn’t come out.
My biggest piece of planning is figuring out how to run my Session Zero. Apocalypse World gives some guidance, not only providing the “day in the life” framework but also ideas about framing questions. Apocalypse World also has the benefit of being quite blank, so players feel a need to fill in some blanks in order to better understand their characters. In cyberpunk there are more setting assumptions to fall back on. That all said, there are a lot more opportunities I have to run a full Session Zero which I didn’t do for the one-shot…that hopefully will keep the silliness at acceptable parameters.
The world generation for The Sprawl by default includes creating corporations and establishing character links by talking about past missions. I plan to dig in deeper by:
- Pushing on character surroundings…where do they live? How do they get around?
- Pushing on team structure…how did you all get together? Why do you work together consistently?
- Pushing on corporate relationships…why are you hunted/owned? How does it affect your day-to-day life?
- Pushing on the past operations in the links phase…What was the mission goal? Did it succeed or fail? Why have your missions (taken together or separately) gotten the corporations’ attention (i.e. advanced the corporate clock)?
This game certainly has the potential to provide the same human drama Apocalypse World is providing, but in order for that to happen it will need to have the same level of player involvement at the outset. In addition to the character questions, I’m probably going to push on the city as well. While both Cyberpunk and Urban Fantasy games often lean on player familiarity with a chosen setting, Cyberpunk also has a font of setting-appropriate and incredibly creative custom city ideas, including but not limited to arcologies, floating cities, nomad hubs, spaceports and even space stations, if that’s the way you want to go. I’d probably lean away from the space station idea, as that makes for a very specific type of game, but other than that a good chunk of session zero will be letting the players go for broke on exotic city ideas. May even set up the basics of that first…determine what sort of city it is, and then determine what sort of corporations are most prevalent there.
Writing through it I’m feeling more confident I can use The Sprawl to run a campaign. The key, in my mind, is to push on the elements that were most successful in previous games. My first game of The Sprawl would not have turned into a campaign I’d be enthusiastic about, most likely, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t use the system alongside all the other tools PbtA games have equipped me with for establishing an interesting setting and starting characters. This doesn’t make my campaign decision for me, but moreso than before I feel like I’m actually evaluating both The Sprawl and Urban Shadows on their own merits, rather than how my previous experiences with them went.