What do you think about The Sprawl?

edited February 2017 in Story Games
The Sprawl is a popular Powered by the Apocalypse game that simulates Shadowrun-style criminal gigs in a gibsonesque cyberpunk world. I've been playing it recently with two separate MCs (GMs), and I've thought the game over a lot. Your insights are appreciated, here's my own take.

I like the world and the details, and I like about the transparency of PbtA. I like how focused the playbooks are. The game has some nice touchy-feely flourishes, like Directives (you get XP from doing tangential, colorful stuff) and Links (your relationship with another character has an effect on your success). Some of this was probably inherited from Apocalypse World in some form.

There's too much detail in the game for me, both in character creation, the setting creation and the actual play. Too many ways to influence the game in too small ways. It's hard to remember your options and hard to keep track of everything, especially as the game progresses, especially for someone like me, who's more interested in character and mood. Playing a Hacker felt especially complex, playing a Hunter feels more manageable.

The Sprawl has an interesting mission structure, where getting hired and paid is mechanized. The problem is, there are no hard rules for mission failure, so the MC pretty much has to decide when it fails. I think the game would profit from a more rigid mission structure that puts individual rolls in a clear context. Right now it feels the MC can just call for more rolls until she thinks the players have suffered enough. This didn't feel like a problem in AW, where there was no larger adventure structure.

Comments

  • I only played the Sprawl once, but I agree with your criticisms. The game was serviceable, and had lots of nice bits, but overall I didn't fall in love with it. The 'mission' structure clashes a bit with the lack of support given to determining success or failure, as you point out.
  • Interesting. I have been wanting to try it, but now am a bit turned off. Sounds like they didn't playtest it enough. I wonder how hard the mission structure thing would be to fix?
  • I think it's just the nature of combining a somewhat Gamist structure with the PbtA rules (which don't support that very well*). However, many people disagree with me on that point! We had a long, long thread about this way back...

    It's definitely playable, however, and I know many people love this game.

    *: And, further, the Sprawl includes some other rules which potentially clash with this, in my opinion. For instance, rolls give you the option to carry forward holds to improvise elements of your plan or equipment to overcome challenges. That kind of mechanic doesn't sit well with me in this context. If you're playing to create engaging fiction, then gaining holds to carry forward doesn't add anything to the narrative. If you're advocating for your character and trying to "win" the mission, then improvising advantages for your character after-the-fact feels "cheap" (or, at best, awkward, since you're not sure how far you can go with it). This might have more to do with my gamer preferences than straight-up design, however - you'll have to judge for yourself.
  • If your group can cohere on agreeable criteria for mission failure, the mission structure is pretty great. I think the intent is that such will emerge from the fiction. It doesn't smell like a lack of playtesting to me, just like a decision about what to mechanize and what not to mechanize. It's not trying to be Burning Empires. :)
  • The problem is, there are no hard rules for mission failure, so the MC pretty much has to decide when it fails.
    Yes, there are. When the Action Clock fills up. What advances the Action Clock is up to the GM but it's usually coupled with a Hard Move. But when the Action Clock hits 0000, the mission fails. There are even very specific consequences for failure.

    See The Sprawl, Chapter 11, pp. 213-214



  • I personally love the Sprawl, in fact it may be a contender for my favorite game ever. However, I must admit that the book sometimes insinuates a more gamey structure than how it should really play. The book decides to give you more information than what is necessary, in an attempt to inspire MC's and give them a net. I asked the creator if I was okay during my actual play (by playing the MC moves fast and loose) and he ensured me I was running it fine.

    The only critique I have is the Hacking moves, which I haven't used in-game, simply because they are a bit intimidating and dense (not dense compared to other systems, but dense compared to the other playbooks within the Sprawl).

    I will say though that the system is very much aimed at playing mission-based cyberpunk, and not character driven ambient cyberpunk. To get my players in the zone, I referenced films less like Blade Runner, and more like Heat and The Town, even Ocean's 11. Thats not say its devoid of interesting characters (I mean Danny Ocean is a great character), but its not about introspective characters. Even then we still had some great character moments in play.

    Also the Sprawl has some amazing world building. My current campaign has us globe hopping. Johannesburg > Osaka > LA etc. All of them with their own cyberpunk issues. And when the players fail, especially a mission, stuff follows them and hurts them and complicates their lives throughout the campaign.
  • I'm very keen to try it now after reading these positive messages.
  • edited February 2017
    Thanks for your input!
    The problem is, there are no hard rules for mission failure, so the MC pretty much has to decide when it fails.
    Yes, there are. When the Action Clock fills up. What advances the Action Clock is up to the GM but it's usually coupled with a Hard Move. But when the Action Clock hits 0000, the mission fails. There are even very specific consequences for failure.

    See The Sprawl, Chapter 11, pp. 213-214
    I couldn't find any direct connection with hard moves and action clocks when I looked. Also, when to do a hard move or a move that advances the action clock seems to be up to the MC, which was my actual point here.

    Actually, I think a really pertinent question here, besides the rules interpretation, is: do the missions ever end in failure in practice? Especially if the MC is a fan of the characters? Would the players enjoy it and accept it?
    Interesting. I have been wanting to try it, but now am a bit turned off. Sounds like they didn't playtest it enough. I wonder how hard the mission structure thing would be to fix?
    It's a conscious choice, I think. The game isn't sloppy, but it's pretty trad in giving the power to the MC.
    *: And, further, the Sprawl includes some other rules which potentially clash with this, in my opinion. For instance, rolls give you the option to carry forward holds to improvise elements of your plan or equipment to overcome challenges. That kind of mechanic doesn't sit well with me in this context. If you're playing to create engaging fiction, then gaining holds to carry forward doesn't add anything to the narrative. If you're advocating for your character and trying to "win" the mission, then improvising advantages for your character after-the-fact feels "cheap" (or, at best, awkward, since you're not sure how far you can go with it). This might have more to do with my gamer preferences than straight-up design, however - you'll have to judge for yourself.
    I think hoarding and stacking semi-abstract bonuses is pretty popular and common nowadays (see the FATE discussion).

  • Well, it certainly sounds like experience running other PbtA games might help in terms of knowing when to fill up clocks and when to make hard moves and how to intertwine the two.
  • edited February 2017

    I couldn't find any direct connection with hard moves and action clocks when I looked. Also, when to do a hard move or a move that advances the action clock seems to be up to the MC, which was my actual point here.
    Direct connection is on page 180:
    "When a move offers an option like someone finds out or it attracts attention, that’s an
    invitation to the MC to advance a Countdown Clock. Time on a Countdown Clock is a
    scarce resource, so advancing a clock is a hard move.
    If a hard move isn’t called for,
    the MC might show them the barrel of the gun instead, leaving the clocks where
    they are (Page 180)."

    When to do a hard move in a PbTA game is generally up to the GM. Apocalypse World says the GM should "make as hard a move as you like" in response to a Miss. The Agenda and Principles are there to guide a GM on when to apply hard and soft moves.
    Actually, I think a really pertinent question here, besides the rules interpretation, is: do the missions ever end in failure in practice? Especially if the MC is a fan of the characters? Would the players enjoy it and accept it?
    I'd enjoy it and accept it. I'd narrate the epilogue of how I disappeared into the alleys of the sprawl looking for someone who can give me a new face. Ultimately, it's a GMs decision to advance the clocks to 0000 based on the fiction. Just as an MC in Apocalypse World can choose Deal Harm. I'm sure some GMs won't advance mission clocks to failure, but others will.

  • edited February 2017


    Direct connection is on page 180:
    "When a move offers an option like someone finds out or it attracts attention, that’s an
    invitation to the MC to advance a Countdown Clock. Time on a Countdown Clock is a
    scarce resource, so advancing a clock is a hard move.
    If a hard move isn’t called for,
    the MC might show them the barrel of the gun instead, leaving the clocks where
    they are (Page 180)."

    When to do a hard move in a PbTA game is generally up to the GM. Apocalypse World says the GM should "make as hard a move as you like" in response to a Miss. The Agenda and Principles are there to guide a GM on when to apply hard and soft moves.
    You're right. I was looking at it from the wrong angle, trying to find how hard moves would advance the action clock.

    It seems we all agree on how the system works in practice. Whether you want the MC to have this much power is up to you. I think the detail level of mechanics seems kinda pointless when the MC is responsible for the really meaningful things, but this is my issue with every trad game. You're free to disagree, of course.

    How do you think a player should play The Sprawl? Just do what her character would? Does the meta stuff (introducing characters, imagining gear, using holds when applicable) interfere with that?

  • character driven ambient cyberpunk.
    That sounds awesome. Is there a game that does that?

  • That sounds awesome. Is there a game that does that?
    Sprawls author kinda recommends reskinning Apocalypse World for that. ^^

  • Personally, I'd probably reskin Sorcerer or Vampire. :)

  • That sounds awesome. Is there a game that does that?
    Sprawls author kinda recommends reskinning Apocalypse World for that. ^^

    Thanks for the link!

    I think AW is too hectic for ambience, personally. Blade Runner is deliciously slow.
  • (Interesting! When we played AW, it was quite slow-paced. Any reason you can't do it that way?)
  • character driven ambient cyberpunk.
    That sounds awesome. Is there a game that does that?
    Greg Hutton's Remember Tomorrow is pretty good at that, if you allow it time to breathe (like, not just a one-shot session, but play multiple chapters reusing characters and factions and expand on those to grow a picture of a world).
  • Just bought The Sprawl.. Downloading now.. Very excited!
  • edited February 2017
    The Tears in Rain hack for Trollbabe is pretty cool. It might be good for the atmospheric player-driven story.If you only have a couple players, try it!
  • edited February 2017
    (Interesting! When we played AW, it was quite slow-paced. Any reason you can't do it that way?)
    I think there's something about numbers, resources and challenges that makes players to focus on them, unless there's something to encourage them to chill out.
    character driven ambient cyberpunk.
    That sounds awesome. Is there a game that does that?
    Greg Hutton's Remember Tomorrow is pretty good at that, if you allow it time to breathe (like, not just a one-shot session, but play multiple chapters reusing characters and factions and expand on those to grow a picture of a world).
    I have it, but I recall it being almost as messy (sorry, strong word) as The Sprawl. I think it's still the best cyberpunk game I've seen, though.

  • edited February 2017

    [Re: Greg Hutton's Remember Tomorrow]
    I have it, but I recall it being almost as messy as The Sprawl. I think it's still the best cyberpunk game I've seen, though.
    It's definitely messy, yeah, in that "it's more of a toy than a tool" way. Which might be a good kind of messy. For sure, the text is very much committed to style (which is what makes it "cyberpunk" - but in a shallow way) and doesn't dwell much on the meat of it, on what makes it (cyber)-punk at a fundamental level --- but it's there, and emerging from long-term play if you'll just allow it.
  • We played a five session run of The Sprawl and liked it a lot. It is tightly designed. Mechanics or no, the notion that you don't know if a mission succeeded or failed is pretty laughable. You know.
  • edited February 2017
    We played a five session run of The Sprawl and liked it a lot. It is tightly designed. Mechanics or no, the notion that you don't know if a mission succeeded or failed is pretty laughable. You know.
    I often didn't. It usually seemed to be up to the MC's interpretation. And the question isn't just if the mission succeeded or failed. I didn't know, when it was over.
  • Jason,

    I think the issue people have with "is a mission over?" isn't an *inability* to decide, but, rather, a lack of guidance as to which criteria to use to make that decision. If you, as a group, can agree (probably implicitly) on the criteria, you'll have a good time. But many people (as we can see from these threads) don't, or don't know how.

    I can't speak to whether the Sprawl's text covers this, because I haven't read it. But in my (limited) experience playing the game, the issue was very apparent. I was playing with a good group of people, so it wasn't a game-breaker (we still had a fun game), but we felt that we were skirting it constantly.

  • OK! Maybe it is like stake-setting; the input needs to be very clear and concise to understand the output. Don't know, we didn't really have this problem.
  • It's not necessarily hard to say when the PCs have succeeded, I think. But I don't know how the MC draws the line where the mission has absolutely failed beyond recovery.

    Maybe this is a dead horse, but it fascinates me. :D
  • But I don't know how the MC draws the line where the mission has absolutely failed beyond recovery.
    Knowing absolutely nothing about the specific game being debated, this sounds like an issue of mission design to me.
  • But I don't know how the MC draws the line where the mission has absolutely failed beyond recovery.
    Knowing absolutely nothing about the specific game being debated, this sounds like an issue of mission design to me.
    Can you give me examples, perhaps from another game?

  • GM: "What are you trying to do? What's your mission?"
    Players: "Break into Asaka Corp and steal the plans to the new laser weapon they're building."
    ... lots of play ...
    GM: "Your mission failed."
    Players: "Yeah, we didn't manage to steal the plans."
  • I'm kind of surprised we're having this discussion in a post-Forge world... isn't this what all that theory was supposed to avoid?

    "But how do I *know* when the mission is over?"
    "Aw, come on, guys, it's, like, totally obvious, right?"
    "No, you just have to design the adventures right, see, look here..."

    None of these points of view are incorrect... but they're all totally different ways of playing the game.

    I think what's happening in this thread is that some people are finding the Sprawl rules lacking in orienting them towards an agreed-upon way to play.
  • edited February 2017
    I'm kind of surprised we're having this discussion in a post-Forge world... isn't this what all that theory was supposed to avoid?

    "But how do I *know* when the mission is over?"
    "Aw, come on, guys, it's, like, totally obvious, right?"
    "No, you just have to design the adventures right, see, look here..."

    None of these points of view are incorrect... but they're all totally different ways of playing the game.

    I think what's happening in this thread is that some people are finding the Sprawl rules lacking in orienting them towards an agreed-upon way to play.
    Yeah.
    GM: "What are you trying to do? What's your mission?"
    Players: "Break into Asaka Corp and steal the plans to the new laser weapon they're building."
    ... lots of play ...
    GM: "Your mission failed."
    Players: "Yeah, we didn't manage to steal the plans."
    What happened in ...lots of play...? What actually sealed the failure from the MC's viewpoint?

    And how is The Sprawl different from ie. Shadowrun in this respect? If you think that it isn't, I entirely agree!
  • If your group can cohere on agreeable criteria for mission failure, the mission structure is pretty great. I think the intent is that such will emerge from the fiction. It doesn't smell like a lack of playtesting to me, just like a decision about what to mechanize and what not to mechanize. It's not trying to be Burning Empires. :)
    I'm reading this again. By agreeable criteria emerging from fiction, do you mean something that becomes obvious to everyone once it happens? This can be also framed as players accepting the MC's judgment call, because they have bought into the fiction, or don't want to start an argument. I think in a game like The Sprawl, "emerging from the fiction" pretty naturally becomes old-skool GM fiat, because there is no mechanized player input to influence the mission superstructure.
  • That's a good example of a solution, I think, totally.

    Another is establishing all the possible factors and obstacles beforehand, and just playing through them - like a GM does with a dungeon in (most versions of) D&D - with the mechanics stepping when necessary.

    But they lead to very different forms of gameplay, and your group should make sure they're all on the same page, or you might get some funny misunderstandings or less-than-stellar play.
  • edited February 2017
    That's a good example of a solution, I think, totally.

    Another is establishing all the possible factors and obstacles beforehand, and just playing through them - like a GM does with a dungeon in (most versions of) D&D - with the mechanics stepping when necessary.
    It's not so much a solution as what I think the game just does. :P I think establishing possible factors and obstacles beforehand goes actively against the "play to find out what happens" -ethos.
  • Yes, and I think that's precisely what some people find challenging about the game.
  • I'm getting ready to run The Sprawl. Something that crossed my mind is how powerfully this game seems to want to play with the players' psychology.

    Frames are mental/emotional/phisiological states that you practice and then unconsciously apply. They're why basketball players excel at their game, why you don't even have to try not to cuss at work, and why your mind works differently during a movie. They're why teachers don't have to pee between noon and 3:30 and why cops who don't take crap on the street let a six year old wrap them around their little finger at home.

    Frames can also apply on the micro-level to things like racial bias and so forth, but for the moment, I want to talk about a more macro-level frame that The Sprawl uses. Frames are very powerful when you use rituals to cue them. The cop putting on the uniform, for instance, or the pastor asking the congregation to rise. In RPG Theory we talk about the "magic circle" -- and that's borrowed from this sort of frame psychology.

    The Sprawl builds magic circles in the progress of the game. It ritualistically begins the mission with the same move every time (no matter how different the fictional positioning) -- Get the Job. And the Legwork Clock and Action Clock bound two different phases of the mission. Then the mission ritualistically closes with the Get Paid move. Again, it may have different fictional outcomes, but for a few minutes the table looks up the same exact move and rolls and chooses from the same pick list.

    As I run The Sprawl, I'm going to help the table carefully establish ideal norms and mores inside the magic circle of the mission the best I can (some pre-existing biases might help or hinder me). I'm going to watch to see if the mission framework starts generating unconscious framework behavior sets. It helps that most of my players have played Cyberpunk or Shadowrun and know the basic structure. (Most of us also played through Dracula Dossier recently, which has an operational structure, too.)
  • Speaking of frames, for those of you who feel like The Sprawl is really traditional in its approach-- the mission system in The Sprawl is really just a "frame story." (Unrelated to psychological frames). The missions are just frames that we use to tell the real stories inside them. They provide threats and antagonists, but also opportunities. And all of that serves the Personal Directives.

    The real meat of the mission is how it drives the PCs' Personal Directives. The MC is supposed to provide an opportunity to get an XP from both Personal Directives for every PC, every mission. For four players, that's 8 things to do -- which is really the thing I suspect I'm going to spend MOST of my time on as MC. I get 6hrs for a mission, and in that time I have to trigger 8 Personal Directives. I might plan some of the trigger events ahead, Apocalypse World style, just Thinking Offscreen and dreaming up ways to Complicate Everything and adapting them on the fly, but most of the time I'll be using my opportunities to make a Move in play to trigger those Personal Directives when I see a way to do it. That puts the story ball firmly in the player's court - my move isn't "the corporations come and shoot you in the gut!" it's "the things you as a player chose to focus on in the story come and shoot you in the feels!" (and maybe the gut)
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