I’m thinking about playing Shadowrun again, but as I mentioned in the first post in the series, I really don’t care for the actual Shadowrun game system. Doing anything in Shadowrun seems to take two steps too many. But I love the setting. I love rolling handfuls of dice. I just wish the game system would stop getting in the way of telling a good story.

A few years ago, Apocalypse World came out and it just blew me away. The game moved quickly: combat scenes were satisfying yet fast-paced. It didn’t seem like we were waiting around for our turn when something exciting would happen. Action sequences in Apocalypse World felt more like watching a movie than sitting around a table, playing a game.


The Sprawl, an Apocalypse World-based game set in a cyberpunk dystopia, was recently released and a few posts on G+ ((Where it seems most of the Indie RPG aficionados had migrated to.)) and an interview with one of the creators on the +1 Forward podcast had me re-examine the game. While I haven’t played The Sprawl, I’m tempted: Apocalypse World is one of the games I really love and the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) ((The term for games that are derived from AW.)) games really sing to me. My three wants in games these days: player investment (+engagement +ownership), combat or fight scenes that do not interrupt the flow of the story being told, and (closely related) a collaborative storytelling emphasis. PbtA games hit all three of these.

An immediate concern with the game: there isn’t the magical aspect of Shadowrun although there is a “Touched” supplement that’s supposed to be in development, but I’m not clear on if there is any movement on that. While the campaign promised “a fifty page setting supplement introducing magic and supernatural to The Sprawl“, the only thing produced so far has been a six-page bare-bones Google document. The October 6 backers-only update for The Sprawl’s Kickstarter about the status of stretch goals (among other things) mentions Touched is coming. A possible final version might be ready in March 2017. So maybe until then, we’ll have to hack it.

But to my three wants, they’re all summed up in the “Running the Sprawl” chapter ((Heavily based off of Apocalypse World‘s “Master of Ceremonies” chapter, like all good PbtA games.)): you’re explicitly told to turn questions back on the players — “Ask questions and incorporate the answers” — which gets them to help build out the world. If they create elements of the world, they are more invested in the world. The two cyberware questions (everyone has cyberware) are:

  • Why did you get part of your body cut out and replaced with electronics?
  • How did you afford to have someone install your cyberware?

Two simple leading questions whose answers “hint at the hopes and fears of the character and probably informs their relationships with other people” and provides ties to the antagonists of the setting: the corporations.

Combat moves quickly and can incorporate the narrative. Here, the move your character makes is the Mix It Up move. Roll 2d6, add your Meat stat, and you find out what happened. Depending on your roll, you might have to choose from a list of bad things, implying that the stuff you didn’t choose happens to you, but it is very straight-forward. Combat here can take just one or two rolls — players looking for a blow-by-blow recounting of a fight probably won’t like that.

All moves work like that: doing legwork to find out more about the person you’re supposed to kidnap? Roll and maybe you get the info, but your contact’s sniffing around draws some unwanted attention. Or maybe you get [intel] and [gear].

That’s some nebulous stuff there, those things in brackets. I’ve got to contrast that with Shadowrun: Anarchy for a paragraph or four. Hold on.

See, in Shadowrun: Anarchy, you’ve got stuff. If it’s on the character sheet, you’ve got it. Gear in SR:A is stuff to use as props to help your capital-N Narrations. It is offhandedly described as “must-have equipment that you think might pull your hoop out of the fire at some point.” An ork decker has an electronics toolkit, Erika Elite commlink, stim patches, and a Yamaha Growler motorcycle. Gear in The Sprawl comes from playbooks. That hacker would have a specific bit of cyberware (neural interface with data storage, choose two of the following four tags: +inaccessible partition, +encrypted, +high capacity, +high speed). He also gets to build out his cyberdeck, choosing from one of two stock configurations, then two or three programs. He also chooses one of two pistols and then two of a list of other stuff including armor, a workstation, and a flashy motorcycle. But during play, he can get [gear].

[gear], like [intel], is obtained through moves. Your hacker can spend a point of [gear] to say that there’s something he has on them: “describe how and why your professionalism and forethought told you to bring this equipment on the mission”. The example in the book has a hacker trying to jump across an alleyway to another building. “Can I spend a [gear] for a grappling line gun?” Sure, how did you get that? “Bees-Lee threw it in with the bag of guns I got for Gant. I pull it out of the duffel bag. ‘Beez, you fucking prophet.’ I aim it into a window across the alley and fire.”

[intel] works the same way: “I’d like to spend [intel] from our earlier investigation and reveal knowledge of the ventilation system in this part of the arcology.” Sure, how did you get that? “When Mack sent me the security schedule for the loading dock area, he included some miscellaneous facility maintenance information, including a plan of the ventilation system. I bring it up on my goggles and route my way past the security team.”

There, we’re almost using Leverage‘s establishing flashbacks. It’s nice. I like it. Unfortunately in SR:A, there isn’t any way to do this. Except for spending Plot Points, even though it’s not mentioned there. However, “If you come up with another creative use for Plot Points, go for it! Plot Points are meant to change the game in fun and interesting ways, so don’t be afraid to use your imagination.” It seems like having this Preparedness ability would be good here.

Characters in The Sprawl are built off of playbooks. I want a rigger ((Rigger: A person that controls remote vehicles, mainly drones.)) in my game? I’m picking the Driver playbook and selecting the Drone Jockey move, which is only on this playset. I’m also going to eventually get Eye in the Sky, which lets me use a better stat for doing stuff when I’m “in” my drone.

Let’s look at how a mission works in The Sprawl.

You have four major steps: you have the meet with Mister Johnson, the Legwork phase, the Actual Mission phase, and the Getting Paid phase.

In the meet phase, you meet with your client, and instead of having a little negotiating scene “where you argue about the price and you maybe don’t take the job, but you’re always going to take the job because you’re going to do the mission” ((That’s how Hamish described it in the +1 Forward podcast.)), you just make a Get the Job move. You roll and maybe you get some extra [intel] or [gear] or maybe you get some info on the client or maybe the job “pays well”.

Then from there, you’ll head to the Legwork phase where you start digging around a bit, maybe alerting your target, and prepping a plan. There’s my other immediate concern. Even though the Legwork moves advance the countdown clocks ((Basically, a checklist that occurs with the opposition advancing actions against the players. Once you mark off enough boxes, the corporation might decide to up security on the target or even go on the offensive against the protagonists.)), there’s a chance that our protagonists will hunker down in their safehouse to plan out the entire mission. I’m a bit worried that we’re dealing with that thing in every Shadowrun game where the players take an hour to come up with a perfect plan with all these contingencies which won’t cover the one or two I’ve got planned and there’s an hour where I don’t get to play and the plan always falls apart anyway as soon as the runners accidentally set off an alarm.

The mission happens, and cool.

And then the Getting Paid phase, which is fantastic. Roll +unfilled segments of the Legwork clock. Success and you choose 1 or 3 from the following list: it’s not a set-up or ambush, you are paid in full, the meeting doesn’t attract the attention of outside parties, the employer is identifiable, or you’ve learned something and get additional XP. Oh sweet child, that’s amazing because it’s always implied that if you don’t choose something in a “choose X from the following” in PbtA games, that what you don’t choose happens. We need the money, we know who the corp is, and we get some extra XP? Then it’s a double-cross and some third agency is interested in the meet. Oh, my.

So many good things about The Sprawl. But would I run it instead of Shadowrun: Anarchy? That’s next time.


  • Jeff

    There’s always that balancing act though, right? The more mechanics and crunch you put in with a given system, the more likely that you will lose the freewheeling storytelling. Lately been with a Pathfinder and 3.5 groups (about to take over as DM), and the problem of min/max, combat to combat, rote mechanical stuff is real.

    There are ways to mitigate, some better (player involvement, good storytelling practices), some not so good (arbitrary GM fiat), some neutral (rpg rewards to teach good habits that can lead to just another way to min/max if abused)

  • Regards your worry about the Legwork phase – With The Sprawl I’d say it just isn’t possible to bunker down in a safe house and make an effective plan, the players need to get out into the world to discover things. Want the floor plans for the building? Maybe you need to hack them from a server or bribe a contact for them. Need to know the security pattern? You’ll need to go and surveil the target, maybe picking up some bonus [intel] in the process. Or maybe you’ll advance the legwork clock instead when somebody spots you snooping. All of that requires building the fiction and making moves in the process of doing so.

    Sitting around in a safe house any ‘plan’ is just going to be uninformed ‘if this then that’ scenarios and an opportunity for the GM to throw in complications. Without any legwork even a routine guard patrol becomes a major obstacle.

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