[RPG-Review] The Sprawl is a bad PbtA game

[RPG-Review] The Sprawl is a bad PbtA game

If you have read my The Sprawl campaign diaries on steemit, you will already know some of my problems with The Sprawl. If you did not: There are problems with The Sprawl, and I do not like the system. Why is that? That is what we are here for!


Back in my Shadowrun Rant I told you to play The Sprawl. After having played The Sprawl I have to say though: Shadowrun does some things better … Especially telling stories.
What?! Shadowrun tells good stories?!
No, it does not! That is my point! Let's elaborate though.

The Sprawl is a Cyberpunk Mission-Based Powered by the Apocalypse game.

Cyberpunk & Mission-Based

We all know Cyberpunk from Shadowrun. Setting awesome, rules garbage. Supposedly Ardens Ludere was working on an official "Shadowrun"-Setting for The Sprawl, but that did not release yet so …
It is good to know though, that The Sprawl spawned out of the "Shadowrun is amazing! But then there are the rules" attitude, which I share.
Even without the crazy magic-stuff, Cyberpunk is an amazing setting.

And mission-based: Blades in the Dark is a very good mission-based RPG.
So that is a good sign … cough well … let's see about that.

Powered by the Apocalypse

Powered by the Apocalypse is a great system with the main goal of hard choices, but also a narrative focus. I have learned to expect (and love) from a PbtA-system:

  • The story is about the characters
  • The characters are (pro)actively in the story involved
  • All characters are present in the story (sometimes more, sometimes less, which is normal for RPGs)
  • There is one (or more) common problem(s) the players have to actively deal with themselves or else they will be in trouble
  • The story illuminates the inner conflict of the characters

So, with PbtA as a system we are set up for a good story, right? Well … This posts title says something different … The Sprawl is not good at any of these things, let me talk about each point.

The story is about the characters

The Cyberpunk premise is: The characters are disposable. If your character dies, another one will come along, and do a better job.


The book works with this premise:
In session 0 the setting and the Mega-Corporations (the antagonists) are created together (one of the best things of the game, IMO – somewhat Microscope/GM-Less alike).
Most of the story then, is about the Mega-Corporations making the player's characters life difficult by throwing things at them, and the player characters trying their best to stay afloat. Thus the GM characters are important in the story to be told – wrong focus?

The characters are (pro)actively in the story involved

This is just not the case in The Sprawl. The characters are way more reactively involved in the story.
Before the session, the GM thinks about what problem they are going to give the players to solve, which seems to be intended this way. The example mission "Kurosawa Extraction" includes a lot of planning for each state of the clocks – you have to prepare mission directives, too.
Since this was the recommendation I did the same thing, and immediately noticed that I had two choices: Either railroad my players, or throw my planning in the bin. Since The Sprawl is a PbtA game and I am supposed to "Play to find out" I decided to throw my planning in the bin, but in my first mission the DnD-GM inside me asked for some attention, thus the first session was railroading. Of course it failed horribly.
After some sessions I quit preparing states for the clocks as well. In the ends it was always the same, anyways:

  • 1500 - Nothing special
  • 1800 - What's that?
  • 2100 - What's that!
  • 2200 - Defense!
  • 2300 - Super defense!
  • 0000 - You lose!

PbtA should not be reactive, but proactive. Play to find out.
Thus, after session 1 I had to start hacking the game, by not coming up with a mission for the players completely on my own without asking what they want, but instead give them three short sentences at the end of a mission, briefly describing the next mission, from which they had to choose one.
Hacking the game after session one … That is a bad omen. Especially, since I am not a fan of hacking.

All characters are present in the story

This depends a lot on the group. If the whole group is specialized in killing people (Killer, maybe Soldier, Infiltrator and Driver) or social contracts (Pusher, Fixer, Soldier … again? and Infiltrator … again?) this will work out, but in every other weird group constellation this is not the case.
If the job is to kill someone, or be loud in another way (because the job says so) the loud characters will have fun, but the quiet/social characters will stay as far away as possible. If the job is to socialize, or stay quiet (because the job says so) the quiet characters will have fun, but the loud characters will be bored.
Even if there is a risk, that the job starts quiet but might get loud later on, the quiet characters will not want to do it, because of the risk, and the loud characters will be bored again.
The only playbooks that fit in every group are the Soldier, and especially the the Hacker … Who is not with the group, because they are playing their own game at their home. A bit like in Shadowrun. Better than Shadowrun, but still like in Shadowrun.

It's hacking time. Everyone, feel free to take a 10 minute break, while we play out the hacking scene. You can't help anyways, so don't bother.

At the beginning however, the group is forced to work together, because they are broke. But once the group made enough money, through whatever means, this pressure does not exist any more, thus everyone will do their own things. The quiet characters are not forced to go on loud missions, loud characters do not attend quiet missions anymore.
This in turn means that the mission-based structure breaks. They do not need to go on missions together if they do not need any money. If they do not go on missions together, they will not work together in other ways, too, because usually the operatives are exclusively in business relationships. Thus the group will split up. Bad for the GM to manage the spotlight; bad for the players, who will be bored.

There are common problems players have to actively deal with themselves or else they will be in trouble

I briefly talked about this before. Problems the players get thrown at are rarely problems common to every character, and if they are, that is because the GM made the problem common to each character, not because the system helped with it.
Every character does their own thing, there is no crew the characters are members of, too, so that problems for the crew would be problems for each character. Hmm, crew … I heard of that before … Blades in the Dark!
As mentioned before, characters are rarely proactive, but just react to what the GM throws at them. There is no sandbox the players can have their fun in, but it is rather the GM leading them through a story.
The "or else they will be in trouble" part does not apply, as well. The world is already lost (the bad guys – Mega-Corps – have already won), and in case the characters actually are in deep trouble they will just leave the Sprawl. Even though it takes 20 Credits to "mechanically" retire, it can not cost 20 credits to just leave the Sprawl, and move another place, when you can buy Cutting Edge Cyberware and Military Drones for 8 Credits.

The story illuminates the inner conflict of the characters

The intention seemed to be, to do this via the directives of the characters, in my experience this did not work out well. The characters rarely used their directives, because, due to the Clocks, there is not much margin for error in the missions (I never even advanced Clocks as a GM move, only when the players told me to from a partial success result).
The only time a inner conflict of a character appeared in my group, I did not even expect it: I offered a character Credits to betray the group … And they accepted. To the effect, that the group was rich afterwards, thus did not have to work together anymore … Great.

Talking about directives:
The players not bringing their character directives into play meant that they were useless for leveling, and the only way of leveling was via mission directives. Thus one level every two missions, which was very predictable.
Leading me to my second hack: Removing the character directives for a Dungeon World alike Fail for XP system. While at it I also removed the mission directives, because they are planning from the GM's side, making the characters adhere to one plan, the GM thought about, rather than the characters being proactive and "Playing to find out".
Did I mention, that I am not a fan of hacking?

From my experience (as a GM, asking my players, and as a viewer of roll20 presents The Sprawl), The Sprawl is a mission based game where, if you squint a little, every mission is basically the same. But The Sprawl does not mention this anywhere (which would be bad marketing, to be honest).
The characters are dropped into the mission, and their backstories, quirks, etc. are irrelevant (especially, if you do it the suggested way of "GM preps lots"). This is what I wanted to escape from, with DnD, where characters are dropped into campaigns, too, and their backstory is irrelevant, too, so that the players in to end just play an Escape Room, to figure out how to win the Mission/Campaign.

Proactive characters in a sandbox (which is one of PbtA's main points) are not intended in The Sprawl.


The next bad thing: Downtime. It does not exist.

Using the normal rules, most things outside of the rigid mission-based structure do not work, because many moves break, when not in a mission. Mix it Up, Fast Talk and Play Hardball all have "Advance a clock" as a consequence to choose on a partial success, but if you are not in a mission, there is no mission clock to advance.


To advance a Corporate or Threat clock is, to quote the book, a hard move, so that is not available, too.


Except that Hamish Cameron says that this is okay. What??

Downtime needs rules, or at least an idea on how to deal with it, rather than handwaving everything. The book mentions the word downtime 2 times … Except for the Chromed move saying: "In downtime you get some Cyberware". Great, but How does Downtime work?! It feels like something is missing in The Sprawl. Is this The Sprawl Accelerated? Is there a The Sprawl Core somewhere?

No Downtime, no real character development. This does not mean, that the downtime system has to be horribly over-engineered! Take a look at Blades in the Dark for example. Blades in the Dark again …
The Blades in the Dark downtime system is so simple, but contributes so much. Especially in conjunction with the crew sheet (the "group character-sheet") it is way better than The Sprawl.
Even a simple "After each mission there is a Downtime phase, where every character gets two actions, they can be XYZ" would be better than … nothing.

Oh, yes. Nothing. Reminds me of Synth, the dump stat. Mostly useless, except for hacking, and maybe the Killer. But even the Killer in my campaign did not make good use of it. Why does every character have this stat?

Legwork and Mission Clocks

Shadowrun has the problem of players preparing for everything, so that the mission itself will be rather easy.
This can end well, meaning that the players planning worked out, and they did not miss an important thing.
More often this will end badly, though, because the players missed an important detail. The players can not plan for everything, some details will be missed, and it falls on the GM to change what they originally planned, so that the players are not completely screwed when they see, that the first obstacle is completely different from what they expected.
But in some cases (especially if you are not very experienced) you can not change your plan as a GM easily, meaning the players are going to have a very bad time.
Thus, back in the German version of my Shadowrun-Rant I recommended The Sprawl, because of its Clock-System, reducing planning.

However, reducing planning via Clocks is a double edged sword. It does reduce planning, but it reduces planning by saying:

No! Stop planning! Bad players! If you continue planning you will have a bad time later (i.e. when getting paid, the most important part)!

In the worst case this could lead to a stalemate scenario:

Be careful when planning; don't do anything risky. Just thinking, talking, thinking, talking. Don't take any risks.

Which is even worse than Shadowrun.
In contrast to Blades in the Dark, where all the planning is completely skipped, but you can plan things in hindsight, with Flashbacks. This uses Stress, but if you are 3 or more players the amount of Stress you have is enough to play with. Hmm … Blades in the Dark … again.
There are Flashbacks "Light" in The Sprawl via [Intel] and [Gear], yet they are not mighty enough to skip all planning, but only help in edge cases.

My GM side

As a GM I had to start hacking very quickly.
First the hack, that, at the end of a mission the players would choose the next mission from 3 suggestions (rather than the GM deciding on their own).
Then the Fail-For-XP hack and removed Directives. Near the end, when everyone was playing their own game, this lead to my group's Killer leveling far quicker, than the other, social, characters, because the Killer rolled a lot more dice via Mix it Up.
After the third session I was seriously considering removing the Getting Paid Move (because the option "You're getting paid in full" must be chosen, otherwise finances are a serious problem), and changing the Legwork Clock into a Stress resource, so that you can have 6 Flashbacks in a mission, just like in Blades in the Dark again!. But then I realized: What am I even doing here? Why am I hacking the hell out of this game? Why am I not playing Blades in the Dark?
I had a talk with another GM (who did not have my problems?), and gave The Sprawl another change. Results: The group got stacked with cash, and split up. Great.
Guess I have time for Blades in the Dark now.

As a GM I barely noticed my players not having fun, by the way (except later, when they split up, but it was pretty late then). If my players would not have told me, that they were unsatisfied, I would probably have continued playing for a while.
As the GM I was able to tell my story. The players were dragged along.
The "We depend on the missions, don't have a choice, and are poor souls" motif (a common thing in Cyberpunk) is represented very well by this, but this is no fun, when being a player.
Being dragged along, able to influence the now, but not anything bigger, makes the characters feel unimportant. Why play in the first place?
You do not notice this as the GM, though. The GM gets the interesting Mega-Corps, to play around with.

All these problems do not just seem to be me having to "git gud", but also flaws in the system itself.
Money is an obvious problem. Staking 2 Credits, to make a profit of 2 Credits in the end (3 is not worth it, because then Clocks advance, making the Getting Paid Move more risky). However, at the start the players have no equipment, meaning the 2 Credits they gain are spent immediately (before they even get their pay - thus not choosing "Getting paid in full" is a serious problem).
The GM choosing what the next mission is, without the players having a say, is intended, too. The example mission "Kurosawa Extraction" is exactly that.
If there is no Crew the characters are members of, and the relationships between the operatives are just business, they will not work together, unless they are poor. Thus they will eventually split up, once they are not poor. There is no requirement, that the characters are in a crew, or know each other, so they will split up eventually.
I already talked enough about Downtime being broken.

If, as a GM, you interpret the rules liberally, bring in a lot of your own thinking, maybe hack here and there, in order to actually make the story proactive, so that the players actually get a say (rather than, when being in character, just seeing the other characters as co-workers, they would rather not deal with), The Sprawl might work out.
But in that case I might as well play Shadowrun, or something else. Shadowrun supports me, when creating a proactive story, just as well, as The Sprawl does, but gives me more freedom outside of missions, while The Sprawl's intention seems to be: ACTION ACTION! THE CHARACTERS DO NOT REST! ACTION!


Oneshots are a completely different thing though!
All of my problems are problems with longer games. A Oneshot, where you can let everything blow up, and do not have to care about what your character might do in the next Session, because they now have every private police force hunting them, will work very well with The Sprawl.
The focus can be put on the Action, social characters do not have to be careful to not die – what is there to lose?
Payment is no problem, either, because after the session the game ends.
Having a proactive story can be very hard in a Oneshot, because the sandbox opens up after the first or second session, when the players know what the world is about.
Downtime is no concern in a Oneshot, either.
The characters will not split up to do their own thing, too, because the players do not even know, what their characters own things are, plus: It is the starting situation, where everyone is poor, and the players are forced to work together.

The Sprawl is a great Oneshot system. … Sadly, it is just that.