The Sprawl

The Sprawl

The Sprawl

0 comments 📅06 September 2017, 08:52

I’m taking a step away from the fantasy setting and will be doing something a little different for this article. Are you familiar with the Cyberpunk genre? Better yet, do you know that there is a tabletop RPG for it? I present to you The Sprawl.

Welcome to my Tavern

The Sprawl was written by creator Hamish Cameron. It was already in draft form when it began as a Kickstarter and just needed the money for printing costs. It smashed its goals earning approximately NZ (New Zealand)$18,000 ($13,192 USD) out of the requested NZ$2,500 ($1,832 USD).  He writes about it extensively on his Kickstarter page which you can find here:

What is Cyberpunk?

Imagine how the future was perceived back in the 80’s and 90’s: grungy aesthetics, green digital readouts, cords everywhere, dirty high tech machinery, giant corporations, more slums than suburbs, etc. These are traits that are commonly represented in movies set in the Cyberpunk setting like The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell (preferably the anime movies). Almost always there are ruling entities that pull the strings, but are not always the aggressors in a story. Morality is a complete gray area or non-existent. Media, money, and influence is power in a Cyberpunk world. The most important part, and what further separates Cyberpunk from stories like Battle Royale, Hunger Games, and Divergent are the blurring lines of humanity and machinery. Either the concept is being introduced in one-of-a-kind scenarios like the first Terminator movie, or it’s prolific and everyone has some sort of cybernetic part to their bodies. The scary thing is the apathy behind it all. A line from the 1995 Ghost in the Shell movie illustrates this point clearly when the main character, Kusanagi, explains to a co-worker why he is so valuable in their special task force team: “Aside from a slight brain augmentation, your body is almost completely human.” Now we have Cyberpunk and our setting for The Sprawl.

For a visual introduction, check out the 2012 trailer for CD Projekt RED’s Cyberpunk 2077 (when’s that damn game coming out?)

The Sprawl beautifully blends these aspects into its rule set and its narrative. Like many pen-and-paper RPGs, not all of the traits listed above are required to be in your game, but they certainly can be. The rulebook instructs players and the Master of Ceremonies (abbreviated as MC and The Sprawl’s Game Master) to create a fiction together. The mechanics implement this in a variety of ways.

You and your group are operatives in a world of corporations. Some of you may be owned or hunted by them. All players will have some connection to them. They will eventually begin coming after you as more game sessions, or Missions, are accomplished.

Somehow you and your group got together and are operating independently. You function as a private black ops group offering your services to the highest bidder. You may be owned by one corporation, but can be hired by another. Maybe you are hired by a gang or a sub group within a corporation or maybe just some rich asshole. It doesn’t matter, you are on the market for hire.

Though you may be hired by anyone for a Mission, you don’t necessarily need an employer for one. Maybe one of the corporations is getting nervous about you making a name for yourself and your group decides that it needs to take action before someone comes after you. Either way, each play session is treated like a mission with the exception of the first one.

The First Play Session

Definitely the coolest aspect in The Sprawl and the most influential for the group is the first play session. Unlike D&D where the first session requires characters and adventures to be ready to go, you are expected to walk in unprepared except for being familiar with the rule set. This session is meant for world building and the MC is instructed to use the results throughout the campaign.

Everybody, including the MC, takes a turn creating a megacorporation. This is not limited to a corporation in the classic sense, but can also be an oppressive government or a crime syndicate. The creator gives it a name, its specialization, and its influence on the world. These megacorporations give the MC clues to what players want to see in their games. For example, if a player creates a mercenary megacorporation that also specializes in bio-tech, players should expect to see bio-tech soldiers acting as muscle for their enemies or influencing the world at some point. A perfect example would be Final Fantasy 7’s Shinra Corporation which specializes in powering the city of Midgar while having its own private army of super soldiers.

After a player finishes their megacorporation and presents it to the group, they introduce their character and how that character is connected to the recently introduced megacorporation. Once all the players had a turn at this, the players then determine how they know each other and if they were involved with other megacorporations other than their own. Each megacorporation will have a rising interest in the group for each character that was involved with it. To determine exactly to what degree these corporations are interested in the group, the MC will keep a tally of how many characters are involved with the megacorporation in question. Each character-megacorporation relationship, as determined by the players, makes the characters bigger targets. This guides the beginning of the game. So it is possible for a single megacorp to be gunning for the group at the very beginning.

Playbooks, or classes

The game has ten classes, referred to as “playbooks”, that determine what kind of role your character specializes in. Each one has a skill set, or “Moves”, to choose from that influence the outcome of situations that come your way. They also have an array of weapons, gear, and cybernetic enhancement selections (it should be noted that each character must have at least one cybernetic enhancement). The cybernetic enhancements for the playbooks are interesting because it assumes that your character can’t afford it without the help of a megacorporation. A character can save up for the enhancement, but it will have some flaw (like it doesn’t always work as intended or it overheats and damages you sometimes). So the only way to have a properly functioning piece of cyberware is to be owned (like forced employment) or hunted (you ran away after some point and they’re coming after you) by a megacorporation. The player decides exactly how they came across their cyberware and equipment while the MC designs the Missions to reflect that. Everything about the character from their Moves, Cyberware, Gear, and Weapons can be customized with tags, which is indicated with a plus sign and one word description. A shotgun wielded by a character may have the +messy tag, which means it’s exceptionally powerful and exceptionally bloody. Tags can be both bonuses and disadvantages depending on actions made by the players. The book comes with a list of tags and their effects on play.

The playbooks are: driver, fixer, hacker, hunter, infiltrator, killer, pusher, reporter, soldier, and tech. Here is a brief excerpt about them from the book:

“The DRIVER plugs her car into her brain and roars off in a cloud of fumes and drones.

“The FIXER hooks people up with gear, jobs, friends, and trouble.

“The HACKER glides through computer networks taking what the job requires and more.

“The HUNTER searches the streets for whatever or whoever needs finding.

“The INFILTRATOR is a master of getting into secure places and doing bad things there.

“The KILLER uses bleeding edge technology to commit violence.

“The PUSHER wants to change the world, one mind at a time.

“The REPORTER uncovers the truth and exposes the guilty.

“The SOLDIER plans and executes missions in corporate wars.

“The TECH is the master of gear: building it, fixing it, and breaking it.”

These brief descriptions don’t really describe how the classes function, but each one has a specific role you would expect to find in a shadow operative group. The driver is basically the guy that gets you in and out of the scene. The Fixer finds the jobs and equips people with gear and contacts. The hacker can be your traditional hacker to find information and shut down security systems or can roam around in “The Matrix” like the movie. The Hunter is a bounty hunter of sorts, Infiltrator is a rogue, and the Killer is the muscle. The remaining playbooks get kind of vague from here on out. The Pusher is some sort of zealot or freedom fighter type character that uses a lot of diplomacy. You can be a religious nut or a rockstar, however you want to define your character being the Pusher. The Reporter is mechanically similar to the pusher but focuses on information gathering. The Soldier, as the name does NOT imply, is the corporate war specialist which can fill in a leadership position a la Maddock from A-Team. The tech makes and customizes gear.

Though an actual shadow operative group from fiction may have characters filling all of these roles, your play group will not. It is expected that the missions you receive will play to your characters strengths, not what they are lacking. If your group does not have a Driver, you shouldn’t expect to have a high speed freeway chase requiring a Driver’s expertise.

Stats and rolls

Characters have six stats in The Sprawl: Style (handle a situation with charisma), Edge (street smarts and urban survival), Cool (keeping your cool in stressful situations), Mind (thinking through problems logically), Meat (your strength, dexterity, and constitution rolled into one stat), and Synth (how well you interface with machines). They are assigned a value between -1 and +2. In further advancement, your stats can go up to +3.

Your Moves rely on these stats. Say that your skill requires you to roll Cool, you’ll roll 2d6 and add your stat for the result. Generally a result of 10 or higher is ideal for you. 7-9 works out but with implications of something going wrong (you scared off the thugs without a fight, but they will come back later better prepared). 6 or lower is basically a fail or a very poor success. Each Move has recommended results for the rolls.

Beyond the First Session

Each play session has four basic parts: Get the job, Legwork, Action, and Get Paid. You do not need to play them in order if you want to take an artistic approach but every session will have these four parts. The bulk of play is in the Legwork and Action.

The Legwork phase is how your characters prepare for the mission. They are specialists, the players are not. Because of this, a system is in place that represents how well your characters prepare. This is represented by “Intel” and “Gear” points. Successful rolls and cleaver story telling in the legwork phase will award these points to players and can be used later. Say a Hacker character bypasses the security system of someplace that the team needs to infiltrate later and was successful. The Hacker would get one or more intel points. Now let’s say that the team runs into a security force during the action phase. The hacker who earned the intel points can chime in and say “Remember when my character hacked in the security during the legwork phase? That’s the intel I found, so we actually planned for it and ambushed them.” The hacker would spend an Intel point as a result. Gear Points work similarly.

The action phase is where the mission occurs. The MC presents challenges to the players and the appropriate moves are made to overcome them. Both MC and players both drive the story; the MC will narrate situations while the players determine the results of high rolls and Intel/Gear Points.

Both the Legwork and the Action Phase can fail if the characters screw up enough times. The amount of times they can fail is represented by a countdown clock starting at 12:00 and ending at 24:00. In the above example, the same hacker who got the Intel point may have tripped an alarm in the process (by rolling between a 7-9), one of the possible results is that the countdown clock goes from 12:00 to 15:00, or 15:00 to 18:00 if it was already at 15:00. The further the clock advances in each phase, the higher the danger. And if any clock reaches 24:00, the mission fails and the team has to back out.

The goal is to go through all phases, get paid, and move onto the next mission.

So what do I think about it?

There are a lot of good points to The Sprawl. It’s a unique system that feels fresh in comparison to several other pen-and-paper RPGs. The overall setting can be vibrant depending on who is playing. The strongest point of The Sprawl lies in its world building properties. The players in the Nerddome D&D game didn’t have a choice on what world they’re playing in or how it interacts with them. The Sprawl however makes everybody interact with the world, simultaneously building while playing with it. By having a hand in its creation, the players become more and more invested in the game.

The Sprawl has a great way of making you and your character feel expendable when starting out. This is good because it acts as a deterrent from designing a character who loves chaos. You, as your character, wants to stay employed and being a dick doesn’t secure your livelihood. This eventually changes as you complete missions and advance. You can become a bigger threat to the fat cats around you and help shape the world. If your character survives long enough they can “retire” to live a life of luxury which effectively wins the game.

The playbooks I feel are a mixed bag. Though most are good, there are a few design choices that make me scratch my head. Why would a Reporter, being in the media spotlight, work in a shadow ops group? The best explanation I could think of would be to have an experience that’s akin to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo where one of the main characters was a reporter, yet hardly a shadow operative. The Pusher is another example of a playbook that seems misplaced. Despite its usefulness mechanically, do you really want a zealot in your operative group?

The Hacker, however, is the most well developed and interesting playbook by far. Most playbooks are designed to handle either the Legwork or Action phases exceptionally well while providing some aid in the other. An easy example is the Killer who is obviously meant wreck house in the Action Phase but is only a street tough during the Legwork. The Hacker is a master of both phases. Need Intel? Hack a computer system in the Legwork. Need to bypass security alarms? Hack it in the Action Phase. Want to be Neo from The Matrix? Lucky for you, there IS a Matrix in The Sprawl that you can plug into and fly around in. By the way, the Matrix seems to be exclusive to Hackers, meaning there is an entire digital world that’s only available to this particular class. It’s also the only playbook I can see a reason for having multiple people play at the same time.

The concept of everybody creating a narrative is a double edged sword. You are encouraged to create a fiction that propels everyone to play at the cost of the MC losing control of the game. This is taken to the extreme by having players explain what happens on a successful roll (10+) and dictate how their Intel/Gear points changes the situation. While I might do this sometimes in my own campaigns, I’d much rather use a system that gives me the choice to do so. Let me show an example where power is given to the players instead of the MC.

In The Sprawl, the physical action of hurting people is done through the Move titled “Mix it up”, which is a roll using your Meat stat. The description for this Move is as follows:

Mix It Up (MEAT)

When you use violence against an armed force to seize control of an objective, state the objective and roll Meat:

7+: You achieve your objective

7-9: Choose 2:
– You make too much noise. Advance the relative Mission clock
– You take harm as established by the fiction
– An ally takes harm as established by the fiction
– Something of value breaks

“Mix it up is the basic move for taking out enemies violently. Your objective when you mix it up should seldom be “kill everyone”. You’re professionals on a mission, not sociopaths. “Take control of the server room and make sure the security team doesn’t escape,” “escape the ambush,” and “buy the team enough time to get out of the lab” are more suitable objectives. This move is about using physical violence to impose your will upon your enemies. Dealing damage is a side effect.

“You can’t tailor your objective so that you avoid the consequences of your choice on a 7-9 result. If doing something quietly is an explicit part of the objective you might succeed, but be discovered after or during the action for some other reason, if you choose you make too much noise. If not being detected is important to you, don’t choose that option.”

This is pretty much physical combat.

There is a rule in game design that goes something like this: if you give the player a superior feature (like a weapon or some ability), expect them to always use it. Notice the use of the word “seldom” in the paragraph describing the move. This means that the rules acknowledge that situations could occur where you do need to kill everybody. And even if you can’t, what prevents irresponsible players from choosing an objective that dominates the field? The MC can include crazy repercussions if 7-9 is rolled, but a roll of 10+ makes that impossible. The MC could always say “No, I won’t let you do that”, but the rules won’t back them up..

Because of the lack of solid action-and-consequence rules, The Sprawl expects the players to be mature enough to not do something ludicrous when describing the results of their Moves. Rules are important in a Tabletop pen-and-paper RPG because otherwise it becomes more of an interactive story rather than an actual game. Though this may be what some people want, I would personally enjoy a bit more description in the rules for the MC the monitor. That’s just me though.


The Sprawl seems more of an interactive story telling mechanic than an actual game. The lack of descriptive rules for Moves and granting the players a lot of narrative power is the biggest reason for this. This will be an issue for some players and others may not find it a problem at all. The playbooks/character classes are interesting. Though none of them are bad, a lot of thought will need to go into creating missions for weird playbook choices. I would have a hard time making use of a group consisting of a Driver, Pusher, and corporate Soldier but I may just not be creative enough.

The good far outweighs the bad however. You end up wanting to try everything out when you read the better playbooks. No matter what you choose, The Sprawl expects the MC to be a fan of the characters and give them Missions that play to their strengths. And despite my gripes about the Moves system, it does work with responsible players that are interested in helping the creation of a great story. It reminds me more of interactive storytelling than a game, but there is nothing wrong with that. What really sells The Sprawl though is the set up phase. The players have an active role in creating the world and having a part in the story. A homebrew world can be fun on its own, but it becomes even better when you have a hand in creating it. And since all of the missions stem from that world building phase, you’re sure to have fun with the game for a while despite its short comings.

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