“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Neuromancer, William Gibson.
The future. Dark. Dirty. Dangerous. You’re loners, punks and criminals, marginalised by society through birth, choice or violence. Parasites, living symbiotic existences in the shadows cast by the arcologies, feeding from the scraps dangled by the megacorporations and then scurrying back to the shadows to avoid their dismissive, destructive gaze. Those vast multinational corporations — “Zaibatsus”, some call them — squat over everything, pulling the strings, controlling the flow of money, information, goods, and people. Governments scamper around their feet, begging for scraps. Hydrophilic lubricious polymers and automated cleaners keep their arcologies shining amidst the grey-brown urban sprawl which surrounds them. Corporate financial muscle pushes people around the city like blood. The megacorporations. Humanity’s most successful artificial organism.
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Cyberpunk adventures often follow a common format, which dates back to one of the first seminal works of Cyberpunk fiction, William Gibson's Neuromancer. A group of criminals (the party) is contacted by a corporate representative to commit a crime against a rival corporation, such as sabotage or assassination. The party plans and executes their mission, and then attempts to get paid without being stabbed in the back by their employer.
Overtime this formula has become more established in RPGs. For instance, the game Shadowrun has a name for these missions ("shadow runs"), a name for the corporate contact ("Mr. Johnson"), and so on. But The Sprawl takes all this to the next level, by adding game mechanics for the entire process.
Powered by the Apocalypse
Since The Sprawl is a Powered by the Apocalypse game, it utilizes a PbtA mechanic, "clocks", heavily to achieve this. But at the same time, as a PbtA game, the emphasis is on keeping the plot moving, not on mechanical details.
For instance, in the planning phase of missions PCs can spend their efforts to acquire unspecified gear or intelligence (ie. a "hold"). Then, during the mission, they can spend a hold to (retroactively) have collected some desired gear/intelligence during that time. This conceit saves the PCs from having to think through every last possible detail at the table, so there's still a short planning phase but then everyone can quickly get to the action. However, "simulationist"-style gamers may not appreciate this sort of "revisionist history" gameplay.
The Sprawl, First Edition - Rules SummaryCollapse
Character Creation [ edit ]
Before character creation even begins, the entire group (including the Master of Ceremonies, ie. GM) each names and describes a single mega corporation or similar power group (eg. government, criminal organization). These entities will shortly become the game's antagonists, and are an important part of the campaign.
Next, as a PbtA system, each player chooses one of ten "playbooks", which are essentially a combination class/character sheet. Each playbook gets stat bonuses, gear (including cyber gear), a set of unique "moves" (ie. action options), and a choice of various other benefits.
For instance, the Hacker playbook gets several stat bonuses, but the top two have to be allocated to Synth and Mind. They get the moves "Jack in" (to the matrix) and Console Cowboy (hack a secure system), start with a cyberdeck and either a weapon or armor (along with some cybernetic data implants) and can choose one additional move. That move could let them immediately jack out when attacked by "black ice", or they could be famous in the matrix, letting them use their Synth state for social rolls within it.
And in case you're wondering, Synth is one of the six stats in The Sprawl, representing how well the character interfaces with tech. There's also Style (Charisma), Edge (street smarts), Cool (ability to remain calm under pressure), Mind (Intelligence), and Meat (Constitution).
Some playbooks have additional choices to make. For instance the Driver playbook begins with a vehicle, which the character has to customize, while the Fixer playbook actually starts with two minor criminal underlings, and has to select what each one is good at (eg. petty theft, debt collection, or surveillance)
Core Mechanics [ edit ]
As a PbtA system The Sprawl uses a 2d6 whenever an action's success needs to be determined. The player rolls 2d6, adds the appropriate stat, and then if the result is at least a 7 it results in a "hit". A 7-9 is considered a weak hit, while a 10+ is a strong hit.
A roll with a strong hit achieves the desired goal, but a weak hit or even a failure could still achieve that goal. However with a weak hit the character will either only get most of what they wanted, or they'll achieve all of it but suffer some sort of complication or other downside. With a failure the GM decides whether the desired action succeeds or not, but if it does it will be similarly be accompanied by some "strings attached".
As a PbtA system everything the players (or MC) does is as a "move". Each playbook gets a set of unique moves, but all characters can chose from a set of "basic moves", as well as a set of "Special Moves" that only apply in certain circumstances. Every move has a corresponding stat (used when making the roll for that move).
To use a move the player describes the action they want their character to take, and then the MC decides which move is appropriate and has them make the appropriate roll. For instance, a player wanting to collect information might "Hit the Street" (a Style move), while one who moved to higher ground for a better shot would "Manoeuvre" (Mind), and one who wanted to beat up a gangster would "Mix it Up" (Meat).
Whenever the player fails at a move, the MC then gets to make an "MC Move". In addition the MC can also make a move when the players are waiting for something to happen, or when "the fiction demands it."
In general the MC should use these moves to make the world feel "dirty, high-tech and excessive", to make the PC's lives interesting, and to "see what happens". The MC has a wide variety of moves to accomplish this from "use up their resources" to "offer an opportunity" to "foreshadow a future complication".
They also have a set of "mission moves" (eg. "raise the alarm"), corporate moves (eg. "terminate a problem"), and "site moves" which they can choose from at the appropriate time. That last one, "site moves", can be different for various areas in the campaign world; for instance, a slum are might have the move "highlight desperation or kill someone's dream".
In addition to moves, another key concept in The Sprawl is a "clock". A clock represents a sort of "countdown to midnight", and looks like this:
1500 1800 2100 2200 2300 0000
As the clock "counts down" (triggered by in-game events) the GM crosses off entries from left-to-right.
Mission and Corporate Clocks
For instance, during a mission the GM maintains two clocks, one for how much noise the party makes, and the other for how well their opposition notices their efforts on their own. On the campaign level, each corporation has a clock to track how much they know (and are willing to act against) the PCs.
This "clock" mechanism helps to make the game flow and fit it's cyberpunk setting in a more natural/organic way. For instance, the corporate clock is meant to tick down because, as the rule book notes "The corporations are like sleeping lions. You don’t want to poke them; they’ll take your arm off. The Sprawl is about poking those lions."
Combat [ edit ]
Because The Sprawl is a PbtA system it doesn't have the concept of "initiative" or "rounds" the same way as traditional RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. Instead, combat is handled in the same way as action outside of combat: the players describe what they do, the GM decides the order things happen in, and then the appropriate rolls are made.
An entire fight might be resolved in a single "Mix it Up" move ... or it might involve a series of Manoeuvre, Act Under Pressure, etc. moves.
Weapons and Armor
Weapons in The Sprawl have relatively simple stats, just an amount of harm, a "range tag", and then possibly other tags such as "loud" or "armor piercing". For instance a Heavy Pistol deals 3 harm at close range, and is loud.
Armor is similarly simple, providing a harm reduction value (up to 3), possibly with tags (eg. a military hardsuit has 3 armor, but is clumsy).
If a character is hit by a weapon they reduce the damage by their armor, and then suffer the rest. Instead of hit points, characters use a "harm clock" to track their injuries. A character on the lower end of the clock has minor injuries, while one closer to the end needs medical attention (and one at midnight needs an ambulance immediately).
In addition, whenever a character suffers damage they have to make a Harm roll. Instead of using a stat, this roll adds the amount of damage taken, and if the result is 7 or more the character suffers some further harm.
On a 7-9 that harm might only be that the character is knocked over, or drops something they are carrying, but on a 10+ the character could lose a limb, a cybernetic part, or be knocked unconscious (as decided by the MC.)
But Should You "Sprawl Out"? [ edit ]
Having first been released in 2016 from an independent publisher (Ardens Ludere, the brainchild of New Zealand developer Hamish Cameron), The Sprawl hasn't been able to bring in the accolades and reviews as systems from bigger name publishers. However, the game is published in multiple languages, and as a result managed to be nominated for a prestigious Italian gaming award in 2018, the Gioco_di_ruolo_dell'Anno award.
Of course, the real test of a game isn't what awards committees think of it ... it's what everyday gamers think ... and by that measure the game is clearly a success. RPG Geek has 17 reviews for it, with an average of 7.63/17, ranking it 205th out of all RPGs on the site (quite a coup for such a small publisher). Similarly on Drive Thru RPG (which, due to printing issues has two version of the core rulebook) the game received a combined total of 129 reviews, with an average score of 4.7/5.
Not For Everyone, But Great for Narrative Cyberpunk
Of course, a game without even an initiative system, let alone a battle map, won't appeal to any gamer looking for a more tactical experience, and some of the other more narrative elements (such as the "holds" for inventory and gear that can be used retroactively) will similarly not appeal to everyone.
But if you're looking for a cyberpunk RPG with all the meta rules (eg. corporate clocks) to keep the cyberpunk feel, but at the same time a light enough core rules system to keep the story going, without getting bogged down with exactly how many hit points of damage you deal to that security guard you just attacked ... The Sprawl will likely be the perfect way for you to experience any cyberpunk world your group can imagine!