Monthly OneShot Reflections: The Sprawl

Last week I ran the second of my Monthly OneShots at the fantastic Sugar & Dice gaming cafe here in Liverpool. System of the month: The Sprawl.

Unlike the first month where I had run a well polished adventure for the Firefly RPG this was my first time running The Sprawl, or any PbtA game for that matter. I’d read through the rules and completed some minimal prep, focused around the setup and a couple of possible locations to introduce early on. I’d also jotted down a few notes on possible Corporations to introduce into play. While this goes against the general flow of the rules I’d taken the idea from the introductory ‘Downtown Dataheist’ adventure. Looking back I wish I’d gone further and followed the structure of that mission entirely. Or, in what would have been a smarter move, run that mission.

The Job

The mission was relatively simple. Infinitive Cascade, an up and coming RetroSynth DJ with the N/A/R Corporation had approached a rival Corp about a possible lucrative switch. All the team had to do was extract them before they completed their sold-out set the next day, with a substantial bonus if they could leak the first track from Cascades new album, Millennial MashUp.

Due to a number of last minute drop-outs the team was down to only two. Binary, an infiltrator and the tech head Jim Jones, who preferred to operate remotely through his twin drones. Hitting the streets Jones successfully tracked down Cascades hotel by tapping into the fan following that had grown up around the young DJ. Binary meanwhile acquired tickets to the gig through a fixer they had previously worked with. The price? The head of a rival fixer and triad member operating out of the Liverpool Automated Docks. That proved no match for their skills and yielded the bonus of discovering a concealed, two seater microlite used by the gangs to move goods in and out of the city.

Binary, supported by the drones, infiltrated the arcology in which Cascades hotel could be found via an old drainage system. A lack of research into the tunnels meant they were caught unaware by the automated security turret and Binary took a trio of flechette rounds to one shoulder in the process of destroying it. With Binary making his way to the hotel penthouse Jones’ drones ran interference, they succeeded in distracting the security team but in doing alerted them to the presence of trouble. With time running out Binary was forced to skewer two security guards on his katana before dragging Cascade to the roof for extraction via the microlite.

The job complete, albeit in a rather noisy manner, the team retreated to their hideout. Arriving at the pre-arranged exchange point they were surprised to find themselves paid in full, no questions asked. The reason soon became apparent, as the Corporate fixer put a bullet in Cascade’s head, calmly remarking that “posthumous albums always sell so well” before departing.

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Reflection on the mission

I came out of the game with extremely mixed feelings as to how it had gone. Part of this was down to how well the previous Monthly OneShot had gone and I had to remind myself repeatedly that that was using an adventure I had run 6+ times. My frustration stemmed from a couple of points.

Firstly, the players. We had some last minute drop-outs, which threw me somewhat. One of the players was also on the verge of being a problem. I wouldn’t go as far as saying he was disruptive, more like irritating. He kept trying to explain aspects of the genre and talked over myself and the other player more than once. It got on my nerves and is something I shall have to watch for in the future. Both were also new to PbtA, so drawing them on adding to the world was difficult.

As for the system, I found parts of it difficult. For a 4 hour game I think trying to do full character creation, plus generating Corporations and a mission is going to near impossible without a table of players that know the flow of PbtA games (and ideally know The Sprawl). I glossed over entire sections of the game, sections that are interesting and make it stand out such as the links between characters and the Corporations in play. I had written a few notes as to possible Corporations but with how the mission played out they weren’t required.

The players made no attempt to dig deeper that they had to and completed only the minimal amount of legwork required. Part of this was my mistake, during the legwork phase we played out a few scenes in more detail than was probably required. Looking over Downtown Dataheist again I should have gone with a quicker tell me what you do, roll, tell me how it turns out approach. It sacrifices detail but would have allowed them to get through more legwork in the limited time available.

During the Action phase I struggled the most with the Clocks. When to progress the Action clock was the main one and I wish the game had some more concrete rules for doing so. As it is I could see myself never pushing it to midnight as that’s an instant fail for the team based on an arbitrary decision. Instead I suspect I’d just keep throwing more at them until they decided the mission was a bust or died trying. Which isn’t fun. I may need to write my own directives in future for when to raise it, off the top of my head I think I would go with:

When a player rolls a double 1.
When a character takes out a corporate asset that will be missed.
When the characters act against a Corporation in the open.

I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to play the system again. I would like to. I love the genre and based on reading alone I want t love the system. Ideally I think I need to find a table of PbtA players, unfortunately those are few and far between around here.

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Engaging from the start…

I ran my first session of D&D 5e this week and despite my issues with the d20 system in general I think my response on twitter summed up the experience:

Why did it feel so good to get back to the role of GM? Partially because I have always preferred it to being a player. I like the role of setting up scenes and watching them play out. I like having to gauge the impact of PC actions on the bigger picture. Most of all I like seeing the response of players as they realise what is going on or come up with a solution I couldn’t have foreseen (as the Happyjacks hosts are fond of saying the GM should create problems, not solutions).

The other reason it felt so good was that I went in with a plan to engage the players and I feel like it worked. I was GMing in what is best described as a community campaign akin to the Adventurers League. There’s a pool of players and GMs but each session will see a different combination of them come together. The big difference though is that there are no parallel sessions of the same adventure. Every session is a unique and self-contained standalone adventure set within the wider campaign world. The starting point for any adventure is the players, they state what their character is investigating or up to and then put a group together.

It’s not the easiest way of doing things. Individual sessions can be a little disjointed with only loose tie-ins to those that came before. For this, my first session, I had to prep an adventure based on brief summaries from one player and the previous GM. Not the easiest of asks, even for an experienced GM. It also had to engage the players in such a way that they would want to follow up on it, to generate enough interest in the events that it could become a plot in its own right.

This meant having a plan – introducing a new faction that could make an immediate impact and that had the potential for being a long-term threat. So in came a heretical cult within the ranks of Lathander that place particular importance on the divide between day and night, for the sun can only rise if it has first set. To establish their importance I put the party in position to witness (and ultimately disrupt) a ritual that had taken place hundreds of years before. It explained why nobody had ever heard of the cult and presented a clear threat to the established status quo in the present.

For me, as the GM, it also presented a way to engage long term with the wider setting as I’ll be able to build up the details of the threat over multiple sessions if and when the players engage with it. Given one of them is already planning a follow-up I’d count it as a success.