Over the years I have played dozens of different tabletop roleplaying games, but only a couple of them had the staying power for me and my friends of my 90’s obsession with Shadowrun.
Shadowrun is the classic cyberpunk-with-magic genre mashup games of amoral mercenaries with cybernetic enhancements, brain-to-Matrix interfaces and/or magic powers – aka Shadowrunners – working for and against rapacious megacorporations, criminal networks and/or corrupt governments, any of which might be run by immortal elves, rogue AIs or a dragon.
Conceptually, Shadowrun is basically the perfect setting for action-packed escapist roleplaying – it’s got monsters, magic, guns, implacable alien enemies and computer software that can melt your brain (plus occasionally meatier themes such as racism and corruption, but those are easy to ignore if you just want your troll street samurai to blast security goons with your Panther Assault Cannon).
I loved the game, but it has to be said that the rules were often very clunky. Lots of dice, lots of procedures, and very little elegance in the ways the subsystems fitted together. (It was the nineties, and that’s the way things were back then). A firefight took ages to run, vehicle combats were a fiddly drag, and if the team’s decker logged into the Matrix to run a cyber-intrusion on some heavily fortified corporate databse, the rest of the group could probably go and watch a movie while they waited. It was slooooow.
Cut to the modern era of gaming, and the descendants of the indie gaming revolution. Character interaction is prioritised. Decisive moments like life and death plot events are resolved with a single roll. Failure is embraced as an exciting narrative branching point rather than a grinding pain in the arse. It’s faster (or at least, it is with some games)
The Sprawl, by Ardens Ludere, is a Powered by the Apocalypse game, which is to say it uses the design principles and systems of Apocalypse World (featured in other popular games like DungeonWorld, MonsterHearts and Monster of the Week). PbtA games are one of the big dogs of mid-complexity, character-focused tabletop systems. And so far, The Sprawl is my favourite iteration of the system.
Unlike Shadowrun, The Sprawl is straight cyberpunk science fiction with no supernatural elements (boo, no spell-flinging orc shamans).
But what it lacks in magical bears, it makes up for in system elegance. The characters are intimately tied both to each other and to the megacorporations through a round-robin setup phase: a player describes an event from their character’s past (black ops mission, criminal investigation, crime etc) and each other player decides whether and how they were involved. This not only provides historical links between the characters, but also puts their activities on the megacorporations’ radars. Which, to be clear, is a bad thing. Characters want paying work from the corps, but they definitely want to remain in the shadows – they exist in the spaces between terrifying giants, and life becomes short and cheap when they call the thunder down upon themselves.
The Sprawl doesn’t let the players avoid the storm for long, however. Every action they take (especially the ones that go wrong, or get too loud) advances one of many doomsday clocks, counting down toward the point where the character graduate from being beneath their enemies’ notice to being an irritation to be dealth with. Attack helicopters may become involved at this point.
I’ve been playing a Sprawl campaign for the past couple of months now and I can honestly recommend it as one of the best systems for near-future urban decay cyberpunk games I’ve played. The countdown clocks are elegant and effective – every player decision feels appropriately like it has the Sword of Damocles hanging above it. At the same time, a botched roll or a bad choice may complicate matters but they don’t grind play to a halt as sometimes happened in the bad old days.
And the paranoia of the genre – not knowing which of your mercenary associates will betray you and when – is built into the game in a way that feels urgent and uncomfortable. The whole game is a pressure cooker with few reliable release valves other than fighting or running for your life.
Give it a run.