The Sprawl Play Report — Session 5

Motor City Madness

Note: This is the final entry in a series of retrospectives on running The Sprawl for my local gaming group. I’d recommend you start with part 1 to get some background.

Welcome back, operatives. Last week our team worked through the legwork phase of their latest job: escorting a shipment of food through the streets of Old Detroit, on behalf of Kellogg’s Artificial Nourishment. Kellogg’s suspected that a third party; which turned out to be their shipping partner, Fail Safe Corporation (FSC); was going to attempt to sabotage the delivery.

The characters had a string of mostly great rolls, which set them up with an abundance of gear, intel, and mostly-favorable conditions. This included the name of the person leading the counter-op: Warsaw. On top of that, the team’s Infiltrator, Zero, had managed to switch their shipment with that of a decoy, hopefully ensuring that the goods would be delivered either way. With the preamble wrapped up, it was time to get to the action.

Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It…

As I mentioned in my previous report, these two sessions don’t exactly line up with the corresponding play reports; the team actually began the action phase last week, but were still playing, so I didn’t want to post the mission clocks then. Now that the operation has been completed, I can lay out the stakes.

Legwork Clock

  • 12:00 — Everything’s fine.
  • 15:00 — FSC’s operatives hear rumors that someone is looking for them, and gets more careful: -1 forward to Research.
  • 18:00 — The two teams are stepping on each other’s toes as the mission draws near. -1 forward to Hit the Streets.
  • 21:00 — FSC is alerted, and scraps the hit at the port. Advance the Action Clock.
  • 22:00 — FSC has some counter intelligence on Kellogg’s plan. Advance the Action Clock.
  • 23:00 — FSC has concrete intel on who is leading Kellogg’s team. Advance the Action Clock.
  • 00:00 — FSC knows everyone on the team, and what their plan is. Advance the FSC clock.

Action Clock

  • 12:00 — FSC is unaware, and their mission remains unchanged.
  • 15:00 — FSC knows their team or plan have been compromised, and their operatives are on edge.
  • 18:00 — The FSC team brings heavier gear to hit the shipment than they need; grenades, assault rifles and armored jackets.
  • 21:00 — FSC doesn’t trust their operatives to complete the mission on their own, and sends in a Fisher-Price & Wesson commando.
  • 22:00 — FSC brings in additional commandos to assist (x2).
  • 23:00 — FSC authorizes the use of air support.
  • 00:00 — FSC gives the purge order; FPW commandos kill both teams of operatives and destroy the shipment.

I chose FSC for this mission for two reasons: (1) the characters hadn’t had any encounters with them, and (2) because I had been wanting to bring them in ever since session 0, when our players created Fail Safe as a company who deliberately self-sabotages in order to get large bailouts from the government. That idea had been so absurd that I couldn’t end the campaign without leaning on it at least once. In this case, I figured that FSC would get paid for the successful delivery of Kellogg’s shipment but, due to some byzantine cyberpunk contract negotiations, would get paid more if the delivery failed.

If FSC at some point decided that their contractors weren’t doing well, they could call in additional resources from Fisher Price & Wesson, in the form of a hardened spec-ops team. Given that the player characters were given to maximum violence, I thought the resulting carnage would make a great capstone to the campaign.

Since the characters had done so well in legwork, it meant that (once again) my penalties for that phase never had a chance to manifest. This is a testament to the elegant design of the system (by which I mean most PBtA games); while I had created an escalating system of consequences, I hadn’t had to do tremendous amounts of prep for things that might never be required. Therefore, I wasn’t upset when the characters didn’t engage with my “hard” work.

Convoy

Legwork complete, the team headed down to the docks of Lake Eerie to pick up the shipment and get moving. Given that this game takes place in the future, the trucks in question were actually drones; they could be driven by human operators, but didn’t have to be. Once they had the trucks, the team quickly assembled a plan; Riyoh the Pusher, who had an implant for remote-controlling drones, would sit in one of the trucks and pilot them both. Nikki the Tech would be in the second truck to provide cover with her grenade launcher. Zero the Infiltrator would take up the rear in the car he was “borowing” from Python the Hunter, who was absent for the first part of this mission. Leading the pack would be Henry the Killer, who quickly stole a motorcycle for the purpose.

The group decided that, this being the cyberpunk future and all, these trucks would have augment-reality advertising running along the sides. As the drones belonged to Kellogg’s, the default mode for these ads would be a simple Kellogg’s branding. Wanting to be discreet, Zero decided he would swap the current branding for that of Bud Light Optics, hoping this would throw off any observers. Unfortunately for Zero, he just barely succeeded. Zero’s player decided that while the Infiltrator had found a BLO advertising package, it was extremely garish and eye catching; a giant floating bottle of Bud Light hovered over the trucks, and streams of bubbles trailed the convoy while the advertising was in place. While this hid the true identity of the convoy, it had the opposite effect when it came to keeping the group low-key.

I ticked the action clock up to 15:00.

The convoy slowly wound its way through Old Detroit, herded along the only route available to it. Everywhere the characters looked, alternative routes were either under construction or otherwise blocked off. As the team approached a large underpass (think the Dark Knight), Henry was struck by an IED, and his motorcycle went skidding off into a pylon. Unwilling to compromise the mission, Riyoh gunned it and the rest of the convoy plowed through the flames and down under the main streets. As Zero’s car slipped beneath the main road, two junker buggies (ala Fury Road) slipped in behind the remaining vehicles, guns blazing as they tried to overtake the convoy.

Nikki tried to shake the trailing vehicles loose with a shot from her grenade launcher, but she rolled poorly and missed. In the mean time, their attackers were trying to block off their escape by way of parking a dump truck in front of the exit from the underpass. Riyoh attempted to hack the dump truck and move it out of the way, but she also failed. With the opposing operatives now aware that their targets had drone hacking capabilities, I upped the action clock to 18:00.

Their exit blocked, and with enemies in close pursuit, Zero decided it was his time to shine. Gunning the engine of the car, the Infiltrator burst past the leading trucks and crashed headlong into the dump truck, stopping it from blocking the exit in a spectacular explosion of glass, steel, and gasoline.

Luckily for him, Henry wasn’t out of the fight.

As his bike had skidded into a pylon, Henry had succeeded in rolling and avoiding the worst of the damage. The Killer came to rest at the feet of one of Warsaw’s thugs. Before his enemy could make a move, Henry kicked his synthetic nerves into high gear, and blew a hole in the unfortunate thug with his loud, breaching shotgun. That had given Henry just enough time to right his bike, blaze a trail past the buggies, and scoop Zero out of danger at the very last second (he rolled very well to assist Zero).

It was pretty slick, and all of my players were excited to see it come off so well.

As they cleared the trap set for them in the underpass, the group took a moment to get a sense of their situation. Nikki, who hadn’t been rolling terribly well this session, managed to spot a dark, ominous vehicle shadowing them from a few streets over. While she couldn’t make out who it was, she let the rest of the team know they were still being pursued by Warsaw’s crew.

Since the team wasn’t privy to the action clock, they had no way of knowing that the vehicle following them wasn’t Warsaw’s. While Zero and Henry had pulled off an awesome stunt, the fact is that those kind of theatrics were bound to get attention; in this case, the clock ticked up to 21:00, which let me send in the FPW assassin. To be fair, this was kind of a raw deal — the team had done well, and since they hadn’t failed in any meaningful way, I should have laid off the stakes. But, this being the final session of the campaign, I wanted to give them a tough fight. Maybe you can forgive me for bending the rules in this case, or maybe not. I’d love to hear your thoughts, either way.

Rail Yard Blues

With the dangers of the streets behind them, the convoy, including the two vehicles pursing them, roared into the rail yard and made for the drop-off location. Their progress was quickly stopped, however, when they ran into a literal roadblock; Warsaw’s crew had the presence of mind to drop two shipping containers into the main drive leading to the rail depot. The two buggies pulled in behind the team, and the stage was set for the final showdown.

Things got off to an appropriately violent start.

Henry, with Zero riding behind him on his battered chopper, had been leading the convoy. When the Killer saw the shipping containers looming on the road in front of them, he tried to bring the bike to a skidding halt, after-which he would effortlessly slip off and start shooting. Too bad he rolled so poorly. Instead of pulling an Akira-style dismount, the bike slid out from under the riders, crushing Zero’s leg and sending Henry tumbling across the yard.

With two of their quarry down, the opposing operatives leapt from their vehicles, guns blazing. One made for the truck Nikki was in, and she dispatched with a burst of rifle fire as he approached. The other skirted around her truck and made for Riyoh, in the lead truck. Riyoh’s player was unable to attend our final session, and had asked me to write her out in an appropriately dramatic way. Nikki heard the sound of a vehicle door opening, followed by the staccato beat of a submachine gun, and the crackling hiss of Riyoh’s mono-molecular whip. By the time Nikki could look to her colleague, the Pusher and her assailant were both dead; killing each other in a brutal exchange of violence.

While the immediate threat had passed, the team was still blocked from going any further. Henry and Zero were down (but not out), Riyoh was dead, and Nikki was trying to come up with the best way to move the shipping containers. It was at this point that Python the Hunter, who had been absent for the last two sessions, arrived.

It had been established that Python had been sick, probably from eating some spoiled Kellogg’s product, and had been unable to participate. It was Python’s (previously Abel Kaine’s) car, in fact, that Zero had “borrowed” and subsequently crashed into the dump truck.

The Hunter came onto the scene, quickly assessed the situation, and decided the best way to help is companions would be to remove the roadblock. With that in mind, he made for a nearby crane, and ran smack into a Fisher Price & Wesson operative.

Henry’s crashing of the bike had given me the roll I needed as GM to tick the action clock up one more notch, to 22:00. This activated the additional commandos, and the three of them had fanned out through the maze of shipping containers. One had positioned himself near the crane, knowing it would the be the logical place for the team to go. Another was set up in a sniper’s nest, and the third was stalking his way through the yard to pick off anyone who still remained at the roadblock.

Python did not roll as well as his companions had, and things went poorly for him. The Hunter took an extreme amount of damage in just two rolls, while also wounding, but failing to kill, his opponent.

While Python was fighting for his life elsewhere, Henry was struggling to his feet. A loud shot rang out, and the driver-side window of Nikki’s truck shattered all over the Tech seated in the cab. Henry, knowing the sound of a sniper rifle when he heard one, bolted into the labyrinth of containers to find the shooter. Zero, in the meantime, had dragged himself into the maze as well, and just in time. The third and final FPW operative slipped into kill zone, and, seeing a trail of blood leading between some of the cargo containers, ignored the trucks in favor of an easy kill. Free from immediate threats, Nikki slipped past Riyoh’s body and into the truck she had been driving. The Tech eased the vehicle forward, and started trying to push the roadblock out of the way.

Give it One More Shot, Kid

Zero hadn’t rolled well enough to completely escape the pursuing assassin, but he had been successful, which let him take the advantage away from his pursuer. Also, the Infiltrator had a move he could roll for these situations; a roll which went far better for him than his previous one. As the FPW hired gun swept around the corner, he found a partially open shipping container with a trail of crimson leading to it. The operative slipped up to the half-open door, opening it further to investigate. At this point, Zero sprang his trap, and with a tremendous effort, pushed the operative inside the container and slammed the door.

There was hiss and a crackle, the smell of ozone, and the operative collapsed into multiple pieces; each charred and cauterized by the heat of Zero’s mono-molecular whip. Having done so well on his Infiltrator move, Zero had prepared a quick trap by slinging his whip up in the entrance of the container. It was a crude but effective means of dispatching his foe. With his pursuer dead, Zero righted himself on his good leg, and made off to find his teammates.

While Zero had been dealing with his assassin, Henry had been tracking another. The Killer rolled well to assess where the sniper might be hiding, and in short order had come across a squat tower of containers, the barrel of a gun peaking out from the top of it. Henry quickly vaulted up the side, and was confronted by none other than the leader of the FPW commandos. The Killer kicked his synthetic nerves into gear, hoping for an advantage, but was surprised to find that his quarry moved just as quickly as he did. Henry’s hand went to his machete, hoping his shear ferocity would give him the edge in the fight. But where Henry was a blunt instrument, this commando was a well-trained killing machine. Henry rolled poorly, and before he knew it he found himself falling backwards off the makeshift tower. He hit the ground with a thud and a crack, and the commando came down on him hard, landing in an expert roll before positioning himself above the prostrated Killer. Things were looking bad for Henry.

Python, in the meantime, had finally managed to dislodge himself from the third commando. The Hunter got off a mortal, but not instantly lethal, shot against his opponent, and used that to once more make for the crane. He had just enough time to activate the device before the FPW commando came up behind him, slashing him with a combat knife. As the crane roared to life and began to lift one of the containers blocking the trucks, Python was locked in a hand-to-hand struggle for his life.

Nikki, on the other hand, was having a better time than the rest of the team. She had made slow but considerable progress in pushing her way through the roadblock, and with the cranes now helping, was soon past it. As she came around a corner, she spotted Python fighting with his assailant. The Tech leaned out of her window, aimed her assault rifle, and with Python holding the commando at bay, shot the attacker in the head. The Hunter, grateful for the help, quickly hopped into the cab with Nikki and made for the drop-off point.

While Nikki and Python were closing in on the objective, Henry was staring at his soon-to-be killer. At that moment, however, Zero appeared around the corner, and shot the commando with a taser. The Infiltrator spent some intel to establish that while the FPW gear would be good against lethal weapons, it wouldn’t be as robust against non-lethal damage. Zero rolled well, and told the operative that he could leave with his life, or stay, and lose it. I decided at this point the enemy would realize his own squad was dead, and would withdraw to fight another day. With this threat neutralized, Zero helped Henry to his feet, and the two of them helped each other limp towards the objective.

Zero, who had never killed anyone in his life before this, told Henry what he’d done to the operative in the shipping container, expressing some confusion and regret. Henry, never a man to mince words, told the Infiltrator “Give it one more shot kid, before you decide to swear off it.”

The team had a pretty good laugh at that.

Warsaw Fizzles

Henry and Zero soon joined Nikki and Python at the drop-off point, and found themselves in a sad scene. Several Kellogg’s employees were dead around them, and Nikki had stopped the trucks just short of the cranes that would unload them. Standing above them, massive rocket launcher on his shoulder, was Warsaw.

Henry, in true action-movie style, told the rest of the team to leave. Nikki and Python, remembering that Zero had switched shipments in the previous session, obliged. After all, assuming the “decoy” made it to Denver, their job was done. Zero, also in action-movie style, stubbornly refused, and stayed with the Killer.

Warsaw gloated and monologued a tiny bit, with Henry peppering insults back at him. Then, the moment came, and Warsaw pulled the trigger. Henry spent some intel, knowing that he’d had Warsaw’s arms dealer sabotage the rival operatives gear in the previous session. He and Zero used that intel to get a bonus to their rolls to Act Under Pressure, and they both succeeded. Warsaw’s sabotaged rocket launcher misfired, giving Henry and Zero the chance to gun him down. With the last threat dispatched, the mission came to an end.

“You were right,” Zero said. “It was easier the second time.”

Last Lessons and Final Thoughts

And that was it. With our final (for now) session wrapped, my players and I took a few minutes to discuss the game. Two of them said it was one of the best games they’d played in, which of course meant a lot to me. I enjoyed it, as well, though, as always, I had some take-aways.

The fact is, in my desire to keep things moving along quickly, and to give everyone the opportunity to shine, I hadn’t brought many of the tools at my disposal to bear. For instance, I hadn’t made use of the shipments being switched. Had the action clock made its way to midnight, I probably would have destroyed the “decoy” train, thus ending the mission. That being said, I didn’t use that threat in any way, which might have added more drama to the mission.

I also didn’t bring either BLO or the Madmen into play. Both of their clocks were high enough to have done so, but frankly, the thought didn’t really occur to me while I was in the midst of running the game. Next time, I need to make sure to make some notes beforehand, outlining possible threats to bring to bear. I had all of that recorded in my larger “game notes,” but that stuff was on my computer, and not in my notebook, where it would have been the most useful.

Also, my “big bad” ended up being kind of a dud. The fact is, this entire final session had been fairly one-note; just combat stacked on top of more combat. While I liked the car-chase aspect of the beginning of the action phase, the latter half was a little flat. The players enjoyed it, and I enjoyed it as well, but I think there might have been different ways to introduce some more variety and tension into the game.

And of course, with Riyoh’s player absent, I had no way of leveraging the neat Fail Safe triangle she had created during legwork. That’s just how it goes some time, but if I had brought in another corporation, I might have been able to put pressure in different places.

In the end, all of these are notes to myself on what to look for next time. The game, as a whole, was a success, and we all came away with a deep respect and genuine affection for the Sprawl. If you’re looking for something elegant, quick-to-play, and dripping with style, then I recommend you give it a try. While I think some of the systems are a bit over-complicated (I see you, Matrix moves), the overall package is one of the best games I’ve played in years, and I’ve been running and playing games for more than two decades.

As for me and my group, we’ve got a break this week, and after that I’ll be running a bunch of zero-level peasants through a Dungeon Crawl Classics slaughterhouse. While these two games are fundamentally different, I’ll be bringing some of the lessons I’ve learned here with me, especially in terms of pacing and keeping decent track of what’s going on in the meta-game.

As with this campaign, I plan on making regular session reports for my DCC game, and hope you’ll follow me from our cyberpunk future, into our dark, fantastical past.

In the meantime, stay jacked-in, cowboy.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Kevin Whitaker’s story.