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Jon Lemich
I'm a nonprofit grants professional who's passionate about outcomes based program design. My hobbies are tabletop role playing games and playing with my kids.
I'm a nonprofit grants professional who's passionate about outcomes based program design. My hobbies are tabletop role playing games and playing with my kids.

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What matters more than the monsters you choose in your D&D game is why you chose monsters in the first place. What are they trying to accomplish?

That's encounter stakes.

Without stakes (or with too many hollow "kill or be killed" threats), your game becomes bland. Make it about something!
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There's an SFF sale on Audible for Audible members, and there are some cyberpunk books in there.

(That's not an affiliate link or anything, FYI)

I picked up Lock In. Snow Crash was on there. What cyberpunk titles do you recommend in the sale?

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Night's Black Agents // Forged in the Dark idea

Night's Black Agents is a trad RPG with GUMSHOE's investigative RPG chops, a lot of fiddly trad combat system options tacked on, and a cool system for conspiracy building (Conspyramid) and threat response planning (Vampyramid). The PCs plan their own operations against the vampires, and it's basically a series of free play -> operation -> reprisal -> repeat.

That sounds like a great opportunity to hack "Blades in the Dark" into "Fangs in the Trade" or "Spies on the Hunt" or some other clever title that conveys super-spies vs vampires, Forged in the Dark.

Playbooks: Reskin the existing playbooks to fit the Night's Black Agents careers - handler, cobbler, bagman, wetworker, etc. See below re: magic - I think we should add an Occultist or Scholar or Priest or Psychic playbook.

Gang Types: Where BitD has various types of groups in Doskvol, there are various reasons groups of international operatives get together to hunt vampires. Defense contractors (mercenaries), Faith group (spies that work for the Vatican, or the Golden Dawn or whatever), Black Book operatives (off-the-books operatives doing vampire hunting on behalf of Her Majesty or Langley or the Kremlin), Sunlight Crusaders (international investigative reporters more concerned with the corruption than the supernatural), Do-Gooders (stateless NGO out to help people and kill the vampires who prey on them), or Criminals (smugglers, hackers, money launderers, etc. who are at war with the vampire conspiracy).

Conspyramid? Meet the Conspirahood. BitD's neighborhood turf mechanic ports easily enough to a network of factions that may or may not be in a vampire conspiracy. The Conspyramid had six tiers of power. BitD has tiers of power, too. Also, forging this from the dark, we now have reputation levels, which adds more juicy numbers to fiddle with. It also means there are factions that will ally with the PCs, so they're not as isolated, and just like in BitD, their allies will occasionally betray them.

Vampyramid? Meet the Vamplock. A six-tick clock and a six-step pyramid aren't so different. Keep the Vampyramid, though, because it offered more variety and guidance for GMs.

Heat? Heat. Blades in the Dark has Heat, and it's just fine.

Money: NBA's money system is just in funds, broke, and excessive funds. Coin becomes Cash, and there's more granularity to the system.

Magic: One thing missing from NBA was PC magic powers. You can get magic in Trail of Cthulhu. Why not NBA? In Dracula Dossier, there was an opportunity to give PCs psychic powers or faith based powers. Porting to Forged in the Dark we can take the Attune skill and bend it to the Psychic skill (for psychic/ sciencey vampires) or Magic (for more magical, occult vampires) or Faith (for damned, religious vampires). Cool stuff! To discourage EVERYONE from taking Attune/Magic/Faith/Psychic, there should be a major cost to using it that only one playbook can avoid. Now anyone can use it, technically, but only one playbook can comfortably use it in every other scene.

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Watched S1E2 of Sneaky Pete in my favorite "room" in the house last night. So far it's turning out to be a great show. S1E2 is the first non-pilot episode, and it does a lot of much-needed character development and fun exposition. Exposition can be boring, but in a caper show about con artists, it's hard to do boring. E2 was awesome.
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Retaliation Phase brainstorming!

So I ran two campaigns of Night's Black Agents. There's ALSO a retaliation phase in NBA. And the core book has a really cool way to handle it, called the Vampyramid (the conspiracy response pyramid).

This is the printer friendly "Vampyramid" from the free downloads from Pelgrane's site, so I'm not violating any copyright here.

Spy thrillers aren't TOO different from cyberpunk thrillers. So this is a useful tool for corporate response tracking. It's even got six layers, and our Corporation Clocks are 6-tick clocks. How convenient!

A little explanation of the Vampyramid...

This is the algorithm the GM uses in NBA to decide how the vampire conspiracy responds to the superspies hunting them down. You start at the bottom. Assuming the PCs weren't deterred by the tier 1 response (Narrator: "It only strengthened their commitment to the hunt."), the conspiracy advances to the tier 2 response following one of the lines from their original tactic (because more than any other creature, vampires -- and intelligence agencies -- are victims of the sunk cost fallacy).

BTW The strange words in parentheses are the different monsters the conspiracy might use to achieve these goals.

So if the vampires open by framing one of the PCs (Frame Agent), their next move will be to isolate a PC (Isolate Agent) using one of their human servants to make their friends and contacts think they need to be left alone, either by planting false communications or rumors, or by counseling them to keep safe and not get involved. After that, on tier 3, they'll flip one of those contacts and get that contact to spy on and sabotage the PCs (Double Agent). Next, they might get the contact to try to kill their PC "friend" (Double Cross) or use the contact to spill what the PC really cares about so they can use that to try to recruit the PC with a genuine offer (Offer Drive) that satisfies their Drive (similar to Personal Directives in The Sprawl). After that, things get violent, with manhunts (Hunt Agent) and traps (Lure Agent) and eventually straight up assassination attempts against PCs, one by one, using the toughest monsters around (Kill Agent).

The Vampyramid works AS IS for The Sprawl (except Haunt Agent has to involve the matrix, not weird Bram Stoker style nightmares).

But maybe we can make it even better!

I put a blank Vampyramid on here for folks to use, also from the Night's Black Agents downloadable stuff (though it might be easier to use SmartArt or text boxes to make them in Word, or the extension to make them in Google Docs; see below).

Anyone want to join me and try to create a more "megacorp" pyramid? A "corporate ladder" as it were?

I made a (excellent google drive extension) "Corporate Ladder" response pyramid and made it so we can all edit it. Click here:

Currently is just has the more corporate versions of the Vampyramid. Feel free to jump in and edit; I made a copy of the original for myself. So this one is for all of you, my fellow Sprawl GMs (and +Hamish Cameron of course).

Benefits of using the pyramid: Each corporation can start at a different spot on the bottom rung, giving them each a unique style and flavor. But as they move toward the top, they always become more inhuman, cruel, and authoritarian, regardless of their initial tactics, until in the end, they're just killing that which resists their control. You can track which corp is at which point on the pyramid, too, using just one pyramid instead of six different clocks. Or use the clocks as player-facing warnings, and use the pyramid to choose what the next Retaliation action will be.

Please feel free to suggest other Retaliation ideas in comments, even if you don't feel like installing and typing them into the diagram.


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Considering doing two missions simultaneously. Give me your thoughts.

A lot of noir stories have a detective who encounters two mysteries that turn out to be linked or somehow solving one allows them to solve the other. I'd like to try that in The Sprawl some time.

A few things that seem obvious, but I thought I'd ask the group:
- Normally I set 5xp worth of Directives for a mission. These missions should have 3 each. 6 total. That way I can force myself to focus on the interaction between the missions being the complication, rather than two missions with normal levels of complexity.
- Normally you get heat if you wager 3 Cred on a mission. I wouldn't modify it. So they can wager 2 cred on each mission safely and potentially make 12 back (total) if they get both Paid Well and Paid in Full. That's more potential profit, but it's also twice the potential consequences.
- I would make it clear to them OOC that they CAN take two missions if they want (system wise) and that these two opportunities were intentional.

Question for all the MCs on here: How much do you prep and how much do you improvise?

I've been running Cyberpunk RPGs (CP2020 and Shadowrun, mostly) since the early 90s, so I default to preparing a good deal. But it seems like you could run The Sprawl entirely improvised, once you got through the Preparing the Play phase. You could just write Mission Directives and leave it at that.

I've prepared 2 missions so far, and I've done a lot more than just write Mission Directives. I filled in all the details around them. I customized the Kurosawa Extraction to my PCs, for instance, and created lots of NPCs and locations. I didn't OVER-prep. I wound up using almost all of it without any railroading. The second mission, about the same.

Here's what I prepped:
> How they were contacted to get the job (two simultaneous offers)
> The mission was to track down a black market dealer and get a copy of a milspec chip from them, so I prepped the chip and the dealer, where the dealer was hiding, what dangers were in the area, what rival groups were after the chip, and how the Action Clock determined how the race to get the chip was going for the PCs -- this was almost like prepping a small dungeon crawl for D&D, except I didn't make a map and label 5' squares and encounter locations. Still, I prepped some "encounters" -- my PCs being a reporter, pusher, tech, and fixer, they're not "goblins attack" encounters, more like "there are squatters the gang here probably pays to pass word to them, what do you do?" encounters. Of these, two exist to complicate the mission directives and two exist to let me throw pointed Personal Directive moments at them. Well, they all exist for PDs, because IMHO that's what makes The Sprawl so good; but two ONLY exist for that :)
> Made a custom move for the contamination in the failed arcology the dealer and chip were hiding out in
> Made a custom move for intentionally tripping out on the contamination like the squatters and gang does, similar to Open Your Brain from Apocalypse World (inspired by my own AW Hocus who huffs mold).
> Wrote a few Trello cards to connect this situation to my PCs' personal directives, so I would have material ready to push those. (The whole mission is based on their personal agendas - the black market dealer is a contact of one PC who disappeared, one corp rival is an NPC nemesis for the Reporter; the gang in the failed arcology is a rival of the Pusher's gang's, though they're currently not at war, etc., etc.). Also a card about how the reporter's Story could connect on this mission.

Overall, about 2-4hrs of work, probably 3,500-4,500 words if I had to guess.

How much do you prep?

So my players, in session 2, discovered they could Assess to get +1 forward on Get the Job and Get Paid. It's legit -- after all, those scenes are tense scenes harboring a lot of secrets. And a 6- on Assess would certainly steer the scene in bad ways even if they roll 10+ to Get the Job / Get Paid. Keep in mind, they already have one of the PCs with the best Edge do the talking and make the Get the Job roll to start with.

But how do you all feel about that?

Assess is appropriate given the secrets hiding in these scenes.
Assess can fail, leading to consequences as bad as or worse than failing the Get roll.

If you have someone who's really good at Assess, it's commonly going to land a +1 on these scenes -- they always move slow enough to give a character time to Assess, after all.
The flavor of the failed or 7-9 Get roll is so good! It's sad to see it made vanishingly unlikely.

RAW: You could argue that Assess gives the acting character +1 forward, and Get Paid is a group roll, or even a meta roll, not a character's action, like Get the Job is. So you COULD deny the Assess bonus on Get Paid. Should I?

I think most collaborative RPGs "open up" after three sessions / 10 hours of play.

More traditional "GM plans an adventure" RPGs can hit the ground running: The GM tells you the pitch, you make characters for it, and you're off on a quest. But they're not built around what the players discover in play. They're built around the GM's story (or the module or whatever).

But collaborative RPGs, like any PbtA game run in default mode, or Fate, or any RPG run in a more collaborative, improvisational mode, take at least 3 sessions.

Session 1: Introduce a threat or opportunity based on PC passions. Investigate and respond to threat or opportunity, and act on it. Players introduce their characters.

Session 2: Show effects of PC actions from session 1. New threat or opportunity arises, based on PC passions. Investigate and respond to new threat or opportunity, and act on it. Players re-introduce their characters, now based on what they know about the other players' mechanical and story niches.

Session 3: Show effects of PC actions from session 2. New threat or opportunity arises, connected to the events of session 1. Investigate and respond to new threat or opportunity, and act on it. Players have a solid and growing understanding of their characters.

Session N (for session 3 or later): Show effects of PC actions from session N-1. New threat or opportunity arises, connected to the events of session N-2 or previous. Investigate and respond to new threat or opportunity, and act on it. Players have a solid and growing understanding of their characters.
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