The Sprawl thoughts: Matrix hacking

This is apparently a PbtA gripe/ideas blog now, but it’s on my mind lately.

I like the abstract hacking rules quite a bit: it’s abstract but captures the flavor, keeps the hacker types in the game, and after several reads feels right. But PbtA is all about hacks, right?

My thoughts were mostly about the D&D-style/wargaming inspired maps from Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun, combined with my day job as an actual doer of Internet computer maths. A few minutes with Paper and I got this:

network map
network map

ICE is colored per-link or system. The basic idea is that each node on the network is either one of the specific types listed in the rules, or a generic node the MC can use to riff on or as a story element or whatever (“I leave a backdoor on node X”). The links between nodes show visibility to each other, and the MC can introduce soft-fail elements like “high network traffic” or whatever on certain links.

From a purely descriptive point they remain the giant whatever of your Matrix geography: maybe they are individual geometric shapes, or streets on a synthetic New York City, or literally green screen characters. Doesn’t matter.

I think I’ve solved my Powered By The Apocalypse problem

So I’ve been mulling over this PbtA stuff that is pretty popular right now. It’s the indie, check-out-my-Kickstarter system. It’s got some really, really interesting ideas.

The most interesting ideas (to me) are the ideas of partial success, a loose collection of systems that have a unique flavor while retaining the same basic mechanics (e.g., countdown clocks), and playbooks. 

But what I couldn’t wrap my head around was the mundane stuff you learn in a new game system: like, combat? And why does Dungeon World have a single roll called “undertake a perilous journey”? What the fuck.

It was this video from the PbtA hack Uncharted Worlds that not only gelled what I wasn’t getting it, but why it bothered me.

It’s that combat is too abstracted. (Other things too, but mostly combat)

D&D is too mechanical: you spend a lot of time doing math, rolling LOTS of dice, and looking up tables and charts and stuff. Rolling lots of dice can be fun but switching to a tactical war game from a storytelling game is … well it’s why Storyteller, PbtA, et al gained traction.

It just reads/feels like …

“OK, roll.” *dice clatter*

Success! Hell yeah! “OK, so, I charge in and slash the first orc in the face. He collapses in a gurgle of blood and viscera. The next runs at me screaming, and I throw my dagger. It hits him in the throat … “


That’s cool, narratively, because now the player is directly involved in the action (as opposed to “ok, I hit, 10 damage, chopped that fucker in half!”). It’s even better when the player rolls a partial success, because now the fight gets interesting with the GM adding complications.

Still: it’s too loose. Breaking down the combats in PbtA seems to not only break the flavor of the system but the balance. Other stuff (the aforementioned “undertake a perilous journey”) is likewise too brief, too … terse. 

Would reducing the amount of narrative effect ruin the entire point of PbtA? Am I just over-thinking this?

I do not understand PbtA at all.

I really, really want to understand Powered By The Apocalypse (PbtA) games, but I just don’t. I’m starting to think I’m either really dumb or so old that this New Fangled Way is beyond my old grognard/neckbeard skills.

Now, to be clear: the basic premise is easy to grasp. In “old school” RPGs, you are presented with a challenge: say, an orc guarding a door. The players and GM then shift into a semi-simulation of the fight. In the classic method, each side (in PbtA parlance) “makes moves”, or executes various rules systems, with the roll of the dice standing in for the randomness and chaos of the real world. GM rolls well, you get hit and take damage; you roll well, the orc dies (or you sneak by him or you con him into opening the door, or whatever).

In my day (rattles cane) if you – the GM – got a roll you didn’t like, well, you were probably rolling behind a screen, so you’d just fudge it. Maybe killing a PC right now was the wrong thing to do, or maybe the player did a really funny or interesting job pretending to fast-talk the orc; whatever. The point is, you made the call and went on with the game.

In PbtA, all that is … simplified? Streamlined? Systematized? All of the above? I get it: the PCs have moves┬áthat are analogous to the volume upon volume of rules in classic systems. “We are going to sneak past the orc”, they say, and they roll their “Sneak Past Stuff” move. If they succeed, they succeed; and if they fail, or partially succeed, then something appropriate happens.

This bit, I get. This is nearly exactly identical to the old-school way, just clarified and formalized. It works. I get it.

What I don’t get are the constant series of meta games┬áthat PbtA systems seem to want to introduce, to the point of having hundreds of pages of rules for … frankly, I don’t even know.

Consider ‘Blades in the Dark’. It consists of a “free play” mode and a “score” mode and a “downtime” mode. Uh, ok? It has “flashback scenes” and all sorts of other, strange modes of interacting that involve different types of rolls and systems.

[Sidebar: I’m told that Blades in the Dark is a pretty “advanced” hack of PbtA, and possibly not ideal for a first play-through. “Just play DW”, they say. To which I say, I should not have to have a fundamental grounding in “Chutes and Ladders” before taking on Advanced Squad Leader.]

As I understand it, the modes of play are roughly like this:

  1. Free play: “We go talk to a dude about a door we heard we want to open.”
  2. Score: OK, roll to open the door. Roll to get what is behind the door. Roll to carry off things. Roll to escape.
  3. Downtime: roll to fence the goods. Roll to heal. Role play all of this.

That needs … systems? And I’m leaving out flashbacks and numerous other pieces of minutiae I can’t even remember.

The list goes on, and on. There’s a bunch of abstractions I can’t wrap my head around. Combat in PbtA has a strange set of moving parts I can’t get. I get not detailing each swing of a sword or pull of a trigger, but at times it feels like a flip of a 3-sided coin (you take a hit! you don’t take a hit! you sort of do or don’t!).

I could keep rambling on, but I think you get the idea. Am I just over-thinking this? Am I too grounded in old-school D&D?