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?