System Split: Cyberpunk in Powered by the Apocalypse

Welcome to System Split! Here we’ll examine two very similar systems to see what sets them apart. When the genre, complexity, and even rules system are exactly the same, what makes a game unique? Let’s kick this off by looking at Cyberpunk in the Powered by the Apocalypse system with The Sprawl and The Veil!

Brought on the scene with Apocalypse World in 2010, Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) is an indie darling. Apocalypse World itself is a wonderful and incredibly atmospheric game, and the underlying framework has further cemented the game’s popularity and helped propel an entire subgenre of new games. With so many designers embracing the PbtA system, it’s no surprise that Apocalypse World has spawned multiple approaches to popular genres like Cyberpunk.

Both The Sprawl and The Veil are PbtA Cyberpunk games. Both of them build off of the core mechanics of Moves and Playbooks to create games that look familiar to someone who has played a PbtA game before. Both of them have similar approaches to one of the Cyberpunk standard extras, cyberware, using the PbtA tags mechanic to give the devices advantages and disadvantages and tie them to plot hooks. Both also take the same basic beats from Apocalypse World’s inventory, ensuring that the games continue Cyberpunk 2020’s legacy of flashy and lethal gunfights. At this point, the similarity ends. Looking only at the core stats, you can immediately tell that even if The Sprawl and The Veil are using the same framework and exist within the same genre, they will play completely differently.

Mechanics

The first and clearest indication of the different playstyles are the core statistics. The Sprawl uses statistics that are abstracted character abilities, in much the same way as Apocalypse World does. The result of this are stats like Meat (physical ability), Mind (mental ability), and Synth (ability to interface with implanted technology). While these  are heavily stylized, they work the same way stats in Apocalypse World do, and are basically extensions of how statistics have worked in RPGs since time immemorial (or about 1974).

The Veil does *not* work like this. At all. The six stats in The Veil are based on the emotional states of the character. The result of this are stats like Mad, Joyful, and Scared. Needless to say, this completely changes the way you think about statistics and what they say about the character. Now Monsterhearts had done this before, using stats like Hot, Cold, and Dark, which were supposed to be reflective of the character’s affect. The Veil takes it a step further, though. In Monsterhearts, each move was still tied to a stat, which made sense given the social/emotional focus of the game. In The Veil, that link is entirely disconnected. Instead of knowing that “doing something under fire” is always a move with Cool (an example from Apocalypse World), you have to apply the stat that represents your character’s state in the moment. Beyond that, each stat has five little boxes under it on the character sheet. Use the same emotional state over and over again, and your character suffers an “emotion spike” which temporarily changes the value of every stat.

The other major change to core PbtA assumptions is on the side of The Sprawl. While The Veil adds a “setting playbook” to track the setting assumptions your characters make (an idea others should replicate), The Sprawl gives every player the responsibility to add a corporation during setting establishment and gives every corporation a clock. The system also adds a few more clocks that are central to session pacing, the Action and Legwork clocks. The game assumes that the arc of the story will be divided into “missions”, a structure drawn from the core assumptions of both Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020. The clocks break the missions into phases, and also keep the group moving…overplan and the legwork clock will move up, make mistakes in the mission and the action clock will move up. This both helps keep the sense of tension and aids the GM with pacing, as well as giving a lot of structure to a genre that doesn’t typically have built-in confinement like a dungeon would provide in a fantasy game.

Other mechanical distinctions are more subtle but worth noting. The relationship mechanic used in The Sprawl is called Links, and is based on the Apocalypse World Hx system. Relationship mechanics aren’t heavily emphasized, but Links provides a bit of structure to how your team came about and gives an opportunity to talk about what happened before the start of the game. The relationship mechanic used in The Veil is called Giri, and is similar to both Strings in Monsterhearts and Debts in Urban Shadows. In essence, each point of Giri represents a favor owed to a character…and just like in Urban Shadows, this can be either a PC or NPC. The XP mechanics are interesting: for the primary XP mechanic, The Sprawl has the GM plot out objectives of the mission, giving XP for each accomplished. The Veil has a system of Beliefs that each character writes, and gives out XP as these Beliefs are tested, reinforced, or refuted. It is not the same Beliefs system as in Burning Wheel but is clearly inspired by it, which I appreciate.

Fiction

The implied fiction in any game goes a long way in establishing its feel. Even though PbtA games don’t have specific settings, choices in both the setting creation rules as well as the playbooks and moves help establish what the game is going to feel like and what the setting your group creates will look like. The Sprawl and The Veil each have strong setting establishment; both games do take to the descriptor “cyberpunk” honestly, though in very different ways.

Setting creation in both games involves strong guiding assumptions. In The Sprawl, the theme of corporate hegemony takes center stage, and the choice to let each player create a major corporation helps establish a lot of the backdrop. The corporations are meant to be setpieces; though they react to the characters depending on their respective clocks, there is no mechanism for “defeating” a corporation in The Sprawl rules-as-written. Like in many cyberpunk novels, the corporations are meant to be ineffable monoliths of power and essentially untouchable. The presence of threats other than the corporations drives this home. The Veil makes the strongest statement about its setting with only one rule, and one lifted from Apocalypse World at that. Apocalypse World has the “Open Your Brain” move which establishes and mechanizes a setting element in that game, the Psychic Maelstrom. The Veil offers the “Lift the Veil” move. In The Veil, the world is assumed to be one where physical and digital realms commingle, and one where there are virtual worlds to access. “Lift the Veil” is a move that allows a character to see some of the separation between the physical and the digital and use that information. While it’s not particularly different from the original Apocalypse World version of the move, it makes a statement about the presence and power of augmented reality in the setting.

The selection of playbooks also sends a clear message about each game’s underlying assumptions. The Sprawl features playbooks built around career/functional archetypes from Cyberpunk literature, like the Driver, the Infiltrator, and the Killer. Cyberpunk 2020 is a clear influence here; the Reporter (Cyberpunk’s Media), Pusher (Rockerboy) and Fixer (same) are certainly drawn from the earlier game’s well. While both are informed by similar media (the Rockerboy concept and name come from John Shirley’s A Song Called Youth series), the placement of these characters with respect to the mission structure is nearly identical in both game systems.

The Veil has archetypes that are more narrative and arc-based than functional. The Catabolist is defined not by what they do for a living, but by their continuing desire to modify themselves and acquire more cybernetics. The Apparatus is defined by their arc of discovering what they are and why they were built, and the Executive is defined by their relationship with their employer. The Executive is actually a great example to highlight the difference in conflict development between The Sprawl and The Veil. While there are corporations in The Veil like any good Cyberpunk property, the degree to which they drive the story is defined by the players…unless a player chooses the Executive, they’re likely to be more in the background. On the other hand, The Sprawl places corporations in the middle from the beginning. A corporate employee is not a handbook in The Sprawl…instead it’s a choice every character has the option of taking as part of character creation (specifically explaining how you got your cyberware). In this way and in others, character playbooks in these two games send their respective players down very different story paths.


The Veil and The Sprawl approach Cyberpunk from vectors with an obtuse angle. The Sprawl drills down on a classic “noir” approach to Cyberpunk, where the PCs are small protagonists struggling against larger forces than themselves, including technological change and the rise of corporate power. The Veil takes an approach that could almost be described as post-Cyberpunk: while the world-shattering effects of rapid technological change are still a significant element, the characters, instead of being agents of struggle, are agents of change. It’s tempting to describe these games as corresponding with eras of Cyberpunk, but that’s not a perfect analogy in any way. The Sprawl is better aligned with other Cyberpunk role-playing games both past and present, but also sits with video games like Deus Ex and Watch Dogs, as well as TV series like Person of Interest. The Veil aligns well with Cyberpunk anime, like Ghost in the Shell and Serial Experiments: Lain. It’s clear that the narrative device of “lifting the veil”, which plays a bigger role than its namesake move, also makes the intended story modes of the game well aligned to movies like The Matrix and even Inception, where there is a secondary reality space with consistent but unclear rules.

Ultimately, no one “wins” this comparison, or perhaps everyone wins. These games are very different, but both have made me want to play and run them, which is ultimately the highest possible recommendation. In the case of The Sprawl, the PbtA legacy of genre emulation started with Dungeon World is brought into the near future, making me strongly consider running future Cyberpunk 2020 scenarios with PbtA. In the case of The Veil, PbtA’s strong ability in character-driven games shown off by the likes of Monsterhearts, Masks, and Urban Shadows can now be used to explore a wide range of fascinating scenarios from Cyberpunk, post-Cyberpunk, and Transhumanist literature. If it were me, I’d say the fan of PbtA and Cyberpunk should pick up both. If you had to choose, though, the thrusts of each game are different enough that most should be able to guess which one better fits their playstyle. Having two excellent games be so similar and yet so different helps drive home the fact that we are spoiled for choice in the RPG space, and it’s a wonderful thing.

The Sprawl is available on DriveThruRPG. The Veil is available at Indie Press Revolution.

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