Wednesday, January 30, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews? Touched--A Darkening Alley (The Sprawl)

Time for another review. This time around, we’re not looking at fantasy, per se, but we’re diving into a supernatural horror supplement for one of my favorite cyberpunk game, the Powered by the Apocalypse game The Sprawl.

Touched—A Darkening Alley is a low magic horror supplement to add a little cosmic horror to the street jobs that your runners will be undertaking.

Parameters

The PDF for Touched is 47 pages. Like other products for The Sprawl, the purchase includes both a Midnight and a Noon version of the book, with the Midnight book having black backgrounds for a more dramatic contrast to the color headers and formatting, and the Noon version having more traditional white pages.

In addition to the two versions of the book, there is also a PDF that contains the new playbook introduced in the product. There are various headers throughout the book, and several negative image photographs used to illustrate the book. There are seven sections to the book, each one with a multi-page break and title pages for each section. Like the other books in The Sprawl line, the formatting and colors have sharp contrasts and are very striking.

The Setting

The conceit of this supplement is that the setting presenting in this book is an alternate history that started with the privatization of the Vietnam War, jumpstarting the evolution of multi-national corporations whose powers extend beyond any governmental boundaries.

Some of those corporations managed to find things that should not have been found, and those artifacts allowed them to do things with “science” that humanity could have never imagined. That means that players may be trying to steal ancient artifacts and tomes of knowledge in addition to the more traditional hi-tech heists.

Three example corporations that specialize in delving into forbidden knowledge for profit are given, including Miskatonic Amalgamated, DMG Inc., and IMHP Aquatic. Reading about those corporations may clue you in to what kind of forbidden knowledge is floating around this setting.

Moves and Clocks

If you are familiar with The Sprawl, you will know about Corporate Clocks, the way you track how long the characters have until major corporate interference catches up with the crew. This supplement adds a Horror Clock, a countdown to when Eldritch unpleasantness catches up with everyone.

Characters exposed to horrors from beyond roll to make an Eldritch Trauma move, which determines how well they hold up. A character that gets a 7-9 or a 6- ends up picking up a Behavior from the player’s chosen Coping Mechanism.

One of the things I really like about how this is structured is that it’s a roleplaying guide. Characters are under stress, and their coping mechanism will be a narrative distraction from efficiently running a job, but its not portrayed as “insanity.” All the coping mechanism deal with stress, but the broad categories are:

  • Avoidance
  • Control
  • Unreality
  • Internal Focus
  • External Focus


While some of the behaviors under some of these coping mechanisms may deal with a character detaching from reality, some of the Behaviors are classic horror movie tropes that indicate that a character will dive into their work, snap at their coworkers, or recklessly pursue their goals. Whenever a Behavior hinders the mission, it serves as an XP trigger.

There are also moves that characters can purchase with advances that allow them access to supernatural power: Spell-Craft and Ritual. Characters can also purchase the Touch stat, which interacts with supernatural moves, and the supplement introduces Artifacts as a means of measuring supernatural resources, in much the same way that the base game uses Intel and Gear.

New Versions of Familiar Elements

In addition to the new game elements introduced, gear can now have the artifact tag, meaning that it’s a useful tool that can be used to power supernatural powers on the fly. In addition to this new tag, there is also a new playbook, the Antiquarian.

If you want a quick idea of what the Antiquarian is, think Lara Croft in a cyberpunk setting. The Antiquarian is the only playbook that starts with the Touch stat, from their years of researching ancient knowledge. One of the Antiquarian moves creates a History Clock, which starts a countdown to their discovery of an ancient, pervasive secret or conspiracy that spans the ages. My favorite part of that clock is that the Antiquarian gets to explain that deep, dark, ancient web of secrets to the group.

Momentous Find

What I really like about this supplement is that it introduces supernatural horror to the game, but in a manner that still plays like The Sprawl. Just like the Corporate clocks in the core game, filling up the Horror Clock doesn’t mean “let’s throw down,” it means “things have gone horribly wrong on this job and we have to run.” I love that Artifacts work in the same flexible way that Intel and Gear works. My favorite part of the supplement, however, is that the Coping Mechanisms and Behaviors allow a player to have agency in how their stress manifests, and is neither random, nor attempting to summarize real mental health issues with game mechanics.

Open Rift

The supplement, overall, comes together nicely, but I was a little worried that Miskatonic being invoked for one of the corporate names was a little on the nose, as well as multi-term Richard Nixon as the divergent point for alternate history. Your millage may vary, and once you get a chance to take in the whole picture, I think everything works well together.

Recommended--If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

The setting comes out of the gate hot with the setting information, but the mechanics included are both subtle and consistent with the previously established elements of the game. The Antiquarian adds a new option to the game that works with the new setting as established, and the general setting conceits allow for a broader range of jobs as PCs might have to raid a dig sight or a library as often as a laboratory or a corporate tower.

The product description for A Darkening Alley is going to be followed by Touched Prime, another product expanding The Sprawl into supernatural territory. This introduction into how the game will handle supernatural elements has me very interested to see how Touched Prime develops.





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