Review: Seattle Sprawl Digital Box

I’m going to review Catalyst Lab’s “Seattle Sprawl Digital Box”, with a special focus on this product being a digital product. This review is based on a review copy provided by Catalyst Game Labs.

PRODUCT: Shadowrun: Seattle Sprawl Digital Box Set
AUTHORS: Raymond Croteau, Jason M. Hardy, James Meiers, O.C. Presley, Scott Schletz, R.J. Thomas, Malik Toms, Thomas Willoughby, CZ Wright, Russell Zimmerman
COMPANY: Catalyst Game Labs

A quick rundown of the content.

Included are three books (Ruling the Queen City, Emerald Shadows and Tangled Threads), a really nice and high-res map of Seattle, available both in PDF and PNG, a PDF of 24 NPC cards (2 pages per character), a small district-coded map of Seattle with Gang and POI information (spread over two PDFs), a PDF containing 11 “map cards” (intended for quick on-the-fly assembly of at-the-table combat maps) and the “Instruction Sheet”. The price point is 24.99$.

Introduction

Let me be up-front here: The price point is fair. Yes, it is more useful for players who are new to Shadowrun than to veterans, but this argument simply can’t be a deciding factor for a game that’s in its 5th edition but still retains a continuing core identity and does not reboot itself. Veterans of earlier editions will have to accept that they already know much of the background and history. Catering mostly to them would be abandoning newer players, which would be worse than repeating some information in my opinion. It falls on the developers and writers to present those known facts in an interesting and fresh way and mix them well with new information. And I do think that they generally succeeded here. But there are, sadly, some problems.

Most of them come from the smaller content coupled with the fact that it’s a digital product.

Overview (and Comments)

The map cards.

11 small map pieces that can be printed out and assembled to form a quick and dirty combat map for use at the table. But they are contained in a 55-page PDF in which each card repeats 5 times. This seems like a lazy carbon-copy of the physical product, for which such multiplication makes sense if you want to allow players to build maps with repeating pieces (malls and such). But when it’s a PDF, a single copy of each piece would be perfectly adequate. We can decide how many to print ourselves.

The other, and sadly worse, negative point is the quality: They are rather low-res and frustratingly tiny cards. Printing them out in their original size nets you with quite a bit of wasted paper but if you print them out larger, they don’t look particularly good.

It would have been a better idea to issue those as individual PNG files with a higher natural resolution and thus allow players to more easily “assemble” even in something as basic as Paint before printing, allowing for a better user experience.

Reference Map

The second complaint I’ll issue against the combined POI, Gang Information and District map. Those are basically four pages that were spread across two individual PDFs which could have easily been one. Again, it seems like those were two individual cardstock cards in the physical release and so this was imported into the digital release without some fiddling.

I have no issue with the information contained! It gives you a semi-street-map of Seattle, marks each district with a distinctive colour and then offers up short-form information about Gangs and POIs and in which district each of those can be found.

But the map itself is found on the 2nd page of the “Gang Card” PDF, and the POIs are on the separate “Map Reference Card” PDF. For ease of use on tablets I would have combined both into one “Quick Reference Map” PDF, lead with the Map and follow with POI and Gang info.

The Character Cards.

24 NPCs that can be quickly inserted into a game set in Seattle and which give a portrait, a quick background and full stats for each NPC. It’s a small, but really useful piece of content. They can also all be used as PCs so that you’re set for convention games or one-shots or visiting players. Really cool.

I’d actually suggest that Catalyst release collected sets of developed NPCs like this as regular mini-PDF/digital only content. 24 themed NPCs for a variety of situations (DocWagon Personnel, Wageslaves, Security, Organized Crime Members, Clubbers…) which are laid out in a way to facilitate use from a tablet as well as print-outs.

Two complaints I feel I have to state. One is a hefty dose of re-used art. And yes, I do realize that it clashes with my earlier comment about repeated content. But several portraits used for those cards were archetypes or prominent art pieces. I understand that the art budget would have probably been stretched by commissioning 24 new portraits, but at the same time, it did feel a bit cheap.

And there’s Kevin. Kevin, as per his illustration, is clearly either an Ork Poser or an Ork that’s otherwise pretty Human looking. But by his stats, he’s a simple Human. That one discrepancy felt like there was a change between the “character as-is” and “as he was when art notes were handed out”.

But apart from the seen before pictures and Kevin, I really dig that part. High marks.

The Seattle Map.

It’s gorgeous.

There really isn’t much I can say about it. It’s 4200px x 6000px and sized for 53.3cm x 76.2cm (21×30 inches) printing. It is devoid of markers or text of any kind, and it shows the Sprawl at night in nice black/red/blue contrasts.

And then there are the three books.

This box set gives us:
“Emerald Shadows”, a 90-page book about Seattle and its districts.
“Ruling the Queen City”, a 50-page book about the people and organizations vying for power.
“Tangled Threads”, a 30-page book of 8 locations and one short adventure.

Emerald Shadows

The book is the meat of this box. And I do adore the decisions that went into how to structure the book. After a cool short by Russel Zimmerman and a very short general overview about Seattle, you reach the ‘meat’ of the book: A district-by-district chaptered rundown of Seattle.

Each district chapter starts off by giving a short overview over the district in question, some demographic data and is then further broken down by information based on the following categories:

Special Occasions – Festivals, gatherings, conventions, local holidays
Crime Scene – Who controls local crime. Wo tries to get in. Who is on their way out.
Where to Shop – Famous and/or interesting shopping opportunities.
Where to Squat – Hotels, Hiding Spots and associated locales.
You Won’t Find This Elsewhere – Unique features of each district.
Opposition Report – What will try to interfere with runners in each district.
Help Wanted – Classified ad style and short-form run ideas geared to each district.

This includes Outremer, the islands included in the Metroplex area as well as the Ork Underground, which is in the process of being incorporated as a fully-fledged district.

The entries are all written by a fictional character and not as objective facts stated by a real-world author. The writing is then punctuated by Shadowtalk segments by Shadowrunners, giving more context, critiques or conflicting information.

On average, each district gets 5 pages of treatment (10 for the Outremer islands as a ‘whole’) so it’s not the most in-depth look at those districts, but it counteracts the short word-count with something much more important: Playability.

Coming from a GM’s perspective, almost every paragraph is filled with ideas for something to include in their own game. From people to places, from short encounters to multi-session runs.

>From a player’s perspective, each section gives just enough guidance and help to anchor a PC to the city with ties to something, or someone, that is ‘established’. And this is a great help to many players, especially those who are new to a game. It also helps players to get a picture of how society flows outside of the shadows, which is always a huge plus for me.

Would more word-count for each district have been bad? No. Of course not. In fact, I would again not be averse to digital mini-supplements for each district, fleshing them out some more. Adding more people, more locations, more rumours, more dynamics, more run ideas. But only because the way it was presented here showed that this is indeed a good way to create content for a city.

Ruling the Queen City

Opening with a short by Raymond Croteau, this 50-page book then starts with an intro chapter which throws a quick glance on the status quo of Seattle, follows this by explaining how it got to this status quo and closes with… A short discussion on how to traverse Seattle, how to get in via Land, Air and Water and how to get around in via walking, transit, driving, air and water. This short, 3 page, chapter doesn’t fit the rest of this book at all. Content-wise it fits much better into “Emerald Shadows”.

Apart from this bit, the book gives a nice and, again, at-table-play oriented view about current Seattle politics and the upcoming election, as well as the people and organizations involved in them. It sets up Seattle as the stage for some truly cut-throat politicking that is sure to create jobs for runners all across the spectrum. From gutter rats to edge runners. Fond memories of Super Tuesday raise their head here.

While it’s focused on politics and power plays, it does have the added benefit of fleshing out the motivations (obvious and hidden) of several Shadowrun key players when it comes to Seattle, which is a big bonus even for campaigns that don’t deal directly with the power struggle. Knowing what a particular group of people wants helps in creating stories focusing on or featuring said groups and their opposition.

A chapter about Knight Errant and how they operate in Seattle (coupled with a few paragraphs about Federal Agencies and the Correctional Service) as well as a chapter on the current state of policlubs and other organizations close this guide to Emerald City power plays. And for me, as someone who used Lone Star for almost 20 years now, even this short update on Knight Errant as the new main ‘police’ force was a great and informative read.

Tangent: I do have to note that there is at least one mention of the detestable “Stonecutter’s Guild” and the idea that there are worldwide metahuman racial cultures around that was introduced to Shadowrun 5. I vehemently disagreed with the idea when it was introduced, and I still do so now. This is pushing Shadowrun towards a silly and ridiculous notion of “worldwide dwarven conspiracy every dwarf on the planet belongs to and can get ostracized from by acting in anti-conspiracy ways” that has never been a part of Shadowrun and never should have been introduced. It does not make sense in the world as it was set up and developed since the first edition of the game. It’s effectively a step back towards silly, overtly fantasy “one race, one culture”, idiocy that both Shadowrun and Earthdawn always stood against.

Tangled Threads

30 pages of GM goodness split up into “Seattle Spots” and “Seattle Plots”

But again, sadly with some faults that could have been avoided if this product would have been re-created for its digital release a bit more. And again, it’s because of maps. Specifically, it’s about 5 full-page location maps. They all look great, and could be really great hand-outs/at-the-table resources, if they only had been included on their own, as high-res PNGs for either good quality printing or high-res digital display. Disappointing, really.

But, having said that, this book really is great. The seven locations offered up are a Corporate Housing Complex, a Conference & Recreation Center, a Critter Research Lab, a Magical Library, a Restaurant/Bar, an Executive Retreat, a Corporate Law Enforcement Facility/Jail and a Corporate Re-Education Camp.

All of those come with a thematically satisfying description, statted NPCs and hooks for runs.

You can quickly insert any of those into an already ongoing run or use them as the focal point of a run of their own. The included NPCs are a nice addition to any GMs repertoire as well.

Then we have Seattle Plots.

5 linked mini-adventures/runs split up into three plot points each, all under the dome of the currently ongoing Proposal 23 campaigning (Making the Ork Underground a fully-fledged district of Seattle).

I haven’t run it myself, so I can and will not speak about its merits as a mini-campaign. But from reading through it, it does give enough pointers and information to the GM so that creating a satisfying set of sessions based on its premise should pose no great problem. It also does something I’m strongly in favour of: It makes the PCs focal to a big change coming towards Seattle, setting up a struggle inside the city involving any and all power players. And giving a good reason for the PCs to remain involved, helping to shape Seattle for the future.

It also does something I also greatly favour: It discusses what to do /and what happens in-game for some time to come/ if the PCs take the unexpected way to end things. Even though this is a major plot of which I’m sure we’ll read more as time goes on, the writer gave the GM a set of guidelines how to progress with Seattle even if the PCs go against expectations. Kudos for this.

Verdict

Yes, I have my contentions with the product, mainly I’m not happy with how it was translated from physical to digital product. I’m also not a fan of the typos I found when reading through it all. Although, as this is a comp copy, it’s possible that those are fixed in the full release. And it’s always possible with PDFs, so I will not weigh this too strongly. But it does show that Shadowrun, as a line, still needs to get back on track after several of 5th edition’s early releases were editorial disappointments.

The content itself, though? Full marks. Apart from the points of contention I mentioned in the review, I can’t think of anything that would make me dislike it. It is a very good Seattle product that manages to use a low page-count for maximum effect: Making the city relatable and playable to GMs and Players both.

I can only hope that upcoming “Digital Box Set” products will receive some more TLC when it comes to their translation from physical to digital. But I’m happy with what the writers delivered.

Notice for Physical buyers: If you are reading this review and are considering buying the physical box, bump up the “Style” score by one, as most of my complaints will not bother you.

[After Action Review] “Sword of the Stars – The Pit”

(Let’s call this “After Action Review”, for reviews of games that aren’t really that fresh any more.)

So, The Pit.
Another RPG-lite Roguelike.

I really didn’t like it.
I tried all the classes, I tried all the difficulty levels and I tried to go as far as I could go.

And after four days of heavy-duty play I have to say that this game has no /soul/. It also has a brutal, possibly game-destroying, RNG.

Both of these combined make for a bland, frustrating experience.

Oh, it starts out fun alright. You start to explore the first few levels and how the three classes differ from each other in stats, skills and item load-outs.

And then, after a few re-starts, you realize that the RNG is just there to fuck you over. At times you can start a floor in a room with a locked door, not having picked up any lock-picks in the floors above, fail the roll to open the door… And end your game right then and there. Because it’s over for you and you have no chance to progress. This can happen before the fifth level down. Even on “Easy”. [EDIT: I’ve been made aware that you can destroy doors. This changes this point, slightly. But it raises another negative point: Doing this deprives you of XP. Which is fair, you failed the roll. But you’re ALSO deprived of XP if you’re unlucky enough to pick up a key. Gaining an apparent advantage should NOT penalize you, in my opinion.]

On the other end of the scale, you can start a game, look through a few loot-containers (and slimes) and find heavy weapons with enough ammo and support items to carry you through the whole game.

There is no consistency at all there.

As to the “soul”-lessness, this is down to how it connects to the SOtS universe. It’s all over the place. It has some of the humour and whimsy of the original SOtS game, but it’s utterly disjointed. The facility you are visiting is a very old Suul’ka science facility. Abandoned for hundreds of years. But still filled with Sol Force rations and crazed Terrans who were used for experimentation. Even though, as par the game, Sol Force has NOT been a star-faring nation for “hundreds of years”, nor have the Suul’ka been abducting humans to experiment on them.

And then there are the journal entries, which are written in a tone utterly disjointed from how the Suul’ka have been portrayed in the lore of SOtS. They’re written (and, in-game, auto-translated probably) as if by a teenage, human, TA who was dealt the job to document some experiment by his asshole-professor. Almost as if the facility was supposed to have been a Terran facility at some point in time, which was then changed during development, without going through the prior text assets.

Compared to SOtS 2 it’s still a better game. It’s workable. It’s feature-complete and it doesn’t contain any game-stopping bugs.

But when I compare it to its two biggest competitors (in my mind at least), it fails horribly.

Those two games are The Binding of Isaac and Rogue Legacy. An older and a newer game.

What those have which sets them apart from The Pit, is the sense of /progress/. With both of these game, you are constantly rewarded for progressing further into the game. Both games change themselves to adapt to your progress. You unlock new classes, new items, new things to find, changes in story and feel as well as in difficulty; and you change the probability of item drops in-game.

Nothing of this is present in The Pit, which lives solely on it’s three classes and three difficulty settings.

It’s just bland, overly random and, while good looking, not what it could be fidelity wise.

Perhaps “Mind Games” changes this, but as of now?
I really don’t want to spend any more money on this game. The base experience truly put me off.