Content Warnings: Representation of sex work (non-explicit), violence against every kind of person, violence against animals, exploitation, body horror, dystopian future, foul language, sexism, racism.
The SettingThis game is set in a very likely 2080 -- a world where regulatory capture and the tragedy of the commons have destroyed the environment and turned society into wage slavery. It’s a world that could easily come to pass if we do nothing to stop it. It’s a dystopian society where control by inhuman technologies is exercised with cameras, drones, web trackers, and social media. It’s like modern day San Francisco, just barely turned to eleven, chromed, smudged with grime, and draped in neon lights.
- The year is 2080. It’s the not-too-distant future. It’s a fairly realistic 2080, but with cybernetics and the Matrix as imagined by retro-futurists.
- Ours is a vertical sprawl. Advances in “earthquake proofing” have allowed these massive buildings. There are flying cars, skybridges, and snarled ground traffic. People walk or bike, if they can’t afford to sit in traffic, and they sit in traffic if they can’t afford an electric quadcopter. Or better.
- There are demilitarized slums. The most vertical parts of the city are the East coast of the peninsula and the Tenderloin DMZ. The Tenderloin was developed into tenement housing for the poor and working class, then abandoned and walled off after the inevitable problems of concentrated poverty.
- Our protagonists hang out in Chinatown. Chinatown remains largely the same as it was in 2018 -- an island of relatively short buildings in between the Tenderloin squatter tenements and the massive downtown area. Some areas have a Vegas-style street-ceiling. Mr. Long’s is the bar owned by the fixer PC where the crew spends their time.
- The environment is toast. There’s nasty smog. The oceans are acidified to the point where fish have to be farmed. The central valley has desertified. Monoculture has ruined crop diversity. Storms wrack the philippines and eastern United States. Only extreme “second green revolution” measures are keeping the population alive.
- AI is rare. While pseudo-AI are common enough, sapient AI -- or AI that can operate as if they are sapient -- are not common. In fact, they’re just emerging as our story develops.
- Nobody is free. Oppressive working conditions exhaust those who can even find a job. Social media and dehumanizing, inebriating entertainment fill people’s meager free time. Even the artists are oppressed wage slaves.
- Gross inequality and economic oppression. There’s a gig economy run amok in the San Francisco Free Trade Zone. The people are on the brink of revolution, except the masses are way too outgunned to win.
- There are real arcologies. When you’re oppressing 99% of the population, it makes sense to live in a self-sustaining fortress. These massive buildings fill multiple city blocks, and each has a unique solution to high-density urban agriculture.
- We have a Summer Wars style Matrix. The Matrix is a mix of sanitized corporate webspace, soulless Aleph entertainment, big brother social media (Echo corporation’s chambers), and a hostile and dangerous dark web.
Protagonists: Hard Six
Hard Six came to work together due to geographical proximity. Mr. Long's entertainment establishment and Wicked Cyril's black market cyberdoc shop are close to one another in Chinatown. The Raptor's turf is in the Tenderloin DMZ just to the West of Chinatown. And Glass wound up working a story down in Chinatown.
Glass, the Reporter
What stands out about Glass is that his ethics are the most personal and genuine. He has a genuinely compassionate morality that would rather suffer or take a greater risk than hurt people for expediency, or even for the greater good.
What concerns others about Glass is how nervous he gets under pressure. He isn’t a hard-boiled operative, a veteran of the shadows, or even a shell-shocked war correspondent. He’s a voice of the people, a social justice crusader in a time of turmoil. They know he’s the first to help the downtrodden, but worry he’ll be the first to crack under pressure.
Glass’ goal is to expose the things the corporations want hidden.
Wicked Cyril, the Tech
What stands out about Cyril is his candor. The others might tell a lot of lies, but Cyril usually takes the direct, blunt, and honest approach to problems. When he says he’ll look after you, though, you can trust that he will walk into gunfire to drag your unconscious body to safety for first aid.
Cyril’s baffling mix of pained empathy for animals and misanthropic nihilism toward humans shows there’s one person he’s always lying to, though: Himself. He also has a strange obsession with personal cyberization.
Wicked Cyril’s goal is personal transhumanism, a sort of techno-apotheosis.
The Raptor, the Pusher
What stands out about The Raptor is his drive. While the other runners resent corporate hegemony, The Raptor has built a small army to violently oppose it. The others resist and hope for reform. He wants a bloody revolution.
The Raptor shoots first and asks questions later. He snaps to violence and retribution, rather than cunning or diplomacy. It’s also unclear at times whether he is more loyal to his gang or his team.
The Raptor’s goal is nothing less than the total destruction of our corporate hegemony.
Mr. Long, the Fixer
What stands out about Mr. Long is his subtlety. He’s good at working behind the scenes and getting others to do his bidding.
What worries the team about Mr. Long is that he cares more about himself than the team. He sees the team as co-workers or even employees to help him reach his own goals, rather than brothers-in-arms.
Mr. Long’s connections are mostly through the Chinatown tong known as the Stockton Street Business Society. Led by a ruthless, elderly man named Bai Wu, the tong is mostly managed by Wu’s daughter, Shao An. She’s a tough-as-nails middle aged hard-drinking deal-broker. When Long pays the establishment’s protection money, he pays it to Shao An, so the two have a long-standing professional relationship.
Another thing about Mr. Long: He has a mysterious past even he can’t remember. Mr. Long’s goal is to get rich, live comfortably, build a network of powerful and useful connections, and solve the problem of his mysterious past.
In a way, the corporations in a game of The Sprawl are just as important as the protagonists. They frame the conflicts of the game. Their doings, misdeeds, and petty feuds sweep up the PCs and get swept up in the PCs’ agendas. The missions the corporations hire the protagonists to do give the PCs a chance to advance their own agendas -- exposing their secrets, smashing their base of power, getting rich, and acquiring more cyberware from their stockrooms and labs.
AlephMain office: Los Angeles, CA
Local office: Aleph Tower, Downtown San Francisco Free Trade Zone
Industry: Entertainment, Video, Trid, Cinema, News, Music
Aleph is the ultimate result of the merging of big media companies. While their main headquarters is in Los Angeles, they maintain a second major presence in the SF Free Trade Zone. They do most of their gig economy work here, where employment contract law is lax. Aleph controls both news and entertainment, and they’ve stopped making the distinction. Mainstream media is about the clicks, the shares, and the ad revenues. You are the product. As Aleph controls the news media, they’re locked in a war with Echo over control of public opinion. Aleph writes and films the stories. They get promoted through Aleph’s Echos.
Aleph Tower is not an arcology, but it’s still an imposing tower downtown, and it is surrounded by apartment and hotel towers entirely filled with Aleph employees and contract-bound “free” agent entertainers.
EchoMain office: Echo Campus, Downtown San Francisco Free Trade Zone
Industry: Social Media, Mobile Technology, New Media, Gaming
The social media of the future, Echo maintains the backbone of about a quarter of the Matrix. Their pseudo-AI algorithms help them control society by filtering what they see, shifting moods subtly, or hiding information. Pirate radio style independent producers still slip through the cracks, hacking the existing infrastructure to get their message to the people. Mostly, the people don’t listen. Echo pioneered the virtual internet. Individuals have private Echo chambers for their friends-locked communication, but all the fun happens in a 3D virtual space you can go to with VR glasses or, if you’re wealthy enough, a full neural interface. If you’re looking for a cultural touchstone for how the Echo system looks and feels, look at WeChat in China or watch the movie Summer Wars. Everything from communication to shopping to government services to video games and gambling are on the Echo Matrix.
Unlike modern tech campuses like the Googleplex, the Echo Campus of 2080 is a large, vertical arcology. The bottom is open to the public, and filled with shopping, dining, and entertainment -- all integrated with the Echo social media platform.
MonsagraMain office: Folsom Lake, near Sacramento, CA
Industry: Agritech, Biochemistry, Plant/Insect Genetics, Agriculture, Food Processing
The vertical integration of agritech, agriculture, and consumer food processing allowed Monsagra to dominate farming by 2080. As a near-monopoly, about 40% of everything Earth eats came from a Monsagra germline, was grown on a Monsagra farm, or was processed and packaged in a Monsagra factory. In the developed West, it’s closer to 80%. Monsagra is responsible for the rapid topsoil erosion, resistant crop blights, and monoculture of the last 50 years, and the damage their depredations leave is increasing at an exponential rate as they arrogantly race faster and faster to stay one step ahead of mother nature.
Monsagra has an arcology of sorts -- a walled company town for mid-level managers, scientists, and executives surrounding Folsom Lake in the middle of California’s central desert. The company is seeking to construct a true urban arcology in the San Francisco Free Trade Zone to show off its agricultural prowess in the new era.
OmniMain office: Various offices, Downtown San Francisco Free Trade Zone
Industry: Private Equity, Finance, Heavy Industry, Logistics, Consumer Products, Skillwires
On the surface, Omni is a massive private equity firm, but its control over heavy industry and logistics has led to a radical transformation of blue collar work. It uses leveraged buyouts to acquire assets, strip them of value, and resell the pieces at a profit; though it keeps the parts it can transform. Omni has managed to snap up most industrial production on the west coast, and in a stroke of evil genius, they invented the Skillwire. A skillwire is a fairly expensive piece of neuralware you can get for free if you indenture yourself to Omni to pay it off. The ‘ware lets you chip in a skill. After that, the chip takes over your muscle memory. It has great advantages for Omni employees: Chip in at 7, let your cerebellum go to sleep, and wake up at 5 - sore, but without any memory of your day of drudgery in the warehouse. Only when human judgment is occasionally needed, and human dexterity is often needed are skillwire employees helpful, but that turns out to be more often than you’d think. And skillwires are cheaper than robots. Recently, Omni has also been using skillwires for increasingly complex service jobs, and the implications are grim.
Omni does not control an arcology. The company is a powerful equity firm controlled by a global board and executive staff that controls several subsidiary businesses, each with their own offices, towers, etc. Omni is considering constructing an arcology in the near future.
Phelps-DeckerMain office: Downtown San Francisco Free Trade Zone
Industry: Security Systems, Military Arms, Drones, Biomunitions, Cybernetic Devices
The only privately-owned firm in this story, Phelps-Decker is owned by the philanthropic, evangelical, reclusive Phelps and Decker families. The company specializes in cybernetics, weapons, and drones for municipal, industrial, military, and security services. In the last decade, they’ve advanced the idea of using cyberized animals as drones. A team of runners on their bad side might find themselves stalked by a murder of crows with wireless cyberbrains, infrared cameras, and maybe even implanted explosives. Phelps-Decker produces a lot of weapons, and many of the arms carried by security forces across the sprawl are P-D weapons, marked with biblical quotes.
The Phelps-Decker arcology is an imposing two-tower structure filling six city blocks near the docks. The towers frame a walled center full of tiered factories and laboratories. A glass-enclosed greenhouse provides much (but not all) of the food the residents of the arcology consume. The structure belches smoke and releases polluted water into the bay 24/7, and gets away with it under the relaxed environmental laws of the Free Trade Zone.