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Sprawled in The Pool: Adventures in RPG

Since the start of the year I’ve been engaged in a regular creative endeavour that has evolved and transformed all I thought I knew about the process of creativity. All it has been, in real space, is a bunch of people using their imaginations to tell each other the same endless story, accompanied by some dice, pens and notebooks. Out of that has bloomed a full world, packed with characters, drama, ephemera and weirdnesses, and we’ve barely even scratched the surface of this mysterious place.

I’m talking, of course, about tabletop RPG which, for those not initiated, is the real name of Dungeons and Dragons – that odd, uber-geeky thing that kids in the 80s did in their basements, like in Stranger Things. I’m not playing D&D, I’m playing ‘The Sprawl’, a cyberpunk role-playing game governed by a set of rules ominously called ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’. And yes, there are rules to follow and lots of terminology to learn and get used to, but the emphasis has been entirely on story and character development. If the rule gets in the way of story, it has to bend. Story here has primacy.

The result has been continually astounding. The sessions are long – sometimes six hours at a time – but the richness of the world we inhabit in that time-frame is far beyond anything I’ve ever been able to produce solo in the same smudge of time. I still look back fondly on our first session, the worldbuilder, when we went from literally nothing to a fully realised, thrilling future vision of a post-climate change England; a thin strip of land, an archipelago of sorts, but still heavily populated on and beyond the landmass itself. We envisioned a future of spires as humans built upwards to fight against the onrush of waters and we based ourselves in a place we call The Pool; a future Liverpool/Merseyside where the people live on, above and under the encroached ocean. And things are cyberpunky, of course, all neon lights, computer terminals, cyborg limbs, motorbikes, outlandish weapons – all very Blade Runner, all very Akira.

There are four players, including myself, and one MC who guides proceeding and plays all the NPCs (non-playable characters). The MC, the incomparable Jez Hewes whose leaps of imagination never fail to astound, sends us on missions and we are thrown into encounters in which we must use our various skills, or sheer guile, to get around. And there’s this brilliant unspoken dedication to the world and the rules of narrative. We don’t just cheat and say ‘I can suddenly fly’; everything has to make story sense, even if that means an entirely negative outcome. In fact, as long as it feels good for the narrative, anything is fair game. And it’s a curiously liberating process allowing yourself to succumb entirely to the mastery of narrative form.

Each of the players embodies and helps to evolve their own character based on one of the character-types available in The Sprawl. I play as Andro Gene the Infiltrator. Andro is a former actor who rose to fame before their theatre, The Skin Shack, was destroyed to make way for a real estate development. Embittered, Andro became a recluse before falling in with a gang of shady folk and using their skills as an actor to con and bluff their way into secure places, hence becoming an Infiltrator.

As the name suggests, Andro is androgynous, which in this future I’ve taken to mean that s/he can change her/his gender at will via a piece of bio-tech installed in the spine. It was once an experimental art installation within his/her body as a PR stunt for the theatre, but is now quite useful for Andro whenever a change of appearance is needed. Oh, and Andro has these seven mind-reading lizards called Twitch, Itch, Bitch, Kitsch, Stitch, Glitch and Firewall. And a sniper rifle. And has recently acquired an device in the throat that lets them change accent at will. Oh and cybereyes which see in the dark.

Andro has become, for want of a better term, something of an alter-ego; a curious ‘other’ of myself who is a cross between Tilda Swinton, Kat von Dee, Bowie and, when pissed off, a character you might see played by Cillian Murphy. It’s been a curious experience watching Andro grow from this showboating ex-celeb with no real experience in the criminal world, to a troubled, battle-scarred secret agent with some dodgy contacts and blood on their hands.

We’ve been on three full missions now. We’ve infiltrated an abandoned space-station, sprung a mafia boss from a high-security underwater prison and rescued a captured agent from a secret medical facility in the Scottish highlands. We’ve got mysteries to unravel, hits out on our heads, scores to settle. Jez knows a little of what’s coming but even as we play surprises come up and improvised scenarios emerge which can be amusing asides or, indeed, suddenly have devastating impacts. And all in service to the world of the story, the story of the world which remains resolute.

We’re about to embark on our fourth mission, but Andro barely got through the last session. Hunted down by a machine-gun wielding panther-man bent on revenge, Andro came a trigger-twitch away from actually and really dying. There’s true danger in this world, dictated by both your own decisions and the (un)luck of the dice roll. If you get harmed enough following a bad set of choices or rolls, your character will die. I’ve never been one of these writers who ends up deeply caring for the characters I create, but at that point, when the panther-man from Mal-Form Corporation was lining his crosshairs upon Andro’s head, I was desperate for her/him not to die; panic rising, heart thumping. Fortunately, fellow player Jasmine (Vasil Marek the Hacker) intervened and Andro lived to fight another day.

As and when Andro does die, or retires, I have my next character lined-up in my head who I’m already excited about exploring. And with every session a little more of The Pool is revealed as we consider what a world would look like where both technology and environmental change race each other to consume humanity. The gang we’ve created are caught in this world - a sort of shaky new frontier of re-drawn borders still snagged deep into dangerous capitalism. But, most wonderfully, the characters shift between the epic and mundane. One moment we’ll be hacking into world-changing AI technology, the next we’re deciding what cocktails this future Liverpool would have, and what they might be made of.

I’m seeing it all as regular creative gymnastics; taking my mind out for a long run every weekend, forcing it to lift some weights. I’m starting to see results in my writing too: characters are feeling more fleshed out, fantastical worlds are a little more grounded in causality. And, at a point where I was in a bit of a creative trench, I was able to lift myself out by writing a story about Andro set in this evolving, deeply personal world. So, if you’re a creative sort seeking some extra exercise for your imagination, consider finding or starting an RPG group. Unsure? Have a listen to the excellent RPG podcast ‘Friends at the Table’ to hear how the whole thing works (if you're not sure where to start, look for the first 'Twilight Mirage' episode and go from there).

All the pictures on this post are by Ben Leverett-Jaques (aka æmett the hive-mind Hunter). I’ve written a couple of stories set in this world; one about Andro and one about some of the NPCs we’ve encountered along the way. Fetch them from these links if you’re interested:

Changes, whereby Andro undergoes a gender change after a traumatic incident:

Ripples, where three NPCs who encountered our shenanigans spend a little time in the aftershock:

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