20 October 2012

School Daze

In School Daze, by Tracy Barnett of Sand and Steam Productions, you play a high school kid that is going to be (inevitably) involved in some kind of trouble, from which hijinks will ensure (probably hilarity as well). This is to say, School Daze sets out to emulate the high school genre. I got in on the Kickstarter project and recently ran a one-shot playtest.

School Daze is a game that can be picked up with minimal prep and get started. The system is simple and easy to understand: you roll a d6 and apply some modifiers, if it is 5+ you succeed, if not then you fail. The modifiers come in only a handful of flavors, so few in fact that I will list them all: Favorite subject, ranks, consequences and gold stars. None of these individually get over +2 or -2; the system is a breeze and will quickly become unobtrusive. There is enough "mechanics" to it that it isn't completely blase, but players that like to interact with the mechanics in a more significant fashion (such as FATE), will probably want to look elsewhere.

The favorite subject is the class in school which the character excels in, granting a significant bonus. Ranks are character traits, which can be good or bad depending on the circumstance, and are selected from a list. Consequences are gained from failed rolls and represent a penalty that will follow the character around for an appropriate amount of time. They come in mental, physical and social and have a significant penalty associate with them. Gold stars are the currency that players earn and can affect the game, spending them for a bonus, to eliminate a consequence, or to directly affect the story in some way. Each player starts with one and can have no more than three at any time.

All of these elements are easy to deal with and understand. For the particular setting I ran (a magical high school), the favorite subject was changed to magical talent, which meant that the players had considerably more power and were able to do quite a bit. Consequently, I scaled back on the gold stars and didn't hand any out; creative usage of magical talents meant they were throwing around large bonuses on a regular basis and things would have gotten out of hand with access to even more gold stars. That being said, the magical talents were a hit and gave considerable latitude in how to use them. In contrast, a favorite subject could be of limited use (such as French). Consequences were fun and always the result of a failed action on a character's part.

Ranks are easily the weakest part of this setup. The basic premise is largely sound, a trait that will provide a bonus in one circumstance and a penalty in another. It is the execution that has issues. A list is provided which is simultaneously helpful and hindering for the same reasons: it is limiting. The limits help move things along quickly, but also can stifle what a player is after. While it may be silly, it is the naming system of the ranks that, well, rankles me: they all end in -ank, no matter how strange it may be, which also lends itself to some bizarre inclusions. For example, plank, Shawshank, skank and stank all make appearances. Plank means that you are up on internet memes, but not on real life; Shawshank that you know about movies, but are regarded as a flaky thespian; skank means you are attractive, but people think you are a slut; and stank means you stink - hypothetically there is an upside to this in that people will leave when you want. This feels like something that started as a joke and didn't have the common decency to remain a joke. It is entirely possible that I am the outlier in this, and I will fully accept that. Some of the ranks are difficult to assess when to apply penalties, and others seem more suited to enforcing a particular kind of behavior when inconvenient rather than assessing a penalty. It is a fine idea and it worked in game, just one that could use some more polish.

The framework for a session is a Group Project, essentially the adventure, and there is plenty of room for player input into the what that will be (if that is your thing). The basic structure is a theme, npcs and a time frame. The book also provides a handy chart to randomly determine a broad theme if you are having difficulties or want to trust in the fates. Results from that table include "Intramural Kickball Championship", "Big Party", and "Alien Invasion". Included in School Daze is the setting of Trowbridge High, which has a lot of blank spaces. Mostly it is a collection of NPCs ripe to be plucked and used in any game. There are also four alternate settings, a Buffy-like setting, Harry Potter, wild west, and science fiction.

The biggest strengths of this gamae are the simplicity of the system and the tone of the writing. It helps to put you in the mind for wacky high school adventures and give tips to get you there. One of the biggest tips is right at the beginning: always making failure interesting. Failure should be just as fun as success and continue to move the story forward. This is great advice for any game, but particularly one like this where you cannot rest on the mechanics to drive the narrative. The story requires significantly more investment to keep things moving forward without as much system support.

In all, this is a cute game that has a simple mechanic and a nice framework, with good GMing advice and ideas for the genre. It is fast to play and easy to pick-up.

Actual Play

The one-shot that I ran was a riff on the Harry Potter alternate setting, a boarding school with magic: The Apollyon Academy for Warlocks and Witches. The players were provided with some in-depth background to make characters with, but it isn't particularly relevant here. The theme was "Homecoming", which involved midterms, the big Homecoming spellball game (against their rivals, the Midian Academy Monsters) and the subsequent dance. The primary NPC was school heartthrob and spellball ace Jacob Ryan, he had recently broken up with his steady for unknown reasons and was at the center of the unfolding events, the other NPCs I provided were Ms. Victoria, adviser to the PCs "secret society" and Heritage instructor (teaching all the skills that warlocks and witches of good breeding need to maintain the status quo and keep everyone else down), Molly Kranzvald, a poor ginger that would like nothing more than for Jacob Ryan to notice her, and two spellball players from the rival school, Jake "Paint Them" Black and Teddy "Cull Them" Tepes. The time frame for these events was a week, but the emphasis was on the first day, to set the stage and the last day of the week.

For this setup, each character needed a motivation and three relationships. The motivation should be specific to the Group Project and show how they are invested in it. The relationships provided were the bulk of the NPCs used and helped to fill things out while giving the players a stake in the events by filling in details for me with some subtle encouragement. The general technique of having players create three NPCs is one that I have been using in high school genre games for years to great success. That being said, being a one-shot mean that not all relationships were used. The details of the session are a broad overview of the events. Here is the cast of characters (relationships that never came up have been omitted):

Cassandra Valentine
Magical Talent: Potions
Ranks: Bank, frank and swank
Motivation: Make Homecoming go as planned.
Relationships: Connor, cute boy she likes; Ellie, scatterbrained minion; and Mary, flirt and rival politician.

Magical Talent: Illusions
Ranks: Bank, Shawshank and swank
Motivation: Be the center of attention.
Relationships: Jessica, theater rival; and Matthew, ex-boyfriend.

Magical Talent: Thymomancy (emotion magic)
Ranks: Bank, skank and swank
Motivation: Hook up with Jacob Ryan
Relationships: Patrick Picard, dean and friend of the family; Joseph, rival and all-around good guy; and Miranda, BFF.

Lizza Blaze
Magical Talent: Telekinesis
Ranks: Clank, lank and rank.
Motivation: Win the Homecoming game!
Relationships: Edith Newton, spellball coach and friend of the family; and Vince Jackson, old enemy.

Magical Talent: Necromancy
Ranks: Bank, dank and skank
Motivation: To keep the dance "real".
Relationships: Vicky, his not quite girlfriend.

At the start of Homecoming week, the biggest question on everyone mind is, "Who is Jacob Ryan going to the Homecoming dance with?" The captain of the spellball team had just broken up with his long term significant other for uncertain reasons. All that is know is that he doesn't have a date, is beautiful and athletic, genuinely nice and genial, and not very bright. The Eldritch Society, a group of warlocks and witches from powerful families that wield considerable influence within the school, have decided that one of their number, Jason (who has something of a reputation), will be attending with Jacob Ryan no matter what the cost. Also that the Apollyon Kraken will crush the Midian Monsters and the dance will be a fantastic success... a no matter what the cost.

The characters determined what their classes were and how much attention they were paying in them (this became relevant when it came time for testing at the end of the week), though by not paying attention they were allowed to pursue their social agendas. Rivalries and opposing agendas surfaced early, with Mary making a play for control of the dance by suggesting a better theme than Cassandra (a masquerade when the veil between the worlds is thin so you cannot tell if you are dancing with a student or a ghost; Cassandra would later admit that she loved this idea, but it had to die for that very reason - it too good and it wasn't hers) and Jessica shutting out Eva for control over the Homecoming dance routine.

It did not take long for the magic and unintended consequences to begin flying. Mary has repeatedly hit with ennui incantations intended for rival suitors of Jacob Ryan, while Viktor didn't keep it "real" enough and a failed test had Vicky showing too much interest in Jacob Ryan instead of going to the dance with him. The fight to gain the attention of the oblivious Jacob Ryan was brutal and often went sideways with magic gone awry. Molly was another unfortunately victim, though of the passion instead of ennui flavor. Things went well for her, for the most part; it was Jason that did not care for the results.

During the week, the power plays continued. Cassandra destroyed Mary's move at gaining control and in retaliation Mary arranged for Connor to go to the dance with Eva, while Mary herself removed Eva's back up, Matthew; creating a situation where no one would get what they want. Despite this, unintentional spells continued to haunt Mary the fate caster. Eva publicly humiliated Jessica and sent her to the wings, but was trapped attending with Connor since she could never be seen going stag.

Lizza studied and practiced hard, being on a scholarship isn't easy, and managed to find solace in a burgeoning relationship with Joseph that was initially formed to distract him from pursuing Jacob Ryan to spite Jason. Viktor plotted the downfall of Jacob Ryan with some effort, but little follow through, and was embarrassed terribly by summoning the spirit of his family matriarch who reminded him to change his underwear. In the middle of class. He also did some research on suspicious happenings after being confronted by a tortured spirit, slowly being devoured from within, that he could stop the cycle. Meanwhile Jason continued to fight with the other lobsters in the bucket until finally Ms. Victoria swooped in at the eleventh hour to mysteriously took Jacob Ryan away.

On the final day, things came to a head. Eva had a confrontation with Mary before class which went very poorly and ended with Mary giving her a bitingly cold kiss, searing her skin and stealing her life. It wasn't long after that when Cassandra found Mary's body, after a ritual suicide in the chamber of student government. Between midterms, the characters gathered and attempted to figure out what happened. Jason exposed himself to her final thoughts and feelings that saturated the room, knowing beyond a doubt it was his actions that drove her to placing a knife to her flesh in an effort to feel anything at that point. He was faced with the realization of what his wanton abuse of power had wrought. He didn't use magic nearly as much after that.

There was still the fact that Mary's body was accounted for, but a very real Mary was still roaming the halls, and she was up to something sinister. Which is to say in this circumstance, something they had not approved. Jacob Ryan was also missing after a concussion (more failed magic), that turned into a failed seduction attempt. The last anyone had seen of him was with Ms. Victoria. Viktor's discovery that there was a library had borne fuit: he found that Ms. Victoria had been at the school for over 200 years (the yearbooks that went past that were really high on the shelf) and that was her first name; also she doesn't seem to age. Furthermore, the Ryan family has been going to the school for generations as well, spaced evenly apart, and looking nearly identical, but something mysterious always happens to them after Homecoming. Using their connections, they discover that Ms. Victoria is in fact Elizabeth Bathory, but went by a different name for somewhat obvious reasons. With all of this knowledge, they went to the Homecoming game!

Jacob Ryan had shown up by then, and through some decidedly unsportsman like usages of magic from the stands, the Krakens claimed victory over the Monsters! Lizza had destroyed her old enemy, Vince's, spellball career for good (and nearly killed him) by soaking him with enchanted blood in the presence of a vampire, and a werewolf on the opposing team was sent into a frenzy that got him ejected from the game (for everyone's safety) after being tranquilized. After the game, Miranda decided that she wanted to go to the dance with the two dangerous guys from the other school, much to her friend's chagrin (who was now forced to attend the dance stag, of all things).

At the dance, it became apparent that Mary had been pulling strings all day and arranging things while her rivals were busy. The masquerade was attended by spirits from beyond, as she wanted, and slowly she began making her dreams come true; taking control of the dance, but also putting things right that had been tangled by the previous week's events. When confronted, she freely admitted she was dead and this was her final chance - she would either set things right and retire, or be trapped forever in the halls. She was allowed to have her way, and actually made everyone happy. Cassandra danced with Connor, Eva was the center of attention, Jason was set-up with Jake Black, a werewolf from the Midian Academy, Lizza and Joseph resolved the tensions that had arisen between them, and Viktor was chill with the spirits, which was totally "real", and got Vicky's attention.

Which only left Jacob Ryan, who was nowhere to be found. The Eldritch Society rounded up their new allies and went to set the last thing right. Tracking him to the student government chamber, they found him about to be sacrificed by Ms. Victoria. After they incapacitated her, they found out the truth: She was holding entities from beyond reality at bay with her spells and no one else knows them, thus she has to live forever, or the world ends. She was also quite unwilling to teach those spells to anyone else, because then she wouldn't have the leverage that allows her to live forever and really do whatever she wants (she never claimed to be a good person, just a necessary one). Given these choices, and the promises of power that their family status entitled them to, they decided that one boy from a bloodline groomed to be a sacrifice for generations was a small price to the continued existence of reality (also the knowledge on how to live forever, which would require the same sacrifice, but that wasn't really an issue for this group).

A typical happy ending to a high school romantic comedy: with tacit approval of human sacrifice.