19 February 2013

The Tulip Academy's Society for Dangerous Gentlemen

The Tulip Academy's Society for Dangerous Gentlemen (hereafter referred to as "Tulip Academy") is a cooperative story game. It easily has one of the best pitches, where each player portrays a child from one of the most powerful families in the world attending the most prestigious school in the world, the eponymous Tulip Academy. From this elite student body, the very best are selected to join a ancient and secret organization, the Society for Dangerous Gentlemen.

Students within the Society have effectively limitless resources to pursue whatever goals they desire. Right up until they graduate and must rejoin their family. Once home, they will be adults and expected to carry on the family traditions. The Society is their chance to exercise their power and make connections. Whether they decide to travel through time fighting back an impending alien invasion, put on the most epic concert of all time, or change the fortunes of one very lucky girl, it is entirely their choice.

The book itself is extremely slender (24 unnumbered pages), but full color and with evocative art. The text itself is endearing and very easy to follow. Given the high production quality, I can forgive the high price tag ($16) for such a slim book.

Character creation is simple and cooperative. It involves answering some questions about your Gentleman (e.g. How were you able to attend the Academy, what is your drive, what do you look like, etc.) and defining your strength and weakness. The other players will work together and offer you options for each that you get to select from. I am always a fan of collaboration in character creation, so this appealed to me a great deal. It also neatly avoids two of the common pitfalls associate with group input on character creation - thoughts from the group being cast aside, or being forced on you - by offering that choice. Finally, each character randomly determines an NPC who is either their unrequited love or rival. Though, how either of those can remain static before a Dangerous Gentleman is anyone's guess!

Again, the pitch for Tulip Academy is amazing and there are endless plot ideas. Gameplay doesn't have a traditional GM, instead each player takes a turn narrating one scene. The player in charge of the scene runs all of the NPCs for that scene, while the other players may choose to include their character in the scene, or take on the role of an NPC. At the end of each scene, the host will decide if the Gentlemen were victorious or not, note as such, and pass it to the King. Whoever is running the first scene will also portray the "King", an a senior student NPC that leads the Society. The King will introduce the scenario and close it out at the end, the After Party, where the votes are tallied and it is determined if the Gentlemen won the day or not.

All of the generalities for the session are determined through draws from a standard deck of playing cards, which will also be used for conflicts (more on those in a bit). The initial premise is determined through a card draw and can range from mysteries, competition, and revenge, to giant robots and zombie attacks. The host of each scene draws a card for the location and then two more cards for the NPCs.

The random theme is interesting and gives all of the players an objective place to start and begin to discuss where things can go, what they would like to see, really what they are going to be doing that session. This impression I got from play is that you can easily play a few of these scenarios in the span of a more traditional game, which may have some appeal.

A big downside to the scene structure as written is that you can end up with combinations that are awkward and require a talent for thinking on your feet - this is a group of people trying to host individual scenes that fit into a cohesive story, and that doesn't always work well. An unexpected problem that also came up for us was the exact same cast of NPCs for a subsequent scene, just in a different location. It gave an interesting continuity to events (clearly they went to detention for something that happened off-screen), but there wasn't anything new or interesting to play with the same characters. Given the limited number of scenes, this was something of a waste.

Certainly it is easy to call a mulligan on any of this and redraw the scene, or cards until it fits, but then why is anyone bothering with the random location/NPC mechanic in the first place?

There are only three kinds of conflicts in Tulip Academy: Art, Fencing and Science. Each is a unique mini-game played with the deck of cards. This is also where your strength and weakness come into play. If you invoke your strength, and everyone agrees that it applies, you gain some significant benefit to the mini-game (typically meaning that you are going to win), but you can only use your strength once a game. If your opponent uses your weakness, you win, but they get to narrate how your weakness robs the victory of glory.

When reading these, it sounded like a lot of fun, describing your actions during the mini-game exchanges. In play the mini-games were so separate from the actual game we were playing, that narration quickly fell by the wayside (or became ridiculously violent in the case of every incredibly one-sided fencing contest). Role-play and the scene disappeared and there was only a little card game with the occasional, half-hearted description. An even greater sin was that the mini-games weren't even fun. For example, the fencing conflict is just War with a small deck of cards.

In each case the strength gave an overwhelming advantage, which is fine, but it makes playing out the actual conflict uninteresting. Even the weakness was difficult to work into play - it isn't easy for everyone to describe that particular scenario well, and the victor is still the victor. This can create some difficult math for the host to determine success for the scene or not - does a weakness automatically cause a loss, even though they still won? It's not necessarily easy to determine, particularly keeping in mind that each host is also a player and they want to win in the end.

Even the After Party was somewhat fraught with narrative peril. It's more of a summary of victory, rather than a true ending. It can include some description of events that happened off-screen to support the ending, but there won't be much role-play to support that, or really a chance to revel in the victory. It feels artificial and forced (likely because it is). There is always the significant chance that we were simply doing it all wrong, or that this game simply is not for me, despite really wanting to like it.

While this game is likely not for me, I'm still willing to give it another play or two, just to try some different approaches. It still has a premise that I adore, and I still want to like it. My issues may not apply to everyone. If a semi-structured cooperative story game that requires a lot of on-the-spot thinking appeals to you, particularly with some different little card games involved, this may just be the game for you. Similarly, if you have played Tulip Academy, leave a comment and let me know what you thought and if I missed anything while playing.