I found out about Misspent Youth from Tabletop1, and went and bought the game pretty much immediately after watching the episode. It’s an RPG that draws on the current ideals of YA dystopian science fiction – the world is messed up, and a group of plucky kids2 fight the system to claim their freedom. So, y’know, stuff like Hunger Games, Divergent, Ready Player One, and so on.
Mechanically, this falls more on the story game end of the RPG continuum, with a fairly light system and lots of authorial control in the hands of the players. Still, for all the light system and player control, the structure of each session is pretty tightly defined, and the whole of the game is focused on producing a very specific kind of story and play experience.
Focused and specific doesn’t have to mean narrow, though. While a lot of the modern dystopian stuff is pretty formulaic3, and Misspent Youth is really tweaked to run those kinds of stories, there are a couple of extended examples in the game that show how you can take other stories that don’t really fall into those patterns and shape them to work in the game. For copyright and IP concerns, the serial numbers are filed off, but there’s a breakdown of how you could run both Star Wars and ET as Misspent Youth games.
It’s all about how you choose to set up the game, and that starts with the Authority4.
The Authority is the Man that is Keeping You Down. In keeping with the source material the game is inspired by, this can be a totalitarian state, with weird restrictions on large portions of the population, such as you see in Hunger Games. But it can also be something less monolithic, less ubiquitous, less pervasive, less public. So, you could put together a secret conspiracy that only controls one small area of society5, or set everything at a school where the folks in charge are pricks6, or whatever.
You design the Authority together as a group, GM and players, at the start of your first session. It starts with brainstorming about bullying – what bullying behaviours really get under everyone’s skin, and then using your brainstormed list to help you pick some defining characteristics for the Authority from a set of lists. At the end of the process, you have a Name, Description, Vice, Victim, Visage, and Need for the Authority. Everyone also gets to invent a System of Control: a thing about the Authority that gives it power over people.
The key idea is to make an antagonist that everyone really hates, embodying the worst bullying aspects that you’ve brainstormed. It’s got to be something that enrages you, not something where you can sit back and say, “Sure, they’re bad, but I can understand why they do the stuff they do.” You’re building an enemy. Don’t pull punches.
Of course, one of the group has to play the Authority, as the GM. That means that, while the Authority should be total Bad Guys, they also need to be comprehensible. The GM has to be able to make sense of what they do and what they want.
There’s also a bit of discussion about picking a rating for the game. Dealing with issues of authoritarianism, rebellion, oppression, and freedom means that there are themes and actions that come up that can be… unpleasant. Having a discussion early in the game about what sort of tone you’re going for, and what level of violence/profanity/whatever is acceptable really helps let everyone immerse themselves in the game, without having to worry too much that they’re going to be faced with something that spoils there fun in play.
The Young Offenders
So, player characters in this game are a group of teenagers, age 12-17, and are called YOs – Youthful Offenders. You create these as a group, brainstorming and helping each other sort out concepts and convictions.
Convictions are the heart of the characters. They are a set of five descriptors about who your character is and what he or she believes. Three of these convictions are closed, meaning you choose them from a list, and two are open, meaning you get to pick anything for those. The closed convictions are Means, Motive, and Opportunity, while the open convictions are M.O. and Disorder.
These are not skills, although they – especially M.O. – can describe what you can do. They are more like aspects or approaches from Fate Core or Fate Accelerated Edition, in that they say more about who your character is than what he or she can do.
Each conviction starts free, and each can be sold out in play for a guaranteed success in a scene. So, if your Means conviction is Smart, you can sell it out, and it changes to Pedantic, but you then win that scene. This is powerful and tempting, but hazardous – selling out a conviction is permanent, it brings you closer in harmony to the Authority, and the entire game series ends when one YO has sold out all five convictions.
Yeah, this is a game, at its core, about selling out. About lost innocence, and capitulating to the powers that be. Your YO can’t really die in the game, but his or her soul can. Friendships, trust, hope, all of that can be lost, and those are the big threats.
Each session of Misspent Youth is played out in a set of seven scenes, in a specific order:
- What’s Up
- Fighting Back
- Heating Up
- We Won
- We’re Fucked
- Who Wins7
- Dust Settles
This sequence of scenes gives a definite arc to the session, and mixes in a variety of different feels and moods. It helps keep the events of the game in a story-like structure, rather than being a series of events that a story is imposed upon. Each scene serves a specific function in play, and has a particular focus and intent.
Each scene also brings in elements of the world – either an Authority Figure or a Friendship Question. Authority Figures are pretty much what it says on the tin – a face of the Authority that is going to be important in this scene8. Friendship Questions are questions that were created when the players created their YOs, and can shift the focus from an external antagonist to internal strife as the secrets and truths that the characters have tried to hide are brought to light.
EDIT: Friendship questions aren’t created at the same time as the YOs. They are created at the start of each session. Thinking about it, this makes more sense to me; it allows players to reflect changes in the relationships between the YOs from session to session.
Everyone at the table takes turns setting a scene, including picking a where and when, picking an Authority Figure or Friendship Question to form the focal point of the scene, and saying what happens in the first five seconds of the scene. Then, the scene kicks off and the roleplaying begins.
I have to say that I really like the idea of the scene structure. It gives a strong focus to the game, keeping things moving forward and putting a bit of a clock on the story. It also drives towards conclusion, helping to keep things from just kind of trailing off. With each player taking a turn to set a scene, it helps to make sure that everyone gets input into the game, and shares the spotlight time around. And the choice of Authority Figure or Friendship Question really helps keep the scenes connected to the world and makes sure the stakes are compellingly high.
Once each scene, and only once, there is a struggle. This is when the Authority wants something to happen, and the YOs oppose it, or vice versa. It can be physical combat, a chase, an escape, an argument, an infiltration, or any other event where one side is trying to do something and the other side is trying to stop it.
The Authority declares when a struggle starts, though it may be prompted by the actions of any player. So, the Authority may say something like, “Unkown to you, the cops have surrounded the restaurant you’re eating in, and are starting to move in. We’re starting a struggle.” Or, a player may say, “I’m not afraid of the gang. I pull my switchblade, flick it open, and tell them to back off,” and the Authority says, “Sounds like a struggle’s starting up!”
When a struggle starts, the Authority declares an objective – what the Authority wants to achieve in this scene. The YOs then collectively declare a hope – what they want to achieve. Now, whoever wins stops the other side from getting their objective or hope automatically, so you want to pick a proactive goal. If the Authority’s objective is to send the YOs to a juvenile detention facility, the YOs shouldn’t choose the hope of NOT getting sent to juvie; they get that if they win, automatically. They may want to choose something like embarrassing the officer who arrested them in front of his boss.
Struggles are when you use dice in this game. Well, the players do, anyway. The GM never rolls. It’s a fairly light system mechanically, involving claiming numbers and rolling 2d6, and trying to match numbers selected by the players and not the GM. If you roll a number that hasn’t been claimed, you claim it. If you roll a number that’s been claimed by you or another YO, the YOs win the struggle. If you roll a number that’s been claimed by the Authority, you lose the struggle. This is the point that you can sell out a conviction to claim a win, if you want. In amongst the rolling and claiming, you’re narrating what you’re doing, using your YO’s convictions. And the Authority narrates the Authority response, and claims another number.
This system is extremely adaptable to cover pretty much any kind of conflict, obstacle, or challenge you need in the game. It can represent a desperate fight lasting a few seconds, or it can model weeks of careful planning and politicking. The necessity of tying any YO action to a conviction really highlights the ideals and values of the characters, while the temptation of selling out for an easy win adds a nice dark side option.
There’s more to the game, of course. The author provides a lot of solid advice about how to run the game to really make it do what it’s designed for. He shows off some more advanced tools for getting the most out of the game. And there are a lot of good examples of everything, and some nice character sheets9, and other sheets. Everything, from the game’s terminology to it’s graphic design, is focused on driving home the idea of youthful rebellion, and it really works. I haven’t had time to actually try playing it, yet, but it’s on my list.
Right now, the game is only available in .pdf format, but Robert Bohl, the author10, let me know that, towards the end of June, he will be launching a Kickstarter for a new print edition of the game, plus a supplement. I’m definitely jumping onto that campaign for print copies of both, because this is something I want sitting on my shelf.
I urge you to check it out, and to keep an eye peeled for that Kickstarter.
EDIT: The Kickstarter campaign is scheduled to start Thursday, June 29. Now you know.
But I’m not the boss of you.
- At the time of writing this, the episode in question hasn’t made it to Youtube, yet. It’s only on Alpha.
- Teens, by default.
- No more so than any sub-genre, but there it is.
- Not this Authority.
- Like, maybe, the Pride in Marvel’s Runaways comic series, or the government agents in Repo Man.
- Taps, Animal House, Toy Soldiers, etc.
- I mistyped this as “Who Sins” at first. That could make for a cool game, too.
- Usually as an adversary, if that was unclear. They’re bad guys.
- They’re called Permanent Records.
- Okay. When I bought the game in .pdf format, Robert Bohl reached out to me, asking where I’d heard about it, what made it interesting to me, etc. I answered him, and we had a little discussion, and he told me about the forthcoming Kickstarter. Why am I telling you this? Because it was a very nice, friendly thing for him to do, and it deserves to be noted. Not only did he write a great game, he’s the kind of guy who cares about his audience, and wants them to have fun.