Saturday, 30 March 2013

Actual Play: Hellcats and Hockeysticks

Sometime last summer, a gang of us got together for a game of Hellcats and Hockeysticks. I'd picked this up at the suggestion of someone on the YSDC forums, partly to help with planning for a now-abandoned Call of Cthulhu scenario, and largely because I really like the St. Trinian's films. Dan has already blogged about this quite a long time ago, so I'll try not to retread the same ground, but focus more on my experience of running the game.

In any case, I ended up recording the game. It was a fairly impromptu idea, so we didn't do any of that stuff like introducing ourselves or sound testing, and it was recorded just on a portable recorder plonked in the middle of the living room where we were lounging on various comfy chairs, windows open because of the heat. As a result, some people (Kat) ended up very quiet, and there's quite a lot of background noise from traffic, let alone our own rustlings and clattering.

I've slowly and irregularly been editing away at them (learning how to audio edit in the process) and finally got them in some kind of shape to post publicly. So, I present what might conceivably be the start of an irregular series: the Librarians and Leviathans Podcast. It's probably the only Actual Play of Hellcats and Hockeysticks out there. Enjoy!

EDIT: I've managed to combine the files into a single item, now available for download on Archive.org.

Homework

I do feel bad about not being better prepared for the game. I fully intended to do some more prep, but personal stuff got in the way and I had to run it more or less cold, on the basis of a couple of readings weeks earlier. I’m normally an over-preparer and ended up trying to handle things on the fly, with a scenario that I still think is tricky in retrospect. As a result, I was a bit stressed and nervous about it, though I don’t think too much of that comes through in the recording. I did delete a lot of the long pauses and “Um...”s, though.

In particular, I was absolutely not on top of the Willpower mechanic, which is the main way PCs are expected to impose their will on the world. Partly as a result, the first scene was a bit shambolic because I was struggling to work out when and if the PCs were actually controlling the conversation and achieving their aims. However, this was compounded by some problems with the scenario itself. Having a firm idea of exactly how Willpower is supposed to work in practice, and how to model various situations using Willpower, would have made the whole thing much slicker and probably improved everyone's opinion of the game. If anyone's planning to give this a shot, I would strongly recommend setting yourself up some sample situations (or nicking them from films, or whatever) and doing a dry run to see how you'd actually apply the Willpower rules.

Practical Exam

Because I didn't have an especially firm grip on things, I didn't adapt especially well to off-script activity (the scenario is fairly scripted for its length). The first scene expects the girls to isolate and interrogate one or two first-year diggers, whereas they chose instead to confront the whole lot. This was a perfectly reasonable decision: they're dangerous bolshie girls, terrors of the local populace, and having decided the boys were intruding on their drinking space beach, they wanted to chase them off. I suspect also the image of a gang of boys digging doesn't immediately inspire the idea of isolating one; perhaps Peregrine pictured it as individual first-years digging some distance apart, with older boys roaming around giving orders, but I don't think that's quite how it came across to us. If you picture it as a group close together, the idea of wandering up and marching one away to question seems quite odd. Anyway, because of that we ended up with basically a standoff between the gangs, and I struggled to get enough information to them without it just being a GM fiat infodump. The conflicting goals of the boys, and the girls' own uncertainty of exactly what they wanted, added to the issue.

Short on information, the PCs did some freestyle roleplaying (which was one of the most enjoyable parts of the game) before biting the hook again and heading off to get more information. Since they hadn't learned that much, they didn't go back to their own school, where they'd have learned about a missing girl whose room contained clippings about stolen gold. Instead, they went to recapture one of their new acquaintances (poor old Fred), and dragged him away to interrogate. Of course, this would still have been a perfectly reasonable decision if they had picked up the hints about Annabel, but it's a shame they ended up unable to make that call. Although on the plus side, I got quite fond of Fred by the end.

This is possibly the biggest oversight on my part, because I had a good opportunity to smooth things over and failed. As was pointed out in the discussion, I should have had Fred start talking before they left the school and spill the beans about Annabel, so they could extend their incursion and rescue her immediately. Instead, they snuck out of the school, interrogated Fred, then had to sneak back into the school again to find Annabel! It's no catastrophe, but it could certainly have been slicker.

I feel like the incursions went okay, but the fight in the Common Room felt a bit wooden to me. The combat rules do work, but it's not really what you're supposed to be doing with the game, I think. Thankfully, the fire alarms they'd set off provided a nice reason to take the scenario's suggestion and cut down on the number of boys inside, so they didn't need to come up with another plan to distract them.

I'm not sure how obvious this was, but by the end everyone was more familiar with the rules, and I was also a lot less nervous, so I think things went more easily in the final scene. There was a bit of uncertainty over what they were 'supposed' to do, which I think is significant - even by that point, people were still struggling to decide what genre they were playing in, and so they ended up taking the Mallory Towers ending rather than the St. Trinian's one (in Mean Girls, presumably the whole gold business would only have been relevant as a tool to attain some social ambitions).

Syllabus

The scenario felt odd to me somehow.

I don’t think it introduces the core mechanics very well, because while it lays out characters and events (and the characters are decent), there’s no specific guidance on how particular mechanics might be used in particular scenes. This was a particular issues for the atypical rules like friendship and Willpower – I’m quite happy running skills and combats, but when a game is asking players to not jump to a fight, nor to chat and negotiate in character, but instead to browbeat and humiliate the opposition, it’s going against established instincts. They weren’t sure how to narratively achieve their in-character goals within the expectations of the game, and I wasn’t sure how to guide them. Even the finale of our playthrough was resolved physically, rather than through the Willpower rules for crushing an opponent. Similarly, the scenario had absolutely no occasion to use the much-vaunted friendship rules – as someone commented in the recording, that would just have got in the way of the adventure story plot. The two didn’t really feel compatible.

As I mentioned, I also found the directions for the scenario genuinely confusing. In the very first scene, the boys “are keen to get away” (from the girls) but also “curious to find out how much the girls know” about the gold and the missing girl, without giving away more information in the process. For the life of me, I could not work out how to blend “escape” and “perform subtle interrogation” coherently. I couldn’t even work out how they could question the girls without telling them what they were up to, especially given the boys are a) clearly being quite suspicious; b) a very obvious plot hook for the PCs to investigate; c) NPCs, whose job is to answer questions, not ask them; and d) afraid of the girls and so not in a strong negotiating position. This is probably one of those times when the writer has a strong mental picture of the situation and how things might go down, but struggled to communicate it.

There's some pretty solid detail and several tactics offered for the rescue mission, though because they'd already been in the school once I treated it fairly broadly. Similarly, the final scene in the churchyard has quite a few suggestions. I wish the initial scene had been as detailed, because setting the hook firmly and providing basic information is key to a decent scenario. The rescue mission is basically always intended to come down to a fight - arguably a useful opportunity to teach the combat rules, if you're planning to play more games - but there are several ways to handle the ending.

In overall fairness, I think it's really very hard to write scenarios, especially hard to write scenarios that complete strangers are going to play without you around to help, even harder to do so with a very limited page count, and perhaps hardest of all to write introductory scenarios that are also intended to teach players the core of a game with some unusual mechanics, while still being fun and interesting. So the fact that this one struggles to meet all those requirements is no great surprise.

References

We didn’t quite manage to discuss the experience mechanic, but I found it quite interesting. I like the idea of “specific learning outcomes” from the game’s events. In a nutshell, the Headmistress asks each player what they learned. You can say “dunno, miss” and just get a generic skill point to spend. The more interesting expectation, though, is to name something quite specific, in which case you get to write down a unique bonus that applies in particular situations: lying to police officers, say. I can see it might end up unwieldy in very long campaigns, but honestly, I don’t see anyone playing a very long H&H campaign; it’s a one-shot sort of game.

As I mentioned in the podcast, I also found the rulebook quite oddly laid out, and struggled to find important information. In fairness, I was using the PDF rather than the physical book, and the real thing is (as usual) rather easier to navigate, but it’s still hard to pin down things like the complete Willpower rules, or the Skills rules. Cross-references or just repetition would have helped.

Fundamentally I think the source materials they’ve chosen are too disparate and conflicting to build a cohesive game on. St. Trinian’s is fast-paced slapstick chaotic farce, full of action and quite complex plotting, with minimal character development, and often features adult NPCs as the main drivers behind events (the Headmistress uses loyal girls, government inspectors use undercover agents, criminals use their relations in the school...). The Craft, on the other hand, is more or less entirely about personalities (even the supernatural stuff is secondary to character, and events are mostly important as they relate to the characters) and adults are largely irrelevant.

St. Trinian’s, to come back to the references, notably doesn’t feature friend-politicking. There are several power blocs within the school, each with their own goals, from the Headmistress to the younger girls to the Sixth Form, as well as outside agents like Harry, criminals or parents. The groups play off against each other, but not within their group (people sometimes act against their peer group, but not their friends). I don’t think there’s ever any change in relationships during a story, because that’s just not what the films are about.

I think to some extent “badly behaved schoolgirls” isn’t a... strong enough? concrete enough? ...central idea. Mallory Towers and St. Trinian’s and Mean Girls are very different genres (as is The Worst Witch or Harry Potter or The Craft), and so what you end up with is a game that doesn’t have one solid strand running all the way through it, but several related sets of mechanics, none of which you need for all of these genres. I suppose the Willpower-humiliation mechanics is the main focus of the game, but I felt like there wasn’t enough guidance in how to actually apply this in real play.

It’s a grab-bag of ideas from various school-themed sources, and in practice you can just ignore whatever elements don’t suit your game style, deliberately or not. In our case, most of the friendship mechanics never got a look-in, though best friend and rivals did come through in roleplay. We also ignored Mad Science and Magic. We ended up making very little use of the Willpower rules, but that’s partly because I couldn’t work out how to and tended to handwave it.

It would have helped if they’d given the scenario more space to breathe, and in each section offered some suggestions for how the girls might defeat their opponents’ Willpower. In fact, just provide some sample vignettes to test out before the game, so everyone can see how it works beforehand in isolation. I think the difficulty isn't the mechanic itself, but getting used to interpreting in-character situations through a lens of “what do I want to achieve, and how do I undermine this person until I get it?” and then coming up with in-character actions that will have the right mechanical effect. It's quite different if you're used to taking more direct action through just using skills on people or hitting them with swords. It also ties in to the power dynamics of the game, which are a bit unusual: you're officially fairly powerless and subject to school and adult authority, but everyone's supposedly scared of you, but you need to manipulate them rather than just doing whatever you like.

Final Report

I think on balance, I wouldn’t choose to run this system often. If I had a particular idea in mind, I’d probably pick a system that I thought supported that kind of play – hijinks, or social dynamics, or jolly school adventures – and add a school skin, rather than a generic Schoolgirl Game that’s trying to serve several, well, mistresses. The main time I’d use this system might be to run a one-shot improv game where I didn’t really know where it might go, or possibly to introduce people to roleplaying who might find the St. Trinian’s idea appealing. That being said, the game as it turned out didn’t feel especially St. Trinian’s-y, and I think that’s partly because tightly-plotted farce (and all farce is tightly plotted, however chaotic it may seem) is one of the least suitable genres for roleplaying, driven as it is by players. That’s not a specific criticism of this game, which does aim to support that type of play – I’m just not sure how successful it’s possible to be.

I think it would actually work out better if you abandon any attempt at scenarios and just ran it on the fly, allowing the girls to direct the plot. The mechanics are simple enough that you could work up NPCs very quickly, and it's the sort of game where clich├ęs and stereotypes would probably work fairly well to construct cheerful chaos around. This is a fairly radical departure from the films, where a lot of the action comes from the adults, but NPCs directing things doesn't tend to do well in RPGs. It would also reduce the issue of getting anarchic self-willed schoolgirls to bite plot hooks.

All that being said, I don’t think it’s terrible, and I’m quite conscious that we didn’t really explore some of the game’s main talking points at all. Neither Willpower nor Friendship really got a look in, and while I do think a lot of that is down to the introductory scenario, it still leaves me unqualified to give any kind of final verdict on the game.

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