Monday, 9 September 2013

Some very belated Hellcats thoughts

You know what nobody's expecting a post about? Hellcats and Hockeysticks.

Dan has already discussed some of the technical aspects of the game, and you will of course remember my article about running it. But for some reason I ended up giving it a bit more thought recently.



The idea of 'cliques' plays a reasonably significant part in the game, as they're a kind of class-equivalent for the girls. Dan had a few misgivings about the use of class here, but it didn't especially bother me as such. However, I did and do think it's an inappropriate tool for what they're trying to do, which is give each girl a special flavour while also representing some (perceived?) subgroups within teenage girl society.

The problem here is that cliques, by their very nature, are a groups. You cannot be a clique of one. Moreover, cliques are generally perceived to be exclusionist and insular, except where they go around being mean to non-members. This means it doesn't really make sense to create a party consisting of four people with widely-varying tastes who are specifically marked for their habit of hanging around with other people just like them.

I'm honestly not sure what the designers thought they were modelling, or whether they simply wanted to represent a range of likely girl-types and didn't really think about party composition. The only situation I can really think of where you tend to get these rag-tag bunches of wildly different individuals are where it's forced on you. It can happen in school, admittedly, because you pick the same subject or get assigned to the same detention pool or whatever.

In fiction, though, which is where H&H is trying draw its inspiration, the usual situation where this happens is when something goes wrong. The school gets invaded by aliens, or the whole class are stuck in the mountains when the bus breaks down. An unlikely bunch of people with the right skills are forced to step up to the wicket, confront and abandon their prejudices, learn to work together for the good of all, and learn some very special lessons about difference, respect and friendship that will undoubtedly leave them all getting along well in the closing credits. Importantly, what happens here is that people's usual social preferences are broken down somehow, either because their friends are absent or injured, or their friends turn out not to be up to the challenge, and they're forced to associate with a different group of people.

Unfortunately, that doesn't sound anything like the game presented to you here. H&H is specifically about a group of friends who regularly hang around together, getting up to mischief and squabbling for status and giving other people grief. The group mechanics rely entirely on that idea. It's far more so than things like St. Trinian's tend to be, but fits in with the other source material like Enid Blyton and Mean Girls. You aren't reluctantly working together to achieve a short-term goal.

As well as the logical confusion, I'm mildly concerned that cliques encourage you to end up with characters whose abilities are very divergent. This tends to make working together difficult, because one party member is very athletic and has no social skills, one is incredibly eloquent and clumsy as hell, and one walks like a shadow and can't climb over a low stile. While this range can be useful in some situations (and often works in things like D&D), you're reasonably likely to end up with the whole group having to make the same checks together, and at least one person always likely to fail.


So I'm not especially planning on running any more H&H, but if I were, here's some things I'd consider changing around a bit.


Obviously. The most straightforward change I can think of that retains a bit of the original flavour is to fork this out into two separate concepts, cliques and niches. Unfortunately, both would need rebuilding.

Cliques would take on their obvious place as a party-level mechanic. Think of it (if it helps, which it probably won't) as a sort of vague equivalent to things like party alignment or guild affiliation. All members of the group are part of the same clique, which indicates the general kind of attitude, demeanour, style and taste they share that lets them work together socially. The choice of a clique would not only determine your broad skillset, but also to some extent indicate the kind of game you hope to play.

While the details would want some tweaking, some original cliques should be recyclable here. I reckon Goth/Emo, Hockey Girl, Nerd and Prefect are all usable, while you could also construct Socialite and something like Hipster, and perhaps a vaguely Hippy/Artistic sort of thing. In a normal school you'd have a social group of ne'er-do-wells, but of course, that's everyone. The group's clique would determine which skills they can take to level 5, and some kind of special ability they share. This has the advantage of meaning the group are likely to be good at a broadly similar set of things, and therefore well-suited to doing things together, as you tend to want from a party. It won't mechanically enforce it, but each clique suggests certain kinds of skillsets to the reader, and so you're inclined to pick what seems appropriate.

Oh, and just in passing, let me banish "Japanese Exchange Student" to the outer darkness where it belongs.

Niches are personal. The simplest way I can think of to explain this is the Spice Girls. They are all Spice Girls. But one of them is Sporty, one Scary, one Baby, one Posh, and of course, one Ginger. Your niche indicates some of the things that mark you out as an individual within your group of friends, even while you share a lot in common.

From the original clique list, I would probably adapt Sweetheart, Coquette and Fixer into niches, maybe Scientist, and look for another couple to add. It would broadly depend whether you want niches to represent generic individual traits, or specifically to mean the role that characters falls into in their group of friends. Either way, niches would grant individual special abilities, and perhaps one extra skill, which allow characters to shine in their element, without restricting them from working together.

Skill blagging

The skills used in the game are almost entirely, but irritatingly not quite, based around rough version of school subjects. In theory this is quite fun, but in practice the way actions are allocated the skills leaves you with some quite unintuitive links. For example, Track and Field is about stealth as well as athletics, while Economics turns you into a haggling machine but doesn't cover actual finance or indeed any kind of theory (Maths covers that). There's also the odd fish of Observation, not a well-known school subject. Music has precisely one use, playing music. Several skills are mostly relevant if you're using the bolt-on rules.

My proposal here would be to drop the descriptions more or less entirely, and let the players make the case for whatever skill they want to use. After all, the game specifically emphasises that it's looking to depart from the usual formal player-GM relationship, and have players wheedle or otherwise influence the Headmistress to get their way! It seems to me that having skill use based on blagging it would be both fun and highly in keeping with the school theme - talking the talk was a fairly significant school skill from what I remember.

I might also consider (but not necessarily go through with) slightly revising the skills. One possibility would be to have "Academic" and "Vocational" skills, for example. This might help deal with some of the wobblier things like sneakery, which are expected in RPGs (and very useful in a ne'er-do-wells game) but don't fall naturally into any of the subjects (no, not even Track and Field).


The game sets you up with a single best friend, plus a group of people you hang around with but don't particularly like, apparently. That's not strictly what they say, but that's sort of the impression you get when a game asks you to list what you dislike about them.

As we discussed on our podcast, one of the mechanical reasons this is a problem is that before the game starts you have no idea what any of the other characters are like, and so no way to pick really suitable dislikes. It doesn't necessarily matter, as dislikes aren't necessarily logical, but it's awkward.

If we want to avoid completely ditching an idea from the books, I might instead suggest something that, to my surprise, is influenced by Fiasco. Rather than the likes and dislikes, characters might define how they see their relationship with each of the other characters - this could be freeform or chosen from a list of suggestions. Other possibilities (all requiring a certain amount of character-introduction beforehand):

  • Why do you hang around with each of the others?
  • Who in the group do you feel closest to?
  • Who in the group do you look up to? Down on?

Alternative friendships

To be honest, though, for a game I'd run, since this is supposedly your group of friends and (as far as I am aware) girls too prefer to associate with people they basically like, I would consider doing this differently.

First, pick a 'best friend' from a group, and possibly a 'least best friend' just to set up some relationships - might be someone you don't quite get, or tend to quarrel with, look down on a bit (like a younger kid), or find mildly exasperating. Again, best to have a bit of idea what everyone's like before you do it (maybe play for a while first?), but this sort of relationship can be quite vague, so your best friend might be anywhere from an actual intimate buddy to someone you respect or secretly idolise (or indeed fancy) and want to please.

Then, very briefly create someone(s) you don't like within the school, which might be a teacher, non-teaching staff or (preferably) another pupil. Although it could also be, say, someone's boyfriend. This would offer some of the same possibilities for rounding out your own character, without seeming to define someone else's character or emphasising the negative side of your group's relationships. It would also offer some plot and RP potential that isn't tied into any written scenario, allowing these characters to be pulled in, but not forcing them on the game.

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