Review: “Misspent Youth”

Rebellion is an important – and much abused – part of society. It is an anonymous Chinese man standing in the middle of a city street in the middle of the night in front of a tank, blocking it on its way to smash a futile effort to create the world’s largest democracy. It is also privileged middle-aged white people, angry about promises of a life free from government intrusions smashed on the rocks of a financial system run amok. It is hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians rallying under an orange banner to refuse the megalomaniacal dreams of a former KGB-apparatchik dictator, but it is also a bored kid giving the finger to a teacher who is trying her best to make his life better. It is a tiny voice speaking out for the good of us all, but it is also a superpower-backed junta crushing a neonatal democracy.

Enter Misspent Youth (MY), a roleplaying game steeped in the juices of punk, a movement that didn’t quite manage to define a generation, yet somehow managed to fend off death for 34 years and counting. MY’s layout is an homage (for better and for worse) to the handmade zines that held pockets of geeks, thinkers, artists and hobbyists together before the advent of desktop publishing and ubiquitous blogging. It swears like a sailor that’s gotten a little too comfortable in a new port. In its sincere little heart it wants to teach a few people the importance of righteous rebellion.

FUCK! YEAH!

In Misspent Youth, you tell the tale of a group of Young Offenders (YOs) – teenagers in a science fiction world under the thumb of oppression who are pushed into rebellion. Over the course of several episodes (sessions) you reveal why they rebel, how they protect themselves from The Authority when it tries to put them back in their place, how the fight forces them to grow up (for better and for worse) and, finally, whether they succeed in bringing The Authority to its knees.

How to Start a Revolution

This is the point where I give a summary of a game’s mechanics. It may take a few paragraphs, but I manage to hit all the high points. Let me tell you, although the rules only take about 50 graphic novel-sized pages of moderate text density, it wasn’t easy this time. MY is a game where almost every rule bears a significant load, making it hard to summarize a mechanic by skipping all the fiddly bits. The pieces fit together snugly.

You begin by creating your Authority and its milieu of rules, called the Dystopia. The Authority is described mostly using traits and descriptors that act as cues for the players, describing what kind of story they’re going to tell. The Dystopia could be the entire world, a small subsection of it, or even something like a spaceship or an arcology. It gets described in terms of “Systems of Control” The Authority uses to oppress those under it and the Exploits the YOs have available when they try to strike blows for freedom. As we shall see, Systems of Control and Exploits are also a sort of scoreboard for the story.

Creating a Young Offender means coming up with a description and then choosing a few Convictions – traits that describe how the YO tends to deal with problems. Convictions begin relatively innocent and idealistic, but in moments of crisis a YO may break a little bit, committing a horrible act for the sake of the struggle against The Authority, subverting one of his Convictions forever.

All of these follow a pattern of answering specific questions, using predefined lists of options for the first few and then, once they have a feel for where they’re going, an open-ended question or two as cappers. This helps players get past “white paper syndrome,” the problem of being creatively paralyzed because there are too many possibilities. Also, The Authority, The Dystopia and the YOs can turn out slightly different than the players’ original vision when an option from a list is too shiny to resist. This kind of creative friction is a good thing – playing something a little different from your usual schtick is a good way to stretch your creative muscles – but if you disagree it’s not too hard to keep your eye on the ball.

It’s important to note that all of this is a group activity. It’s a good idea to set aside a session for Authority, Dystopia and YO creation, since it will likely take a couple hours to finish. While it’s possible for The Authority to come up with an Authority and Dystopia he wants to play on his own and bring it to the other players, it’s a bad idea unless you really understand and agree with your players’ tastes. Misspent Youth is a game that demands strong buy-in from all players, and group creation – including paying attention to all players’ input and keeping an eye out for silent dissent – is the best way of generating it.

One Wrench at a Time

Play is broken up into episodes (as in television). An episode takes about a session to play, although that will vary a bit depending on your group’s tendencies. At the beginning of the episode, each player comes up with an Authority Figure – an NPC agent of The Authority that stands a good chance of causing the YOs trouble during the upcoming episode. Each YO than asks the YO to his left a question, which may also become a focus of play, about their friendship.

It’s a good idea to do the Authority Figures and Friendship Questions for the first episode as part of the world and character creation session. This creates less pressure to get through them in a hurry when the group is still getting comfortable with their setting and characters. It also lets The Authority (and the rest of the players) digest all of this freshly generated material a bit before hitting the Play button.

Between the creation processes, Authority Figures and Friendship Questions, The Authority has a lot of material to work with. Any time he finds himself at a loss, he can browse the YOs Convictions, The Authority’s Systems of Control, and the Friendship Questions and Authority Figures for inspiration. This is by design, and there are a lot of roleplaying games that could use a dose of it.

An episode is made up of seven scenes, and the rules provide very broad guidelines about what kind of action should occur in each one, helping the group follow a traditional story arc. At the start of each scene a player chooses one of the Authority Figures or Friendship Questions to put in the spotlight for the scene and, knowing what kind of scene it should be, the player then describes the first five seconds, setting it in motion before handing off to the other players.

You will love or hate this kind of structure. Many roleplayers will, quite reasonably, find the scene guidelines an unnecessary straitjacket. Also, a lot of roleplayers avoid GMing because they want to avoid the kind of creative responsibility scene framing offers. If either of these sound like you, it’s a good idea to stay far away from Misspent Youth. On the other hand, it empowers players yet again to include creative material that they find interesting in a timely fashion, and the scene structure maintains the story’s pace and focus.

Giving The Authority the Finger

The climax of each scene is a Struggle: a dramatic conflict between the YOs and the (witting or unwitting) forces of the Authority. Once it is apparent that a Struggle is taking place, the YOs and Authority figure out what the Struggle is for, and then the Authority puts down 2d6 and asks “Who will stand up?” One YO stands up each time the question is asked by taking the dice and rolling them.

Struggles use a heavily modified form of Craps. Numbers are claimed by the YOs as they are rolled for the first time while The Authority gets to claim numbers one at a time in a predetermined pattern. If the dice show an unclaimed number, the YOs get to claim it and the rolling YO associates it with one of his Convictions. He then describes efforts at winning the Struggle, coloured by that Conviction. The Authority then narrates how the YO’s efforts are frustrated, claims another number, describes The Authority’s next stab at winning the Struggle and asks “Who will stand up?” again. If the YO rolls a number previously claimed by her side, she narrates how her YO wins the conflict. The Conviction associated with the number she rolled inspires the method of defeating The Authority, so YOs cannot describe what they are doing until after they roll. If she rolls a number The Authority has claimed, the YOs lose the Struggle and the Authority gets to screw with them. Except…

If a player loses the Struggle, that player (and only that player) can Sell Out. Selling Out wins the Struggle for the YOs, but the player must choose one of his Convictions that is not associated with a number in this Struggle. That conviction becomes darker, less innocent and less idealistic, and the YO must describe how he commits some heinous act inspired by the Sold Out version of the Conviction to win the Struggle. In short, you must give up a piece of your soul for the sake of your friends.

In addition to the normal stakes, the final Struggle in each episode decides whether the YOs manage to strike a blow against The Authority, or if it closes in on shutting down their rebellion. If the YOs win the final Struggle, they can remove one System of Control from the Dystopia, and if they can make a convincing case out of the fiction, they can even turn it into an Exploit. If The Authority wins the Struggle, it removes an Exploit, possibly converting it into a System of Control.

Selling Out is also a timer for the campaign. The series ends at the end of the episode where one of the YOs Sells Out his last Conviction; the fate of the YOs and their battle to take down The Authority will be resolved. If, at the end of the final episode, the number of Systems of Control equals or exceeds the number of Exploits, the YOs efforts have been in vain. They are defeated and The Authority continues to ruin the lives of those under its thumb. If there are more Exploits, though, the YOs succeed in bringing The Authority down, striking a blow for freedom. The fate of each YO is also determined, with YOs that have sold out more of their Convictions having a harder time of it. The player that paid the ultimate price of Selling Out all of his Convictions is doomed to an unpleasant fate.

While the fiction is always the most important element of roleplaying Struggles, and especially Selling out, are the heart of Misspent Youth. They drive the fiction in interesting new directions and ask the players interesting questions. If you can’t buy into the tension of the Struggles, Misspent Youth will probably be lost on you. To have any hope of buying in, you have to find The Authority and YO interesting, which gets back to the importance of group creation.

Struggles and Selling Out also give The Authority a measuring stick for how well he is doing his job. If the YOs never Sell Out, he’s not pushing them hard enough; he needs to be more of a bastard. If YOs regularly Sell Out without thinking, you need to ease up a little. It’s fine if they Sell Out in every Struggle they lose, but there should be real tension in the decision to do so. It should hurt.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

As I’ve mentioned, Misspent Youth is a graphic novel-sized book. It is 88 pages long, but that includes an exhaustive index, several pages of references (both at the end of major sections and again at the back of the book) and sheets for YOs, The Authority, The Dystopia and tracking Struggles. That means that the rules themselves probably total about 50 pages.

The layout emulates old ‘zines from the 70s and 80s. The single column of text has ample space on either side, loaded with photos and other bits of graphics intended to evoke the mood of the game. The text is set in a “grunge” typewriter face called Obsolete (with chapter names set in a grungy condensed sans serif named Cracked) with the text column canted a bit off vertical. The overall effect is extremely evocative of Bohl’s punk rock inspirations, although it does so at a non-trivial cost to legibility. I don’t think it’s any worse than some of the densely-set blocks of condensed sans serif type we see in a lot of RPG books, but it’s far to the style end of things when I have a strong bias toward legibility.

On the other hand, the references I’ve mentioned are great. The index is thorough, and there are summaries at the end of each chapter covering the rules in detail (and they’re all printed again in a collection at the end of the book). They do a marvelous job of providing a guide for someone that’s already read the book. Except for rare edge cases, I’m confident I could run MY from the back of the book.

The voice of the writing is also worthy of note. I bridle a bit when “conversational tone” gets praised; even Vincent Baker’s tone in some of his books causes me to stumble through the text sometimes. Bohl does an excellent job of using an appropriate, unaffected tone in Misspent Youth, though. Even the (ample) profanity feels natural and appropriate here.

He also uses that casual tone to convey tips and offer guidance on how to get the most out of the systems. They’re usually no more than a sentence or two, but they helped a lot with how the game should be played, and how to squeeze the most fun and engagement out of it.

Do You Have What It Takes?

As much as I have tried to be objective in talking about the mechanics and their implications, it’s probably clear by now that I love Misspent Youth. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it does what it says on the tin, and it does it extremely well. It is also a marvelous example of a finely-crafted RPG. The pieces fit together snugly, do their jobs well and deliver a whole that is significantly greater than the sum of its parts.

It also goes the extra mile to make it easy play to The Authority. He is practically inundated with signs of what the players are interested in, but leaves him free to put his own stamp on things. Authority Figures, Systems of Control, Friendship Questions and the traits of the YOs and the Authority are all little notes, telling The Authority what the players are interested in. The scene framing mechanics let the players communicate with The Authority in the moment without having to pause for a metagame discussion, too.

The Authority is not the only player who gets ample support. At every turn, the book provides guidance, explaining what to look for when making choices; it doesn’t tell you what you should create, but it does help you figure out the answers for yourself. Sometimes this may be obvious, but when it’s not, the guidance is a blessing.

Now that you’ve read this review, trust your instincts. If it sounds like an intriguing game about a fascinating topic, buy it as soon as possible. I doubt you’ll regret it. It is not a typical RPG, though, and it violates some preconceptions that many gamers hold dear of what an RPG should be. If that’s an problem for you – especially if you find the idea of buying into a character and a setting on an emotional level off-putting – MY probably isn’t your thing.

Be brave. Be bold. Be a rebel.

Comments

  1. Gerald,

    Thanks so much for such a great review, and even for the critique on the layout style. I’m glad you get the purpose, too. I loved the way you constructed sentences, purely on a craft level, too. Especially that first paragraph.

  2. Fascinating! It sounds like the type of game I’d like, but I’m a tad out of cash. I’ll keep it on my radar, though.

  3. Andy,

    I’m glad you’re interested. Until you’ve saved up the cash, you can get the free Eyebleed Edition, which is the complete game, at http://misspentyouthgame.com/MisspentYouthEyebleedingEdition.pdf