Misspent Youth is a game firmly anchored in the subgenre of story games. The players (the Young Offenders, or YO) and gamemaster (the Authority) work together to answer a series of questions about the setting and characters to create the setting, then play out episodes in which the Young Offenders fight off an oppressive, corrupt, or abusive Authority and generally stick it to The Man. What will they sacrifice for their ideals?
Disclaimer: I received free print and PDF copies of the book so I could playtest and review it.
In short: The book is well organized and provides useful examples of play, but is hard on the eyes.
In book form: This softcover book is about the size of a typical graphic American graphic novel, about 6.75” x 10.25” (17 cm x 26 cm) and runs 88 pages. The binding has held up well so far, and I like the finish of the cover because it’s pretty resistant to stains and easy to clean (I think it’s called matte laminated.)
In PDF: You can download a free copy of the PDF version of the print book, called the Eyebleed Edition; however, there is also a screen-friendly, searchable, tagged, hyperlinked, bookmarked, and indexed PDF version that can be purchased. For the rest of this section, I will mostly discussed the layout found in the print and Eyebleed Edition PDF; however, if quality of binding is not an issue for you, I recommend printing the screen-friendly PDF instead.
The cover is in red, black and white, and the inside all in grayscale. The print layout reminds me of Lacuna, Urchin, HoL, or Storyteller Core: distressed fonts, busy pages, gray background textures and illustrations, edge-to-edge (“bleed”) printing, text blocks and illustrations rotated at jagged angles. The illustrations are primarily remixed stock photographs of young people and graffiti art. The intent was clearly to produce something punk, edgy, that speaks of youth, friendship, and rebellion against a dark Authority.
The bad things: I have great respect for the work of Joshua A.C. Newman, who did the layout, and it’s clear that the decisions that went into it were not haphazard. However, I dislike the result. It’s hard to read and, if you try to print from the original PDF (the free version), a printer-killer. (Happily, the new paid PDF version is better laid out for screen and e-reader view and also lets one switch off graphics layers for printing.) The various forms and record sheets don’t have enough space to write in and are cluttered. Many of the photos used to illustrate the book suggest PSAs targetted at teens, not rebellion. I think form won out over function in layout decisions, and it was a mistake.
If you care about that sort of thing, the language is NSFW. That in itself doesn’t phase me, but somehow it didn’t feel as fitting as in HoL, Unknown Armies, octaNe, or Urchin. It felt somewhat unnecessary and contrived. Moreover, one of the first things your group sets in co-designing the campaign is the “rating;” having the text written around a level R or more seems like a turn-off for people who would tend to play at a PG or PG-13 level. One of the play examples used in the book is even a version of E.T.
There are also small stylistic quirks that irritated me. For example, the Authority is described through its Vice (its underlying motivation), Victim (who it oppresses, consumes, feeds on, etc.), and Visage (the form it takes). The alliteration is not particularly successful because the technique is not used much elsewhere (compare with Young Offenders’ (player characters) Convictions: Means, Motive, Opportunity, M.O., Disorder). So “V” doesn’t make you immediately think “Authority” (shouldn’t it remind you of anarchy, anyway?), and the words are not particularly well chosen. It would be simpler, less pedantic, and more effective to just say something like Flavour/Enemy/Face.
The good things: There are lots of play examples for each part of the rules, and they are very useful. Each major section of the books draws examples from a different example of setting (remixes based on Logan’s Run, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and E.T.) The examples give a good understanding of the way play steps unfold and of the range of stories you can tackle.
There is a clear table of contents, an index, and all the rules sections have a recap with a summary of the steps and page references – actually correct page references, something not always found in a role-playing product! The appendices contain all these rules summaries, a glossary, and the forms to fill in play; the forms are also downloadable from the Website.
In short: The game system provides a good structure to help groups tell coherent story and uses an interesting mechanic to strike a balance between one-roll-resolves-all and roll-for-each-action games, but may take some getting used to if you have not tried story games before.
I’ll be honest, with you: I don’t feel like giving an extensive description of the rules because others have done it already; links can be found on the official Website (scroll down). I’ll just summarize and tell you about some details I found interesting.
Setting and Character Creation. The first step of play is for the group to collectively create the Authority, Dystopia, and “clique” of Young Offenders (YO) by answering a series of questions such as “What holds you together?” or “How do you fight?”; and selecting characteristics, either from closed lists (for example, a YO’s possible Motives are altruism, optimism, outrage, pride, and thrills) or open-ended (like your Disorder, a heroic fatal flaw.) The forms to fill are created in a cold institutional Scantron style to reinforce that this is someone else’s assessment of your YOs.
This phase of setting and character creation may well take the entire first episode. The elements created will then be incorporated, a few at a time, into the subsequent play. As part of creating the Dystopia, the group will make up a few Authority Figures (for example, a Sith lord, soulless probation worker, or mutant-hating senator) and some Systems of Control (for example, giant beach balls bouncing around to capture would-be escapees, or RFID chip implants.)
One of the driving elements thus created are the “friendship questions”: each Young Offender asks another a personal question that sheds some insight on their relationship and often establishes new fact about one or both of them; for example, “What’s the nicest thing I’ve ever done for you, and why won’t you talk to me about it?” The second player responds in character as well, then asks a question of another YO. From episode to episode, each Young Offender will ask a new friendship question to a different YO, gradually strengthening the group’s ties and history together.
Scenes. Each episode comprises seven “scenes” structured to provide rising tension and plot points. Each scene comes with slightly different instructions on what the group should do and how the action should unfold; each scene also comes with different odds of success for the Authority (played by the GM) and the Young Offenders, with the Authority having best odds when it’s dramatically appropriate for the protagonists to be at greater risk. The sequence goes:
- What’s Up (kickoff)
- Fighting Back (first beat, episode’s Question)
- Heating Up (rising tension)
- We Won (the clique overcomes the initial obstacle)
- We’re Fucked (second beat, the clique suffers a setback)
- Who Wins (the Question is answered)
- The Dust Settles (epilogue, setting up the next episode)
At the begining of each scene in an episode, an Authority Figure or a Frienship Question is selected and will be featured in the scene. Each scene is set by a different person and going in turn through the entire group, with the GM trying to arrange to set the scene for #5 (We’re Fucked) so she can put maximum pressure at this point on the player characters.
Note that “Scenes” in Misspent Youth are not the same unit of time or continuity as in a theatre or movie scene. The examples provided in the book explicitly describe switching between several of what we would normally call “scenes” within one MY “scene.” MY scenes are really more like short acts in a play.
Struggles. The first few minutes of each scene are spent establishing what’s going on, with the players reacting to the way the scene was set by the opening description. The GM’s job is to play the Authority in a way that is so heinous that the players will want their characters to tangle with it and bring it down. Then the GM asks, “Who’s gonna stand up?” This indicates that it’s time for a Struggle; there is one Struggle every scene. The first player to say their YO will stand up to the Authority grabs the dice (two six-sided dice, a.k.a. 2d6). The GM then announces the Authority’s objective and in response, the player who grabbed the dice declares the clique’s hope for the result of the Struggle.
So far, so-not-unusual for a story/indie/hippie game: make few rolls and only on important challenges, set stakes, roll. The upside of the general approach is that it make the rolls, and the stuff on your character sheet, more important. The downside in many games is that everything rides on a single dice roll and you build little excitement over the anticipation of a back-and-forth battle between sides.
Misspent Youth cleverly finds a way to get the upside without the downside by using a mechanic that adjusts the odds depending on the phase of the story we’re at (i.e., which scene), but leaves the total number of rolls needed unknown. The idea is this: you use a chart, the Struggle map, showing numbers from 2 to 12 – the values you can get by rolling 2d6. The YOs are always the first to roll; the player who grabbed the dice describes what action the YO takes, but not its result, then rolls the dice. The player then places a token on which ever number was produced, from 2 to 12. In response, the GM narrates “taking the blow”, i.e., the effect of the YO’s action, then narrates the Authority’s action, and claims the number 7 (most probable number when rolling 2d6) by putting a token of a different colour on it.
The exchange continues with the next player who decides to stand up to the Authority’s actions and grabs the dice. If after describing the YO’s action the player rolls a number already covered by and Authority marker, then the AUthority wins the Struggle; if the rolls equals a number covered by a YO token, then the YOs win, and if the number is still open, the player places his or her YO’s token on it. The struggle proceeds, with the Authority never rolling but placing a marker on the location dictated by the specific scene’s guidelines, more probable number (like 8 or 9) when the pressure is on, and less probable numbers (like 2 or 12) when the YOs are less at risk.
If the player whose roll ended the struggle lost by landing on an Authority token really doesn’t want to lose this struggle, this player’s YO can sell one of his convictions in order to force a victory for the clique. This forms the core drama of the Young Offenders’ story: how much will they sacrifice, how harden will they become in order to fight for their ideals?
At the end of the struggle, the GM narrates the scene ending, then we switch to another scene or, if this was the seventh and last scene of the episode, into the aftermath. The aftermath gives you a chance to create or convert an Exploit (one of the YOs’ aces in the hole) or System of Control (the Authority’s means of control and repression). Whether you get a new Exploit or System of Control to add to the story depends on which side won the episode.
Thanks to the Struggle mechanic, you never know in advance how many actions and rolls the YOs will have in a given exchange. It takes a little getting used to, but I found it to be an excellent way to maintain suspense. However, I did have one player say that all the rolls but the last one (when you land on an already placed token) were merely colour, not affecting the tactical structure of the struggle, so for this player this only made the struggles last longer. As they say, your mileage may vary.
After multiple episodes, the series ends when one of the YOs sells out his or her last conviction, or when the group agrees it’s dramatically appropriate. At this point you count the Exploits and Systems of Control to determine which side wins, roll some dice based on the YOs’ “sold” and “free” convictions to determine whether each gets a happy or sad ending, with the one who sold out entirely automatically getting a sad ending.
By default, you are supposed to create a science fiction dystopia as your setting. I don’t see anything about the game that mechanically limits it to scifi settings; it seems like you could go for just about anything you like: urban fantasy, or 1980s London punk scene, for example. However, specifying “SF” lets you create more impressive Systems of Control (the means your Authority has to provoke your Young Offenders to action), but this could be done with magic too, or simply with painful realism. However, you do have to play characters who are young, or at least inexperienced and not yet jaded. The drama will largely revolve around whether to sacrifice their innocence for a cause or goal.
Here are some of the settings, in addition to the setting examples used by the author, which I thought would work well with the game when our group was brainstorming our series: Akira, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, City of Lost Children, Tank Girl, The New Mutants, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Scott Pilgrim, Underground, Band of Brothers, Goonies, The Handmaid’s Tale, Kickass, D.R. and Quinch, Transmetropolitan, Heroes, Harry Potter, The Breakfast Club, Repo Man, V for Vendetta, and Cowboy Bebop.
There is no sample or starter adventure because your group will create it as it goes. However, you can download two free sample “adventure packs” from the Website, essentially the Authority and Young Offender sheets for two knock-offs of the British TV series Misfits and the movie and book The Hunger Games — both excellent matches for the game. Each also comes with a page of guidelines for customizing the material.
In short: The setting generation phase and the scripted steps to story creation helped our group create coherent stories with a good mix of uncertainty and drama.
I ran a short campaign for three players online. We used a Web-based collaboration system, Vyew.com, to fill and display the forms and move tokens on the struggle map. We called our campaign Moon Pirates.
Startup: For their Dystopia, the group created a lunar mining colony owned by Apex Frontier, a corporation that owns extensive mining rights for the Inner Solar System. The mode was “hard” scifi, the technology level was similar to that seen in Outland, Moon, 2010 — or even UFO or the first year of Space 1999. The YOs were a tough-as-nails, violently angry orphan nicknamed Breaking Monkeys, an undersocialized but prideful hacker called Kaye, and a thrill-seeking bad boy with a pretty face called Hiro Suzuki; they conducted their illegal business on an old refurbished Moon hopper. In the course of the series, they would later commit acts of piracy and vandalism against Apex Frontier, steal a newly refitted freighter that had been headed for a secret mission in the Asteroid Belt and convert it into a blockade runner, infiltrate a secret prison facility and free the colonists who had been “disappeared” by the Company.
The (annoyingly formatted) record sheets helped us funnel the process – in both good and bad ways. Steps that are important but not listed explicitly on the sheets (Clique and Casting, steps 4 and 5 of the Dystopia creation) were inadvertently skipped because they are not listed on the Dystopia sheet, so we went right into YO creation, then had to backtrack. (The proper phases call for group creation of twice as many YO concepts as there are players so everyone has ample choice when selecting their character, but by then we had already narrowed it down to one concept each.) The Dystopia sheet also mixes Authority and Clique. But still, we enjoyed creating a setting in which everybody would be interested and feel ownership. As GM, my job was mostly to check that the players built enough adversity in the the Dystopia that they would want to fight it and would get an interesting challenge.
I really liked the friendship questions. I felt they helped build relationships between characters and give us progressively more insight into their personalities, in ways that mattered in the story.
For the GM: After the initial setup of Authority, Dystopia and Clique, I found that the game requires low or no preparation work from the GM, past being familiar with the rules. In fact, I think you could have a different GM playing the Authority every time. However, it pays off to prepare lists of names, possible locations, bullet point lists of possible events, etc., in order to react quickly to the unfolding action.
A big challenge, however, is that the GM has no way of affecting the result of struggles, while players can sell out their convictions. I wish I could push back harder mechanically, but everything depends on choosing sufficiently heinous Authority goals and actions. The GM needs to make sure the YOs and the players really, really hate the Authority. Not only does it provides motivation, but it also puts the morality of the YOs’ choices in harsher light, pushing them to do bad things because they’re so angry and yet giving them a measure of absolution at the same time. I did get feedback from players that the game got more interesting for them when I made the Authority meaner.
For the players: Group dynamics matter. If the players‘ relationships are not that great, the pull on friendship ties between characters can become awkward or simply moot. In addition, the demand for personal involvement and creation by all players is tough on certain types of players, especially the Casual Gamers (in Robin’s Laws nomenclature) who don’t want too much spotlight time.
In terms of group size, you don’t want too small nor too big. Two YOs would probably not be enough, but more than five would almost certainly dilute the drama. The book recommends a group of 4 to 6 players, including the GM; however, with one GM and three players, our group was always short of one Authority Figure or Friendship Question, because the players are supposed to create one of each, for a total of six here, versus seven scenes that make use of one each. We ended up reusing Authority Figures or making extra. Naturally, with four Young Offenders you’d ended up with one unused Authority Figure or Friendship Question, and with five YOs, you would have three items leftover.
Issues and Potential Problems
Never on time… One aspect on which our group never quite got it “right,” apparently, was time management. With four-hour sessions, we were never able to complete an entire episode, so we ended up playing each episode in about two sessions, except the first that stretch over three, including setting creation. We were nowhere near total sell-out for any of the Young Offenders by the time we had three episodes in. My understanding is that other groups have been typically way sparser in their scene descriptions and YO interactions, but we just needed that much time to develop the scenes to everyone’s satisfaction. (Alas, I was only able to post game summaries for the first few game sessions, then Real Life got in the way.)
Narration power – Activate! We also had to have quite a bit of discussion on trad-games-versus-hippie-games for the one player who was less experienced. It can be hard to get used to the idea that there will be only one struggle per scene, and that the rest is largely at the mercy of narration. Even harder to get used to is the concept that the players can really take over that narration, so your character won’t “fail” because another player has described something dangerous.
In the very first scene of the first episode, we had one YO, Breaking Monkees, pilot the clique’s little moon hopper straight into a busy area of the shipyard, attracting the attention of the Authority (Apex Frontier, the big bad company that owns the entirre Moon colony.) Kaye’s player was upset because she felt that the two other players had created YOs that would constantly do crazy things, forcing her to be the reasonable one or the nanny to keep them out of trouble. We had to discuss high-trust games, and the options to handle narrative power.
Setting objectives and hopes. As in a lot of games where conflict resolution uses stake-setting, from Dogs in the Vineyard to Mouse Guard, it’s important to set good goals for each side at the start of a struggle. Neither side should set goals that simply consist of negating the other side’s intentions; when a side fails to win, they don’t get their goal, period (unless the winning side decides to throw them a bone in subsequent narration.) Pick goals that are interesting and propel the story in a new direction.
Misspent Youth is a game of youthful energy and struggle against authority, in which your characters’ advantages are their friendship and convictions. Narrative authority is shared between GM and players, and the structured play is there to help turn the episodes into narratively satisfying stories. I would definitely like to run this game again, and I would love it even more as a round-robin campaign so I can take a turn at playing a Young Offender as well.
People who like collaborative story narration, non-traditional dice mechanics, and high-trust games will probably enjoy this system. As a bonus, this still allows players to work only through their characters, something a lot of people prefer to full-fledged shared narration.
However, this probably not the game for people who like having a wide choice of tactical options, who want an existing, fully fleshed-out setting, or aren’t interested in the game’s premise.