Last week at Big Bad Con, I ran Robert Bohl’s role-playing game Misspent Youth. Because I was running in a four-hour time block and it’s always a challenge for me to stay within the scheduled time, I cut through setting and character creation by using Misha Bushyager’s playset “Young, Gifted, and Black” from the recent supplement Sell Out With Me. The premise:
“What happens when a group of students from a predominantly Black, inner city public school score highly on a test that propels us to a predominantly white private, suburban boarding school? Will the other students accept us for who we are or will they make stupid ass assumptions about us?
“Will we be able to fit in with them? Do we even want to? Will we have to sacrifice our identities to become more like them or can we plant the seeds of true multiculturalism and make them more like us?”
I had two players, Kai and Joshua, and they were fantastic. The two characters selected from the clique in Misha’s playset were Mike (played by Joshua) and Sandra (played by Kai):
The Authority was:
Because I had only two players, I had them choose a few additional Authority Figures to use in setting scenes. The players set up the following prompts:
- Mrs. Meier, social studies and home room teacher, debate coach;
- Principal Lee Dirk, former shop teacher;
- Lloyd Van Gilder, science teacher;
- Ryan Dirk, quarterback, class president and son of the principal;
- Kylie Dunn, debate team captain, honour student;
- Friendship question, from Mike to Sandra: What’s the most terrible thing you’ve done, and why did you confess it to me?
- Friendship question, from Sandra to Mike: What are you insecure about and how do I make you feel confident about it?
I had once again brought my big drawing pad, glue stick, scissors, and several pages of character portraits so we had visual support in the for of a yearbook album page that also served as a relationship map (here it is, in progress.) The kid photos looked more like high school than middle school, I guess.
Yeah, the school mascot was the Apache, stolen right from Vallejo High School (where it had changed to the Red Hawks in 2014.)
In Misspent Youth, play proceeds largely in freeform, players take turns setting scenes around an authority figure or a friendship question, describing the first five seconds of the scene before everyone jumps in. Each scene contains one, and only one, struggle. The scene structure comes with instructions for setup and tone. (I wrote my review of Misspent Youth a few years ago so you can refer to it for description of mechanics, including how struggles are conducted.)
We did not always treat “scene” as a single location and time in the screenwriting sense, but more like acts. The same thing happened the previous times I ran Misspent Youth; essentially, when we wanted to insert colour scenes, flashbacks, interstitial scenes, or anything that did not include a struggle, we made it a subsection of the primary scene.
I’m missing part of my notes from the game, so I’m writing this summary mostly from memory. Here we go:
Scene One: What’s Up
The Story: See the clique, their world, their friendships, and see what changes in that world. Create and record the Kickoff. Authority claims: 3 or 11.
[Joshua sets the scene.] The YOs are in Mr. Van Gilder’s chemistry class; Mr Van Gilder spread the new students from PS435 throughout the class, partnering them with returning students. The newcomers transferred a few weeks late to St. John Neumann Academy because of slow paperwork processing, prompting assumptions that they will need help catching up. Sandra has been partnered with Kylie Dunn and Mike with Ryan Dirk; Ryan is doing his best to make Mike look bad.
When the titration experiment fails, Van Gilder assumes it’s Mike’s fault and asks him to start over. Ryan continues messing with setup and chemical labels, then walks out n the unfinished experiment when the bell rings, announcing that he has football practice. So does Mike, who’s stuck with the experiment!
[Struggle: The Authority (Mr. Van Gilder) wants the YOs to fit the stereotype and stop attracting “undue” attention; the YOs want to make their old school look good. YOs win the struggle.] With Sandra’s subtle encouragements and cleanup help, Mike rapidly and successfully finishes the experiment and even adds a flourish at the end, then walks into the locker room in the nick of time.
[Kickoff: Taught Mr. Van Gilder to respect the kids from PS435.]
Scene Two: Fighting Back
The Story: The clique takes on the problem, the first beat is introduced, and you come up with the Question. Authority claims: 3 or 11.
[Kai sets the scene.] Later that week, Kylie Dunn invites Sandra and Mike to sit with her and her friends at the cafeteria. Kylie is enthusiastically friendly but clueless and a bit hollow. As the Authority, I gleefully used an array of micro-aggressions suggested in the book. Kylie puts the pressure on for Sandra to join the debate team, while Sandra wants to keep some distance. Sandra and Mike are invited to Kylie’s pool party.
Mike doesn’t want to go to the party because he doesn’t want to be these white people’s pet, and Sandra wants to go to make friends but not alone. [There is no struggle mechanic strictly between YOs, so I suggest that maybe in this scene one of them (probably Sandra) is allied with the Authority, but it doesn’t feel right to the players. Instead, we have a lovely interstitial scene where the view point keeps shifting from the later conversation between Mike and Sandra, to the earlier conversation with Kylie; it becomes a foregone conclusion that Sandra will convince Mike, but we see his skepticism, underlined by a cut to Kylie saying something awkward, for every line of the exchange between the YOs.]
Then we switched to the pool party at the luxury mansion owned by Kylie’s parents, who are of course away. Kylie expansively greets the YOs and immediately changes the music to tunes cribbed from Sandra’s playlist, clearly barely knowing the tunes but showing enthusiasm. Everyone assumes that Sandra and Mike are dating, since they are the only two Black people here. Ryan Dirk gives passive-aggressive digs at Mike, flirts with Sandra. Kylie sets again to convincing Sandra to join the debate team.
[Struggle: The Authority (here, represented by Kylie) wants Sandra to be her “Black friend”; the YOs (Sandra) want to be friends. YOs win the struggle.] Sandra resists the peer pressure with grace, aided by a distraction created by Mike when he challenges Ryan to a diving contest to take some of the focus off Sandra. Kylie takes the ‘no’ for an answer but grins and tells Sandra she is clearly good enough at debate!
As they are leaving, Mike overhears Ryan tell Kylie: “Just as well she didn’t sign up, she won’t be here by the time you make it to the finals!” The way he said it, with smug certainty, attracted Mike’s suspicion.
[First beat: fitting in may be the least of the YOs’ worries. The episode question: Will the clique figure out Dirk’s plan to get them expelled?]
Scene Three: Heating Up
The Story: Tension mounts and the stakes get higher. Authority claims: 4 or 10.
[I set the scene.] It’s a few days later in Mrs. Meier’s social studies class. There is a mock townhall meeting going on, and of course everyone has been assigned points of view opposite to theirs… especially the transfer students from PS435. Mike, who is having none of it, argues eloquently that as a tall black young man, he attracts suspicion and is seen as “threatening” regardless of his actions, baiting Ryan into aggressive behaviour by comparison.
After class, the YOs go to Mrs. Meier with the suspicion that there is a plan to get them expelled, but she chides them instead for their negative thinking.
[Struggle: The Authority (Mrs. Meier) wants them to admit their are being treated just like everyone else; the YOs want her to recognize that there is inherent bias in the system. YOs win the struggle.] Mike uses the class exercise they just went through to demolish Mrs. Meier’s arguments, leaving her speechless and flustered.
Scene Four: We Won
The Story: Looks like everything is going to go just fine for the clique. Authority claims: 2 or 12.
[Struggle: The Authority (Ryan) wants them to give up on staying at the Academy and accept that they’ll be better off at PS435; the YOs want to find out what Ryan knows about the plan to get them expelled. YOs win the struggle.] The YOs ask Ryan what he meant, exactly, with the remark about Sandra not being there long enough to see the debate. Mike looms over the shorter Ryan but knows better than to actually rough him up.
Between them, Mike and Sandra goad Ryan into revealing that his father, Principal Dirk, has already set events in motion so that everything the YOs do will play right up to the picture he is painting of them in his report: aggressive, maladapted, lazy, unreliable, etc. It’s just a matter of time until he can get them thrown out.
Sandra and Mike realize that this plan is further along than they had thought. While they momentarily forget about him, Ryan runs out.
Scene Five: We’re Fucked
The Story: The clique suffers an awful setback, and the second beat is introduced. Authority claims: 6 or 8.
[Kai sets this scene with the friendship question from Mike to Sandra: What’s the most terrible thing you’ve done, and why did you confess it to me?] Left behind in the empty classroom, Mike and Sandra discuss how to get evidence of Principal Dirk’s scheming. Sandra proposes breaking into his office after hours to look for a paper trail. Mike is shocked that she, of all people, would suggest breaking in, and Sandra sheepishly reveals that she has done this before, though she had promised herself it would never happen again.
They wait until after hours, when the school seems deserted. Equipped with the finest array of hairpins, plastic ID cards, chewing gum, and compass, they head for the Principal’s office. All is quiet… but just as they are about to get close enough to try the door, it suddenly opens in their face! Principal Dirk is only now leaving. He angrily demands to know what they are doing, loitering in the school after hours.
[Struggle: The Authority (the Principal) wants to catch them red-handed doing something wrong; the YOs want to gain unsupervised access to his office. YOs win the struggle.] The YOs give a story about an extra credit assignment for Mr. Van Gilder but it doesn’t fly. Mike, who knows the Principal has it in for him anyway, takes the fall and once again attracts all the attention to him, while Sandra plays innocent.
Principal Dirk drags calls Mr. Van Gilder, who was in the parking lot and about to drive home, and tells him to meet him immediately in one of the conference rooms. He then orders Sandra home but drags Mike to an immediate disciplinary hearing in the conference room. Sandra pretends to leave but then comes back and doesn’t even have to break in, since Dirk never locked the door to his office!
[Second beat: Will Mike be expelled before he ever had a chance?]
Scene Six: Who Wins
The Story: We find out who wins the episode, and the Question is answered. Authority claims: 5 or 9.
[I set the scene.] In a windowless conference room of the purest Brutalist Institutional style, Mike is sitting on a low chair on one side of the conference table. Across from him are Principal Dirk, looking at once furious and triumphant, and Mr. Van Gilder, looking flustered and alarmed, as well as a veritable wall of files that may or may not have anything to do with Mike.
The Principal is haranguing and thundering, talking about Mike’s many offences; he describes Mike’s “clumsiness and inattention” in Chemistry class, his “combativeness” at the pool party, his “negative attitude” in Social Studies, his “threatening posture” whenever he talked to Ryan, and now his “breaking in” after hours, no doubt to vandalize school property.
Mr. Van Gilder looks like he wishes he could object, but can’t find grounds to do so. Mike is left to defend himself without notes, preparation, or adult support.
[Struggle: The Authority wants to crush the clique; the YOs want to expose Principal Dirk’s dishonest manipulation of bureaucracy. YOs win the struggle.] There is a knock at the door; without waiting for a response, Sandra pokes her head in, and ostensibly brightens when she spots Mr. Van Gilder. She says she’s bringing Mike’s homework so he can see it for himself, and springs to Van Gilder’s side, “accidentally” pushing a pile of files on the floor. She picks them up, slips copies of emails and other incriminating documents from the Principal’s office in the top file, and hands the stack back to Mr. Van Gilder.
The science teacher reflexively looks at the documents in his hands and Sandra starts asking pointed questions about what they say and when they are dated from. Mike joins in despite Dirk’s effort to silence both students, and Van Gilder’s eyes go wide. In a voice unused to such tones with authority figures, he express outrage at the whole plan made plain, to sabotage the transfer students from PS 435 and make sure their presence at the Academy is short and remembered only as a failed experiment.
Scene Seven: The Dust Settles
The Story: A moment of reflection and setup of next episode. Authority claims: 2 or 12.
[Josh introduces the scene, based on the friendship question from Sandra to Mike: What are you insecure about and how do I make you feel confident about it?] It’s been a few weeks and after a local media frenzy, Principal Dirk has been fired. The Acting Principal is now Mrs. Meier, and she addresses the students.
[Struggle: The Authority (Mrs. Meier) wants the clique to know they won’t get special kid-gloves treatment; the YOs want to show they earned their place here. YOs win the struggle.] Mike gives another great speech about what they have learned and the welcome they have found at the Academy…
Mrs. Meier makes it clear that no one will get “preferential” treatment, but at least it doesn’t look like the transfer students from PS 435 are special targets either.
[Create or convert an Exploit or System of Control.]
Sandra and Mike have made some friends, particularly Kylie (who is now at least somewhat “woke”), and some enemies, particularly Ryan (whose influence is much diminished.) And Mr. Van Gilder has a new understanding of the obstacles raised in the new students’ path…
[New Exploit: Make a staff or faculty member “woke.”]
My players were fantastic and the use of the playset let us complete all seven scenes within a convention time block. I’m stoked.
I used Steven Hammond’s Story Beats app to map the story.
This is the final version of our relationship map: