Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Mystery Academy: Structure, Story, and Revisions

In my last post I went over my system adaptations for Mystery Academy, a weird school PbtA hack of Masks. It didn’t require a ton of work: a couple new moves and some tweaks to get it running. It’s a different question if it ran well. This post looks at structure, story, and things I need to fix before I run this again.

Masks: The New Generation is properly referred to as Masks: A New Generation, or MANG. I grew up with Star Trek: The Next Generation. I cannot help but refer to and abbreviate it Masks as Masks: TNG. The correct version flies out of my head every time I realize I’ve written it wrong. So for the rest of this I’ll simply call it Masks. I also call the MC the GM because I’m old.

If you’re curious you can see the session videos here (Session 1Session 2Session 3Session 4).

I love the way Masks builds backstory for your group of teen heroes. Each playbook has questions about “When Your Team First Met.” They’re tuned to the specific archetype. It’s a clever technique and one worth stealing for other games—allowing you to do an origin story without having to play it out. I can imagine doing a version for Changeling the Lost along the lines of “When all of you first emerged from the Hedge…” Originally I thought of doing something like that and my first post has some sample questions.

I ditched those when I got to the table. Instead during character creation I used leading questions to explore individual backstories. I wanted to start the actual game with uncertain characters arriving together. Being dropped into a strange place with no guidance is a great set up which lets the player develop relationships on the fly. It also let players color and add to the description of the actual school. Some of the bits, especially the idea of a Tower in the main house, gave me material I fashioned into something cool by the end.

Throughout I gave the players the opportunity to describe something they notice and add to the scene. That’s how we ended up with a second tower on the grounds and weirdly unmatched intercoms spread all over the place. The Seek move supports this, but you can also just do a montage or ask what they find that’s unusual.

I’ve written about School games before and what they offer. My Mystery Academy approach removes some potential features: sports, dances, holiday recess, etc. You could easily add that to your version of the school. My set up still allowed the most important scene in school games: the foreshadowing lesson. You’ll see that in Session Two when Dr. Friday talks about experimentation and observer bias. It’s a great technique, but requires a little prep from the GM’s. I think about the story themes so far and imagine some possible key scenes. Then I figure out what subject might fit. At the table I give a little lecture based on that topic. Those ideas then color the rest of my set up and GM moves for the session or arc. It doesn’t require much prep and doesn’t put the game on rails, and the payoff’s solid.

Here are elements of the setting and story to consider. You can tweak these, but this is what I worked from. In my notes I refer to a Class, that’s the generic name for the PC group (and other parallel NPC groups).

We have a large and sprawling estate. There should be older building, suggesting it was once a larger facility like a sanitarium or college. This gives plenty of outdoor room for the PCs to explore: woods, greenhouses, abandoned buildings with secrets to reveal. It also gives more space for players to come up with what’s actually there.

In a related geography, the Class has their lessons in one of these compound buildings. In my game they had to clean and straighten it up. It provides a space they can describe and also suggests the other Classes have their own buildings.

There are two other Classes. I kept them off-stage at the beginning except to confirm they existed. I moved one of the PC’s sister over to that group to create a connection. In my game one Class appeared adversarial. They’re our Slytherin. I didn’t have the chance to bring the other Class on stage, but I intended for them to be potential allies, perhaps under the thumb of the Sinister Class.

The main estate house is untenably massive. Think the Winchester House presented clearly as a maze. Eventually the characters discover it doesn’t adhere to normal conventions of space. Within the house, the PC have a wing. There’s a common room, boys’ room, girls’ room, and shower facilities down the hall.

Each Class’s “wing” has a designated color scheme. That helps the players grok what’s where. An early rule given is to not enter the other Classes’ wings. I had someone show up and go through their stuff early to show that rule isn’t well-enforced. The staff and teachers’ wing, which they’re not supposed to enter either, also has a color. Mostly important and teasingly, they’re not to enter rooms marked with red scarves or flags.

The staff and the teachers have a special naming convention. That’s a sign for the strangeness, but also helps the players keep track of who is who. In my case we had seven teachers, each named for a day of the week. We had twelve staff, each named for a month. I didn’t put all of them on the table in the four sessions.

There’s no wi-fi or internet. But the school has a large DVD collection as small consolation. This will obviously be a point of contention. In my version the school is atop a cliff and there’s a small, isolated New England town down below. They never went there so I never had to figure out what might be available to them there (or not). The players also asked about mail, which would of course be scanned by the staff.

To emphasize their isolation they have to take care of their own cooking for two meals a day and cleaning their areas. They’re given their own kitchen and dining area.

On the second day, a teacher finally explains the rules to them: they’re to attend classes six days a week, prepare their own lunch & dinner, avoid the other Class or Staff wings, cannot leave campus, must not discuss their schoolwork with the other classes, and aren’t to kill the other students.

There’s more but I wanted to get down some of the essentials of how I set things up. You can change that structure to make it more intimate, less sinister, and/or more clear. These all offer structural elements for the players to move within. But the Gm also has to think about some higher level details.

During the character creation section we discussed tone. The players asked for middle path—not too light, but also not truly dark. They wanted an uncertain and mysterious situation. That fit with my conception, but I can imagine something different. For example, perhaps the staff wouldn’t be ambiguously antagonistic. Maybe they could be helpful like something out of Harry Potter. In that case, the threats would be external—perhaps an invasion of the school. Challenges could also come from rivals or turncoat staff members.

If you want to run this, you have to consider how you want to frame the “weirdness.” What do the character think their powers are? Are there super-beings in this world? Because I hacked Masks, the players may have come with a sense that they possessed classic super-powers. But the strangeness they encountered suggested something beyond that. It wasn’t Xavier’s Academy but something weirder.

But it could have been something like the Massachusetts or Hellfire Academy, a school intended to corrupt their students. In that case the arc would probably have the teachers testing the students dangerously, with the eventual discovery of plans for villainy. At that point they might escape to something like the X-Men or even go on the road like Runaways or the doomed characters from Legion. In my case I had another idea.

Besides the level of strangeness, you’ll have to answer one basic question: what do the staff want from the students? It’s pretty obvious that the kids will push back against the rules and rebel. The teachers have to know that, so why not put them under tighter leash? Let me give my answer and then I’ll come to other options.

My school had once been in the hands of someone else. The current staff and teachers had fought the original owners to gain the location’s power. When they took over, they found those powers had been sealed. The invaders’ nature prevented access. But others, those not involved in the war and innocent about the nature of things, might be able to. By letting the students explore, the staff hopes those kids will unwittingly unlock something. They don’t really care what happens to the Class, though those who survive will make useful recruits.The staff’s powerful and arrogant, so the underestimate what powers these youths could wield.

And in my vision this connects to Mage the Ascension. I think a couple players picked up on that. The school is a former chantry, one of the most potent, connected to places beyond. The staff come from the Technocracy, hence some of the technology I hunted at. So that was my take, but I can imagine handling it in many other ways (parallel universe invaders, time travelers, fictonaut conspiracists ala “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”).

So why are the PCs at an advantage? In my game I suggested the Class before them, those occupying their rooms, had gone. They escaped, got lost, died, whatever. That forced the staff to quickly pull up new students without proper vetting. They ordinarily wouldn’t have chosen children with their confidence or heroism. The other Classes have limitations preventing them from being as brave or united as the PCs. One is made up of bullies and the other contains easily cowed students.

  • There’s a power struggle among various staff and teachers. They’re so focused on their own plans, they pay less attention to potentially wayward students.
  • The end goal is a sacrifice, so they don’t care so much if some of them get harmed or lost. As long as they have a chosen few victims they can properly indoctrinate, they’re good.
  • One of the students may be a “chosen one” and the staff wants to find out who it is. That will grant them some kind of power or control. But they don’t want to alert them.
  • The staff may run the school day to day, but there’s a secret force or figure behind the scenes giving orders. These contradictory and strange instructions give the students room to operate.
  • A defense system exists but the students discover a way around it early on. If they can keep this a secret, they can explore without interference.
  • The school itself is evil and controlling the staff for some nefarious purpose.

You should also consider the agenda and allegiances of the various adults. Not all the staff should be on the same page. We have some neutral, some hostile, some sympathetic, and some faking their kindness. In the “War Chantry” frame I used, a few NPCs hadn’t originally been part of the Technocracy. Some had betrayed their fellows, but others had remained strong. These survivors had been bound by Technocratic magics to serve them, but could push against that programming. At least one surviving member of the old chantry had managed to pass as a Technocrat but remained unbound and hidden among the staff.

Much of the system worked. I can’t claim any real credit for that. Masks offers a solid PbtA structure and I had great players. Of the changes I made, in particular players dug the Seek action I mentioned last time. PbtA always has collaboration, but having a move reinforcing that helped. It’s especially good because of Sherri’s suggestion to allow the player to change the world or ask the GM to do it for them. That gave room for input or seeing what I had in my head.

You can hear a lot of this system discussion in the Roses & Thorns section of the final session. If you’re interested in the nuts & bolts I recommend checking that out.

The Directly Engage a Threat move never came into play. Brendan Conway, designer of Masks, caught this right away, commenting on my last post. It took me four sessions of running to realize it didn’t work for our scale. Players never actually fought anything and even if they did, the move doesn’t feel quite right. We have several  thematically related moves: Directly Engage, Defend, Take a Powerful Blow, and Act Under Pressure. I need to figure out how to bundle these together into one or two moves that fit with the genre.

Throughout the game I forgot about the Team/Trust pool and how it serves as our Aid action. The players remembered in the last couple of sessions and used it. I like how the mechanic reflects the group coming together. But I don’t know if it feels redundant with the spendable Influence mechanics. Maybe I need to tweak that to make those more like Bonds from Worlds in Peril? Would that cost us some of the flavor?

We also had some questions about moves dealing with Adults. Some of that came from my own framing. In particular when the PCs deal with Adults they know are adversarial, should they react in the same way? We had a moment of uncertainty about that in Session 3 when Rosa faced Ms. August. In those situations are the characters Rejecting Influence or are they resisting a hit to get what they want? I’m not sure yet.

I need to rewrite the Read the Scene and Pierce the Mask example questions to add genre feel. That’s an editing pass approach I need to do to everything: how can I tweak the wording to make this feel like the genre I’m aiming for? It’s still a fan hack and not something for publication, but I want it to be better.

A final issue arose from the End of Session move:
At the end of every session, choose one:...Grow closer to your class. Explain who made you feel welcome; give an Influence to that character and clear a condition or mark potential....Grow into your own image of yourself. Explain how you see yourself and why; shift one Label up and another down....Grow away from the class. Explain why you feel detached. Take an Influence over you away from another character.
Across the board, players went with Grow Closer. It makes sense in the context of this game and how I ran it. Masks’ structure plays to the drama of the team interaction. Our game had dramatic scenes and arguments, but we never pushed to the breaking points Masks rightly encourages. As written this would work for a GM who leans into causing separation and tension between characters. Maybe in a game where there’s only one Class and we have NPCs to bounce off of. But If I run this again, I’ll revise that to incentivize all the choices or go for a more basic checklist. I also need to get more Potential doled out to the characters…



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