Sunday, September 10, 2006

Game Review: "Panty Explosion"

Atarashii Games’ Panty Explosion by Matt Schlotte and Jake Richmond is a “Psychic Schoolgirl Adventure Game.” The book is 94 pages plus character sheet (designed like a student’s permanent record), with front and back covers by co-designer Jake Richmond, who provides all of the game’s art.

First thing’s first. What’s up with the title? “Panty Explosion” sounds at first like a distasteful joke. But what Richmond and Schlotte seem to have been going for is the weird phrasing and mis-translation that often happens back and forth between Japanese and English. It conveys a sense of self-awareness and pop-culture sensibility for the game, once it’s clear that the title is about whacky for whacky’s sake, and that it’s not actually sketchy when you get to reading the book.
The layout gives lined paper background to the text, iconography in layout as well as other elements emphasizing the Japanese Schoolgirl aspect of the game, including little drawings of cats and scribbles like “Yumi <3 Toyo.” Panty Explosion is designed to do one thing and one thing only—Psychic Japanese Schoolgirls. The amount to which you focus on the psychic element and how much that influences the story is left open, but most of the game’s information and the game’s construction is oriented towards the schoolgirl side.

In Panty Explosion, the players portray Japanese schoolgirls in junior high and high school, one or more of whom (but not all, the book recommends) are psychic, and therefore draw the attention of various demons, a catch-all term for supernatural and non-supernatural antagonists arrayed against the schoolgirls.

Student Creation and Dice Mechanics
Since Panty Explosion is very strongly character-focused, student creation takes great prominence in the book. When creating your student, cultural elements specific to Japanese schoolgirls inform the character’s traits. Blood Type is regarded as a personality indicator in Japan, and therefore it will provide traits just as will your character’s birth month, determining their Zodiac animal. Traits in Panty Explosion are prose traits, ex: “Tall for her age” or “Captain of the Kendo team”
The attributes known to many through Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, the five elements (Fire, Water, Earth, Air, Void) referred to as the Godai throughout the book. The Godai are the primary attributes, each representing the student’s capability in the area governed by the element. A student strong in Earth is more likely to have the ability to succeed when she is using her physical strength or stubbornness. Students choose 1 element as their strength and one as their weakness. The strength gets a rating of 5, the weakness gets a rating of one, and the other three fill in with 4, 3, and 2 dice in any order of the player’s choosing.
These dice represent the pool the student can call upon in conflicts, and the degree to which the student can impact a situation through the different approaches. If a player uses all three of his student’s Fire dice to kick a demon, that player will not be able to use Fire-type actions (attacking with force of words or physical might, straightforward aggressive action).

Traits are chosen in five areas: Blood Type, Zodiac, Godai, Friends and Family, and Hobbies. Traits come into play by increasing the die-type that the player rolls for the student. If a student that would normally roll d8s could bring in a trait, her roll would use d10s instead. (Panty Explosion uses 6, 8, 10 and 12-sided dice).
The size of dice a student normally uses in conflict is determined by her popularity. Players vote at the beginning of each session and each school day in the story, with one vote per player for most popular and least popular. The least popular girl rolls d6s, the most popular rolls d10s, and everyone else rolls d8s. Psychic girls, since they’re weird and creepy cannot be the most popular. A die succeeds on 5 or more, so popularity ends up being very important in how easy it is for a student to succeed.
Each student also chooses a best friend and a rival. Character A can be Character B’s Best friend, but Character B can consider Character A to be her rival. The rival is still a friend, but the student envies or dislikes them in some way which becomes explored in the game. In resolution, if an action is successful, it is described by the player of your student’s Best Friend, if it fails, resolution is described by the Rival.

The students who are psychic have access to two powers, Levitation and Make Heads Explode. These are fairly broad in their application, based on the character’s desires. Making Heads Explode is hard to control, but isn’t always fatal. Each power can be used with three of the five Godai.

Each student has a personal agenda, which can be anything from ‘prove to my class that I’m not as dumb as I seem’ to ‘keep my father at his dead-end job so I can stay in my school.’ These agendas should be attainable but worth struggling for. They will help shape the story that the players tell in the game.

Running the Game
The player who provides the Demon, the school, and the non-player-student characters is called the Superintendent. Information on scene framing, demon creation, and storytelling is provided, with a major focus on helping the players explore the lives of Japanese schoolgirls in a demon-infested world. Scenes are described as being comprised of the five elements of the Godai, to break things down for ease of construction.

Superintendents are instructed to include student’s personal agendas in the story that is constructed for the students, so that they are engaged on a personal level as well as the plot level.

The Demon of the story need not be an oni or other creature out of Japanese legend, it can just as easily be a government organization trying to get its clutches on the group’s psychic(s), or an abusive teacher. The demon is the primary antagonist of the story. The demon gets more powerful as the psychic uses her powers, and is more powerful for each agenda left unresolved when the students confront it. The Superintendent is advised to split the demon’s dice up between multiple encounters to provide several instances of conflict rather than just having the demon sweep in and kill all the students. Scenario construction is also broken down by element, as scene construction.

Examples of monster demons are given, and one third of the book is devoted to setting details to constructing a game for Japanese schoolgirls, with information about religion, hobbies, districts of Tokyo, cram schools, and more. Even if you don’t use the system to play the game it’s preparing you for, if you’re looking to do a game set in school in Japan, this game provides invaluable information and advice for story construction.

Panty Explosion sets itself up to do one thing, and it seems like it would do it very very well. The book is focused like a laser, filled with suggestions on how to tell the stories of Japanese schoolgirls balancing between life and monster-fighting, the thematics supported from the setting description to the rules and back again.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Role-Players, Players of RPGs, and Fun For Others

So, John Wick talked about 'Good Role-Players vs. Good Players' over here:

My friend puts some of his thoughts about the issue and related deals here:

I responded there, but I'm also putting it here, to bring in more people to the conversation and spin off a bit.

I've had a love-hate relationship with Wick's ideas and games since my early involvement with L5R. I haven't read Mamet either (or if I have, it was a tiny little bit that didn't stick with me much), but I do think that his division does illuminate a possibly interesting thing to talk about:

Which is the different ways that players can enrich the experience of the RPG, for themselves and for others.

When I'm playing, I can focus on engaging with my character, trying to be very 'deep' in the character so that I as an actor am transparant to the character and the action of the narrative. This is the 'What could/would/should I (Character) do here?' Actor Stance.

I can also focus as a player on the story level, thinking about what things I can do as a player to use my character to make the game more interesting for other characters, which engages other characters, or maybe I create a scene/situation which other players engage with. This is more like the Author Stance.

I can make the game more fun for myself using both stances. I love the 'flow' experience of being fully 'in' a character that I dissapear into him/her.

I also love taking a look at the whole picture and making a decision that will engage other players, move the story forward, even at the expense of my own character's position/status.

I can also make the game more fun for others, but that depends on what values of 'fun' the other players are looking for.

If they want to see a player be soo fully in their character that they can look over at me on the tip of my seat, tapping the table because my character is nervous, shouting at one of his friends when he learns that their leader is to be executed on Demon TV, then I can make the game more fun for them by role-playing my character.

If they want to have their characters pushed or pulled into a new situation , if they're sitting in a chair thinking IC and then OOC "I'm so bored. I have nothing do to" and I make plot for them, or engage them directly, then I can make the game more fun for them, like if I'm stupid enough to steal a potent McGuffin from a demonically empowered Auctioneer and a demon, I can give them something to do instantly. I have to try to suss out what the different players and characters would want to be in the game to engage them on either or both of those levels (character or player).

[Actual Play] Exalted: The Gates of Heaven, Game Three

The third session was, fortunately, the best one yet, surprising considering the difficulties we had.

Everyone arrived on time save for the player of Dusk Sky Lover, who was in training for his new job that week, and had to drive to and from Terre Haute every day. (Terre Haute being a town north and west of Bloomington, a not-insignificant drive). We were unable to raise him past 7-o-clock, so we decided to go ahead and start playing, after I made sure all of the XP and administrative stuff had been taken care of. I’m once again glad that I decided to give XP in this game, as it’s letting the players round out their characters and prepare themselves for the challenges at the end of the game. The big social scene of the session hinged on a Charm the Zenith acquired just that session.

When we last left our Solar heroes, they had just defeated the assassination squad sent after them by Uncomprimising Zu, leader of the Bronze Faction of the Sidereals. They had gained the service of Blue Silk Xia, one of the former assassins who survived the fight and pleaded for his life.

They started out by talking more with Xia as Serene Guardian continued along the way to the Jade Pleasure Dome. We got a bit out of sequence here, as there was some shifting back and forth of time frames, involving speaking with Xia a day after the fight in the park, the arrival of Swift Jie (the Gold Faction Sidereal) as per their requests, and such. It didn’t prove to be that big of a problem, especially since working on the fly, I realized that there were only a couple things that were guaranteed to happen before they got to the Jade Pleasure Dome, those being as follows:

1) They’d need to find a way into the Dome.
2) Uncomprimising Zu would confront them to bar their entrance.

Everything else would be up to them. I hinted towards the necessity of gathering support for their bid against the Games of Divinity, which they pleased me by picking up and running with. Sure, I was doing some leading or poking and prodding along the way, but the form was all them.

After talking with Xia and Jie, they decided to hold an audience at an ampitheatre near the Jade Pleasure dome and invite the Gods friendly to their cause, important Gods who were neutral, and some who opposed meddling with the Games of Divinity, but not that many, and the ones who opposed less fervently.

Originally, it was going to just be Vajra (the Zenith) who was going to do the talking, to try to sway the gods to their side, whip up morale, and see about turning the tide in heaven. As they were planning, I hinted that it might be good if all of them spoke, all five members of the Perfect Circle, representatives of each caste. They jumped on it, which made me very happy, and then set to making up their own speaking order, taking my little request (because I wanted to keep all of the players engaged and give some space for each of them to be social as their characters, do the Lawgiver thing) and ran with it. Somewhere in here, Dusk Sky Lover’s player arrived, thankfully, so that we could really get going. They decided to have Dusk Sky Lover speak first, as Eclipses are the messengers, of the liminal times and places, and so on. I should have written this AP report earlier, as I don’t remember their awesome tag-team speech as well as I should have. They all brainstormed and team-wrote the speeches, helping each other think things through before the actual performance/scene occurred. I got to sit back and watch them go, which was a very rewarding experience, one of the best GMing experiences I’ve had in a while, being able to provide a tiny bit of input and have my players give me more than I could have asked for.

So Dusk’s player starts out with this Arkansas kind of accent, which he hadn’t used for the character before, but just kind of slipped out. He commented on the accent, and then just let it be, going for a speaking method not dissimilar to the ‘Simple Southern Gentleman’ approach that is stereotypical of some lawyers in media. He introduced the group, and called for their attention in the troubling times.

Kaimana the Twilight went next, describing a world on the brink of eternal night, the fact that the time to act had come.

Next came Dahn the Night caste, representing the shift from Twilight to the darkness plaguing the world. She talked about the Deathlords, the Yozi, the Fair Folk, and all of the other dangers facing the world, threatening to destroy Creation should things go unchecked.

Lanar, Chosen of Dawn spoke about the Circle’s achievements, the ways in which they had driven back the darkness and stuck against the foes of Creation. She referred back to their shared backstory (the backstory that we just kind of declared, since we skipped ahead to the beginning of this story) fighting the Locust Crusade, redeeming Dahn from the Black Exaltation, defeating the Mask of Winters, The Boddhisatva Anointed by Dark Water, and so on.

Finally, Vajra, Zenith Caste Priestess of the Unconquered Sun, proclaimed their objectives in Yu-Shan, to set right the Games of Divinity and restore the proper Celestial Bureaucracy so that Creation could be set right once more, calling out to the gods to resume their duties and break the cycle of addiction.

I had Lanar, Dahn, Dusk Sky Lover and Kaimana roll Presence + Whatever relevant social trait they wanted (I included Wits because a player asked, and I felt like being nice). Their successes became bonus dice to Vajra’s roll, which totaled out at 42 dice, after their group social combat stunt, which I rated 3-dice, because it rocked my world. I’m really lucky to have players who can deliver a speech that actually sounds good and not just some hasty crap thrown together to push through to the next fight scene.

Vajra ended up with 19 successes, less than average, but still, an insane amount of fu. They swayed more than half of the crowd, and another quarter talking with some of the gods individually, which I had them do in summary rather than one-by-one discussion with each individual god (because the notion of playing out twenty different one-on-one discussions bored me, and I wanted to get moving so we’d have time for the confrontation). They each gave their specific approaches to convincing people, rolled for results, then I gave them the final description of the results of the day’s efforts, more than seventy percent of the 100 gods in attendance swearing to the circle’s cause.

Which means when they arrived at the Jade Pleasure Dome, they had an army. Which is good, because The Uncomprimising Zu was waiting for them with an army of his own, leading to a big throwdown. I’d spoken of Zu as a ‘midboss,’ calling upon Final-Fantasy-esque terminology, so the players already knew that they’d be dealing with Zu before the end of the game. I also like to think that I did a decent job of making Zu despicable in a short time frame, so that the players were excited to get to lay the smackdown.

I statted Zu out more thoroughly than I had any other antagonists, thought wasn’t quite a full charactersheet, since he was only making one mechanics-using appearance. I decided to have them fighting him and his Elemental Dragon censor bodyguard/attendant, while the rest of the battle raged around them. I explained that they’d only have to worry about Zu, but that they could engage with the rest of the fight if they wanted to do stunting or anything else special. That way I could have a huge battle without having to drag out the Mass Combat rules and get my group conversant with a whole new set of rules that we’d only use once. I’m fairly happy with the results, as it let us focus on the confrontation with Zu, but hopefully kept the scale of the conflict so they felt like they were less 5 heroes all alone and more that they were the leaders fighting a Romance of the Three Kingdoms/Dynasty Warriors style duel against the enemy general.

I modeled Zu off of the wizened Kung Fu Tyrant, mostly drawing inspiration from Conquer from Storm Riders and some from The Bride With White Hair/Swordsman 2. Very Wuxia. He had all of Violet Bier of Shadows Style and most all of the Charcoal March of Spiders Style, a Siderial Martial Art (for those of you who don’t know Exalted, that means Ultimate Kung Fu).

Zu gave a villainy speech, which the PCs responded to from their perch in the mouth of the Serene Guardian of Southern Stone, then joined battle.

Zu was riding a dragon, but when you’re playing Exalted, that’s no big deal. Dusk Sky Lover and Dahn went for the dragon, and got Zu down off onto the ground. Vajra and LAnar engaged him on the ground, while Kaimana stayed up in Serene Guardian’s mouth to play long-range-spellcaster. They had the brilliant idea of just having Serene Guardian close his mouth when Zu attacked them as a group, which I loved and declared a perfect defense, though it did damage the Alchemical’s armor, cracking his teeth.

I gave Zu enough multiple-attack-y ness to be able to trouble the group, while making sure that he was eminently beatable. Rather than track Essence expenditure for him, I just made the more expensive Charms into (useable X times per battle), and just checked them off as he used them, marking on the text document I had running on my laptop (which was also my game prep document).

Zu fought barehanded, but I gave him Perfected Kata Bracers and FX for ranged ‘essence’ punches, just ‘cause. It let him threaten Kaimana even in the Alchemical’s mouth. I made sure to let each of the players bust out their big kung fu at least once so they could do awesome things, like Dusk Sky Lover jumping under the dragon, changing his ‘down’ so he could blow the hell out of the dragon’s guts, like Dahn using her ‘step through shadows’ power to go right after the dragon, and so on. LAnar drew out most of Zu’s perfect defense uses, with her unrelenting flurries with huge dice pools. And, slow though it may be, Kaimana got to bust loose with Flying Guillotine spell, and ended the fight with a Technique Mirror use of Zu’s insano counterattack charm, which let her punch his heart out from a hundred feet up.

I love Exalted.

The session ended with the surrender of the forces that had been under Zu, and giant-size Celestial Lions opening the huge double-doors of the Jade Pleasure Dome, the circle getting teleported inside in a flash of white. To Be Continued, which proved to be a good tantalizing hook.

The players were much more comfortable with the combat system this time around, from Join Battle to ticks to comboing and dice pools, so the combat went pretty smoothly. Overall, it was a great game, despite the difficulties of having one player show up late (beyond his control, so no blame there. Job comes first, yo). In any other game, that was more long-term, I would have been fine with waiting and just having the game go slower, or calling off for a night. But this last game is the last Wednesday night I have in town, so we needed to be able to finish, which we should be able to do.

Next session, a friend will be rolling film on the game so I can refer back to it for my thesis. And the circle faces the temptation and danger of the Games of Divinity, their actions determining the fate of the universe.