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.


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