Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 17 April 2010

It's a Girly Game

What are the boundaries when it comes to roleplaying? Is there anything that you consider as going too far and just will not play? It is very much a given that the one role that most gamers will not play is that of a Nazi – though John Wick has crossed that line with Curse of the Yellow Sign, Act I: Digging for a Dead God,a one-shot for Call of Cthulhu. Then again, for most gamers who we can safely assume to be male, playing a female character is a step too far. Which is going to be something of an issue for Hellcats and Hockeysticks: A Role-Playing Game of chaos, anarchy, and unladylike behaviour. What the title of this small press release from Corone Design hints at, is that this is an RPG in which the players are not only required to engage in some crossgender roleplay, but in which they are required to play schoolgirls. Which when combined with the fact that the inspiration for this game is the St. Trinian’s cartoons and film series, the result is an RPG that is danger of tripping over into prurience. The good news is that Hellcats and Hockeysticks does not go as far as that, but it does skirt the issue...

The setting for Hellcats and Hockeysticks is not the infamous St. Trinian’s, but at St. Erisian’s, a similar girls only educational establishment with an unorthodox approach to both learning and discipline. As long as the girls impose some semblance of self-discipline and a much stronger sense of self-education with the staff there to guide and inspire rather than to teach and to impose discipline, then each pupil is free to pursue whatever line of study that she wishes, whether that be Explosives: from Chemicals to Demolition, Advanced Statistical Analysis of the Sport of Kings, or Combined English/Ninjitsu Studies (Exchange Students Only). Just do not expect your daughter to receive anything in the way of recognised qualifications when she leaves school, just a strong sense of independence. The result is a school in which the younger girls run wild in tribes almost at the direction of the older girls, and the older girls each alter their uniforms to best, not to say risqué, effect, and get involved in all sorts of schemes, pranks, and capers.

Any school is full of Cliques large and small, and this is the starting point for a character in Hellcats and Hockeysticks. These are Coquette, Emo/Goth, Exchange Student, Fixer, Hockey Girl, Nerd/Geek, Prefect, Scientist, and Sweetheart. Each Clique provides a Special Ability, such as “Butter wouldn’t melt” for the Sweetheart and “Family Jutsu” for the Exchange Student, along with five points to assign to a set of Clique skills. A further fifteen points can be assigned to any skills, including those listed under a character’s Clique skills. Skills are rated between one and five.

Each girl starts with ten points of Willpower, and while a Personality Trait is optional, choosing a Best Friend and a Rival is not. These must be chosen from amongst the player characters – which together form their own sub-clique, and the particular relationship need not be reciprocated. A girl also has to describe why she loathes her Rival and why she likes her Best Friend. This establishment of relationships within the mini-clique comes from another RPG – with acknowledgement – the Panty Explosion RPG from Atarashi Games, which covers the same genre, but with an emphasis upon horror rather than humour. The last thing that a girl needs to do is describe her Secret Fear and decide on her name, though this is has probably already been done. Here is a sample character:

Alex
Clique: Goth/Emo Special Ability: Visage of Terror
Trait: Bookish Fear: Arachnophobia
Best Friend: Jess Rival: Emma
Skills: Art 4, Craft, Design and Technology 3, Economics 3, English 2, Games (Track and Field) 1, Home Economics 1, Observation 3, Religious Studies 2, Music 2
Willpower: 10

Hellcats and Hockeysticks only uses six-sided dice. No matter what the task, a schoolgirl always has one base die to roll against a task, with the difficulty for Easy tasks being four, five for Tricky, six for Hard, seven for Absurd, and eight for Impossible. If she has an appropriate skill, a girl can add more dice to the base die, creating a dice pool. For most tasks, a girl will need just a single success, but for opposed tasks, such as those rolled in combat, multiple successes will be required. Of course, success rolls of seven and eight on six-sided dice are unattainable, but if they are needed, a girl can trade in three dice to gain a +1 bonus or six dice for a +2 bonus. If more dice are needed, then Willpower can be traded in to add more dice to the pool, up to a total of three dice.

Combat uses the same mechanics, with Games (Team Sports) and Games (Marksmanship) being the most frequently used skills. One interesting optional rule allows a schoolgirl to increase the size of her dice pool by suggesting or bidding bonuses for her situation or her means of entering the fray and conversely, for the Headmistress to suggest or bid against her, so reducing her dice pool. Either way, combat is resolved as a series of opposed rolls with damage suffered in terms of a schoolgirl being Slapped, Battered, or Trashed. In other words, whatever the cause of the damage – and several types are discussed, it is very difficult for a girl to be killed, though not utterly impossible.

The other form of combat in Hellcats and Hockeysticks is social, and usually revolves around the control or leadership of the little clique that a schoolgirl and her friends – that is, the player characters – are in. The aim of such combat is to either gain control of the sub-clique or to exclude another schoolgirl from the clique and if battle ensues, it comes down to a battle of wills between the two opponents that can also draw in the other members of the clique. The losers of any such battles must not only apologise to the winner, but will often have to perform a forfeit – decided by the winner – if they want to remain in the group. For the winner, there is not only the sweet taste of victory and the aforementioned setting of forfeits to savour, but she also gains a permanent increase in her Willpower! Her supporters gain a point of Willpower rather than a permanent increase in the rating.

It is obvious that the economy underpinning Hellcats and Hockeysticks is fuelled by Willpower, which raises one or two issues. The primary one is that it is easier to lose Willpower – from spending on skills and challenges and from being Battered or Trashed in combat – than it is to gain it. Then again, it needs to be spent if the schoolgirls of St. Erisian’s are to defeat their foes, not necessarily through combat, but by carrying out schemes and plans that will defeat said foes by reducing their Willpower. The given means of gaining Willpower include resting between adventures, but only a single point is gained this way; succeeding, though this requires another dice roll, which seems laborious; by being consoled by your friends; from schadenfreude, or from seeing others fail; and in an emergency, by a girl galvanising herself when she is in the tightest of spots, which requires another die roll, though a more understandable one. A more secondary issue is that while there is a way for a pupil to increase her Willpower permanently, there seems no way in which she can suffer a permanent loss.

Despite the fact that the relationship between the Headmistress and her pupils is meant to be adversarial – whether in the optional rule of bidding against her pupils in combat as described above or in openly questioning how a girl did today when it comes to determining experience  (“Now what have you learned from all this young lady?”) – if I was to run a game of Hellcats and Hockeysticks, then I would be more generous with the handing out of Willpower, rewarding good play and good ideas on the spot. What direct advice there is for the Headmistress on running the game devotes itself to the tone of her game, essentially how bizarre or weird the school, that is, whether or not it includes weird science or magic. Both of these elements are supported with rules for weird science, magic, potions, necromancy, and demonology, enabling the Headmistress to run the sort of girls’ school of magic that Hermione Granger would never have imagined going to.

St. Erisian’s is itself described in some detail, including its staff plus nearby locations and a pair of rival schools, and while the possibility of playing Hellcats and Hockeysticks as a sort of “anti-Hogwarts” is hinted at, it is not one of the alternative settings discussed. They include resetting the game in an all boys’ school, in other countries, and even reformatting it to the fashion or beauty world – perfect for those gamers who want to play out their own version of X’s Next Model or Miss Congeniality. Besides a quick scenario generator and several adventure seeds, Hellcats and Hockeysticks comes with its own scenario, “Annabel’s Gold – A short adventure,” that has various groups rushing to locate some stolen bullion. The scenario nicely captures the frantic nature of the films that are the game’s inspiration, and which are listed in its comprehensive bibliography which covers film, books, manga, and other RPGs.

Physically, Hellcats and Hockeysticks is decently presented with excellent artwork and when not dealing with the rules, the author nicely captures the voice of Alistair Sim as the Headmistress in the original St. Trinian’s films. One amusing touch is the inclusion of inspirational anecdotes from real girls that add just a little touch of verisimilitude to the game. If the game is lacking, it is in terms of advice for the Headmistress beyond that of tone. It could certainly have done with advice on running a longer game since the term structure of a school year lends itself to that.

What Hellcats and Hockeysticks does very well though, is capture the flavour and feel of its genre and inspiration. This shows in the in-game voice of the Headmistress, the different cliques – though these have a more modern sensibility than the schoolgirls of the St. Trinian’s films of the 1950s, and in the emphasis upon the girls pulling off schemes, plans, and capers. That modern sensibility is also evident in the author’s decision to include options beyond the basics of an unruly girls’ school, and while the inclusion of rules for weird science, magic, potions, demonology, and necromancy can be seen as just trappings, they do add flavour, they can spur adventure ideas, and they might serve to attract players who have no interest in playing a game involving schoolgirls without the inclusion of another genre.

Ultimately, attracting players to this game is going to be its biggest problem, as Hellcats and Hockeysticks is a game of playing girls, written with girls in mind, but released into a market that is dominated by men. There is no way around this, but for one exception. Gentlemen, put your preconceptions aside and be prepared to cross this self imposed boundary – cross gender roleplaying in tabletop gaming is no different from playing a Dwarf or a Wookie. The point is, Hellcats and Hockeysticks is a game in which the player characters – all girls – can be as strong as any other, as clever as any other, and as scheming – though the game does emphasis this – as any other.

If you can overcome your preconceptions, then Hellcats and Hockeysticks: A Role-Playing Game of chaos, anarchy, and unladylike behaviour might just prove that playing both its genre and thus a schoolgirl can be fun.