is a game firmly anchored in the subgenre of story games. The players
(the Young Offenders, or YO) and gamemaster (the Authority) work
together to answer a series of questions about the setting and
characters to create the setting, then play out episodes in which the
Young Offenders fight off an oppressive, corrupt, or abusive
Authority and generally stick it to The Man. What will they sacrifice
for their ideals? Disclaimer: I received free print and PDF copies
of the book so I could playtest and review it.
short: The book is well organized and provides
useful examples of play, but is hard on the eyes.
In book form: This softcover book is about the size of a
typical graphic American graphic novel, about 6.75” x 10.25” (17
cm x 26 cm) and runs 88 pages. The binding has held up well so far,
and I like the finish of the cover because it's pretty resistant to
stains and easy to clean (I think it's called matte laminated.)
In PDF: You can download a free copy of the PDF version of
the print book, called the Eyebleed
Edition; however, there is also a screen-friendly, searchable,
tagged, hyperlinked, bookmarked, and indexed PDF version that can be
purchased. For the rest of this section, I will mostly discussed the
layout found in the print and Eyebleed Edition PDF; however, if
quality of binding is not an issue for you, I recommend printing the
screen-friendly PDF instead.
The cover is in red, black and white, and the inside all in
grayscale. The print layout reminds me of Lacuna, Urchin, HoL,
or Storyteller Core: distressed fonts, busy pages, gray
background textures and illustrations, edge-to-edge (“bleed”)
printing, text blocks and illustrations rotated at jagged angles. The
illustrations are primarily remixed stock photographs of young people
and graffiti art. The intent was clearly to produce something punk,
edgy, that speaks of youth, friendship, and rebellion against a dark
The bad things: I have great respect for the work of Joshua
A.C. Newman, who did the layout, and it's clear that the decisions
that went into it were not haphazard. However, I dislike the result.
It's hard to read and, if you try to print from the original PDF (the
free version), a printer-killer. (Happily, the new paid PDF version
is better laid out for screen and e-reader view and also lets one
switch off graphics layers for printing.) The various forms and
record sheets don't have enough space to write in and are cluttered.
Many of the photos used to illustrate the book suggest PSAs targetted
at teens, not rebellion. I think form won out over function in layout
decisions, and it was a mistake.
If you care about that sort of thing, the language is NSFW. That
in itself doesn't phase me, but somehow it didn't feel as fitting as
in HoL, Unknown Armies, octaNe, or Urchin. It felt
somewhat unnecessary and contrived. Moreover, one of the first things
your group sets in co-designing the campaign is the "rating;"
having the text written around a level R or more seems like a
turn-off for people who would tend to play at a PG or PG-13 level.
One of the play examples used in the book is even a version of E.T.
There are also small stylistic quirks that irritated me. For
example, the Authority is described through its Vice (its underlying
motivation), Victim (who it oppresses, consumes, feeds on, etc.), and
Visage (the form it takes). The alliteration is not particularly
successful because the technique is not used much elsewhere (compare
with Young Offenders' (player characters) Convictions: Means, Motive,
Opportunity, M.O., Disorder). So "V" doesn't make you
immediately think "Authority" (shouldn't it remind you of
anarchy, anyway?), and the words are not particularly well chosen. It
would be simpler, less pedantic, and more effective to just say
something like Flavour/Enemy/Face.
The good things: There are lots of play examples for each
part of the rules, and they are very useful. Each major section of
the books draws examples from a different example of setting (remixes
based on Logan's Run, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Avatar: The Last
Airbender, and E.T.) The examples give a good
understanding of the way play steps unfold and of the range of
stories you can tackle.
There is a clear table of contents, an index, and all the rules
sections have a recap with a summary of the steps and page references
– actually correct page references, something not always
found in a role-playing product! The appendices contain all these
rules summaries, a glossary, and the forms to fill in play; the forms
are also downloadable from the Website.
In short: The game system
provides a good structure to help groups tell coherent story and uses
an interesting mechanic to strike a balance between
one-roll-resolves-all and roll-for-each-action games, but may take
some getting used to if you have not tried story games before.
I'll be honest, with you: I don't feel like giving an extensive
description of the rules because others have done it already; links
can be found on the official
Website (scroll down). I'll just summarize and tell you about
some details I found interesting.
Setting and Character Creation. The
first step of play is for the group to collectively create the
Authority, Dystopia, and “clique” of Young Offenders (YO) by
answering a series of questions such as “What holds you together?”
or “How do you fight?”; and selecting characteristics, either
from closed lists (for example, a YO's possible Motives are altruism,
optimism, outrage, pride, and thrills) or open-ended (like your
Disorder, a heroic fatal flaw.) The forms to fill are created in a
cold institutional Scantron style to reinforce that this is someone
else's assessment of your YOs.
This phase of setting and character creation may well take the
entire first episode. The elements created will then be incorporated,
a few at a time, into the subsequent play. As part of creating the
Dystopia, the group will make up a few Authority Figures (for
example, a Sith lord, soulless probation worker, or mutant-hating
senator) and some Systems of Control (for example, giant beach balls
bouncing around to capture would-be escapees, or RFID chip implants.)
One of the driving elements thus created are the “friendship
questions”: each Young Offender asks another a personal question
that sheds some insight on their relationship and often establishes
new fact about one or both of them; for example, “What's the nicest
thing I've ever done for you, and why won't you talk to me about it?”
The second player responds in character as well, then asks a question
of another YO. From episode to episode, each Young Offender will ask
a new friendship question to a different YO, gradually strengthening
the group's ties and history together.
episode comprises seven “scenes” structured to provide rising
tension and plot points. Each scene comes with slightly different
instructions on what the group should do and how the action should
unfold; each scene also comes with different odds of success for the
Authority (played by the GM) and the Young Offenders, with the
Authority having best odds when it's dramatically appropriate for the
protagonists to be at greater risk. The sequence goes:
- What's Up (kickoff)
- Fighting Back (first beat,
- Heating Up (rising tension)
- We Won (the clique overcomes the
- We're Fucked (second beat, the
clique suffers a setback)
- Who Wins (the Question is
- The Dust Settles (epilogue,
setting up the next episode)
At the begining of each scene in an episode, an Authority Figure
or a Frienship Question is selected and will be featured in the
scene. Each scene is set by a different person and going in turn
through the entire group, with the GM trying to arrange to set the
scene for #5 (We're Fucked) so she can put maximum pressure at this
point on the player characters.
Note that "Scenes" in Misspent Youth are not the
same unit of time or continuity as in a theatre or movie scene. The
examples provided in the book explicitly describe switching between
several of what we would normally call "scenes" within one
MY "scene." MY scenes are really more like short acts in a
Struggles. The first few minutes of each scene are spent
establishing what's going on, with the players reacting to the way
the scene was set by the opening description. The GM's job is to play
the Authority in a way that is so heinous that the players will want
their characters to tangle with it and bring it down. Then the GM
asks, “Who's gonna stand up?” This indicates that it's time for a
Struggle; there is one Struggle every scene. The first player to say
their YO will stand up to the Authority grabs the dice (two
six-sided dice, a.k.a. 2d6). The GM then announces the
Authority's objective and in response, the player who grabbed the
dice declares the clique's hope for the result of the Struggle.
So far, so-not-unusual for a story/indie/hippie game: make few
rolls and only on important challenges, set stakes, roll. The upside
of the general approach is that it make the rolls, and the stuff on
your character sheet, more important. The downside in many games is
that everything rides on a single dice roll and you build little
excitement over the anticipation of a back-and-forth battle between
Misspent Youth cleverly
finds a way to get the upside without the downside by using a
mechanic that adjusts the odds depending on the phase of the story
we're at (i.e., which scene), but leaves the total number of rolls
needed unknown. The idea is this: you use a chart, the Struggle map,
showing numbers from 2 to 12 – the values you can get by rolling
2d6. The YOs are always the first to roll; the player who grabbed the
dice describes what action the YO takes, but not its result, then
rolls the dice. The player then places a token on which ever number
was produced, from 2 to 12. In response, the GM narrates “taking
the blow”, i.e., the effect of the YO's action, then narrates the
Authority's action, and claims the number 7 (most probable number
when rolling 2d6) by putting a token of a different colour on it.
continues with the next player who decides to stand up to the
Authority's actions and grabs the dice. If after describing the YO's
action the player rolls a number already covered by and Authority
marker, then the AUthority wins the Struggle; if the rolls equals a
number covered by a YO token, then the YOs win, and if the number is
still open, the player places his or her YO's token on it. The
struggle proceeds, with the Authority never rolling but placing a
marker on the location dictated by the specific scene's guidelines,
more probable number (like 8 or 9) when the pressure is on, and less
probable numbers (like 2 or 12) when the YOs are less at risk.
If the player
whose roll ended the struggle lost by landing on an Authority token
really doesn't want to lose this struggle, this player's YO can sell
one of his convictions in order
to force a victory for the clique. This forms the core drama of the
Young Offenders' story: how much will they sacrifice, how harden will
they become in order to fight for their ideals?
At the end of the struggle, the GM narrates the scene ending, then
we switch to another scene or, if this was the seventh and last scene
of the episode, into the aftermath. The aftermath gives you a chance
to create or convert an Exploit (one of the YOs' aces in the hole) or
System of Control (the Authority's means of control and repression).
Whether you get a new Exploit or System of Control to add to the
story depends on which side won the episode.
to the Struggle mechanic, you never know in advance how many actions
and rolls the YOs will have in a given exchange. It
takes a little getting used to, but I found it to be an excellent way
to maintain suspense. However, I did have one player say that all the
rolls but the last one (when you land on an already placed token)
were merely colour, not affecting the tactical structure of the
struggle, so for this player this only made the struggles last
longer. As they say, your mileage may vary.
After multiple episodes, the series ends when one of the YOs sells
out his or her last conviction, or when the group agrees it's
dramatically appropriate. At this point you count the Exploits and
Systems of Control to determine which side wins, roll some dice based
on the YOs' “sold” and “free” convictions to determine
whether each gets a happy or sad ending, with the one who sold out
entirely automatically getting a sad ending.
By default, you are supposed to create a science fiction dystopia
as your setting. I don't see anything about the game that
mechanically limits it to scifi settings; it seems like you
could go for just about anything you like: urban fantasy, or 1980s
London punk scene, for example. However, specifying "SF"
lets you create more impressive Systems of Control (the means your
Authority has to provoke your Young Offenders to action), but this
could be done with magic too, or simply with painful realism.
However, you do have to play characters who are young, or at least
inexperienced and not yet jaded. The drama will largely revolve
around whether to sacrifice their innocence for a cause or goal.
Here are some of the settings, in addition to the setting examples
used by the author, which I thought would work well with the game
when our group was brainstorming our series: Akira, Buffy the
Vampire Slayer, City of Lost Children, Tank Girl, The New Mutants,
Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Scott Pilgrim, Underground, Band of
Brothers, Goonies, The Handmaid's Tale, Kickass, D.R. and Quinch,
Transmetropolitan, Heroes, Harry Potter, The Breakfast Club, Repo
Man, V for Vendetta, and Cowboy Bebop.
There is no sample or starter adventure because your group will
create it as it goes. However, you can download two free sample
“adventure packs” from the Website, essentially the Authority and
Young Offender sheets for two knock-offs of the British TV series
Misfits and the movie and book The Hunger Games -- both
excellent matches for the game. Each also comes with a page of
guidelines for customizing the material.
In short: The setting
generation phase and the scripted steps to story creation helped our
group create coherent stories with a good mix of uncertainty and
I ran a short campaign for three players online. We used a
Web-based collaboration system, Vyew.com, to fill
and display the forms and move tokens on the struggle map. We
called our campaign Moon Pirates.
Startup: For their Dystopia, the group created a lunar
mining colony owned by Apex Frontier, a corporation that owns
extensive mining rights for the Inner Solar System. The mode was
"hard" scifi, the technology level was similar to that seen
in Outland, Moon, 2010 -- or even UFO or the first year
of Space 1999. The YOs were a tough-as-nails, violently angry
orphan nicknamed Breaking Monkeys, an undersocialized but prideful
hacker called Kaye, and a thrill-seeking bad boy with a pretty face
called Hiro Suzuki; they conducted their illegal business on an old
refurbished Moon hopper. In the course of the series, they would
later commit acts of piracy and vandalism against Apex Frontier,
steal a newly refitted freighter that had been headed for a secret
mission in the Asteroid Belt and convert it into a blockade runner,
infiltrate a secret prison facility and free the colonists who had
been “disappeared” by the Company.
The (annoyingly formatted) record sheets helped us funnel the
process – in both good and bad ways. Steps that are important but
not listed explicitly on the sheets (Clique and Casting, steps 4 and
5 of the Dystopia creation) were inadvertently skipped because they
are not listed on the Dystopia sheet, so we went right into YO
creation, then had to backtrack. (The proper phases call for group
creation of twice as many YO concepts as there are players so
everyone has ample choice when selecting their character, but by then
we had already narrowed it down to one concept each.) The Dystopia
sheet also mixes Authority and Clique. But still, we enjoyed creating
a setting in which everybody would be interested and feel ownership.
As GM, my job was mostly to check that the players built enough
adversity in the the Dystopia that they would want to fight it and
would get an interesting challenge.
I really liked the friendship questions. I felt they helped build
relationships between characters and give us progressively more
insight into their personalities, in ways that mattered in the story.
For the GM: After the initial setup of Authority, Dystopia
and Clique, I found that the game requires low or no preparation work
from the GM, past being familiar with the rules. In fact, I think you
could have a different GM playing the Authority every time. However,
it pays off to prepare lists of names, possible locations, bullet
point lists of possible events, etc., in order to react quickly to
the unfolding action.
A big challenge, however, is that the GM has no way of affecting
the result of struggles, while players can sell out their
convictions. I wish I could push back harder mechanically, but
everything depends on choosing sufficiently heinous Authority goals
and actions. The GM needs to make sure the YOs and the players
really, really hate the Authority. Not only does it provides
motivation, but it also puts the morality of the YOs' choices in
harsher light, pushing them to do bad things because they're so angry
and yet giving them a measure of absolution at the same time. I did
get feedback from players that the game got more interesting for them
when I made the Authority meaner.
For the players: Group
dynamics matter. If the players'
relationships are not that great, the pull on friendship ties between
become awkward or simply moot. In addition, the demand for personal
involvement and creation by all players is tough on certain types of
players, especially the Casual Gamers (in Robin's Laws nomenclature) who
don't want too much spotlight time.
In terms of group size, you don't want
too small nor too big. Two YOs would probably not be enough, but more
than five would almost certainly dilute the drama. The book
recommends a group of 4 to 6 players, including the GM; however, with
one GM and three players, our group was always short of one Authority
Figure or Friendship Question, because the players are supposed to
create one of each, for a total of six here, versus seven scenes that
make use of one each. We ended up reusing Authority Figures or making
extra. Naturally, with four Young Offenders you'd ended up with one
unused Authority Figure or Friendship Question, and with five YOs,
you would have three items leftover.
Issues and Potential Problems
Never on time... One
aspect on which our group never quite got it “right,” apparently,
was time management. With four-hour sessions, we were never able to
complete an entire episode, so we ended up playing each episode in
about two sessions, except the first that stretch over three,
including setting creation. We were nowhere near total sell-out for
any of the Young Offenders by the time we had three episodes in. My
understanding is that other groups have been typically way sparser in
their scene descriptions and YO interactions, but we just needed that
much time to develop the scenes to everyone's satisfaction. (Alas, I
was only able to post game
summaries for the first few game sessions, then Real Life got in
Narration power – Activate! We
also had to have quite a bit of discussion on
trad-games-versus-hippie-games for the one player who was less
experienced. It can be hard to get used to the idea that there will
be only one struggle per scene, and that the rest is largely at the
mercy of narration. Even harder to get used to is the concept that
the players can really take over that narration, so your character
won't “fail” because another player has described something
In the very first scene of the first
episode, we had one YO, Breaking Monkees, pilot the clique's little
moon hopper straight into a busy area of the shipyard, attracting the
attention of the Authority (Apex Frontier, the big bad company that
owns the entirre Moon colony.) Kaye's player was upset because she
felt that the two other players had created YOs that would constantly
do crazy things, forcing her to be the reasonable one or the nanny to
keep them out of trouble. We had to discuss high-trust games, and the
options to handle narrative power.
Setting objectives and hopes.
As in a lot of games where conflict resolution uses stake-setting,
from Dogs in the Vineyard to Mouse Guard,
it's important to set good goals for each side at the start of a
struggle. Neither side should set goals that simply consist of
negating the other side's intentions; when a side fails to win, they
don't get their goal, period (unless the winning side decides to
throw them a bone in subsequent narration.) Pick goals that are
interesting and propel the story in a new direction.
Misspent Youth is a game of youthful energy and struggle
against authority, in which your characters' advantages are their
friendship and convictions. Narrative authority is shared between GM
and players, and the structured play is there to help turn the
episodes into narratively satisfying stories. I would definitely
like to run this game again, and I would love it even more as a
round-robin campaign so I can take a turn at playing a Young Offender
People who like collaborative story narration, non-traditional
dice mechanics, and high-trust games will probably enjoy this system.
As a bonus, this still allows players to work only through their
characters, something a lot of people prefer to full-fledged shared
However, this probably not the game for people who like having a
wide choice of tactical options, who want an existing, fully
fleshed-out setting, or aren't interested in the game's premise.