Everyone has a different experience during high school. Some people look back fondly at “the best years of their life” and others do their best to never think about it again.
Tracy Barnett, a game designer and teacher, decided that he wanted to create a story-based role-playing game all about the fictionalized versions of high school that we see in movies and books and music. You know, the high schools we all wished we’d attended.
In School Daze, players take on the roles of students who must work their way through a “Group Project” (they’re not called “adventures” when a high school is the campaign setting). One player serves as the Administrator, facilitating the story. Together, everyone tells a collaborative story. What it’s about is totally up to the group, so games could range from The Breakfast Club to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all depending on the tastes of the players.
I spent some time chatting with Barnett about high school, role-playing games, and social interaction in gaming.
Harrison: Thematically, School Daze is a big departure from most other pen-and-paper role-playing games. Did any other games influence the design of School Daze?
Barnett: Definitely. The biggest influence is probably the excellent Fiasco by Jason Morningstar. Fiasco is GM-less, but the stories you can tell using it are some of the best that I’ve ever encountered in roleplaying games. I wanted some of that same collaboration in School Daze, but I wanted to have it be slightly more traditional, with dice rolls, some character stats, and a GM.
After that, the next-biggest influence is the FATE system that powers games like Spirit of the Century, The Dresden Files RPG, and Bulldogs! I like the mechanics-as-narrative bits, and used something like that with the Ranks in School Daze.
Harrison: It’s not a stretch to say that a lot of tabletop gamers might not have had the best experiences in high school. How was yours?
Barnett: Mine was pretty good. See, I liked school. I enjoyed learning, but only to whatever degree I found the subject easy. It probably helped that my dad was a teacher at the high school, and was pretty well-respected by the students. Now, that doesn’t mean I didn’t have my share of rough times. I remember being bullied quite a bit, in choir, of all places, and generally not having many real, close friends.
So, in terms of education, it was good. Socially, it could have used some work.
Harrison: Did you play role-playing games during high school? What were your favorites?
Barnett: Oddly enough, I didn’t. I owned the D&D Basic red and blue boxes, and had done for years. I read a lot of fantasy novels (a metric ton of them, to be precise), and I played a lot of Magic: The Gathering, but I didn’t have any friends that wanted me in their D&D game. Man, that sounds more bleak than I remember it being.
However, when I hit college, I discovered the joy of Baldur’s Gate on my computer, and a co-worker invited me to play D&D 3rd Edition after hearing me wax poetic about BG. I’m still friends with that guy now, and we game together a few times a year.
Harrison: School Daze allows players to explore high school as it is presented in various movies or television shows (The Breakfast Club or Saved By the Bell). Does the system allow for more… non-traditional high school experiences (The Faculty, Buffy)? Or are all conflicts handled in similar ways, whether it’s the principal giving you detention or giving you a stake to the heart?
Barnett: All of the conflicts are handled the same way, but it’s the narrative surrounding the die rolls that really makes the difference. If you’re not stepping up and describing how you failed or succeeded, then you’re really missing out on the juice of the game.
And, because all of this is narratively driven, you can have your game be as normal or as out-there as you want it to be. My first session that I ran was centered around the Senior Prom, and it was a fairly typical set of prom stories… aside from the ambitious student journalist causing a riot during prom because she staged a flashmob protest over the contents of the meat in the school’s tacos.
I’ve also run games where people’s shadows are disappearing, and there’s a Hellmouth-like thing in the basement, so it all hinges upon the players and Administrator buying into the story and going with whatever direction things take.
Harrison: Can you elaborate a bit on the concept of the “Group Project”?
Barnett: Sure! Group Projects are a high school-sounding name for adventures. However, in School Daze, the Group project just consists of a few NPCs, a big plot hook, and some seeds to move things forward. The players (Students) are encouraged to add to their idea of what the school is, and to make the story their own, so planning too much will see the session go “off the rails.” It’s hard to go off the rails when there are no rails to begin with.
It’s also incumbent upon the GM (Administrator) to be able to roll with the punches and keep the story moving. Expect a lot of curveballs.
Harrison: Do you have any tips for GMs who might be used to more standard RPG adventures with heavy prep and less focus on improv?
Barnett: In the book, I just tell the GMs to relax and to go with the flow. The key to running a game like this is that, to drive the action along, all you really need to do is ask a player, “So, what are you doing?” The players should provide the GM with everything needed to create a great story. Part of that is because everyone remembers high school.
Also, if you’re stuck, have an NPC pull the fire alarm to give yourself time to think. The players are providing you the meat of the story, but it’s your job to keep them on their toes, too.
Harrison: Why is it that, even with online video games which provide a sort of social interaction in gaming, face-to-face role-playing games like School Daze and Fiasco remain popular?
Barnett: I think that there’s something that happens during those truly collaborative moments of story creation that hard to replicate outside of an improvisational environment. You can play an MMO, or a multi-player game on a console or PC, but you’re still following the story that the developers have laid down in most cases. Games like Minecraft are the exception to that, and what makes Minecraft so great is the same thing that makes all tabletop RPG great: the act of creation. In a highly improvisational game like School Daze or Fiasco, the emphasis is focused directly on that creative process, and on making an awesome story. That’s difficult to replicate in a video game. I’m sure we’ll get there someday, but I’m also sure that the experience will look a lot like what tabletop RPGs look like now… except with a lot more awesome visuals.
Barnett’s game, School Daze, is currently on Kickstarter, with a PDF of the rulebook going for $10 and a dead tree version for $20. For other RPG stuff from Barnett, check out his site, Sand & Steam.