[the valedictorian's death - a roleplaying game by paul czege]
draft version 1.0


The Valedictorian's Death is the roleplaying game of stories in old high school yearbooks. Each player, aside from the gamemaster, will take ownership of a member of the senior class as their personal character and play out the events of a few weeks leading up to the discovery of the valedictorian's dead body. Players will vie to be perceived a prime suspect, someone with a possible motive, or perhaps a shaky alibi, but they'll do this with great care. The way to win when points are counted at the end of the game is to narrowly avoid culpability in the death, allowing ultimate guilt to rest with one of the other players.

Get a Yearbook

The game is dependent on the group first acquiring an old high school yearbook. And the obvious notion of simply borrowing one is perfectly workable and should prove to be fairly easy, even bearing in mind that yearbooks from when siblings, parents, or other close relatives were in the senior class are to be avoided. The more removed the yearbook is from the personal knowledge of the players themselves, the better.

For those who anticipate a payoff in fun from perhaps basing a game on the 1962 graduating class of an all-boys private school, you can also readily buy old yearbooks from online auctions, and sometimes even locally from the strangest and dustiest variety of used bookstore.

The Valedictorian

The gamemaster will need to establish for the game which of the students of the senior class is the valedictorian. In my experience, only a small fraction of yearbooks are published late enough in the school year that the identity of the valedictorian is known and included.

If you've borrowed the yearbook, you have contact with someone who might know which senior graduated as valedictorian. But if not, what do you do?

You could research it. And finding the answer could be ridiculously easy and fun. I recently bought the 1962 yearbook of a local all-boys prep school from a used bookstore, and called the school. The librarian went back into the archived copies of the student newspaper and found the name of the valedictorian for me. And she was thrilled to do it. She called me back in less than a half hour and read off his list of achievements. "Isn't he great," she said.

But maybe the librarian questions why you need the information, and isn't swayed by "Um, for a roleplaying game." If it's a local school, the city library probably has an archive of the community newspaper. The identity of the valedictorian will be revealed in the paper's article on the school commencement ceremony.

So if that kind of research is fun for you, cool. Otherwise, my recommendation is to simply look over the students in the senior class, at their achievements and memberships in honor societies, at who got voted "most likely to succeed," and pick one. If your school was anything like mine, it was pretty obvious who was going to be valedictorian very early on in the first quarter of the senior year, and the yearbook really does include a lot of hints for someone who wants to know, if they look hard enough.

And honestly, it isn't that big a deal to the game if you get it wrong. Pick someone. Make an informed choice, and move on.

Setup

There will be a setup session for the game prior to play. In preparation for that, each player is given a few days with the yearbook to review it and get familiar with the senior class in particular, and to take any notes they might anticipate using during the game. Is it possible to tell if the valedictorian was dating anyone? Who may have been an academic rival? The story is hidden. The game is won by the player who reveals it most dramatically.

The game begins with the discovery of the body of the valedictorian sometime during the latter half of the senior year (ala the discovery of Laura Palmer's body at the beginning of the first episode of Twin Peaks). The first task of game setup is for the group to go around the room, with each player describing a single cryptic detail about the body or the surroundings in which it was found, a "clue" that can be considered to have been exposed by police forensics subsequent to the discovery of the body. Each of these details must be informed, though perhaps very tenuously, by the player's prior inspection of the yearbook. A simple example might be a bloody handkerchief in the valedictorian's pocket that bears the embroidered initials of one of the senior class girls.

Next, the players select their personal characters from the senior class. A player who volunteers to select last may add an additional cryptic detail to the circumstances of the valedictorian's body. Characters are statted out, basically by just listing traits that can be justified for them by details in the yearbook. Some yearbooks have little blurbs about the civic and academic achievements of the students that should facilitate this. If not, players will have to use the group photos of the band, school clubs, athletic teams, and whatnot to figure out the traits of their characters.

Gameplay

The events of the game occur, effectively in flashback from an audience perspective, over the weeks leading up to the death of the valedictorian.

Characters have three numeric values that will fluctuate throughout play: Actions, Reactions, and Consequences. They are chained together such that a reduction in Actions precipitates an increase in Reactions, a reduction in Reactions precipitates an increase in Consequences, and a reduction in Consequences precipitates an increase in Actions. I may change this to Reactions-->Actions-->Consequences given further thought.

For Reactions and Consequences, the player will roll a d12, trying for under or equal to the current value. For Actions, a player will sometimes roll a d12, and sometimes a d8 when he has Advantage.

Reactions

Reactions represents the character's ability to create beliefs and emotions in NPCs (and also to undo beliefs and emotions). It is also the player's only currency for scene framing in the game. When using Reactions, a player can set the stage, describing his character's menacing demeaner or unannounced and threatening arrival at a location with an NPC, and then call for a Reactions roll, stating an intent that the NPC fears the character. Success means exactly that, the NPC now fears the character, but doesn't in any way determine actions the NPC might take in response. That is left to the GM. Technically, all that happened is the NPC now has the belief. The GM is not under any obligation to have the NPC react overtly to that belief without Action from another character; neither is he prohibited from having the NPC react. Regardless of the player's success or failure on the die roll, one point is migrated from Reactions to Consequences. The scene framing power associated with Reactions cannot be used if Reactions is currently at 0. Players can also use Reactions within an ongoing scene, to frame a "micro scene" that briefly interrupts the flow of the ongoing scene for the purpose of attaching a belief to an NPC. So, for instance, one player could use Reactions to interrupt the scene and add a belief to an NPC that counteracts the Advantage in Action another player may have in an impending die roll with that NPC.

Actions

Actions represents the character's ability to accomplish physical tasks within the game. Rolling under or equal to the current value of Actions means the character was successful. The GM describes the outcome. Rolling over the current value of Actions means failure, and the GM describes the outcome. If a player can somehow justify that his character has reason for greater likelihood of success, perhaps he's fighting someone who fears him, or perhaps he's on the wrestling team, this is called Advantage, and he rolls a d8 instead of the d12. Note that whether a player rolls the d8 or the d12 isn't determined through adding and subtracting factors that may impact likelihood of success. It's the most recent factor that determines which die is used. Two Advantage factors like "captain of the wrestling team" and "carrying a knife" don't somehow combine to counteract the opponent's belief that "he must stop you because you killed his sister" if the latter was added more recently than the advantage factors. In this case, the player rolls the d12.

Consequences

Consequences are consequences the character. The player states during a scene that he wants to take a consequence. There is no scene framing ability associated with Consequences, so this must happen within an ongoing scene. The die is rolled. Success means the player gets to describe the nature of the consequence. Failure means the GM does. Regardless of the success or failure of the die roll, one point is migrated from Consequences to Actions.

Winning

At the end of every session, each player submits a summary of points they believe they've earned during that evening's play, according to the following scheme:

1 point for every detail from the yearbook introduced into gameplay by the player, whether through character conversation, narration of Consequences, or scene framing through the use of Reactions. An example might be the mention of a retail establishment that has an advertisement in the back of the yearbook, or mention of a teacher or school administrator by name. A maximum of ten points can be earned this way in a given session. I'm trying to decide if I should up the point reward and require more than just a mention: the retail establishment or teacher would have to actually appear as part of a scene.

4 points for incorporating into gameplay a romantic or familial relationship between two individuals that appears in the yearbook. A player must justify the existence of the relationship at the time it is revealed into gameplay by pointing to evidence from the yearbook.

8 points for explaining one of the cryptic details of the circumstances of the valedictorian's body.

Also at the end of each session, players cast secret votes to identify who among the other player characters they think will emerge as the one responsible for the death of the valedictorian. These votes are held in secret by the GM until the end of the game, at which time each player who turned out not to have been the murderer gets 5 points for each vote received over the course of the game that mistakenly fingered them as the murderer. The player of the character that turns out to have been the murderer gets 8 points per game session played.

The game ends with player narrated epilogues when one player's character recieves unanimous murderer votes for the second time from all the other players.

So the key to winning is to orchestrate some level of audience perception that your character is the most likely murderer, without actually going so far that you turn out to have been so.


Acknowledgments

The Valedictorian's Death would not exist were it not for the support and enthusiasm of friends and the influence of other game designers. I can't possibly thank them enough:

The round-robin creation of clues surrounding the valedictorian's dead body is very much inspired by Threat Assessment in Ian Millington's game, Wraiths.

The circular economy of target numbers in the game takes inspiration from the circular economy of tokens for narration in Jared Sorensen's game, Red, White, Blue.

Pantheon, by Robin Laws, also features a point calculation scheme for determining which player wins based on contributions made to the story.


Copyright © 2003 by Paul Czege.