Dating, Cthulhu & SATs: 'Trope High' - Pennine Megagames (18/05/19)
It's 1am. I should be studying for finals, but instead I'm hiding in a bush in the campus quad, setting up a hidden video-camera with my best friend. I keep my head on a swivel for angry cultists as I fumble with the device's settings. My hands tremble. Poison is turning my guts like a cheap washing machine. Eldritch visions threaten my sanity as I struggle to stay lucid. But it's all worth it, because tonight we get the evidence we need. Tonight we will be able to show everyone the truth – the President is a werewolf.
Let me rewind a little.
Trope High 101
Image Credit: Hubert Hung (h2portraitphotography.co.uk)
It's a mild Saturday morning in Leeds as I wander into the venue for 'Trope High' – a new game from Becky Ladley for Pennine Megagames.
Trope High is a megagame with an original setting – a fictional American high school. Based on TV shows such as Smallville, Dawson's Creek, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the game attempted to simulate the human drama of fictional teenagers' everyday personal and academic lives, alongside the more exciting themes of some of these shows – elements of the supernatural, mysterious and dangerous.
The players were sorted into a variety of groups, mostly “cliques” based on their interests and primary activity at the school. Each clique had their own mini game that they did every turn, which affected their ranking within the clique as well as their social 'Cred' rating, and sometimes netted them other rewards. There were events throughout the school year (which was separated into a dozen half-hour game turns) that tested each clique's ability at their mini-games and raised the stakes for victory or failure.
The groups included the 'Sportsball' Team (who played a coin football game), the Drama club (charades), the school Band (a number ordering challenge based on the card game 'The Mind'), the Academic Decathlon team (trivia questions), and the Cheerleader Squad (who played a game remarkably similar to the betrayal-testing skill-card mechanic in the Battlestar Galactica board game – you can draw your own conclusions on that one).
Drama Club, captured mid-charade
Outside these social circles you could find the 'Loners', the shunned but nonetheless critical part of the high school social order – capable of completing unique 'quests' to obtain almost anything a kid could need; and also the Teachers, four brave and dedicated professionals who somehow had to keep these unruly kids on the right track.
Last but not least, you had Trope Radio – the clique I found myself in, who had the job of taking a couple of minutes each turn to make a valuable and entertaining broadcast to the rest of the game. We were also responsible for maintaining 'The Grapevine', a large corkboard in the corner of the room that represented the school's student community website.
The Grapevine: Always filled with useful, unbiased posts from students.
As well as the aforementioned clique practice and events, the game revolved around lessons, where players would roll dice based on certain personal stats, and school-wide events, such as dances, exams, and college applications. There were 10 colleges in the game, running the gamut from the least desirable to the most prestigious – better colleges required better grades, which were based on the scores achieved in lessons and exams. There were a few different resources, such as 'Dirt Cards' that allowed you to learn secret information about other players, but the most common were 'Effort' tokens. Every player got 5 of these per turn which could be spent on their clique activities, studying for lessons and exams, attending events, as well as custom actions, most often based on their secret abilities.
Oh right, yes, secret abilities! Trope High made significant use of the, shall we say, less 'ordinary' part of the TV shows it was based on. Every player had some form of secret, with over a dozen different types of supernatural power or secret identity – including but not limited to witches, vampires, time travellers, super heroes, spies and magic hunters.
Call Me JB
I was taking on the role of Jacob Ben Israel  (“call me JB”), a smart kid with a few good friends and a passion for journalism.
Like all players, my briefing included three other characters with whom I had pre-existing relationships. My 'Best Friend', Carrie Schaeffer, who worked alongside me in the Radio clique; my 'Rival' Tori Vega, some know-nothing loser  from Drama club who wouldn't amount to anything; and my 'Crush', Emily Fields, who was the quarterback of the Sportsball team, because apparently love is blind to absurdly unrealistic personal goals.
These relationships would be a big part of my game, but everything else considered, JB's main objective was just to get into a good college and get his journalism degree.
That's not to say that JB didn't have a secret of his own. See, JB is an inquisitive kid. He's been online looking into weird and wonderful stories. Buried on a message board somewhere he found some rituals. It seems silly but why not give them a go? At first, nothing, but then some strange things start to happen. His luck starts to improve. He finds a dollar bill in his pocket that he swears wasn't there before. More than that though – he knows that there are others at school who might also know about these rituals, and he's keen to compare notes and see what there is to gain from this. With nothing but a keyword – “sporadic” – to identify each other by, who knows what will happen before the school year is over...?
School is in Session
It's a short while before the game begins proper. I wander around, mingle, introduce myself. I subtly mention that arriving early, there's only a sporadic few players here and there. I meet Oliver Schermerhorn and drop the keyword. He asks me if I've met any friends yet. I tell him that I've introduced myself to the rest of the Radio clique. Then he asks me again, an eyebrow raised:
“I mean, have you met any friends yet?”
I shake his hand.
I have met my first fellow cultist.
A short time passes and it is soon time for the Radio to make its first broadcast of the day. We've readied a fluff piece about the Homecoming Dance, but other than that, stories are thin on the ground – everyone's only just arrived! I ask Character Control about any simple story that JB might hear about right now and he gives me my first scoop – the modern languages department has been boarded up with no explanation from the school's administration. JB, the dedicated journalist he is, makes a mental note to include it in his first broadcast.
That's not the only concern though: Jughead Jones, our fellow Radio presenter, keeps disappearing under the bleachers with loners and seems elusive when asked about... well, almost anything.
The first broadcast is made. I throw together a catchy title for JB's journalistic (or at least journalism-adjacent) radio segment: “Trope Truth Talk”. Now everyone knows about the modern languages department.
“To describe the administration's answers as to what's going on as 'sporadic' would be generous.” I say, hoping that this word isn't starting to look suspicious through overuse.
Jughead takes over the mic for his segment and uses the word “sporadic” four times in 20 seconds. Something is up. I take Jughead away for a private conversation. He tells me that he's been talking to one of the Loners, one that knows the secrets of the rituals.
“I know who your group is. I know what you're trying to do.”
For a second, panic sets in. We're barely out of the first turn. But that's when I notice there's no sense of threat coming from my fellow broadcaster. He's looking to make a deal.
“... and I don't care, to be honest. I've got my own goals and I'm probably going to be gone from here before the school year is out. If you give me some of the dirt cards I need, I can help you find your fellow cultists.”
With that I had a major leg up on finding the rest of the people needed to work on our rituals. It wasn't long before we all knew each other. Along with myself and Oliver, we identified Spencer Hastings of the Academic Decathlon team, as well as one of the Loners, and a member of the Cheer Squad. The five of us set to work decoding our cryptic rituals.
As time passed, the upcoming election for Class President and Vice-President became a hot topic. My best friend Carrie told me that she wanted to run, and I promised to support her. She asked me to be her VP, but I suggested that someone from another clique would help appeal to a broader demographic. During the homecoming dance, Oliver told me he would run, as President he could really give the cultists an edge in surviving the school year to come . I saw an opportunity and put Carrie and Oliver together. I don't think they ever agreed which one was President and which was Vice President, but it would turn out to be moot pretty fast. The election came and there were about half a dozen candidates. Carrie had a plan to unite the nerdier cliques against the cheerleaders and sportsballers but it never came together. It ended up being a two-party race with most of the candidates (including Carrie and Ollie) getting barely a handful of votes each. Glenn Coco of the School Band came second with a respectable 15 votes or so. The winner had around 25 votes, in a resounding win that united most of the Sportsball team, Cheerleaders and Drama club. As the name of the new Class President was announced, a wave of horror came over me.
“The Class President for this year is... Tori Vega.”
All's Fair in Young Love and Political Subterfuge
With the election over, Thanksgiving Vacation rolled around and we had a little bit more time to ourselves before College Applications. I used this time to try and talk to Emily – my sportsball team crush, but it quickly became apparent that she was already dating someone else. We parted ways and I made a note to stay in contact with her every now and then, but my time was so limited, and I had so many other priorities, that this didn't happen often.
I applied to a few prestigious schools and one or two more middle-of-the-road options, taking extra effort to spread my options out and account for all possibilities. JB didn't need to study Journalism at an Ivy League, but I was cautiously optimistic about my grades and wanted the option just in case.
Of course, I couldn't get Tori's victory out of my mind. I had to take her down a peg, and wondered if her popular victory hadn’t been helped by unexpected means. I desperately wanted to get some dirt on her but had nothing. JB's journalistic integrity was too strong to allow me to simply lie about it. I approached Glenn Coco, the first runner up, with the hope that perhaps he knew something, or at least that he had a grudge. I asked him if he had heard any rumours of election misdeeds.
“Well I haven't heard anyone say there wasn't.” He responded.
Damn. I couldn't work with that.
I had a thought about other options. On the back of The Grapevine board, little notes and doodles were being posted as part of the 'yearbook'. I made a little doodle of Tori with devil horns and sharp teeth saying “Tori Vega is an evil cheat”. It was a small and petty move, but it was all I had right now in the hopes of at least getting people to ask questions.
The Yearbook towards the end of the game (by this point my anti-Tori propaganda was long gone).
In the long term, I needed some Dirt Cards so I could figure out what our new class president was hiding. I made some deals here and there with various people to get the cards I needed, exchanging information, radio time, and whatever else I had at my disposal.
It was around this time that Glenn Coco told me that he'd broken into the boarded-up modern languages department and found it was filled with dangerous jungle megaflora. This made for a juicy headline but otherwise I had other things to worry about.
"You Go Glenn Coco!" Image Credit: Hubert Hung (h2portraitphotography.co.uk)
With everything else going on, I had another problem. The other cultists and I had solved the riddle of our first ritual and ever since then I'd been noticing improved performance in gym class. But I also kept getting splitting migraines – were they connected somehow? I needed to go deeper to see if I could find a way to get rid of this pain.
Just before winter vacation rolled around, we had a report come into the radio that a student had been attacked by a wolf on school grounds. This wasn't the first time we'd heard of this happening, either – since the start of the year, there had been multiple wolf attacks, and it was a mystery that a lot of people were thinking about. Imagine my shock, then when I handed in my completed set of Dirt Cards, looking to expose some of Tori Vega's political wrong doing, only to instead learn that she's been disappearing from home mysteriously on certain nights. Heavily-moonlit nights.
This wasn't about political points scoring any more. Everyone was in danger – people needed to know the truth. And Trope Truth Talk was going to give it to them.
A Winter of Discontent
As the school year hit its festive half way point, I took to TTT with two major headlines. 'Wolf attacks continue at Trope High' and 'Evidence comes forward that Tori Vega mysteriously goes missing on moonlit nights'. I was hoping for repercussions. None would come. Tori had surrounded herself with loyal friends. Everyone was too busy with school and their own problems. But more than anything, the lack of hard evidence was blunting the impact of the story. I set to work again collecting Dirt Cards.
As the winter vacation ended, SATs came along. I had spent a lot of effort studying, and managed to smash the test – ending up with the second highest SAT grade in the whole school! My backup college, the mediocre 'Ohio Kentucky University' (get it?), offered me an early-acceptance place shortly after. It was a relief to know I had that coming up at least – but I would still work hard and study for finals in the hopes of a better option.
Meanwhile, the cult had cracked our next ritual. The migraines went away, and I felt I just had more energy throughout the day, improving my productivity. But for some reason, things were getting... weird. I was cold, constantly. I tried wearing more clothes, upping the heating in my dorm room, but nothing stopped me shivering. More than that, the walls of my room always felt damp – but no-one else could feel it. Things were getting serious. Was I losing my mind? I wanted to slow down, do some more research into this stuff – be careful not to lose myself. But the cult proceeded unabated. Oliver would repeatedly come up to me, asking me if I'd cracked my part of the next riddle, always wanting more progress. I was hesitant – I told him that with all my different priorities I didn't have enough time. This was mostly true, but to some extent it was also a stalling tactic, I needed to buy myself enough time, to find a way to stay safe, rather than rushing to the next ritual. Oliver's patience wore thin and he began asking me to hand over what I had about the rituals so he could work on it instead. I didn't have any excuse to refuse, so I handed it over and thanked him for his help. The clock was ticking – I needed to find a solution.
But that wasn't the only problem. As I tucked into my lunch a few days later, I felt a deep burning sensation in my stomach. Someone had poisoned my food! I returned to the safety of the radio suite to rest and recuperate, my own body turned against me. Before I even had a chance to recover, I wandered outside and with a flash of teeth I became the next victim of a wolf attack – by now an epidemic. Poisoned, bitten and clawed, I looked across the room to the Drama club.
'I know this is your doing Tori Vega, and soon the whole school will know too.' I thought to myself.
Spring Into Action
Spring vacation rolled around and I was beginning to recover from my injuries. I had almost acquired all the dirt cards I needed to put something together on Tori. But the pressure was mounting. The cult's activities were getting more bold, more blatant. As part of one ritual Spencer yelled some ancient phrase in front of the entire school. But more than that, my fellow cultists must have been getting suspicious of my excuses by this point, and I had no idea what to do next.
Not sure what she said exactly,,, something about 'cold ones'? Probably just thirsty.
That's when Emily Fields, quarterback of the football team, and my crush, approached the Radio office.
“I need to know if you guys are aware of any evil doers. I'm trying to protect people.”
It was so perfect it almost seemed like a sign. I asked Emily to join me under the bleachers for a secret conversation. I confessed everything – my misguided attempts for power, the uneasiness, the regret, the fear of what might happen next. I told her that I made a mistake and I wanted out. But I needed protection. If she protected me from whatever the evil magiks, or the cult members themselves, might do to me, I would give her the names of all the cultists. We strike a deal.
Now all that's left is Tori. With the Dirt Cards assembled, I put together a plan to collect evidence. The wolf attacks have a pattern, it seems, and I can set up a camera to get some video evidence of Tori Vega's dangerous secret. But I can't do it alone – I get my best friend Carrie to help me out and after a bit of work the scene is set.
We hide in the campus courtyard overnight. After hours of nothing happening, we consider packing up and getting back to some late-night studying for finals. And that's when it happens. A wolf – no, a werewolf is charging at us, full speed. There's no time to react, and suddenly the beast has Carrie on the ground. The attack is harsh but quick, after a few seconds the beast rushes off. I call for an ambulance and Carrie is taken to the nearest hospital. When everything has died down, I take the video camera out of my bag and take a look at the footage. In the chaos neither of us had even noticed, but the werewolf was wearing torn, stretched human clothes. What was more interesting though was that the clothes were labelled with a name:
Finals Week and [REDACTED]
Finals week was approaching fast. I'd studied hard, but with all the injury, sickness, schemes and protecting myself from the cult, I'd lost a bunch of my time and energy compared to the last test.
But despite everything the Truth had to be told. I took to Trope Truth Talk and announced that I was at that moment uploading video evidence of Tori's crimes. As I finished my piece, Tori burst into the radio booth and tried to wrestle the microphone from me, screaming madly about people bring framed, and shapeshifters . She was removed, but it was obvious the damage was done, and she was on the ropes.
The photo I took of the evidence wound up kinda blurry, which seems very apt, don't you think?
Barely minutes later, the video I uploaded mysteriously vanished from the Grapevine, and my hard drive had gone missing. It became immediately apparent that Tori had abused her Presidential power to have it removed from the website. I put up a new article about this despicable act of censorship and it too was removed in short order, and my ability to post to the Grapevine temporarily revoked. I had to trust that the students had seen the Truth and wouldn't forget so quickly.
After that it was a race against time. The cultists were working on another ritual – something big. Emily was putting in the effort to stop them but I was out of the loop. All I could do was hope.
Amidst everything else, finals came. The relative lack of study time, combined with some bad rolls of the dice left me with a middling-at-best finals grade. I didn't manage to get into my higher-end colleges, so backup it was . JB would get his journalism degree after all*.
*As long as the world didn't end, or he wasn't eaten by a censorship-zealous werewolf.
Carrie's lovely contribution to the yearbook. Thanks Carrie, you were the best friend ever!
The game ended with an expectedly large number of revelations. Carrie revealed to me in the last few minutes that she was actually a time traveller who needed to set her parents up with each other. She then joined Glenn Coco and his friends who had found a portal to Mars in the modern languages room, although in the end it turned out that the only thing in there was a bunch of hallucinogenic mould. Emily told me she was a superhero, and I found out that she saved me from another wolf attack just before finals. Jughead was some kind of time-travel agent, looking to correct the timestream – he had about 50 different events he needed to happen, and had managed to get about half of them to occur. Hopefully his superiors found that sufficient. In the debrief, and post game pub, yet more secrets were revealed, but they didn't really matter to JB, who was busy packing for college. Now how much is a flight to Kentucky again?
Team Radio Trope! - Image Credit: Hubert Hung (h2portraitphotography.co.uk)
Trope High was very interesting, very fun and very busy. Between dances, studying, lessons, school events, college applications, rivalry, parties, secret conversations, cryptic rituals, trying to talk to my crush, writing/editing/broadcasting the radio, information gathering, secret information gathering, elections – and everything else, I felt like I was always trying to balance at least 5 things at once!
Despite this, the game was heaps of fun. By Becky's own admission this game was pretty experimental, and it was bound to have some things come up. But in my experience these were outweighed by the great narratives that came about from this new style of megagame theme.
Thanks to Becky for all her work on the design and construction of the game, as well as everyone on the Control team, and everyone else who put in all the hard work required on the day and beforehand to make the game happen. And thanks to all the players – especially my buddies in the Radio clique who were always willing to work hard together and get those headlines ready for the deadline!
 If you recognise the name – or any others, for that matter – it's because the character names were all taken from various TV high school characters. However, any similarities between the characters in the game and their TV namesakes were probably coincidental!
 If you're reading this 'Tori', thanks again for being such a good sport – you were a brilliant rival!
 Spencer Hastings would also run and I suggested that either she or Oliver drop out of the race for the benefit of the other, but neither did.
 There was a rumour that there was a shapeshifter around. Jughead had just made an announcement about it on the radio so it had recently become publicly known.
 I found out much later that JB actually managed to qualify for a better college than I thought at the time, but still nothing top tier. Werewolves can be such a distraction from your studies!