[Misspent Youth] India's Daughters

[content warning: violence against women, violence in general, shunning, sexual coercion -- all in the gaming fiction and not in RL]

At this past Dreamation, I ran India's Daughters by Ajit George and Strix Beltran. Though the scenario calls for five players, one of my players cancelled. I had four, including Lisa Aurigemma and John "Buddha" Davis, whom I think many of you know. I know them well; I did not know the other two players, but they too were amazing.

India's Daughters is a world-scenario for Misspent Youth by Rob Bohl. It appears in the new supplement book, Sell Out with Me. The scenario introduces five young women, all very poor and downtrodden, living in India in a village that is superstitious and male-controlled. Men beat women with impunity for any reason at all. When a company builds a chicken factory there, a few desperate and brave teenagers (the PCs) go to work there. The village brands those women as witches and that's where the game starts.

The actual text for the scenario leads with this:
“They came at night, seven men, and dragged my mother out by her hair. They tore her sari off, threw her into the street, and called her daayan (witch). They said she had jaduu-tona (black magic), was a curse to the village and a shame to our family. Then they beat her with iron rods until she was dead. All because she dared to work, to make a few rupees of her own. My cousin was one of those men.”
As I prepped the game, I realized that it was important to make it clear to the players that this was serious business. This wasn't a romp or any kind of tourism, and we had to explore the material respectfully. I watched the wonderful Daughters of Destiny documentary that showcases the Shanti Bhavan schools that provide food, shelter, clothing, and education to boys and girls of the untouchable class from age 6 through college. This project was founded by Dr. George (Ajit's father). Ajit works for the foundation. Daughters of Destiny touched me and inspired me.

What I didn't expect was that the play material -- a couple paragraphs describing the situation and the single paragraph of background on each character -- would cause me to cry in front of the four players before we even started to role-play. My voice broke up. I had tears in my eyes. I had to pause and collect myself. I wasn't just reacting to the material. I was also reacting to how that material connected me to the documentary and to my own fight for women's rights.

The characters all have violence and heartbreak written into a single paragraph. 14-year-olds getting married and having two kids by 16 and getting beaten by their husbands. A pretty girl getting acid thrown on her face to keep her in her place. Girls forced into prostitution.

This is the text that made me cry the second time:
Meira was married at the age of 14, bore a son by the age of 15 and a daughter by the time she was 16. Her husband beat her the first time she cooked him a meal he did not like. The beatings became a frequent occurrence, especially after he was maimed during a dynamite accident at the quarry and lost his job. With two children and no reliable source of income, Meira was easily persuaded by her friend Rekha to work at the chicken farm. She had a sharp mind and soon put together a financial cooperative with the other working women, elevating their situation.

Being branded a witch has devastated her and she worries for the future of her two children.
Realize that this was hardly the first time I had read this material. (However, it was the first time I read it aloud.) I was an editor on this project. I read this text many, many times. I read it a few times again prepping for this convention session. I suppose I not truly connected to it the way I was doing, pouring my heart into it with four other people to share it.

After reading the first character background, I handed out the four remaining characters, one to a player, and told them to read them aloud because I would not be able to get through all of them myself. The other players also had difficulty doing it, too. No one cried, per se, but there were deep breaths, tense exclamations of "WOO" and fanning (in a very earnest way, not a joking way), and glassy, watery eyes.

Everyone understood the hardness of the material. I explained that I usually ran PG games at cons, but this one was rated R (by Ajit and Strix) for violence. I said that I couldn't imagine doing justice to the material without violence against the characters, perhaps even sexual violence, but that I wouldn't get graphic about it and I'd avoid sexual violence if possible and keep it off-screen and vague, in any case.

I also asked if everyone was in the "right game," meaning, does anyone want to leave? I half-joked that I wasn't sure I was in the right game, so there was no shame in ducking out. Everyone wanted to stay. Oh, and we were in a smaller conference room with only one other table of players, and I knew a few of them, and they were playing another game that seemed deep and political.


  • Game Mechanics

    Misspent Youth has a weird but cool resolution system. Something bad starts to happen. The GM recognizes that the players want to stop it and calls for a Struggle and stops the players from talking until a player agrees they're going to roll the dice. The GM and players quickly nail down what they want if they win the Struggle (stakes negotiation) and the GM often adds an orthogonal stake for if the players lose. Then the dice get rolled, and then the player describes what they're doing. On the first roll in a Struggle, the players can't lose, because they get the first Claim. The number (2-12) they rolled gets marked with a player chip (let's say white). Then the GM gets to claim a different number, and mark it with a GM chip (let's say red), determined solely by the rules and not the dice.

    Narration happens after each claim. After the player rolls and claims a number, they say what trait they're using and explain what they're doing to incrementally push toward victory. Then the GM claims a number and explains what setback occurs after that, without entirely invalidating the player's incremental success.

    After the first pair of claims, there's a chance that the next player might roll one of the claimed numbers. If they land on their own claim, they win the Struggle. If they land on a GM's claim, they lose the Struggle, unless they Sell Out a trait, flipping it from the youthful version to the painful adult version ("mean" becomes "vicious," for example). Selling Out is always a wince-worthy thing at the table, because the character is becoming closer to the thing that they all hate, or at least losing their youthful hope and innocence.

    But remember, a player rolls the dice and only then gets to narrate. It's as if the character has decided to DO SOMETHING without even knowing what they're going to do, and then figures it out in the moment.
  • edited February 2018
    Our Story

    The first scene of seven is supposed to be a quiet introduction. I asked the player to my left (Buddha) to give me "the first five seconds." (This is a game term in Misspent Youth, but I think I invented it for my own game, Verge, and gave it to Rob when editing the manuscript.) Basically, imagine the camera zooming in on the scene. Where is it? Who is there? What are they doing?

    Buddha described the four of them waiting for the night guard at the chicken factory to unlock the gates so they could sneak in and use a room as their meeting place, since nowhere else in the village was really safe. He said his character (Pari) "paid" the guard with sexual favors. Three of the girls went to their meeting place inside, while Pari went off to a closet with the guard to have sex. Trying to push for a small conflict, I said that the guard just took Pari's money out of her clothes after sex and kept it, but Buddha let it slide (though he was clearly pissed off). "Cost of doing business," I think he said. But then when the guard tried to shake down the other girls and insisted that they pay him every week, the players got mad and went to stop it. Rekha's player rolled the dice the second time and instantly hit a GM claim, losing. He sold out Rekha's "mean" trait to "vicious" and narrated that Rekha picked up a heavy wrench and beat the guard over the back of the head, killing him.

    We were all in shock, taking that in. Ultimately, I think that Rekha was the ringleader of the women at the chicken factory, felt responsible for them, and saw all of their hopes being dashed away by this greedy little man, and did something rash without thinking. Of course, I don't think it would have gone that way if the player wasn't selling out "mean" to "vicious," too. This was loss of innocence, writ large. I inserted a quick little Struggle about disposing of the body without getting caught. They dumped the guard in a large city landfill a few miles away. Kamla stayed behind to bleach mop the blood off the floor.


    Because the fifth player for the slot didn't show up, I treated the fifth character (Meira) as an NPC. Daughters of Destiny had a segment where the sister of one of the Shanti Bavan's ran away, asked her sister for help and didn't get it, and then committed suicide. That was bouncing around my head. I had Meira disappear. As she had invested the money for the other characters (as part of the character write-up and scenario set-up), there was financial as well as personal motivation for the PCs to find her. She had set up a financial cooperative for the group of women. Did she run away with their money and her two infants? Did her abusive husband lock her in the house, or worse? They visited her house and her mother was in tears, saying she ran away and was murdered (which was not true), but eventually Meira's husband came out and started swearing and threatening them and blaming the PCs for Meira's suicide while other villagers gathered around and called them all witches.

    The group all wanted different things out of the Struggle, so we had to stop and talk through what was most important, right now. Personal safety was a concern. So was making sure Meira's kids were safe. But Rekha wanted to humiliate Meira's husband in front of the village. Ultimately, the other three wanted that, too, and felt the rest would wait. If they failed the struggle, they or the children could be in great danger.

    Of course, in Misspent Youth, as long as you have traits that aren't sold out, you have options. You literally cannot lose a Struggle, because you can Sell Out and win. It's just, What will winning cost me? What will I become in the course of making sure I win? So they won, and they knocked Meira's husband down and they berated his manhood and generally made him feel awful. The players felt that Meira had killed herself because he was so awful to her all the time. I think she just could not deal with the pain of her situation: abusive husband (also maimed and unable to do regular work), angry and unsympathetic mother, two kids (1 and 2 years old), a new opportunity/job that was out of her comfort zone, and the ire of the entire village.

    Later on, they opened Meira's work locker and found notes written to each of them on napkins (Buddha's idea). I decided that Meira had asked Pari (the bad "nothing left to lose" girl) to take care of her kids, because "You are their best chance to not be hurt by all the pain in this world." She was also the worst choice in some ways, living on the street and abandoned by parents and husband.

    More importantly, Meira's husband wasn't going to just hand over the kids. Meira's mother loved them, even if the husband didn't want the kids (and that's fairly dubious, I think). This is when the players started to realize that they couldn't "D&D" their way through this.

    You see, SF and fantasy games have all of these tools you can use to overcome reality, and maybe in those genres we overlook everyday problems. Without that stuff there, the players kept running into walls. Every plan they conceived just created new, often worse problems. Of course, the dice system would let them win (at a cost) but I'd also introduce new trouble at every step. But they were concerned for the safety of the children with the abusive father and they felt they had to respect the spirit of Meira's wishes. They hatched a plan to convince the husband that they (as witches) were cursing him with magic to try to pressure him to be rid of the children. Of course, plans mean nothing in Misspent Youth struggles. The actual Struggle did involve some gaslighting (and not real magic; this is not that kind of scenario) but they also stole a pistol out of their boss's desk and fired shots through Meira's husband's window and generally made the village angry at the husband for the chaos, and (what actually worked) offered 10% of their weekly earnings to the kids' father. Since he had lost a leg in a dynamite accident in the quarry (written into Meira's background), he was actually desperate for money, and getting rid of the kids and getting some easy money killed two birds with one stone.

    The kids didn't go to Pari, though. They all agreed that Rekha and Kamla, both basically ostracized and living together, were a natural choice to raise the kids. When they told me they lived together, I reminded them that the village would call them lesbian slurs and disapprove. They didn't care. Also, I asked them if they were in a relationship. They said not yet, but the door wasn't closed. With everything they'd been through, it wasn't hard to see that they could fall in together, if they weren't strictly heterosexual. It never came up again, though.

    Misspent Youth organizes its seven scenes in a natural story arc. The first four scenes are titled "What's Up," "Fighting Back," "Heating Up," and "We Won." Getting the kids was the "heating up" scene, so they enjoyed a quieter "we won" scene with smaller stakes. The rules for GM claims follow the story arc, too. In "What's Up," the GM claims an unlikely number first, like 2 or 12. In "Heating Up," the GM claims a more likely number: 4 or 10. Early in the session, I also talked to the players about what I wanted out of this game, and told them I'd be claiming 7 first, then my rules-directed claim. This practically ensured that they'd be Selling Out a lot. In my prior Misspent Youth game, not using this scenario and with me not claiming 7, I had a character Sell Out one time. By the end of India's Daughters, two players sold out once each, and Rekha sold out twice. Pari never sold out.

    Before the quiet "We Won" scene, we had a brief intermission, talked a bit, and I checked in with each player. We were all doing okay. It was rough and hard, but ultimately something we wanted to do. We returned, played a quite "We Won" interlude.

  • Scene five is titled "We're Fucked." The GM pushes the trouble established earlier in a very hard way, and gets to claim 6 or 8. Plus I'd claim 7 first. I had the four girls summoned to an old temple that was used as a public meeting space. The Village Elders were going to try the girls for witchcraft. If they were found guilty, they could be executed, but I said they'd be shunned and would probably then have to fight to keep their jobs at the factory. The scene ran long, meaning that the board of numbers, 2-12, filled most of the way up, ramping up the tension. They had four claims and I had four claims, leaving three numbers open. Also, I had 6 and 8, which is about 30% of the dice possibilities. Ultimately, they hit a GM claim and Kamla (the acid-scarred girl) sold out "Orphan" to its "Helpless" side -- basically, she said that, if they were really capable of magic, would she still look like this? and then cried and cried in front of them, and became permanently entrenched in her own learned helplessness. That crushed us at the table.

    The next scene is "Who Wins," and it settles the overall conflict. In this case, can the girls keep their jobs at the factory and find peace in their village? They framed a scene at the factory where the nice-guy boss was giving the women workers an award for being the most productive line, and of course that angered the other men workers. That escalated to outright hostility between them and an attempt to sabotage the women's assembly line. They enlisted other orphans and prostitutes to come help on the line to make up the missing work and beat the other teams despite the sabotage (and these weren't even paid women, but they were working for the principle of it). One of the PCs (can't remember) stuck her knife in one of their hands and screaming. I might be misremembering that she sold out "Thrills" to "Nihilistic," not caring what happened to her as a result. In the end, they ended up outperforming the male workers and getting a bump in pay up to the same rate as the men.

    The last scene is called "Dust Settles." It's for reflection and a chance to see how things shook out. Lisa set the scene at the first day of school six years later, as they were all walking in together with their children. Their oldest was about 9 by then. I had them all called into to principal's office. The principal -- a woman -- told them that Saavni's 9-year-old daughter was very smart, and that she wanted to skip her a grade. However, unfortunately, the rules did not allow it, and she had wanted to deliver all of that news in person to all four of the women, because she understood what they had been through and accomplished.

    There was this painful, painful moment when Lisa's hand reached out for the dice and withdrew because of something I had said, and it seemed like she was just deflated and beaten down and giving up. Then two of the other players encouraged her, saying "pick up the dice!" and pushing them toward her. Maybe Lisa didn't know how to fix this, but she'd roll the dice, and they'd figure it out. Lisa lit up and rolled the dice, and we started the last Struggle of the game. It was a short Struggle, as Rekha landed on Saavni's claim on the second roll. They shamed the teacher and told her to make it happen, to change the rules, to fight the board or whatever it took. Saavni's daughter got to skip a grade and advance her education, cementing the opportunities for the next generation of women in the village.

    The security guard's murder went unsolved, but was always on their minds.

    A lot of us hugged after the game was over.

  • Afterword

    As I said before, fantasy and science-fiction give players tools to overcome adversity, tools that don't exist in the real world. Those genres also provide a distance from the material to make it easier to experience painful situations. Combat becomes glorious. Racism becomes exaggerated and comical. India's Daughters offers none of those shields. You confront the pain of the characters straight-on. You have no special technology or magic to solve problems. Murder is not easily rationalized or covered up. Problems are not expressed in simple, black-and-white terms like Good vs. Evil. People who should be your allies (like older women) turn out to be as entrenched in the system as the male oppressors. When you solve one problem, you make everything else worse, and it's so, so easy to say, "Maybe we should just let Meira's husband abuse his kids so that we can keep our jobs at the factory, because we don't want to win the battle but lose the war."

    India's Daughters hands you an unflinching look at the problems of systemic patriarchy, class warfare, and poverty. Reading the characters aloud to one another made us cry. Misspent Youth is a vehicle that makes it all bearable, because it is a game of friendship and hope. It's a game whose very dice mechanics say, "I don't care what you plan to do; just decide to act, and you've already succeeded." It says, "Do not give up. You will prevail eventually, though it may cost you your innocence." Literally, your actual plan does not matter. Take action, roll the dice, see if you succeed or fail. Your actual plan changes the fiction, sure, but it does not determine success or failure. You have five traits to Sell Out, and there's no way you'll flip them all in one, seven-scene session. You are going to win, though it will not feel like a perfect, clean victory. You will do some things that maybe you regret, but maybe you also think there was no other way, except to give up, and fuck giving up.

    I encourage everyone to try this game, try some of the less "fantastic" or "gonzo" settings, try some of the scenarios based on simple, real-world situations. India's Daughters is one. Misha Bushyager wrote "Young, Gifted, and Black," exploring a group of smart Black students who get plucked from their inner city school to go to a white, private boarding school. Bill White's "Rage and Resentment" is a somewhat-winking look at Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," where you play young ladies in 19th century British society dealing with arranged marriages and a patriarchy that needs not only to get what they want, but make the women believe in it, too. I got to play this last year with Bill, and he and I remarked how difficult it was even for him as game master, to maneuver through the powerful rules of male-dominated society. These three "Real Worlds" create a very different kind of play at the table than the typically wild-eyed dystopian romps I've encountered in Misspent Youth -- but perhaps some of the most rewarding Misspent Youth play, too.
  • I like Misspent Youth, but I hadn't thought of taking it as a serious game
    What was the timing of the scenes, roughly ?
  • Timing? It was a four hour game slot but we finished up with a half hour to spare.

    Intros were done by the 30-minute mark so that leaves three hours for the game, including the 10-minute break.

    Seven scenes total, but the first and last were quick, so let's combine them. That means 30 minutes per scene, on average. Some went longer, some went shorter. I always encourage interstitial role-playing, too, letting a scene play out for a while without a conflict after resolution, but sometimes scenes drive right into the next one hardcore.

    The middle scenes definitely were longer.

    Still they seemed way shorter than 30 minutes!
  • I love your hack for tragedy of starting out claiming 7 before they roll. That’s actually how it was designed before I decided it was too mean. Did you have any losses-on-the-first-roll?
  • I always gave them the first roll, then claimed 7, then they rolled again, then I took the usual claim per the rules.
  • And, yes, I used to play it that way, and only recently re-read the 1.2 rules to make sure I was playing it right and was surprised to find I wasn't, and ran it the "right" way for my Friday "Misspent Youth, Straight Up" session, but intentionally added the "7" rule for the "India's Daughters" session.
  • Adam,

    This is a fantastic and honest writeup. Really enjoyed reading it; reminds me a bit of a recent game of Dog Eat Dog I played, and inspires me to do more gaming in this vein.

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