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Capturing the Sports Anime Feeling - Introducing "Varsity," a Sports Anime PbtA

 Early this year I announced Varsity, my sports anime inspired Powered by the Apocalypse game. 

Outside of a teaser image for the game beautifully created by @IdleCharles on Twitter, I haven't actually teased too much about what makes the game unique. In this article, I want to go a little into what makes Varsity tick, and what I have done to capture everything I love about the sports anime genre.

Core Mechanics

Varisty is a Powered by the Apocalypse game, and follows a lot of the most fundamental traditions of the system. It's a "story game," and prioritizes the collaborative storytelling element of tabletop games. It uses two d6s as its only dice and considers a roll of 6 or lower as a failure, 7-9 as a partial success, and 10+ as a success. Also, the GM (or "Referee") doesn't roll any dice. 

Every moment in the life of your player character—known in Varsity as your "Ace"—revolves around the big Game. Whether you are a modern day high school varsity athlete playing volleyball or a kickass roller derby girl from the 22nd century playing in an underground circuit on an orbiting spaceship, your character lives and breathes their sport of choice (even if they don't show that on the surface). 

Succeeding in Varsity requires players to balance their character's duties in and out of the game, represented by the relationship mechanic. Each Ace has relationship with each other Ace, which is added to the rolls they make to assist each other in game. Each Ace also has two other relationships, called "Work/School" and "Family/Friends." An Ace can ignore these last two relationships in order to focus entirely on the Game, but this can come with serious in-universe ramifications!

Because so much of the game revolves around sport matches, the game's basic moves are split into two lists: "Break Moves," used during downtime, time outs, and between games, and "Game Moves," used while the buzzer counts down. 

Break Moves

Break Moves mostly act to heal the penalties you gained during matches or to build up "relationships," but some allow players to train or study before a match or even to spy on an upcoming team to gain an advantage when the match starts. One of my favorite Break Moves is simply called "Share a Meal," and turns an everyday occurrence into a way to deepen your bonds with your teammates. In one of the test plays, a player used this move during a tense timeout to hand a granola bar to another player who had really pushed themself hard in the match's first quarter. This type of moment is the heart and soul of sports anime to me.

Break Moves are, in general, much more freeform than Game Moves, and often initiate a scene themselves. Between each period of using Game Moves, each player uses at least one Break Move. If it's a short break, like a time out, they each only use one. For a longer break, like between seasons, each player can use up to three. Let me give an example:

A hockey match has just ended, and the player team was victorious. The GM says "alright, you guys have two weeks until the next match. What break moves do you want to use?" and a player (who, let's call Samantha) says "I want to use the move 'Run Your Sets.'" She's got her cheatsheet open to the Break Moves page and reads: 

She says "Okay... I'm definitely going to do something riskier. I got pushed around pretty badly in the last game, so I think I'm going to skip out on my usual training and stop in with the Wrestling Team a few days this week. Next time someone tries to check me into a wall, I want them to regret it."

"Okay," the GM says, "roll plus power." Samantha rolls her 2d6 plus one and gets an 8. She gets to mark EXP—getting one step closer to that precious level up—and also holds +1 forward, meaning she gets to add +1 to the first roll she makes when the match starts at the end of the week. She also has to choose a penalty, and she chooses to lose one relationship with one of her teammates, Sarah. Sarah says "I think Sarah's a little pissed that you're missing practice, especially with how important this next game is." 

Unlike a lot of PbtA games, EXP is hard to come by for most Aces in Varsity. "Run Your Sets" and other moves involving training are one of the only ways to earn EXP. Because of this, players are forced to constantly push their boundaries and train their hardest if they want to improve. 

Game Moves

When the buzzer actually sounds and a Game begins, the focus and feeling of play changes entirely. Rather than the freeform structure of downtime, Games are fast paced and high octane. Games in Varsity center around a mechanic called "key moments."

The number of key moments that a team needs to win a match is determined by the weight of that match. "Development matches," which are more focused on showing off a new dynamic in the team than the actual result of the game itself, are best of 4. "Championship matches," which are the climactic end of a season, are best of 8. All games have an even number of key moments so that, if a Game would end in a tie, an extra stressful sudden death final key moment begins. 

During each key moment, each Ace must make one Game Move before an Ace can make a second move or win the key moment. This provides structure to play and also gives more use to moves like "Assist," "Comment on the Action," "Flashback," and "Hype Up." 

As moves are failed and won, the momentum of the key moment shifts towards or away from the player team. Aces have to weigh penalties with lasting effects like "injured," "exhausted," "angry," and "hopeless" against more damaging but short term penalties like "lose the key moment" or "sit the rest of this key moment out on the bench" in order to leave themselves with enough gas to make it through the whole Game. 

Let's do a Game Moves example too:

Sarah used the "Goalkeep" move and barely stopped the enemy team from winning the key moment. She passes the puck to Samantha. Samantha says "I want to run it down towards their goal," but the GM looks at the list of GM Moves (we'll talk about these later), reads the one that says 'create a barrier that the old strategy won’t work on,' and says "You secure the puck against your stick but look up and see that the other team have formed a wall with their bodies. They're basically locked arm to arm, and they're waiting for you."
Samantha thinks, and then says "I roll to 'Overpower,' plus my power. Time to see if that wrestling training paid off." The Overpower move says: 

She rolls a 10! She says "Awesome! I just lower my head and blast through them, they can't stop me!" Gina's character is by the enemy rink, and is ready to score on the barely-defended net. The GM says "wait, don't forget that Amy had to sit this moment out on the bench. She hasn't rolled a move yet, and the moment can't end until she makes one." 

Amy looks over the Game Move list, and says "Okay, I choose to 'Flashback.'" 

Amy's player character describes the memory: "So... when I see Samantha bulldoze through that line, Amy thinks back to... when she and Samantha were growing up as kids. She used to get picked on by the bigger kids, but Samantha would stick up for her. Seeing Samantha plow through these guys reminds her of those days." Amy rolls plus heart—oh, bad luck! She rolls a 5. Amy's player says "Oh man, even though she's glad to have a friend like Samantha now, I think having the memory while she's on the bench makes her feel helpless. I'm going to choose the opposite of the first option, and take the 'Hopeless' condition.'" 

In the next rotation, Samantha is able to score the point and her team wins the key moment and eventually the match, but that insecurity is something that Amy will have to work on if she wants to start the next match in top condition. 

The balancing act between winning moments and taking penalties drives the gameplay loop in Varsity; relationships are always shifting and changing, as are the self-images of the Aces. This ties in a lot with what we'll be discussing next week: the classes you can play in Varsity. 

Each one is inspired by a trope that you can find in sports anime, like the experienced "Veteran," the rule-breaking "Delinquent," the hard-headed but indomitable "Determined," or my personal favorite, the edgy "Rival." Each one has its own way of interacting with the Game and Break Moves, and I'm excited to share how these parts fit together as I continue this series on Varsity. 

Varsity will be launching an official Kickstarter this spring, 2021. You can follow me, the game's developer, @filmatra at and elsewhere. 


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