Review: ‘Best Friends’

best friendsBest Friends by Gregor Hutton is another Bundle of Holding purchase. It originated as an entry for the RONnies as part of a 24-hr game design challenge but Hutton has since refined it into a full game.

Best Friends is a game about the stereotype of female friendship as a rivalry characterised by petty hatreds and jealousies. Players are members of a friendship group made up of women who all hate each other for various reasons and must navigate their rivalries while also trying to achieve their own goals. The system is resource-based, with conflicts resolved by spending ‘friend-chips’ (see what they did there?) and every aspect of the game being designed around collaborative play.

I have very mixed feelings about this game. It’s really interesting, with an innovative set of mechanics and a story-game focus that has enough space for GM’d or GM-less play, but also requires no prep. It’s a simple but elegant system for representing the influence people’s relationships have over one another. At the same time, it is entirely based on the sexist premise that women’s relationships are always about rivalry and antagonism. However,  I don’t believe that this game is sexist.

It is not made as explicit as I would like that the way this game represents female relationships is a patriarchal construct perpetuated by media portrayals and the industries that profit off it. However, I truly believe that this game is an examination of that construct, not a reflection of it. I may be wrong, YMMV, but that is what I’m going with for now. I would ideally like to see more explicit acknowledgement that this game reflects a stereotypical media portrayal rather than reality, but Hutton does state in the appendix that he believes that female friendships (and I would hope, people’s friendships generally regardless of gender) are supportive and strong. So, mixed feelings.

On top of that, Best Friends has a premise that will be emotionally loaded for a lot of people – certainly there are people I would and would not play this with. I’m aware that my own sense of rivalry sometimes intrudes, and this game would exacerbate that further, especially with certain players who I love personally but might be dangerous to play out ‘hatreds’ with. It’s definitely worth establishing boundaries, sensitivities and making sure that everyone is very clear on the IC/OoC divide. To be fair, the game establishes that one of the parts of setting up is to talk about what content is off the table, but I’d also say there are added dangers with something that can strike this close to home.

pbj friends

Best Friends is, however, a really interesting game. The resource aspect of conflict resolution is simple and intuitive, and the character generation is just wonderful. Character generation is based around deciding, pretty much arbitrarily, who in your group your character ‘hates’ for having the following attributes: pretty, cool, smart, tough, rich. Your character’s stats are then based on what other people hate you for most. This is a really exceptional implementation of theme in mechanics. Your character is defined largely by what other people think of them. You then go on to add further details about relationships and the things you own or like to do, but your core character goes by the arbitrary hatreds assigned to them. Think of high school dramas in which the characters are often defined by a single attribute that others see as enviable or strange but causes them problems or is put in crisis. The Cheerleader, the Outcast, the Athlete, the Nerd, the Privileged Heir? The attributes reflect archetypes from across a wide spectrum of relationship dramas.

I think this adds a layer of distance between the players and characters as well. There is always a chance that people’s choices about in-game hatreds could reflect out of character tensions, but hopefully everyone involved is enough of a grownup to know the difference. You don’t get to choose whether your character is the Pretty One or the Cool One: you have to take what the group gives you. It can take a lot of insecurities and the extension of yourself through your character off the table.

My hangups about this game might seem odd, but for something so insidious in our society that it is reinforced through adverts, films, celebrity gossip and even animated kids’ shows, it’s something that’s worth being sensitive to. We’re still not living in a society where something like this can be explored without bringing some emotional baggage, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address it.

Best Friends is a short and elegant game. Since the system is so simple, the book adds some suggestions for scenarios, context for how the game came about, guidance for a GM trying to keep the scenes moving (very important as the structure of the game is agreed and produced collaboratively, even with a GM), examples of play and a scenario set-up for Ancient Egyptian political drama (though seen through a very Hollywood lens). It’s a really great little game and I’d love to see it in play, which is why I’ve been tackling some of the more problematic aspects head-on. I suppose my one, very tiny, criticism is that there is a list of ‘exotic’ name suggestions which basically seems to mean ‘not associated with white American culture’. So…there’s that. But really, a very tiny thing to pull out.

What’s great is that the scenarios seen in the book encourage a wider range than just the classic female-relationship-drama series. There must always be a climactic action at the end (whether it’s prom or a battle against a necromancer) but beyond that, anything goes. Your characters can be crossing swords while planning a charity gala in New York high society or trying to imprison a rampaging mummy released from a centuries-old tomb. The example of play is a Descent-style horror film set in a cave system. Personally, I’m excited by the idea of trying to apply this system to a number of different settings and see what changes. Best Friends is well worth a look, even if you aren’t interested in relationship drama games – the mechanics are interesting in and of themselves. But for Wisteria Lane, Rosewood or Sunnydale High? This game is, like, totally awesome.

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