Designer’s Diary: Melior Via – Hope Preparatory School

Hope Preparatory School
Hope Preparatory School is a setting for ICONS and Mutants & Masterminds and published by Melior Via.
By John Dunn

Welcome to the nineteenth Designer’s Diary, a regular column where designers are given the opportunity to take readers on an in-depth ride through the design and development process of their system, setting, or product. If you’d like to share your product in the Designer’s Diary column, send a message to

I wanted to start by offering my thanks to Aaron Huss and Roleplayers Chronicle for inviting me to write a designer’s diary. As background about myself, I’ve been a Freelance RPG writer for Shadowrun and Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay. I’m co-owner and lead developer of Melior Via, LLC. We launched the Hope Preparatory School (HPS) game setting in March 2011.

Designer’s Description
Hope Preparatory School is the title for our game line and the signature school within that line.

In the fictional world, HPS is a place where young men, women, and other beings can come together to learn how to responsibly use their metahuman gifts. Veteran heroes and reformed villains—people who have been there before and know just how tough metahuman life can be in the “real world”—tutor the students to prepare them for life as an adult with special abilities. Students come from all walks of life within the United States. Of course, as a setting for supers, it also includes students from other planets and other dimensions.

As a game line, HPS offers a well-developed setting to tell high school dramas that are complicated by the challenges of life as a metahuman. Our setting guide—The Freshman Handbook—presents the school’s “official” background on the classes, athletics programs, and extracurricular activities available to new students. It includes color commentary from several students, and also introduces material to cover the school’s atypical social cliques. The setting guide is supported by character packs (for use as PCs or NPCs) and bimonthly adventure releases. We currently support the M&M3 and ICONS game systems for all of our products. We plan to introduce a Savage Worlds version this fall.

All of Melior Via’s releases are PDFs, available through With the exception of character packs, we format our releases to a digest page size. That way they are easily viewable on tablet devices, or can be printed two pages per sheet of paper. The PDFs are fully bookmarked and all new releases include hyperlinked page references. We also use layers, so that users can turn on or off artwork, page backgrounds, and even the commentary. This way the “printer-friendly” version is built right in to the PDF.

I’m a big fan of coming of age stories—from Great Expectations to Harry Potter. To me, character development is one of the most exciting parts of a tale told through any media. I find it very fulfilling to compare the naïve initiate at the beginning with the mature adult in the end. No two paths need to be exactly the same, and two characters who begin upon the same path may complete their journey in very different ways. I enjoy examining that process and wanted a setting that could recount the drama that goes into the development.

In my mind, the path of an RPG character is a great metaphor for that same kind of story. The process of accruing experience and advancing skills—in the vast majority of systems—is designed as a system of character growth. I wanted to create a setting where the drama of a story that recounts the teen years and maturation could be linked into the RPG mechanics of character development. It seemed like a natural fit to me, and one that appealed to me as both a gamer and a storyteller.

I also wanted a chance to focus on the drama involved in being a high school student. Students are thrown together into one big melting pot. At least as adults, we maintain the pretense that we can leave a job to find a better working environment. Teenagers seldom have that option. They can either live with their school environment, or they can drop out and face the consequences of not having an education. That’s a pretty dire option, so most kids choose to tough it out. In the process, they face a lot of social and ethical challenges, which can be as big of a learning process as anything that’s tested in class. To me, it’s essential to bring these into play as part of a good high school drama.

There are a lot of different elements that went in to developing Hope Prep. Some of them are obvious—it’s impossible to ignore Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Harry Potter, Smallville, Sky High and PS238. All of these are very explicitly school settings that involve characters with special abilities in unusual situations. I have enjoyed all of them, and they have certainly all influenced me in the course of developing the setting. However, they were certainly not the only or even the core influences.

I grew up in the ’80s. For me, any story that involves high school has to start with John Hughes and the Brat Pack. I think the class and clique distinctions presented in The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink represent some of the best depictions of the American high school experience. When I worked out the clique structure for Hope Prep, I very deliberately focused in on those films and tried to see how I could best adapt it to a metahuman environment. I am absolutely certain that there could have been other ways to do it, but I like the way that it turned out.

There are a lot of other great high school movies and TV shows that certainly influenced how I worked on the setting. 10 Things I Hate About You (the movie) is a fantastic adaptation of Taming of the Shrew, which nicely builds off of the school setting. Veronica Mars and The Gilmore Girls both give great insights into the high school experience from very different approaches. Class conflict plays a big role in all of these, and it was certainly something that I wanted to carry over into the setting as I developed it and worked with other writers to create scenarios.

There are a few novels that are particularly relevant to this sort of story. The conflict presented in Lord of the Flies, covers the culture clash that is at the core of the high school experience. However, I vastly prefer the way that Heinlein presented a similar clash in Tunnel in the Sky. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention his Starship Troopers and Space Cadet as books that I found inspiring. I think David Eddings’ Belgariad is also a terrific coming of age story, though its fantasy setting bears no resemblance to that of an American high school.

Of course, I’m a fan of comic books as well; particularly comics that feature teen heroes. Some of my favorites are the Legion of Super Heroes, the Teen Titans, and Young Justice. I particularly liked the post-boot Legion, as I thought it captured the youthful hope and character development aspect beautifully. I consider Peter David’s work on Impulse and Young Justice key to this, especially in the way that he managed to blend humor with drama. Because, if a high school student can’t learn to laugh at the experience, it’s going to be a whole lot harder.

I ended up having to approach research for HPS from three very different angles. The first was looking at coming of age stories. This involved re-reading and re-watching a variety of my favorite examples of media. This was, by far, the easiest portion of the research. While I ended up watching and reading with a notepad handy, it’s always a pleasure to experience thoroughly loved media again.

Slightly more challenging was sitting down to analyze the various game systems, and trying to link in social cues to the different game systems. This was harder in part because there are so many different approaches, but also because I found few examples that were a good fit. Completing this portion of the experiment required a lot of reading and a great deal of playtesting. In the end, I think sitting down and playtesting materials was far more valuable than any of the actual research.

Finally, the most challenging portion was actually to set up the different class schedules. Off the cuff, I didn’t think that designing a syllabus for the student’s classes would be difficult. Frankly, they’re not very high word count. However, these took way more time than I envisioned going into it. Just trying to choose the appropriate books for a freshman literature class or the time to assign to various portions of a world history class was a ton of work. It really gave me a great deal more respect for the teachers that manage to consistently and effectively cover all of this material every school year.

Art Direction
I’ll readily admit that artwork is one of the weaker facets of Hope Prep. That is not a slight against the art team that we assembled—I’m very fond of the work that they have accomplished. However, budgetary constraints prevent me from using them as much as I’d like to. Because we focus on a distinctive setting, we need to specifically commission each piece of full color artwork for the setting. With that in mind, there are three core principals to the artwork.

The first is that each piece must be iconic to the setting and the scenario. Characters are typically depicted wearing the school uniform, because that’s a core part of the private school mentality. They are generally shown expressing some distinctive aspect of their metahuman gifts, because that’s what qualifies them to be at HPS.

The second is that I want every piece to be world class. I don’t commission filler artwork. I want each piece to be specifically relevant to the scene or character that it portrays and to directly evoke the setting. This is especially true of the poses that are used. Facial expressions, body language, and visual accents need to tell a story about the character, and that story needs to link in directly to the material contained within the document.

Finally, I want the artwork to be reusable for the Gamemaster and the players. While I do not plan to repurpose art within the scenarios, it’s important to me that gamers have that option. Because our PDFs use layers, it’s trivial for a gamer to turn off the text and page background to just print an isolated picture. In my mind this is a great way for a GM to have reference images that they can use over the course of a campaign to evoke the setting during game play.

Gaming Experience
HPS is intended to tell stories about teens on their voyage of discovery. At the same time as they learn about the world through their classes, they learn about themselves, their abilities, and who they are. I think RPG gamers are privileged in that they get to make this voyage with each new character that they play. However, I’m not sure everyone focuses on it in each game. This setting is designed to spotlight that aspect, so that decisions have consequences and lead to new opportunities. It’s not just about defeating villains and enforcing justice. It’s about deciding what is just and when it’s okay to cut a few corners.

I think the most comparable products in the market are Eden’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG and Margaret Weis Publishing’s Smallville RPG. Those are both licensed game settings designed to do very different things than HPS. The core offering from Melior Via is that we have the flexibility of an inexpensive PDF and the support of regular scenario releases. We also produce our materials for multiple game systems and are unencumbered by a studio approval system for each release.

That’s not a knock on either of those games. They’re both fantastic settings and have beautifully assembled products. I’ve enjoyed the opportunities that I have had to play both. The biggest difference from either of these is that both of those settings expect the characters to maintain some degree of secrecy and focus upon the world beyond the school. With HPS, the school is the center of the game world, everything else grows organically from that point.

Development Process
I’m a very goal oriented person. So, when I’m developing a product, I typically start out by picking a release date, and working back from there. I keep a spreadsheet that calculates backwards from when I want to release a product to establish each of the deadlines for things like layout, editing, playtest, drafts, art assignments, and all of the other fun stuff that goes into developing a game. Then, I hunker down and get those deadlines into a calendar, because I know I won’t remember them otherwise. The calendar gets pretty specific, with individual word count deadlines, time frames for art assignments, and so on. In this way, I’ll typically be working on different stages of different products at the same time.

Once that’s done, I work to allocate my time for each project dynamically each day, keeping those priorities in mind. For example, if I have an hour to work on something during my morning commute, I make certain that I am using that time to meet the goals for the next thing in the queue. I work best when I have a series of daily goals and weekly deadlines. I realize that’s not for everyone, but I’ve found that’s what it takes for me to get things finished on time.

Actual development begins with brainstorming, which means taking a lot of notes and doing a lot of preliminary research. After that, notes turn into an outline and unused ideas go into a “save it for later” document. Finally, the outline gets turned into a draft, which goes to playtesting. Playtest feedback leads to second draft revisions, and then goes to an edit.

Once the project comes back from edit, it goes to layout. After layout, it’s just a matter of final proofreading revisions before the ebook gets cleaned up and put up for sale. Art assignments, including maps, usually go out about the same time as the first draft goes to playtest.

We work on a six month calendar but make adjustments based upon consumer feedback. A typical scenario takes about two months to develop, but I usually have the projects assigned to authors several months before their first draft is due. This way we can stay close to our big picture goals, but reserve the flexibility to make changes if they become necessary.

I hope that readers found this an informative insight into the Hope Prep setting. I’ve tremendously enjoyed creating the game world, and I’m still having fun running games and continuing to develop new adventures that take advantage of it. I’d love to hear feedback from players and I’d be happy to answer any questions that weren’t addressed here by e-mail to Thanks for your interest and support.

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