Oftentimes in combat within tabletop roleplaying games, the dealing of damage and conservation of health points seems to be all that matters. The concept of getting in your hits and hoping to all hope that it’s more harm than the opponent gets in. It often treats opponents in the game as a roadblock, similar to video games. “You must get past me to receive more story.”
And there’s no harm in that, on the surface at least. A challenge can be enough of a motivation for fun. Strategizing and planning to surpass the foe in front of you so you can get what you want. Video games wouldn’t have made an entire industry and genre on the concept if it didn’t work. But, sometimes you don’t want a compilation of stats and HP. Sometimes you want an enemy you can empathize with. An enemy who has motivations, internal strife/virtues and a personality that makes you feel so many conflicting emotions about them. Above all, that’s it. You want a foe you can feel for. People in real life, no matter how detestable and wretched, are rarely as binary in “100% good or bad”. Like the saying goes: People contain multitudes.
While nearly every RPG can be used to achieve this goal of a complex and nuanced villain, I’ve yet to meet one that incentives it. A game that makes it an imperative of the message within. A game that damn near bakes it into every mechanic.
Until I played this game. When I joined the playtest for this RPG, I had such fun even in it’s beta stage. It was what I had been searching for in a fantasy RPG: a game where it’s not about how big your numbers are or the modifiers on your special sword. But about how your character feels about the world around them and people within.
This game is Thirsty Sword Lesbians.
“Thirsty Sword Lesbians is a roleplaying game for telling queer stories with friends. If you love angsty disaster lesbians with swords, you have come to the right place.”
The opening paragraph of Thirsty Sword Lesbians immediately had me in. If the name alone didn’t give you enough of an indicator, it is a very queer game.
Utilizing the PBTA system, Thirsty Sword Lesbians takes inspiration from Masks: A New Generation in its style of emotion and character personality/intentions first, which it is upfront about in the opening credits. However, it is not simply a replacement of superpowers with swords. While using Masks’ blocks for some of its creation, it styles and paints them to make something spectacular. Along with adding in their own home made blocks. The blocks metaphor isn’t really working.
The book opens up with the Player’s Agenda. Similar to a GM’s Agenda in many PBTA books, this is a broad guideline for good behaviour at the table for players. I am going to highlight two of these:
- Bring The Action: This isn’t a game where you spend two hours plotting how you are going to break into the evil warlord’s fortress. Instead, you would come up with a scarce plan and go in headfirst & heartfirst, letting chaos and whatever emotions come with it play out.
- Feel Deeply and Powerfully and Often: This is a game where what’s in your heart matters a hell of a lot more than whatever spells and cool abilities you have. When I ran through this game, we would never think of what would fit for player composition when choosing our playbooks. Instead, we would think of what story we wanted to tell and how it resonated with us.
As the first words of the game would indicate along with that second Agenda, this is a romantic and often thirsty game. But the game is aware that not everyone would be so comfortable with such a topic and includes an extensive briefing on Safety Tools, alongside The Palette.
The Palette is a page where you include Lines/Veils (things that aren’t featured in the game at all, and things that can be mentioned but not described in detail), along with what you definitely want in the game plus a space for clarifications and extended notes on other content issues for players to know.
Frankly, a lot of games could learn from Thirsty Sword Lesbians to so intrinsically include tools and safety for consent in their games. By baking it into the playsheets and briefing repeatedly on their importance, you will treat safety at the table as another rule of the game. But it’s one you can’t ignore.
Basic Moves are structured into three sections:
Danger Moves: All of these are based around the give and take of danger. Dealing harm to those you face. Receiving harm in turn. Evading danger. Interestingly, their Defy Disaster move utilizes different stats depending on the situation you find yourself in, relying on narrative and action from the user to decide which.
Heartstring Moves: Now we’re on the moves that earn this game it’s first and third titular word. These mechanize the flirting and romance intrinsic to the game and the genres it takes inspiration from, while emphasizing consent from both parties involved when used. Alongside this, it showcases the feelings-first aspect of Thirsty Sword Lesbians by being the same category for discovering someone’s intentions and offering a comforting presence when needed.
Special Moves: Falling outside the parameters of the two above sections, these moves are for when you are forced to parley and call for aid from a toxic force who has not near as kind intentions as your party. It is also where you find the moves for resolving a session.
Two things from these above sections I would like to narrow in on:
Within the End Of Session move, experience is gained for the whole table when a Safety Tool is observed and respected by the table. In a hobby where player safety is still far from accepted, this small rule is a move in the right direction for normalizing them. It sucks we have to offer incentives for it. But I applaud the author for taking that step.
The second part I would like to bring notice to is the Smitten move. Smitten in the game is basically the heart eyes emoji of the characters. Like all of the potentially rough territory, consent is rightfully emphasized in this move. It’s when you finally begin to realize your feelings for another person and you must figure out how to deal with those feelings. In the immediate, this takes the form of a question each separate playbook has, one of which you must ask yourself, the question gaining a different answer depending on whom you are Smitten with.
Which brings me to my favorite part: Playbooks.
There are nine playbooks in the base game and available in the preview PDF we’ve been given. Which, next to the cover piece, is where the majority of art in this PDF lies. And each one is stunning in their diversity, both in inclusion and style, along with being fantastically colourful.
Let’s go through them!
The Beast is someone who is separate from civilized society and their ways, but must interact and eventually come to learn the ways of civilisation. They are a stranger who does not understand how to act in this new place and so often has the issue of chafing under the restraint they feel they are now under.
The Chosen possesses a Destiny. A Destiny of great power and privilege. But also of expectation. They must often deal with the clash between the expectations they lie under and the truth of who they are in their hearts of hearts.
The Devoted is someone dedicated to a cause, person or place with everything they have. But, such dedication is not healthy. They must learn to take time to care for their own desires and self. Or not. This is a game of messy queers after all.
The Infamous is someone who’s done bad things. Was a real scumbag in their old life. But, they have seen the better path and must move forward to become a person who deserves to be redeemed. Not everyone may see them worthy of redemption, however, and they often struggle with how others judge them by who they were.
The Nature Witch, much like The Beast, is not used to the societal norms and people around them. But opposed to the Beast, the Nature Witch wishes to enjoy and find these new things, seeking them out in their journey to discover who they are in this new place they find themselves in.
The Scoundrel is fun times and fast times. They live for brief one night stands, energetic flirtations and just being the center of attention at damn near all times. But they need to realize if this constant finding of new experiences is what they want or if they truly want something more stable and lasting.
The Seeker comes from a land where oppression and strict traditions reigned supreme. They are not used to this new community they find themselves in, of love and acceptance, and discover unlearning such things from their old home is difficult. The Seeker is based around letting go of toxic beliefs you were taught were right.
The Spooky Witch is different. They’re a weirdo. They have friends that no-one else can see and talk to, like little ghosts. Their journey is about the celebration of those that are different and are cool in their own badass and unique way.
The Trickster enjoys pushing buttons and messing with people. They keep their emotions close to heart under lock & key. But they secretly desire that closeness so much. They want to find a way to give that key to someone and let them unlock their heart. But that is much easier said than done.
Already, every playbook is both rife for storytelling potential while also being heavily tied to queer identity. As an Ace trans woman the one’s I related to the most were the Infamous & Seeker. For the Seeker, there is the journey of unlearning so many toxic heteronormative beliefs I was taught when growing up. Of learning it’s OK to not want physical relationships, that it’s OK to be who I am. But alongside this, the Infamous’ relationship with me comes in. While working under those beliefs in my past, I hurt people. And I need to own that and carry it with me moving forward, even though I’m a different person now.
Baked into the playbooks are moves that you can select from, similar to the majority of Powered By The Apocalypse games. A track for advances, the progression of your character. Stats that are utilized for a select playbook moves and nearly all basic moves. And conditions, emotional states that characters go into when they take harm, as opposed to losing hit points.
If you have read Masks: A New Generation, you will know that conditions are another area that Thirsty Sword Lesbians takes inspiration from. This brings forth the thought that while Apocalypse World is the “originator” and base for all these expanding books to take inspiration from, that other books are now becoming their own bases for originating new content.
In tow with these segments of the playbooks are Strings that connect characters. While the name mirrors the mechanic found in Monsterhearts (the author of which, Avery Alder, was a consultant on Thirsty Sword Lesbians) they also seem to mix their usage with the influence mechanic found in Masks: A New Generation. The blend of inspiration in moves is something not seen often in PBTA, where it is often the going thing to take a move wholesale or come up with something brand new.
Which brings us to GM Moves.
Similar to many PBTA games, there are two different lists. But instead of “Hard” and “Soft” moves, they are Narrative and Mechanical moves. Narrative Moves are about the story taking effect, from an adversary gaining an advantage over you to some shocking news making it to you. Mechanical Moves rely on the rules themselves within the game, such as Strings and Conditions.
In addition, the game offers advice for setting the tone of the game through the use of moves. For a more dire and dramatic game, you are advised to use forceful and consequence-filled moves. For a more lighter and freewheeling style of this game, the reverse is advised.
Combining this with how the game offers a piece-by-piece plan for how to move and prep a session of play, I would call this one of the most useful PBTA GM sections. Many Powered By The Apocalypse sections for gamemasters simply use a lot of words to say “Don’t prep. Play!” Which, while a useful practice to some, is not easing the minds of those new to RPGs. Thirsty Sword Lesbians takes a much gentler and needed hand to this.
Worldbuilding collaboratively is welcomed and given structure via a question sheet for fleshing out the world. Alongside this, however, are a large amount of usable settings and premade adventures. Something to note was that each setting was made by a different commissioned author brought onto the book, adding to a wide diversity of worlds to play in.
The games back section contains alternative rules from removing dice to tips on making additional homebrewed rules. They also offer input for changing core aspects of the game. One that was very appreciated to me as an asexual woman was an alternative rules for important relationships that are not romantic or physical. Putting this together with the end of the book’s extensive glossary of queer terms, you can tell this game was made for the whole community. And that is one of the many needed things it succeeds on.
To conclude, having read and played through both playtest and finished Thirsty Sword Lesbians rulesets, it is fascinating to see the rules going from having potential to fulfilling that potential and beyond.
Thirsty Sword Lesbians is far from just a name. It’s a game that explores queer feelings and identity extensively, in all their beauty. Even when that exploration may get rough, the game has done all it can to ensure that you are safe in this journey. It may take inspiration from other systems, but what it does with that inspiration is completely original.
If you’re asking me what I think of Thirsty Sword Lesbians, it’s that this is the game I’ve been waiting for a long while.
It’s the game that looks you in the heart and says:
“Make it gayer.”
Thirsty Sword Lesbians is on Kickstarter until November 12th, and is already funded and burning through stretch goals!
Thanks to Sean Nittner of Evil Hat Productions for sending us a review copy!