Alchemistresses Advance Review

One of my favorite things about the RPG hobby is that there’s a game for everything. Games which aim for very specific genres, designed by fans of those specific genres, are often incredible showcases of creativity and windows into the love that the designers have for their subjects. Recently, I had a chance to look at one such game, a window into the Magical Girl genre of anime called Alchemistresses. Alchemistresses casts players as high schoolers who begin to discover their link to a former life as a Mistress of one of the Five Elements (though here Mistress, like Magical Girl, is a job description, not a gender). As your campaign progresses through a season of your show, you must balance slice-of-life high school antics with your past life and the villains you must now face. Right now, though, the designers are embarking on a different sort of campaign: Alchemistresses is funding on Kickstarter.

Alchemistresses is not an incredibly mechanics-heavy game, giving each character three attributes (Mind, Body, and Spirit), an incrementing die that serves as a hit point analogue (Resolve), and a meta-currency (Alchemy Points), which is used to upgrade dice and save a character from being removed from a scene. Where the game gets interesting is when you start layering in the procedures built around making these mechanics into a magical girl anime. There are magic spells. There are transformation sequences, of course. And there are some neat mechanics around memory which affect your character differently depending on whether you’re transformed into your magical girl form or not.

If I could boil down the intent of the mechanics to one thing, it’s genre emulation. Given my history with the magical girl genre (read: none), I knew that the best way to understand the design and intention of Alchemistresses was to hear it from the designers themselves. Fortunately, I was able to get in touch with Alison Kyran Cole and Dora Dee Rogers, the two lead designers on the project. Both hail from Montreal, Canada, and have worked together before, crowdfunding the game Denial and Yearning together in 2021.

Tell me a bit about yourselves. How did you get into role-playing games? How did you get into game design?
Allison: So I’m a game designer by profession, and I’m really glad I found my way to where I am. I started larping when I was a child (somewhere around 8 years old) by playing Christy Marx’s Tales of the Crystals. I then was blessed with friends in high school who would participate in murder mysteries with me all the time. In full costume and character all night! I never really thought of them as games, though, and actually went into event management because that’s the path that seemed like the one that would end up with me running murder mysteries for my job. Through a series of fortunate events, I ended up getting a graduate degree in Game Design and got back into making what I love.

Dora: I was a little nerd teen playing hours and hours of World of Darkness, and as an adult I sort of rediscovered role-playing through Lady Blackbird which eventually led me into PbtA and story games. I’m a big Avery Alder fan: Monsterhearts, The Quiet Year, and Dream Askew are all some of my favorite games.

I’ve done a little small-scale design as I GMed over the years, coming up with custom moves and homebrews, but I got much more into design when I met Allison, because she’s highly collaborative by nature and if she’s working on a project, you’re going to talk about it a lot with her.

Tell me a bit about Alchemistresses. What was it that drew you to the ‘magical girl’ genre?
Allison: Please see below a picture of our guest room with dozens of magical girl items. It has always been a genre I am passionate about. I’ve always loved the celebration of the feminine, and particularly drawing strength from things that have traditionally been perceived as weak due to their association with the feminine. Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena allowed me to explore and find strength in my gender identity, which I do have a complicated relationship with (but who doesn’t). My gender might actually just be “magical girl”. They also showed me explicit and overt queerness in a way that I could aspire to. 

A strong arc within the game is about memory: the characters start out unaware of their past and gain memories related to their past conflict. Tell me more about the memory mechanics.
Allison: The memory mechanic is born of me always wanting more Moon Kingdom from Sailor Moon in combination with my desire to explore queer feelings. Anytime a player is transformed into their magical form and attempts to do something, they roll the memory die to see if it triggers a flashback to their past life– revealing more and more about them. If they roll the highest number on the die they remember something positive, and on the lowest something negative. One of the really interesting outcomes of this is that characters remember things at different speeds, and with different emotions attached to them. This leads to a lot of drama, questioning, and self-discovery. (Imagine finding out that the girl you are dating now was someone you left at the altar in a past life before they have any idea!) It also leads to complicated reconciliations of your past and present self.

The magical girl team also has one shared memory scene an episode, set by the GM but played out by the characters. It’s a great place for these conflicts to come to the forefront, or for the team to get on the same page (depending on what your game’s season could use most).

One thing that many role-playing games shy away from (that Alchemistresses dives into head on) is in-game romance. How is the game built to not only center romance but make it fun and comfortable for players?
: Ooooh in-game romance. So as Allison and anyone I’ve ever played with will tell you, I LIVE for in-game romance, and I’m really drawn to systems that explicitly support it, like Monsterhearts or Good Society (I will also make my GM let me flirt with every random NPC if I’m playing, say, D&D).

First of all, it’s worth saying that you can play Alchemistresses without romance ever coming up, but you CAN’T play Alchemistresses without your relationships – romantic, friendly, familial, antagonistic, etc. – being very important. A central part of character creation is creating a web of relationships between the characters, and those relationships have mechanical significance. So romance is never required, but in a lot of our playtests, it happens organically because there’s space for it and because a lot of players are excited for it!

As not everyone will have played a game with romance before, we’re going to support GMs who want to include romance in the game with a section in the rulebook. There’s both advice on creating romantic plots and swoon-worthy NPCs, and guidance on how to communicate about romance elements and apply safety tools.

And on that note, safety is of course a big concern once romance becomes involved, because folks will have very different comfort levels. There are two ways the game tries to make sure that, if it comes up, everyone will have fun with it. One is an emphasis on commonly used safety tools; there’s nothing extremely novel about our approach to this, we just emphasize the importance and point folks toward tools that we like and use, notably Lines & Veils, first developed by Ron Edwards, and the X-Card, designed by John Stavropoulos. The other is building consent into the relationships that are defined in the character creation process: it’s something that has to be done collaboratively and with both players involved.

Allison: I don’t think Dee gives herself enough credit. Before she was a designer on the project, she was actually contracted to write the guide to swoon-worthy crushes she mentioned, where not only goes she give amazing tips about playing romance (“People can be attractive in all sorts of ways – and one lesson of many magical girl stories is that everyone has a kind of beauty, if you only look for it.”), but also great consent advice (“…use language like “If it works for you…” or “What if…”).

The game is meant to take place over an arc approximating one season of a magical girl anime. To that end, the design offers a fair amount of structure around how each ‘episode’ can play out. How did you come to the pace and structure that you’ve outlined in the game?
Allison: So we’ve been lucky enough to have done a lot of playtesting of the first handful of episodes (having run the first 8 hours of play with over 30 playtesters). We knew we were onto something with the episode structure– high school hijinx, magical combat, then a shared memory scene. The pacing was also facilitated by the genre– halfway through an episode of a magical girl anime the bad guy will find you wherever you are. That’s just how it works.

The structure we give to episodes is there more as guidance than law. Each episode  gives prompts to help with world building or story structure. This serves two purposes: expand genre literacy for those who may not be as familiar with magical girls, as well as help structure play for those who may be familiar with magical girls but not as experienced GMing.

We wanted to provide some of the tropes of the genre, and give GMs tools for how to incorporate them. The episodes that focus on each character, the episode where you get to meet your magical mascot, the episode where the mysterious outer scout is introduced, the episode where your journey to the great evil. They all come with genre conventions and provide amazing prompts for play, and we wanted to provide these to players.

Having the game last a season was also really appealing to me: there’s an emotional finality when a TV show you love is over, and I wanted players to be able to experience that by having a concrete end to their game.

How have your past design experiences contributed to or informed the design of Alchemistresses?
Allison: I think this game does have a lot of my design sensibilities. It’s overtly and unignorably feminine, it cares a lot about feelings, and it’s pretty gay. It also has a sense of humour– it has to because it engages so genuinely with the magical girl genre. I really love absurd humour as well as deep impactful emotional moments, and find it most fulfilling to design experiences that emphasize that juxtaposition.

Dora: Before I formally joined the design team, I did a lot of playtest GMing, and a lot of my contributions to the game came through that lens, tools and ideas that made the game easier for me to run: for example, tricks to generate NPCs quickly to populate a high school.

This is not your first time crowdfunding a game. What words of advice would you give to other designers who haven’t yet tried to publish a game via crowdfunding?
Allison: My biggest advice is to start small so you can fail small. My first crowdfunding campaign was a 1k Zine Month game (Denial & Yearning) I made with Dee and two other friends in a week. It let me get familiar with the tools. My second was a little larger (2.5k) for a game called Cadences with my cooperative Soft Chaos. We had all of our printing costs funded through a grant, so still didn’t have a lot to lose. Alchemistresses is the biggest thing I’ve tried to do, and it will still probably end up being a financial loss (but a calculated loss). Also, know what your goals are. Alchemistresses has been my passion for so long my goal for this project was not to make money, but to get the game into the hands of people at the highest quality I could. Denial & Yearning’s goal was to learn about how crowdfunding worked. Cadence’s goal was to get our cooperative’s name out there.

Dora: I agree emphatically with what Allison said, and also, there’s no shame in staying small! I’d add that it’s been really helpful to us to seek out community. We gained experience taking part in events like Zine Quest and Zine Month and getting advice from other creators who took part. And we’ve also gained champions, people willing to promote the game on our behalf, by appreciating our playtesters, reaching out to Actual Plays and podcasts, and by trumpeting other projects that we love. 

What’s next, after Alchemistresses is out in the world?
Allison: I think first of all a big nap. After it’s out in the world, I really look forward to hearing people’s experience of playing it.
Dora: I’m not exactly sure but it’ll be something small! This has been a big, ambitious project, and I’m excited to put out something small and specific next. 

Alchemistresses is currently live on Kickstarter, and the campaign runs until July 29th, 2022. As of this writing the campaign has successfully funded, but there are stretch goals to hit ranging from $10,000 to $45,000, which include additional content, pay hikes for the contributing writers, stickers, and, at $35,000, a hardcover version of the game. C$20 gets you a digital copy of the game, while C$35 gets you a print copy.

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