Rob Wieland goes in search of romance in RPGs and finds it at the pointy end of a blade when he speaks to April Kit Walsh, creator of the hit new role-playing game Thirsty Sword Lesbians.
When I ask a player to describe cool combat moves after they roll a critical hit, what often follows is a cutscene right out of Assassin’s Creed. Blood spurts everywhere, there’s deliberate slow motion action and if it kills off a bad guy, there’s a pretty good chance of a decapitation. This is all part of the fun. In these moments, it’s great to watch players seize the narrative and make their characters look like the kind of action stars that would make The Rock and Vin Diesel envious of their virility.
Romance is trickier. Even though we are grown adults playing let’s pretend guided by math toys, sex is often an uncomfortable subject at the table. Most of my games have moved beyond the snickering seduction of bar staff but even fare where sexuality is a big part of the game, such as Vampire: The Masquerade errs on the side of caution and skipping over the kissing parts.
Some of this is a reflection of our pop culture as a whole. The films our role-playing games emulate often glamorise violence while fast forwarding past romance and intimacy. Big budget films can show millions dying but have a set count of nude body parts that can be seen before suddenly having a restrictive rating. Even in the more permissive streaming era, sex is used as a tool of distraction instead of a way to express emotion. Many shows have been accused of “sexposition” where nudity and titillating acts are performed in the background of a scene where characters talk about the plot as a way to keep viewers engaged while moving the story forward.
But surely, small groups of friends can feel comfortable about talking about sex and romance in their games? There are a few cracks in the walls thanks to romance subplots in video games. Most people talk about their great romances in Mass Effect rather than their character builds. There are tabletop RPGs opening up the conversation as well, including one that puts sex and romance as much at the center of the action as melee and ranged combat.
‘I could write an essay about romance in RPGs,’ said April Kit Walsh, creator of Thirsty Sword Lesbians. ‘I suppose I wrote a game instead. Participating in romantic role-play can be very emotional and requires communication and respect for boundaries that aren't necessarily in everyone's personal toolkit when they show up for a game. Thirsty Sword Lesbians builds consent and collaboration into the mechanics, as well as centering safety and communication practices that help groups explore more emotional themes.’
Thirsty Sword Lesbians embraces romance right in the title. It puts themes of intimacy front and center and forces players to decide right away if that’s the kind of game they want to play. It supports the bold statement of its title with strong mechanical support within the framework of playing and within the broader field of how to handle romance in role-playing games. Like other Powered by the Apocalypse master-pieces such as Monster of the Week and World Wide Wrestling, it’s not just an excellent game but a fantastic guide to the genre that’s just as useful for people who don’t like PbtA games.
‘The closest inspirations are The Watch, Monsterhearts, and Masks,’ said Walsh. ‘Each of them did something neat in using mechanics to evoke feelings and I wanted to adapt those elements and build on them. Games in that family had come close to the experience I was looking for. I also adore the cadence of narrative down beats from low rolls and up beats or mixed beats from higher rolls. Being able to focus the mechanics on the narrative, rather than on tasks or simulation, is a design tool I really appreciate, and so is the randomness of the dice, to help tell stories that can surprise you. Finally, I wanted the game to have a GM to bring life to the world and the NPCs and be able to focus on prodding the PCs' plots and emotions.’
The Watch offers an interesting exploration of gender roles in society and war using a fantasy setting as a lens. Monsterhearts focuses on teenage supernatural romance via a collection of strings which are mechanical ways to back up the narrative complexities of relationships during such a hormonal, tumultuous time. It also has a queer subtext with a basic move that turns on other characters because a person’s sexuality has yet to categorise itself in high school. Masks features a central question of identity that’s defined through the superhero lens of the young hero. Identity ratings change during play. Sometimes, the player makes decisions about their identity. Other times, other characters make assumptions and force the character to either accept this image or risk consequences by fighting back.
While many PbtA games have some sort of sex or intimacy move, Thirsty Sword Lesbians has several ranging from the initial flirtation (often during an action sequence) to the culmination of an intimate scene. The game is built on making sure everyone involved is into the idea with explicit consent given by parties all around every step of the way.
This is heady stuff for many gamers but there is clearly a market for games like this. Masks: A New Generation is one of Magpie Games most popular RPGs. Thirsty Sword Lesbians raised almost $300,000 in the fall of 2020. The title is an attention getter, as is the one for the follow-up sourcebook funded by the stretch goals: Advanced Lovers & Lesbians.
‘I have about three pages of rejected titles,’ said Walsh. ‘Though several of them became setting names. Ultimately I wanted to signal “Queer Action Romance” in a way that centres lesbian love, and I wanted it to be playful. This is absolutely not a game about queer misery; it's a celebration.’
“THIS IS ABSOLUTELY NOT A GAME ABOUT QUEER MISERY. IT'S A CELEBRATION”
The success of the game’s Kickstarter also shows how the market for RPGs is growing. It is the second largest Kickstarter for publisher Evil Hat Productions. It also highlights how the hobby is changing and the perception that people who love RPGs are anti-social creatures living in their parents’ basement long past time to move out. Or, for that matter, only tables full of beardy straight white dudes playing these games.
‘I knew that there were people out there who would adore this game,’ said Walsh. ‘I had no idea that there were *so many* of them! TTRPGs are much more diverse than the conventional wisdom would have you believe.’
Queer action romance is a burgeoning media genre. The fantastic art in the book keys off of shows like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power or Steven Universe. The game also appeals to fan communities that write romance fiction about their favorite characters in mainstream media. This is a game where Steve and Bucky can openly flirt with one another or Kylo, Rey, Finn and Poe can explore what it means to be in love with each other while fighting a galaxy-wide war. This space has been explored a lot online through fan-fiction and fan art, but is still relatively fallow in tabletop roleplaying games.
‘I was most inspired by the *lack* of media telling stories of queer action romance,’ said Walsh. ‘There are wonderful books and comics and a whole lot of fan-fiction out there, but I wanted to see more of those stories. I wanted a game that centers the experiences and feelings of people like me and my friends who are erased in mass media, and I wanted to help people tell their own stories with an RPG that would actively help people tell stories of queer found family.’
The game takes aim at a subject matter aimed at queer RPG players but it also makes room for folks who might not identify with any of the identities in the title. Even if this particular game is centered on queer action, it offers plenty of reasons why this experience can improve romantic elements in whatever other games a table might play.
‘Part of my “research” for TSL was playing thirsty sword lesbian characters in any game I could,’ said Walsh, ‘and some of the example characters and examples of play in the rulebook are adapted from their adventures. Tentacula, for instance, started to have doubts about her allegiance to the forces of evil because of romances with a childhood friend and a childhood frenemy -- that was a game of For the Honor. One of the examples of play is based on a moment in an AGON game where my thirsty gladius lesbian leapt onto a moving chariot to confront an opponent, rolled terribly, and wound up falling for her instead.’
One of the key differences between Thirsty Sword Lesbians and other attempts at adult RPG books is the attention given to safety tools at the table. These tools have become more popular over the past few years as more designers encourage tables to discuss the limits of the game they want to play at the table. These tools range from a quick survey to fill out to let the GM know what topics are off the table to in-play actions that change the narrative if something comes up that a player doesn’t want as part of the story. Sometimes it could be excessive violence or gore; other times it could be not wanting to see violence against animals or children.
Many tables have had a loose rating system like this for years, but it’s a good idea to check in from time to time as player’s tolerances and opinions change during their lives. I’ve recently run a campaign of Delta Green where I asked my players to fill out a survey that put some elements off-screen or out of the narrative entirely.
I’m glad I did; there were a few pre-written adventures I used that had parts checked out by my players and what I ended up rewriting turned out to be more effective in spooking them because they weren’t pushed past their limits. Communicating with players outside the game is a key part to avoiding problems inside the game.
It makes sense to me to use safety tools in a game where romance is more directly centered since it’s even more of a sensitive topic to most people. The game rewards using these tools in play by giving XP for engaging them. Players might enjoy exploring queer relationships in the game even if they aren’t interested in real life. The process pushes boundaries but also rewards players for speaking up when the game goes too far or if they aren’t ready to talk about a certain topic yet.
“NOTHING IN THE RULES WILL STOP YOU FROM PLAYING A CISGENDER, HETEROSEXUAL SWORDSPERSON”
‘Nothing in the rules will stop you from playing a cisgender, heterosexual swordsperson,’ said Walsh, ‘When I joke that the game might turn your character gay, I mean that it makes a space where you're insulated from the usual oppressive gender and sexuality norms that deter people from experimenting and finding what's right for them.’
As Walsh finishes up the game for its general release, she’s got more games that she wants to put out. Thirsty Sword Lesbians explores a relatively uncharted space in role playing games, but she’s not content to settle down yet.
‘I have two completely different games in the works, both with original systems,’ said Walsh. ‘One is a cozy game of space adventures tentatively called I Will Carry You, featuring a sentient spaceship and their crew. The design uses plot and role decks to distribute the traditional GM role among the players, without eliminating it. The second, Dream of Us, is a blend of tactical play and feelings, with a pool of dice you place on cards to activate different abilities.’
‘Of course, I'm still wrapping up edits on the 30 plus stretch goals from dozens of authors funded by the Kickstarter, but I think I might be on the very last one, and then will be able to focus on other projects!’
Thirsty Sword Lesbians is out now published by Evil Hat Productions.
Find out more at http://evilhat.com/home/thirsty-sword-lesbians/
You can find April Kit-Walsh on Twitter at @GaySpaceshipGms
This interview originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1 / Issue 2