Thirsty Sword Lesbians (TSL) is a Powered By The Apocalypse (PBTA) game from Evil Hat, designed by April Kit Walsh, of swordplay, queer action hijinx and romance. While this genre might sound weirdly specific, it actually covers a really wide range of genres, while staying really consistent in the kind of adventures you can have in those genres.
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PBTA games really sing when the Moves and Playbooks can tightly support the genre they emulate – I don’t think there’s a better game for teenage superheroes than Masks, for instance, nor slice-of-life Coronation Street petty crime than The ‘Hood. TSL manages to tightly support the play style it shoots for, while still offering a wide range of options. This does potentially make it trickier to one-shot successfully – but I’ve offered some suggestions in the relevant section below about how to make it work.
Within the general style of “sword-fighting romance-seeking lesbians,” everything else is pretty flexible. There are six campaign settings ready-made in the book, from steampunk freedom-fighters to cyberpunk revolutionaries, and six scenarios – shorter-form, more “plotted” games. There’s also a guide to drawing up your own settings and ensuring they match the play style of the game.
And no, you don’t have to play lesbians. The game is explicitly about characters who are marginalized by society, though – you’re not going to have a game without romance and flirting. If you’re thinking “I’d play this but I don’t want to play a lesbian,” this isn’t the game for you – the game does make this clear. There’s really clear, specific guidance on safety tools and consent – along with how to cover potentially difficult areas – there’s guidance on telling trans stories, for example, along with a glossary of queer terms used in the book. If you’re uncomfortable with the “sex moves” that some PBTA games have, TSL works around moves for Providing Emotional Support, becoming Smitten (which has specific mechanics around it), and for PCs to Finally Kiss, in a Dangerous Situation – that should help to show the kind of romance this game is about.
On the one hand, the Basic Moves are really tightly focussed to the kind of gameplay TSL creates. For example, there’s no “investigate” core move – you can learn stuff from other NPCs, but it’s mostly going to be about their feelings and relationships, and you’ll do so by flirting with them or fighting with them to reveal weaknesses. It’s a relationship driven game, not an overarching plot sort of game – it’s explicitly character-focussed and you (and your players) need to buy into that.
On the other hand, the Playbooks are diverse in the way they play and the character arcs they portray. This is a PBTA game that has taken on board lots of ideas from previous games to make each Playbook feel very different in how it works out. For instance, three of the nine playbooks have their own track – e.g. the Beast’s Feral score demonstrates how close you are to transforming and potentially lashing out, and has specific rules for it increasing and decreasing. The kind of stories you tell will vary significantly depending on the playbooks at the table.
First of all, the guidance here all applies – be prepared to spend some time for setup and chargen, take a break, and then go for it. There’s also some really good stuff in the book about short-form (1-3 session) games, and the scenarios are designed to be used for these. I’d recommend having your setting nailed down, along with the toxic powers and some NPCs (and some NPC pics for those that will appear in the game as a result of player actions that you might not have planned), and a few bangs and ideas for stuff that could happen.
For a longer game, the setting creation rules are tight and will get things set up nicely to snowball, but for a one-shot you’ll need to compromise a little on that – I’d budget an hour in a con game to do playbook character creation, and relationships, and introduce the setting. On this, as well, with such a wide variety, I’d recommend restricting the playbook choices so you can have a few ideas prepped of what to do. If you know you’ll have a Beast, an Infamous, and a Nature Witch in your session, you can think of ways in advance that they might need to be challenged before you’re at the table, which will make your life easier.
Also, see above about what the moves are – a lot are centred around fighting, flirting, and dealing with emotional fallout – so plan for this! For example, in a Glorantha-based scenario I’ve been sketching, I was going to start with the players discovering a killed antelope in their forest, followed by a rival tribe accusing them of having killed it – but, there’s nothing they can do with a dead animal. Instead, I’ve shifted it to find a wounded and upset Lunar warrior – who’s been attacked by your allies – to give some immediate options that the mechanics supports. Watch out, by the way, for this scenario on here – Thirsty Sword Vingans is currently in development!
So, in summary, I’m really interested with the play that TSL brings out – and it’s a great addition to the current iteration of PBTA games. I’ve played it twice so far – once as a pistol-toting Scoundrel in a high seas piracy game, and more recently as a formerly demon-possessed Infamous in a 1970s low-budget monster movie. I’ll certainly be bringing it to cons and one-shot events to offer, and look forward to exploring some of the other playbooks and settings.