If there’s a single thing that screams to me about Thirsty Sword Lesbians, the tabletop brain child of April Kit Walsh, it’s how loud it all is. From the aesthetics, the vibrant cover-to-cover art, and even the flavor of rules text itself, Thirsty Sword Lesbians is a powerfully LOUD game. It screams its message of QUEER LOVE louder that any given review I think could reasonably cover. Not that I’m not going to do my best to do it justice, but it’s the sort of book you’ll need to read for yourself to truly get it.
Thirsty Sword Lesbians (TSL henceforth) has one of the brightest covers I’ve seen in the past 10 years. Its purples and pinks and modern art style is bombastic and screams at the reader to pick it up. If I had a physical copy in front of me I most certainly doubt as to whether I’d be able to resist picking it up and flipping through it. While this review was done using v0.6 of the game, the Kickstarter itself showcases its gorgeous, very queer-centric art. You get to see women of all shapes, colors, and walks of life take front stage in the art alone. It screams intersectionality from its pages, and the nooks and corners of its margins.
“Swords cross and hearts race!”
If there was ever a tagline that could nab me, hook-line-and-sinker, TSL and those at Evil Hat found it. From the cover, the marketing, the writing on the back, I knew exactly what sort of gameplay it’s promising.
TSL promises a very specific sort of game: you and your queer pals (though there are allowances for non-queer characters) go out to do swordy things at bad folk, with plenty of drama and tension along the way. Very quickly the game fluctuates from high energy sword fighting to burning passions that can only really truly be quelled by affection.
The THIRST of TSL is so evident in the rules it seeps out into almost every scene of gameplay. And, honestly, it perfectly maps to the queer-love experience. People go all-in, sliding into the direct-messages of people they’ve only spoken to for ten-minutes. Tiny probes of interest, showcasing who you are and why the other person should be interested, and suddenly you’re talking until the morning light. Suddenly, they’re diving headfirst into relationships in a matter of days, if not hours.
An overall lack of chill, ie THIRST, if I may.
While most certainly fun I, admittedly, found myself drained pretty quickly as my group went through it. It can easily feel like it doesn’t have enough low-energy story beats to really ‘relax.’ While this may have been a product of the gamemaster running it, I can only imagine it happening over and over again ad-nauseum. I’ve done combat scenes that have lasted anywhere from 2-6 hours (in other systems) and yet I’ve never felt this emotionally spent after a game. If you like feeling super connected to people this will definitely stoke your fires. However, introverts such as myself will need a long rest and a cat to cuddle.
So I think anyone that knows me by now has a grasp on how I feel about Powered by the Apocalypse Games: I simply don’t like them. While I am absolutely in love with TSL’s themes, aesthetics, and goals, the game is very much so a PbtA affair. Sooo, I don’t really like it, at least when it comes to the mechanics.
That’s not to say it’s not good.
Let me explain.
TSL is most certainly on the crunchier side of PbtAs: it has Strings, Condition Tracking, Stats, and many of the playbooks have their own special mechanics to work with. You also come out of the gate with many non-playbook moves. There’s a lot to do in TSL, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I can see first time players getting more than a bit overwhelmed trying to jump right into a game effectively written for them. TSL captures a lot of what makes PbtA games the way they are, with the dice and the moves, and the interpersonal relationships. There’s a large amount of character-based tension strewn throughout the moves and playbooks – the game acts like a funnel where you’re going to end up in a wonderfully messy situation fairly quickly. If you’re looking for that sort of game, and looking to emulate that genre to a T, TSL will give you exactly what you’re looking for.
As the author herself would say, “I adore Powered by the Apocalypse and the way it can express the feel of a genre mechanically.” That adoration truly does show in the writing.
TSL is an extremely PbtA game and carries through into it a high-amount of polish as to why people love these games in the first place. With TSL you get all the major features of all your favorite PbtAs of the past decade. What I don’t like about that, however, is that PbtA tends to lend itself closer to highly focused scenarios. Rather than many other games having more general skills/actions that act like bump-keys that you can try to fit into any number of doors, PbtA games filter you through their doors and its specialized genre simulation. In a crude way, it makes you choose the exact right kind of key with very little flexibility in the moves. I know that when I play TSL, I’m going to be playing an action-drama high swords and smoochery sort of adventure. I’m not always going to want to play that every session, however.
That said, this all comes from a loose elitist that still chooses to play Pathfinder 1e because she likes the crunch. I can see many many people loving this sort of game, I’m just not one of them. If you’ve EVER enjoyed a Powered by the Apocalypse game you will absolutely enjoy Thirsty Sword Lesbians.
As vocal as I am concerning my distaste of PbtA games in general, I would have to say that any objections I have are being constantly drowned out by the very game I’m criticizing. Thirsty Sword Lesbians both whispers and yells into my ear, keeping me awake at night by magical song. If I had the physical copy in my room I could imagine it pulsing on my shelf, beckoning me to open it and indulge in its splendors.
While I am no longer thirsty, nor am I a lesbian (though I am still extremely swordy), TSL is a powerfully loud game about love and justice and friendship and it’s filled with the sort of feelings that make the queer community as amazing as it is. I honestly, earnestly, want to give this a solid shot and re-experience all the good feelings I used to indulge myself in.
In as dark of a year as 2020 has been, with the pain and isolation at an all-time brink, Thirsty Sword Lesbians reminds us that sometimes all we need to get on by is the right gal by your side with the right sword in hand.
This is the game we need right now.