Customizing Your Game
Thirsty Sword Lesbians provides a flexible framework to tell feelings-focused stories about fighting with swords and falling in love.
But what if you want to focus on a peril of your setting that could use more detail than the general Defy Disaster move? What if you want to write your own playbook to focus on a conflict or archetype that’s not covered yet, or put your own spin on it?
In short, go for it! Use the existing moves and playbooks as your guide.
Who Gets to Narrate?
This is a storytelling game, so it’s important for everyone to have the opportunity to contribute and shape the stories that emerge from play. When making a custom move, consider who should have input on the interaction (for instance, the recipient of Emotional Support plays a significant role in how the interaction unfolds). Additionally, make sure that each player’s contributions matter. This principle is why the guidance for the Defy Disaster move instructs the GM to provide actionable information or an opportunity if the up beat result would otherwise be an underwhelming narrative contribution.
In general, PCs have the most narrative authority on an up beat and GMs have the most on a down beat. This isn’t absolute: even on a down beat, the GM shouldn’t seize control of a PC’s intentions without buy-in from the player. It’s fair game to narrate that the PC is knocked off the deck of the ship and is dangling from the side, but not to narrate that the PC is now Smitten. If you really want your move to tempt a PC to feel a certain way, offer a bribe such as an XP or another benefit (as with the Scoundrel’s Heat of the Moment).
More complex moves create a conversation, particularly on a mixed beat, wherein the PC chooses a category of setback or benefit and another player narrates the specifics. These moves can zoom in further on the interaction or simply ensure that the opportunity to contribute to the narrative is spread among multiple participants. The most complex form of move used inThirsty Sword Lesbiansis one that includes options for the other player, with significantly different resolutions depending on that player’s choices or actions. One example is the Infamous playbook’s Used to Disappointment. Too many complex moves can bog down the action, but they can also be very effective at adding mechanical significance to relationship dynamics.
Some moves assign different levels of narrative control depending on whether the target is a PC or an NPC. This reflects the role that the PCs play as the focus of the story, as well as the fact that the GM wields a great deal of narrative authority over the story outside of describing the actions and intentions of NPCs, while other players primarily influence the story via their PCs. This difference makes it important to preserve players’ autonomy over their PCs more than the GM’s vision for any single NPC. Of course, the GM’s contributions matter as well, so other players don’t have free rein to control NPCs.
Likewise, it’s important to the story that NPCs have personalities and agendas of their own and not have their agency in the story erased. It can be unsatisfying and downright creepy for PCs to have too much sway over NPCs, particularly in a romantic story. This, in part, is why the game doesn’t include a general persuasion move to roll and doesn’t give PCs unfettered power to manipulate NPCs, even with Strings. Efforts to manipulate NPCs generally rely on understanding them or at least gaining leverage over them. Consider these factors when tweaking the tools that PCs have to sway NPCs, and don’t rely wholly on safety tools to catch these issues in play.
As for the playbooks, each provides different options for narrative influence, from worldbuilding and relationships to the amount of spotlight to be held. Playbooks like the Seeker and Spooky Witch can make unique contributions to the nature of the setting, defining an Authority and the nature of the Unseen, respectively. Others, like the Chosen or Infamous, provide many opportunities to take the spotlight—being compelled by one’s destiny or confronted by past misdeeds. Other playbooks specifically include moves to step back from the spotlight, such as the Nature Witch’s I Ship It. The intent behind this menu of options is to let each player choose their own comfort level depending on the playbooks and moves they select.
If you’re customizing the playbooks or writing new ones, think about whether you want the playbook to accommodate a range of preferences or force players into the spotlight. Consider also how much worldbuilding you want the playbook to do. In some groups, it might be welcome for every PC to come up with a faction that’s particularly influential to their plot, while other groups will prefer one or two such PCs, with other PCs riffing off of those elements and building connections to them.
Why Roll Dice?
The dice help produce a story that includes fun surprises, rather than being determined by consensus. The narrative is constructed of a mix of up beats, mixed beats, and down beats, but the order and distribution of the different beats benefit from randomness. In choosing their stats and moves, players have some control over the tone of the beats that their actions will have, but only some. The stats are capped so that down beats are always a possibility. Many players enjoy the permission that a low dice roll gives them to have a narrative down beat for their characters. This is part of the reason that even Emotional Support requires a dice roll: it’s often a fun moment for things to go awry.
Of course, use the dice in moderation. When you’re writing a new move, think about whether you should just be saying yes or giving the player options when they trigger the move. If the trigger provides a good opportunity for things to go awry, that might be a good match for rolling dice. Or, as with the Infamous move Always Suspect, maybe something will always go awry and it’s just a matter of choosing what the consequence will be.
As a middle ground, some moves allow players to significantly skew the probabilities in favor of an up beat, such as the +3 bonus for spending a String when giving Emotional Support or the Scoundrel’s ability to become Smitten with someone to bump up the effectiveness of their Heat of the Moment move. These moves offer a relatively modest cost to shift the probability upwards.
If you prefer to roll fewer dice and make more choices about up beats, mixed beats, and down beats, give each player a supply of tokens corresponding to each die result. You can even vary how many of each kind of token the player receives to make the game more tragic or more of a power fantasy. If you want to directly explore what the characters are willing to sacrifice for the things they care about, you could rewrite the moves so that players always have to choose drawbacks to get the benefits of an up beat (essentially making every beat a mixed beat).
What Deserves Its Own Move?
The actions that are central to the stories you want to tell deserve a dedicated move. InThirsty Sword Lesbians, that means fighting, understanding one another, flirting, showing care and vulnerability, suffering setbacks, influencing one another, the temptation of Toxic Powers, escaping disaster, kissing, and falling in love.
If you have another activity that you want to be just as central as those above, you can consider adding a move. Beware of having too many options and overwhelming your players with choice—more than one or two additional moves that the PCs can trigger at will might be too many for most groups.
Remember, the moves significantly shape the conversation that makes up the game. They tell you which players get to make which contributions to the story. Some moves focus on the contribution of the PC making the move, while others create a miniature conversation, such as when you Figure Out a Person and ask questions for them to answer or even when you Fight and both choose options provided by the move.
When you invite someone to tea, they must attend or face drastic social consequences unless their social status is greater than yours. If they attend, roll +Grace:
- 10+: Choose 2
- 7–9: Choose 2 and they choose 1 to apply to you
They share gossip they should have kept secret; you can choose to gain a String on them or on the subject of the gossip
They commit a faux pas; you can designate one upcoming social event to which they won’t be welcome
Your hospitality warms their heart; they can clear a Condition
Here, it matters quite a bit who gets to contribute details such as the gossip in question or exactly what faux pas is committed. If it’s the invitee, the move creates more conversation, where the host chooses an option and the invitee fleshes out the details. If the host gets to say both that the invitee shares gossip and what it is, that assigns far more narrative authority to the player making the move. It also takes some agency away from the invitee; in general, a player has a great deal of control over how their PC behaves and what they say. Consult Safety and Consent (page 11), before making custom moves that deviate from that norm.
Customizing Basic Moves
Alternatively, you can tweak an existing move to put a new spin on it, or even replace it with something else. Perhaps you want to replace the frank and open conversation of Emotional Support with a more visceral Blow Off Steam, where no one has to talk about their feelings as long as their blood gets pumping.
Blow Off Steam
When you try to show someone a good time, roll +Heart OR +Spirit (if you spend a String on them, add +3 to your roll):
- 10+: If they throw themselves into your chosen activity with vigor, they choose 1 and you either choose 1 or take a String on them. You feel reinvigorated by the excitement you share.
- 7–9: Only one of you feels better after the experience; they choose which. The person who has a good time may choose 1.
- Clear a Condition
- Mark XP
- +1 forward
If they’re Smitten with you, they may choose two options instead of just one. If you’re Smitten with them and they don’t want to join you in the activity, it stings. You mark a Condition.
Customizing the End of Session Move
The End of Session move is also ripe for customizing. You can easily customize the XP triggers to fit a different campaign style. For instance, many stories in the romantic fantasy genre focus on protecting nature. If you want to emphasize this aspect, you could replace one of the trigger conditions with “A PC prevented serious harm to the natural world.”
Additional Effects for String Advances
When a character gets four Strings on another, they get a special insight, 2 XP, and reset down to one String. To reinforce the tone of your setting, you can assign different or additional effects.
Punks who Cyber
The nightmare of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy keeps you far apart in meatspace, but when you’re not being ground down by the machine you find love online, and the power to become your sword-wielding digital avatar.
On a String Advance, in addition to the usual effects, you have also found a way to share a fleeting moment in meatspace. They won’t be at risk from this meeting, but you will.
More Generic Strings for the GM
Just as the PCs gain XP on a down beat, you may decide that the GM gains a generic String (page 21) on an up beat. This pulls the narrative back to a slightly more mixed tone by enabling the GM to introduce small obstacles and complications whenever a PC scores an up beat.
Expanded Fight Moves
If your group wants more options in physical conflict and more contentious PC-versus-PC Fight mechanics, replace the basic Fight move with the following four moves: Lunge, Riposte, Scrap, and Feint. Any other move that affects the basic Fight move also affects these moves. When using any of the expanded Fight moves, you choose from the following maneuvers when the move tells you to choose options.
- Flirt with or provoke your opponent and gain a String on them
- Through violence or cutting words, inflict a Condition
- Create an opportunity for an ally through prowess or distraction
- Take an object from the opponent or seize a superior position
Lunge: When you launch a bold and confident attack with the intent to defeat someone, roll +Daring:
- 10+: Inflict a Condition, mark a Condition, and choose 2 maneuvers
- 7–9: Mark a Condition and choose 2 maneuvers
Riposte: When you draw your opponent into overextending so that you can defeat them, roll +Grace:
- 10+: Put your opponent in a vulnerable position and choose 1 maneuver
- 7–9: Put your opponent in a vulnerable position, mark a Condition, and choose 1 maneuver
Scrap: When you cry out and let loose an unreserved attack with intent to defeat someone, roll +Heart:
-10+: Take a String on someone present, mark a Condition, and choose 2 maneuvers -7–9: Mark a Condition and choose 2 maneuvers
Feint: When you use trickery, provocation, or dirty tactics to defeat someone in combat, roll +Wit (+3 more if you spend a String on them):
- 10+: Inflict a Condition and choose 1 maneuver
- 7–9: Inflict a Condition, mark a Condition, and choose 1 maneuver
When a PC Fights a PC
Each PC secretly chooses a move (any move, not just Fight), revealing at the same time. Take turns resolving each effect of each move, narrating the progress of the duel as you go. Describe each effect and what it looks like in the back-and-forth of the duel; don’t simply name the mechanic.
Wait to resolve any Stagger effects until after the exchange is complete, meaning that the severity of the Stagger increases if any Conditions are caused in the conflict. If a PC is Defeated during resolution, their opponent still suffers the full effects of their move.
Some Fight moves are more effective depending on the opponent’s move:
If you Lunge and your opponent does not Riposte: You make them Stagger or you choose 1 more maneuver
If you Lunge and your opponent Ripostes: They make you Stagger or they choose 1 more maneuver
If you Feintand your opponent Ripostes: You make them Stagger or you choose 1 more maneuver
If you Feintand your opponent Scraps: They make you Stagger or they choose 1 more maneuver
Using the Expanded Fight Moves
Many of the elements of the basic Fight move appear in the expanded options, and the same guidance applies here. For instance, a PC’s sword can only be taken with consent, by GM move, or if they’re Defeated.
The expanded Fight moves, however, change the game in several ways:
First, Heart and Wit join Daring and Grace as stats that you can use to incapacitate someone with violence. The different moves have significantly overlapping effects, with Riposte and Feint sacrificing some effectiveness for less risk. But each shines in different circumstances and prompts the player to narrate their approach to the conflict in a particular way.
Second, the PC-versus-PC rules provide a tense way to put a spotlight on serious conflict between PCs, where they’re in a moment of actually wanting to incapacitate each other. This isn’t the normal mode of Thirsty Sword Lesbians, and it’s likely to be fairly devastating to at least one of the PCs, if not the entire group. Either PC might roll a down beat, inviting GM moves to complicate the PCs’ lives. And each PC resolves the impact of their move on themself and their opponent—which might involve Staggering.
After the PCs roll the dice, you have a lot of back and forth consequences to resolve based off of those two rolls. Use this opportunity to zoom in and take turns narrating each effect as a beat in the story of this duel. If they’re both still standing, it’s time to re-evaluate if they want to continue fighting or switch to another mode of interacting. The Trickster in particular is likely to have Too Many Feelings if they ever get into this kind of fight with a fellow PC, since Conditions and Strings both bump up their Feelings track.
In the end, the PCs will need some aftercare to deal with all those Conditions, and it’s a good moment to check in to make sure all the players are having fun.
Remember, if the PCs aren’t actually trying to incapacitate each other, they’re probably not using Fight moves. They might be Enticing or Figuring Out each other—or someone else—over crossed blades instead.
If you like Smitten and you want the game to press you with more hard questions about emotions, you can use this optional rule to add a move that triggers when a character experiences profound vulnerability and trusts another character in an intimate way. This might mean sex, or it might mean baring your trauma and being a useless mess at someone for hours instead. It’s up to you to decide when the trigger is met.
The move zooms in on the character’s defining emotional conflict and the role of their partner in that conflict. These questions don’t represent the end point or resolution of a character’s journey, they simply highlight the ways in which they let themselves be vulnerable or their conflict affects their intimacy.
Bare Your Heart
When you lower your last guard and give yourself to someone completely, ask them the question for your playbook. If they say yes and truly mean it, you can invoke the effect listed.
Beast: Do you like me better in my Beast form?
- If so, from now on, you may mark a Condition to allow them to use your Transform move. They return to their usual form at the end of the scene.
Chosen: Do you sincerely believe we can be together despite my Destiny?
- If so, they can share your Destiny feature. Choose one Heroic and one Tragic Aspect that you possess; they now gain the benefits of acting in accordance with those Aspects.
Devoted: Would you treat me better than my Devotion?
- If so, you can replace your Devotion with a Devotion to your partner.
Infamous: Do you think I deserve to be happy, after what I’ve done?
- If so, as long as they hold a String on any NPC, whenever they are with you, the NPC gives you the benefit of the doubt that you’re no longer a villain.
Nature Witch: Do you think I would make it on my own without someone else to guide me?
- If so, they see the world through fresh eyes; the next time they participate in one of your Trials, they can clear a Condition or mark XP.
Scoundrel: Do you trust my fickle heart?
- If so, mark a Condition the next time you betray them.
Seeker: Do you agree with my beliefs?
- If so, you can write an additional Conviction expressing how you intend to treat the other person.
Spooky Witch: Did you realize that I could see the Unseen watching us the whole time?
- If so, while the other character is touching you, they can see the Unseen, too.
Trickster: Would you rather be tortured to death than hurt me?
If so, first of all, have a good cry over the feeling of being truly safe with someone. Then, interactions with them don’t affect your Feelings track until the next time you deceive them.
Adjusting the Premise
Inherent in the mechanics and archetypes are some assumptions: the world is magical, romance will likely feature in the story, everyone has a sword, and lesbians are centered. Each of these can be tweaked to tailor the game to an adjacent experience.
What if... Not Magic?
By default, any character in Thirsty Sword Lesbians could be magical or wield magic. The Trickster might use illusions to maintain their mask, the Devoted might derive supernatural power from their allegiance, and the Beast’s transformation might be the result of a blessing or a curse. This kind of magic either explains things the character can do under the rules already, or provides flavor that, at most, slightly changes the narrative positioning of the character and how they can plausibly interact with the fiction.
Similarly, each playbook can be interpreted to not involve magic—even the Witches.
The Nature Witch might simply have incredible knowledge or intuition for their environment. Rather than magically communicating or altering the environment, they use their knowledge and perhaps a satchel of herbs and extracts to achieve fantastic results.
The Spooky Witch’s powers can also mostly be explained with alchemical or other esoteric learning, but a key element of developing the non-magical setting is defining who is Unseen. Who is it that goes unrecognized, unnoticed, and unheard? Who is alternately erased or villainized? Be sure to check in with your fellow players here—stripping away a layer of metaphor from the Unseen and the Spooky Witch’s “monstrous” brings them closer to representing a particular group that is othered and treated as inhuman in real life.
What if... Not Thirsty?
The game fundamentally assumes that the characters crave connection, but that connection doesn’t need to be sexual or romantic. The Entice move can relate to any kind of physical or emotional desire, and you can tweak it for a different focus on community connection instead of their physical or romantic desires. Using this variant can be a non-romantic way to explore community connection, chosen family, and close friendship in the face of obstacles posed by the characters’ own emotional conflict and by the outside world.
When you appeal to someone’s desire for emotional or social connection, roll +Heart:
- 10+: Gain a String on them and they choose 1
- 7–9: Gain a String on them, unless they decide to choose 1
- Introduce you to a new potential friend
- Invite you to a social event
- Proclaim their interest in being friends with you
What if... Not Swords?
If you’re playing Thirsty Sword Lesbians, there’s a chance you enjoy stories about sword-toting queers. But why swords?
In short, the swords are there to invite the characters into intimate, heart-pounding conflict, but they’re also there as a bridge to the genres and historical moments where swords are present but queers have been erased or sidelined.
But what if you don’t want swords? It’s simple enough to swap out a different hand-to-hand combat option. Your campaign or your character can use a labrys, the double-bladed axe that became a lesbian icon in the late 20th century. You can use different styles of unarmed combat or even grapple using telepathic self-projections. These variants don’t require any alterations to the rules beyond the cosmetic, though of course they can be combined with rules modifications to highlight what’s unique about the premise. In general, you should be able to translate the Aesthetics options in each playbook readily to these variants, applying the adjective to a different weapon or fighting style.
It’s also possible to replace the swords with mecha, starships, or guns, but it requires some thought. How do you make it intimate? It certainly helps if everyone at least has a communication channel to taunt and tease and flirt, but the more distant the combatants, the harder it is. That’s not to say that thirsty mecha lesbians can’t find themselves cockpit-to-cockpit or be pleasantly surprised at how sensitive the haptic feedback systems are in their suits—it just takes a bit of forethought at the worldbuilding stage.
The conflict doesn’t have to be physically violent, though; you can use any kind of conflict that’s adrenaline-inducing and close-quarters. Here are a few ideas to get your juices flowing:
Queen Takes Queen: When you need to defeat dragons, Death herself, and the champions of your rival academy, there’s only one weapon you can count on: a mean game of chess.
Debauched Debate Dykes: You take debate personally. When you get into it, your heart is on the line. Is this a debate club, the political trail, or a courtroom? How far will you go to win? Do you even believe what you’re fighting for? Why is your opponent so damned cute?
Nailed It: On the Flavor Planet, skilled teams of chefs hold great influence. To sway the ruling Gourmands, though, you’ll have to work your way up. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.
Roller Derby (...is already gay enough without a clever title): The competition is fierce and your flush isn’t just from exertion. When the championship is on the line, the melodrama behind the scenes is at least as important as the showdown in the arena.
Love All: In tennis, when no one has any points, that’s called “Love All.” But that doesn’t mean thirsty tennis lesbians aren’t looking to score...
What If... Not Lesbians?
I’ll let you in on a secret: you don’t have to play a lesbian. The game plays with themes that are common for all sorts of people who are marginalized on the basis of gender and sexuality, as well as feelings that go beyond the queer experience. If you want to play thirsty sword cishets, I’m not going to stop you—just don’t be surprised if the game turns them queer.