GMing the Game
The GM is a player with a special role, one that is usually a lot of fun. As GM, you should help provoke dramatic situations for the PCs and be able to introduce others to the rules. It’s okay to learn as you go, too. The core of Thirsty Sword Lesbians is in the basic moves and the playbooks, where the information you need is at your fingertips.
As you run the game, a few simple principles will help you tell enjoyable and compelling stories with the other players.
Be Excited about the PCs and Their Stories
Help the PCs shine. Throw serious obstacles their way because you want to see how they’ll handle it, how they’ll rise to the challenge and share dramatic moments, not because you want to trip them up. Ask questions often, to flesh out the characters and their relationships and to shine a spotlight on the things that matter to them. When the PCs contribute to the narrative, particularly on an up beat, make sure that those contributions matter; move the story, have NPCs react, and make sure the PCs are active participants in the story.
Make the World Action-Packed and Perilous
No matter what tone you pick, the world has to be dangerous enough that serious consequences are on the line. This doesn’t mean that death is on the line. Instead, stakes can be things like being rejected, having a political alliance fall through, or disappointing your mentor. These consequences have to feel like real possibilities.
Make Adversaries Appealing
Now is your chance to tell the story you wanted when you shook your fist at the TV screen and shouted, “Make it gay, you cowards!” Thirsty sword lesbians may get into a lot of sword fights, but those sword fights often end with making out or with mutual understanding rather than bloodshed. Include adversaries who are appealing and relatable. Give them believable motivations, emotional attachments and conflicts, and have them poke at the PCs’ existing emotional conflicts. An adversary who represents one prong of a PC’s central emotional dilemma can be very powerful. The history of queer-coding villains and villainizing queers provides a trove of tropes to work with. Reclaim those lesbian vampires and stylish spinster villains.
Create Space for PCs to Feel Their Feelings
The PCs are going to be emotional, volatile, caring, heartbroken, and everything in between. Make sure the players have time to explore this. The mechanics will help, prompting them to Emotionally Support one another and to roleplay their Conditions, but you can also help by making sure you don’t drive the action so relentlessly that these scenes are lost or rushed. If your players aren’t leaning into this aspect of the game, you can nudge them along by choosing to dish out more Conditions as consequences for moves or simply by asking, “How does that make you feel?”
Make the Story Vivid and Personal
Describe intense scenes where people feel intense emotions. Engage all of the PCs’ senses, not just sound and taste but intuition and feelings. Combine intense descriptions with NPCs who tend towards escalation and rash action. The core excitement of Thirsty Sword Lesbians is seeing how personal relationships develop. In a fight, the game asks how the characters’ relationships will change, not who is better at swinging their sword. In an investigation, the questions are about who is involved, their motivations, and who is using the situation to their advantage. Be generous with clues and with success in general to move the story to the next interpersonal moment.
As the GM, you never roll dice. Instead, it’s your responsibility to pose difficult choices to the PCs and to adjudicate which GM move to use as your down beat when a PC rolls a 6-. You can also intervene with a GM move and complicate the PCs’ lives whenever the table gets quiet and players look to you to figure out what happens next in the story. Finally, make a GM move whenever a formidable NPC suffers a Condition.
A down beat means a narrative setback for the character, but it should be fun and move the story along; it may even delight the player. Being a fan of the characters doesn’t mean you want them to get everything they desire effortlessly; it means you’re invested in their personal conflict and goals and storyline.
Likewise, a 6- on a roll never means that “nothing happens.” It means additional drama or consequences. The character may even succeed at their immediate task, only to find that things are not what they seemed, or by terrible coincidence they’ve stumbled into new trouble.
The character triggering the down beat doesn’t need to be the target of the GM move you make, but in general the target shouldn’t be a different PC. Of course, the GM move may target NPCs that the PC cares about, or affect the world in general, or affect all the PCs, or the triggering PC plus all those who Influenced the roll with Strings. This guideline simply suggests that the PC triggering the down beat shouldn’t escape consequences. One exception would be if the PC is specifically hoping to save another PC from a threat; the triggering PC is clearly emotionally invested in the outcome, so having that threat come to fruition is a perfectly good GM move.
Tailoring to the PCs' Emotional Conflicts and Relationships
At the start of the game, make some notes about each PC’s personal conflict, especially if you already have an NPC who embodies one side of that conflict. Making a GM move is a great opportunity to pull the PC in one direction or another. The Devoted might receive orders they don’t wish to follow, or the Chosen might see the consequences of denying their destiny. The Trickster might get burned by a previous moment of vulnerability, pushing them back into their shell.
PCs who have become Smitten have given you a gift by signaling a part of the narrative that they want to bring into focus. The Smitten move will prompt them to share a fear or complication that you can and should use when you get the opportunity. You can also introduce additional complications: What goal does the Smitten character have that is at odds with a goal of the other person? What third party might be upset with the PC for pursuing their feelings?
Menu of GM Moves
The following lists are here for inspiration. If you have a neat idea for how to continue the story and complicate the PCs’ lives, go for it!
Narrative GM Moves
- Highlight an adversary’s appeal
- Make them face temptation alone
- Poke their dilemma
- Offer what they want at a high cost
- Threaten their attachments
- Offer conditional love
- A rival grows in power or standing
- Their love earns them a new enemy
- Create misunderstandings and doubt about attachments
- Give them an ultimatum
- Escalate the stakes of a conflict
Mechanical GM Moves
- Take a String on them (describe why)
- Inflict a Condition (work with them to figure out what makes the most sense)
- Make them Stagger
- Offer them XP to make an unwise decision (and potentially inflict a Condition if they don’t)
All GM moves are narrative in a sense, but some focus on introducing story twists and complications while others directly interact with the game’s mechanics. Always start with the narration. Don’t just say “They get a String on you” and move on; describe how the NPC reaches out a single finger to tilt the PC’s chin up towards them, cracks a knowing smile, and departs without another word. Then take the String.
GM Moves for Each Playbook
Each player has chosen their playbook because they’re interested in exploring its themes. When in doubt, the following suggested moves can help sharpen the conflict each character faces.
- Show them the consequences of failing to conform
- Punish their friends for tolerating them
- Describe the collateral damage (physical and otherwise)
- An admirer or challenger brings them trouble
- Fate contrives to thrust their Destiny upon them
- Judge them for associating with the lowly (or vice versa)
- Surface the problems with their Devotion
- Give them a hard choice with their Devotion at stake
- Present them with fanatics amongst allies and enemies alike
- Judge them by their prior affiliation
- Remind them of past misdeeds
- Show them hypocrisy that will go unpunished
- Betray their foolish trust
- Threaten the natural world
- Take them out of their element
- Show how they’ve hurt someone
- Tempt them with a dangerous lover
- Have the consequences catch up with them
- Present an uncomfortable demand from the Authority
- Create a contradiction between two Commandments or two Convictions
- Show them the importance of a Commandment
- Introduce a plea for help from a monster
- Judge them for their weirdness or their friends
- Judge their friends for associating with them
- Reveal their secrets, or threaten to
- Show them someone being vulnerable and suffering for it
- Threaten the things they won’t admit they care about
Formidable NPCs Trigger GM Moves upon Taking a Condition
To make conflict with dangerous NPCs more dynamic, the GM can make a GM move whenever that NPC takes a Condition. Try to make it fit the emotional theme of what they’re feeling. For instance:
- Lash out and hurt a bystander
- Break something that makes the battlefield all the more dangerous, like a structural support, a dam, a magic circle, or a power core
- Deploy a new defense or tactic, such as triggering a trap or taking a hostage
- Force the PCs to choose between letting the NPC flee versus some other disaster occurring
- Call out the PCs’ misdeeds
- Target bystanders to eliminate any witnesses
- Offer a deal
- Call in reinforcements
- Escalate the violence to a new level: from words to weapons, or weapons to lethal intent, or lethal intent to a disregard for their own well-being or collateral damage
- Call out the PCs’ own insecurities
GM Moves and Advice for Specific Story Elements
Thirsty Sword Lesbians helps you tell melodramatic and queer stories, and some common elements and options can help set the tone.
Relationship Triangles: Each PC has at least one dilemma facing their character. If each prong of the dilemma has a character pulling the PC in a conflicting direction, it’s an excellent recipe for drama. These triangles can be love triangles, but don’t have to be. When crafting a plot, consider creating triangles around key NPCs and pulling them in different directions, too.
Couples with Obstacles: Sometimes the tension in a romance isn’t whether two people will choose each other, but how they can overcome the obstacles that seem to make their love impossible. This will frequently arise for PCs, given that the Smitten questions are designed to inspire such obstacles. It can also be a very useful plot element for two NPCs. PCs will frequently want to help NPCs connect by removing obstacles to their love—be those obstacles external or internal to the characters.
Relationship Anarchy: Thirsty sword lesbians aren’t necessarily monogamous, and don’t necessarily exist in a society that demands monogamy. It’s up to you to establish what expectations and norms your characters and societies hold, and conflicting expectations are a rich source of melodrama. The PCsmightbe mature and have clear, vulnerable conversations about their needs and expectations, but, let’s be real the PCs are usually disaster lesbians.
Mystery: PCs have many tools for getting at NPC motivations once they’re face-to-face, and some PCs have other tools for gathering information. Don’t hesitate to reward these moves with juicy information! On the other hand, these tools mean that a villain who did the wicked deed because they’re Bad is going to make for a boring mystery. Give the culprits complex and sympathetic motivations and to add interest and conflict to the mystery. The Sword Lesbians of the Three Houses scenario (page 185) contains an example of this kind of story.
Intrigue: Strings are critical for a game of behind-the-scenes intrigue and maneuvering. Take some extra time to describe how Strings are acquired and spent in narrative terms, and consider awarding Strings on NPCs when the PCs dig up useful blackmail material. Structure your political scenario so that PCs have multiple options for which factions and individuals to ally with to achieve their aims, so they have agency in steering the story. If you’re ever stuck on coming up with a suitable down beat, disgrace an important ally or have them betray the PCs—perhaps unwillingly, perhaps not. You can also adjust the scale of this intrigue; social dynamics in a commune or local organization can be just as narratively rich, if not moreso, than those in the halls of great power.
Celebration: Sometimes a lighter mood is what a group needs. Make problems personal—very important to the people involved, but not world shattering. PCs are very good at setting up the NPCs they want to see together and breaking down barriers to their love. And in the worlds of Thirsty Sword Lesbians, a sword fight or two doesn’t dampen the mood of a celebration in the least. This kind of plot can be a good way to reinforce the communities to which the PCs belong.
Utopia: It can be healing and inspiring to imagine better worlds—and to explore the ways that they succeed or fail. In a utopia plotline, the status quo is pretty good. The PCs could navigate challenges to making the utopian society work, or could defend it from internal Toxic Powers or other dangers that could cause it to unravel. Many of the GM moves for an invasion can apply to threats to a utopia as well.
Invasion: The invasion plotline contemplates one or more Toxic Powers attempting to establish new dominance over a free people. They might move overtly, with superior weapons, or they might corrupt the free society, or orchestrate or take advantage of a seemingly impersonal affliction. As with the revolution plotline, the tone here can vary between power fantasy and a focus on realistic tactics and approaches. It’s also helpful to establish some factions within the free society that have rivalries and differences the Toxic Powers can exploit.
Custom GM Moves for Toxic Powers Trying to Change the Status Quo
- Seize a person or resource
- Destroy something of symbolic significance
- Use shock and awe to terrorize the target population
- Unleash terrible biological or magical weapons
- Break an alliance
- Make an Authority punch down
- Discredit or frame opponents
- Deny the problem
- Divert blame
- Embrace the doom
Revolution: In a revolution plotline, one or more Toxic Powers dominate the people of the setting, and the story revolves around ending that domination and building a better society. You can tell this story as one of exceptional heroes doing larger-than-life deeds, or you can take a grittier approach and try to explore how a humble band of sword lesbians could more realistically go about trying to change a toxic world order by building community and coalition. Both approaches are valid, and it’s useful to get on the same page with your group about which approach you take.
Use the advice in Setting the Tone (page 108) to slide the scale from power fantasy to punk underdogs as desired. It’s also helpful to come up with multiple interest groups involved in the revolution, with some aligned goals and others that are divergent. Give each group at least one NPC who acts as the face of that group with the PCs.
Custom GM Moves for Toxic Powers Preserving the Unjust Status Quo
- Impose new restrictions on behavior
- Abduct opponents
- Make an example of someone
- Scapegoat a vulnerable group
- Take advantage of invasive surveillance
Complacent Privileged Population
- Call the Authorities
- Center themselves in the struggle
- Take resources needed by others
Well-Meaning Liabilities to the Cause
- Make oppression appear justified
- Alienate true allies
- Tip your hand to the Authority
Setting the Tone
Your selection of GM moves can change the feel of the game. Try to get on the same page as the players about what the tone will be, and be sure to check in during play.
By default, the game assumes you’re going to use a mix of gentle and more forceful GM moves and that serious consequences will come after foreshadowing, or an opportunity to Defy Disaster, or when the PCs leap headlong into those consequences. The game encourages brash, bold, adventurous play by making characters competent, but also expects that characters are taking Conditions and giving away Strings—these consequences arefun!
If you lean more towards gentler moves, the game will feel more like a power fantasy or escapism. The same is true if you give PCs many opportunities to Defy Disaster before drastic consequences land.
Conversely, if you lean into harder moves and supply harsher consequences for down beats, the tone will be more dire and intense.
In addition to setting the overall tone of the game, you can also increase the danger posed by a particular threat or situation by shifting these levers. In a climactic encounter, a PC might have to Defy Disaster or even Stagger to get the right narrative positioning to use an effective move. For instance, either move might be appropriate if the Avatar of the Goddess of Conquest is at the center of a lightning aura and the PC has to get close to seduce her.
Varying Story Focus by Choice of GM Move
The GM’s choice of move also affects the focus of the story. The GM may focus on actions, feelings, plot, or another aspect of the story, while the severity of the move sets the tone. The overall tone should be fairly constant, so that players can know how risky their actions are, while the story focus can change from moment to moment to fuel the drama and provide variety.
The following are multiple options for narrating a GM move in response to the same down beat rolled by a player. These options are first sorted by what story aspect they focus on, and then range from soft moves that create the most heroic tone to hard moves for a more grim or challenging tone. If your players want to face serious setbacks and adversity, opt for the harder moves right away. Otherwise, start with a soft move that signals imminent danger and follow up with a hard move on a second down beat or whenever the danger has already been clearly established.
Example: Varying Story Focus
Hannah the Scoundrel has infiltrated a ball where the aristocracy of the Void Empire has gathered. She is trying to Entice the Imperial Countess Veruca through witty banter during a fast-paced dance when she rolls a down beat. The GM has many options for what to say next:
Action Focus: The Scoundrel Attracts Dangerous Attention
“Veruca laughs and holds you close. As you spin, you see a pale man in a pristine suit glaring at you. His eyes light up with recognition the same moment you remember him: the commandant from your time in Imperial Flight School”
Soft Consequence: “He calls you out and tells the guards to arrest you. They stomp onto the dance floor. What do you do?”
Risk of Moderate Consequence: “He calls you out and tells the guards to arrest you. You’d better Defy Disaster to avoid being thrown in the dungeon.”
Moderate Consequence: “He calls you out and calls the guards, who haul you off the dance floor and drag you towards the dungeon. What do you do?”
Hard Consequence: “He calls you out and calls the guards, who haul you off the dance floor and toss you into the dungeon. What do you do?”
Feelings Focus: Veruca Gets the Better of the Scoundrel
Soft Consequence: “By the end of the dance your heart is racing, and she takes a String on you. Do you let her kiss you?”
Moderate Consequence: “By the end of the dance your heart is racing. She leans in close, as if to kiss your cheek, then whispers in your ear: I had no idea rebel spies could be such good dancers.’ When she pulls back, she’s grinning like the cat who caught the canary. Mark a Condition—how about Frightened or Insecure?”
Serious Consequence: “By the end of the dance your heart is racing. She maneuvers you near the wall, then presses you back against it to kiss you. Just then, your fiance arrives at the dance. You’re not sure what she’s doing at an Imperial ball, but she doesn’t seem pleased when she sees you and Veruca. Mark a Condition—perhaps Guilty?”
Plot Focus: The Scoundrel Learns Dire News
“This has been fun,’ Veruca says. But I’m not at liberty to go any further. I’ve just negotiated my marriage to the High King of the Vertiak’”
Soft Reveal: “With his fleets added to our own, the rebels will be crushed within the year!’”
Moderate Reveal: “He’s already begun his invasion of the rebel capital. It’s to be his wedding present to me.’”
Hard Reveal: “He’s already begun his invasion of the rebel capital. It’s to be his wedding present to me.’ Hannah, hearing this is a Staggering blow.”
Narrative Positioning and Setting the Stakes
The term “narrative positioning” refers to the current state of the story that players are collectively telling at the table, especially in relation to what possible next steps in the story might be. Nothing in the moves tells you that you can’t sword-fight someone on the other side of the planet; that’s a matter of not having the narrative positioning to start that fight without inserting some other story beats first. The moves trigger when you do something in the fiction, and narrative positioning determines when you can do that thing and trigger the moves, as well as what the range of consequences might be. One role of the GM is to fairly adjudicate narrative positioning, informed by the principles of the game and the tone of your story.
The game principles tell the GM to be excited about the PCs and to make the story vivid and visceral. The GM shouldn’t be stingy with narrative positioning, but should push the PCs into positions that require them to take risks. Above all, the GM should treat the players fairly with respect to one another.
If a player starts to have a sense that their understanding of their PC’s capabilities isn’t the same as the GM’s, that can be extremely discouraging. This might be a disconnect about the character, or the two people might have very different imaginations of what kind of approaches are effective when overcoming obstacles or interacting with people.
In general, if something is either plausible or in-genre, allow it. If you’re not sure how it would work or how the character learned the skill, be curious and ask. This isn’t a game where every cool thing about a PC needs to be justified by something written on their character sheet. Likewise, your players have different experiences and abilities from you, the GM. Do not tell the wheelchair user (or anyone else) that their wheelchair-using sword lesbian can’t duel as well as any other character.
Whenever adjudicating narrative positioning, err on the side of saying “yes” when you’re able to, even if it means you need to add a caveat or tweak the stakes. A few flavors of “yes” to try out:
- “Yes, and that doesn’t require a roll, you just do it”
- “Yes, roll your move”
- “Yes, if you’re willing to climb onto that precarious branch to get a better angle”
- “Yes, if you do it that way you don’t need to roll, but it will be really loud”
- “Yes, roll, but if you get a down beat it’ll be really bad, since you’ll be exposed to the Sorceress”
- “Yes, but doing this will make the Martian Champion much less interested in helping you”
You can also ask questions to get on the same page as the players and highlight elements of the PCs’ stories:
- “How do you picture that working?”
- “What are you trying to achieve?”
- “Where did you learn how to do that?”
- “Do you think the Sorceress taught you to do that when you were her apprentice?”
- “Was this kind of dancing forbidden by the Authority when you were growing up? Why were you willing to risk it anyway?”
If you have to say “no” to remain true to the characters or the agreed-upon tone, say “no.” This might come up if someone is confused about the state of the narrative, in which case it’s a simple matter of clarifying what has already been established.
You might also need to use “no” if players try to treat NPCs as dolls to control instead of as people. An important safety tool built into the rules is your authority as GM to determine that an NPC won’t go along with a player’s will, or an XP bribe, or the lure of clearing a Condition. In general, NPCs are open and vulnerable with PCs inThirsty Sword Lesbiansto help build stories about connection, but the ability for an NPC to say “no” or “not unless you do X first” or “never in a million years” is important to telling those stories in a meaningful, non-creepy way.
Using Countdowns to Build Tension
Some plot points are so dire that it would feel unfair to spring them on the story as the result of a single down beat. But the threat of such dire consequences can be important to create tension.
In these circumstances, consider a countdown of two or more steps. A countdown tracks the progress of a long-term process, usually a threat. On the first down beat, the GM might narrate how the threat is revealed, signaling future danger. On subsequent down beats, if the PCs don’t address the threat, then more steps of the countdown are checked off, with increasingly dire consequences, until the threat comes to pass.
Show the players how many steps there are and what’s at stake, so the countdown can build tension and so they know, when they’re one step away from disaster, that any down beat could mean they must reckon with the catastrophe that has been looming.
When the PCs take steps to defeat the threat, either erase the countdown if the threat has been dealt with, or add more steps to represent how serious of a setback the PCs have dealt.
To create a more grim tone, write several countdowns so the PCs have to choose which disasters to avert and face the consequences of the others, and of their choices.
Example Countdown: Short-Term
The PCs have infiltrated the pirate moot, pretending to be Captain Fang and her crew. Sayyida, the GM, wants the risk of discovery to hang over their heads, but for them to have a clear idea of how much suspicion they’re attracting. She crafts a countdown with the following steps, visible for all to see:
- Whispers of suspicion
- Someone confronts the false Fang
- The jig is up
During the scene, for the first down beat, Sayyida narrates that another pirate, One-Eyed Dragon, has heard a rumor that Captain Fang was killed by the authorities and voices their suspicion. Some bravado and bluster is all it takes to move past this rumor.
The PCs, though, roll a second down beat during the scene. Captain Nightshade corners the false Fang and whispers that she knows she’s a fake, but she won’t blow her cover as long as she follows Nightshade’s lead when the Pirate Council votes.
One more down beat, and the ruse may be over...
Example Countdown: Long-Term
The Void Empire has launched a propaganda campaign disguised as “harmless” entertainment. In fact, the holovids being sent to the Neutral Systems are crafted in concert with the Void Legion and underwritten by the few hundred people who own most of the Empire’s wealth. Through subtle and not-so-subtle storytelling, they reinforce the toxic norms of the Empire. The PCs are also trying to win over the Neutral Systems, building community, helping people, and blowing minds with Reevon the Chosen’s heartfelt music. When the PCs learn of the Empire’s plan, Mildred the GM writes out a countdown to represent the Empire’s progress:
- Blockbuster holovid premiers
- Children emulating Imperial values
- Imperial actors schmooze with influential figures
- Neutral Worlds favor the Empire
- Neutral Worlds concede to Imperial Commandments
During the first session, on a down beat, the PCs learn that Reevon is being bumped from zir stage date to make way for an Imperial holovid, a superhero story about a manly man who punches the evil race of aliens and gets the girl—with backup from the Void Legion.
Because this is a long-term countdown, the GM doesn’t advance it every single down beat. After another session or two, the PCs encounter children on a neutral planet pretending to fight evil aliens.
The next time the countdown advances, a gala is announced on a neutral world, hosting Imperial actors. The PCs decide they can’t let things continue and sneak into the gala, exposing one of the Imperials as a spy and upstaging them with an impromptu performance.
Mildred the GM could decide that this is a setback, and add steps to the countdown, but instead she decides it was decisive enough that the Empire’s scheme is over and they’ll have to try something new.
Structure of Play
Structure of a Session
- Introduce or recap
- GM takes generic Strings
- The PCs react to events that call for heroes or proactively pursue their own goals
- Build to a climax
- End after a satisfying encounter or on a cliffhanger
- Resolve the End of Session move
Step 1: Introduce the game, if you’re playing for the first time, or invite the players to recount generally what happened last time. This is particularly valuable if any of the players missed a session. If this is the first session, consider using the Game Start Guide (page 210) available for free at SwordLesbians.com.
Step 2: The GM takes generic Strings equal to the number of PCs.
Step 3: If the PCs have a clear direction in mind, they can begin pursuing it. If not, the GM should provide plot hooks—events or situations that invite the PCs to intervene to solve problems or take advantage of opportunities. When in doubt, look to the agendas of your Toxic Powers.
Step 4: Escalate the action or the emotional stakes of the story, honoring the narrative contributions of the PCs.
Step 5: When you have about an hour left in your session, work towards a dramatic moment that can serve as a climax for the session. A sword fight is classic, but a heated reunion, a daring heist, or a confession of love while fleeing the authorities are just a few other options. If you run out of time, end on a cliffhanger instead, but ideally you can resolve the climax and have a moment to breathe before you end the session.
Step 6: Resolve the End of Session move. This will likely trigger some Advances, which can be resolved now or between sessions.
Step 7: Finally, take a moment to take stock of how you feel and how the other players are doing. Think about what went well and what was challenging. If anything emotionally difficult came up, see if people want to discuss it. Remember not to pressure anyone to discuss or justify a boundary. Some people will feel put on the spot if asked to speak privately, others will not want to discuss with the entire group, and some might only later realize that they need to course-correct something that happened in the session. Remember also that the relationships between characters don’t represent the relationships between the players. In-character flirtation doesn’t mean another player wants that to translate into real life. Likewise, getting angry and frustrated in-character can be fun, but getting angry and frustrated with other players is a sign that the group should check in or otherwise work through the issue as compassionate human beings, rather than trying to use the game mechanics as a proxy. Hopefully, all went well during your session and you have new stories to tell about the exploits of your thirsty sword lesbians!
How Many Sessions to Play
Thirsty Sword Lesbiansis a game with natural arcs of emotional development for each character, and the players have a great deal of control over how rapidly that emotional development occurs. It’s certainly possible to have a satisfying character arc in a single session, but emotional conflicts can also be complex enough to take far longer to explore. Additionally, characters can Advance to a new playbook and continue developing, facing a new emotional conflict and growing through it.
The important thing is to communicate your expectations about roughly how long you’ll play with a group of characters, so that everyone can calibrate their story progression accordingly. When you start to feel your plot threads and character arcs wrapping up, that’s a good time to call for a dramatic final session or scene to conclude your story.
Pacing a Short-Term Game of One to Three Sessions
In a short game, go hard on romantic entanglements and playbook dilemmas. Focus on existing elements and a simple scenario. You can tell a complete story in a single session ofThirsty Sword Lesbians, lasting about 3-5 hours. To make this work best, come prepared with a scenario, a flexible plot, and NPCs. The Worldbuilding Worksheet (page 222) will help you generate all the elements of the setting that you need, or you can use a pre-written adventure like the ones in this book. For playbook elements such as the Seeker’s Authority or the Infamous’s villainous past, encourage a choice that connects the PCs to existing elements of the world instead of creating new organizations.
For your plot, figure out what the NPCs are after, and what would happen if there were no PCs to get in their way. Come up with a handful of situations where a dramatic confrontation is possible (potentially with swords). Then, develop a simple plot hook or two, and be flexible about how the PCs pursue what’s going on. Any dramatic confrontation can act as the satisfying climax of your story in a one-shot game. Bear in mind that players probably won’t engage with all the material you prepare, and they’ll also probably take significantly longer than you expect when they do.
Pacing a Long-Term Game of Four or More Sessions
For longer play, you have more opportunities to build your story off of the specific dilemmas and entanglements of the PCs. Use the narrative GM moves to introduce obstacles and complications. After a few sessions, start shifting the focus to existing plot elements, working towards a season or series finale. Push hard to complicate romances, but also let characters have their joy. The mechanics will help you; down beats and certain moves like Fight take a toll on characters, encouraging those tender moments of support, friendship, and love.
How to End the Game
When you collectively feel you’re done with the story you wanted to tell, or when you’re running out of time, plan for a climax in the action and time for some reflection afterward. Give the players an opportunity to narrate an epilogue for their characters, covering either an overview of their life after the story or a particular scene that takes place shortly after the events of the story.
Advanced GMing: When the Dice Go Rogue
Dramatic narratives benefit from a mix of narrative beats. In general, the randomness of the dice contributes to this mix, but every group will eventually have a session where the PCs defy probability. This is okay.
First of all, the game provides some tools to facilitate dramatic comebacks: PCs gain XP on down beats and dangerous NPCs trigger GM moves upon taking a Condition.
Second, players can spend Strings to Influence rolls and seek the tone they want.
Third, as long as you are making sure that your down beats and up beats both move the story in new directions, even a series of the same kind of beat can be satisfying. Keep raising the stakes or force agonizing choices. Every PC is conflicted or struggling, every NPC has reckless choices they can make.
The risk of a streak of down beats is that it can be a downer, but PCs can still be heroic even when it comes at great cost. Just don’t let events stagnate by narrating down beats that fail to move the story forward. In particular, character failure as a down beat poses a serious risk of stagnation. Consider escalations, complications, dilemmas, and costs instead.
A streak of up beats poses the risk that the narrative will be unsatisfying because the PCs overrun any obstacles to their goals without any of the difficult moments that reveal their inner conflicts. In this case, the GM can introduce opportunities that force PCs to make difficult and character-revealing choices. Make them choose between two good options, such as sticking to a plan that’s going well or leaping into danger because they have a rare opportunity to achieve something above and beyond what they expected. The GM should also honor the contributions that PCs make with their up beats and ensure that their choices matter.
Long-Form Example of Play
This example highlights the principles, mechanics, and safety concepts that help you tell fun stories celebrating queer love and power.
Example of play
The PCs are on Ghost Station, a neutral trading hub at the border between the Free Stars and the Void Empire. The Empire has demanded the Free Stars send a champion to die in a duel with the Imperial Princess or face a full-scale invasion.
Mildred (GM): Reevon, one of your admirers finds you after your performance, pushing through the crowd. Her eyes are wide with urgency in an angular, dark-skinned face, and her hair is dyed with your emblem.
Anita (Reevon): Clearly a true fan.
Mildred (GM), as the NPC: “Mixter Reevon! The Imperials have just arrived in the system with an entire carrier group!”
Anita (Reevon): “I never expected the Princess to do anything in half-measures. This just means a bigger audience when I defeat her tomorrow!”
Dazzline (Temoc): Mmph, that grin. Alright, I’m officially Smitten with Reevon.
Mildred (GM): You’re not the only one! The crowd is already pumped up after zir concert, and a cheer goes up. Let’s go ahead and resolve that Smitten move, though: say why you’re Smitten, give zir a String, and answer the Smitten question from your playbook.
Dazzline (Temoc): Oh, I know ze’ll never notice me, but that doesn’t change my feelings. Ze faces Destiny with grace and style I’ll never have, and I feel like ze understands my obligation to my Devotion better than anyone. The Devoted Smitten question is “How does pursuing them conflict with your Devotion?” Well, I’m supposed to be the shield, I’m supposed to take the hits so no one else has to, but ze is Destined to fight and be a champion of freedom until it takes zir life. If I pursue zir romantically, I’ll have to respect that even though my Devotion says to leap in to protect zir.
Edith (Linette): Do you think it’s obvious to Linette how you feel?
Dazzline (Temoc): Sure! Temoc’s not exactly subtle.
Edith (Linette): Okay. I come over and put a hand on your shoulder. “Don’t worry, Temoc. If Reevon loses the duel tomorrow, I’ll help zir haunt you. That way you can still be together, no matter what!” I’m trying to offer Emotional Support.
Dazzline (Temoc): Um. I don’t think that feels very supportive. “Ze isn’t going to die! Why would you even say that?” Of course I’m terrified that ze is going to die. I think I’m going to storm off and go figure out if the Imperials are coming aboard tonight.
Edith (Linette): “I just wanted to help.” Linette is definitely following Temoc, though.
Mildred (GM): Is Reevon staying here or going? Does ze even notice the others leave?
Anita (Reevon): Ze notices, but too late. “They’re just gone and didn’t say goodbye.” I’ll have my Entourage put together an afterparty and just numb away my feelings.
Mildred (GM): Are you trying to do the destructive action to clear the Hopeless Condition, or...
Anita (Reevon): Oh, no, I don’t have any Conditions. I’m just partying—and trying to share the spotlight because Reevon got a ton of attention last scene, so it’d be great to focus on Temoc and Linette.
Mildred (GM): Sounds good. So Temoc is heading to the spacedock and Linette is trailing after her. You’re almost there when you see the flash of Imperial colors and hear jackboots stomping on the metallic flooring.
Dazzline (Temoc): I grit my teeth and walk right down the middle of the corridor to get in their way.
Mildred (GM): There are five of them, with a tall, muscular woman in silver armor and a red cape at the center. She has a short bob of black hair with a streak of grey, and pale skin. She seems to recognize the emblem of your Devotion and sneers, coming to a halt uncomfortably close. “We only came to kill one of you xenos, but give me an excuse and—”
Edith (Linette): I need to X that.
Mildred (GM): Oh, thanks for speaking up. What are you X-ing, if you’re comfortable saying?
Edith (Linette): Yeah. I know the Empire is xenophobic and nasty and that’s fine to have in the setting, but I don’t want to deal with slurs or anything too close to real life, if that makes sense.
Mildred (GM): For sure, thanks. So, rewind that. She stomps up. “You looking to start something? I’ll be glad to finish it.”
Dazzline (Temoc): Hmm, no, I need her to start it. I’d better try to Figure Her Out. “You’re Eleanor the Scythe, aren’t you?”
Mildred (GM), as Eleanor: “The one who harvests the champions of your order like wheat, that’s right.” Go ahead and roll it and we can roleplay the conversation and work in the answers to the questions.
Dazzline (Temoc) rolls a 10.
Dazzline (Temoc): Ha! First I want to know how I could get her to attack me.
Mildred (GM): Okay. So she’s started with some barbs at you, do you want to reply in kind?
Dazzline (Temoc): Sure.
Mildred (GM): Well, as soon as you mention the Imperial Princess, Eleanor goes a little rigid, and you can see her jaw tense. You think you could get her mad enough to start this fight if you insult the Princess over something that she or Eleanor would be sensitive about.
Dazzline (Temoc): Very doable. But I wonder, what are her feelings towards the Imperial Princess?
Mildred (GM): Well you mentioned her, and Eleanor replies, “Keep her name off your lips! Her Royal Highness is doing you the honor of coming here herself to display her exquisite prowess with the blade, bravely taking up her sword to defend the Empire.” Her cheeks get a slight flush to them and you’re pretty sure her devotion to the Princess isn’t just a matter of duty.
Dazzline (Temoc): Ah, nooo, now she’s relatable! She’s evil me. All the more reason we should fight I guess.
Edith (Linette): Or! Instead! Linette hustles up from behind her corner to take Temoc by the arm. “Excuse me, your Imperial murderousness! I just need to borrow Temoc for, um, gay stuff! For a minute!”
Dazzline (Temoc): “No, wait, I’m in the middle of—”
Edith (Linette), holding up a String she holds on Temoc: There’s a shiny XP in it for you if you let Linette drag you off.
Dazzline (Temoc): Fine, I’ll do the reasonable thing...
Mildred (GM): Eleanor blushes at your mention of “gay stuff” but waves you away as you go.
Edith (Linette): “Temoc, why are you provoking the people who have enough firepower parked outside to explode a planet? Half the ghosts on this station were killed by Imperials and I’m—er—they’re worried about you!”
Dazzline (Temoc): “Did you see her reaction? I think she’s in love with her Princess.”
Edith (Linette), casting her eyes downward: “Yes, well, you’re very perceptive about that kind of thing.”
Dazzline (Temoc): “If the Princess feels the same way, we might be able to get them together! Get them to see the error of the Empire’s homophobic ways—maybe Reevon won’t have to fight her at all.”
Edith (Linette): “You’re a really good friend, you know that? Ze’s so lucky to have you, you know, watching zir back.”
Dazzline (Temoc): “You’re a good friend, too! I don’t want anything bad to happen to either of you, ever. I’ll do whatever it takes to protect you both.”
Edith (Linette): Aw! Linette wants to hug you.
Dazzline (Temoc), opening arms wide to pantomime the hug: Let’s do it! Temoc’s a good hugger, like she could easily lift Linette up, but she doesn’t.
Mildred (GM): You are too sweet! That seemed like it could be Emotional Support. Temoc, did that feel like opening up for you?
Dazzline (Temoc): She’ll open up some more. “In a way, I kind of see some of myself in Eleanor.” It’s clear that I’m rooting for their romance across social strata as a proxy for me and Reevon.
Edith (Linette): Ouf.
Mildred (GM): Do you want to spend a String for +3 on the Emotional Support move?
Edith (Linette): No, I’m not attached to any particular result here. A down beat could definitely be fun.
Edith (Linette) rolls a 5.
Edith (Linette): Mmhm. Like that. Gonna mark that XP and feel completely rejected over here.
Mildred (GM): Taking a Condition seems right—are you feeling more Insecure or Hopeless?
Edith (Linette): Hopeless sounds good.
Mildred (GM): Great. I’m also going to say that Temoc notices one of Eleanor’s soldiers peering at the two of you and you think she might have overheard part of your conversation. So, Linette, what does it look like for you to become Hopeless?
Edith (Linette): I think I want to retreat into the company of ghosts for a while. Mm, no, that’s boring. Oh! Oh! No, I think she takes it more in the “nothing matters” direction. “So, Temoc, you want to find out what the Imperial Princess thinks of Eleanor? Let’s go ask her. Dance with me.” The two of them were hugging, so I think she just puts one hand on the small of Temoc’s back and takes her arm in the other hand and starts leading her in a dance.
Dazzline (Temoc): “Uh, okay. I don’t exactly see how.”
Edith (Linette): And that’s when this icy curtain of black stars in white void sweeps over us and we cross into the ghost world.
Mildred (GM): Amazing. That’s one of your Spooky Witch moves?
Edith (Linette): Yeah! And I roll 8! Meaning I don’t arrive where I intend, I arrive almost too late, or I lose something important in the process. GM’s choice.
Mildred (GM): Where were you trying to go?
Edith (Linette): The Princess’s bedchambers on her ship.
Mildred (GM): Mmhmm. You could lose Temoc, but I don’t want to split you all up even more right now. Oh! I know! So, Linette, you don’t know where the Imperial Princess’s bedchamber is, so you have to orient to the Princess herself. The ghosts guide you to her, but they seem angry. These are ghosts that were clinging to the Imperial ship, people killed by its previous commander, Queen Annavere. When your dance reopens the veil to the living world, these angry ghosts reach in and snatch the sleeping Princess from her bed, and the two of you tumble to a stop on top of it. It’s very soft and comfy, but you can already hear a guard calling from outside wondering what that strange noise was. Before we get to that Anita, I want to check in—should we find a way to get Reevon into the action?
Anita (Reevon): I was wondering if the Princess might wind up at Reevon’s party. Maybe it should be a masquerade party.
Edith (Linette): We could comm Reevon for help.
Dazzline (Temoc), burying her face in her hands: “This is so embarrassing!” Let’s do it. I’m going to drag Linette into the bathroom or something to make it harder for the guards to hear, and call Reevon.
Anita (Reevon), loudly: “Hey Teez! You’re missing the party!”
Dazzline (Temoc) and Edith (Linette): “Shhhh!”