A post in which I prove Anna Kreider correct re her statement that The Watch is inspiring conversations about masculinity

watch-shirt.gifThe other day, I was reading up on a new RPG called The Watch, a game developed by Anna Kreider of Go Make Me a Sandwich and Andrew Medeiros of Northfire Games.  The premise as described is that a nebulous evil known as The Shadow is encroaching on civilization must be fought back by women and “female-of-center people”. What players do in this game and how they fight this Shadow is not described in any of the promotional posts I’ve read. It is, however, explicitly said that “The Shadow” represents “the Patriarchy” and you have to make saving throws against it any time you are “engaging in toxic behavior”.

It clicked in my head that The Watch has a very similar core premise as James Desborough’s gonzo Japanese Horror game Kagai!: Guro, Gore, Girls.147596

-Both games feature a mysterious existential evil force that is encroaching upon civilization.

-Both games prominently feature strong female characters fighting against this encroaching darkness.

The reason for why these games are female-centric and what they say about the masculine gender and masculinity are very different, however, and that’s what I’d like to talk about.

The Watch takes a very hamfisted approach to its message on gender. The Watch is described as “a low-fantasy game about women (and other female-of-center people) who are fighting to retake their homeland from the Shadow – a darkly sorcerous threat that has the power to possess men and use them for its own violent ends.”  Beyond this being a feminist’s game about women, the in-world and mechanical reasons why males would be absent from your party is that men are way more likely to be bad people because of masculinity: their 1st level Save vs. Being a Shitlord is 20. I kid, I kid, but, as “the Shadow is toxic masculinity” and ”the idea of “man” is what makes them vulnerable to its influence”, it’s probably safe to say that Men wouldn’t last a day adventuring in the Watch without losing their mind and posting Sad Pepes all over ye  Womyn’s Watch Barracks.

On the other hand, a just-for-laughs game like Kagai! actually has a fairly nuanced below-the-surface message on masculine disposability paired with its kick-ass girl-power. Sure, the game is about kendo girls, archery champs, and cool hacker chicks fighting weird monsters from other dimensions in between classes (because girls should be able to fight monsters too!), but there’s an important reason for why the party will likely be all female and why there will be few male characters in the setting: all boys and men who can hold a weapon are sent out of the city to nearly certain death to try to protect the women inside. There are only a few men who will be found in the city, and most of them are looked down on as cowards – those who were wealthy enough to buy their way out of service, those who left the front as deserters, and those who were too sickly or maimed to continue fighting.

The girls in Kagai! fight because they choose to, either for fun, to prove themselves just as good as men, or because they feel they have to (the perimeter defense is imperfect, hence why some girls choose to be monster hunters). Most of the characters in Kagai! would’ve lost fathers and brothers in the war.  Kagai! looks at and asks why women and girls would fight, and one of those reasons may be the men in their life who have suffered or died to protect them. That the women and girls, whom countless men are dying to protect, are in a situation where they may have to fight is indicative of how precarious society and humanity’s situations are in Kagai!  This message on masculine disposability vs feminine worth is subtly worked into the game, as it’s woven into the settings materials and character generation mechanics. It’s not the sort of thing that would necessarily come up in discussion during play, but you would probably think about it later.

I think it’s worth noting that the undercurrent of male disposability in Kagai! is featured nowhere in the promotional descriptions on Desborough’s blog.  Here’s his pitch:

The world has been invaded by monsters straight out of people’s nightmares and most of the world population is dead, or at war. One place is a little bit safer, a hyper-consumerist, high-tech Japanese arcology. Most of the remaining population is women and you’re a class of schoolgirls from the arcology who do a bit of vigilante monster hunting on the side, in a game styled after the hyper-kinetic, b-movie gorefests of Japanese B-list cinema. The system emphasises team tactics and differs from many games in that you roll first and then describe what you do from what you’ve rolled, rather than vice versa. You can also save dice for following turns, or push them into a pool for everyone to use.

Even in that short paragraph, I already have a much better idea of what this game will be like than I’ve been able to glean from at least three whole posts about The Watch.

While the Watch seems designed to promote girl power while attacking a strawman, Kagai! has powerful girls in a sandbox that can either be used to explore gender or social issues or to have an awesome time fighting weird alien monsters in-between cramming for finals.

You could probably stat The Patriarchy in Kagai!, though, if you really wanted to fight it.

Awhile back, I did a review of Kagai! which you can read here.

Review – Kagai!

Disclosure: I have previously received a promotional copy of Postmortem Studio’s Project (reviewed here). I purchased a pdf copy of Kagai! to review.  

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Kagai! is an over-the-top violent gonzo RPG meant to bring the madcap antics of Japanese extreme monster horror to your gaming table.  And if that’s your sort of thing, this simple system does a pretty good job of it!

One thing I’d like to give particular kudos for is that Kagai! admits right off the bat that it’s a niche product and will probably be played by people who game so doesn’t waste time on a lengthy “What is Role Playing and what are Role Playing Game?” section.  Those have a place, but 99 times out of 100, any independently released game product is going to be purchased by someone with a huge stack of games who knows what RPGs are.

The basic premise of Kagai! involves a post-apocalyptic future in which monsters have overrun the entire world save for an overcrowded self-sustaining city enclave in Japan.  A decadent consumerist culture is forced upon the surviving populace to distract them from the horrors of the outside world.  While the enclave is supposedly “safe”, monsters are still able to get in sometimes and wreak havoc. Players are expected to play as high-school girls who have decided to rebel against the system and take up their own fight against the monsters who are killing their friends and families.  While players may play as male characters, there are heavy restrictions/penalties and should be considered something of an exception.  The in-game rationale for this is the enclave’s population is 95% female; unless they are able to evade service by means of wealth, influence or corruption, all males are pressed into service at age 12 and sent off to the front to keep monsters and demons at bay.  As such, any men left in the city are either horribly and disfiguringly injured, cowards or rich kids whose parents managed to keep them from being conscripted.

It’s good that the conventions of the genre are stated up-front: characters will die and it will be gruesome.  People who like games that mollycoddle their characters (newschool D&D for instance) will suffer the butthurt and will suffer it hard.  That person who threw a fit when their Paladin got its eyes gouged out and arm melted off before being impaled on spikes?  Don’t play this game with that guy.  In fact, just don’t play with that guy.  But really, don’t play this with that guy.

Character generation is the really the meat of this game; the rest of the system is potatoes with some butter and maybe some salt, but character generation is steak with all the trimmings.  While the whole of Kagai! itself could only be lifted from the explicit setting to varying degrees, the character generation system could be used across multiple systems/settings to create characters and a party dynamic.  It’s pretty neat!

Name Generator – It’s a nice idea, but the sort of person playing this can probably come up with 20+ female Japanese names on the fly quicker than I can roll 3d6 6 times and look up base saving throws.

Boys Trauma Table – The setting-based restrictions on male characters actually offers some interesting opportunities for nuanced characters.  It’s a two tiered table where you determine the type and specifics of the various injuries (or class-related reasons) the male character might have that explains why they aren’t off at the front.

Sexuality – Interesting choice to possibly force players out of their norm by having to roll for their characters’ sexuality.  While the probability renders the likelihood of a gender-queer identity higher than we see in the real world, given the setting, I’d actually expect a much higher prevalence of opportunistic bi-sexuality.  I’m reminded a bit of how in the womanless world of Saber Marionette, dudes would rather have robot women than be gay and the one actual gay guy who was in love with the protagonist was seen as kind of an outlier.

Relationships- One of the cool bits that could be borrowed for creating ad hoc party dynamics with slightly more depth than “you all just happen to know each other” is the Best Friend/Don’t Like component. Players roll to see who their best friend is and who they are at odds with.  These will either be other players, an NPC or oneself.  In the last case, friendship with oneself means you’re a loner and disliking oneself would be indicative of a character with depression.  For good measure, disliking the character your best friends with could indicate a fairly troubled relationship (think every anime with the two girls who are always yelling at each other and fighting, then someone tells the main character “They’ve known each other since kindergarten; they’re best friends, but you wouldn’t know it.”)

There are a few other tables which determine a character’s family background (mother, father, family business, siblings) and the character’s motivation.  The character’s main weapon is also randomly selected from a two tiered 2d6 table.  Kagai! features a pretty impressive list of weapons (even if it is missing the Jo), each with unique abilities.

I’m bad at maths, so don’t hold me to this, but for female characters there are roughly 2.4 million background variations this generator can come up with, discounting anything requiring re-rolls and party relationship options.  Yowzah!

The rest of character creation is point-buy stats.  Physical stats are pretty straight-forward, but a novel idea is having the character’s school course load, including elective credits, make up a part of the character’s fundamental knowledge/ability base.  So, going to Gym Class would be akin to investing in a thief’s ‘acrobatics’ skill, only more interesting because it’s actually relevant to the character, story and setting.

Gameplay is simple success-based dice-rolling mechanic similar to what White Wolf uses, only Kagai! uses d6s instead of d10s.  Tasks are on a 5 point scale with difficulty determining the number of successes needed to accomplish tasks.  Players can act cooperatively by pushing and pulling dice to a pool for other players to use later or to hold for following turns with the pools lasting for the duration of a scene.  It took me a minute to wrap my head around how the push/pull worked, but helpful examples of gameplay are included:

“Ami is trying to hotwire a mechanical door. She has Smarts 3 and Design & Technology 3 for a total of six dice. She rolls six dice and gets two successes, a five and a six. The door is a tricky prospect, needing three successes to be opened. Ami carries the five over (pull) and pushes the six into the middle. Nezuko is trying to pry open the door while Ami works on it. She has Power 3, Gym 2 and the pry-bar gives her an extra two dice for a total of 7. She also grabs the pushed dice from the pool – for a total of 8 dice, but still only gets two successes, it’s still not open.”

In combat this translates more to setting up combos against baddies, where extra successes can be carried over or passed to other players.

Unlike a lot of games, including ones with similar systems, Kagai! offers the opportunity to target stat damage instead of HP by doing horrific and disfiguring attacks.  Bonus points for gruesome descriptions.  Of course this works both ways.  And in-line with the genre Kagai! is modeled after, one can get some stats back by means of sewing and supergluing one’s appendages back on and the like.

Monsters are created on point based systems similar to characters, with some examples and suggested lists of how many points different degrees of monsters should have.  The “Monster Machine” section offers a lot of different abilities and attributes beyond simple stats that monsters might have, like being boneless or having acid blood… you could make an incorporeal vampire made of sticky razor blades!

There is a large section of Kagai! dedicated to outlining and describing the city’s locations and amenities so that a GM can make their own maps or just wing it to fit their story.  But what’s impressive is that the descriptions really go into the visceral details, such as sounds, smells and even the taste of the air, stuff that you don’t usually get or expect from most game content that adds a lot to immersion.

One of the few places Kagai! is a bit of a letdown is the Art.  The cover art is great, and the chibi art is pretty good, but the rest of the art, which is made of black and white altered photo cut-ups, while not bad does not really jibe with the expected aesthetic.  It just seems out of place, and I think it detracts from the product a bit.  I don’t think anyone would miss it if it were gone; as Kagai! is a pdf, there’s no need for it as filler, especially since between the cover, the handful of chibis and well-written content the feel is well enough established without having to up the page count.  I know that James Desborough has said he would’ve liked to take things artistically in “a more explicitly sexual and ero-guro” direction, but I think that the more cutesy chibi-horror stuff works really well for it too, especially considering that I could almost (a few explicit illustrations in the cut-up style aside) call Kagai! a mixed company game.  But his game, his call.

One other aesthetic gripe I have: I get the manga stylization on the Char sheet, but a clean sheet would be nice on one’s printer ink supply.  Still, always great to have char sheets that fit on a page.  It’s an especially minor complaint given that you could fit your character’s relevant information onto an index card, so you don’t really NEED to print off a sheet.  But a clean sheet would be nice.

There’s a lot of good here, but unless you know you’re going to be playing this, the price point ($3.99) is just on the cusp of being a little high for the curious. I’d really like to have an appendix of a few pages that reduces character creation to its base tables and a table with weapons; in that form, most of the info you needed to get everyone started on the game could be printed on maybe 3 pages. That said, if a subsequent edition (print?) has more art like Ben Rodriguez’s cover, it would be certainly be worth paying print prices for.  Maybe James could look into it as a joint venture game-system/art portfolio?

All said, there’s a lot worth checking out here if you’re into pooled dice games, anime-esque games, or if you’re just looking for something different to try out.  It’s not for everybody.  But I can honestly say that my biggest complaint is actually not really a complaint but more my saying “If there was enough interest behind this and James had some money, he could make the second edition really shiny and nice.”