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Thirsty Sword Lesbians: A game of Queer adventures with Queer friends

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Image courtesy of Evil Hat Productions
Image courtesy of Evil Hat Productions

This Valentine's Day, fans of tabletop role-playing games may want a better way to bring their interests into the festivities. One of the medium's greatest strengths is its flexibility, after all; with some extra work, even a system with such a fraught past as Dungeons & Dragons: 5th Edition can be used to tailor a collaborative storytelling experience to the needs of a given group.

But D&D, at its roots, is a dungeon-crawling tactical game. While none can deny that love can bloom on the hex-grid battlefield, there's a system that's practically made for a Queer Valentine's Day adventure.

Image courtesy of Evil Hat Productions  

Thirsty Sword Lesbians (TSL) is a narrative-focused, tabletop role-playing game, built to tell dramatic Queer stories with friends. The players take the roles of a cast of "angsty disaster lesbians," each working through their own emotional conflicts (although the game can explore other Queer identities as well).

Playing as flawed characters is a must, since that gives them room to grow and create drama, and rather than encouraging "winning" through "optimal" choices, TSL encourages good storytelling.

"Follow your heart, dive headlong into danger, and be larger than life," TSL says, and it lets players do just that without the fear that their character's story will end before it's finished.

Those with little or no experience in tabletop role-playing games, or whose experience has been largely negative, might be wary of one this emotionally involved. Whatever your experience, though, TSL has your back. Some of the first pages of its rules contain tools designed to make sure everyone in a group is on the same page about their needs and wants.

TSL creator April Kit Walsh knew those tools would be important from the game's inception. She refined them through play-testing with strangers at conventions — arguably the ultimate stress test for rules regarding the social contract, a subject sorely neglected in many mainstream tabletop games.

"There are four different layers of ways that I try to protect consent in game design," Walsh said over Zoom. "[That's] really important if you want people to feel like it's safe to engage with themes like romance and sexuality.

"And emotional found family," she added, "because not all the stories you tell [with TSL] are romance oriented, but they're all about emotional connection."

So the system has the flexibility to tell all sorts of Queer stories, so long as they're dramatic and empowering. It's also adaptable to any setting the players already enjoy, or settings they create together. Does the group like Star Wars? They can make it "Thirsty Lightsaber Lesbians." Do they enjoy high fantasy, but want it to be more Queer? They can finally see to it that their own versions of Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins kiss already.

If a group draws up a blank, though, that's okay; the rulebook includes some thoughtfully crafted premade settings.

What makes TSL specifically Queer, though? One answer to that question has to do with the earliest "layer of protection" built into the system, and that's the aesthetics. If the title weren't enough of a hint, the rulebook's cover has two colorful characters clashing swords, eyes locked, in full makeup and ornate pastel outfits.

It's an art style reviled by a particular demographic, likely because it is loved by so many Queer people, and it works a lot like the over-the-top covers on romance paperbacks: it's a ward against the weirdos who might invade the space, or even just complain that this one thing in the world wasn't made for them.

"I did not at all want to play down the queerness of the game," Walsh said.

And so far, it seems being unabashed about what TSL is has paid off. The game's original Kickstarter campaign was so successful that the publisher couldn't keep up with the stretch goals. Instead, TSL's writers, artists, and other contributors were just paid more. An official expansion, called Advanced Lovers and Lesbians, has also been crowdfunded with flying colors, featuring new settings, character archetypes, and more.

If you're not already sold on TSL, you can review the rules for yourself and watch examples of real play at EvilHat.com. If someone dear to you (yourself included) already owns the TSL rulebook, there's a Valentine's Day bundle of fan-made expansions, titled Truths of Heart, for sale on Itch.io.