A roll in the hay with Kagematsu

Cover of Kagematsu

Kagematsu is a roleplaying game by Danielle Lewon, based on a design by S.R. Knipe. The simplest, most obvious summary of the game would be to call it a romance game, but there are aspects to it that prevent it from being so easily pigeonholed. If you’ve heard of Kagematsu, you probably know it as the game that must always be GMed by a woman, and that’s important to its exploration of gender and power imbalance.

I have been wanting to play it for a long time, and I’m glad I have because there is so much to say about this game!

Here’s the highlight, though: I had a great time playing Kagematsu. I want to play it again. I recommend it, but there are things that I wish the game did better so I fully understand if it’s not the game for you.

It is a period of civil war: Basics of the game

Kagematsu is set in a small village in Sengoku era Japan. The village men have all gone off to war, leaving behind the women, children, elderly and infirm. Now the village is beset by a dangerous threat, and without someone to defend them the villagers are doomed.

One player (always a woman) portrays Kagematsu, a (male) ronin who arrives in the village’s time of need. The other players are the townswomen, who attempt to win the samurai’s affections with the ultimate aim of convincing him to stay and defend the village from the threat.

In play, the townswomen secure these Affections by rolling higher on a pool of six-sided dice than Kagematsu does. Townswomen roll dice equal to their Charm or Innocence, and Kagematsu rolls dice based on how significant the Affection is (a smile has a “difficulty” of 2, a kiss has a difficulty of 7, etc.). The final Affection is a promise to defend the village from the threat. If this promise is not secured, Kagematsu leaves and the threat destroys the village.

Every Affection successfully secured reduces the townswomen’s Fear, and thus the danger posed by the threat. However, the townswomen also want Kagematsu to fall in Love with them, which makes it more likely that Kagematsu will give them Affection and will make him more able to fight the threat (if he promises to do so).

In the end, Kagematsu will either save the village or fail. Even if Kagematsu saves the village, the townswomen may die during the final encounter, sacrificing themselves to help Kagematsu. If Kagematsu saves the village, he reveals which of the townswomen is his Most Loved and the players narrate an appropriate ending, from tragic to happily ever after.

Little town, it’s a quiet village: Setting and character creation

Players collaborate to create the village in which the story will be set and the threat that assails it. There is guidance in the book, but no framework or structure, so the process is mostly freeform.

Our game was set in a fishing village on a coastal trading road, between the rocky shore on one side and the steep mountains on the other. There was an inn for travellers, and a path up the mountain to a nearby shrine and, further up, some hotsprings. The threat was a water dragon, which made its presence felt through storms and sharp shifts in temperature. The village was starving because the dragon had devastated the local fish stocks.

The players then create the townswomen that they will be controlling. Each townswoman picks two favourite things (which can be people, places or objects), at least one of which will be incorporated into all of their scenes. Each townswoman also distributes seven points between Charm and Innocence. After that, townswomen just need a name, an age, a background and a physical description.

The women of our village were:

  • Momo, sweet daughter of the elderly innkeeper;
  • Toshie, an independent fisherwoman who keeps her dead brother’s sword; and
  • Keiko, my character, the lonesome miko who tends the local shrine.

It’s one of the quickest and simplest character generation processes I’ve ever seen, but it nevertheless gave us three well-rounded characters with very different approaches to seduction.

The fact that setting and character creation is so straightforward means that there’s a lot of potential variety in a Kagematsu session. You can get a very different experience by varying the details of the village, the threat, the townswomen, and Kagematsu (which I’ll come back to).

In fact, you could very easily lift the game mechanics untouched and put it into a completely different setting, outside Sengoku Japan. I think the default setting is incredible, but how about a session of Kay-gamatsu, in which the travelling swordsman is one of the Knights of the Round Table and the village is located in Dark Ages Britain? Or Kage-MaceWindu, in which the swordsman is a Jedi Knight wandering the Outer Rim during the days of the old Republic?

Feminine wiles: The Charm and Innocence traits

The two main traits on a townswoman’s character sheet are Innocence and Charm. Innocence represents demure pleasantness, and is rolled when trying to secure more chaste Affections, like receiving a gift or being told a secret. Charm represents flirtatious desirability, and is rolled when trying to secure more sensual and physical Affections, culminating in a touch, a kiss, and a roll in the hay.

The choice of Charm and Innocence as traits says a lot about the roles and expectations of women in the game world (and, sadly, beyond). The fact that they are inversely proportional, always adding up to seven, says even more. They seem oppressive, and they are because they represent the oppression in the culture, but they aren’t restrictive in the sense that they dictate mechanically what the townswomen must think and feel.

Charm and Innocence are skills, not personality traits. A high Innocence does not mean that the woman character is innocent, it means that she is better at using her perceived innocence to get Affection from Kagematsu. It is perfectly possible to play this game as a forthright woman who genuinely wants a relationship with Kagematsu. It is equally possible to play the game as a woman who uses her feminine wiles to manipulate the only man around because she doesn’t want to die and this is the only way society will let her exert influence.

One of the biggest problems with the game is that there is no opportunity to explore the characters’ personalities when Kagematsu is not with them. Women never have scenes with each other, only with the man. Giving them some scenes together outside of the samurai’s presence, or letting them crop up in each other’s scenes, might make them more rounded (but it would almost certainly complicate the excellent flow of the game as it currently is).

Without that, though, you can also never establish how the women feel about their fellow villagers’ various relationships with Kagematsu. Do they resent the competition? Are they jealous? Are all the women actively conspiring together to make Kagematsu stay? You’ll never know, because the game doesn’t let you address it.

In fact, since the townswomen never interact with each other, I’m not sure why the game wouldn’t work with just two players, Kagematsu and one woman. It would take something away from the experience, but I’m almost certain that it would work on a technical level.

“I’m not in love, but I’m open to persuasion”: Love and Affection

In Kagematsu, Affection does not equal Love. They are often correlated, since more Love should make it easier to secure an Affection, and Kagematsu may be more inclined to fall in Love if the story has inclined him to bestow his Affection. But they are not the same. It’s possible (but difficult) to secure every Affection without an ounce of Kagematsu’s Love, and it’s also possible to fail to secure any Affections even though Kagematsu’s heart bursts with the Love he has for you.

Affections are physical acts performed by Kagematsu when the women players succeed in their rolls. There is a limited number of Affections, 14 to be precise, which are listed on the character sheets for all to see and have an associated “difficulty” (what trait the townswoman must roll and the number of dice Kagematsu rolls against you from 2 to 9).

Each trait has its own ladder of Affections. Innocence goes from a smile (Innocence 2) to a confession of love (Innocence 8), whereas Charm goes from a stolen glance (Charm 2) to a roll in the hay (Charm 8). Two Affections appear on both ladders: the introduction (Charm or Innocence 5) and the promise to defend the village (Charm or Innocence 9). A townswoman can only seek each Affection once.

In our game, we made a bit too much of the scenes for the first few Affections. The scene in which a townswoman seeks an introduction with Kagematsu should be their first proper meeting, with earlier scenes being fleeting encounters. In our game, the women were having conversations with Kagematsu from the start. We still made the introduction work (for my character Keiko, the introduction was the moment she dropped formality and started calling him “Kagematsu” instead of “Samurai”), but I do not think that’s how the game expects it to work. To ensure this doesn’t happen, games of Kagematsu could start with a scene in which the samurai arrives in town, and all women are present to make a first impression, probably trying to elicit a smile or a glance as they pass him in the street.

On the other hand, Love is a trait on Kagematsu’s character sheet. After every roll, regardless of whether the woman player secures an Affection or fails to do so, the Kagematsu player chooses whether to give the woman a point of Love or a point of Pity. Pity is useless, but every point of Love is deducted from Kagematsu’s total when he rolls against the women players. That is, the more of Kagematsu’s Love a townswoman has, the easier it is for her to get what she wants from him, which makes sense.

The key difference, though, is that the Kagematsu player has complete autonomy over whether to issue Love or Pity to the women suitors, but no choice whatsoever over whether to give a sign of Affection. In the giving of Affection, Kagematsu is, if anything, more constrained than the woman who pursue him.

But Kagematsu has sole authority over how Kagematsu feels, and the Kagematsu player chooses based on the narration and the roleplaying, not through any dice mechanic. This is the main reason that it is important to roleplay the townswomen’s attempts to secure Kagematsu’s Affections before making any roll to see if the attempts succeed. Just be aware that the dice are fickle and send scenes in unexpected directions. A failed roll after a seemingly perfect setup can be emotionally devastating.

The shadow pine: Kagematsu’s secrets

Everything about Kagematsu is concealed from the townswomen players. His backstory is never written down. The Love and Pity scores he assigns to each townswoman are kept secret (and he has no other stats or traits). Even the results of the dice he rolls are hidden behind a screen.

The players of the townswomen only know as much of Kagematsu as the townswomen themselves know within the world of the game, and that is only what they can glean through their encounters with him: his physical appearance, his actions, and his words. Only the Kagematsu player knows what will appeal to the samurai, what Kagematsu’s “type” is, and even what Kagematsu’s definition of Love is.

This uncertainty ensures that the townwomen do not know the “best” way to romance Kagematsu, and the players cannot easily game the system. It addresses one of my main problems with Breaking the Ice (a romance game I reviewed previously here), in which it is easy to make characters end up together since you can see, written in front of you, their key personality traits and the status of their relationship.

In the game, the secrecy brings some of the awkwardness and uncertainty of a real life early relationship to the table. It also makes social interactions more tense. The players know that whether they receive Affection is based on the dice but only the Kagematsu player knows that the odds are.

The way Kagematsu is played has a huge impact on the story, and it really is important that he is played by a woman. The Kagematsu who featured in our game was an archetypal melancholic wandering swordsman hiding from a painful past, and was receptive to seduction no matter what approach the women took. But if Kagematsu prefers either Charming or Innocent women, then players who have chosen the other stat are disadvantaged. Is this bad GMing, or a metaphor for entitlement and privilege, or both? If Kagematsu is unlikeable and undesirable, does that suggest that the women pursuing him are doing it for self-interest instead of attraction, and if Kagematsu is a female sexual fantasy, does it suggest the opposite?

And now, the end is near: The Confrontation and Conclusion

Most of the game, probably 90% of it if not more, is taken up with the Courtship between Kagematsu and the townswomen, but there are two phases that follow.

In the Confrontation, assuming that Kagematsu has made the promise to defend the village, Kagematsu sets out to defeat the threat. He rolls the Love he has for the Most Loved woman (I’ll come back to this) against the remaining Fear that all of the townswomen still have on their sheets. Each townswoman narrates something that happens during the confrontation, and can even choose to sacrifice themselves in order to reduce the village’s Fear and increase Kagematsu’s odds of winning. Either Kagematsu defeats the threat and saves the village, or he is defeated and the village’s last hope is lost.

In the Conclusion, the players narrate the fallout from the Confrontation. If Kagematsu lost, then the Conclusion shows how the village is destroyed and what happens to the women who are still alive. If Kagematsu won, each surviving townswoman gets an epilogue and the Kagematsu player reveals which of the townswomen is Kagematsu’s Most Loved. Kagematsu and the Most Loved then jointly narrate their happily ever after.

And this perfectly illustrates another of my big problems with Kagematsu, which are all the traditional assumptions it makes about relationships. After four hours or so of being romanced by every woman around, the Conclusion suddenly makes it seem as though only the Most Loved woman, the woman who has more Love from Kagematsu than any other (even if they only have 1 more point of Love than the next highest), is the only one that will get a long-term relationship with him.

The Most Loved woman plays an important mechanical role in the game: using only the Love score for the Most Loved woman in the Confrontation keeps Kagematsu’s chance of succeeding roughly the same no matter how many players there are. However, restricting to (and, furthermore, requiring) a strictly monogamous ending seems wrong. Why isn’t there an option for a polyamorous relationship? Why isn’t there an option for Kagematsu to refuse a relationship with anyone because he is in love with several women and cannot bear to choose between them? The precendents for such things are so numerous that there is an entire anime genre dedicated to it.

Plus there is the obvious concern that, despite the game’s intention to comment on gender and privilege and subvert typical expectations, it does it by leaning heavily on those same expecations. All the relationships are explicitly between one man and one woman. If I want to portray a relationship between two men, I have to use a hack of the game (KaGaymatsu), and then every relationship in the game must be between two men. If I want Kagematsu to be bisexual, or anything other than a man, I have to hack the game myself.

In fact, here’s a hack right now. The village has been protected and cared for and kept isolated by supernatural spirits (define them) for centuries. Life is almost perfect. There is no conflict, no want, and men and women are equal in all things. However, when the spirits suddenly depart (explain why), the villagers are left without any means to defend themselves from the threat that presses down upon them. Enter Kagematsu, a warrior from the outside world, who is strange and powerful and alluring to the simple villagers… and who, more importantly, could protect them if he (or she) could be convinced to stay. Everyone plays as a character with a gender identity different to their own. (Like KaGaymatsu, some alternative will be needed for claiming that you’re pregnant with Kagematsu’s child. Maybe use KaGaymatsu‘s option. Or maybe the spirits enchanted the village so that any two people can have a child together, which grows inside a peach.)

Yes, I realise that this loses some of the social commentary from the original (and the original hack), but sometimes I just want to romance a handsome samurai without worrying about it, ok? I’m inclined to say that Kagematsu should still not be played by a straight man, no matter how much I wish I could run this game…

There are many other things I could say about the game (I have some gripes about ambiguous rules for a start, and I never touched on Desperations or the Shadow Track), but I’ve said more than enough already. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the game, especially if you’ve ever hacked it to address some of my concerns. Please let me know!

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